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.

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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.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going”

St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938)

Apparently, the title of this post is a Winston Churchill quotation; so says the Internet, anyway.

At present, things are going swimmingly for me. There is light, brightness, joy. You know, that sort of thing. At times like this, it is easy to put on a CD of hymns and sing along or simply listen in joy. It is easy to thank God for the victory. To see the promises of Scripture leap off the page and into my life.

But there has been darkness in the past.

There will be darkness in the future.

Times when prayer is dry. When God seems distant — not just ”Tis only the brightness of light hideth Thee’ distant, but ‘Are you even there?’ distant. Church (what a bore!). Other Christians? Ugh. Spiritual reading? Morning Prayer? No. Really, let’s just watch Star Trek and go to bed.

Historic, orthodox Christianity has plumbed the depths of such times, whether we think of the writings of St John of the Cross or the life of St Teresa of Calcutta.

Perseverance is the key. We read of St Silouan (1866-1938; born Simeon) about his own darkness:

Month after month went by and the torturing assaults of the devils never slackened. His spirits began to fail, he was losing heart, while despair and the fear of perdition gained ground. More and more often was he possessed by the horror of hopelessness. Anyone who has gone through something of the kind knows that no mere human courage or power can hold out in this spiritual battle. Brother Simeon foundered and reached the final stages of desperation. Sitting in his cell before vespers, he thought, ‘God will not hear me!’ He felt utterly forsaken, his soul plunged in the darkness of despondency. Sick at heart, he remained in this black hell for about an hour.

That same day, during vespers in the Church of the Holy Prophet Elijah …, to the right of the Royal Doors, by the ikon of the Saviour, he beheld the living Christ.

In a manner passing all understanding the Lord appeared to the young novice whose whole being was filled with the fire of the grace of the Holy Spirit — that fire which the Lord brought down to earth with His coming.

The vision drained Simeon of all his strength, and the Lord vanished. (Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite, pp. 25-6)

Few of us are blessed with anything approaching the beatific vision that St Silouan had at Vespers that evening. Indeed, many of us will find that we go to Vespers, or say our prayers, or turn up on Sunday after Sunday, almost unwillingly, and with no apparent change.

St John of the Cross says that this dark night exists as a means to help us grow in grace, in holiness, and in faith. The apparent absence of God is there to strengthen our weak souls. It is like a mother weaning her child. If we persevere in faith, we will come to richer, deeper, profounder love of God and our fellow humans.

This is real Christianity. This is not quick fix, Jesus-will-make-you-happy-rich-healthy religion. This is not pop psychology poorly applied by the underqualified. This is perseverance, seen in saints such as Silouan, John of the Cross, Mother Teresa. It involves pain, sorrow, grief.

But in the end, real joy, abiding peace, as we behold Our Saviour face to face in His glory.

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 …

Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross

Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)
Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)

Our love for God is, at some level, tied up with what the Greeks call eros, as blogged previously. Eros is desire, and it drives us and pulls us and raises us up beyond the darkness and the mire of the world to ascend towards God — to kallisto, the most beautiful one; summum bonum, the highest good.

As guide to what this sort of erotikos love for God looks like, St John of the Cross is one of the more beautiful choices. He paints a picture that so many of us can relate to in these stanzas from his ‘Coplas about the soul which suffers with impatience to see God’:

When thinking to relieve my pain
I in the sacraments behold You
It brings me greater grief again
That to myself I cannot fold You.
And that I cannot see you plain
Augments my sorrow, so that I
Am dying that I do not die.

If in the hope I should delight,
Oh Lord, of seeing you appear,
The thought that I might lose Your sight
Doubles my sorrow and my far.
Living as I do in such fright,
And yearning as I yearn, poor I
Must die because I do not die.

Is not this longing, desirous aspect of divine eros common to us all? We reach for the invisible God, but He seems to us illusory. We want to know Him, but He cannot be touched save in what? Bread? Wine?

Elsewhere, St John describes the relationship between God and the soul in terms inspired by Song of Songs, as of the Bride seeking the Bridegroom and lamenting her inability to find Him, and then they meet, and go up a mountain where He can reveal to her His secrets.

The soul is the Bride, and elsewhere, in the most famous of St John’s poems, ‘The Dark Night of the Soul‘, she steals away from home at night when everyone is sleeping. In secrecy she meets with and is joined to the Lover Who suspends her senses.

It has been years since I read St John of the Cross’ commentary on the poem, but this theme of being wounded by love recurs in his poetry. God reaches into the heart and wounds it for the purposes of cleansing and renewing and healing. We live in an impatient age that sees God in a therapeutic light. But our keen desire for God at times meets with His love in what may be termed ‘tough love’.

Yet we desire Him all the more. Elder Porphyrios refers to this phenomenon as well, and I think it is best thought of as unsatisfied satisfaction. We are satisfied with God when we finally find Him. But we want more. This is because of something I read of St Gregory of Nyssa (The Life of Moses, I think) — we are finite, God is infinite. The more of Him we find, the more will remain to be found. The more perfect we become, the more perfection lies ahead of us.

Today, as I think on our love for God, I want to emphasise — from the many themes of St John’s many poems — the theme of perseverance. The great mystics and holy men & women and spiritual theologians of the church often went through great perseverance to move forward in their lives. Let us persevere in the face of the Unseen God, knowing that He will be faithful and make Himself known to us in the ways that are best for us and that we can handle.

This, then, is a major part of our love for God: to persevere.

