How lectio divina and contemplative practices can be dangerous

La Grande Chartreuse: Home to Lectio Divina

Various Scripture-related ‘mystical’ practices that call themselves lectio divina have been growing in popularity in the world outside Roman Catholic monasteries, and, indeed, not only in the liberal mainline but even amongst evangelical Protestants. Some evangelicals are automatically, and irrationally, afraid of lectio divina because it comes from ‘Roman Catholicism’; others are concerned because some of its proponents are also into Buddhism and the like.

And, certainly, books about lectio divina are not all equal.

I won’t mount a defence of the practice here, though. Mark Moore has already done that in his post, ‘Is Lectio Divina Really Dangerous?

Instead, I would like to highlight the fact that I think the disciplines of the contemplative life can actually be dangerous — and not ‘dangerous to your small views of God’ dangerous. Actually potentially harmful. Of course, I must get this out of the way first: Their alleged ‘Roman Catholic’ (aka Latin medieval) origins have nothing to do with their potential for harm. If Protestants rejected everything from the ‘Roman Church’, we would have no Bible, no sacraments, no doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity, etc., etc. We must find the danger in the actual practices themselves.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking. As I said at the beginning, a variety of different practices currently masquerade under the name lectio divina. Some of these are actually medieval, deriving ultimately from the prayerful practices outlined around 1180 by Guigo II (d. 1188/93), prior of La Grande Chartreuse (motherhouse of the Carthusians) in The Ladder of Monks. Others are inspired by the medieval practices but are more in line with traditional Protestant discursive meditation. Others may not know what a Carthusian is but may be conversant with Buddhism.

The possibility is, in the end, that any of the forms of lectio divina currently on parade can endanger you spiritually.

One person, alone with a Bible, seeking to encounter God directly through the Word, sometimes reducing that to a single word or phrase.

Or, to move to other meditative practices, simply praying the Jesus Prayer. Or seeking to empty your mind of all thoughts. Or whatever.

Why do I think these things might be harmful? They might be harmful if they lack an important ingredient:

The community of the faithful.

Any of these practices can be salutary (yes, even ones tainted by Buddhism, let alone Roman Catholicism). They can be ways for us to focus our heart and minds on the Most Holy Trinity, upon the meaning and lesson and immediacy of Scripture as living and active. They can be ways for us to unclutter our cluttered hearts.

But they might make you go crazy. The Orthodox actually say that practising the Jesus Prayer unsupervised can be harmful. They also say that illusion is particularly dangerous for those who shut themselves off from the community of the faithful. The translators of The Philokalia are at pains in the introduction to point out that the teachings found therein, and the whole eastern Christian tradition of stillness (hesychia, hence hesychasm) is not reducible to these texts for monks and solitaries — these texts were written for people who participated in the sacramental and liturgical life of the church. They also read Scripture in the same ways you and I read Scripture.

Lectio divina, then, is not inherently harmful. I actually think it is good for us — as a way to stop trying to govern Scripture and allow it to govern us. However, any Christian discipline, when cut off from the fellowship and community of God’s people, can lead you astray and make you think that you are growing into the fullness of the stature of Christ when really you are growing up gnarled, crooked, and distorted. But don’t worry, God can straighten us out

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The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition by Andrew Louth (review)

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to DenysThe Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a fine piece of introduction and analysis of what may, rather then ‘mystical’, more precisely be considered the contemplative strand of Christianity as it took on and then adapted (or at times rejected) the Platonic inheritance. The 2006 edition is definitely to be preferred, for in this edition Louth closes with a very challenging Afterword wherein he confronts the very concept of mysticism. We all think we know what the word means, but probably we don’t.

After chapters on Plato, Philo, and Plotinus, Louth discusses Origen; ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ which includes Athanasius (who raises an anti-‘mystical’ challenge to Platonism) and Gregory of Nyssa; ‘The Monastic Contribution’ which considers Evagrius of Pontus (the rich but problematic Origenist/Platonist), the Macarian Homilies, and Diadochus of Photiki who brings out strands in both of the other two in this chapter; Augustine of Hippo’s contribution; then Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whom he refers to as ‘Denys’).

