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?

Advertisements

How lectio divina and contemplative practices can be dangerous

La Grande Chartreuse: Home to Lectio Divina

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.

I won’t mount a defence of the practice here, though. Mark Moore has already done that in his post, ‘Is Lectio Divina Really Dangerous?

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

.

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.

View all my reviews

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.

Vernacular Religion in the Latin Middle Ages 3: Private Devotion

To my knowledge, at no time did the structures of the Church in western and central Europe bar the use of the vernacular in private devotion or in private writing. Indeed, for the illiterate, such prayers are the only way they could pray. For the literate, there were times when their mother tongue would take over, as when Stephen Harding (I think he’s the one; or Aelred?) died with the English name ‘Crist’ on his lips.

 

Anyway, the Latin Middle Ages contain a great quantity of vernacular religious literature, and there is, frankly, not enough time for me to go into all of it here. A few highlights are worth discussing, though, I’d think.

First things first, then. You should go check out Eleanor Parker’s blog A Clerk of Oxford, an excellent blog exploring many facets of Old English life, religion, and literature. A lot of it is devoted to religious literature, both its translation into modern English as well as its explication for the 21st-century reader.

If, for some reason, you’re still reading my poor excuse of a blog, I’ll start by saying that Anglo-Saxon Christian literature is very much worth your time. There is some splendid religious poetry to be found that will stir your heart up unto the Lord. Which is the whole point. A pleasant anthology, both from Old English and Latin, is Benedicta Ward’s Christ Within Me.

Vernacular Christian literature did not suddenly vanish in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. I’ve featured here the Middle English poem ‘Man and Woman Look on Me!’, a moving piece in the persona of Our Lord from the Cross. I find there is a lot of powerful devotional poetry in Middle English.

Of course, Middle English religious literature cannot pass by without discussing Julian of Norwich (d. 1416), one of the most famous mystics of the era (at least in English-speaking countries), whom I even feature here a little bit. Her Showings are worth a read or two. Julian is not the only vernacular English mystical writer from the Middle Ages, though. Also of great popularity from the second half of the 1300s is The Cloud of Unknowing, a discussion of how to focus the mind and heart on God, a guide to contemplation (I’ve not read it, alas). Third (and also waiting to be read by me) is Richard Rolle (1300-1349), another English medieval mystical writer in the vernacular. Another Middle English mystic I have yet to read is Walter Hilton (d. 1396), whose Scale of Perfection was recommended to me by Lisa Deam who now blogs over at The Contemplative Writer.

English is not the only vernacular literature of the Latin Middle Ages. Italy produced for us St Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) , one of the first poets to write in the Italian language. Besides his Canticle of the Sun, I highly recommend the next generation’s Fioretti, or ‘Little Flowers’, which are inspirational tales about the original Franciscans. Another important writer in Italian is St Catherine of Siena, herself a Dominican (d. 1347); her Dialogue is very challenging and thought-provoking.

There is so much more to cover — the continental Old Saxon Heliand, a ninth-century epic retelling of Christ; Lilja, an Icelandic poem of the fifteenth century; Dante (!!); medieval Irish saints’ lives and poetry; and so much more. If we lean forward just a bit, we can peek into the world of sixteenth-century Carmelites writing in Spanish as well — St Teresa of Ávila and St John of the Cross.

One thought that occurs as I glance over these authors. Most of them are members of religious orders or, in the case of Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle, hermits/anchorites. But consider which religious orders — Walter Hilton was an Augustinian; Francis founded the Franciscans; St Catherine was a Dominican. These are the orders that interact with ordinary people, rather than the orders of the cloister (the Benedictines, Cistercians, etc). I am greatly fond of monastic spirituality, but perhaps something important is to be found in this 13th- and 14th-century vernacular mendicant literature that will not be found in the majestic twelfth-century monastic literature.

They also, whether monastic or mendicant, exist in the world of the cities and the growing merchant class — not all of whom may have known Latin but who could probably read their own language to some degree. Another thought worth pondering.

Be that as it may, the Latin Middle Ages had their share of vernacular religion for the ordinary people. It wasn’t just priests for priests or monks for monks. There was vernacular preaching, there were even vernacular Bibles, and there were vernacular treatises, poems, saints’ lives, and even plays. The medieval west is, perhaps, more varied than our post-Reformation visions give it credit, then.

Boethius on divinity and happiness

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 3.10:

Since it is through the possession of happiness that people become happy, and since happiness is in fact divinity, it is clear that it is through the possession of divinity that they become happy. But by the same logic as men become just through the possession of justice, or wise through the possession of wisdom, so those who possess divinity necessarily become divine. Each happy individual is therefore divine. While only God is so by nature, as many as you like may become so by participation. (Trans. V.E. Watts)

Boethius (or, rather, Philosophy) goes on to argue that happinessgoodness, so you are not truly happy unless you are truly good. This is part of the argument that only God, the Supreme Good, is ultimately happy. That’s a necessary piece of context. (For more context, read my review.) It’s important, because if committing murder or lying to people or stealing make you have feelings you call ‘happy’, this does not mean you are participating in divinity. In fact, according to Boethius, you wouldn’t be happy at all because evil is itself a tendency towards non-existence.

Upon reading this passage, those of us who spend time with the Eastern Orthodox will immediately cry aloud, ‘Ah, theosis!’ And, indeed, it is part of what is going on here, part of the passage from praktike to theoria symbolised by Philosophy’s gown as she stands before the senator in his prison cell. Of these latter two words, theoria is usually Englished as contemplation. So we are back in our sixth-century contemplative context, a few decades before Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury.

This, I would argue, is the philosophical basis of Christian mysticism. God is good. To be truly happy, one must be good. God is wholly good, so he is perfectly happy. Therefore, for us to become happy, we have to connect with God and have communion with Him.