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A History of Spiritual Formation Part 1: Church Fathers Through Middle Ages

(This week, we begin a series on spiritual formation throughout history. Today, we will take a closer look at the Church Fathers during the Middle Ages and how they influenced the spiritual formation of believers and what it meant to be a follower of Messiah.)


John Climacus, John Cassian, and Julian of Norwich reveal how spiritual formation was understood and thought to be ascertained in the Patristic and Medieval eras. They are not widely known in evangelicalism, but the Orthodox expressions hold them in high regard. We will examine the key features of their theology as it relates to spiritual formation.

The Patristic era lasted from the late first century until the late fifth century. Early Church Fathers like Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine profoundly impacted Church doctrine. Late in the third century, monks began to turn the “desert … into a laboratory” for spiritual formation.[1] The Patristics defended the faith against growing heresies. The Nicaean Council (325 CE) established the deity of Messiah[2] and the New Testament books were canonized.[3] Christianity was legalized[4] and soon became the official religion of Rome.[5] 

The Medieval era began in the late fifth century with the fall of the Western Empire and continued until the fourteenth-century Renaissance. Christianity spread, monasticism saw a notable rise, and theological upheaval led to the Reformation. The church also took on a new role, becoming a political and temporal entity. This era was marked by theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Bonaventure. The Middle Ages also saw the emergence of mystics: individuals who received “a direct, immediate, and transformative encounter with the presence of God,”[6] often accompanied by revelations through visions and ecstasies as they gave themselves to ascetic practices. Some notable mystics include Frances of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, and Catherine of Siena.[7]

Gerald Sittser writes that Christian mysticism is expressed in three stages.[8] First, purgation focuses on spiritual disciplines and an ascetic life. This leads to “illumination, which engenders deep knowledge and insight into the essential truths of the Christian faith.”[9] Finally, there is the goal of union, where “the soul experiences the bliss of communing with God.”[10] Our first two theologians focus on purgation, while our third will speak of union with the Creator.

John Cassian

Having spent time in the desert monasteries of Egypt and Palestine, which were renowned for their spiritual rigor and ascetic practices, John Cassian, at the request of Bishop Castor of Gaul (modern France),[11] was tasked with documenting the wisdom and practices of the Desert Fathers. Cassian writes, “They lived in a vast desert, and were cut off from intercourse with all their fellow-men, and thus were able to have their minds enlightened … because of their way of life and the commonplace character of their habits.”[12] The Institutes were intended to transmit these Eastern monastic traditions to the Western Church,[13] particularly to the monastic communities where Cassian eventually settled.

Cassian believed that spiritual maturity was futile without taming the appetite. One must “struggle against the eight principle faults.”[14] These faults, or vices, begin with gluttony but include fornication, avarice (greed), anger, dejection, listlessness, vainglory, and pride. His labor laid the groundwork for future theological discussions on vice and virtue, influencing Pope Gregory I’s Seven Deadly Sins[15] (Gregory combines pride and vainglory.).

Cassian supposed that monastic living pushed the already present, though dormant, vices to the surface. “Although we are all overcome by them, and they exist in every one, yet nobody knows of them.”[16] Hunger strikes most deeply when you choose not to eat. Echos of Paul can be heard; it is only when one commits to a life of purity that these passions rage (Rom 7:7–8). He believed that “the bars of vice … shut us out from true knowledge.”[17]

“The first struggle must be against the spirit of gluttony,” writes Cassian.[18] He understands that everyone is different regarding the “condition of the body, the age, and sex.” Thus, the rule is not about quantity but “restraint.”[19] We should avoid overeating, as it “dulls the keenness of the mind.”[20] 

Cassian is not an extremist like some desert monks. He was concerned about the health of monks when it came to diet and ascetic practices.[21] Eating reasonably is better than a “severe and long fast.”[22] Cassian believed that “abstinence from food is not alone sufficient.” The monk must add “other virtues of the mind,” such as humility and overcoming pride, anger, and avarice.[23] He cites Abba Antony in encouraging monks to “gather spiritual honey”[24] not from one monk but from many according to their strengths (1 Cor 12:12).