Living in a post-Carmelite age whose understanding of Christian ‘mysticism’ is indelibly marked by the late medieval and early modern inheritance, Chapter 9 is an important discussion of St John of the Cross and the patristic inheritance. Louth argues that there is, indeed, some difference, but more often of style and perspective than content. The final chapter is ‘The Mystical Life and the Mystical Body’. This final chapter reminds us of a chief difference between ancient Christian ‘mysticism’ and the philosophers, for the ancient Christians always thought in terms of the Christian community, the liturgy, and the communion of saints, rather than Plotinus flight of the alone to the Alone.

In each of the ancient philosophers or patristic authors analysed, Louth gives us a run-through of what we may consider his ‘mystical’ teaching, looking both at their reception and at their challenge of Platonist ideas. It is a helpful book in many ways, although one is reminded that most of the praktike of the contemplative tradition in Christianity is the pursuit of moral virtue and askesis rather than the delineation of particular psychological practices as taught by the baptised Buddhism of Anthony de Mello, S.J., in Sadhana. I would have liked to have seen more on Diadochus and the Jesus Prayer, since the Jesus Prayer is the heart of so much of what we may consider Eastern Orthodox ‘mysticism’ today.

In the end, I recommend this book. At times it is challenging to read. At times, since it is introductory, it feels not quite deep enough. But overall, it gives you some idea of the landscape of these authors and this strand, as well as questions to take with you on your own journey into the broad literature of Christian spirituality.

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The Unknowability of the Trinity in Ps-Dionysius

Following on from yesterday’s post about the dangers of overreliance on logic and Aristotelian philosophy as we do theology, here is a quotation I’ve found in Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, in his chapter about Pseudo-Dionysius (or ‘Denys’ as Louth calls him, flourished c. 500). ‘Cataphatic’ theology is when we make positive statements about God, the kind of theology we tend to do in academia, and ‘apophatic’ theology is the pathway of negation, where we assert that we can only explain God by negative comparison. That is to say, God is infinite, timelessimmortal, whereas we are finite, timebound, and mortal. In apophatic theology, you make the cataphatic assertions of Trinitarian dogma, and then realise that you are already entering into the cloud of unknowing, for who can truly express the homoousion of three persons?

The quotation is from Vladimir Lossky, and the internal quotation is Ps-D’s On the Divine Names:

This is why the revelation of the Holy Trinity, which is the summit of cataphatic theology, belongs also to apophatic theology, for ‘if we learn from the Scriptures that the Father is the source of divinity, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the divine progeny, the divine seeds, so to say, and flowers and lights that transcend being, we can neither say nor understand what that is.’ (DN II. 7)

The passage is from Lossky’s article, ‘La notion des “analogies” chez le Pseudo‐Denys l’Aréopagite’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge, 5 (1930), 279–309, at p. 283. Cited by Louth on page 161.

 

“If you’re going through hell, keep going”

St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938)

Apparently, the title of this post is a Winston Churchill quotation; so says the Internet, anyway.

At present, things are going swimmingly for me. There is light, brightness, joy. You know, that sort of thing. At times like this, it is easy to put on a CD of hymns and sing along or simply listen in joy. It is easy to thank God for the victory. To see the promises of Scripture leap off the page and into my life.

But there has been darkness in the past.

There will be darkness in the future.

Times when prayer is dry. When God seems distant — not just ”Tis only the brightness of light hideth Thee’ distant, but ‘Are you even there?’ distant. Church (what a bore!). Other Christians? Ugh. Spiritual reading? Morning Prayer? No. Really, let’s just watch Star Trek and go to bed.

Historic, orthodox Christianity has plumbed the depths of such times, whether we think of the writings of St John of the Cross or the life of St Teresa of Calcutta.

