My wife and I have just moved to England, and after seven years enjoying the Presbyterian world of the Free Church of Scotland, I’ve been looking forward to soaking in some Anglican worship when we get here. Being believers of an orthodox bent, we found ourselves an Anglican church for yesterday that billed itself as ‘evangelical’.
We may as well have gone to the Vineyard.
Nothing against the Vineyard, necessarily. We worshipped with them a couple of times in Glasgow.
But I’ve been looking forward to plugging into liturgy — BCP or Common Worship — to a form of worship that is not tied to my emotions or those of the leader at the front, to rich prayers rooted in Scripture and tradition, to a community gathered around word and sacrament.
There was nothing ‘Anglican’ about this group of Christians, expect, I suppose, that they are part of an Anglican episcopal structure and believe the 39 Articles.
It’s frustrating for someone like me who identifies as Anglican and evangelical to belong nowhere. I’d rather go to a church that doesn’t make any claims to Anglicanism than to the Baptists with Bishops. We had the same problem in Scotland, in fact.
It’s also frustrating because there is a movement among a lot of the non-Anglican evangelicals to rediscover liturgy, tradition, beauty, hymns, discipline. Yet here, in the homeland of Anglicanism, Anglicans have sold their birth right and live in the same cultural amnesia that American and Canadian evangelicals are just now recovering from!
This is a concise, little book geared towards writers who wish to ground their lives and work in prayer. Personally, none of the prayer practices outlined by Cyzewski were new to me — but that’s not the point. Indeed, the brevity and clarity with which he quickly outlined these practices were truly refreshing for me. They were also a kick in the pants — I’ve read about this stuff before! Why don’t I practise it!?
The tips are practical and down-to-earth about how to incorporate some practices from the Christian contemplative tradition into your life, and how doing so helps your writing. The prayer practices that get specific attention are centering prayer, the Examen, lectio divina, and the liturgy of the hours/daily office — with a reminder that none of this will succeed without community and good habits as well as a chapter about free writing and how it is both important to the writer’s craft and spiritually rich.
I recommend this book to any Christian interested in starting out in these sorts of “mystical” practices — it’s only 47 pages long! And especially, of course, to writers.
As someone has said, history is not events, but events that have become ideas — and ideas are of the present. The past does not change, but we do, which is why the work of history is always present, and never done. Liturgical history, therefore, does not deal with the past, but with tradition, which is a genetic vision of the present, a present conditioned by its understanding of its roots. And the purpose of this history is not to recover the past (which is impossible), much less to imitate it (which would be fatuous), but to understand liturgy which, because it has a history, can only be understood in motion.
-Robert Taft, S.J., ‘The Structural Analysis of Liturgical Units: An Essay in Methodology’, Worship 52:318.
Various Scripture-related ‘mystical’ practices that call themselves lectio divina have been growing in popularity in the world outside Roman Catholic monasteries, and, indeed, not only in the liberal mainline but even amongst evangelical Protestants. Some evangelicals are automatically, and irrationally, afraid of lectio divina because it comes from ‘Roman Catholicism’; others are concerned because some of its proponents are also into Buddhism and the like.
And, certainly, books about lectio divina are not all equal.
Instead, I would like to highlight the fact that I think the disciplines of the contemplative life can actually be dangerous — and not ‘dangerous to your small views of God’ dangerous. Actually potentially harmful. Of course, I must get this out of the way first: Their alleged ‘Roman Catholic’ (aka Latin medieval) origins have nothing to do with their potential for harm. If Protestants rejected everything from the ‘Roman Church’, we would have no Bible, no sacraments, no doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity, etc., etc. We must find the danger in the actual practices themselves.
Here’s what I’ve been thinking. As I said at the beginning, a variety of different practices currently masquerade under the name lectio divina. Some of these are actually medieval, deriving ultimately from the prayerful practices outlined around 1180 by Guigo II (d. 1188/93), prior of La Grande Chartreuse (motherhouse of the Carthusians) in The Ladder of Monks. Others are inspired by the medieval practices but are more in line with traditional Protestant discursive meditation. Others may not know what a Carthusian is but may be conversant with Buddhism.
The possibility is, in the end, that any of the forms of lectio divina currently on parade can endanger you spiritually.
One person, alone with a Bible, seeking to encounter God directly through the Word, sometimes reducing that to a single word or phrase.
Or, to move to other meditative practices, simply praying the Jesus Prayer. Or seeking to empty your mind of all thoughts. Or whatever.
Why do I think these things might be harmful? They might be harmful if they lack an important ingredient:
The community of the faithful.
Any of these practices can be salutary (yes, even ones tainted by Buddhism, let alone Roman Catholicism). They can be ways for us to focus our heart and minds on the Most Holy Trinity, upon the meaning and lesson and immediacy of Scripture as living and active. They can be ways for us to unclutter our cluttered hearts.
But they might make you go crazy. The Orthodox actually say that practising the Jesus Prayer unsupervised can be harmful. They also say that illusion is particularly dangerous for those who shut themselves off from the community of the faithful. The translators of The Philokalia are at pains in the introduction to point out that the teachings found therein, and the whole eastern Christian tradition of stillness (hesychia, hence hesychasm) is not reducible to these texts for monks and solitaries — these texts were written for people who participated in the sacramental and liturgical life of the church. They also read Scripture in the same ways you and I read Scripture.
