Seeking the incomprehensible life

I posted this quote to a group I’m part of on Facebook. It’s a group started by a friend who works for a mission organisation; his job is to help encourage, ignite, and equip disciple-making movements around the world. The group is largely focussed on how poorly we seem to be doing at this in the white Anglophone world. Part of the problem, my friend has postulated, is that we keep focussing on having “new wineskins”, but we’ve lost sight of the wine (Jesus the Christ) and keep offering Kool-Aid in new packaging.

Anyway, my contribution was the following passage from Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite:

Strange and incomprehensible to the world is the Christian life. Everything is paradoxical, everything contrary to the ways of the world, and there is no explaining it in words. The only way to understand is by doing the will of God — by observing Christ’s commandments. The way He Himself indicated. (p. 45)

I wrote that this passage “makes me wonder if we Protestants have spent too much time making ourselves comprehensible to the world and too little time pondering Our Lord’s commands.”

My friend who started the group pointed out that observing Christ’s commands from the Sermon on the Mount means moving our focus not only from murder to anger but as far as actively seeking reconciliation. I’m pretty sure that’s radically countercultural. I’m pretty sure most people tear into their enemies with anger or just avoid them. (I’m an avoider.)

Archimandrite Sophrony shows an example of this incomprehensible life in the all-consuming love for others that came upon St Silouan as a result of grace. St Silouan would weep for those who would end up in hell, and pray even for them. He once met a hermit who happily spoke of how the atheists would suffer in hell. St Silouan expressed his grief at this — how is this love for others, to rejoice at their suffering? (I’m sure David Bentley Hart would have some things to say about this, but I’m not one for debating about universal salvation.)

This feeling of sorrow for those who are outside of Christ, this all-encompassing love for others — this is what characterised St Silouan in his outward life. This was the result of his tireless pursuit of prayer, of God, of Christ our God.

In The Cloud of Unknowing, the author says that the increase of love for others is a result of contemplative prayer. The closer we are to Christ, the more we love other humans.

As the Internet increasingly polarises us, we must find ways to live out the radical commandments of love that Jesus gives us. Meditating on the Sermon on the Mount, as my friend suggests, is a place to start. Praying, praying, praying, as St Silouan did, is another.

The spiritual reality of the Ascension

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, Edinburgh

Someone I know once expressed concern because he learned Bishop Spong says that if Jesus had ascended to heaven, then he was still going up without stopping since there’s nothing up there but outer space. This sort of crass literalism is not even worthy of fundamentalists who know very well that when Jesus ascended, he didn’t go to a place within the physical, material, tangible, visible universe that is measurable by scientific equipment.

But it turns out that Spong doesn’t even believe in heaven, so whether he was willfully misunderstanding orthodoxy or simply stating his own beliefs — “There is no heaven, so Jesus must have kept going, I guess!” — doesn’t really matter. But what this Spong-ian anecdote represents is a certain discomfort some have in our age with the miracle of the Ascension, perhaps because the divine has been boxed in by the Enlightenment, likely also because people assume illiterate, ancient fishermen were idiots who actually thought heaven was a place in the sky.

Although I have not read the entirety of Christian literature, the only person I’ve encountered who seems to think heaven is literally “up there” is Cosmas Indicopleustes, the same guy who is in that minority of fools who believed in a flat earth (most educated people in the ancient and medieval world knew better). And I may even have misunderstood Cosmas, taking the diagrams in the copy of his book too literally. This is an actual possibility, not just me being irenic or falsely modest.

Most thoughtful Christians who have considered what this event means whilst simultaneously asserting its historicity have decided that, when Jesus was hidden from view behind the cloud, he passed from our plane of physical existence into the Throne of God in the Heavens (taking his physical, human body with Him!!). It strikes me that there may be spiritual significance in God’s use of a cloud, although it may simply have been the most convenient thing for the moment.

Here is the take we find on this event in The Cloud of Unknowing:

[Ch. 59] And if you are going to refer me to our Lord’s Ascension, and say it must have physical significance as well as spiritual, seeing it was a physical body that ascended, and he is true God and true Man, my answer is that he had been dead, and then was clothed with immortality; and so shall we be at the Day of Judgement. At that time we shall be so rarefied in our body-and-soul, that we shall be able to go physically wherever we will as swiftly as we can now go anywhere mentally in thought. Up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards — it will be all the same to us, and good, so the scholars say. But at the present time you cannot go to heaven physically, but only spiritually. And it is so really spiritual that it is not physical at all: neither above or below us, beside or behind or before.

