Who is there who will model the way of Jesus for us? Who can we look to who will impassion our steps?
I remember vividly the first time I read Augustine’s Confessions. The depth of his questions fostered new questions within myself; the heart-felt wrestling that he wrote encouraged my own. The deepest impact, though, was discovering how I could resonate with someone who lived and wrote 1,600 years before me. The Confessions made me wonder, “Who else is out there that has written like this in our spiritual history?
Gerald Sittser’s book Water from a Deep Well is a book that answers that question. Walking us simply through the history of Christian spirituality, Sittser places us in front of some of Christianity’s most impassioned figures, walking us through a simple rendering of the what, why, and how of each person’s resonances with Jesus as they sought to live the faith in their time and place.
Water from a Deep Well is much more than a History of Christianity 101 book; his writing is directed more toward today’s formation of the soul in Christ’s likeness through the encouragement of yesterday’s saints, rather than on a conveying of information about the unfolding of Christianity in history.
Each chapter introduces you to a specific way of life within the greater banner of the Jesus Way. Example: the chapter I most resonated with was chapter 3: “Struggle”, which was about the Desert Fathers and Mothers and their conviction with Christianity being formative through struggle rather than on Jesus being a mere augmentation for life today. The goal, I summarize from the Fathers and Mothers, was the imitation of Christ, listening to the calls written in the Gospels and undertaking a disciplined way to live them. This way of life, they say, was capable through grace, and a grace to express.
Each chapter summarizes taking Jesus seriously in it’s own way and concludes with a spiritual exercise to practice walking in that same thread of thought and action.
Chapter #1: “Witness: The Spirituality of the Early Christian Martyrs,” is a chapter on taking the lordship of Jesus seriously. There is no other lord; Jesus alone is ruler and king. The faith in that truth was something that these early people were willing to die for, even joyfully so, so that martyrdom itself was seen as a gift received, to be so unified to Jesus so as to die by the hands of the state like Jesus did.
Chapter #2: “Longing: The Spirituality of the Early Christian Community,” is about expressing the hospitality and compassion that Jesus expresses and expressed. The early Christians were a particular people who took the entrance and life together in the Christian community very seriously. Confirmation and membership into faith was an important undertaking – in which the people brought in were aligning their entire lives to the Way of Jesus, fostering with the depths of their being a new way of life freely expressing hospitality and compassion rather than self-advancement.
Chapter #3: “Struggle: The Spirituality of the Desert Saints,” introduces us to taking the Way of Jesus seriously. The individuals in this chapter become monks, fleeing to the desert, because the way of the church had become disillusioned with self-security and comfort rather than on the expression of love. When at one time martyrdom used to be the great grace to receive, the faith was now becoming integrated and neutered by the Roman Empire. The Desert Fathers and Mothers see the static church and flee to the desert to pursue the formation of the soul. Instead of comforts that numb the soul, they engage with sufferings which open the soul to formation toward reliance on the Father, like Jesus did.
Chapter #4: “Rhythm: The Spirituality of Monasticism,” is about taking life together in the way of Jesus seriously. Knowing that we need one another to help us be focused on the formative way of Jesus, we are encouraged to enter rhythms of life together.
Chapter #5: “Holy Heroes: The Spirituality of Icons and Saints,” introduces us to Eastern Orthodoxy and taking the communion of the saints seriously. Pausing to reflect on how the Spirit worked in the lives of others, we pause and wonder, giving room for that same Spirit to form within us a likeness to Jesus.
Chapter #6: “Windows: The Spirituality of the Sacraments,” takes us face to face with taking the mystery and beauty of God seriously. Faced with God’s grace, we become in awe of how to appropriately respond. Sometimes we imitate his beauty in small ways (through art, per se); other times we must simply receive with open hands.
Chapter #7: “Union: The Spirituality of the Mystics,” introduces us to the apophatic side of God, the unknowable, end-of-Job view of God who is so far beyond us and yet very much with us, forming us into the likeness of Jesus. Contemplative prayer, and being caught up in the mysteries of God mark this aspect of life in Christ.
Chapter #8: “Ordinariness: The Spirituality of Medieval Laity,” introduces us to the reality that all are called to walk with God in Christ. Meeting the likes of St. Francis, we see that we don’t need to be a monastic or priest or minister to take the call of Christ seriously. Rather, in our ordinary rhythms of life, we receive the call to imitate Jesus because of the grace of forgiveness.
Chapter #9: “Word: The Spirituality of the Reformers,” causes us to pause and take the Word of God, both incarnate in Christ, written in Scripture, and preached from pulpits seriously. Pausing to know that when we hear of Christ, we know these words are for you and for me, we dwell in a moment of grace, of God-for-us in Christ.
Chapter #10: “Conversion: The Spirituality of Evangelicals,” helps us take personal conversion seriously. Far more than emotional sentiment, this thread makes one wonder, “Through my forgiveness already received, have I been seeing that my life is converting to the way of Jesus?” Historically, this movement arrives when a people were numbed by a theology so lofty that it had little to do with daily life and struggles. Being asked the question, “Is Jesus your Lord and Savior?” brings one face to face with the life after that question – a life bathed in grace and engaged by the will of the human soul.
Chapter #11: “Risk: The Spirituality of Pioneer Missionaries,” asks, “What’s your call and how bold are you to enter into it?” This is a chapter on taking seriously the call to, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
The conclusion is titled, “Where Do We Go from Here?” and is about you and me being that twelfth chapter. Our lives will live as beacons of grace and discipleship for the coming generations. Where do we need to go? What do we need to do? Where is the way of Jesus needing renovation for people to take seriously once again? Where do we need to become sensitive to the grace of God and the call of Christ?
I recommend this read for smaller groups who can engage with each chapter, practice the spiritual exercise associated with each chapter, and engage on, “How do we more fully live this thread of life together?” The book will take you to prayer and conviction, seeing aspects of the Christian spiritual journey that you’re either quite used to or newly hungering for, and it will help you make small steps in the way of Christ, sending you further into the Gospels and into other Christian spiritual writings.