Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 1: Language and God

The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum
St Francis, a man who loved God and neighbour (my pic)

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am reading Prayer by Timothy Keller for a study group at church. Overall, I like it so far. But I am myself, so I cannot turn off the critical mind, in both the neutral and negative sense of the word critical.

Keller, as one may expect from a conservative Presbyterian pastor, is severe towards the mystical tradition of apophatic and contemplative prayer throughout. He admits room for silence before God, but mostly as a response after we’ve already done our talking at God, citing the venerable J.I. Packer for this belief.

The version of Christian mysticism he takes issue with is certainly something I’d be concerned about, if ever I’d met it. His discussion of mysticism in chapter 4 begins with a modern analyst’s consideration of Meister Eckhart and John Tauler, then moves into Thomas Merton. Of these three, a certain amount of Eckhart’s teaching was condemned by the mysticism-friendly Latin church of the Middle Ages (and its modern successor, Roman Catholicism). I admit to not knowing the details of Tauler’s teachings, but I do know that not everything Thomas Merton wrote would have been approved of by the Roman Catholic Church. That is to say, these three do not the mainstream of Christian mysticism make.

Keller’s criticism of mysticism quickly shifts to the lens of John Jefferson Davis, who is wary of The Cloud of Unknowing and the Jesus Prayer. The former is one of those books everyone recommends but that I’ve not yet read. The Jesus Prayer I am much better acquainted with. Nonetheless, I shall treat Keller’s discussion of Davis’s critique of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Keller and Davis distrust the mysticism of The Cloud because the goal of this sort of prayer is:

to get beyond discursive thoughts and to experience pure attentiveness to God the Spirit through the quiet, reflective, and repetitive use of a single word such as God or love. Davis rightly criticizes this by insisting that the use of language is not incidental but is instead essential to God’s eternal being as a unity of three persons, and that believers are to be sanctified in the form of the truthful words given to Jesus by the Father and conveyed to us by the Spirit. (Keller, Prayer 57)

Here lies my ongoing wrestling match with the Reformed, which is the verbocentric universe. Keller has already said elsewhere in the book that, since God exists as Trinity, we have ‘every reason’ to believe he uses language. He also implies through some deft equivocal language that all actions of God are verbal, as opposed to the point the Scriptures he uses make, which is that every word of God is an action — but perhaps this is simply lack of clarity on his part or over-incisiveness and nitpicking on mine.

Nevertheless, I have difficulty imagining that language such as we know it, in its flaws and imperfections, has anything to do with the inner-Trinitarian life. Indeed, I would never want to venture any guess as to how the Most Holy Trinity communicates amongst himselves. That the Triune God communicates to us with words is inescapably true. To say that the use of words is ‘essential to God’s eternal being as a unity of three persons’ is dangerous and possibly blasphemous.

Frankly, we need to consider what we mean. Clearly some sort of social Trinity has been imagined here. This is a little like what the Cappadocians say, but not really. Triadology may be as it may be, I see no relevance on how inner-Trinitarian conversations have to do with the infinite gulf between the Creator and the created.

In fact, I would argue that it is our own feebleness that makes language an essential part of prayer. God, who is beyond all creation and therefore beyond language, chooses to communicate to us in flawed human language. It is thus an appropriate response for us to try the same.

But none of this is actually my main issue, which is that Davis as presented by Keller seems to think that these two modes of prayer are mutually exclusive, which they are not.

