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.

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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…