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I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly he has withdrawn and I could not find him, though I sought to do so.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.

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Christianity and Eastern Religions

I just read an essay by the late Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk) about Thomas Merton and why Merton appeals to iMonk so much. Thomas Merton is one of the 20th century’s most popular spiritual/religious authors, a fact that probably immediately draws the ire and fire of fundamentalists and other likeminded folks (not to mention his being a Roman Catholic!).

One of the aspects of Merton’s writing that seems to draw a lot of fire, however, is neither his popularity nor his Roman Catholicism, but his interest in Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism (see here). Thomas Merton is not the only Christian writer to get in trouble for learning of and drawing from Eastern religions — CS Lewis has been accused of being a Taoist and a heretic here! I have no doubt others have suffered similar fates (Anthony de Mello would have if he were popular enough).

This branding of Christian thinkers who have an interest in Eastern religions and who are able to draw ideas from them as heretics or false Christians troubles me. It troubles me because Christians are bound to the Bible as the full revelation of God as far as we need to know, containing nothing superfluous and lacking nothing necessary (see Rick Dugan’s brief but illuminating post to that effect).

Yet to say that the Bible is all true is not to say that there is no true outside the Bible. What it means is that if we find truth elsewhere, it will not run counter to Scripture, nor will it be necessary for human salvation. It will not complete the picture of God we can find by faithfully searching the Scriptures. But Christians must surely be able to learn from Eastern religions.

We certainly learn from pagan Greeks — we are all fans of pagan logic-chopping. We tend to be pleased with readers of Plato’s Republic. I once saw a quotation from Marcus Aurelius — Stoic philosopher and Christian persecutor — in a calendar full of Christian quotations! It was there because it was wise. We like a certain type of pagan Stoic ethics, or a certain type of seeking happiness put forward by the likes of Aristotle.

It’s true that we spent a good long time after dear Origen delineating how closely we should dance with Neo-Platonism, and that aspects of mediaeval philosophy were hopelessly pagan and Platonic, while aspects of late mediaeval theology are heavily Aristotelian. And we have had to disentangle Christian truth from those pagan elements since then.

But what about the paganism of “Enlightenment” thought? Or the paganism of capitalism? Or the paganism of the Renaissance? Or the paganism of secularism? These are ways of thinking that are so bred into our culture that Christians often operate by their assumptions while claiming to be spiritual beings who are inseparably tied to the immortal God who transcends the rational world!

Let us return, then, to Eastern religions, to Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

Is it necessarily wrong to read their writings and find wisdom there? I sure hope not! In The Inner Experience, his final work, Merton paints an expressly Christian mysticism, one rooted in the reality of the Incarnation, the Scriptures, and the tradition. He also mentions Zen Buddhism, but under the belief that Zen meditation is a form of psychological action that alone does not guarantee contact with God — yet it can help calm the mind and help the mind focus.

Is this so bad? I mean, this is what Christian mystics, Orthodox and Catholic, call for — the dispassionate focussing and, to a certain extent, emptying of the soul/nous/mind to be able to focus on the tangible Presence of God. If a Buddhist practice that is decidedly psychological can help us without denying the Scriptures or the tradition, is that so wrong?

If we are set free by the Scriptures and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we can read any pagan — ancient or modern, Greek or Indian — and be able to find the wisdom of God himself dwelling there. And we should expect this, actually. Justin Martyr discusses the fact that the Word (that Person of the Godhead who became incarnate as Christ) is the underlying principle of the cosmos, that he orders all things and is present to some extent in all human beings.

All human beings can catch a glimpse of God, of how to reach Him, of what His way of life is to be.

This practice is called spoiling the Egyptians. We read the unbelievers* and, using the twin lens of Scripture and Tradition, we can safely find the wisdom of God residing there. The practice is an ancient Christian practice certainly consciously practised by Origen and St. Clement of Alexandria; St. Justin Martyr became a Christian from having been a Platonist and considered himself a Christian philosopher. Its more recent pedigree includes Erasmus’  Handbook of the Militant Christian (where I first encountered it, though not under this name, if I remember aright).

The idea is set out in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses (I was going to quote for you, but I left my copy in Canada). Basically, if you’ll recall the Exodus story, when the Israelites go out of Egypt, the Egyptians give them a vast amount of wealth — gold, silver, jewels. The allegorical or spiritual reading of this passage is the teaching that, because of the general grace of God there is wisdom in the writings of pagans. This wisdom is their wealth, and it is open to spoliation by Christians — ie. any wisdom in the pagans may be taken by the Christian reader and applied to his’er own life and beliefs.