Candles at Candlemas (Cistercians for Groundhog Day/Feast of the Presentation)

IMG_9737Historically, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple would involve the blessing of candles by the local priest — hence ‘Candlemas’. Also, as we shall see in what I am about to post, people carried their own candles, at least in the twelfth century. And why carry lights? What is the significance of light? Let us remember that Christ is the Light of the World. Here is Cistercian abbot Guerric of Igny (1070-1157), from a sermon for this feast:

But let us rather discuss, if you will, the lovely custom in the Church of bearing liths on this feast-day, and how it bodies forth what was done in the past and also what we should be doing now. Not that I suppose you are unaware of this, even if it has never been set out for you. Which of you today, bearing a lighted candle in his hands, does not instantly call to mind the old man who took Jesus in his arms this day — the Word clothed in flesh as the candle-flame is cupped in wax — declaring him to be the light that would enlighten the Gentiles. And Simeon was himself a lamp lit and shining, bearing witness to the light, he who came at the Spirit’s prompting into the temple, to receive, O God, in the midst of the temple your loving-kindness, and to proclaim him to be indeed your loving-kindness and the light of your people.

Ah! brothers, look where the candle burns in Simeon’s hands; that is the light to light your tapers from, those lamps which the Lord would have you holding. Go to him and you will be lit up, not so much bearers of almps as lamps yourselves, shining within and without, lighting yourselves and your neighbours. May this lamp be in heart and hand and mouth: a lamp in your heart to light yourself, a lamp in your hands and on your lips to light your neighbours. The light in your heart is loving faith; the lamp in your hands is the example of good deeds; the lamp on your lips, helpful and strengthening words. We must not only shine in the sight of men by our deeds and words: we need to shine through prayer in the sight of the angles and before God in sincerity of heart. We light in the sight of the angels the lamp of pure devotion when we sing with diligence and pray with fervour. Our lamp that burns before God is our singleness of heart in pleasing him alone whose approval we have won.

So that you may light all these lamps for yourselves, my brothers, come to the source of light and be enlightened. Draw close to Jesus … (From the First Sermon for the Purification, in The Cistercian World, ed. and trans. P. Matarasso, pp. 133-135)

Guerric of Igny on Advent

Our Advent Wreath in Toronto
Our Advent Wreath in Toronto

The liturgical church year is not a mechanical operation done merely out of ‘tradition’ or without thought. It is a means of spiritual growth for the community of faith, for that community is, in this time between Christ’s comings, bound in time and living in time with the rhythms of the solar year and the seasons and the history of Christ’s salvific activity at the time of His Incarnation and through His people in history.

It is salutary, therefore, to meditate upon its purpose. Here’s Guerric of Igny for Advent 3:

We are waiting now for the anniversary day of Christ’s birth, which we shall shortly see, God willing. Scripture requires, it seems to me, that our spirit should be so lifted up and transported with joy that it longs to run towards the approaching Christ; and, projecting itself into the future, it chafes at delays as it strains to see what is yet to come. I think myself that the many passages in Scripture exhorting us to hasten towards him refer not only to the second coming but also to the first. How so? Because just as, at his second coming, we shall run towards him with physical energy and joy, so do we hasten to Bethlehem with jubilant heart and spirit. You know that at the resurrection, having put on new bodies, according to the Apostle’s teaching we shall be caught up in the clouds to meet Christ in the air, and so we shall be with the Lord for ever. (1 Thess. 4:16) But even here there is no lack of clouds that will carry our spirits (provided they are not sluggish and earthbound) to higher things, and then we shall be with the Lord for half an hour. Unless I am mistaken, you know from experience what I am talking about, for sometimes when the clouds have thundered, that is when the voices of the prophets and apostles have rung out in the Church, your minds have been swept aloft as though borne on clouds, and on occasion been carried so far beyond that they have been favoured with some glimpse of the glory of the Lord. Then, if I am right, the truth of that word dawned clear for you, the word which God rains down from the cloud he daily appoints to bear us aloft: ‘The sacrifice of praise do me honour: there is the path by which I will show him the salvation of God.’ (Pss. 103:3, 49:23) -P. M. Matarasso, The Cistercian World, pp. 130-31.

