Origen and divine dereliction

As I mentioned a while ago, I am ruminating on Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition. At present, I am working through the chapter on Origen of Alexandria (184/5-253/4). Origen is the first Christian in the book, and his adaptation of Platonist mystical theory and allegorical readings of the Bible have had a lasting impact on Christian spirituality and theology, right up to this day. One of the things that Louth makes clear is how Origen’s Christian belief impacted his mystical ideas and transformed the Platonic heritage.

Of interest to my most recent theme on this blog is the fact that Origen anticipates St John of the Cross in the famous idea of a mystic’s perceived abandonment by God:

The Bride then beholds the Bridegroom; and he, as soon as she has seen him, goes away. He does this frequently throughout the Song; and that is something nobody can understand who has not suffered it himself. God is my witness that I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly he has withdrawn and I could not find him, though I sought to do so. I long therefore for him to come again, and sometimes he does so. Then when he has appeared and I lay hold of him, he slips away once more. And when he has so slipped away my search for him begins anew. So does he act with me repeatedly, until in truth I hold him and go up, ‘leaning on my Nephew’s arm’. (Homily on the Song of Songs I. 7: GCS, 39, quoted by Louth, p. 69)

Louth has a chapter on St John of the Cross and the Patristic heritage, so I’ll be interested to see how he picks this up. Nonetheless, at the roots of the Christian mystical tradition, this idea of feeling that God at times suddenly leaves the seeker alone is found, embedded in both Origen’s personal experience and his reading of the Bible.

Part of what this illustrates, besides the germ of the idea of the Dark Night of the Soul, is the uncontainability of the Christian God. He comes and goes as He pleases. Those Christians who have been blessed with ‘mystical’ encounters with Him know through such experiences as the above that it was not any trick on their part but His very grace that made Him come in that way — this is the teaching and experience of St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, St Seraphim of Sarov, Archimandrite Zacharias.

Thomas Merton warns, indeed, against seeking these mystical encounters with God (see The Inner Experience). We are to engage in the practices of contemplation; we are to seek God. But whether we have any particular kinds of mystical experience is solely the gift of God’s grace, given by Him as He wills, according to His divine economy and our need. To seek these experiences is what Merton calls iluminism, a mystical heresy that puts more emphasis on the gifts than their giver. Whether mystic or charismatic, the modern Christian should beware!

Nevertheless, it strikes me that somehow these teachers all promise some sense of the presence God, whether the Uncreated Light or the still, small voice, as well as the dereliction of his absence.

One thought on “Origen and divine dereliction

  1. Just read the ensuing paragraph in Louth’s book which tempers my enthusiasm:

    Whether this is a ‘mystical’ experience of dereliction is not quite clear. Passages very similar to this occur elsewhere which quite clearly refer to Origen’s experience as an exegete when sometimes he cannot see what a text means and is, in that sense, in difficulty; or when, on the contrary, the meaning ‘just comes to him’ (cf. Comm. III. 11, quoted above p. 62). I am unhappy about regarding these passages as directly mystical, as it seems to me quite likely that Origen is clothing in ‘mystical’ language an experience that is not directly an experience of God at all: namely, the experience one has when the meaning of something suddenly ‘comes to one’ (as we say, without any mystical metaphor). Even so, if we are to take Origen seriously, this is more than a figure of speech, for he sees his engagement with Scripture as an engagement with God. I suspect that these passages have a spectrum of meaning that ranges from the sort of thing I have mentioned to something which is a genuinely mystical experience of God. Certainly he can speak of these experiences in a way which (p.70) makes it difficult not to regard the experience as mystical, and as Origen’s own. For instance, in the Comm. on the Song, III. 13: ‘[The Word] does not always stay with her, however, for that for human nature is not possible: He may visit her from time to time, indeed, and yet from time to time she may be forsaken too by Him, that she may long for Him the more’ (GCS, 218).

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