History of Christianity 3: Medieval Christianity

In this week’s History of Christianity video, I cover 1000 years in 20 minutes! Insane! And I have a handout this week: Medieval christianity handout

Recommended Readings

If this were a university course, I would assign the following online readings.

Medieval Sources

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1.25-26 (Augustine), 4.27-29 (Cuthbert)

The Inscription from the Xi’an Stele

The Assisi Compilation, ch 34: St Francis gives away his cloak

Modern Studies

R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, pp. 214-239, 272-299 -Available at openlibrary.org

Bibliography

Medieval Sources

Adomnán of Iona. Life of Saint Columba.

Bede. Life and Miracles of St Cuthbert.

Life of St John the Almsgiver. From Three Byzantine Saints: Contemporary Biographies of St. Daniel the Stylite, St. Theodore of Sykeon and St. John the Almsgiver, trans. Elizabeth Dawes, and introductions and notes by Norman H. Baynes, (London: 1948).

Thomas of Celano. First Life of St Francis of Assisi.

Turgot of St Andrews. Life of St Margaret.

Modern Sources

Armstrong, Chris R. Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians. Baker Publishing, 2016. Available on Scribd with a subscription.

Cameron, Averil. Byzantine Christianity: A Very Short History. London, 2017. Available on Scribd with subscription.

Farmer, David. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. 5th edn. Oxford, 2011. (I used this for St Kilian/Killian/Cillian and Alexander Nevsky; it’s a tremendous resource with proper bibliography for each entry.)

Jenkins, J. Philip. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. 2008. Available on Scribd with subscription. Available on openlibrary.org

Markides, Kyriacos C. The Mountain of Silence. New York, 2001. -Available on openlibrary.org

History of Christianity video 2: Late Ancient Christianty, 300-600

Here’s my second History of Christianity video, covering the years 300-600. I had hoped to create a handout this week. As yet, no such luck. Maybe later today if other things go well…

In this week’s instalment of the history of Christianity, we look at the years 300-600. Sticking to our themes of spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity, we look at three topics:

  1. Christianisation of the Roman Empire
  2. Monasticism from Egypt to St Benedict
  3. Christianity outside the Roman Empire

If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings (all available online):

Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Bk 1, chh. 26-32

Athanasius, Life of St Antony

St Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, Prologue

Agathangelos, History, Book 3

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, pp. 152-159, 174-183, and 192-212.

Further Ancient Sources

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975.

John Cassian, The Conferences. The quotation is from Conference 10, ch. 7

Further Modern Sources

Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford, 2011.

Henry Chadwick and G. R. Evans, Atlas of the Christian Church. Oxford, 1987.

J Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity. 2009. -Available if you have a Scribd subscription.

St Columba: Missionary, monk, poet

Today is the feast of St Columba, or Colm Cille, about whom I’ve blogged in the past. St Columba is rightly remembered for being a missionary who brought Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. He is also remembered as the founder of the abbey at Iona, which would be an active missionary centre for Scotland, northern England, and the Western Isles. He is less well-remembered as a poet, although I’ve made sure to blog some of his verse here.

I’ve been doing some writing and thinking about the relationship between monasticism and mission lately, and it struck me today, as I read Malcolm Guite’s reflections on encountering Columba on his journey to Christianity, that the monk-missionary-poet is maybe just what we need!

Monk

If you read Adomnan’s Life of St Columba, you see that the saint — or at least the idealised version of him seen by Adomnan — was truly a monk, truly single-minded in devotion to God. Not long ago, Carey Nieuwhof wrote a post (that I failed to bookmark) talking about the things the churches that makes it through the agonising death of Christendom will have.

I am pretty sure that the top priority will be: Monomaniacs for God in the pulpit, in the boardroom/vestry/kirk session/elders, in the pews.

The one thing every variety of monk is meant to be, whether alone in caves, living in little huts near each other, living in abbeys, living on pillars, living alone on islands in the North Sea, is a monomaniac for God. Like Columba.

Missionary

St Columba was not a hermit. He lived an ascetic lifestyle and finished up his earthly life as abbot of a monastery. But he preached the Good News that God came down from heaven on a rescue mission to save us. He was ready to preach and sought out opportunities.

Studies have shown that churches that are growing these days have at least one trait in common: Congregants tell their friends about Jesus and invite them to church.