[Ch. 60] Now perhaps you are saying, ‘But how do you arrive at these conclusions?’ For you are thinking you have real evidence that heaven is up above, for Christ ascended physically upwards, and, later, sent the Holy Spirit, as he promised, from above, unseen by any disciple. And we believe this. And therefore, you think, with this real evidence before you, why should you not direct your mind literally upward when you pray?

I will answer this as best I can, however inadequately. Since it had to be that Christ should ascend physically, and then send the Holy Spirit in tangible form, it was more suitable that it should be ‘upwards’, and ‘from above’, than it should be ‘downwards’ and ‘from beneath’, ‘from behind, from the front, or from the sides’. Apart from this matter of suitability, there was no more need for him to have gone upwards than downwards, the way is so near. For, spiritually, heaven is as near down as up, up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on this side as on that! So that whoever really wanted to be in heaven, he is there and then in heaven spiritually. For we run the high way (and the quickest) to heaven on our own desires, and not on our two feet. So St Paul speaks for himself and many others when he says that although our bodies are actually here on earth, we are living in heaven. (Phil. 3:20) -Trans. Clifton Wolters, chh. 59, 60, pp. 125-127

While there are some late medieval mystical works that should be classed as “outliers” and not representative of Christian tradition more widely, on this point, at least, The Cloud of Unknowing is not an outlier. There is thus no theological reason to doubt that Jesus actually did rise up into the air before vanishing from his disciples’ sight. Believing in the historicity of the Ascension neither makes you a fundamentalist, nor necessitates Jesus continually ascending through the reaches of interstellar space.

So celebrate the Ascension tomorrow without feeling like you must turn off your brain.

Why do we think The Cloud of Unknowing is for us?

I just finished reading Clifton Wolters’ 1961 translation of The Cloud of Unknowing for Penguin Classics. Since 1961, there has been a new Penguin translation by A. Spearing. I see on Amazon at least six other translations into modern English besides Evelyn Underhill’s popular edition. Reviews of this book are almost all pure adulation and recommendation. People love The Cloud of Unknowing.

Now, I am not anti-Cloud of Unknowing. But I do wonder how many of us are its target audience.

Although the book has some practical advice for contemplative prayer, it is also clear that the person who is urged to beat at the cloud of unknowing is seeking to enter into the higher of two levels of contemplative life, to which few ever ascend. It is also clear that most people live in the active life, and that entering this higher level of the contemplative life is a gift of grace. Not everyone is called or suited, and you can meet God in other ways and be holy in the active life as well as in the lower level of the contemplative life.

Now, the author of The Cloud is right in saying that since this is the result of grace, not of our own doing, it may require only a moment of work. We may, the instant we begin, receive the grace in contemplation that so many of us seek. But the author also describes what sounds like a more common journey — from a life of discipline and charitable works up to the lower level of contemplation — which is also the higher level of the active life — before ascending to this highest level of the ascetic-contemplative life.

I suppose I fear that many of us, many of the writers of glowing reviews, set aside some time for what we call “contemplative prayer” and follow some of the advice given in The Cloud without pursuing fasting, long periods of meditation on Scripture, giving away excess personal goods, wearing a simple wardrobe, eating plain food, following the advice of a spiritual director/father, engaging in acts of mercy and charity, et cetera.

If we are not pursuing the active life, are we ready to try the contemplative life?

Now, maybe more people are doing these things than I suspect. If so, this is great. And maybe more people receive the grace of contemplation without effort than I imagine. If so, this is great. However, if I am right, I hope that we will all start taking seriously the disciplined life as much as the contemplative life. There are no short cuts to holiness most of the time. There’s no such thing as “40 days to mountain top experiences of God.” God lives with us in the valleys and he helps us climb those mountains.

Remember that a likely original audience for this work was a person considering becoming a Carthusian! The guys who take a vow of silence. Remember that most of the great mystical works of the Middle Ages were written by monks and hermits like St Bernard, St Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, and St Thomas of Kempen. Whatever flowering of mysticism they may have encountered, they also lived the disciplined life of asceticism.

