Theology and mysticism

St. Gregory of Nyssa

I have found, drifting around the Internet, that sometimes an opposition can appear between something called ‘theology’ and something called ‘mysticism’ or ‘contemplation’. This opposition is a false dichotomy, for, as Andrew Louth notes in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, theology and mysticism and inescapably bound together. I think we need both approaches to the Holy if we are to be healthy.

That is, this is a modern take on Evagrius in the Chapters on Prayer — If you truly pray, you are a theologian. If you are a theologian, you truly pray.

His concept of theologos is not ours, but the idea has merit even today.

Let us take theology as the attempt of the rational mind to articulate in some logical manner the truths about God and the world in relation to God that have been apprehended through revelation, reason, and experience. Seems a safe definition.

Let us take mysticism as the attempt of the human soul to sit in silence and quiet and thereby encounter God. Or, even better, to encounter Him even when not in silence and quiet but, rather, live an existence shot through with an awareness of Him. This usually involves time set aside for silence and quiet.

These need each other. (They also need community.)

The first without the second can easily become dry intellectualism, or being rigidly doctrinaire, or mere pedantry. The danger of doing theology is that you will mistake your doctrine of God for God Himselves.

The second without the first can easily become emotive experientialism, or, as Thomas Merton calls it, illuminism, questing after special experiences or imagining that whatever you feel or imagine or find evocative is a true window into the divine. The danger of doing mysticism is that you will mistake your experiences about God for God Themself.

These two worlds are, in fact, not dichotomies, as I like to point out. A recent reminder of this (besides St Anselm) was Sarah Coakley’s lecture at the Vancouver School of Theology this Autumn, where St Gregory of Nyssa was one of the great mystical theologians driven by the Holy Spirit. He is also, as it turns out, what, in technical terms, one might call a dogmatic or systematic theologian. His encounter with the Holy Spirit in prayer and Scripture helps inform his reasoning, but his catechetical works are still theology as I defined it above.

When we find ourselves in the mood to pooh-pooh those ‘airy-fairy’ charismatics and contemplatives (as I sometimes do) or to reject theology as ‘dry and rigid’, let us find humility and seek the Giver of both types of gift.

Advertisements

The richness of St Anselm’s prayers

I am slowly reading The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm (in Sr Benedicta Ward’s translation), as you may have surmised. I am trying to read them as St Anselm recommends, and not simply blitz through them (as I do so much of what I read). The prayers are a lot longer than what we are used to. This is because they are not meant to be prayed through from start to finish in a single go. And they are not meant for public worship, either.

They are meant to stir up our hearts and draw us to our own prayers, enrichening our own encounter with God and providing us with fuel. St Anselm says you can start anywhere you please and use them to good effect.

St Anselm’s prayers are rich and sometimes ornate. But they help show us an internal world we may miss if we’re not careful. I mentioned this once before here, but we have a tendency to view St Anselm only as a pre-Scholastic, or even a Scholastic, perhaps as a logic-chopper, as the primus inventor of the ontological argument for God and the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. Given how few people are convinced by the former and how many people are currently rejecting the latter, this view of the man and his achievements misses out so much.

Related to this is a mistaken view that ‘western’ Christianity is not mystical or poetic.

Another mistaken view is that systematic theology, the logically-defined articulation of doctrine, the application of reason to matters of the divine is inimical to the true life of the Spirit. This is something that annoys me, given that our ancient theologians who wrote theology in this way were very often ‘mystics’ or ‘contemplatives’ as well — St Augustine (as I’ve blogged), St Gregory of Nyssa, St Gregory of Nazianzus, and others! And many ‘mystics’ embraced the catholic Church’s articulations of doctrine, such as Richard Rolle, St Bernard, William of St-Thierry, St Hildegard, St Thomas of Kempen, St Catherine of Siena, St Francis of Assisi.

Anyway, these are the prayers of a soul that clearly had a rich love for and encounter with God. St Anselm seems to have to use his whole life for God — thus, the rational part of him writes the logic and theology, the affective part of his soul writes these prayers, and his moral self seeks to live rightly in the midst of the Investiture Controversy.

I encourage you to use these prayers yourself so that your own prayers can be kindled to a greater love for God.

