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.

Books … or people?

Fact: I am not a sap who typically says things like, ‘It’s the human connections that really matter. It’s about the people in our lives. People matter more than experiences. What’s really important is family and friendship.’

Allow me briefly do that.

I am about to read the book Prayer by Timothy Keller as part of a church group. Fact: I have never read a Tim Keller book before. I’m not really the sort who reads American ‘celebrity’ pastors. I do read British ‘celebrity’ Orthodox bishops and archimandrites, though. Due to my own trajectory, my own personality, my own past, my own likes and dislikes, my own sins, my own virtues, I am less likely now to read books by people like Tim Keller than books by people like Father Zacharias of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England.

I was thinking about this, and about writing a post about that trajectory, and the books that have helped me get where I am, from Andrew Murray’s A 31-Day Guide to Prayer read whilst a teenager, to James Houston’s The Tranforming Power of Prayer at age 22, to now, 33 years old and reading Kallistos Ware in my spare time (and St. Cyril of Alexandria at work!).

At the end of that draft, I felt, ‘To what avail?’

And I thought of Fr Raphael’s tutelage in the Jesus Prayer. And I thought of the accountability of praying the daily office with my brother as part of the Witness Cloud. And I thought of the time spent talking about spiritual growth and prayer with a number of people over the years — friends, family, mentors.

If my hard heart is softer, my mind more attuned to God, it is more recognizably so through these interactions.

But the books have helped. I know that they have. Yet sometimes one feels like, after so many books about prayer, Morning Prayers, Jesus Prayers, extemporaneous prayers, prayers in tongues, etc, etc, one still sits at the bottom rung of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, as poor and sinful as ever one was at the start.

One week until Lent

Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris
Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris

Lent starts in a week (unless you’re Eastern Orthodox, in which case it starts in five days).

The question of Lenten discipline inevitably arises, whether simply in one’s own mind, or in conversation with friends.

“What are you giving up for Lent?” everyone asks.

Chocolate? Alcohol? R-rated films? Smoking? Coffee? Sweets? Meat?

Sure. Any of these will do.

The point of Lent is not the giving-up-of-things.

The point of Lent is disciplina, the training/teaching of ourselves, the preparation of our spirits for the Great Feast of Easter — the Chief Feast of the Christian year. We want to draw nearer to God. So we fast or abstain or pray more or study a particular book of the Bible or another work of spiritual edification.

I read James W. Kennedy, Holy Island: A Lenten Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne one year. Another year, it was Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline. Once I read Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. My Lenten reading seems to have been as eclectic yet predictable as ever.

One year I prayed BCP Compline every night. That was 2004. I fell in love with the BCP that year. Maybe this year you’ll choose to journey with us through the daily office over at The Witness Cloud.

Even if you belong to a church that has canonical demands for Lenten discipline (that is, observant Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), spiritual discipline — Lenten or otherwise — is not one-size-fits-all. I know one Cypriot Orthodox priest who gives up sweets for Lent because he does not eat a lot of meat, so the canonical discipline is not so demanding.

Thus St Mark the Monk/Ascetic/Hermit:

There are many differing methods of prayer. No method is harmful; if it were, it would be not prayer but the activity of Satan. ~ch. 22 in ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’, in The Philokalia, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, p. 111

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, provides us with similar insights, in particular from the introduction to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living in Appendix I.

What matters is not which discipline you take on in Lent. What matters is ordering our hearts and minds to the greater love of God and neighbour. So think carefully and prayerfully this next seven-day as to what you may do.

(And so I seem to have come around to Cassian and ‘purity of heart’ all over again.)

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)

New Testament Canticles

I recently wrote three pieces on the New Testament Canticles over at the blog my brother and I share. These are the Benedictus (song of Zacharias at the birth of John the Baptist), Magnificat (song of Mary), and Nunc Dimittis (song of Simeon upon encountering the Christ Child) — all known by their first word or two in Latin. All sung/recited during the daily office. All in the Gospel of Luke.