Poet

Poetry is the reenchantment of the disenchanted universe through the medium of words. As we face head-on the post-Enlightenment universe we live in, almost everyone we meet will be a materialist, whether the kind who believes that matter is all that exists or the kind who believes that matter is all that matters.

As Christianity goes forward, poetry will be the vehicle for expressing the inexpressible, the joyous meaning of the Gospel, of worshipping the incomprehensible God. The Church that goes beyond proposition and treads the ground of mystery — this is the church that will survive.

It’s also the church of our ancient and medieval ancestors in the faith…

The professionalisation of asceticism in late antiquity

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In a couple, or a few, weeks I am going to be giving some online seminars about church history for my churches. I’ll make sure this blog is kept informed. The theme tying together the seminars will be spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity. At the same time, I am attempting to forge a book about St Benedict’s Rule. As these two forces collide in my mind, I can’t help but think about the history of monasticism and its relationship to the ante-Nicene church.

And its relationship to non-monastic followers of Jesus — this post could just as easily be the appropriation of discipleship by monks in the Later Roman Empire.

John Cassian gives an account of the origins of monasticism that, although historically worthless as Columba Stewart notes in Cassian the Monk, is nevertheless of interest when we consider the definition of a monk and of asceticism — for this is how Greg Peters uses it in The Monkhood of All Believers — and, from there, the actual origins of the Christian ascetic tradition.

According to Cassian, the first Christians were cenobitic monks — that is, monks who lived in community with shared property — citing Acts 2 as his evidence. And this Acts 2 parallel will continue to be used in descriptions of the monastic ideal for much of the western ascetic tradition. But, sighs Cassian, this didn’t last. As more people converted, things got lax. It was up to the fourth-century monks to bring discipline, true asceticism, back.

Except, of course, when they did it, asceticism was appropriated by a distinct set of Christians who lived lives set apart from the increasingly Christianised population of the Roman Empire (and its successor states as well as easterly neighbours — the non-monk ascetic Ephraim the Syrian finds himself portrayed as a monk in later Syriac literature; East Syrian monasticism is its own flourishing form of asceticism in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages).

Cassian is right that the primitive church was essentially ascetic, although we may quibble about calling them monks. This is the contention of David Bentley Hart in the notes surrounding his translation of the New Testament. Hart believes that the New Testament authors actually expect members of the Christian community to abandon all of their possessions and lead lives of simplicity and prayer (in a nutshell; I’ve not read his notes, only about them — I may have details wrong). However far that may actually go, it is certainly the case that simplicity is certainly a mark of the apostolic lifestyle, and many Christians did abandon all to gain everything (St Clare’s laudable exchange).

Other early Christian literature bears witness to an ascetic, even rigorist, ideal. I do not recall all of the details, but the Didache expects Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and to pray three times a day. The Apostolic Tradition seems to expect members of the community to pray all seven canonical hours and to attend teaching at church before work when it is available.

Clement of Alexandria, who comes between Didache and Apostolic Tradition, believed in the simple life: simple food, simple dress, not owning fancy dishes and furniture. Eat in moderation. Study the Scriptures. Pray. These are a few of Clement’s recommendations; he believes in training, askesis, of the body and mind to be able to ascend to apatheia and in the state of dispassion to encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Other figures have expectations for Christian living surrounding food, dress, personal property, and prayer, that we today would consider ascetic, such as Tertullian and Origen. These expectations are coupled in Origen with a belief that a contemplative life and meditation on Scripture can help us enter the Cloud of Unknowing and encounter the impassible God.

To what extent these ante-Nicene ascetics represent mainstream Christianity is hard to say. Well, they represent mainstream thinking. How most Christians lived for most of history is actually hard to judge. But this strand of thought is taken up by Antony and his associates and soon becomes the preserve for a special, higher class of Christian: the monk.

The monk, for these purposes, is the professional ascetic who goes above and beyond the requirements of the “normal” Christian. He or she is single-minded in devotion to God and does special things for Him. The rest of us simply have to go to church and follow the Ten Commandments — or whatever else emerges from the systems created by institutionalised Christianity.

But the idea that we are all called to fast (truly fast, not simply abstain from certain foods), to pray the canonical hours, to give away unnecessary possessions, to be single-minded in our pursuit of God — this is lost. We non-monastic lay people are there for moral instruction, not ascetic labour.

