The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition by Andrew Louth (review)

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to DenysThe Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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The Unknowability of the Trinity in Ps-Dionysius

Following on from yesterday’s post about the dangers of overreliance on logic and Aristotelian philosophy as we do theology, here is a quotation I’ve found in Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, in his chapter about Pseudo-Dionysius (or ‘Denys’ as Louth calls him, flourished c. 500). ‘Cataphatic’ theology is when we make positive statements about God, the kind of theology we tend to do in academia, and ‘apophatic’ theology is the pathway of negation, where we assert that we can only explain God by negative comparison. That is to say, God is infinite, timelessimmortal, whereas we are finite, timebound, and mortal. In apophatic theology, you make the cataphatic assertions of Trinitarian dogma, and then realise that you are already entering into the cloud of unknowing, for who can truly express the homoousion of three persons?

The quotation is from Vladimir Lossky, and the internal quotation is Ps-D’s On the Divine Names:

This is why the revelation of the Holy Trinity, which is the summit of cataphatic theology, belongs also to apophatic theology, for ‘if we learn from the Scriptures that the Father is the source of divinity, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the divine progeny, the divine seeds, so to say, and flowers and lights that transcend being, we can neither say nor understand what that is.’ (DN II. 7)

The passage is from Lossky’s article, ‘La notion des “analogies” chez le Pseudo‐Denys l’Aréopagite’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge, 5 (1930), 279–309, at p. 283. Cited by Louth on page 161.

 

Origen and divine dereliction

As I mentioned a while ago, I am ruminating on Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition. At present, I am working through the chapter on Origen of Alexandria (184/5-253/4). Origen is the first Christian in the book, and his adaptation of Platonist mystical theory and allegorical readings of the Bible have had a lasting impact on Christian spirituality and theology, right up to this day. One of the things that Louth makes clear is how Origen’s Christian belief impacted his mystical ideas and transformed the Platonic heritage.

Of interest to my most recent theme on this blog is the fact that Origen anticipates St John of the Cross in the famous idea of a mystic’s perceived abandonment by God:

The Bride then beholds the Bridegroom; and he, as soon as she has seen him, goes away. He does this frequently throughout the Song; and that is something nobody can understand who has not suffered it himself. God is my witness that I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly he has withdrawn and I could not find him, though I sought to do so. I long therefore for him to come again, and sometimes he does so. Then when he has appeared and I lay hold of him, he slips away once more. And when he has so slipped away my search for him begins anew. So does he act with me repeatedly, until in truth I hold him and go up, ‘leaning on my Nephew’s arm’. (Homily on the Song of Songs I. 7: GCS, 39, quoted by Louth, p. 69)

Louth has a chapter on St John of the Cross and the Patristic heritage, so I’ll be interested to see how he picks this up. Nonetheless, at the roots of the Christian mystical tradition, this idea of feeling that God at times suddenly leaves the seeker alone is found, embedded in both Origen’s personal experience and his reading of the Bible.

Part of what this illustrates, besides the germ of the idea of the Dark Night of the Soul, is the uncontainability of the Christian God. He comes and goes as He pleases. Those Christians who have been blessed with ‘mystical’ encounters with Him know through such experiences as the above that it was not any trick on their part but His very grace that made Him come in that way — this is the teaching and experience of St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, St Seraphim of Sarov, Archimandrite Zacharias.

Thomas Merton warns, indeed, against seeking these mystical encounters with God (see The Inner Experience). We are to engage in the practices of contemplation; we are to seek God. But whether we have any particular kinds of mystical experience is solely the gift of God’s grace, given by Him as He wills, according to His divine economy and our need. To seek these experiences is what Merton calls iluminism, a mystical heresy that puts more emphasis on the gifts than their giver. Whether mystic or charismatic, the modern Christian should beware!

Nevertheless, it strikes me that somehow these teachers all promise some sense of the presence God, whether the Uncreated Light or the still, small voice, as well as the dereliction of his absence.

Philo on Psalm 23

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

A Passage from the ‘Epistle to Diognetus’ for Advent

Today, following the readings from Read the Fathers, I read the so-called ‘Epistle to Diognetus‘ for the first time. And therein I came across this passage which I find appropriate as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming amongst us at Christmastide:

And was his coming, as a man might suppose, in power, in terror, and in dread? Not so; it was in gentleness and humility. As a king sending his royal son, so sent He him; as God He sent him; as Man to men He sent him; and that because He was fain to save us by persuasion and not by compulsion — for there is no compulsion found with God. His mission was no pursuit or hounding of us, it was an invitation to us; it was inlove, not in judgement that He sent him. (ch. 7; Early Christian Writers, Penguin Classics, trans. Maxwell Stanforth, updated by Andrew Louth, p. 146)

Thoughts worth meditating on, no?