Perseverance is the key. We read of St Silouan (1866-1938; born Simeon) about his own darkness:

Month after month went by and the torturing assaults of the devils never slackened. His spirits began to fail, he was losing heart, while despair and the fear of perdition gained ground. More and more often was he possessed by the horror of hopelessness. Anyone who has gone through something of the kind knows that no mere human courage or power can hold out in this spiritual battle. Brother Simeon foundered and reached the final stages of desperation. Sitting in his cell before vespers, he thought, ‘God will not hear me!’ He felt utterly forsaken, his soul plunged in the darkness of despondency. Sick at heart, he remained in this black hell for about an hour.

That same day, during vespers in the Church of the Holy Prophet Elijah …, to the right of the Royal Doors, by the ikon of the Saviour, he beheld the living Christ.

In a manner passing all understanding the Lord appeared to the young novice whose whole being was filled with the fire of the grace of the Holy Spirit — that fire which the Lord brought down to earth with His coming.

The vision drained Simeon of all his strength, and the Lord vanished. (Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite, pp. 25-6)

Few of us are blessed with anything approaching the beatific vision that St Silouan had at Vespers that evening. Indeed, many of us will find that we go to Vespers, or say our prayers, or turn up on Sunday after Sunday, almost unwillingly, and with no apparent change.

St John of the Cross says that this dark night exists as a means to help us grow in grace, in holiness, and in faith. The apparent absence of God is there to strengthen our weak souls. It is like a mother weaning her child. If we persevere in faith, we will come to richer, deeper, profounder love of God and our fellow humans.

This is real Christianity. This is not quick fix, Jesus-will-make-you-happy-rich-healthy religion. This is not pop psychology poorly applied by the underqualified. This is perseverance, seen in saints such as Silouan, John of the Cross, Mother Teresa. It involves pain, sorrow, grief.

But in the end, real joy, abiding peace, as we behold Our Saviour face to face in His glory.

Nicaea and the principle of church councils

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Today, my local Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate of CP) was celebrating the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. I was hoping to slip into the Divine Liturgy, but no one unlocked the doors of the church, so I went for a short walk instead. Nonetheless, I felt it was timely, since this past Sunday my friend Cory was preaching on Acts 15, the ‘Council of Jerusalem’, wherein the Apostles gather to discuss whether Gentile Christians need to follow Mosaic ceremonial law or not.

The answer, as you know, is, ‘No.’

Actually, it’s a very interesting answer, because it includes this wonderful little phrase, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28). It was not simply 12 Jewish dudes sitting around offering their own opinion on what level of commitment to Jewish law followers of the Way ought to have. Rather, the holy Apostles and the elders were gathered together in council, in dispute, and in prayer, and the Holy Spirit inspired them to see the way forward for the Jesus movement.

On what authority do these Apostles and elders decide that they know what seems good to the Holy Spirit?

Well, on the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom they had travelled for a few years, whose resurrection they witnessed, whose deep teaching they received, and whose ascension into heaven left them dumbfounded. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit Himself has descended in miraculous power upon these people. They were selected by Jesus before He ascended. And they were anointed by the Holy Spirit in a stunningly palpable way afterwards.

The principle governing the Acts 15 council at Jerusalem was that when the leaders of Christ’s church, set apart for headship and anointed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, prayerfully meet together, the Holy Spirit can communicate through them.

This, whether you agree with the Council of Nicaea and the other six ecumenical councils, is the biblical foundation of the authority of the councils. It is an application as logically applied to these councils as any application your local Baptist or Presbyterian minister is likely to give you for your own life from any other passage of Acts.

Arguably, more so.

I once heard one of the guys who was at some point associated with the word ‘Emergent’ (honestly, it was my sole encounter with him, years ago) state that he didn’t want to have to believe the Nicene Creed just because a bunch of guys said this was orthodoxy. Who, he said, were they to tell him what to believe?

The argument is this: They are the church’s chosen, anointed leaders.

The bishops gathered together in council. They argued. They prayed. Some guys may have been punched (unlikely — sorry, St Nicholas fans). They argued. They put together a faith statement. They argued about it. They signed off on it.

