Some Benedictines

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Now, if you’re excited about the Rule of St Benedict, besides applying the lessons about prayer, community, and humility to your own life, you may be wondering where to turn next. After all, RB is pretty short. Where else within that tradition might one go? Well, of course, the fountainhead of all Christian tradition is never to be neglected; that is — read your Bible! (Like a Benedictine?1) Another alternative that I heartily endorse is to read St Benedict’s reading list and contemporaries — so John Cassian, The Rule of the Master, St Basil of Caesarea, as well as the likes of St Columba, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Julianus Pomerius.

The alternative I propose today, however, is to consider the tradition that flows forth from RB and those who live according to the Rule. This embraces more than those with O.S.B. (Ordo Sancti Benedicti) after their name, but also those who pre-date the organised congregations of Benedictine monachism as well as the other orders, such as Cistercians, who follow St Benedict’s Rule.

So, some Benedictines:

The Venerable St Bede (672-735). Bede was a monk here in the Northeast of England, at the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, spending the last five decades of his life at Jarrow. Most famously, he wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People; well worth a read. In Penguin’s The Age of Bede, you can also read his Lives of the Abbots and his Lives of St Cuthbert (besides an unrelated text, The Voyage of Brendan!). If Benedictine biblical reading is your desire, he compiled/composed various commentaries, such as on Genesis,  Revelation; from Cistercian Publications, you can get the following in English: the catholic epistles, the Gospels, the letters of St Paul, and Acts. He wrote other biblical studies as well as a range of writings on computus and chronology. He is a Benedictine worth knowing.

Blessed Alcuin of York (735-804). The great Carolingian scholar from England wrote widely and helped revise the text of the Vulgate Bible. I’ve read a number of his prayers in Sister Benedicta’s anthology Christ Beside Me, as well as some of his verse. I’d like to read more, such as his letters.

St Anselm of Canterbury and Bec (1033-1109). St Anselm, from Aosta in Italy, spent his monastic career at Bec in Normandy before being elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He is a towering figure of medieval theology whose devotional work reveals the spiritual heart of all he does. My acquaintance with his writings is from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, which you can read in a translation by Sister Benedicta Ward, and Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, including his MonologionProslogionWhy God Became a Man (or, Why the God-Man? — Cur Deus Homo), and others of penetrating philosophical and theological insight.

St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). St Hildegard is a famous mystic and female writer of the Latin Middle Ages. She was an abbess who had episcopal authorisation to preach and who corresponded with the famous churchmen of her age. She had visions from a young age which are recorded in her Scivias; she also wrote abundantly on a great many other topics and composed some beautiful music. The Scivias and the music are my main encounters with St Hildegard. Look her up on Spotify.

Cistercians! A great entryway into High Medieval spirituality is The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, translated for Penguin by Pauline Matarasso. This includes selections from Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, and more. Worth your time.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). St Bernard is considered by Cistercians as the Last of the Fathers. Besides the anthology above, I’ve read from his Homilies on the Song of Songs. So much of St Bernard is so good, and so much exists, it is hard to know where else to point.

Jean Leclercq (1911-1993). Dom Jean Leclercq OSB was a scholar-monk, like de Vogué, of the highest calibre. I cannot recommend too highly The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968). Trappists are Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and Thomas Merton is probably the most famous of them. His posthumous The Inner Experience from early this millennium had a strong impact on me, and many speak highly of New Seeds of Contemplation. I also found some random selections from his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain challenging and inspiring (I found a copy lying around my parents’ house while in undergrad and dipped in and out unsystematically).

Adalbert de Vogué (1924-2011). Dom Adalbert de Vogué OSB was an academic scholar-monk who wrote extensively on the monastic tradition. For our purposes, I recommend the English translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.

Important Benedictines of one order or another whose works I’ve not read: Benedict of Aniane (the second Benedict; I skimmed his list of monastic rules once), Hrabanus Maurus  St Peter Damian, St Odo of Cluny, Blessed Peter the Venerable, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, Gertrud the Great of Helfta. Once I’ve read some of his theology, Lanfranc of Bec/Canterbury may also be recommended on this blog.

In closing, one reason why we should concern ourselves with St Benedict’s Rule is not, perhaps, that it is the greatest or the most original monastic text. It probably is not. However, a rich tradition of theology and spirituality flows from it to our own day. This is reason enough to get to know it.


1. Personally, I’ve not read any books devoted solely to Lectio divina, but Enzo Bianchi, Lectio Divina: From God’s Word to Our Lives has been recommended, and I like the look of Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading

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.

What do you mean, “God is love”? (Part two, the Trinity and Jane Williams)

Trinity KnotOn Saturday, we established that historically and biblically, the word love in “God is love” from 1 John 4 translates agape/caritas/dilectio, which are terms used in the historical and philosophical tradition of Christianity — drawing much from 1 Corinthians 13, no doubt — to express the highest form of love. Formerly, this term was charity in English — as C S Lewis discusses it in The Four Loves, charity is that love that loves the unloveable; it is not provoked by anything outstanding or desireable in the beloved. It is truly selfless in its treatment of the recipient of love. To get a picture of what God’s love looks like, I direct you to Fr Aidan Kimel’s discussion of St Isaac the Syrian on the astonishing love of God.

This, however, does not fully plumb the depths of “God is love”. In fact, it doesn’t really skim the surface.