The Two Ways — of Life and of Death

Spinning off from my reflections on Friday, I am a firm believer in disciplined living, albeit a bad practitioner. Once, I was on my friend Rick’s excellent and much more practical blog than mine, and there was mention in the comments about learning how to live by the Spirit and follow the Way of Jesus (I suppose in Franciscan terms, that would have been Via Apostolica). As a suggestion, I put out reading the Didache.

My fellow-commenter said that he had read said text in seminary (or Bible college or whatever), and that it had left him dry. He then addressed Rick, tossing me and my lifeless, book-ridden version of Christianity aside, and said that Rick was a man who would understand this sort of question.

Perhaps I don’t.

Nevertheless, I think the Didache is to be recommended on two points. One point is that this document, which is a sort of church handbook from between 90 and 100, is the recorded experience and advice of a Church community, which was so popular that later documents, such as the Apostolic Constitutions, seem to have ripped it off. The wisdom of those who have gone before can help us learn how to live, it can inform our experience.

The second point is the fact that ‘living by the Spirit’, which certainly includes an openness to His movement in our lives in areas besides morality and ethics, is never less than morality and ethics. The foundations of the holy life (which I have extolled here) are upright living and prayer. Something like the Didache or the Rule of Benedict or William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life can help us order these foundational aspects of holiness, through which we can keep or make ourselves attuned to the power and movements of the Holy Spirit.

The Didache begins with a discourse on ‘the two ways’ — the Way of Life and the Way of Death. Christians are called to the Way of Life. The Way of Life is a lovely gathering together of much of the moral teaching of our Lord Christ, with a strong emphasis on generosity, along with some proverbial statements and warnings against witchcraft and the like. The Way of Death takes less space, so I quote Andrew Louth’s revision of Staniforth’s translation in the Penguin Early Christian Writings:

The Way of Death is this. To begin with, it is evil, and in every way fraught with damnation. In it are murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, witchcraft, sorceries, robberies, perjuries, hypocrisies, duplicities, deceit, pride, malice, self-will, avarice, foul language, jealousy, insolence, arrogance, and boastfulness. Here are those who persecute good men, hold truth in abhorrence, and love falsehood; who do not know of the rewards of righteousness, nor adhere to what is good, nor to just judgement; who lie awake planning their wickedness rather than well-doing. Gentless and patience are beyond their conception; they care for nothing good or useful, and are bent only on their own advantage, without pity for the poor or feeling for the distressed. Knowledge of their Creator is not in them; they make away with their infants and deface God’s image; they turn away the needy and oppress the afflicted; they aid and abet the rich but arbitrarily condemn the poor; they are utterly and altogether sunk in iniquity. Flee, my children, from all this!

And there we have it. The Didache goes on to discuss baptism, fasting, the Eucharist, apostles and prophets, Sunday worship, local officials, and eschatology. It is an interesting window into early Church life, probably from Syria (as I recall). I find that reading this sort of thing spurs me on to greater holiness.

And if you are Reading the Fathers starting 2 December (as I recommended earlier), read the Didache in the meantime; it is short, and it is not included in that program. I do hope you will read it, and that you will join me and many others on a seven-year pilgrimage from 1 Clement to John of Damascus as we read the Fathers together!

 

What is a mystic, exactly?

Yesterday I was part of a very interesting conversation in the comments of my friend James’ Facebook status, a discussion ranging from grammatical gender to the human soul and the Godhead. His status was making an observation about (to quote James), ‘Brother Lawrence, classic Christian mystic’.

One of his friends, well after a bunch of us had gone through notes about gender, mysticism, and the gender of the word for spirit in Hebrew, Syriac, Latin, Greek, and English, asked the (seemingly) basic question about Br. Lawrence:

Christian ‘mystic’ – how does that work?

James answered:

I think the term is pretty loose, [Anastasia]* – he’s called a mystic because he strongly emphasises the ‘at hand’ presence of God in his writing. But in reality, he’s likely no more or less a ‘mystic’ than Jesus, Paul or many of the OT figures! He’s actually pretty cool reading – and because his writings are four centuries old, they’re all online free!

Thus, at a certain level, Brother Lawrence. He stresses the reality that God is present with you at all times. You just need to be aware of the immanence of the transcendent God. This is an important strand of ‘mysticism’, represented not only by the Carmelite brother in Practising the Presence of God but also by Presbyterian missionary Frank Laubach’s writings — of which I first came aware in Richard Foster’s book Prayer — such as Letters by a Modern Mystic.

However, is a mystic, therefore, simply someone who seeks (and succeeds?) to be aware of the presence of God everywhere, in everything, in every place, at all times? Someone who seeks to find God in his or her daily life — washing pots and pans, writing letters to family and friends, even blogging of all things?

Such a definition comes close to Andrew Louth’s in the introduction to his book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, where he says that mysticism ‘can be characterised as a search for and experience of immediacy with God.’ (p. xv) Such a definition goes beyond the seek for the transcendent God in the everyday, though. In Louth’s definition, we are searching for and hoping to experience immediacy with God — we are hoping that the Kingdom of the Heavens, which is in the midst of us, will come and touch us. We want to join our Groom at his Banqueting Table under the banner of His Love.