Much more could be said about Cassian, but space does not permit it. “His book Institutes described the life of a monk and obstacles to living the godly life”[25] and paved the way for Western monasteries.

John Climacus

John Climacus left home at sixteen to dwell among the desert monks at Mt. Sinai. Eventually, Sittser tells us, he lived as a hermit for forty years before being “elected abbot of the monastery” at Sinai. “The monks considered him like a second Moses.”[26] Like so many other church fathers and mystics, Climacus’s humility could be seen in his resistance when asked to write what would become his seminal work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Fr. Josiah Trenham says, “The Ladder presents us with … an overall broad vision of the Christian life as a life of ascent.”[27] Monks climb the spiritual ladder to Yeshua, but as with any ladder, there are steps. “Thirty [steps] to struggle for the kingdom of God.”[28] Struggle, or the ascetic life, is a virtue. The monk struggles to subdue his passions and to love his unlovely neighbor. We wrestle with that monster, the tongue. Climacus warns against extreme talking, calling it “the throne of vainglory on which it loves to … show off.”[29] 

Climacus, like Cassian, addresses gluttony. He calls the belly a “Boisterous, yet Evil Lord”[30] and gluttony a “raging mad mistress.”[31] He warns, “If she subjugates you, then … you will be in peril everywhere.”[32] The struggle of ascent and descent is seen in the icon at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, which depicts John’s ladder. Monks ascend the thirty steps of the ascetic life. Jesus awaits them from above, while Satan is like a sea monster waiting for them to fail. (He’s portrayed consuming a fallen monk.) Angels and monks pray for the climbers.[33]

Like Pope Gregory, Climacus sees no reason to separate vainglory from pride. “Gregory the Theologian and other teachers have listed only seven, and I am inclined to agree.”[34] He sets out on a course that begins with the monk’s renunciation of this “world because of his love of God” and “acquire[s] fire … [that] becomes an ever greater flame.”[35] The monk looks “always towards heaven”[36] as he detaches himself from worldly pursuits.

Ascend, brothers, ascend earnestly, and be resolute in your hearts to climb and hear Him who declares, “Come and let us ascend the mountain of the Lord and go to the house of our God, who makes our feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights,” so that we will be triumphant with His song.[37]


He continues ascending toward heaven while developing character and subjugating his passions.

Julian of Norwich

Julian scholar Robert Fruehwirth shares a story about a question on his priesthood exams. “Who was Julian of Norwich, and what did he do.” Many have made this mistake, as she was the female English author.[38] Much of her life is a secret, including her real name. “She lived as an anchoress,” in near isolation, “in a cell adjoining the parish Church of St. Julian in Conisford at Norwich,”[39] from where she took her moniker. Cassian and Climacus focused on purification; Julian focused on union with God, which includes “communication, trust and love.”[40] God “longs [for] us to know him, … to bring us up into bliss, … [and ] fill us with bliss.”[41] 

Julian “she fell gravely ill,” in answer to her prayer to “allow her to identify with the Passion of Christ and comprehend something of the magnitude of God’s love. … She received sixteen ‘showings.’”[42] But she was not merely a mystic but a theologian,[43] according to Fruehwirth. She describes God as, “completely relaxed and courteous, he [God] was himself the happiness and peace of his dear friends, his beautiful face radiating measureless love like a marvellous symphony.”[44] Fruehwirth said the showings “opened her heart to the unconditionality of God’s love [and his] rejoicing in us.”[45] Julian writes, “When we commit ourselves to choosing God in this life … we can be sure we are endlessly loved. ... This unconditional love works grace in our lives. God wants us to be certain now of the joy that awaits us in the world to come.”[46]

Through her optimistic view of God, she trusted him amid confusion and pain. Suffering through war and plagues,[47] Julian “wondered why God’s great and wise foreknowledge had not prevented sin’s beginning.” The Lord showed her, “Sin was unavoidable. But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and absolutely everything shall be well.”[48] Sittser says, “In her doubts, questions, sin, pain, and suffering,” Julian heard these words from God “time and time again.”[49] 


It would be impossible to provide a complete understanding of spiritual formation over a millennium from just three theologians. Yet, each of these provides essentials for spiritual formation.