Poems of St John of the Cross and making time for silence

I got back from a week up in northern Scotland with my parents this past Friday, and our first stop was the Granite City of Aberdeen where, after seeing my Grandpa’s birthplace and two fantastic Gothic churches, we slipped into a bookshop (as we are wont to do). To my delight and surprise, I found Poems of St John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell.

poems of st john of the cross

As I have mentioned here before (twice, in fact), I lost this book, a gift from my friend Emily, along with The Way of a Pilgrim, trans. Helen Bacovcin, back in 2004 on the OC Transpo when the books fell out of my pocket. My brother gave me Bacovcin’s Pilgrim for this past birthday, and now I have also recovered St John of the Cross — in even the same edition! Quite chuffed with this purchase (a mere £2), I started reading that night at our hotel.

Zurbarán_St._John_of_the_CrossHere you will find that St John of the Cross employs ‘the analogical’ method of talking about God and our relationship to Him — that is, St John is unashamed to follow in the footsteps of St Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) in discussing Christ as the bridegroom of the human soul as bride. It is an analogy for a kind of communion and relationship to which nothing in the human sphere really compares. This private poetry is one of my cited locations where it’s okay for Jesus to be your boyfriend.

The first poem is the famous ‘Dark Night of the Soul‘, upon which St John wrote a commentary that is one of the great classics of the Christian tradition (read it online or find it in print!). Many of the poems deal with searching for the Lover or with one of the classic tropes of lyric-elegiac poetry — the pain of love.

One title stands out to me, Englished as, ‘Verses Written After an Ecstasy of High Exaltation’.* How many of us could say, ‘I have had an ecstasy of high exaltation?’ We may have the eros, the desire, for God, but we rarely reshape our lives. My ‘ascetic revival’ of a few years ago lasted about a week. Old patterns slip back in.

Who has time to sit alone and pray to God, to clear the mind, to do nothing in God’s presence?

We, of course, need to make the time. Cultivate stillness and silence. Probably very few of us will have ecstasies of high exaltation — ecstasy, as James Houston notes in The Transforming Power of Prayer, is a gift from God not doled out lightly. We cannot attain it by any technique or through any skill. But we can all attain the same stillness that inspired St John of the Cross to write his beautiful poems, driven by the desire to meet with the Most Holy Trinity. And that is worth doing.

So, when we’re moving along with church attendance, prayer, and scripture reading — as recommended here — shall we then add stillness in God’s presence as a way to focus our lives and hearts of Jesus?

*’Coplas del mismo hechas sobre un éxtasis de alta contemplación’ in the original spanish.

Prayer in 2004: Classic and Charismatic

Today, my historical journey on the pocket scroll will take us to the far gone, bygone days of yesteryear — 2004.

In 2004, I lost two very excellent books. I still sometimes grieve for them. One of them was The Way of a Pilgrim, the other the poems of St John of the Cross. I had acquired the former at the Métis Nation of Ontario’s annual gathering (the official name of which escapes me) for, like, 50 cents. The Way of a Pilgrim is a Russian spiritual novel about a guy who wanders all over Russia, meets with spiritual elders, and prays The Jesus Prayer, seeking ‘the self-actuating prayer of the heart.’

That’s actually what it says.

This book was my first contact with the Jesus Prayer, which has subsequently become a staple for my prayer life, alongside the more Protestant/evangelical prayers of my upbringing and the BCP.

My mother’s only concern with the Jesus Prayer was one which she also has with much contemporary worship music — it is self-focussed. Nonetheless, she agreed that the idea of a simple, repetitive pathway to perpetual prayer was probably a good thing.

The poems of St John of the Cross were a gift from my friend Emily. They’re interesting, an insight into a different approach to Christian prayer and mysticism — the original ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ vision of Christian spirituality. But, unlike contemporary Christian music, at least St John of the Cross got his spirituality from the Bible (read Song of Songs with the majority tradition as the expression of God and His Church together for that to make sense).

In those days, instead of swanky striped shirts with cufflinks made out of watch gears, I wore T-shirts and cargo pants (for my UK readers, those would be trousers). And my cargo pants (insert chuckle) had a pocket that was just the right size for two small pocket books/mass market paperbacks.

So I put them in there.

Somewhere on OC Transpo (city of Ottawa bus system) they got off without me.

So. There I was, an eager, young undergrad, seeking the idealistic depths of constant prayer and union with the Divine.

What was I to do?

The OC Transpo did not have them in their lost and found.

I like to always have a devotional/spiritual l book on the go (sometimes I absorb nothing, but it’s better than not seeking at all; sometimes I fail to have such a book on the go). So I plucked off my shelf a book I had found at Ottawa’s murky, three-storey used bookshop of dubious quality, the Book Market — Nine O’Clock in the Morning.

This book, for those of you who don’t know it, is the story of the start of the ‘charismatic renewal’ in the Episcopal Church of the USA. I was captivated by the tale of how a high-church priest who didn’t go in for or even believe in such things became an outlet for the Holy Spirit pouring Himself upon His people with rich blessings, with healings and conversions alongside the ordinary miracles of daily life.

This book, and a visit to Ottawa by Bishop Malcolm Harding of Anglican Renewal Ministries reminded me that, as a Christian indwelt by the power of the Holy Spirit, I already had all the resources I needed to enter into a deep experience of prayer — John of the Cross and The Way of a Pilgrim might be nice, might be helpful, but they are not necessary.

This is an important lesson for bookish people like me. Some Christians should probably read more books. Some Christians should probably read fewer books. I should probably often put the books down and actually pray.

Christ through his life, death, and resurrection, as well as the power of the indwelling Spirit, has already given me what I need to enter into deepest communion with the Divine. All I need to do is accept it.