Quick review: Reflections on St Francis by John Michael Talbot

Reflections on St. FrancisReflections on St. Francis by John Michael Talbot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I found this slim volume for 5 euros, I snatched it up since I am a fan of both St Francis of Assisi and John Michael Talbot. I assumed at the time of purchase that this book would largely be a recasting of material from Talbot’s early book The Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life. I was wrong – this an entirely new volume of a different nature from that earlier work. Whereas that earlier work was largely a culling of particular lessons from the saint’s life and work as represented in his biographies, the ‘little flowers’, and his texts, this volume is a collection of brief reflections of three elements of St Francis: the story of his conversion and then two texts, The Rule of 1223 and the Testament from 1226.

The writing style in this book is like St Francis – simple and straightforward. Talbot is not trying to trick us with rhetoric or to be fancy the way a writer like myself would. He writes his thoughts and writes them in quick, simple sentences. He also repeats himself at times, which is actually a helpful tool in bringing home a point and instilling it in the mind. This is all, I believe, part of Br John Michael’s technique, for his other books that I’ve read (besides Lessons, The Music of Creation), his online articles, and his music demonstrate a depth and power that this book hints at. This is good, for it is obvious to me that the whole point of this wee book is, on the one hand, to encourage those new to the Franciscan tradition to wade in the water, and, on the other, to get the rest of us to take ourselves less seriously and rediscover the joyful simplicity of the early thirteenth-century spirituality of St Francis.

The biggest departure from most books on St Francis is Talbot’s treatment of the conversion. Usually, as in Chesterton’s Saint Francis of Assisi or the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, we are presented with the sudden tale and snap conversion of Francis from young, gallant knight to fraticello in a moment. Br John Michael takes us through the long story, however, showing us the different stages in Francis’ conversion, from capture to Crusade to illness to penitent to hermit, etc. We are reminded that our own story, even if there is a great moment where we turn from our old ways to Christ Who is the Way, is itself a gradual series of turning posts and transformations. We are still being converted.

His reflections on the Rule discuss generally what a Rule is and how it binds the brothers, and how all of us can benefit from our own rules and constitutions. He relates about the rule and constitutions of his own community, the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. Talbot goes through the rule and Testament, highlighting specific passages and ideas for comment, reminding us of St Francis’ commitment to Gospel-centred living, to Jesus Christ, the church, the sacraments. Here we are called again and again to Jesus, to simplicity, and to prayer. Talbot encourages us to live the disciplined life, to pray the Divine Office, and to seek out true charity for our neighbours.

If you want your affection for St Francis renewed, or are looking to introduce St Francis to a friend, I highly recommend this book.

View all my reviews

The poetic mode of St Columba

St ColumbaA few weeks ago I posted to commemorate the poet-theologian St Ephraim the Syrian; St Ephraim shares his feast, 9 June (as celebrated in the West), with St Columba, as it turns out. St Columba was my first Saint of the Week when I was still on top of that — I even revisited him. In that first post, I discussed St Columba the missionary; in the second, St Columba the wonderworker (Columba Thaumaturgus?).

We must not forget St Columba the poet, a mode I highlighted in the first of those posts when I quoted from his hymn, ‘Adiutor Laborantium’. That poem is a plea from ‘a little man / trembling and most wretched, / rowing through the infinite storm / of this age’, that Christ might save him and bring to paradise, to the unending hymn (trans. Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Markus, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery).

Another poem attributed to St Columba (‘persuasively if not certainly ascribed’ p. xiii) is included in P. G. Walsh and Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18), ‘Altus Prosator’. ‘Altus Prosator’ is a hymn in honour of the Most Holy Trinity:

It is not three gods we proclaim,
but one God only we affirm,
by faith’s integrity, in three
person’s exceeding glorious. (1.9-12)

Columba goes on to extol the glorious works of God in creation, starting with ‘the good angels … / and archangels, and further ranks / of principalities and thrones / and powers and virtues’ (2.1-4), then telling of Lucifer and his rebellion before singing of God’s creation of the world. Here is a sample stanza:

Formed he the stars, put in their place
as lamps to light the firmament;
the angels joined in eulogy,
for his wondrous creation of
that boundless mass, praising the Lord,
the craftsman of the heavens above,
in proclamation that wins praise,
with utterance meet that knows no change,
and sang in noble harmony,
discharging thanks unto the Lord,
doing this out of love and will,
not from the gift that nature prompts. (Stanza 6)

Here we see angels doing as they are meant — praising God. Satan, on the other hand, seduces ‘our firstborn parents, both of them’ (7.2), and suffers a second fall. Up to Stanza 8, this is like a small, early mediaeval Paradise Lost.