Here’s some St Anselm to close us off:

Most merciful Lord,
turn my lukewarmness into a fervent love of you.
Most gentle Lord,
my prayer tends towards this —
that by remembering and meditating
on the good things you have done
I may be enkindled with your love.

-The Prayer to Christ (trans. Ward, p. 94)

Contemplation and mission

A conversation I was having with a student today reminded me of the importance of that unpopular, old-fashioned idea of ‘evangelism’. The conversation headed in the direction of a belief that people of the far-right, hate-mongers and suchlike, should be stopped from assembling. I expressed my belief that no speech, excite incitement to violence, should be outlawed. I feel this way partly out of a concern that if they stop the racists from speaking and assembling, who will be next? And when will they come knocking on Father Raphael’s door?

I also expressed, in the course of this conversation, my belief that the problem isn’t legislation but the human heart. You can’t legislate evil away.

And so my thoughts about the need for mission arose from this context in two main ways.

First, how can we speak the truth of Gospel into a culture that thinks ‘dangerous speech’ should be banned?

Second, how can we, as Christians, actually see the transformation of the wicked human heart that we all desire?

I no longer know the answer to the first, for I have grown frozen in speaking Gospel.

The second relates to actually making disciples, so is related to the first.

Nonetheless, I was reminded of the need to bring the Gospel to a hurting, broken world.

And all of this ties into the title of this post because I sometimes get a feeling from some corners of the Interwebs that Christians can be drawn into the mystical, contemplative, liturgical traditions of the Church as part of a reaction against some of the spiritual toxicity that is out there in some parts of evangelicalism.

And what I feel like I see sometimes is a retreat not simply from things like politics (which may be a good thing) but from God-talk altogether. Christian spirituality becomes therapy for me, and is spoken of as therapy for a broken world, but without actually engaging in the dreaded discipline of talking to other humans about the Gospel and God of grace, how are we really healing that broken world?

I am guilty of this to some degree, although I resist ‘mysticism as therapy’ as best I can.

My theory has always been that if we engage in spiritual disciplines, we will love God more, look like Him more, and be more comfortable as who we are. As a result, we will be able to speak Gospel to a broken, hurting world, a world that includes both racists and those who want to legislate against dangerous speech.

Question: Can someone give me evidence of this working for them?

Meditation and Intercession

Andrew Murray

I’m reading Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer just now. It’s been my devotional book since Easter. I wish I could say I’ve taken this long because I’m savouring and applying it, but, really, I’m just distracted and lazy. Anyway, many of the major lessons in this book about intercessory prayer are really about what historically we would call ‘meditation’ (with a bit of room for contemplation as well).

Historically, the Christian tradition has meant by meditation the active use of the mind to ruminate upon some passage of Scripture or some aspect of God or some deed in salvation history. To spend time with it and immerse the mind and heart into it as a way of drawing closer to God, of uniting the mind with the heart.

Murray counsels the reader at many times that in order to unlock the promises and mysteries of prayer, we need to enter into a richer relationship with God and a fuller understanding of His person and relationship to us. For example, one of the lessons Christ teaches us in the school of prayer is that our heavenly Father gives good gifts — or even the Holy Spirit — to his children.

The meditation on this verse takes two aspects. First, meditate on the Fatherhood of God. What does it mean for God to be our Father? And what does it mean, then, for us to be his children? What sort of gifts would a good Father give? What sort of children can expect to get anything they ask from their fathers?

The answer to the last question takes us to a meditation on how we relate to God. If we are not spending time with God, or if we are consciously living in a way that displeases God, how likely is it that God will give us what we ask? And how will we know what sorts of things God is likely to give?

Think on this: If you spend no time with your father, despite his desire to be with you, but want a car for your sixteenth birthday both for the awesomeness of the car and its practicality, is he really going to give you a car? He will give you a good gift, certainly. But not a car.

This is dangerous thinking. It can lead into moralism, legalism, the belief that we can merit God’s favour. It can lead into treating God like a genie. But then — if we spend more time meditating on the character and attributes of God, more time reading Scripture and meditating on its truths and God’s actions, more time being silent before the throne of God — frankly, if we spend more time with God, we will come to know Him well, and knowing Him will protect us from all the dangerous -isms of Christian thinking.