This is perhaps a gross oversimplification, but I believe something along these lines happened to Christian discipleship in Late Antiquity, within the Empire as well as outside it, and persisted throughout the Middle Ages.

The spiritual reality of the Ascension

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, Edinburgh

Someone I know once expressed concern because he learned Bishop Spong says that if Jesus had ascended to heaven, then he was still going up without stopping since there’s nothing up there but outer space. This sort of crass literalism is not even worthy of fundamentalists who know very well that when Jesus ascended, he didn’t go to a place within the physical, material, tangible, visible universe that is measurable by scientific equipment.

But it turns out that Spong doesn’t even believe in heaven, so whether he was willfully misunderstanding orthodoxy or simply stating his own beliefs — “There is no heaven, so Jesus must have kept going, I guess!” — doesn’t really matter. But what this Spong-ian anecdote represents is a certain discomfort some have in our age with the miracle of the Ascension, perhaps because the divine has been boxed in by the Enlightenment, likely also because people assume illiterate, ancient fishermen were idiots who actually thought heaven was a place in the sky.

Although I have not read the entirety of Christian literature, the only person I’ve encountered who seems to think heaven is literally “up there” is Cosmas Indicopleustes, the same guy who is in that minority of fools who believed in a flat earth (most educated people in the ancient and medieval world knew better). And I may even have misunderstood Cosmas, taking the diagrams in the copy of his book too literally. This is an actual possibility, not just me being irenic or falsely modest.

Most thoughtful Christians who have considered what this event means whilst simultaneously asserting its historicity have decided that, when Jesus was hidden from view behind the cloud, he passed from our plane of physical existence into the Throne of God in the Heavens (taking his physical, human body with Him!!). It strikes me that there may be spiritual significance in God’s use of a cloud, although it may simply have been the most convenient thing for the moment.

Here is the take we find on this event in The Cloud of Unknowing:

[Ch. 59] And if you are going to refer me to our Lord’s Ascension, and say it must have physical significance as well as spiritual, seeing it was a physical body that ascended, and he is true God and true Man, my answer is that he had been dead, and then was clothed with immortality; and so shall we be at the Day of Judgement. At that time we shall be so rarefied in our body-and-soul, that we shall be able to go physically wherever we will as swiftly as we can now go anywhere mentally in thought. Up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards — it will be all the same to us, and good, so the scholars say. But at the present time you cannot go to heaven physically, but only spiritually. And it is so really spiritual that it is not physical at all: neither above or below us, beside or behind or before.

[Ch. 60] Now perhaps you are saying, ‘But how do you arrive at these conclusions?’ For you are thinking you have real evidence that heaven is up above, for Christ ascended physically upwards, and, later, sent the Holy Spirit, as he promised, from above, unseen by any disciple. And we believe this. And therefore, you think, with this real evidence before you, why should you not direct your mind literally upward when you pray?

I will answer this as best I can, however inadequately. Since it had to be that Christ should ascend physically, and then send the Holy Spirit in tangible form, it was more suitable that it should be ‘upwards’, and ‘from above’, than it should be ‘downwards’ and ‘from beneath’, ‘from behind, from the front, or from the sides’. Apart from this matter of suitability, there was no more need for him to have gone upwards than downwards, the way is so near. For, spiritually, heaven is as near down as up, up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on this side as on that! So that whoever really wanted to be in heaven, he is there and then in heaven spiritually. For we run the high way (and the quickest) to heaven on our own desires, and not on our two feet. So St Paul speaks for himself and many others when he says that although our bodies are actually here on earth, we are living in heaven. (Phil. 3:20) -Trans. Clifton Wolters, chh. 59, 60, pp. 125-127

While there are some late medieval mystical works that should be classed as “outliers” and not representative of Christian tradition more widely, on this point, at least, The Cloud of Unknowing is not an outlier. There is thus no theological reason to doubt that Jesus actually did rise up into the air before vanishing from his disciples’ sight. Believing in the historicity of the Ascension neither makes you a fundamentalist, nor necessitates Jesus continually ascending through the reaches of interstellar space.

So celebrate the Ascension tomorrow without feeling like you must turn off your brain.

Why do we think The Cloud of Unknowing is for us?

