Mysticism, theology, evangelism, and social action

28 06 2015
The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum

St Francis, a man who loved God and neighbour (my pic)

I sent an e-mail to my friend who’d given the talk spoken of in this post, outlining the same things I outlined here on the blog. His response included:

Thanks for this. … I am no Eastern Orthodox but Presbyterians need a good dose of EO and the EO could use a little Presbyterianism. I like to think of my theology as a Presby ressourcement. That sort of mystical theology is totally absent from the Free Church.

I, myself, am not a Presbyterian, but the call to mystical theology for low Protestants is important.

The image of people who are interested in evangelism and church-planting, who want to see their culture reached for Christ is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the mystics. Which is a shame.

Another tale.

A couple of my friends run a Greek theology reading group. A third friend joined them a few times (I went once for St Basil, ‘On the Holy Spirit’), but (I am given to understand) his general attitude towards the discussion was, ‘But what does all this have to do with the man on the street in Glasgow?’ (Why Glasgow?)

In my mind, ‘the man on the street in Glasgow’ — in this instance — is in need of social assistance. (This is not intended as a general statement on Glaswegians.) Why should we worry about St Gregory of Nazianzus and Trinitarian theology when there are starving people out there? In Glasgow?

The image of people who are interested in social action/activism, who want to see the poor clothed and the hungry fed is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the systematic theologians. Which is a shame.

Somewhere in his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton references St John of the Cross as teaching that one should spend more time in contemplation (used here in its mystical sense) than action — that actions ungirded in the contemplative life are prone to be willy-nilly and of less use. How do we know we are doing them for God’s glory? What is His will? That sort of thing.

That’s one approach to contemplation in a world of action (social/evangelistic).

The other is this: Good theologia and good theoria (contemplation), good thoughts about God and good thoughts in God, dogmatics and mysticism — these, in fact, lead to just behaviour and holy living and Gospel-telling.

Think on St Francis, who was a mystic if ever there was one. But his fervour for prayer, dispassion, contemplation was as tied to a fervour for preaching and for helping the poor.

Solid theology and ‘mystical’ practices give heart and soul to our activities in the world.

Perhaps it is our lack of deep thinking and deep praying that weaken our witness of love to a world eroded by hatred and false loves at every turning.

By looking upon God, whether through the intellectual truths of theology or through the noetic experience of mysticism, we can be suffused with His power, His light, and His love for a broken world.

Maybe then we’ll be worth listening to.





Theophan the Recluse in response to yesterday’s post

26 06 2015

It is wrong to become too much attached to reading. It leads to no good and builds a wall between the heart and God. It leads to the development of a harmful curiosity and sophistry.

Theophan the Recluse, in The Art of Pryaer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky & Palmer, p. 168





My stray theological thoughts

25 06 2015

Last night, a friend was giving a wee talk/sermon/whatever at church about Q1 of the bigger Westminster Cathechism:

Q. 1. What is the chief and highest end of man?
A. Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

He spoke a bit about the Trinity and the divine attributes, and why it is that God is always ‘happy’/’blessed’/’joyful’, and what it must mean for us to enjoy Him. It was quite good, full of references to Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin. Surprisingly, no Bavinck, though.

My mind being what it is, I also drew in the following:

  • In response to how we are created in God’s image, I said we are created for communion, since God is a communion of persons (thanks, Zizioulas)
  • God and creation are utterly different and separate, yet we are able to encounter God in specific ways on earth through his activity — couldn’t help but think of Gregory Palamas and the essence and energies of God, especially since there was a Venn diagram involved, with two unconnected circles but arrows going from ‘God’ to ‘creation’.
  • How do we most enjoy life? By finding the summum bonum, for this is where happiness lies. So far, Aristotle. God is the summum bonum — Aquinas. Christ is God, and He says that we will find Him by serving the poor.
  • Christ saves us and makes us able to know God as He knows Himself. Couldn’t help but think of Leo and two natures.
  • The goal of Christianity? To see God. I thought immediately of the beatific vision of St Bernard, Moses. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ I thought. This leads straight into John Cassian, Conference 1, where we learn that the goal of monastic (Christian) life is purity of heart as a way of achieving the end of the beatific vision.
  • Finally, he spoke about how living in knowledge and love of God, and actually enjoying Him and Christian life will transform all our relationships, and we will love others differently. I think, ‘Keep your heart at peace and a multitude around you will be saved,’ St Seraphim of Sarov.

Pretty sure the Free Church of Scotland (‘Wee Frees’) rarely has so many Eastern Orthodox, mediaeval, and patristic references running through parishioners’ minds. Except, of course, mine.





Remembrance of wrongs

8 06 2015

John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 9, ‘On Malice’ includes:

Remembrance of wrongs comes as the final point of anger. It is a keeper of ins. It hates a just way of life. It is the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul, a worm in the mind. It is the shame of prayer, a cutting off of supplication, a turning away from love, a nail piercing the soul. It is a pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness. It is a never-ending sin, an unsleeping wrong, rancor by the hour. A dark and loathsome passion, it comes to be but has no offspring, so that one need not say too much about it. (Trans. Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell)

I was going to comment on the above, but I think the saint of Sinai says it perfectly. Let’s all try to keep from brooding on the wrongs done to us so as to keep our hearts healthy.





Select Letters of St Jerome

5 06 2015

Select Letters (Loeb Classical Library)Select Letters by St. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

St Jerome was a major figure in Latin Christianity in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Besides revising the Latin Bible, his greatest influence lies in giving power to the rising monastic movement in the Latin world. He came from Dalmatia on the Adriatic, spent time as a hermit, then went to Rome before spending years as a monk in Bethlehem.