So, although there is profit in The Cloud of Unknowing, and I would recommend it to people interested in the western mystical tradition, I think most of us need to read some more ascetic books because, as easy as this one feels sometimes, I think it is beyond us.

Benedict and the Desert Tradition of the Middle Ages

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

I am in the middle of writing about the Rule of St Benedict, and yesterday I began writing about his twelve steps to humility. Immediately, what came to my mind as a helpful addition to St Benedict was the distinction between perfect and imperfect humility in the anonymous, 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud makes an interesting distinction between the two. Imperfect humility arises when we look at ourselves, our sins, our frailties, our weaknesses. Perfect humility, on the other hand, is the result of looking at God and being overcome by his greatness, glory, and goodness.

Throughout my current work on Benedict’s Rule, I am trying to focus my attention on the Rule itself, the tradition that birthed it, or the tradition that grew out of it. This is an ample field from which to reap — not only John Cassian and the Rule of the Master, but the Desert tradition leading to Cassian (including Evagrius), and Benedict’s other “holy catholic Fathers” such as Pachomius, Basil, Augustine; not only pre-Benedictine monasticism but the sons and daughters of Benedict as well, such as Bede, Boniface, Anselm, Hildegard, Bernard, Aelred, the rest of the Cistercians, and even Thomas Merton.

But what about texts such as the Cloud of Unknowing? When I write about Lectio Divina, can I safely use Guigo II, a Carthusian? Or the Victorines if I feel the need? Obviously, any wisdom from any source should be welcome. But if I’m writing about the Rule of St Benedict, part of me wants to consider the influence that Benedictine life and spirituality has had. Can Carthusian sources be welcomed, then?

I am, in fact, leaning towards yes. The reasoning is not simply, “Wisdom is wisdom. Let us attend.” It also has to do with the nature of the Middle Ages. The Rule of St Benedict is the most popular monastic rule from before 800 to after 1200 when the friars start appearing. Besides being used by multiple orders, the members of non-Benedictine orders had contact with the Rule, its sources, and their brothers following the path of Benedict.

For example, St Bernard was a regular visitor to the Abbey of St Victor, and I have an unconfirmed suspicion that there are links between some Victorine and Cistercian manuscripts. William of St-Thierry wrote works for Carthusians. Ivo of Chartres, not a Benedictine, studied at the monastic school of the Benedictine monastery at Bec alongside St Anselm under Lanfranc. Sons and daughters of Benedict rub shoulders with those in non-Benedictine orders.

Furthermore, the Desert tradition that nourished the Rule of St Benedict in many ways continues to be copied, read, and meditated upon — and sometimes lived — by those outside the Benedictine tradition.

Therefore, it seems methodologically sound to include sources from outside the Benedictine tradition when they represent the wider tradition of the Desert as it swept through western Europe in the Middle Ages. Medieval Christianity is a thousand-year meditation and recasting of Late Antiquity in different ways. Its interconnectedness should, therefore, inform our meditations upon it.

What is meant by “Cloud of Unknowing”

Yesterday, my son — two years and ten months old — looked at my copy of The Cloud of Unknowing and asked, “What’s that purple thing, Daddy?”

“That’s a cloud,” I said,

“Why, Daddy?” he asked. (I think that if he persevered and I had the stamina, we could someday reach, “Because God created the universe.”)

“Do you remember the story about Moses, how he went up the mountain to meet with God, and God gave him the Ten Commandments? Well, when Moses met with God in the mountain, God came to him in a cloud…”

At this point, he slipped down out of my lap and exited the conversation.

My own slow progress in The Cloud of Unknowing is mostly talking about how we need to clear our minds of all thoughts but God Himself — even good ones — in order to beat at the cloud of unknowing and encounter God. However, the use of this image is as old as Exodus — and, in theological literature, at least as old as St Gregory of Nazianzus and his best friend’s little brother, St Gregory of Nyssa. Alas, my copy of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses is locked away with most of my books. His approach is much the same as that of the elder St Gregory.