Throughout With Christ in the School of Prayer, Murray takes us on meditations and encourages us to be silent before God as well as to meditate upon Him and upon Scripture. The more we do these things, the better we know God and the more we are conformed to the likeness of Christ. The more our wills align with His. And the more we will see our own prayers answered.

Some people like to pit different kinds of prayer against each other. I have read pieces that are harsh on evangelicals because they do not know the great riches of contemplative prayer but only wade in the shallows of intercession. I have no interest in such ways of thinking.

All prayer is united, whether supplication, intercession, meditation, contemplation, adoration.

They flow and work together, and each is part of healthy Christianity. And there are probably more evangelical contemplatives than you’d think (and they may not even know that’s what they’re doing).

So: Meditation and intercession. They work together.

St Cuthbert: Action & contemplation in Northumbria

Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe

Today is the Feast of St Cuthbert. Not only is my office a two-minute walk from the tomb of the Venerable Bede (d. 735), it is also about the same distance from that of St Cuthbert (d. 687),* whose life Bede wrote a few times — once in verse, once in prose, and once as part of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. So before my thoughts on contemplation and action really get biblical, they’re going to be historical.

I’ve blogged on St Cuthbert before, and I’ve had an accidental (providential?) tendency to follow him around. St Cuthbert started his contemplative career as a monk of Melrose (which I’ve visited), and one of his duties while holding office in the monastery was preaching in the countryside. It is extremely likely that the country folk of what is now southern Scotland in the mid-600s were still practising whatever Anglo-Saxon paganism was.** So evangelism was part of his monastic career from fairly early on.

Remember that the professed goal of monasticism is to go off and spend time in intentional community (or entirely alone) and pray, seeking purity of heart and freedom from the passions so that you can get to know God better. What’s interesting is how few monks ever get to spend all that time alone; too many of them end up helping others. Indeed, the missionaries of Britain from both the Continent and Ireland were monks. Monk missionaries are a thing.

Worth contemplating. 😉

Later, St Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne, which was the episcopal see for the Kingdom of Northumberland. His job was the care of souls as well as the management of the monastery on Holy Island. He oversaw the introduction of the Rule of St Benedict on Lindisfarne. His life of contemplation remained wedded to a life of service and action.

Even later, St Cuthbert became a hermit on an island called Inner Farne and had little desire to spend time with anybody but the local birds and Jesus. The hermit’s life is meant to be a life of single-minded devotion to Jesus and cultivation hesychia, or peacefulness/stillness. People still brought their problems to him, though.

St Cuthbert is Northumbria’s biggest hit. He was so popular that, when local unrest and a few Viking raids made the monks leave Lindisfarne, they brought St Cuthbert (and King St Oswald’s head) with them, eventually depositing him in their new cathedral on the rocky peninsula that is Durham. Lots of miracles of one sort or another are attributed to his relics and to visions of him and suchlike.

In 1104, the tomb was opened and a very laborious inventory made, described by Symeon of Durham — including St Cuthbert’s undecayed body.

Anyway, for us today, we should consider this dual life of St Cuthbert — the preaching and praying. The contemplation and action. The monasticism and mission. The evangelism and eremetism. I believe that this sort of radical commitment to the love of God through prayer and meditation, coupled with love to neighbour through preaching and acts of mercy, is what will fuel the new evangelisation of Europe.

Not choral evensong. Not the latest light show on the stage. Not ‘relevant’ sermons. Not making church feel less ‘churchy’. Not more gospel tracts. Not better gospel tracts. Not contemporary Christian music. Not organ concerts. Not serving fairtrade coffee after church.

Contemplation and mission.

*Actually, in terms of straightforward proximity, I am closer to Cuthbert than Bede, but because one enters Durham Cathedral from the back, and Bede is buried near the narthex but Cuthbert in the amubulatory, Bede is closer in terms of walking distance.

**We know very little because, although they loved writing almost as soon as they converted to Christianity, Anglo-Saxons did not love writing about their pagan past. And, since the Old Norse Eddic poetry and sagas are about as far in time from St Cuthbert as St Cuthbert is from Jesus, they are actually less helpful than you’d think.