Now, Columba moves on to the fierce power and potential violence of God’s created world, exemplified by the Deluge. But, although the world could be deluged at any time, God keeps creation regulated. I imagine that a life lived in the Western Isles of Scotland makes one think of the power and ferocity of rain and wind.

This is a hymnic poem, of course:

Mighty powers of our great God
make the earth’s globe suspended stand,
its circle poised in the abyss
by God’s support beneath, and by
the almighty one’s strong right hand (12.1-5)

If this is ‘Celtic’ ‘panentheism’, it is much more like the ‘panentheism’ of Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way, where the acknowledgement of God being everywhere in creation is not a limitation of God but simply the recognition of His transcendent yet immanent Self; that is, God is not in creation in a nature-god sort of way. He is everywhere, Almighty, sustaining all things by His power. We can find Him anywhere, with or without ‘Thin Places’.

Take heed Stanza 14 — St Columba believed in a round earth!!

Columba’s praise of God speaks of the salvation history in the Old Testament next, reminding us of the coming Day of Judgement, ‘a day of sadness and of grief’:

So trembling shall we take our stand
before the dais of the Lord,
and we shall render and account
of all desires that we held dear (18.1-3)

Christ descends with the Cross as his standard, and human and angelic voices will join with the four beasts of Revelation in hymns, ‘the Trinity is praised by all / in threefold chorus without end.’ (22.11-12)

There is no mention, however, of the saving grace wrought on the Cross. I am too Protestant for some of this, I fear:

we shall be his comrades there,
drawn up in all our diverse ranks
of dignities, according to
enduring merits of rewards,
and shall abide in glory there
eternally, for ever and ever. (23.7-12)

Christ is King. There is Tree of Life imagery earlier. He judges the world. But where is the Crucifixion? The fear of Hell and hope of Heaven, yes. But we move straight from Moses to the Day of Judgement.

Nonetheless, there is so much of value in this Irish, this ‘Celtic’, poem of the Early Middle Ages, written in Latin by a missionary abbot on an isle in the Hebrides. I wonder if life in the Hebrides makes one more acutely aware of the Day of Judgement? There is sound theology, beautiful imagery, and a good amount of secular learning — knowledge (scientia) of the natural — created — world is a fitting place to extol the Creator.

‘Altus Prosator’ is an abecedarius; each stanza begins with a different letter of the Latin alphabet, from A-Z in 23 stanzas (lacking from our viewpoint: J, U, W). It is rhythmic, written in heavy trochees: ‘Altus Prosator, vetustus’. Out on the edge of the world, we can see the united world of Latin culture, visible here in this sixth-century Irish poet and the beauty and theology of his verse.

The implications of Christ as fully Man (Met Anthony)

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinayAs a student of Pope St Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon — and, thus, its aftermath — the significance of that Councils’ Symbolon of the Christian Faith, its definition (which I translated here), is often just below the surface of my mind. Thus, I greatly appreciate this from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, God and Man:

There is in the Church a vision of man which is not a theory of man. It is not the ideal man, it is not the invented man, nor man as we wish he were, and towards which we aim as a sort of created transcendence. No, we have put on the altar a concrete real man — Jesus of Nazareth — and we must have a look at what is implied. We see in the Creed that Christ was true man and true God. When we say that He was true man we imply two thing: the fact that He was God has not made Him into a man alien to us, a man so different from us that He has only the same shape and the same name while in reality He has nothing in common with us; on the other hand, we proclaim that being the true man means to be a revelation of man in his fulfilment, man as he is called to be, and that in Christ we have a vision — concrete, real, historical — of what we are called to become in our realilty, in our historicity and in our becoming. So when we say that Christ is true man, we affirm that to be united with the Godhead does not annihilate or change the nature of man, and it is only in Him, because man is united in Him with the Godhead, that man is revealed in his full potentiality. Because man as a specimen of natural history i snot man in the sense in which we believe man is truly human. Man becomes truly human only when he is united with God intimately, deeply, inseparably, so that the fullness of Godhead abides in the flesh. I am using terms which are applied to Christ in the Scriptures, but which I believe are applicable to man if we take, for instance, the words of St Peter in his Epistle that our vocation is to become partakers of the divine nature — God’s participators and not just human beings related to a God who remains an outsider to us. But that implies a quite different vision of man, and it also implies something which I believe to be important, a quite different vision of the Church. (pp. 60-61)

True humanity is only fully realised in union with God. This is, at one level, the Adamic state (did not God walk in the Garden in the cool of the evening?). At another level, it is something higher. Many of the Church Fathers believe that the human race was meant to progress in knowledge of God and perfection even without the Fall, but that sin now hampers us (Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius, at least). Christ, by uniting humanity to the Divine, has reignited our ability to be who we are meant to be — and to go beyond even Adam.

Here we also have a good description of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Met. Anthony here references 2 Peter 1:3-4:

According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

This reminds me of St Leo, in fact; Leo argues that because of the Incarnation and the full humanity of Christ who is also fully God, we enter into the divine relationship — and we have a duty to our human neighbours who are sharers in the same nature as Christ. And Christ is God.

A friend recently expressed doubt about the possibility of theosis reconciling itself with Scripture. Theosis is about union with God where we retain all of our humanity but share in the divine nature by God’s grace. It is based on passages like 2 Peter 1, or Ephesians 4:13, or Romans 8:29, or 2 Corinthians 3:18. It is also, when properly understood (I recommend Met. Kallistos on theosis), an implication or outgrowing of the Church’s dogmatic statements in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Rule of  Faith, and the historic liturgies.

Theosis rests, in western terminology, on both Scripture and Tradition. (So we Anglicans can accept it when it is properly understood.)

This is, of course, the goal of mysticism and asceticism:

Release me, and free my heart from all dependence on the passing consolation of wicked things, since none of these things can yield true satisfaction or appease my longings. Unite me to Yourself by the unbreakable bonds of love. You alone can satisfy the soul that loves You, and without You the world is worthless. -St Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 3.23, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, p. 124

Let us, therefore, seek the Face of Christ, enter into God’s throneroom, and, resting in the stillness, become partakers of the Divine Life. This is the greatest implication of Chalcedon for the Christian life today. Own it. Live it.

Ascension in the Merovingian World

Bobbio Missal, fol. 146v
Bobbio Missal, fol. 146v

Lately, my wanderings have brought me into the sixth and seventh centuries in Gaul and northern Italy — particularly, into places assorted with the Irish mission-monk Columbanus (543-615) who founded several monasteries in Gaul/France and northern Italy, notably Luxeuil and most notably Bobbio where he died. If his letters are genuine, he corresponded with popes and supported the continuation of a two Easter system (Irish [Old Roman] and Roman [Dionysius Exiguus]). He was also in league with northern Italy’s supporters of the Three Chapters, some of whom were in schism with Rome over the issue. (I’ve blogged about the Three Chapters Controversy a few times; most clearly here).