St Gregory of Nazianzus writes, in the Second Theological Oration (Oration 28):

What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow-lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the Mount, and drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up, I scarce saw the back parts of God; (Exodus 33:23) although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself — to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature, which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then shall you discourse of God; even were thou a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; (Exodus 4:2) even were thou caught up like Paul to the Third Heaven, (2 Corinthians 12:2) and had heard unspeakable words; even were thou raised above them both, and exalted to Angelic or Archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of His Nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.

St Gregory of Nazianzus goes on to discuss the incomprehensibility of God which is the spiritual meaning of Moses ascending into the Cloud on Mount Sinai and encountering God there. Interestingly, this essentially “mystical” foundation of St Gregory’s theological enterprise is what allows him to lay out his more philosophical and systematic discussions of theology — it sets out the boundaries of the playing field. There is only so much we can know. And our formulations about God are not God Himself, who is unknowable as to His nature itself.

The saintly bishop from Nazianzus also maintains, in the chapter before this one, that only people who have attained a certain level of perfection are able to enter the Cloud and engage in contemplation and meet with God. He does not cite it, giving instead a spiritual understanding of the various persons and animals and their relationship to Mount Sinai in Exodus, but the Scriptural foundation for such thinking would be Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The Cloud of Unknowing would concur.

Some may think that this sort of approach is elitist. It certainly can be. It may also, however, be humble. Who is truly pure in heart? What makes us think that, apart from an inner transformation effected by God in His unmerited favour towards us, we are able to theologise clearly? The Gregories’ contemporaries in the Desert say that the monk must become all eye, and their elder brother from Syria, St Ephrem, speaks of the luminous eye and the need to have our sight purified.

I think that theology, mission, and asceticism all go hand in hand. Perhaps the failures of contemporary western Christianity stem from how so many of us compartmentalise them or focus on only one — evangelism without theology, book smarts without holiness, pure living without telling others about Jesus. The ideal, if not the lived reality, of the ancient church was a holistic embodiment of all three.

Can we do that today?

Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 1: Language and God

The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum
St Francis, a man who loved God and neighbour (my pic)

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am reading Prayer by Timothy Keller for a study group at church. Overall, I like it so far. But I am myself, so I cannot turn off the critical mind, in both the neutral and negative sense of the word critical.

Keller, as one may expect from a conservative Presbyterian pastor, is severe towards the mystical tradition of apophatic and contemplative prayer throughout. He admits room for silence before God, but mostly as a response after we’ve already done our talking at God, citing the venerable J.I. Packer for this belief.

The version of Christian mysticism he takes issue with is certainly something I’d be concerned about, if ever I’d met it. His discussion of mysticism in chapter 4 begins with a modern analyst’s consideration of Meister Eckhart and John Tauler, then moves into Thomas Merton. Of these three, a certain amount of Eckhart’s teaching was condemned by the mysticism-friendly Latin church of the Middle Ages (and its modern successor, Roman Catholicism). I admit to not knowing the details of Tauler’s teachings, but I do know that not everything Thomas Merton wrote would have been approved of by the Roman Catholic Church. That is to say, these three do not the mainstream of Christian mysticism make.

Keller’s criticism of mysticism quickly shifts to the lens of John Jefferson Davis, who is wary of The Cloud of Unknowing and the Jesus Prayer. The former is one of those books everyone recommends but that I’ve not yet read. The Jesus Prayer I am much better acquainted with. Nonetheless, I shall treat Keller’s discussion of Davis’s critique of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Keller and Davis distrust the mysticism of The Cloud because the goal of this sort of prayer is:

to get beyond discursive thoughts and to experience pure attentiveness to God the Spirit through the quiet, reflective, and repetitive use of a single word such as God or love. Davis rightly criticizes this by insisting that the use of language is not incidental but is instead essential to God’s eternal being as a unity of three persons, and that believers are to be sanctified in the form of the truthful words given to Jesus by the Father and conveyed to us by the Spirit. (Keller, Prayer 57)

Here lies my ongoing wrestling match with the Reformed, which is the verbocentric universe. Keller has already said elsewhere in the book that, since God exists as Trinity, we have ‘every reason’ to believe he uses language. He also implies through some deft equivocal language that all actions of God are verbal, as opposed to the point the Scriptures he uses make, which is that every word of God is an action — but perhaps this is simply lack of clarity on his part or over-incisiveness and nitpicking on mine.

Nevertheless, I have difficulty imagining that language such as we know it, in its flaws and imperfections, has anything to do with the inner-Trinitarian life. Indeed, I would never want to venture any guess as to how the Most Holy Trinity communicates amongst himselves. That the Triune God communicates to us with words is inescapably true. To say that the use of words is ‘essential to God’s eternal being as a unity of three persons’ is dangerous and possibly blasphemous.

Frankly, we need to consider what we mean. Clearly some sort of social Trinity has been imagined here. This is a little like what the Cappadocians say, but not really. Triadology may be as it may be, I see no relevance on how inner-Trinitarian conversations have to do with the infinite gulf between the Creator and the created.

In fact, I would argue that it is our own feebleness that makes language an essential part of prayer. God, who is beyond all creation and therefore beyond language, chooses to communicate to us in flawed human language. It is thus an appropriate response for us to try the same.

But none of this is actually my main issue, which is that Davis as presented by Keller seems to think that these two modes of prayer are mutually exclusive, which they are not.

Readily available mediaeval mystics

Angelic Choir by St Hildegard

Carl Trueman, back in 2008, penned a little piece about why evangelicals should read the mediaeval mystics. One of the reasons put forward is the fact that our friends who aren’t Christian but with an interest in spirituality are likely to be probing the mystics who are readily available from publishers such as Penguin as opposed to some obscure or pricey Christian publishing house.

The question arises: Which mystics can you or your friends easily get a hold of without breaking the bank or darkening the door of a theological bookshop? Here are a few, drawing from Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. I admit to my knowledge being incomplete; perhaps other popular translations exist!

In chronological order:

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward, published by Penguin. More Late Antique in origin and ascetic in focus, this text is nonetheless one of the streams out of which mediaeval mystical theology and monastic thought flow, although a dense and difficult one.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion published by Penguin. When I read St Anselm’s 11th-century meditations, I can’t help but feel there is some element of the mystical to his devotional writings.

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, published by Penguin. This anthology keeps tantalising me; from it, I have read some of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Song of Songs, one of the most influential texts of mediaeval mysticism that made St Bernard Dante’s guide to the uncreated light and who was regarded by Thomas Merton as the last of the Fathers. Note there is also the volume Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics.

Selected Writings of Hildegard von Bingen, published by Penguin. (12th c.) St Hildegard was almost the foundress of mediaeval women mystics in the 1100s, experiencing visions from an early age, and becoming abbess of a Benedictine nunnery. Her Scivias are commentaries upon the visions she had, but she also composed sermons, letters to important men, music, and art.

The Life of Christina of Markyate, published by Oxford. This is the story of a 12th-century woman who maintains her virginity in the face of incredible odds and goes on to become a prioress and have visions from God.

Francis & Clare of Assisi: Selected Writings from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Works from the 13th-century mystic founders of the Franciscan movement, some ascetic, some poetic, some mystical.

The Life of St. Francis by St Bonaventure, from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Bonaventure was himself a mystical theologian, and it is in the stories about St Francis of Assisi that we see the great saint’s life as a mystic most clearly.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart, published by Penguin. Meister Eckhart was a 13th/14th-century German mystic who has been recommended to me but of whose work I have read none. I understand that he is deeply profound but some of his ideas were condemned by the Church.

The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Penguin; also available in the series HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. This anonymous English work of the later 14th century is one of the many frequently-cited mystical books I’ve never read but want to …

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, published by Penguin; also available from Oxford World’s Classics. Julian (14th-15th c) is another major figure amongst women mystics of the Middle Ages of whom I’ve written here before. This book is a mature reflection of a visionary experience Lady Julian experienced in the 1300s.

The Book of Margery Kempe, published by Penguin. Also available from Oxford. Kempe travelled all over Christendom to pilgrimage sites and had some ecstatic visions and dreams in the 14th/15th centuries. Full disclosure: Some people find her annoying.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, published by Penguin. This 15h-century treatise is not, strictly speaking, a mystical work. However, it is one of the most popular works of mediaeval spirituality ever written, and its ascetic bent is an essential pairing to the mystical enterprise.

Of course, many other mediaeval mystics and spiritual theologians have been translated into English, available in series such as The Classics of Western Spirituality or Cistercian Studies, but these are the ones I’ve found from popular publishers at affordable prices available at normal bookshops…