Although Jerome was a controversialist, little of his polemic is visible on the surface in this selection of letters. Occasionally, you can see him making oblique reference to people who might possibly criticise him for some things, and there is a devastating caricature of his erstwhile friend Rufinus in one letter as well. Furthermore, we read here Jerome’s version of the First Origenist Controversy.

For the most part, though, this selection is Jerome the ascetic, not Jerome the polemicist. We see his ideas about how to be a good monk, a good nun, a good widow, or a good clergyman set down. We see his instructions on how to educate a young girl in Christian discipline. Much is worth thinking on, chewing on, mulling over, and much is also quotable.

We also encounter Jerome here as a source for the Later Roman Empire. Basically, he reads in these letters as though the world were on the precipice, if not already falling into the abyss. Sometimes I know he is being hyperbolic, at other times it is a trope (‘She’s lucky death spared her seeing the world invaded by barbarians’), but at other times there is genuine feeling behind it. Jerome is keenly aware of the catastrophes of his age, but is this because they were that much more acute or because they serve his rhetoric well? I reckon that it is a bit of both.

This selection is well worth reading as an introduction to Jerome and his thought.

View all my reviews





Trinity Sunday

31 05 2015

Trinity Knot

Repost from elsewhere a few years back.

Today is Trinity Sunday, so here are some quotations on this Subject of subjects (since I’m a quote collector):

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
-AW Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy

Eternal Trinity, you are a deep sea, into which the more I enter, the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek.
-Catherine of Siena

If Jesus was the idealistic founder of a religion, I can be elevated by his work and stimulated to follow his example. But my sins are not forgiven, God still remains angry and I remain in the power of death. . . . But if Jesus is the Christ, the Word of God, then I am not primarily called to emulate him; I am encountered in his work as one who could not possibly do this work myself. Through his work I recognize the gracious God. My sins are forgiven, I am no longer in death but in life.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology

You should point to the whole man Jesus and say, “That is God.”
-Martin Luther

But the divine substance is form without matter, and, therefore, is one and is what it is. (or is its own essence.)
-Boethius, De Trinitate

God — if I may use my own jargon — is what happens between Jesus and the one he called Father, as they are freed for each other by their Spirit.
-Robert W. Jenson

What we can say is that, given our knowledge of the Trinity, personhood is tied up intimately with community, and with complementarity of Persons: the Trinity, a communion of irreducible Persons in complementarity and love, is our bedrock understanding of what it is to be alive. This leads us back to our understanding of Christian spirituality: authentic spirituality is the characteristic of a person in Christ who has enough wisdom and insight regarding self and others, and enough love and strength through the Spirit, that he or she can dare to be “ek-static” and so to enter into true intimacy with “the other,” an intimacy that will include both word and silence.
-Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty,
God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity!

Holy, Holy, Holy! all the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be

Holy, Holy, Holy! though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity!
-Bishop R. Heber

WHOSOEVER would be saved / needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholic Faith. 2 Which Faith except a man keep whole and undefiled, / without doubt he will perish eternally. 3 Now the Catholic Faith is this, / that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity; 4 Neither confusing the Persons, / nor dividing the Substance. 5 For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, / another of the Holy Ghost; 6 But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, / the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.

7 Such as the Father is, such is the Son, / and such is the Holy Ghost; 8 The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Ghost uncreated; 9 The Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Ghost infinite; 10 The Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Ghost eternal; 11 And yet there are not three eternals, but one eternal; 12 As also there are not three uncreated, nor three infinites, / but one infinite, and one uncreated.

13 So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, / the Holy Ghost almighty; 14 And yet there are not three almighties, but one almighty. 15 So the Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Ghost God; 16 And yet there are not three Gods, / but one God. 17 So the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, / the Holy Ghost Lord; 18 And yet there are not three Lords, / but one Lord.

19 For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity / to confess each Person by himself to be both God and Lord; 20 So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion / to speak of three Gods or three Lords. 21 The Father is made of none, / nor created, nor begotten. 22 The Son is of the Father alone; / not made, nor created, but begotten. 23 The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son; / not made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. 24 There is therefore one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; / one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

25 And in this Trinity there is no before or after, / no greater or less; 26 But all three Persons are co-eternal together, / and co-equal. 27 So that in all ways, as is aforesaid, / both the Trinity is to be worshipped in Unity, and the Unity in Trinity. 28 He therefore that would be saved, / let him thus think of the Trinity.
-from the so-called Athanasian Creed





We need to actually put into practice spiritual disciplines

27 05 2015

I just read a piece from 2008 by Christopher S. Webb looking back on and celebrating 30 years of Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. In large part because of that book, many of us have been opening up with freedom the writings and teachings of the past centuries of the church. Ideas like fasting, meditating, and so forth, are no longer foreign in many Protestant churches. But how many of us have succeeded in applying these lessons and turning ourselves into deeply committed disciples?

It is a question I ask myself, especially because I blog about classic Christianity. Do I actually live it? Not to be too hard on myself, of course. But these questions need asking. As Webb says in the article:

Writing, preaching, and teaching about the spiritual disciplines is now widespread. The great Christian classics are more available and accessible than ever. The churches have become comfortable with the language of formation and intentionality. But the utter devotion to the way of Christ that lies at the heart of spiritual formation seems to elude too many. The classics are more often bought and quoted than actually read and wrestled with. Too often, our eloquent teaching and preaching far outstrips our practice. And while we might applaud a church for appointing a Spiritual Formation Pastor, it begs the question: what are the other pastors doing? In many churches formation and intentional discipleship remain electives for the enthusiastic rather than requisites of the core curriculum.

May you be blessed in your times of prayer this day, and empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit to truly live out the faith we have received!








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