Cassian was influential in the development of the Benedictine order.[50] Climacus’ Ladder is used in monasteries and in Eastern Orthodox liturgy, emphasizing the ongoing struggle against vices and the pursuit of virtue. As a woman, Julian’s writings only survived through the courage of nuns who passed them down. “All Shall Be Well” was published nearly 300 years after her death.[51] Her works are used widely by spiritual directors, introducing individuals to God’s love.

All three theologians reveal unique and essential angles of the nature of God.


[1] John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Bloomington, ID: World Wisdom, 2008), 1, Kindle.

[2] Alistair McGrath, Christian History (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 58, Kindle.

[3] Ibid., 55.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Bernard McGinn and Patricia McGinn, Early Christian Mystics: The Divine Vision of Spiritual Masters (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), Introduction, Kindle.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Gerald Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007), 170.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] John Cassian, John Cassian Collection, 4 Books (Summerville, SC: Aeterna Press, 2016), Preface to The Conferences, Kindle.

[12] Ibid., Preface to The Conferences.

[13] Ibid., Preface to The Institutes.

[14] Ibid., Book V, The Spirit of Gluttony.

[15] John Deely, “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Catholic Church, Semiotica 117, no. 2-4 (1997): 81-82.

[16] Cassian, John Cassian Collection, Book V, The Spirit of Gluttony, Chapter II.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., Chapter III.

[19] Ibid., Chapter V.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., Chapters V and IV.

[22] Ibid., Chapter IV.

[23] Ibid., Chapter X.

[24] Ibid., Chapter III.

[25] Nathan P. Feldmeth, Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 34, Logos.

[26] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 170.

[27] Josiah Trenham, “St. John of the Ladder Presentation at St. James Orthodox Church Buford GA with Fr. Josiah Trenham,” YouTube video, April 9, 2022, 4:35,

[28] Ibid., 12:07.

[29] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 171.

[30] John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Omaha, NE: Patristic Publishing, 2020), Step 14 – On the Boisterous yet EvivlLord, the Belly, Kindle.

[31] Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 15, On Incorruptible Chastity and Purity Which the Corruptible Achieve Through Labor and Perspiration.

[32] Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 4, On Obedience.

[33] Bissera V. Pentcheva, “The Aesthetics of Landscape and Icon at Sinai,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 65/66 (2014): 205,

[34] Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 22 – On the Manifold Nature of Vainglory.

[35] Ibid., Step 1 – On Renunciation.

[36] Ibid., Step 2 – On Detachment.

[37] Ibid., Step 30 – On the Joining together of the ultimate trinity of the virtues.

[38] Julian of Norwich, All Shall Be Well: A Modern-Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich, ed. Ellyn Sanna (Vestal, NY: Anamchara Books, 2011), 12, Kindle.

[39] Stanley Burgess, The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1997), Part 3, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, Kindle.

[40] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 176.

[41] Ibid., 181.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Robert Fruehwirth, “Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love,” St. Paul’s Cathedral, October 6, 2016, YouTube video,

[44] Julian of Norwich, Enfolded in Love: Daily Readings with Julian of Norwich, ed. Robert Llewelyn (London, UK: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980), 10.

[45] Fruehwirth, “Julian of Norwich,” 7:06.

[46] Julian of Norwich, All Shall Be Well, 253-254.

[47] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 180.

[48] Julian of Norwich, All Shall Be Well: 124.

[49] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 182.

[50] Lori Mitchell McMahon, “‘O God, Come to My Assistance’: A Journey with Cassian's Prayer,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 5, no. 1 (May 2012)141,

[51] Julian of Norwich, All Shall Be Well, 253.

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