Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 2: Silence in context

Continuing from yesterday’s post about Timothy Keller’s negative views of mysticism in Prayer, I would like to discuss the lived reality of the mystical, contemplative tradition within Christianity. The arguments of John Jefferson Davis as presented by Keller present an opposition, almost a mutual exclusivity, between verbal prayer and non-verbal silent prayer.

It is true that Christians from at least as far back as Evagrius of Pontus in the 300s have said things like, ‘Contemplation of the most holy Trinity is the highest calling of the Christian.’ (Evagrius said that, in fact.) And it is worth challenging this pre-eminence given to mystical contemplation in certain corners of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox worlds, using Scripture and other pathways of tradition in the process.

The lived experience of most mystics is not one of opposition to verbal prayer, however. We cannot understand Christian mysticism and contemplation if we choose to look at, say, only Thomas Merton’s more Buddhist moments or Anthony de Mello’s truly Buddhist moments or only the works about mysticism by certain writers. Christian mysticism as practised by the majority of believers seeking inner peace, seeking God in silence, seeking inner prayer, treading the path of negation, is not done in a pure vacuum.

And it seems to me that Davis as represented (and tacitly endorsed?) by Keller either misunderstands mysticism as a whole or has only read certain works that espouse a certain view. First, mysticism is not done in pure isolation. Second, contemplative prayer is part of a wider life of Christian discipline and service. Third, turning ‘inward’ to God is not pantheism and does not ignore transcendence since it is also a turning ‘upward’, which is precisely what Davis believes prayer should do.

First, then — mystical exercises, contemplative prayer, are not matters done in isolation. While there have been and still are hermits and anchorites who spend their days alone, this is not the experience of the bulk of the Christians within the mystical tradition.

As they come to mind: St Hildegard was an abbess, St Bernard an abbot, St Bonaventure a travelling preacher and head of the Franciscan order, Meister Eckhart a Dominican preacher, St Catherine of Siena a nun in community, although Lady Julian of Norwich was an anchorite she had visitors, St John Climacus an abbot, St John Cassian an abbot, St Maximus the Confessor was involved in controversy as was St Gregory Palamas, St Teresa of Ávila was an abbess, St John of the Cross was an abbot and also spent some time imprisoned by fellow monks, Brother Lawrence a Carmelite laybrother, and on and on and on.

St Basil the Great, himself a founder of the ascetic, monastic tradition wherein mysticism flourishes, believed in the necessity of community. So did St Benedict, for that matter. The regulated Christian life of a monk or a mendicant friar involved daily interactions with others. And verbal prayer. Ideally, it involves manual labour. It involves chores, and verbal prayers. For those of priestly rank, it may involve pastoral care and verbal prayers. For many of those I listed above, it involved frequent preaching of the word of God and verbal prayer. Indeed, it also involves a reading and rereading and internalising of sacred Scripture, accompanied by verbal prayer.

Intercession is a key part of the wider world of prayer inhabited by the greatest mystical writers. We should not lose sight of that.

Second, contemplative prayer and mysticism are not the only part of the spiritual life under discussion. The Philokalia is a five-volume guide to this single aspect of life as taught and practised by Late Antique and Byzantine Greek monastics. Many of the writers included in the anthology also have writings on various other aspects of life, on acts of charity, on the study and interpretation of scripture, on systematic/dogmatic theology, on the disciplines of the Christian life, etc., etc. Many of them were preachers.

What we think of as ‘mystical activity’ is not the only part of the life of the greatest Christian mystics. People like St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Ávila had great encounters with God, and spent a lot of time in quiet, reflective prayer. But they also counselled others, wrote letters, met with each other, gave pastoral guidance to their fellow monks and nuns, and so forth.

The best of them prayed with words, too. They prayed the liturgy. They prayed prayers of intercession. They led or received the Blessed Sacrament. They were part of the corporate life of the church, even if they also believed in the importance of aloneness and silence before the mysterium tremendum. Today’s Eastern Orthodox proponents of silent prayer and mysticism pray with words, too; I know some of them and have read books by others.

Point 3 will be for tomorrow; I’ll pause here.

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4 thoughts on “Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 2: Silence in context

  1. Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts on Prayer, by Tim Keller. I am a kindred spirit, I.e., I so appreciate sacred tradition. I almost never hear a sermon or a devotional that references anyone older than Martin Luther, other than an occasional reference to St. Augustine. I recently finished reading “The Story of a Soul” by St. Therese of Lisieux, and was surprised at how much I gleaned from it. Looking forward to part 3.

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