Lectio divina, then, is not inherently harmful. I actually think it is good for us — as a way to stop trying to govern Scripture and allow it to govern us. However, any Christian discipline, when cut off from the fellowship and community of God’s people, can lead you astray and make you think that you are growing into the fullness of the stature of Christ when really you are growing up gnarled, crooked, and distorted. But don’t worry, God can straighten us out
Every once in a while, I hear someone say that ‘James’ in the Bible was put there in the 1611 version at the command of King James VI/I because he wanted to be in the Bible. After all, why else would Iacobos appear in English as James — the very name of the monarch who commissioned that translation project in 1604?
Well, this, as it turns out is false. I place this knowledge here not to promote the 1611 KJV or to argue that James VI/I was a stand-up guy, but, frankly, to get the facts straight. And, perhaps, to exonerate such outstanding scholars and diligent Christians as Lancelot Andrewes who worked on the translation project.
My first place was pre-KJV English Bibles. I accordingly checked the Geneva Bible and the Bishops Bible, which were the two most popular in the early 1600s, followed by the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims translation, and then working back in time to Tyndale and then Wycliffe. Every single one of them uses the form James in the New Testament.
But really, not much of a story, is it? The underlying question remains unanswered: Why do we use James for Iacobos in the New Testament?
Jamesmasc. proper name, New Testament name of two of Christ’s disciples, late 12c. Middle English vernacular form of Late Latin Jacomus (source of Old French James, Spanish Jaime, Italian Giacomo), altered from Latin Jacobus (see Jacob).
I have to admit: What do they mean by ‘Late Latin’? After all, by Classicist standards, I study ‘Late Latin’ literature of the 400s, and I’ve never seen Jacomus. More extensive is the Oxford English Dictionary:
Etymology: < Old French James (Gemmes, *Jaimes) = Spanish Jaime, Provençal, Catalan Jaume, Jacme. Italian Giacomo < popular Latin *ˈJacomus, for ˈJacobus, altered from Latin Ia’cōbus, < Greek Ἰάκωβος, < Hebrew yaʿăqōb Jacob, a frequent Jewish name at all times, and thus the name of two of Christ’s disciples (St. James the Greater and St. James the Less); whence a frequent Christian name.
They do not give me a better sense of when the B turns into an M, and becomes common. But B becoming M is not as bizarre as you might think. And, frankly, French and English eliding letters is just par for the course. The OED also gave its earliest known attestations:
Some 30 years ago, Karl Rahner claimed that most Christians are “mere monotheists,” that if the doctrine of the Trinity proved to be false, the bulk of popular Christian literature, and the mindset it reflects, would not have to be changed. Unfortunately, this is largely still true.
Defining the doctrine of the Trinity as a mystery which cannot be fathomed by unaided human reason invites a position such as Melanchthon’s: “We adore the mysteries of the Godhead. That is better than to investigate them.” But the danger of not reflecting carefully on what has been revealed, as it has been revealed, is that we remain blinded by our own false gods and idols, however theologically constructed.
So how can Christians believe in and worship the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and yet claim that there…
This book is a fine piece of introduction and analysis of what may, rather then ‘mystical’, more precisely be considered the contemplative strand of Christianity as it took on and then adapted (or at times rejected) the Platonic inheritance. The 2006 edition is definitely to be preferred, for in this edition Louth closes with a very challenging Afterword wherein he confronts the very concept of mysticism. We all think we know what the word means, but probably we don’t.
After chapters on Plato, Philo, and Plotinus, Louth discusses Origen; ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ which includes Athanasius (who raises an anti-‘mystical’ challenge to Platonism) and Gregory of Nyssa; ‘The Monastic Contribution’ which considers Evagrius of Pontus (the rich but problematic Origenist/Platonist), the Macarian Homilies, and Diadochus of Photiki who brings out strands in both of the other two in this chapter; Augustine of Hippo’s contribution; then Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whom he refers to as ‘Denys’).
Living in a post-Carmelite age whose understanding of Christian ‘mysticism’ is indelibly marked by the late medieval and early modern inheritance, Chapter 9 is an important discussion of St John of the Cross and the patristic inheritance. Louth argues that there is, indeed, some difference, but more often of style and perspective than content. The final chapter is ‘The Mystical Life and the Mystical Body’. This final chapter reminds us of a chief difference between ancient Christian ‘mysticism’ and the philosophers, for the ancient Christians always thought in terms of the Christian community, the liturgy, and the communion of saints, rather than Plotinus flight of the alone to the Alone.
In each of the ancient philosophers or patristic authors analysed, Louth gives us a run-through of what we may consider his ‘mystical’ teaching, looking both at their reception and at their challenge of Platonist ideas. It is a helpful book in many ways, although one is reminded that most of the praktike of the contemplative tradition in Christianity is the pursuit of moral virtue and askesis rather than the delineation of particular psychological practices as taught by the baptised Buddhism of Anthony de Mello, S.J., in Sadhana. I would have liked to have seen more on Diadochus and the Jesus Prayer, since the Jesus Prayer is the heart of so much of what we may consider Eastern Orthodox ‘mysticism’ today.
In the end, I recommend this book. At times it is challenging to read. At times, since it is introductory, it feels not quite deep enough. But overall, it gives you some idea of the landscape of these authors and this strand, as well as questions to take with you on your own journey into the broad literature of Christian spirituality.