According to the ideal church structures of the time, each of these bishops was an actual spiritual elder. For example, St Spyridon was a shepherd of such great holiness of life that he was chosen to be bishop by the local community in Cyprus. The theory of episcopal election was that the local bishop, the overseer of local church life, was chosen — elected, even — by his local community, both clerical and lay. So each of the alleged 318 ‘Fathers’ at Nicaea was an elected representative of the Christian community in his home city. That, at least, is the theory.

Another fact is that they did not see themselves as a bunch of unrelated, discrete units, entirely autonomous of each other. They believed that the individual Christian believers, their local congregations, and the congregations of cities reaching from London to Adiabene, from Gallaecia to Alexandria, were united through the simple fact that they were Christ’s mystical body. Therefore, if you could get a majority of their elected, anointed leaders to agree about something, it was something to which to pay heed.

Now, you may think that is still all nonsense. And, in fact, the councils for which we have the blow-by-blow records show us how fractious these assemblies of Christ’s elected, anointed ministers could be. Furthermore, orthodoxy should probably be better determined than simply a majority vote. I, personally, agree with the seven ecumenical councils because I think they are the most philosophically defensible and biblically faithful expression of Christian doctrine out there.

But that’s a different argument, isn’t it?

Vernacular Religion in the Latin Middle Ages 2: Bibles

Incipit of John, Lindisfarne Gospels, Anglo-Saxon gloss

Allow me to base this post about medieval vernacular Bibles on two anecdotes. One is me being cheeky, the other is me having a realisation.

A few years ago, my father-in-law was looking at a wee booklet from the Canadian Bible Society about where our Bible came from, and he quizzed me, asking who first translated the Bible. I said St Jerome. He said they were looking for the vernacular. I cheekily responded that Latin was the vernacular in the year 400. To their credit, CBS did discuss Jerome elsewhere in the booklet. If memory serves me correctly, though, John Wycliffe was the right answer, as he usually is in these scenarios.

But even if we are discussing ancient translations of the Bible, we don’t actually know who first put the Bible into Latin in the third century, or Syriac in the second and third, the final stage being Philoxenus of Mabbug translating Revelation in the 500s. There is a similar time frame for Coptic, I believe. The (incomplete) Gothic Bible is fourth- and fifth-century, presumably much of it by Ulfilas. A number of translators put the Bible into Armenian in the early 400s — Mesrop Mashtots, John of Egheghiatz, Joseph of Baghin, from what I can see. About a year ago we learned about an illustrated Ethiopian Bible that was written between 330 and 650 in Ge’ez; tradition attributes the Ge’ez translation to Abba Garima in 494.

Besides Gothic, these are all Eastern, and they’re all Late Antique.

And we all know the story about the ‘Heresy of the Three Languages’, don’t we? The story is that in the 860s Sts Cyril and Methodius were happily translating Bibles and liturgies into Slavic, and then ran into Frankish missionaries who believed that the worship on God could only occur in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. In 867 (54 years after the formal approval of vernacular preaching in Frankish realms at Tours) they went to Rome where Pope Hadrian II approved their mission and their use of Slavic liturgy.

Nonetheless, weren’t the Latin Middle Ages a time when western Europe’s Christians were forbidden from hearing God’s Word in their own language? We all know about how much trouble John Wycliffe (1330-84) got in; we are told that his English Bibles were banned, and that this proto-Reformer, medieval ‘Protestant’ was condemned, and that he was the inspiration for the next pre-Protestant Jan Hus (burned at the stake at the Council of Constance, 1415). Most of the things Wycliffe got in trouble for were not his English Bibles for.

We also all know the story of William Tyndale (1494-1536) and the fact that he had to go to the Continent to freely translate and print the New Testament in English.

And is England in the late 1300s and early 1500s the same thing as all of Western Europe, 500-1500?

No, it is not. And this narrative may have made me uneasy, but I didn’t question it.

Until I visited the magnificent exhibition Verbum Domini II, a free exhibition about the history of the Bible put on by the Vatican in 2014. This was a magnificent exhibition, celebrating the Bible throughout its history, from Greek papyri to digital versions. There were ancient Bibles on display in different languages, as well as medieval Bibles — and not just Latin or eastern languages, but German and Italian ones!