I just finished reading Clifton Wolters’ 1961 translation of The Cloud of Unknowing for Penguin Classics. Since 1961, there has been a new Penguin translation by A. Spearing. I see on Amazon at least six other translations into modern English besides Evelyn Underhill’s popular edition. Reviews of this book are almost all pure adulation and recommendation. People love The Cloud of Unknowing.

Now, I am not anti-Cloud of Unknowing. But I do wonder how many of us are its target audience.

Although the book has some practical advice for contemplative prayer, it is also clear that the person who is urged to beat at the cloud of unknowing is seeking to enter into the higher of two levels of contemplative life, to which few ever ascend. It is also clear that most people live in the active life, and that entering this higher level of the contemplative life is a gift of grace. Not everyone is called or suited, and you can meet God in other ways and be holy in the active life as well as in the lower level of the contemplative life.

Now, the author of The Cloud is right in saying that since this is the result of grace, not of our own doing, it may require only a moment of work. We may, the instant we begin, receive the grace in contemplation that so many of us seek. But the author also describes what sounds like a more common journey — from a life of discipline and charitable works up to the lower level of contemplation — which is also the higher level of the active life — before ascending to this highest level of the ascetic-contemplative life.

I suppose I fear that many of us, many of the writers of glowing reviews, set aside some time for what we call “contemplative prayer” and follow some of the advice given in The Cloud without pursuing fasting, long periods of meditation on Scripture, giving away excess personal goods, wearing a simple wardrobe, eating plain food, following the advice of a spiritual director/father, engaging in acts of mercy and charity, et cetera.

If we are not pursuing the active life, are we ready to try the contemplative life?

Now, maybe more people are doing these things than I suspect. If so, this is great. And maybe more people receive the grace of contemplation without effort than I imagine. If so, this is great. However, if I am right, I hope that we will all start taking seriously the disciplined life as much as the contemplative life. There are no short cuts to holiness most of the time. There’s no such thing as “40 days to mountain top experiences of God.” God lives with us in the valleys and he helps us climb those mountains.

Remember that a likely original audience for this work was a person considering becoming a Carthusian! The guys who take a vow of silence. Remember that most of the great mystical works of the Middle Ages were written by monks and hermits like St Bernard, St Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, and St Thomas of Kempen. Whatever flowering of mysticism they may have encountered, they also lived the disciplined life of asceticism.

So, although there is profit in The Cloud of Unknowing, and I would recommend it to people interested in the western mystical tradition, I think most of us need to read some more ascetic books because, as easy as this one feels sometimes, I think it is beyond us.

Benedict and the Desert Tradition of the Middle Ages

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

I am in the middle of writing about the Rule of St Benedict, and yesterday I began writing about his twelve steps to humility. Immediately, what came to my mind as a helpful addition to St Benedict was the distinction between perfect and imperfect humility in the anonymous, 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud makes an interesting distinction between the two. Imperfect humility arises when we look at ourselves, our sins, our frailties, our weaknesses. Perfect humility, on the other hand, is the result of looking at God and being overcome by his greatness, glory, and goodness.

Throughout my current work on Benedict’s Rule, I am trying to focus my attention on the Rule itself, the tradition that birthed it, or the tradition that grew out of it. This is an ample field from which to reap — not only John Cassian and the Rule of the Master, but the Desert tradition leading to Cassian (including Evagrius), and Benedict’s other “holy catholic Fathers” such as Pachomius, Basil, Augustine; not only pre-Benedictine monasticism but the sons and daughters of Benedict as well, such as Bede, Boniface, Anselm, Hildegard, Bernard, Aelred, the rest of the Cistercians, and even Thomas Merton.

But what about texts such as the Cloud of Unknowing? When I write about Lectio Divina, can I safely use Guigo II, a Carthusian? Or the Victorines if I feel the need? Obviously, any wisdom from any source should be welcome. But if I’m writing about the Rule of St Benedict, part of me wants to consider the influence that Benedictine life and spirituality has had. Can Carthusian sources be welcomed, then?

I am, in fact, leaning towards yes. The reasoning is not simply, “Wisdom is wisdom. Let us attend.” It also has to do with the nature of the Middle Ages. The Rule of St Benedict is the most popular monastic rule from before 800 to after 1200 when the friars start appearing. Besides being used by multiple orders, the members of non-Benedictine orders had contact with the Rule, its sources, and their brothers following the path of Benedict.

