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.
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!
I am reading the chapter on Philo in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, so it warmed my heart during devotions with my wife last night to see the Middle Platonist, Alexandrian Jewish exegete in the Mosaic Holy Bible readings for Easter, Week 4 — with the BCP readings, 1 Pet. 2:19-26 and John 10:1-30, and, of course, Psalm 23. I hope you enjoy his words as much as I do. Philo says:
Indeed, so good a thing is shepherding that it is justly ascribed not to kings only and wise men and perfectly cleansed souls but also to God the All-Sovereign. The authority for this ascription is not any ordinary one but a prophet, whom we do well to trust. This is the way in which the Psalmist speaks: “The Lord shepherds me and nothing shall be lacking to me” (Ps. xxiii, 1). It well befits every lover of God to rehearse this Psalm. But for the Universe it is a still more fitting theme. For land and water and air and fire, and all plants and animals which are in these, whether mortal or divine, yea and the sky, and the circuits of sun and moon, and the revolutions and rhythmic movements of the other heavenly bodies, are like some flock under the hand of God its King and Shepherd. This hallowed flock He leads in accordance with right and law, setting over it His true Word and Firstborn Son Who shall take upon Him its government like some viceroy of a great king; for it is said in a certain place: “Behold I AM, I send My Angel before thy face to guard thee in the way” (Exod. xxiii. 20). Let therefore even the whole universe, that greatest and most perfect flock of the God who IS, say, “The Lord shepherds me, and nothing shall fail me.” Let each individual person too utter this same cry, not with the voice that glides forth over tongue and lips, not reaching beyond a short space of air, but with the voice of the understanding that has wide scope and lays hold on the ends of the universe. For it cannot be that there should be any lack of a fitting portion, when God rules, whose wont it is to bestow good in fullness and perfection on all that is.
XIII. Magnificent is the call to holiness sounded by the psalm just quoted; for the man is poor and incomplete in very deed, who, while seeming to have all things else, chafes at the sovereignty of One; whereas the soul that is shepherded of God, having the one and only thing on which all depend, is naturally exempt from want of other things, for it worships no blind wealth, but a wealth that sees and that with vision surpassingly keen.-De Agricultura or ‘On Husbandry’ 50-54, Loeb translation by F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker
So we come to the final post of my meandering thoughts provoked by Chapter 4 of Prayer by Timothy Keller. I have not read the whole book, so maybe some of my concerns will be settled later. And we finally meet the issue that perhaps got me on guard in the first place — the Jesus Prayer.
But it is true that inner prayer is meant to help us block out thoughts, and that the Jesus Prayer is recommended as part of that. But the ascetic philosophy of the thoughts, the logismoi (in Greek), is not the blocking out of all thoughts. It is the attempt to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12) and to seek to order our thoughts towards God, towards Christ, and to his kingdom. The inner experience of Christian spirituality, the quest for inner prayer, the resting in silence, is an attempt to quiet the chatter that rules in the hearts and minds of most of us.
Consider, therefore, what Martin Luther said, that one cannot stop birds from flying overhead, but one can stop them from making nests in one’s hair. The Jesus Prayer is a way of keeping irrelevant and even sinful thoughts from nesting in our hair. An entirely salutary endeavour.
In his handy booklet Meditative Prayer, Richard Foster explains that Christian meditative techniques exist to help us empty ourselves so that God and Christ can fill us instead. If we consider that mystical prayer, inner prayer, the Jesus Prayer, are meant to be part of a full and rich Christian life, such as I’ve discussed in the earlier posts of this series (here and here), then there is nothing wrong with seeking to silence our inner chatter.
Furthermore, Davis’s other criticisms of the Jesus Prayer are either about its abuse or entirely unfounded. I agree with resisting the abuse of the Jesus Prayer. However, he complains that it makes no mention of God the Father, in whose Name Jesus asks us to pray, and that it only names us as ‘sinners’, not as God’s justified, adopted children.
The first of these two complaints boggles the mind. I am reminded of a friend who was concerned after visiting an Anglican church with me that so many prayers end with ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’, given that Scripture calls us to pray in Jesus’ name. Scripture calls us to pray in the names of both Father and Son. To reject the Jesus Prayer because it doesn’t mention the Father is a form of biblicism almost as dangerous as the aberrations of the Jesus Prayer Davis criticises.
The second is related. Our primary stance before God is always that we are sinners. Simul iustus et peccator — at the same time justified/righteous and a sinner. The Jesus Prayer draws on Scripture, so the closing words, ‘a sinner’, are actually Scripture, from the parable of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18. Furthermore, it is not necessary to close the prayer with those words, anyway — some stop at ‘have mercy on me’, others at ‘have mercy’.
