Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I was chatting with a Roman Catholic friend, formerly a very engaged Anglican of evangelical bent, recently. He was talking about the rise of “industry” as a virtue in the early modern period (“industry” is not a virtue in the ancient and medieval worlds) and how its rise is involved in the denigration of the contemplative tradition — I, myself, later thought of Gibbon’s criticism of the ‘idle mouths’ of the Later Roman Empire that included monks.*

Basically, today contemplation must always be subservient to action. If you want to sit around in silence, what you do is supposed to outweigh it. The contemplative person, the mystic, has no place in this worldview. They are idle, potentially lazy, and useless.

I remarked that this is the complete opposite of St John of the Cross (whom we both love, of course), and that everyone today thinks this way.

He said, ‘Not the Carmelites!’

And then he said something that I’ve felt sometimes as well. He said that one of the things he has appreciated about becoming Roman Catholic is the presence of an ongoing contemplative tradition in the Roman Catholic tradition, and that such a tradition is something that is lacking in evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is, by and large, devoid of this. It is upbeat and happy. It is also frequently shallow in its approach to suffering — let’s all read our Bibles and sing some happy songs!

This feels like caricature, but much depends on your corner of the evangelical world. (Much depends on your corner of Roman Catholicism, too, of course.) I can think of many times when simply reading the Bible has been presented by evangelicals as a cure-all, and of the discomfort one sometimes has with always singing at a fast tempo in a major key, despite the fundamental brokenness of all people.

I have often felt that Protestantism, and the evangelical world I have spent most of my life in (although that word evangelical is being destroyed and sapped of meaning by American politicising), is not sure of mysticism/contemplation. I think on the many people, including evangelical Anglicans, who say that they have no sympathy with or understanding of monasticism.

I, on the other hand, have had a longstanding interest in monks. The single-minded devotion of the Desert Fathers. The power of St Francis (whose legacy is both active and contemplative). The mystical writings of St John of the Cross. The daily grind of La Grande Chartreuse. Julian of Norwich. Cassian, Benedict, Anselm, Bernard. Cuthbert and Bede. I’ve blogged on all of these.

I have no doubt that there are faithful Roman Catholics who have no use for monks. However, Roman Catholicism has that rich, contemplative spiritual tradition alongside Roman Catholic social teaching and social action.

The mystical path for a Protestant does not usually involve going to your pastor for spiritual direction but, rather, books (and, today, the Internet). It is fraught with danger, but also excitement. And those who set forth are not alone.

There are Protestants who are seeking to plug into the ancient ways of contemplation/mysticism — James Houston, The Transforming Power of Prayer, and Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home both come to mind. But their engagement with the mystical tradition, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is not part of an ongoing living tradition. We Protestants have to go it alone, or make it up with each other as we go along.

I was going to put this forward as a liability, but maybe it is not, which derails anything further I wanted to write when I started this piece.

It forces us to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us into the darkness, the silence, hesychia.

And that’s a good thing, I’m sure.

*Note: Monks of Late Antiquity not actually idle mouths, since a great many of them were involved in the cottage industry or farming.

A brief quotation on contemplation from Sarah Coakley

In God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, the first volume of her systematic theology, Sarah Coakley argues that the practice of contemplation is essential to systematic theology. One of her references to contemplation makes this important statement we should all heed:

The idea of contemplation as an exercise of merely individual insight or self-cultivation must … be rudely and firmly rejected. For it is a distortion of the intrinsically incarnational and social impulse of the practice: here, over time, is the mysterious interpenetration of all created life glimpsed and intuited, the ‘groaning of all creation’ straining towards its final goal. -p. 84

Since Coakley promises to have the Carmelites as her interlocutors in the second volume, it is not out of place to mention that St John of the Cross believed that contemplation was necessary to action in the world — something to the effect that one small action after much contemplation is better than 100 with none. Indeed, many of the great contemplatives found themselves driven to social action whether of their own will or not.

Coakley argues that action in the world is an essential outflowing of contemplation, and that ascetical contemplation is the necessary underpinning of action, interpenetrating the entire theological enterprise and cutting through and across the boundaries and issues present in modern and postmodern theology in often painful ways.

I guess it is time for the ascetic revival …

Saint of Last Week: St. Teresa of Avila

So I meant to do a post on St. Teresa of Avila last week. And then I didn’t.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) rocks. Hard. She was a Discalced (“Shoeless”) Carmelite nun involved in the Catholic Reform movement of the sixteenth century, along with our friend St. John of the Cross (saint of the week here). Sts. John and Teresa took their part in the healing of Christ’s church in sixteenth-century Spain particularly through the reform of the Discalced Carmelite monastic order.

This is a reminder that Catholic Reform wasn’t simply sending out the Inquisition to burn a few Prots. For the record.

St. Teresa, like St. John, was a contemplative and a mystic. She was blessed by God both with visions as well as with genuine spiritual insight. Thus she was able to help lead her monastic community of nuns well and help work through reforms. Even if some of her confessors doubted her visions.