For example, St Bernard was a regular visitor to the Abbey of St Victor, and I have an unconfirmed suspicion that there are links between some Victorine and Cistercian manuscripts. William of St-Thierry wrote works for Carthusians. Ivo of Chartres, not a Benedictine, studied at the monastic school of the Benedictine monastery at Bec alongside St Anselm under Lanfranc. Sons and daughters of Benedict rub shoulders with those in non-Benedictine orders.

Furthermore, the Desert tradition that nourished the Rule of St Benedict in many ways continues to be copied, read, and meditated upon — and sometimes lived — by those outside the Benedictine tradition.

Therefore, it seems methodologically sound to include sources from outside the Benedictine tradition when they represent the wider tradition of the Desert as it swept through western Europe in the Middle Ages. Medieval Christianity is a thousand-year meditation and recasting of Late Antiquity in different ways. Its interconnectedness should, therefore, inform our meditations upon it.

Christian ethics isn’t about becoming a “real” man – it’s about getting yourself killed

I have recently revisited St Boniface, about whom I’ve written before, as a potential model for church leadership today — leading the disciplined monastic life and making disciples. And as I write my new Thing About Boniface, I see lovely words spilling forth from my fingertips about how the disciplined life, combined with articulate presentations of the Gospel, may make disciples.

Or …

It may get us killed.

Like St Boniface.

This is an important aspect of the Christian walk we do not consider much in our society. In Wild at Heart, Eldredge has a passage where he talks about how he told his son in grade one to get up and punch a bully back. And then he explained that our usual way of reading “turn the other cheek” ends up making passive men who run away.

He may be right, but his response is possibly wrong, too.

I think the scary, daring part of this teaching from Our Lord is that it’s an act of defiance. You stand back up and say, “Hit me again.” Non-violence is not about running away. It is not about being passive. It’s about literally turning the other cheek, saying to the perpetrator, “What about this cheek?”

These are big words on my part. I avoid conflict of most kinds. Nonetheless, I wonder what would happen if more of us truly took non-violence to heart and resisted evil by suffering.

Maybe we’d make more disciples.

Maybe we’d get killed.

But what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?

St Francis – Wild at Heart

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

So, the men’s Bible study I’m part of just discussed chapter 10 of Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. I’ve always been skeptical about the book, but it gets helpful at chapter 6 when Eldredge moves beyond describing what he thinks a man should be and diagnosing our wound to discussing practical strategies for living in this world. Chapter 10 is called “A Beauty to Rescue.” As a chapter with some helpful tips for married men, this was good. One of the other guys observed, however, that if he were single he’d be pretty upset at the whole thing.

Indeed, this is one of the problems I have had with Eldredge — at times, he enshrines our own cultural attitudes as “real” masculinity. As someone with very dear and close friends and family who live full, healthy, spiritual lives and who happen not to be married, I take issue with the idea that every man has a beautiful woman to fight for. The preamble to the chapter shows that Eldredge needs to work through C. S. Lewis’ The Allegory of Love as well as sort out some ideas about ancient literature. Like, is Helen really a damsel in distress there to be rescued? Not only that, but romantic love is not the driving force of the Iliad, honour and prestige on the one hand and male friendship on the other are instead.

Nonetheless, most men fall in love with someone or something, something to die for, live for. In the Middle Ages, when the whole dominance of romantic love began to take hold in western literature, the ideal was of a woman of higher social rank than you, to whom you were not married, and who was your domina, your lady in the feudal sense. We get a lot of stories such as Lancelot being told by Guinevere to prove his love for her by purposely losing in jousts; Menelaus or Achilles would never have done such a thing.

The history of this idea is traced in the aforementioned Allegory of Love. It is called courtly love, and it was a main theme of the troubadours. Troubadours were the classy type of singer-songwriter of mediaeval France. Courtly love was a Big Deal in the 1100s. I’ve already written on this blog about how I think Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship is an antidote to this idea.

Another antidote comes a few decades after Aelred in the person of St Francis of Assisi. As a young man, Francis showed himself to be your average, normal Italian young man, joining local wars and suchlike. After recovering from his wounds, Francis was overcome by the Holy Spirit and had a powerful conversion experience wherein he rejected his wealthy, middle class upbringing and decided to become a hermit.

I won’t recount the whole story of St Francis (did that already). Francis, like most people in the broad-ish category of “monastic”, was a monomaniac for God. But he still had a beauty … well, not to rescue. It’s more like she rescued him.