The Jesus Prayer draws its words from Scripture, and its invocation of the name of Jesus — Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God — encapsulates orthodox Christology, while the plea — have mercy on me, a sinner — grasps biblical anthropology. Christ has mercy on us. We are sinners. This is all biblical truth. Davis’s grounds are almost manufactured, as though he came expecting a fight.
This brings me to my final thought, which is the relationship of our spiritual practices and disciplines to Sacred Scripture.
The Bible is the record of God’s interactions with the human race and his self-revelation to humanity. It is the normative source of all of our doctrine, ethics, and spiritual disciplines. Anything we do or teach in relation to theology and spirituality must be held up to the light of Scripture. If it is contrary to Scripture, we should reject it. If it is commended, commanded, assumed by Scripture, we are to believe it, live it, do it. (I say this as a fairly committed Anglican who usually believes most of the 39 Articles.)
What about the rest? The rest are to be taken on the basis of the lived experience of Christ’s body throughout the ages, the great cloud of witnesses. If something is not contrary to Scripture, but is not explicitly recommended, and if other Christians have found it helpful, I see no reason to reject it.
I, for one, have found the Jesus Prayer to be a very salutary experience. It has helped me grow in virtue, in holiness, in grace. It has cooled my anger, calmed my anxiety, made me more peaceful overall. It has brought me closer to God. Not because it is magic. Not because it is the only way to approach God. But because, through attentive prayer and focus on Christ, I have found His grace ready and available.
I do not think everyone must pray the Jesus Prayer. I don’t think all Christians need to practise inner prayer or contemplative activity. But I think none should be barred from such prayer, many of us have profited from it, and perhaps still others need it just as other Christians need other practices.
My third point from yesterday’s post was that, contrary to how it seems to be presented by Keller in his analysis of the work of Davis in Chapter 4 of Prayer, mysticism is not about turning ‘inward’ simply to find God within me, and it is certainly not pantheist.
Here’s where I’ll finally get biblical, I guess. Davis via Keller rightly argues that prayer is meant to be focussed upward. Amen. So say all of us. However, God is both immanent and transcendent, and we must wrestle with this tension of the reality of God’s presence and absence in our lives, just as we accept on biblical authority that he exists as three persons in one essence and that Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God existing as a single person.
That God is transcendent is, in fact, the root of apophatic Christianity — the via negativa, the path that seeks to silence all created thoughts and ideas to find an encounter with God. God is wholly other. This is the thrust of Genesis 1 — ‘In the beginning, God.’ Creatio ex nihilo is a rare idea in the ancient world, but it is rooted in Scripture, and it tells us that there is an ontological gulf between us and the Divine Person(s).
Furthermore, Isaiah 55:8 says:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. (NIV)
Indeed, the otherness and holiness and power and majesty of the glorious splendour of the transcendent God when he appears in glory before Isaiah causes him to fall on his face. Ezekiel’s vision of God is a singularly bizarre encounter that I doubt even Scripture has done justice to.
But God loves us. Mystical theology is rooted, I would argue, in the incarnation of God the Word. God loves us so much that he became one of us, suffered, thirsted, grew weary, ate food, was beaten, bruised, crucified, died. He tasted all there is to be human except for sin. God knows us intimately, and he is not disconnected from the human condition. This is the message of the Incarnation as found in the Gospels and laid out for us in the Apostolic epistles.
Not only this, of course, but, as St Paul famously said, ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ So God, in fact, is within me. He is so close to me, so near, so intimate with me because he is so other than me that he is simultaneously everywhere in universe at once, yet my own sin and clouded vision enable me to see only as through a glass darkly. The Kingdom of God is within you, but we don’t always realise it.
The mystics know this. There are certainly trends within the mystical tradition of Evagrius of Pontus and Pseudo-Dionysius in particular that make his transcendence an unsuperable gulf, and Protestants have generally taken an Evagrian or Dionysian theology as the basis of mysticism at large and thus rejected the wider tradition that is rooted in Scripture, in prayer, in the sacraments, and in the liturgy of the church simply through unfamiliarity with it.
There are also trends in some current discussions of mysticism that forget the transcendent gulf and jeopardise the difference between Creator and created. These trends are not part of the mainstream of Christian mysticism as I know it — certainly not in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the mysticism of St Gregory Palamas, for example, acknowledges the difference between us and God and allows for a way to express ideas of ‘union’ that are, perhaps, better understood in the English language as communion.
To be fair, Keller is not, however, as severely critical as Davis, and he seeks balance. However, J.I. Packer whom Keller sees as bringing balance carries similar suspicions when he characterises Neoplatonic/Dionysian mysticism:
God is to be realized and contemplated as an impersonal presence rather than a personal friend.
This, again, is not the majority tradition, is not the tradition rooted in Scripture and tradition that is the best on offer from Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mysticism.