Such beliefs are never to be binding unless corroborated by Scripture,** but they can help make our lives fuller and richer. If you have a terrible job, the Stoic idea that freedom resides within you and you can be truly free whilst a slave can be liberating. Or if you have, say, anger problems, breathing practices from Eastern religions can help calm and focus your mind.

So, if you’re halfway through the Bhagavad Gita, keep reading. Just don’t forget to read the Bible while you’re at it!

*The secularists, atheists, agnostics, Greeks, Egyptians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, Confucians, Native North Americans, Maori, Aborigines, African animists, Zoroastrians, Sumerians ……

**When we try to make them binding, we end up with embarrassing things like vociferous religious opposition to Copernicus and Galileo (although Galileo got into trouble because, even though correct, he had insufficient evidence and kept on teaching his ideas after promising not to until he had more evidence).

Saint of the Week: St. John of the Cross

Image of the Crucifixion by St. John of the Cross

My first encounter with St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) was musical, in Thunder Bay at a Steve Bell concert where Steve performed ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ based on St. John’s poem of the same name.  Later, I was to encounter this mystic saint through the similarly folksy music of John Michael Talbot.  I found the image of the dark night and the discovery of the beloved quite irresistible.

I next encountered him in the written translation of his poetry in a slim volume of his poems given me by my friend Emily.  Although I was to lose this book and The Way of a Pilgrim in a misguided use of cargo pockets on my trousers to carry books, its brief time in my life was a blessing.  His vivid and almost (dare one say it?) erotic imagery of the relationship between the soul and God was powerful for me.

I think this Spanish mystic would have approved of my initial encounters with him — as well as the association of his poems with The Way of a Pilgrim.  You see, St. John was a mystic and a monk, indeed, but he was also a singer.  I remember hunting down information on him on the web after these early meetings, and I learned that his spiritual friend, St. Teresa of Avila, described John of the Cross as spending time walking in the hills and singing songs to God.

And why not?  Why not sing songs to one’s lover?

St. John of the Cross demonstrated his great love for the Almighty through the commitment of his life to monasticism.  This was the sixteenth century, and anyone who has looked at, say, the Fifth Lateran Council or the events that started in Germany in 1517, knows that the Church in many ways was in need of reform.  St. John and St. Teresa were both Carmelites, and both were involved in the reforming of their religious order.

St. John’s commitment to reform of the Carmelites was so great that he was considered with suspicion by other Carmelites monks and once found himself imprisoned in a rival monastery.  But have no fear — he made a daring escape!  Let no one tell you that the life of a mystic is boring and full naught but long nights sitting around in silence seeking the divine embrace!

Besides the poem ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, St. John of the Cross also wrote a commentary on it, appropriately titled The Dark Night of the Soul.  I read E. Allison Peers’ translation of this well-nigh central text to post-mediaeval western mysticism whilst in Cyprus (where I was informed by a friend that all you needed from St. John was a quotation and then you’d be cool).  I never moved to its sequel, The Dark Night of the Spirit, for that was for contemplatives who had moved appropriately through the lessons of the Dark Night.

The concept of the Dark Night is something any spiritually healthy person needs to know.  We may have effulgent love for God that pours itself out in poetry and beauty and paintings and dance and essays and ecstasies and social action* and who knows what else.  But we will at times find ourselves unsatisfied.  We will be dark, dry, barren.  Those things we once found sweet — prayer, the Scriptures, the Eucharist — are bitter and empty.

This is there for us to grow.  God doesn’t want us to be good, strong Christians.  He wants us to be better, stronger Christians, pursuing the way of perfection through worship and imitatio Christi all of our days.  As a mother weans a child of her milk so the child can move to solid food, so God removes some of the pleasantness of the spiritual life for a spell so that we can grow into even greater and clearer manifestations of his unending love for us.

I have by no means done anything resembling justice to this mystic, poet, spiritual reformer.  If I have somehow whetted your appetite, find his poems, find Peers’ translation of the Dark Night, and read the relevant chapter of Edith M. Humphrey’s Ecstasy and Intimacy.  You won’t be disappointed through an acquaintance with St. John.

Also — pray for a while today.  St. John would recommend it, for how can we say we love God when we spend no time with him?

*St. John of the Cross was cited by Thomas Merton as saying that contemplation was more important than action, and that one action that has been preceded by much contemplation is worth more than ten with none.  Or something like that — see The Inner Experience.