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.

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Philokalic Friday: The Failure of My Achievement

I did it! Twelve years after my first attempt, and two years after the start of my second, I finished The Philokalia, Vol. 1 this Lent! Well done, me! I mean, how many people can boast that, after all? Sure, people read the Rule of St Benedict, or St Augustine’s Confessions, or, say, the Bible all the time. But, really, to struggle through the difficult content of the first volume of The Philokalia in any language is something of an achievement in the world of devotional reading.

After all, it took me two years.

Off and on, that is.

Mind you, it’s not as though I spend very much time praying the Jesus Prayer. It’s not as though I spend my life in ‘watchfulness’. Given how quickly I grow annoyed or impatient, I don’t think I have that much hesychia. And those eight deadly thoughts (logismoi) that Evagrius talks about so much? Probably all here, not really being resisted that much.

Nonetheless —

I hope it has been good for me to read this book, and reread some sections of it. I think I’ve read Evagrius On Prayer four times now. I am sure I could profit from another read. I know that I do, at times, reflect on teachings from this book and how they’ve helped me.

But the point here is:

Just because I have read a (difficult) devotional book and occasionally apply its lessons does not make me holy.

Practising holiness is what makes us holy.

Oh, wait. No. The Philokalia would only partly agree with that …

The grace of God is what makes us holy.

The Jesus Prayer and Me 2: Edinburgh and beyond

St Theophan the Recluse

As I mentioned in my last post, my drifting in and out of various bits and bobs of the literature of Christian mysticism alongside contacts with Eastern Orthodoxy meant that I knew of the Jesus Prayer and liked the concept. I prayed it sometimes — while waiting, or in the place of the Hail Mary with a rosary, that sort of thing. But my actual exertion of energy on anything approaching contemplation was — and is — haphazard.

That alone is reason to pray, yes?

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Nonetheless, in 2013 I came to a point where I realised that I had some issues with anger. So I went to talk to Fr Raphael at the Orthodox Church here in Edinburgh. I’m not entirely sure what it says about me, Presbyterian ministers, and Fr Raphael that it was the Orthodox priest and not my minister to whom I turned in this time of spiritual crisis, but this is what I did. I spoke with him about anger and about how to work through it, how to overcome it.

Fr Raphael observed that the Fathers say that anger is not so bad a passion to suffer, for you can turn it against the demons when they tempt you. Thus Evagrius of Pontus:

Anger is given to us so that we might fight against the demons and strive against every pleasure. (The Praktikos 44)

As I’ve blogged before, this is expressed by the Russian St Theophan the Recluse:

You say that you cannot help being resentful and hostile? Very well then, be hostile — but towards the devil, not towards your brother. God gave us wrath as a sword to pierce the devil — not to drive into our own bodies. Stab him with it, then, right up to the hilt; press the hilt in as well if you like, and never pull it out, but drive another sword in as well. This we shall achieve by becoming gentle and kind towards each other. ‘Let me lose my money, let me destroy my honour and glory — my fellow-member is more precious to me than myself.’ Let us speak thus to each other, and let us not injure our own nature in order to gain money or fame. (The Art of Prayer, p. 212)

In fact, the above quotation comes from a book that was loaned to me by Father Raphael at the time I went to him for guidance. It is an anthology of texts about prayer, most of them by Theophan the Recluse and Ignatius Brianchaninov. I recommend it highly.

Besides loaning me The Art of Prayer, Fr Raphael made two recommendations. One was to keep track of times that I feel angry and annoyed, and pray about them. The other was the disciplined praying of the Jesus Prayer — not simply when I’m angry or as a way to turn my heart to God when idle, but to set aside time every day.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Fr Raphael’s counsel, which I have seen Kallistos Ware recommend as well, was to spend no fewer than 10 minutes a day and no more than 20 praying the Jesus Prayer. The goal was (and is) for me to focus on the words and their meaning, to keep my mind from wandering, and fix my heart on Jesus.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Fr Raphael’s advice is rather evangelical, if you think on it. Fixing our hearts on Jesus is what we’re all about, after all.