The solution Packer offers, as quoted by Keller:
there is a place for silence before God . . . after we have spoken to him, while joy at God’s love invades the soul.
I am not certain that silence need be so narrowly sought.
And so, in my final post in this meandering thought process, I’ll talk about silence, Scripture, and the Jesus Prayer.
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.
A friend of mine likes to occasionally post religious questions on Facebook to inspire conversation. Today, I saw:
Before his Resurrection, did Jesus know that the Earth orbits the Sun?
My short answer, ‘Yes.’ I don’t actually know if it’s right, mind you.
One other answer troubles me not by its conclusion (‘No.’) but by the premisses the commenter alluded to:
I would say that he didn’t know. To provide an adequate rationale to my postulation will take me far too long. I think a start is to unpack how much western thought about God and systematics we have unappropriately projected onto Jesus while he was on earth. (Not that I am against western thought or systematics but we ought to understand Jesus within context first)
I am not entirely sure where this author is going, frankly. But it hints at things that concern me. Somehow, this person believes that understanding Jesus within context will cause us to reject an understanding of Jesus that would allow him to maintain divine knowledge whilst incarnate on earth.
First, I imagine (perhaps falsely) this person holds a dichotomous position between ‘Hebraic’ and ‘Greek’ thought. This is the sort of position that sometimes leads people to reject theological concepts about God such as His eternity (as classically understood), His Trinitarian ousia, his omniscience (as classically understood), impassibility as well as the creatio ex nihilo.
These ideas and others are often thought to be ‘Hellenistic’ importations, falsely grafted onto the pure ‘Hebraic’ gospel. This is not true. They are, in fact, Christian doctrines developed through prayerful reading of Scripture and resistance to ‘Hellenistic’ philosophy. For example, it is in resisting Plato in their reading of Scripture that Christians posit creatio ex nihilo and divine eternity as classically understood.
Let’s talk, then, about the hypostatic union, since that’s really what’s in question.
The hypostatic union is the theologically incomprehensible complete union of the divine and human in the single person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ such that he is 100% God and 100% human. He has the properties of divinity and of humanity. But he is not two persons. He is one person. Some of us articulate this as Jesus existing in two natures, some think that divides him too far and makes him into a pantomime horse.
This immediately grabs you as a fine piece of Hellenistic philosophy, doesn’t it?
Except, of course, that no one knows how it works, and most people who try to explain it realise they can’t and choose, instead, to stand in awe before the mystery of God.
And, really, what resemblence does this owe to Jesus ‘within context’?
First, what is Jesus’ context? Hellenistic Judaism in the Greco-Roman world? The apostles composed their works in Greek and cited a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. St Paul even quoted a Greek poet. John’s Gospel begins with its beautiful prologue on the divine Word.
Furthermore, throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performs many miracles with no divine aid, no magic spells, and no invocation of any god. This sets him apart his contemporary miracle men, the Hebrew prophets, and the Apostles. He also rises from the dead in an unprecedented manner — no prophet or holy man is used as God’s instrument in the Resurrection, unlike when the prophets and Apostles do it. Jesus also seems to think he can forgive people’s sins. And when his earthly ministry is over, he ascends into heaven.
And that’s just from the Gospels, without turning to the earlier Christian writings of St Paul, who says some pretty heavy stuff about Jesus that points to him being God.
Jesus is God. He is also fully man.
How it works, of course, we cannot fully say. Hypostatic union.
But if we realise that Jesus is, in fact, fully man and fully God, how we determine divine knowledge during the incarnation is not merely some sort of question of Greek vs Hebrew, which is a false dichotomy.
But, frankly, no one reads or even tries to comprehend the Fathers anymore. If we understood them in their context, besides Jesus in his, we might find out that they are speaking the same theological language.
One Parthian shot. If ‘western’ is the problem, I present you with Ephrem the Syrian, one of the last exponents of Semitic, Syriac Christianity before it was ‘hellenised’. From his Hymns on the Incarnation:
From Hymn 8
Blessed is the Messenger who came bearing
a great peace. By the mercy of His Father,
He lowered Himself to us. Our own debts
He did not take up to Him. He reconciled
[His] Lordship with His chattels.
Refrain: Glory to Your Dawn, divine and human.
Glorious is the Wise One Who allied and joined
Divinity with humanity,
one from the height and the other from the depth.
He mingled the natures like pigments
and an image came into being: the God-man.
O Zealous One who saw Adam
who became dust and the accursed serpent
eating him. Reality dwelt
in what had lost its flavor. He made him salt
by which the cursed serpent would be blinded.
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of Life. He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.
From Hymn 12
Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer? The Ancient One entered
and became young in her. He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk. He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!
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: