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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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?

Christology in Ps-Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy

When I mentioned that I was going to read Pseudo-Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, my friend Austin said that there is some Christology around the edges. Here it is:

For thus, as the Word of God has taught us who feast at His Banquet, even Jesus Himself — the supremely Divine and superessential Mind, the Head and Being, and most supremely Divine Power of every Hierarchy and Sanctification and Divine operation — illuminates the blessed Beings who are superior to us, in a manner more clear, and at the same tiem more fresh, and assimilates them to His own Light in proportion to their ability to receive. As for ourselves, by the love of things beautiful, elevated to Himself, and elevating us, He folds together our many diversities, and by making them into an unified and Divine life, suitable to a sacred vocation both as to habit and action, He Himself bequeaths the power of the Divine Priesthood, from which, by approaching to the holy exercise of the priestly office, we become nearer to the Beings above us, by assimilation, according to our power, to the stability and unchangeableness of their steadfastness in holy things. Hence, by looking upwards to the blessed and supremely Divine Glory of Jesus, and reverently gazing upon whatever we are permitted to see, and being illuminated with the knowledge of the visions, we shall be able to become, as regards the science of Divine mysteries, both purified and purifying — images of Light, and workers with God, perfected and perfecting. (ch. 1, trans. J. Parker, p. 50)

I quote the whole passage because it is important for our grasp of Dionysian soteriology, I think. One of the early lessons that I learned in studying christology and, indeed, triadology, is that these doctrines are formulated as part of our understanding of salvation. How does God save us? What does He save us from? Where does He save us to?

Dionysius’ vision of salvation is explicitly caught up in theiosis, in the unification of the soul to be saved with God, something that is attained by a clarified vision of the divine, communicated through the oikonomia of God as manifest in the hierarchies. His vision of Christ is always very powerfully divine — that is, we have no Antiochene assumptus homo here. At times, elsewhere in the Dionysian corpus, it feels like Jesus exists solely and only ever as God.

Yet if we are saved from ignorance to knowledge, from disunity to unity with God, then we need a God who communicates His person and knowledge of that person to us in some way. Jesus is that person of the Most Holy Trinity whose role in the oikonomia of God’s revelation is to reveal knowledge of God to the created hierarchies, to each as it is able and designed.

This all sounds highly Neoplatonic, and I’m not arguing it isn’t, but I sometimes wonder if it isn’t more biblical than its detractors would think. Consider two side-by-side passages in Colossians. First, Paul’s prayer for them:

We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:9-14 NIV)

Then, starting at verse 15, what is that knowledge the Son gives, what do we learn of Him?

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col. 1:15-20 NIV)

This is one of the passages that is most definitely an inspiration for treatises on spiritual hierarchies. Ps-Dionysius, in this spirit, calls Jesus ‘the Head and Perfection of all Hierarchies’ (ch. 1, trans. J. Parker, p. 51). Pseudo-Dionysius certainly believes in Jesus’ saving death and resurrection — consider his discussion of baptism later in the treatise — but he also believes that Jesus is active now in saving us and bringing us into the glorious light of God.

Sometimes our vision of Jesus becomes warped in two related ways. In one way, we become practical Arians, and forget that the same Jesus who was crucified is also Lord and Creator of the cosmos. In the other way, we relegate salvation to something that happened once for all, and forget that, since Jesus is Lord and Creator of the cosmos He is alive here now communicating His salvation to the human race.

Pseudo-Dionysius helps free us from those errors.

Review of the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius

The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the AreopagiteThe Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, the translation. This is a Victorian translation. I found it, by and large, fluid, but I suspect many will not. I do question some of his choices, and some things do not work in current English. One problem that is not John Parker’s fault is the fact that I kept on wanting to know what the Greek of the terminology was. When Dionysius talks about what Parker translates as nature in relation to Christ, is it actually physis? Given that the Areopagite is popular both sides of the Chalcedonian divide, this is a question of moment.

Second, Parker’s introduction. He does a good job of … introducing the pseudonymous author. And then he gives the circumstantial arguments for the authenticity of the Dionysian corpus. I would like to say that it should not detract from the potency and truth of a document such as this if it turns out to be a forgery (which I think it is). But I am not writing in 1894.

Third, the actual text. Ps-Dionysius has written two treatises translated here, ‘The Celestial Hierarchy’ and ‘The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy’. They go together. The second, in particular, makes no sense without the first, and you really do need the definition of hierarchy the first treatises provides. Moreover, the first treatise is of less moment for the Christian community without the second.

‘The Celestial Hierarchy’ divides the celestial beings into three orders and explains their functions. Here we see a deft affirmation of the transcendent God, totally Other from His creation, alongside the Neo-Platonic idea of divinity being communicated through what Plotinus would call ’emanations.’ Each order of angelic beings helps the order below it fulfil its destiny and function in the hierarchy, a main part of which is coming to as full a knowledge of God as each nature was designed to have. While those at the top have the fullest knowledge, those at the bottom are able to comprehend and contemplate as much of the divine majesty as they can due to the ministrations of the intervening orders. It is a harmonious whole, working together.

This translates into the second treatise. ‘The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy’ is a meditation on the liturgical rites of the Byzantine church in relation to those who perform them. Once again, from the bishop to the excommunicated, the grace of God is communicated through the sacraments, the Scriptures, the preaching, and the communal worship. Each order, clerical, lay, and monastic, has its own special role and place in the apprehension and contemplation of God, and all depend upon each other to fulfil their role.