Anyway, he also gave me a chomboschini, a knotted prayer rope. At each knot, I recite the Jesus Prayer. He further advised to set aside the same time for the Jesus Prayer each day to aid in making this prayer regular.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

And off I went to Germany for three months. I prayed the Jesus Prayer in my room. I prayed it on the Neckarinsel in Tuebingen (that’s the island in the Neckar). I prayed it on the tram in Leipzig. I prayed it on the train. I prayed it in Austria in a Benedictine monastery.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

And then I came back to Edinburgh — I pray it on my couch, in my bedroom, at my desk, in St Giles’ Church. And then I went to Paris for a month, where I prayed it in my room, in the Bibliotheque nationale, in the old, Gothic churches. And at home again. And on all my research trips.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

I prayed it on my first trip to Rome — in St Peter’s, in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, in Santa Maria Maggiore. I prayed it in my long stay in Rome as well.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

I’m not a great contemplative. It’s the active life for me. I’m not the best at remembering to pray the Jesus Prayer every day, even though I have an alarm set to remind me. When I do pray it, my mind often wanders. Or my eyes, which bring my mind with them (this is why Kallistos Ware recommends you put the lights out).

But I get angry less frequently. Not just because I might remember to pray this prayer when angry, but because of the attempt at discipline that I bring to it. Because my heart is being ordered towards my Lord and Saviour. Because I have found grace in Jesus through praying this prayer and calling on his Name.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

John Cassian in the Philokalia: ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis’ – scopos and telos

StJohnCassian_vice4Allow me to begin with my ecclesiastical historian’s hat on. The second selection from John Cassian in The Philokalia (the first having been about the 8 thoughts, taken from Books 5-8 of The Institutes) is taken from Cassian’s second work, the much longer Conferences or CollationesThe Conferences purport to be the monastic elder’s encounters and conversations from the approximately ten years he and his companion Germanus spent amongst the Desert Fathers of Egypt, adapted for the situation in Gaul and possibly falsely recalled due to the faults of human memory (which he admits). Germanus is the usual interlocutor with Cassian sitting and listening in silence. An argument was made somewhere that here we find the full depth of Cassian’s spiritual theology. Here we certainly meet some his more powerful concepts, and the influence of Evagrius of Pontus, quite palpable in his discussion of the eight thoughts in The Institutes, continues. We’ll get to that in a moment. The Conferences are available online, as well as in an excellent translation with helpful notes by Boniface Ramsey. Ramsey also translated The Institutes.

The first Conference is where Sts Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth gathered the opening material for ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination’. The discussion is created of various excerpts from Conference 1, seamlessly woven together, ending with the paragraph on p. 98 of the English, ‘When the old man saw us marvelling at this…’ In Cassian’s original, the paragraph is used as a way of ending the conference with Abba Moses that day, whereas in its reworked Greek version, it becomes the segue into a discussion of discernment. The rest of ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis’ is a discussion of discernment/discretion taken from Conference 2. Both Conference 1 and 2 are with the same abba, Moses. I do not know if we are to assume that he is the same Abba Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or not. Throughout both Conferences we encounter an array of biblical verses, examples of biblical persons, and examples from the history of Christian asceticism.

Abba Moses begins the discussion, ‘after much entreaty on our part’, with a question. Every aspect of human endeavour has an immediate purpose and end goal. A farmer clears land of thorns and rocks — an immediate purpose — with the ultimate goal of enjoying the produce of the field. He queries:

Tell me, what was your purpose and what goal did you set before yourselves in doing all this [ascetic labour]?

We replied: ‘We did it for the kingdom of heaven.’

In response Abba Moses said: ‘As for the goal, you have answered well; but what is the purpose which we set before us and which we pursue unwaveringly so as to reach the kingdom of heaven? This you have not told me.’

… we confessed that we did not know … (Palmer, Sherrard, Ward trans., p. 95)

In the Latin, Cassian actually uses the Greek scopos and telosScopos is glossed as destinatio (which is admissible in this discussion in its English descendant); telos is finis (or end). Clearing the field is the farmer’s scopos, enjoying its fruits is his telos. The scopos, or finis, of the ascetic life is the kingdom of heaven — regnum caelorum. In their English translation of the Greek Philokalia, Palmer, et al., give us purpose for scopos and goal for telos.

Abba Moses says:

The goal [telos] of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God. Its immediate purpose [scopos], however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule. (p. 95 in English)

Here we have the original ‘purpose-driven life’! We are called by Cassian (via Abba Moses) to seek purity of heart in all we do. That is the point. The point is not fasting, reading sacred scripture, meditating, praying, studying theology, helping the poor. The point is purity of heart. Abba Moses continues:

It is for the love of our neighbour that we scorn wealth, lest by fighting over it and stimulating our disposition to anger, we fall away from love. (p. 95)

For what we gain by fasting is not so great as the damage done by anger; nor is the profit from reading as great as the harm done when we scorn or grieve a brother. (p. 96)

Abba Moses then says that love of God and of human beings, not ascetic labour, is the purpose. This is the great recurring theme of Christian spirituality, as I have discussed here in the past in relation to St Augustine and the Cistercians. From here, Abba Moses discusses how to achieve purity of heart; as Cassian and Germanus discuss the ascetic life with other Egyptian abbas, they learn more and more; there is a rising up towards this purity, found in the pure prayer of Conference 10 which leads into a discussion of perfection itself in Conference 11.

In The Philokalia, Abba Moses gives some attention to the thoughts (those Evagrian logismoi) before moving into his discussion of discernment.

You can see, I think, why The Conferences make me aware of my inadequacies! I still have no grand answers for questions of how a modern layperson, married, working full-time in a demanding job, is to pursue purity of heart. I guess thinking about it is a start. Praying daily as we do at The Witness Cloud is, undoubtedly, central. Abba Moses counsels Cassian and Germanus to keep their eyes fixed on the knowable actions of God in creation, Scripture, the deeds of the saints.

I guess being an ecclesiastical historian might actually give me some advantage, then?

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. -Matthew 5:8

John Cassian in The Philokalia – Purity of Heart

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 1)First things first — my brother has blogged at our shared blog about how Cassian has shifted his paradigm for ministry as an Anglican priest. This is what these blogs are all about — that one is about our dispersed community that prays the office and strives for holiness. If you want to find at least a digital community that seeks prayer in these old ways, check us out — we’re called The Witness Cloud (and this link is our homepage).

Reading the Fathers, studying Scripture, getting down and dirty with monks, thinking through theology — the point of all this endeavour, as far away as it may seem sometimes, is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and to be converted, conformed to the likeness of the image of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Not that this is actually easy, mind you.

I am not a monk. I am not a priest. I am not, professionally, a theologian.

I am a classicist and ecclesiastical historian, an ancient historian. I interpret texts and study their manuscripts.

This is not the same thing as living them.

My job and my devotional life do overlap, but this means that sometimes, although I can wax poetic and prosodic about the spiritual world of ancient Christianity, and exhort my readers even to take up their challenges, much of the time the challenges are unmet — even unattempted — by me.

I first read John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus for a Master’s dissertation (I am, however, now reading them devotionally); saints’ lives were likewise for graduate study. My work brings me into contact with bishops of Rome from the fourth through sixth and seventh centuries — and beyond. For my research I read Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Severus of Antioch. For my teaching, I read Eusebius of Caesarea, the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the Acts of the Council of Ephesus.

It is easy for it not to change the way one lives.

To turn, then, to the second selection of Cassian in The Philokalia, what can this do for me, here and now?

It’s kind of like doing to Cassian what he claims to have done with the Desert Fathers — take their teachings from one setting, one time, one culture, one language, and transplant them to a new one. Adapted from the hot desert of Egypt to the somewhat colder world of southern Gaul to the long, dark nights of an Edinburgh winter.

Well, straight up, what does this selection present us?

Questions of our purpose, our goal, our end. For Cassian and Germanus, what is the purpose of the monastic life? For us, what is the purpose of Christian living, of my lay spiritual life in the 21st century?

Germanus says to Abba Moses: The Kingdom of Heaven.

Abba Moses says: But what closer goal can you reach?

That closer goal, in Cassian’s rewriting of Evagrius, is purity of heart.

I’ll leave this discussion here for now. But this moment in Cassian’s Conferences is one that has challenged me every time. What is purity of heart? How do I live it here, now? How much frivolity is too much? Is this life I’ve chosen really worth the effort? Could I make something more of my life for the sake of a pure heart, for the sake of the Kingdom of God?

John Cassian in The Philokalia: On the 8 Thoughts

St. Antony and St. Paul
St. Antony and St. Paul

My brother and I have been slowly working our way through The Philokalia. The last part we finished was the selections from St John Cassian. Those of you who have put up with my musings long enough know that I wrote a Master’s thesis on Cassian’s reception of Evagrius’ demonology. He’s a character I enjoy, a teacher I appreciate, a spiritual teacher who challenges me every time I read him.

There are two selections from Cassian adapted by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios in The Philokalia, one from The Institutes and the other from The Conferences. These are Cassian’s two major works, written in Latin in Gaul in the first half of the fifth century — John Cassian has the distinction of being the only Latin author represented in The Philokalia.

The climax and crowning moment of Cassian’s Institutes is a discussion of the eight vices, adapted from his never-named spiritual father, Evagrius of Pontus (‘the Solitary’) who immediately precedes him in this Athonite anthology. This is excerpted in The Philokalia. I’ve blogged about the eight thoughts before. Today I’ll briefly summarise the version in The Philokalia with some of my own thoughts.

The ‘Eight Thoughts’ (precursors to St Gregory the Great’s seven deadly sins) are: gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, self-esteem, and pride.

Gluttony

Frankly — more than just overeating. I’ve talked about this once before.

Unchastity

More than just sex (an idea I’ve talked about as well). Both of these first two logismoi, or thoughts, are battled by fasting. Cassian reminds us, however, that it is more than the bodily discipline that we need:

Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil, and manual labour. (p. 75 in Palmer, Sherrard, Ware translation)

Cassian tries to get at the root of the problem — the human heart.

Amidst the advice associated with this section is, ‘It is good to remember the sayings of the Fathers as well as the passages from Holy Scripture cited above.’ (p. 77)

Avarice

I’ve mentioned Evagrius and avarice here before. Cassian argues that, while some passions are natural to us, avarice is, in fact, foreign to our nature, so we must do our best to keep it from taking root in our soul. I found most of his advice on avarice unhelpful to the non-monk, unfortunately.

However, there is this good passage on the passions:

Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder. (p. 78)

Anger

As you may know, I sometimes struggle with anger, and have enlisted the Desert Fathers and Evagrius in the past. Anger is considered part of our nature, and is not of itself evil. It exists to help us fight against sin, temptation, the other passions. However, it can easily cause us to go astray, even when we are angered about things that it is right be angry about — gold leaves blind the eyes just as well as lead ones (p. 83).

Dejection

This is the one where we feel discouraged and blame everyone else for our own failings. Says Cassian,

A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. (p. 87)

That idea, in fact, comes from Stoicism and is very prevalent in Seneca.

Listlessnessaccedia

This is the vice of getting a bit bored and frustrated, then dissatisfied with your own work or monastery. It is called the noon-day demon in Cassian’s Latin original. It is cured by hard work and forcing yourself to stay put.

Some years ago another blogger related this vice with the modern evangelical tendency to church hop. An interesting thought.

Self-esteem

This is seeking to be recognised by other people for being good at something — for monks, obviously the question is virtue. For the rest of us, no doubt it is whatever our occupation is. A job well done is not reward enough. Recognition of the self must follow.

Pride

This is the most subtle and serpentine vice of all. It can only strike you once you are holy, but is enough to drive you to the pit. This is the over-weening belief in your own holiness, an awareness of goodness — or rather, a false awareness, that leads you to believe yourself better than others.