Lady Poverty.

(Not Clare.)

St Francis and his band of little brothers (fraticelli) called themselves jongleurs de Dieu — jesters for God. Troubadours were the classy singer-songwriters. Jongleurs were not. They were common. So it was only fitting that these young men, many of them sons of wealthy merchants, sons of nobility, who have embraced Lady Poverty, would consider themselves and their preaching not as the artsy-fartsy troubadours but as the spiritual equivalent of the ribald jongleurs.

Poverty lay at the heart of Francis’ expression of the Christian faith. A complicated, sad story about mediaeval economics and human weakness will tell you about the Franciscans after his death. But while Francis lived, the ideal was that not only would no individual Franciscan own property, neither would Franciscan communities or the order.

The term we give for these friars and their comrades, the Dominicans, is mendicant. This is a word for beggar. In a world where wealthy men grew wealthier off the backbreaking labour of their unfree dependants, where merchants grew wealthy off charging unfair interest, where people went to war for the honour of their own city, where some lived in palatial grandeur while most lived in dirty hovels — in such a world, radical poverty such as St Francis modelled was a powerful statement of freedom from the world, the flesh, and the devil, a statement of the great freedom found only in Christ.

Embracing Lady Poverty was wild.

What is meant by “Cloud of Unknowing”

Yesterday, my son — two years and ten months old — looked at my copy of The Cloud of Unknowing and asked, “What’s that purple thing, Daddy?”

“That’s a cloud,” I said,

“Why, Daddy?” he asked. (I think that if he persevered and I had the stamina, we could someday reach, “Because God created the universe.”)

“Do you remember the story about Moses, how he went up the mountain to meet with God, and God gave him the Ten Commandments? Well, when Moses met with God in the mountain, God came to him in a cloud…”

At this point, he slipped down out of my lap and exited the conversation.

My own slow progress in The Cloud of Unknowing is mostly talking about how we need to clear our minds of all thoughts but God Himself — even good ones — in order to beat at the cloud of unknowing and encounter God. However, the use of this image is as old as Exodus — and, in theological literature, at least as old as St Gregory of Nazianzus and his best friend’s little brother, St Gregory of Nyssa. Alas, my copy of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses is locked away with most of my books. His approach is much the same as that of the elder St Gregory.

St Gregory of Nazianzus writes, in the Second Theological Oration (Oration 28):

What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow-lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the Mount, and drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up, I scarce saw the back parts of God; (Exodus 33:23) although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself — to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature, which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then shall you discourse of God; even were thou a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; (Exodus 4:2) even were thou caught up like Paul to the Third Heaven, (2 Corinthians 12:2) and had heard unspeakable words; even were thou raised above them both, and exalted to Angelic or Archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of His Nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.

St Gregory of Nazianzus goes on to discuss the incomprehensibility of God which is the spiritual meaning of Moses ascending into the Cloud on Mount Sinai and encountering God there. Interestingly, this essentially “mystical” foundation of St Gregory’s theological enterprise is what allows him to lay out his more philosophical and systematic discussions of theology — it sets out the boundaries of the playing field. There is only so much we can know. And our formulations about God are not God Himself, who is unknowable as to His nature itself.

The saintly bishop from Nazianzus also maintains, in the chapter before this one, that only people who have attained a certain level of perfection are able to enter the Cloud and engage in contemplation and meet with God. He does not cite it, giving instead a spiritual understanding of the various persons and animals and their relationship to Mount Sinai in Exodus, but the Scriptural foundation for such thinking would be Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The Cloud of Unknowing would concur.

Some may think that this sort of approach is elitist. It certainly can be. It may also, however, be humble. Who is truly pure in heart? What makes us think that, apart from an inner transformation effected by God in His unmerited favour towards us, we are able to theologise clearly? The Gregories’ contemporaries in the Desert say that the monk must become all eye, and their elder brother from Syria, St Ephrem, speaks of the luminous eye and the need to have our sight purified.

I think that theology, mission, and asceticism all go hand in hand. Perhaps the failures of contemporary western Christianity stem from how so many of us compartmentalise them or focus on only one — evangelism without theology, book smarts without holiness, pure living without telling others about Jesus. The ideal, if not the lived reality, of the ancient church was a holistic embodiment of all three.

Can we do that today?