The reflections are devotional exercises considering the content of the canticles and their historical context. I hope they are a blessing to you:

New Testament Canticles 1: Benedictus

New Testament Canticles 2: Magnificat

New Testament Canticles 3: Nunc Dimittis

“Cherubim with sleepless eye”

Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said, ‘The monk ought
to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim: all eye.’

Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Bessarion 11 (trans. B. Ward)

Today is the Feast of St Ephraim the Syrian, of whom John Wesley wrote, ‘the most awakened writer, I think, of all the ancients’ (Journal 12 October 1736), and ‘the greatest poet of the patristic age, and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante’ (quotes found here).

Cherub from the Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily (c. 1200)
Cherub from the Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily (c. 1200)

I thus felt it quite fitting that my iPod Shuffle got around to ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence‘ (whence comes the title of this post) this morning as I prepared to work — for that hymn is taken from the Divine Liturgy of St James, an ancient Levantine liturgy. There is something in the fecund soil of Syria-Judaea that expresses Christian truth in a particularly way when writing poetry.

And St Ephraim is one of the greatest patristic poets.

For some reason, Cherubic imagery always makes me think of St Ephraim — perhaps it’s the combination of the saying of Abba Bessarion quoted above with the title of Sebastian Brock’s book about St Ephraim (which I’ve yet to read), The Luminous Eye.

It is worth thinking of, for St Ephraim’s highly-charged, deeply theological poetry is, in fact, hymnography. Hymns are meant to be sung — to be sung, in fact, in praise of Almighty God. While Bessarion’s reference to the Cherubim is most likely a reference to the need for vigilance (a la St Isaiah the Solitary, d. c. 470), I think it is more appropriately, in fact, praising Almighty God without end.

For this is what the Cherubim with their sleepless eye do, is it not?

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of Hosts! Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory. Hosanna in the Highest!

St Ephraim, then, could be called Cherubic in this truest and highest sense of the word.

In his Hymns on Paradise, number XI, Ephraim writes in the first stanza (trans. Sebastian Brock):

The air of Paradise
is a fountain of delight
from which Adam sucked
when he was young;
its very breath, like a mother’s breast,
gave him nourishment in his childhood.
He was young, fair,
and full of joy,
but when he spurned the injunction
he grew old, sad and decrepit;
he bore old age
as a burden of woes.

The response: Blessed is He who exalted Adam / and caused him to return to Paradise.

Paradise for Ephraim is not a physical place. Ephraim’s Adam is like George Herbert’s:

For sure when Adam did not know
To sinne, or sinne to smother,
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
As from one room t’another.

from ‘The Holy Communion’

In the third stanza of St. Ephraim’s hymn we meet the Cherubim:

The fence which surrounds it
is the peace which gives peace to all;
its inner and outer walls
are the concord which reconciles all things;
the cherub who encircles it
is radiant to those who are within
but full of menace to those outside
who have been cast out.
All that you hear told
about this Paradise,
so pure and holy,
is pure and spiritual.

With this spiritual reading of Paradise, the Cherub is no longer solely ‘full of menace’ as at the end of Genesis 3, but now ‘radiant to those who are within’. We can encounter this Paradise; it is the telos of the Christian life, where we hope to abide for Eternity with our Lord Christ.

For now, let us seek to hymn our Lord, being vigilant not merely to avoid sin, but to praise God at all times — perhaps St Ephraim can be an entry into praise for you today (read him here)!

Let us, then, praise our holy, holy, holy God like the Cherubim — with sleepless eye.

The Prayer Book and the Bible

Big Bibles from Troll Keeper's HouseIf one were to ask the average Protestant on the street what is wrong with the faith of many Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, they would probably say, ‘Not enough Bible.’ This is, of course, an inaccurate statement, although there are certainly individuals in all Christian traditions who read, mark, and inwardly digest far too little of the Bible.

If one were to ask the average low-church, non-Anglican Protestant on the street what is wrong with the faith of Anglicans, there is a chance that, once again, they would say, ‘Not enough Bible.’ Some, including at least one low-church Anglican I know, would point to The Book of Common Prayer as part of the flawed faith of Anglicanism. Too much BCP; too little Bible.