Contemplation and Action in Scripture

One of the things I’d like to do some day is make a really good case for contemplation/mysticism using the Bible as a way to get low Protestants across the threshold of some truly great literature of the Christian life. I see that Greg Peters has already beat me to it in the first chapter of The Story of Monasticism, although his approach is different from what mine would be (so there’s room for both of us). Towards the end of his series of biblical exempla of contemplatives he writes:

Biblically, the active life and the contemplative life are not in tension with each other but are meant to complement each other. This has not always been the case in the history of the Christian church, where oftentimes the so-called contemplative life was valued much greater than the so-called active life. Putting aside this imbalance, however, does not change the biblical revelation that presents a calling to active ministry coupled with the expectation that active ministry serves and complements contemplative ends. The Bible not only depicts God calling people to a particularly active apostolate — such as pastor, missionary, or evangelist — but it also depicts inidividuals called to the practice of lovingly gazing on God’s presence, most often evidenced in a direct one-to-one encounter with God. (pp. 14-15)

Today, especially amongst low-church Protestants as well as in ‘the world’, the active life is prized very, very highly. Too highly, at times. We would do well to wed it with the contemplative.

Ancient Religion got me into this mess, part 3: Devotion

For part 1 of the series, click here, and for part 2, click here.

My study of ancient Christianity has made life difficult for me, these days. I find myself committed both to liturgy and to historic orthodoxy. My commitment to historic orthodoxy, discussed here, drives me to seek liturgy. And my understanding of the sacraments, under the influence of the ancient church, drives me to seek weekly Eucharist, celebrated liturgically.

But my study of ancient Christianity did not begin with doctrine, liturgy, sacrament, episcopate.

It began in the Desert.

Although I am now a scholar of medieval manuscripts and papal letters, I started out with a desire to apply the methodology of classical philology and ancient history to ancient monasticism. In undergrad, after a love affair with St Francis of Assisi and flirtation with St John of the Cross, I met St Antony the Great and the Desert Fathers . Here was a new, strange phenomenon. Here were the roots of the monastic tradition of Francis of John!

I wrote an undergrad essay on the Desert Fathers, drawing largely on The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks and the Life of St Antony published by St Athanasius. In my first Master’s degree, I wrote about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, drawing in a variety of other desert sources along the way. My second Master’s thesis was about the monastic lives written by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus in the age of Justinian, and one of my coursework essays was on St Gregory Palamas.

Between degrees, I visited Cyprus where I first really met the Orthodox world. I inhaled their incense. I considered their icons. I read the first few authors of The Philokalia — themselves ancient Greek monks! On a return visit to Cyprus, I visited Machairas Monastery in the Troodos Mountains. I have subsequently spent time with the Benedictines of Sankt Paul im Lavanntal, Austria.

Furthermore, in the first year of my PhD studies, I organised a reading group about ancient monasticism (but we also brought in a little St Hildegard for good measure).

My engagement with the teachings, lives, spiritual practices, and oddities of ancient monasticism from St Antony through St Benedict to St Isaac the Syrian has changed me in subtle ways, I believe. I crave the kind of single-minded devotion to God they sought and sometimes attained. I go through spells of praying at least Morning Prayer. I used to fast. I love reading their writings, even when they are hard to grasp or impossible to apply to my situation as a married layman.

Loud music, emotive worship leaders, forced happiness, a feeling of being untethered from tradition — none of these things is conducive to the contemplative life sought by the ancient monks. And I think that rock concert worship events are part of the rootlessness of modern evangelicalism, part of why we often feel like we can preach morality but seem incapable of teaching it.

A richer, calmer setting that makes room for the contemplative alongside the active, for prayer beside preaching, for meditation alongside proclamation — perhaps this can help us.

As I say, this part of who I am is more nebulous a reason why I crave liturgy and believe that it is important.

And, to say it one final time, if God has used the ancient church in my life through these ways, why should I go back on what He is doing in my life? This is the subjective reason that tugs at me all along the way. What is the point of all the thinking and studying I have done if I just end up going to same sort of happy-clappy, non-liturgical church that I would have attended anyway? Shouldn’t our private faith have public ramifications?