Such a broad definition, however, covers the entire breadth of the Christian life. I sing Psalms on Sunday to encounter the Living God. For similar reasons do I read the Scriptures, receive the Eucharist, read spiritual books, listen to sermons, pray. But when we think of the term mysticism, it is not the daily, ordinary that comes to mind — although, perhaps it should. Perhaps the ‘mystical’ and the ‘ordinary’ should overlap, just as God breaks into human history in various points, just as Heaven and Earth seem to overlap.

Still — what do we usually mean by mysticism?

Mysticism is generally the internal life of the Christian, whether individually or in community (I reject the notion that one must be a solitary or ihidaya or monachos — monk — to have ‘mystical experiences’), as the Christian meets with and encounters the living God. In this vein, Lacoste’s Dictionnaire de Théologie says that mysticism is perceiving God through activity, a true feast of the soul through the interior to christ; it consists in ‘an experience of the presence of God in the spirit, by the interior enjoyment that an entirely intimate sentiment gives us.’ (‘Mystique’, p. 779)

We experience Him and He transforms us. In order to encounter God in the everyday, those who follow the mystic’s path set apart times and places for special remembrance of Him and His works. The normal round of Christian prayer and Bible-reading is part of this (as my uncle says, if you don’t read the Bible and pray, what kind of Christian are you?), yet there is a certain cultivation of the inner human being implicit in how the ‘mystic’ would go about this, hoping to receive from God The Inner Experience (to cite the title of a book by Thomas Merton).

Most commonly there are two particular types of prayer engaged in mystics as part of the ‘inner ecumenism’**  that mysticism provides Christianity. There is meditation. In the Christian sense, as used throughout the Middle Ages and conveniently organised by St. Francis de Sales, this is an activity of the mind. In meditation we pray to God and think over deeply a passage of Scripture, seeking to gain understanding and insight from God (see his Introduction to the Devout Life).

Sometimes, as described in Richard Foster’s little booklet Meditative Prayer, we imagine things. Perhaps we imagine ourselves placing all of our troubles in a box and giving them to Jesus. Perhaps we imagine the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon us like a fire and filling us up. Perhaps we imagine Christ on the Cross dying and loving us to the end. Meditation is the prayerful repeated calling to mind of the things of God through word and image.

The second type of prayer is contemplation. Contemplation is prayer beyond words. Some people give lessons on how to seek this state of prayer, this level of dispassion, such as Anthony de Mello’s book Sadhana: A Way to God. De Mello encourages you to spend a few minutes simply clearing your mind of all thought and seeking to wordlessly apprehend the presence of the Triune God in your midst. These psychological techniques are not necessarily to be scorned as some do, but we are to realise that they are psychological and mental.

For our spirit to commune with the Spirit, we must be willing for the Holy, Strong, Immortal God to take us beyond the pale of our experience. We must be willing to realise that all of our efforts in prayer, meditation, contemplation — these alone cannot bring us to God. In part, as St. Teresa’s Interior Castle reminds us, this is because God is already inside us. In part, this is because everything hinges upon God’s grace.

And so we come to my favourite part of thinking about mysticism. Mysticism is rooted in mystery, rooted etymologically in those ancient Greek-Egyptian-Roman-Near Eastern cults that promised special knowledge and salvation to the initiated — to those who have entered in (to give the etymology for initiated). Mysticism is an entrance into the mystery of the grandeur of the Presence of God. We come by His grace alone into his presence and experience whatever created beings can experience of union with the uncreated Creator.

The experiences of those who have been ushered into the throne room of God, into the Mystery, have at times been visions, such as Isaiah’s Throne Room vision in chapter 6. Some have encountered/experienced the ‘uncreated light’ of God’s grace. Others have felt a stillness, calmness, and peace such as no human action could bring. Still others have heard the Voice of God. Some have felt the warmth and tenderness of a mother’s love. Others have had, through their visions, converse with Jesus (think of Lady Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love). Many have entered the Cloud of Unknowing and realised how little they truly know. Others have simply known the joy of the presence of the Lord.

So, what is a mystic?

I think a mystic is a person who seeks to have an awareness of God in all times and all places and who cultivates an inner spiritual life through prayer and meditation that helps that awareness increase, being ushered into the Throne Room of the God of all.

If you think you want to brave mystical literature, any of the above books to which I have linked is a pretty good starting place. Although not one of the online, public domain ones, I highly recommend Richard Foster, Prayer, which deals with all sorts of prayer and has been a great help to me.

*Not her real name. But James is, in fact, James.

**Cf. Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘The Triumph of Monastic Silence’, The Gifford Lectures 2012, Tuesday, April 24. Available online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmozaTn196M