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 unimaginability of God

In my wanderings, I recently encountered a very lovely Romanesque crucifix, pictured below in an image from Tripadvisor.

cattedrale-di-sant-eusebio

I prayed in front of that image of my Saviour from ca. 1000. How could I not? I’m fond of Romanesque art.

The next day I encountered a Renaissance fresco of the Most Holy Trinity, not unlike this one:

Luca_Rossetti_Trinità_Chiesa_San_Gaudenzio_Ivrea

Committed as I am to the Ecumenical Councils, I believe that the logic of the Incarnation makes the first image acceptable, but the logic of the Trinity and the logic of Deuteronomy 4 preclude the second. As 1 John 4:12 says, ‘No one has seen God.’ If the subject of images of the Trinity interests you, I recommend Matt Milliner’s lecture ‘Visual Heresy: Imaging God the Father in the History of Art‘ as well as the chapter on the subject in Sarah Coakley’s book God, Sexuality, and the Self.

God is not a being among beings, despite what philosophers since the 13th century have been trying to tell us. He is not simply a god-pigeon to us pigeons. He is utterly unlike us. God is not a man. God is Other. God is holy, and as such, wholly other. Thus, we aren’t authorised to make images of God the Father or the Holy Trinity.

People have long had difficulty with this, of course. In late fourth-century Egypt, there was an Anthropomorphite Controversy. St John Cassian tells us that when one of the desert Abbas (one Serapion, I think) was told that he was not allowed to imagine God in the image of a man, he declared in despair, ‘They have taken away my God, and I do not know what to do.’

William of St Thierry (1085-1148), in the aforementioned meditation, writes:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the ther through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united. (trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113)

I find that crucifixes have helped me in my devotions (my Reformed friends will disagree with my subjective experience, of course!) — carved ones as well as painted ones as well as cast metal as above. They serve as visual reminders of that His precious death that wrought life for me. They can fill me with joy for salvation or compunction for sin.

Images of the Trinity simply annoy me.

The reduction of the Trinity into an old guy, a young guy, and a dove is the most absurd idea in the world. Now, I know that no crucifix can show the glory of Christ Our God — but the actual crucifixion didn’t, either. Not supernaturally. So that’s my out. (Besides, I always have Fra Angelico.) As Kierkegaard said (I paraphrase), to gain the full import of the Incarnation, you must point to a man in a crowd and say, ‘That is God.’ That is the visual ordinariness of Christ Incarnate.

The Trinity is unimaginable. There is no visual ordinariness of that which is beyond images.

The use of equivocal language about God that enables artists to produce such blasphemous images on church ceilings means that we have an impoverished view of God. The circumscribability of these images is wrong. The visible divisions of the Persons is wrong. We start to think of God as a man, only bigger. As I say, a god-pigeon amongst us pigeons. Transcendence has been compromised and needs to be rediscovered.

It is central to theology.

To quote another Cistercian from the same book as William of St Thierry, Blessed Amedeus of Lausanne (d. 1159) writes:

What part is the finite of the infinite, the measurable of the immeasurable, the moment of eternity? As the result of what multiplication or addition will the creature be comparable to the creator? If you were to project thousands times thousands to infinity, you wouldhave laboured in vain, and not in the remotest degree could you compare human knowledge to the wisdom of God. Hence, if God is contemplated in his essence, the substance of man will not be found … (Fourth Homily on Mary, the Virgin Mother, p. 142)

When people become disillusioned with the shallow devotionals we thrust at them, or when people are dissatisfied at never going beyond ‘Justification by faith’ or ‘substitionary atonement’ Sunday after Sunday, or they tire of Christian rock, what will they find? Will they find a circumscribed Trinity of heresy, or a God who died for them on the Cross?

The Great Tradition has much to offer, including the riches of Trinitarian theology. Let us not allow bad images and falsely equivocal language ruin that.

A brief quotation on contemplation from Sarah Coakley

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

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

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

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

I guess it is time for the ascetic revival …