Brant Pitre’s Introduction to the Spiritual Life: Walking the Path of Prayer with Jesus stems from years of research in biblical studies and spiritual theology. Pitre presents his own spiritual theology focusing on Christian classics, the biblical perspective, and the words of Jesus. The task he sets for himself in writing this work is “to explore Jesus and the Jewish roots of the spiritual life” (xviii). The majority of the book focuses on the “biblical foundations of key topics,” meaning he writes primarily for readers who are unaware of some of the “first steps” of spiritual life and who have in various ways had trouble connecting with the Divine. The focus of the book is on the “purgative way,” one of three stages in the spiritual process. This stage sets the format of the book. The author encourages readers looking to delve deeper into Christian classics to study the notes section, which is relatively extensive.
The most important background information readers need to know is that Pitre writes from a Catholic perspective. This Catholic perspective determines the hermeneutical approach of the book, wherein Pitre presents early Catholic mystics, or “classics”, and their tradition as authoritative.
The primary problems Pitre discusses deal with Jesus’ teachings and the Jewish context those teachings come out of. Pitre uses the teachings of Jesus to divide the book into four parts: “Prayer,” “The Spiritual Path,” “Vices and Virtue,” and “Making Progress.” These four parts outline the purgative way, which entails the purging of sin in the pursuit of Christian virtue. In the prayer section, the author writes about three types of prayer and how each influences the believer’s relationship with the Divine. “The Spiritual Path” section centers on the seeker of God’s relationship with sin: their proclivity for sin, and the remedy for that particular proclivity. The focus on sin narrows even further in the “Vices and Virtues” section. In this section, Pitre addresses seven, or possibly eight, capital sins and their remedies. The last part of the book, “Making Progress,” outlines five steps, consisting of three practices and two insights, to help the Christian in times when they may experience being stuck on their spiritual journey.
Because the subject matter of spiritual theology is so vast, Pitre rightly calls his book an introduction. Exploring Jesus and the Jewish roots of spiritual life is daunting and vast. It would be inappropriate to cover so much content in one book. However, he manages to stay away from peripheral issues so that he may descriptively inform the reader of the topic at hand. The author does not get bogged down by using technical language. The format for each chapter is the same, so the reader knows what to expect from every chapter. He masterfully uses charts and illustrations to help make the subject matter more concrete and easier to comprehend. Pitre supports his thesis with biblical data coupled with citations from Christian classics. He does not seek to overtly set forth an argument, but instead to pastorally inform readers seeking a richer relationship with God. In short, he answers the question “How can someone connect with God?”
Based on Pitre’s hermeneutical approach, it is difficult to definitively claim that the book is convincing. The author’s hermeneutical approach seemingly does not consider what the original writers of the sacred text understood of what they were writing. He does not consider the biblical context as far as the biblical story is concerned. However, I found the author’s insights into the spiritual life to be helpful, and I suspect it will be as well for anyone seeking more from their faith (and even for those who have no faith). Pitre eschews conventional discussions on doctrine to address the spiritual needs of the reader. Overall, this approach lends the book a pastoral tone.
One weakness of the book is its limited engagement with the nature and reality of the human spirit. It seems the author assumes that the reader comes with a preconceived understanding of what it means to be spiritual. The author gives light acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit, but does not discuss the person and works of the Holy Spirit. The book omits a discussion of the experiential side of spirituality, as well. In light of this limitation, the book comes across as a behavioral modification project, at times formulaic and pharisaical. However, that does not negate the book’s usefulness. As for the sources the author uses, he allows the citations to speak for themselves, providing little to no context for a quotation.
My key takeaway from the book is that it provides a model by which to evaluate one’s spiritual growth. Pitre also accomplishes the goal of “walking the path of prayer with Jesus.” Pitre gives insights into vices that we all deal with, including the particular vices we are inclined to more frequently. With the prescribed virtue or “remedy,” any believer can monitor their behavior and evaluate how they are progressing toward virtue. I would recommend this book to any God seeker because I believe there are helpful insights. Finally, the back matter of this book is also a good resource for scholars looking to further study the mystics of the early church.
Jeremiah Davis is a chaplain in the St. Mary’s Healthcare System, Athens, Georgia.
Date Of Review:
April 17, 2023
Brant Pitre, PhD, is Distinguished Research Professor of Scripture at the Augustine Institute. He earned his PhD in theology from the University of Notre Dame, where he specialized in the study of the New Testament and ancient Judaism. He is the author of the bestselling books The Case for Jesus, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, and Jesus the Bridegroom. Dr. Pitre has also produced dozens of video and audio Bible studies in which he explores the scriptural roots of Christianity. He lives in Louisiana with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five children.
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