This interested me. Medieval vernacular Bibles!

I then learned what my English Protestant ecclesiastical history had missed out. The English aspect of Wycliffe and Tyndale’s endeavours. Both of them were resisted by local English ecclesiastical authorities, for one thing. Wycliffe’s condemnation at the Council of Constance says nothing about translating the Bible into the vernacular. And although Tyndale was not allowed legitimately to pursue his program of translation, an English translation authorised by the Roman church was published in 1582, 1609, and 1610 (the Douay-Rheims Bible).

Various vernacular translations were made in the Middle Ages. Pre-Conquest England (before 1066) saw Anglo-Saxon translations, versifications, and interlinear glosses of the Latin text. About 1000 manuscripts or fragments from medieval German Bibles exist. Various French translations also occurred in the Middle Ages, and the Roman Church had no trouble with some made in the 1500s in Belgium. 1471 gave us our first printing of the Bible in Italian.

Now, I’m not saying that there were no issues surrounding vernacular Bibles, especially in England, especially in the later Middle Ages. These measures were usually to try and control Protestants by restricting their access to God’s Word. Nonetheless, the Bible translations into the 16th-century vernaculars of Europe by Protestants were not the first, and the Catholics were doing the same thing.

Once again, this matters, especially in the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We need to ask ourselves what was being reformed, and if the reforming looked the same in every nation. But some of the problems arising in some places, such as England, were ultimately dealt with by the Roman Church itself — such as vernacular Bibles.

The Middle Ages were a varied and long period in Christian history (fully 1/2). If we wish to be strong in our faith, and if we believe that we are right to be out of communion with the Bishop of Rome, let’s ensure that we’ve done it for the right reasons — and understanding the Middle Ages is a key part of doing so.

Perfection is infinite

When I was in undergrad, there was a friend of some friends who was interested in Christianity, but who believed that God/Christ being ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’ and being perfect would mean that God could not act. Sameness, he argued, implied stasis; God cannot be a dynamic being if He is the same, but, rather, a static one. So God can’t do things, because doing things implies changing.

However, God is perfect, so He is perfectum, which means he is complete and lacks nothing. If we consider this idea in terms of fulfilling your our purpose or (since God is self-sufficient) being eminently what you are by nature or essence (ontologically), then we see that God can act and still be perfect; indeed, perhaps if God did not act, he would be imperfect. If perfection implies being what you are at its fullest, and God is love, then perfection would logically mean that God acts, but that none of his acts are imperfect. He loves perfectly.

He also, as I’ve argued here before, loves infinitely.

From this question, let us ask another. How can we fulfil Jesus’ command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt. 5:48) Or how do we understand Hebrews 10:14, where it is said, ‘by one sacrifice he [Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’? What does it mean when we think on heaven/paradise, where there seems to be an expectation that there will no longer be sin? Does this mean we sit around doing nothing?

By no means! In fact, it doesn’t even mean that we will have no room for growth and development. St Gregory of Sinai (c. 1260-1346) says:

It is said that in the life to come the angels and saints ever increase in gifts of grace and never abate their longing for further blessings. No lapse or veering from virtue to vice takes place in that life. –Philokalia, volume 4, p 222

The idea here is one that goes back at least to St Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) who discussed in The Life of Moses that since God is infinitely good, then we finite beings will never stop progressing in goodness. It is an interesting idea. Perfection for the finite means progress (true progress) in holiness, in becoming more like God (that is, theosis).

As far as this life is concerned, we must realise that we can always be holier, even if we are less sinful than we used to be. Our finite state of goodness is not simply marred by sin but limited by its own nature. St Athanasius (296-373) expresses the idea that Adam and Eve would have progressed in knowledge and maturity and holiness of a divine sort even if they hadn’t disobeyed in the Garden (see On the Incarnation).

Even the angels progress in grace.

This is what a better understanding of infinity and finitude can do for us. Ever upwards!