Well.

Holding in my hands the Canadian BCP of 1962, let me tell you a few things:

  • Out of 736 pages, 190 are taken up with the Psalter (that is, the Book of Psalms).
  • Immediately prior to the Psalter are ‘The Collects, Epistles, and Gospels to be Used Throughout the Year’ — no more than a quarter of this section is taken up by the Collects; the rest are passages from the Epistles and Gospels for use at Holy Communion; 235 pages of text. Imagining 1/4 Collects, that’s 176.25 more pages of Bible, bringing us to a total of 366.25 pages of Bible — almost half the BCP right there.
  • Morning Prayer: Begins with a Bible verse, options filling up c. 3 pages. Includes the Lord’s Prayer twice, Psalm 95, one or two more Psalms, two significant Bible readings, the song of Zachariah from Luke 1, several responsory Bible verses, and closes wth 2 Corinthians 13:14.
  • Evening Prayer: Like unto Morning Prayer, but instead of Psalm 95 we have the song of Mary from Luke 1, and instead of the song of Zachariah we have the song of Simeon from Luke 2.
  • If one becomes concerned that all these repetitive Biblical Canticles are a bit much, 5 pages of Scriptural options are provided, besides recommended Psalms in the rubrics.
  • At Holy Communion, we have the Lord’s Prayer twice, either all Ten Commandments or Christ’s Summary of the Law, the aforementioned Epistle and Gospel readings, a Bible verse to introduce the offertory, another Bible verse after the offering has been collected, the Comfortable Words after confession of sin which are all Bible verses, and the Words of Institution which are taken from 1 Corinthians.
  • In the book The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, we learn the many Scriptural phrases and ideas that make their way into the Collects.
  • In the lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer as set out in the 1549 through 1662 Prayer Books you read through the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament twice a year, as well as the Book of Psalms once a month. In the Canadian BCP of 1962, the Psalter takes two months.
  • At every service of the BCP one recites either the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed, and sometimes the Athanasian. These are summaries of Scriptural teaching.
  • On page 544 is ‘The Catechism: An Instruction to be learned by every person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop’ — and Confirmation is one of those nasty, ‘unbiblical’, Prayer-Book Anglican things — much of which is recitation of Scripture, such as the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
  • In the Solemnization of Matrimony, besides various references and allusions to Scripture (such as are abundant throughout the BCP), we have either Psalm 128 or Psalm 67, the Lord’s Prayer, responsory Bible verses, a Bible reading from Colossians, and a Bible reading from Matthew.
  • The other, less common, services demonstrate a similar combination of straight Scripture and scriptural allusion or concept.

Frankly, it is hard to find an order of worship more imbued with Scripture than Prayer-Book Anglicanism (although the Orthodox in Holy Week give us all a run for our money!). If we actually followed the rubrics and read all of this Scripture, and then followed the BCP’s exhortations concerning Scripture — to read, mark, and inwardly digest it; to truly pray for God to write His law on our hearts — Anglicans would be soaked and saturated with Holy Scripture to an extraordinary degree.

Finally, as my last piece of evidence for Prayer-Book Anglicanism loving God’s Holy Word, I give you this from the Supplementary Instruction (pp. 554-555, 1962 BCP):

Question. Why ought you to read God’s holy Word, the Bible?

Answer. Because it tells how God has made himself known to man; and how we may come to know him, and find salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ in the fellowship of his Church.

Question. What does the Church teach about the Bible?

Answer. The Bible records the Word of God as it was given to Israel, and to his Church, at sundry times and in divers manners; and nothing may be taught in the Church as necessary to man’s salvation unless it be concluded or proved therefrom.

Question. Where then is the Word of God to be found in all its fulness?

Answer. In Jesus Christ, his only Son, who was made man for us and for our salvation.

Question. What is the vocation of a Christian in this world?

Answer. To follow Christ and bear witness to him; to fight the good fight of faith and lay hold on eternal life.

O tempora! O mores! That we have laid aside so rich a heritage as the Prayer Book in these last decades for the modern and mundane!