Liturgically, besides the pertinent chapter in Columbanus’ Rule for Monks, I have found myself with Irish and Gallican service books from Bobbio and Luxeuil as a result of this Columbanus investigation. This needs quick clarification before people start ranting about early medieval independence from Rome. First, the Irish service books I’ve been playing with are in Latin, such as the Antiphonary of Bangor and the Stowe Missal (this book has no relation to Columbanus); there are Latino-Irish hybrid litanies, as I’ve found. But a lot of Irish-Celtic-Insular Christian stuff is in the Latin language, despite Ireland and Scotland never really being politically Roman and Wales just barely.

If you read St Patrick’s Confession or the Life of St Columba by Adamnan (or Adamnan’s De Locis Sacris) — or the works of St Columbanus! — you’ll find a sense that these Insular church leaders saw themselves as part of a big Christian church that included the Isles, Gaul, and Rome.

Second, the Church in Gaul did not have a Late Antique or Early Mediaeval independence movement. They were certainly liturgically distinct, and they had their own monastic traditions, and so on and so forth. But they copied far too many papal letters in their canon law books, sought legitimacy from too many popes, and considered too many popes legitimate heads of the western Church to take ancient Gallicanism seriously as an independence movement. I’m sure someone has found a way to read the texts that will seem to prove me wrong. Have at me!

Nevertheless, liturgy before print and before Trent was never united. That’s almost the point of calling the English book of services the Book of Common Prayer. In the Early Middle Ages, it was even less completely united — the regularisation of canon law, biblical texts, monasticism, and liturgy of the Carolingians would work against such local trends, but it there was always a force for diversification in the Middle Ages. I’ve written before about this elusive quest for common prayer.

This is a very long preamble, but this is because most of us have far too many misconceptions about the Early Middle Ages and the mediaeval church. They may not have been as centrally organised as they are now, and they may have disputed just what it meant for the Bishop of Rome to hold primacy, but the Christians and Churches of western Europe saw themselves as structurally and organically united, and division and independence were problems for them.

Anyway, here’s some liturgical stuff from the Merovingians.

Around the year 700, someone put together a lectionary in Luxeuil, one of Columbanus’ monastic foundations. The readings recommended in that book for the Feast of the Ascension are Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 4:1-13; John 13:33-35, 14:1-14; and Luke 24:49-53. Maybe use some of those in your devotions today or in this season of waiting betwixt today and Pentecost?

A much more significant liturgical product of the Merovingian world is the Bobbio Missal (Paris, BnF, lat. 13246). This manuscript was found in Bobbio Abbey — the monastery where Columbanus died — in the 1600s by Jean Mabillon. Mabillon dates it explicitly to the 600s; Rosamond McKitterick places it towards the end of that century or the turn of the next. It is of southern Gallic origin, and seems to represent some sort of ‘Gallican’ usage — certainly not Ambrosian, Mozarabic, or Roman.

On the feast of the Ascension, we encounter this in the Bobbio Missal (fol. 146v-147v):

O Lord, our God, you are wondrous in the highest—you ascended above the heavens of heavens for the raising of the trophy of your flesh between the service of the angels, you bore it when they rushed to your arrival in the power of heave—grant us something of the ascension in our hearts so that we may also follow you there with faith where we know that you reign at the right hand of the God the Father.

The Secret

The mystery (sacramentum) of the Lord’s Ascension — of our Lord Jesus Christ who, after he was called, ascended to the Father, in order to send the multiplied joys of our faith —  celebrates that he hinders for us the memories of his promise so that we may be worthy to run with joy in his second coming. [apologies for this translation]

Contestum

Truly Almighty God is, indeed, worthy though Christ our Lord who died for our sins and rose for our justification, who broke the bronze doors and iron locks with the bindings of destroyed hell, then rising from the dead, on the fortieth day, with all his disciples watching, he ascended to heaven because he himslef is our expectation whom we expect to come from the heavens to strengthen the body of our lowliness with the body of his glory.

So if you were a catholic Christian in southern Gaul in the 600s, and you turned up at Eucharist on Ascension Day, you would likely have heard those Bible passages read, and those prayers prayed!