Daily Reading for August 8 • Dominic, Priest and Friar, 1221
The centers of intellectual and theological enquiry increasingly moved during the twelfth century to new cathedral “schools” that eventually gave birth to the great European universities. This involved a geographical shift of learning from countryside to new cities. However, the move involved more than geography. The theological enterprise was no longer focused in centers explicitly dedicated to a religious way of life. The new universities existed primarily to foster teaching and learning. The new theology gradually gave birth to a belief that the discipline of the mind could be separated from the discipline of an ordered lifestyle, ascesis, or what we call “spirituality.”
The new mendicant religious orders were essentially an urban phenomenon. Their foundation in so many ways parallels the birth of the universities and it was not long before the new orders became deeply involved in teaching—indeed often taking a leading role in university development. Inevitably this link gave birth to an intellectualist shift in spirituality. So, for example, the Dominicans entered the universities initially to educate their own members to be effective preachers. Gradually, however, they developed an intellectual ministry—indeed were the originators of the idea that the intellectual life was a spiritual path. The Dominicans led the way in exploring how to cope theologically and spiritually with the rediscovery of Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle (as in the works of Thomas Aquinas).
Although by the sixteenth century, the Protestant reformers decried to a large extent the curriculum and focus of late medieval universities—because it seemed to prepare students in a form of theology devoid of spirituality—it should be remembered that throughout the greater part of the Middle Ages, the university in the city was an institution that acted as a bearer of religious life and spirituality for the Western world.
From A Brief History of Spirituality by Philip Sheldrake (Blackwell Publishing, 2007).