These eight are intimately linked. And they are best fought by the cultivation of virtue. It is easier not to overeat by eating moderately than by fasting excessively. It is easier not to lust by consciously reading the Scriptures than simply trying not to lust. And so forth.

Next time, Cassian’s thoughts on discernment and the goal of the monastic life as excerpted in the next section of The Philokalia. The question is: How can we apply this to ourselves as non-monks, as laypeople?

Salvation, justification, and the use of apt words 1: Evagrius

Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks
Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks

My priest brother and I are (very) slowly making our way through The Philokalia, Vol. 1, right now. As those of you who have been with me since this blog’s inception (oh so many years ago), I have a long-standing interest in Evagrius Ponticus and demonology. Evagrius is the second author in vol. 1.

The second Evagrian text in The Philokalia is ‘Texts on Discrimination in Respect of Passions and Thoughts’. Chapter 9 of this text begins:

Hatred against the demons contributes greatly to our salvation and helps our growth in holiness. But we do not of ourselves have the power to nourish this hatred into a strong plant, because the pleasure-loving spirits restrict it and encourage the soul again to indulge in its old habitual loves. But this indulgence — or rather this gangrene that is so hard to cure — the Physician of souls heals by abandoning us. For He permits us to undergo some fearful suffering night and day, and then the soul returns again to its original hatred, and learns like David to say to the Lord: ‘I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them my enemies’ (Ps. 139:22). For a man hates his enemies with perfect hatred when he sins neither in act nor in thought — which is a sign of complete dispassion. (p. 44, English trans.)

The first sentence is very un-Protestant, isn’t it?

Πάνυ τὸ μῖσος τὸ κατὰ δαιμόνων, ἣμιν πρὸς σωτηρίαν συμβάλλεται … (apologies for accents, I hate my Greek keyboard)

And, of course, we shouldn’t expect Evagrius to be Protestant. But many of a Protestant mindset will be turned off by anything contributing to our salvation except the grace of God alone. Our hatred against demons cannot, by Protestant calculations, contribute to our salvation.

As the Greek quotation above shows, Evagrius uses the Greek word σωτηρία to mean salvation — it is a simple movement from σωτηρία to salvation, isn’t it? But in what context might we refer to salvation? What is salvation here?

Well, first of all, what on earth do we mean when we say salvation? Basing my answer entirely upon anecdotes and personal conversations, it is clear that Protestants, at least, mean something called justification almost every time we say salvation.

For Anglicans who actually believe the 39 Articles of Religion, justification is our being made righteous before God — being considered righteous by God. By justification we enter into a right relationship with God:

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification. (Article XI)

Article XII is quick to point out that, although good works be the fruit of justification, they do not contribute thereto. Thus, the Evagrian statement above, that ‘Hatred against the demons contributes greatly to our salvation,’ is entirely out — with salvation being justification and justification understood in a Protestant/Anglican way.

But is σωτηρία in Evagrius the same thing as justification in the 39 Articles, or even δικαιοσύνη — that Pauline word usually Englished as justification?

I think not. This form of salvation is something else; this is what one evangelical friend referred to as ‘process justification’ once. The Evagrian salvation here is not us being rescued from the fires of Hell, or entering into a right relationship with God, or being considered holy because of Christ’s holiness and our faith — it is us being saved from the ongoing and enduring effects of the Fall.

In this case, it is our salvation from the power of the demons, with the goal of us becoming holier. This is us being saved from the presence of sin in our lives. Bishop Eddie Marsh once stated that justification is being saved from the penalty of sin; sanctification is being saved from the power of sin; and glorification is being saved from the presence of sin. All three involved being saved, so all three could be consider aspects of the ongoing salvation, σωτηρία, of the human person, through the grace of God.

When I quoted the Evagrius passage above, I went on beyond the initial sentence because it is clear that Evagrius sees Christ the Physician as taking an active role in our salvation. Our own efforts are not what truly cleanse us. We become dispassionate because of the grace of God, and God, in His grace, may choose to help us along in the path of holiness using our own efforts as the instruments of his good and gracious will.