The relationship between doctrine and spirituality should never be used as a ‘branding whip’ or a divisive tool against other denominations. We should undoubtedly be very careful to take seriously confessional differences, but we should be equally careful not to accentuate these differences in a scandalous manner that is self-serving and only widens existing gaps. The relationship between doctrine and spirituality primarily intends to maintain the integral unity of faith and order, of dogma and ethos. Spirituality is faith lived out; and mysticism is theology applied to personal experience. Yet perhaps the connections between the two are a little more complicated and delicate, somewhat more subtle and sensitive than we might at first imagine.
An example of this – which often surprises Orthodox themselves – is the case of Isaac the Syrian, a beloved seventh-century elder, mystic, and saint of the Eastern Christian Church. Abba Isaac (died around 700) was in fact Nestorian; but his works were rapidly translated into Greek, while his reputation was widely accepted throughout the Orthodox East. It is only in this century that we have gradually become aware of the precise details of Isaac’s background. Is it not, therefore, curious that for more than one thousand years people read and respected the writings of Isaac without either being conscious or detecting the slightest deviation in his doctrine and writings?
It appears, then, that the saint neither discards nor disregards doctrinal formulations, but often brings a different viewpoint. There is something about Mary MacKillop – as, indeed, there is something about Australians in general – that approaches doctrine in a fresh, more spontaneous way, namely from the experience of life, rather than from speculations or formulations in ivory towers. There is, here, a lesson surely to be learned and a model to be imitated by many Christians, particularly theologians. For this is precisely how the early church articulated its theological doctrines, which developed out of the communal experience of believers. It was the life of the community that gave definition to the teaching of the church; it was not – as is sometimes believed – church dogma that determined the life of the people.
* This except is from “In the Land of Larks and Heroes: Australian Reflections on St Mary MacKillop” edited by Alan Cadwallader