But men are like that.

St. Teresa of Avila is most famous for her book Interior Castle. I read the translation by E. Allison Peers, whose interest in Spanish literature and mysticism has blessed us with translations of St. Teresa’s works as well as St. John’s and a fine biography of my old friend Ramon Llull. Anyway, Interior Castle is amazing.

St. Teresa had this vision, see, and it was of the mansions of the spirit. As in, your own spirit. And first you get past the outer world which is full of distracting lizards and stuff like that. Then you get further and further into the castle/through the mansions. Each mansion is about the cleansing of your soul at some level and what each stage looks like.

At the centre, when God has purified your heart through prayers and effort and trials and, ultimately, His good grace, there is the light of His Spirit. And it is there for anyone who is able to enter into the stillness and take the effort to stop being distracted by the lizards.

But most of us, unlike people like St. Teresa, St. John, St. Gregory Palamas, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton, spend much of our lives gazing at those damned lizards.

And that’s not the blessing that calls us to. He calls us to a union of love with him.

So spend time in quiet. In silence. In prayer. With Jesus. Enter the mansions of the spirit. Find Him in the light at the centre of your soul, calling out to you gently while you’re busy staring at lizards and honey badgers.

Saint of the Week: St. John of the Cross

Image of the Crucifixion by St. John of the Cross

My first encounter with St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) was musical, in Thunder Bay at a Steve Bell concert where Steve performed ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ based on St. John’s poem of the same name.  Later, I was to encounter this mystic saint through the similarly folksy music of John Michael Talbot.  I found the image of the dark night and the discovery of the beloved quite irresistible.

I next encountered him in the written translation of his poetry in a slim volume of his poems given me by my friend Emily.  Although I was to lose this book and The Way of a Pilgrim in a misguided use of cargo pockets on my trousers to carry books, its brief time in my life was a blessing.  His vivid and almost (dare one say it?) erotic imagery of the relationship between the soul and God was powerful for me.

I think this Spanish mystic would have approved of my initial encounters with him — as well as the association of his poems with The Way of a Pilgrim.  You see, St. John was a mystic and a monk, indeed, but he was also a singer.  I remember hunting down information on him on the web after these early meetings, and I learned that his spiritual friend, St. Teresa of Avila, described John of the Cross as spending time walking in the hills and singing songs to God.

And why not?  Why not sing songs to one’s lover?

St. John of the Cross demonstrated his great love for the Almighty through the commitment of his life to monasticism.  This was the sixteenth century, and anyone who has looked at, say, the Fifth Lateran Council or the events that started in Germany in 1517, knows that the Church in many ways was in need of reform.  St. John and St. Teresa were both Carmelites, and both were involved in the reforming of their religious order.

St. John’s commitment to reform of the Carmelites was so great that he was considered with suspicion by other Carmelites monks and once found himself imprisoned in a rival monastery.  But have no fear — he made a daring escape!  Let no one tell you that the life of a mystic is boring and full naught but long nights sitting around in silence seeking the divine embrace!

Besides the poem ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, St. John of the Cross also wrote a commentary on it, appropriately titled The Dark Night of the Soul.  I read E. Allison Peers’ translation of this well-nigh central text to post-mediaeval western mysticism whilst in Cyprus (where I was informed by a friend that all you needed from St. John was a quotation and then you’d be cool).  I never moved to its sequel, The Dark Night of the Spirit, for that was for contemplatives who had moved appropriately through the lessons of the Dark Night.

The concept of the Dark Night is something any spiritually healthy person needs to know.  We may have effulgent love for God that pours itself out in poetry and beauty and paintings and dance and essays and ecstasies and social action* and who knows what else.  But we will at times find ourselves unsatisfied.  We will be dark, dry, barren.  Those things we once found sweet — prayer, the Scriptures, the Eucharist — are bitter and empty.

This is there for us to grow.  God doesn’t want us to be good, strong Christians.  He wants us to be better, stronger Christians, pursuing the way of perfection through worship and imitatio Christi all of our days.  As a mother weans a child of her milk so the child can move to solid food, so God removes some of the pleasantness of the spiritual life for a spell so that we can grow into even greater and clearer manifestations of his unending love for us.

I have by no means done anything resembling justice to this mystic, poet, spiritual reformer.  If I have somehow whetted your appetite, find his poems, find Peers’ translation of the Dark Night, and read the relevant chapter of Edith M. Humphrey’s Ecstasy and Intimacy.  You won’t be disappointed through an acquaintance with St. John.

Also — pray for a while today.  St. John would recommend it, for how can we say we love God when we spend no time with him?

*St. John of the Cross was cited by Thomas Merton as saying that contemplation was more important than action, and that one action that has been preceded by much contemplation is worth more than ten with none.  Or something like that — see The Inner Experience.