It is easy to say of the first treatise, ‘Sure, sounds good to me,’ but the idea that, by virtue of his consecration, my bishop is closer to God than I am — that idea is hard to stomach, especially when you consider how many evil men and women, heretics and heterodox, have had hands laid on them. Yet somehow, we lay people are to find peace in resting in our place within the hierarchy. I do wonder what this looks like in practical terms beyond attentively listening to preaching and receiving the sacraments at the hands of the clerics at our churches.

Finally, the whole corpus of Ps-Dionysius is highly influential in both the eastern church and the western church. It is probably worth getting to know, although I think less worth your time than, say, Anselm of Canterbury.

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Mysticism and Eucharist (some Pseudo-Dionysius)

Ages ago, when I was an undergrad, I was thinking about mysticism and the idea of union with God being the goal of mystical activity. And then I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t that make Holy Communion the most mystical act of all?’ After all, whether you bring Aristotle into it or not, Holy Communion is an encounter with and union with Christ. This is, in fact, the explicit teaching of the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles, so I’ve not turned Papist just yet.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (ca 500), The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy confirms this idea (emphasis mine):

…it scarcely ever happens that any Hierarchical initiation is celebrated without the most Divine Eucharist, at the head of the rites celebrated in each, Divinely accomplishing the collecting of the person initiated to the One, and completing his communion with God by the Divinely transmitted gift of the perfecting mysteries. (ch. 3, trans. J Parker)

What matters here is not the initiation but the Eucharist — where the person who partakes is collected to ‘the One’. ‘The One’ is part of the Dionysian vocabulary for God, for unity and simplicity are two of the things he most associates with the Divine. Our union with God, then, is the goal of much in Pseudo-Dionysius.

Later he writes:

For the Blessedness, supremely Divine above all, although through Divine goodness it goes forth to the communion of those who participate in itself, yet it never goes outside its essential unmoved position and steadfastness.

Further, it gives to all, according to their capacity, its Godlike illuminations; always self-centred, and in no wise moved from its own proper identity. In the same manner the Divine initiation of the Synaxis [service of Holy Communion], although it has an unique and simple and enfolded origin, is multiplied, out of love towards man, into the holy variety of the symbols, and travels through the whole range of Divine imagery; yet uniformly it is again collected from these into its own proper Oneness, and unifies those who are being reverently conducted towards it. (ch. 3.3)

Here, Pseudo-Dionysius is doing at least two things. First, he is guarding the simplicity of the Godhead — don’t forget his apophaticism! Nothing can change God, not our union with Him, not His movement out to us. He is eternally Himself. I cannot help but think of Exodus: ‘I am that I am.’

Second, by participating in the Eucharist, we are participating in God, being united to Him, and being unified to one another.

I am still working through this treatise — there is likely more of relevance to come! Nonetheless, this is more than enough to mull over the next time you partake of the most holy mysteries of the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, that oblation once offered, a full and perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. (If I misquoted the BCP, forgive me; it was by memory.)

Could we put together a Latin Philokalia?

This Lent I succeeded at finishing the English translation of vol. 1 of The Philokalia. Still four volumes to go (although vol. 5 still in production)! As I think on Philokalic spirituality, and the Athonite tradition of hesychasm, and the Greek Byzantine environment that fostered the 1000 years of Greek spirituality contained in the anthology, I ask myself:

Could we do this for Latin Christianity?

What to read next?

I suppose it would take a saint like St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain to properly sift the vast amount of Latin Christian spirituality that is out there to consider. I would want to keep it pre-Reformation and post-Constantine, similar boundaries to the Greek Philokalia. The first difficulty is discerning a common thread to unite the texts selected. Not all of Greek spiritual thought is in The Philokalia, after all — there are certain concerns that have been chosen. Thus, one of the most popular of all Greek ascetic texts, The Ladder by St John of Sinai (aka The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus), is not there. Nor are swathes of St Maximus the Confessor. No hagiography. No liturgy. No monastic rules. No Cappadocian Fathers. No St Athanasius. No St Cyril. No Ante-Nicene Fathers. No Pseudo-Dionysius.

Anyway, who are the neptic Fathers of Latin Christianity?

I’m not sure, but as an initial brain-storm, perhaps a prayerful exploration of theses guys would be good. Remember, we’re thinking selections with a theme, not the Complete Works.

  • John Cassian
  • Jerome
  • Augustine of Hippo
  • Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Aelred of Rievaulx
  • Julianus Pomerius
  • Prosper of Aquitaine, De Vita Contemplativa
  • Gregory the Great
  • Hildegard?
  • Bonaventure?
  • Guerric of Igny?
  • Richard Rolle?

I know many would want to see, say, Meister Eckhart in the list, but I don’t know enough about his works to know if he’s worth searching for a common thread of Latin spirituality running from Jerome to the Renaissance. On the other hand, I know that, while Julian of Norwich is worth reading, her work is of a specific nature and, I think, very distinct from the tradition that links Bernard and Aelred with Cassian and Augustine.

Indeed, the late medieval mystics are hard. What about St Catherine of Siena? I’ve yet to read The Cloud of Unknowing. Would any of it fit?

Likewise, the scholastics. Bonaventure, sure. St Thomas Aquinas? Or the pre-scholastic Anselm: I love him, but I don’t think he belongs, even if he was a practicioner of the tradition from Julianus Pomerius to the Cistercians. My own inclinations lean towards Cistercians more than scholastics for this, but maybe that’s false?

Of course, should we cut it short with the Reformation? Will we suffer for the lack of Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila?

Just some thoughts. It is at least an interesting thought experiment. Maybe a way to make a personal reading list, even if not a multi-volume anthology.