The failure of this semantic discussion to grasp at what it means for God to be charity was driven home to me a couple of weeks ago when participating in the Church of England’s ‘Pilgrim Course’. The current module of the course is on the Creeds. One of the soundbites played as part of the course — and helpfully transcribed in the course booklet — is from Jane Williams (wife of Rowan), discussing how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus draw us into believing in the Trinity, and notes:

The very terms ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Holy Spirit’ are not proper names or descriptions of functions but terms that describe relationships. The persons of the Trinity are not interchangeable but nor do they ‘do’ different things …

This, of course, does not hit at the question of ‘What do you mean, “God is love”?’ That question is addressed in her final paragraph:

It is only because we know that God is Trinity that we can say that God is love. It would, otherwise, be possible to surmise that God is loving, or acts lovingly, but to say that God is love is only possible for this reason: because within the very being of God is the relationship between three persons and the self-giving that characterizes love. (Pilgrim Course, The Creeds, p. 25)

Love (or ‘luv’), as dc Talk once said, is a verb. It is actually both a noun and a verb in English, and in more highly inflected languages like Greek and Latin, we have both verbal and nominal forms of the words (I’ve grown too frustrated by my Greek polytonic keyboard to try using the alphabet; forgive me!). Greek: agapao, agapeeroserotaophileo, philia. Latin: diligo, dilectio; amo, amor. Caritas, however, comes from carus, not from any car- verb of which I know — which no doubt governed Augustine’s choice of dilectio to refer to this highest kind of love, thus enabling him to switch between nominal verbal uses of love.

The point of this little philological tangent is to say: Love the noun requires love the verb.

For God to literally be agape, the logic of language and the logic, indeed, of love, requires Him to have somebody to love.

According to Christian theology, God is self-existent and non-contingent. He is pure ousia/essence. Therefore, for agape/charity to be Who God is in His essence, God must, by definition, somehow be more than One (yet without transgressing the Unity).

The logic of Trinity in Unity, then, is the logic of self-giving, overflowing love. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit exist as a Communion of Persons (see Zizioulas, Being As Communion), being an integral Unity free from division (see Aquinas, saint of the week here). The love of the Father for the Begotten spills over to the Spirit. And He/They choose to express this superabundant agape in creation.

This is what it means that God is love. A love so deep, profound, and literally infinite, we can never plumb its depths nor come within hearing distance of the greatness of its superabundance. To close, then, some Thomas Merton:

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Mysticism, theology, evangelism, and social action

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

I sent an e-mail to my friend who’d given the talk spoken of in this post, outlining the same things I outlined here on the blog. His response included:

Thanks for this. … I am no Eastern Orthodox but Presbyterians need a good dose of EO and the EO could use a little Presbyterianism. I like to think of my theology as a Presby ressourcement. That sort of mystical theology is totally absent from the Free Church.

I, myself, am not a Presbyterian, but the call to mystical theology for low Protestants is important.

The image of people who are interested in evangelism and church-planting, who want to see their culture reached for Christ is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the mystics. Which is a shame.

Another tale.

A couple of my friends run a Greek theology reading group. A third friend joined them a few times (I went once for St Basil, ‘On the Holy Spirit’), but (I am given to understand) his general attitude towards the discussion was, ‘But what does all this have to do with the man on the street in Glasgow?’ (Why Glasgow?)

In my mind, ‘the man on the street in Glasgow’ — in this instance — is in need of social assistance. (This is not intended as a general statement on Glaswegians.) Why should we worry about St Gregory of Nazianzus and Trinitarian theology when there are starving people out there? In Glasgow?

The image of people who are interested in social action/activism, who want to see the poor clothed and the hungry fed is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the systematic theologians. Which is a shame.

Somewhere in his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton references St John of the Cross as teaching that one should spend more time in contemplation (used here in its mystical sense) than action — that actions ungirded in the contemplative life are prone to be willy-nilly and of less use. How do we know we are doing them for God’s glory? What is His will? That sort of thing.

That’s one approach to contemplation in a world of action (social/evangelistic).

The other is this: Good theologia and good theoria (contemplation), good thoughts about God and good thoughts in God, dogmatics and mysticism — these, in fact, lead to just behaviour and holy living and Gospel-telling.

Think on St Francis, who was a mystic if ever there was one. But his fervour for prayer, dispassion, contemplation was as tied to a fervour for preaching and for helping the poor.

Solid theology and ‘mystical’ practices give heart and soul to our activities in the world.

Perhaps it is our lack of deep thinking and deep praying that weaken our witness of love to a world eroded by hatred and false loves at every turning.

By looking upon God, whether through the intellectual truths of theology or through the noetic experience of mysticism, we can be suffused with His power, His light, and His love for a broken world.

Maybe then we’ll be worth listening to.

Love/eros for God: Contemplation beyond reason

ELEHSON ME KYRIEYesterday and the day before, I blogged about an encounter I had with some Mormon Missionaries and the reasons I gave for rejecting the Mormon position as well as some reasoned reflection on some Mormon beliefs. The main proclamation the young missionary had was, ‘I read The Book of Mormon and I felt the Holy Ghost telling me this is true.’

While not much of an argument, it is not a thought to be entirely ignored when we start discussing belief at any level — why one believes (or not), or how one believes (or not), or what one believes (or not), or how one acts in light of belief (or not).  Many of us, if we were to be honest, will admit that, whatever reasons we may marshal on behalf of our chosen worldview, there is always an element of the irrational in how/what/why we believe.

There are even atheists who admit this.

Besides these posts about reason and Mormonism, I have also discussed the reasoned study of Scripture and philosophy recently, specifically in the questions of providence and predestination. I think reason is a gift from God that enables us to interpret our world and the events in our lives and the Holy Scriptures and all sorts of things. There are even applications of reason to the philosophical question of God’s existence.

At the end of the day, though, all belief reaches beyond reason.

Love/eros for God, the deep-seated desire in the human soul, one of the basic facts of human life, is one area where Christian belief and human experience step beyond reason. This has also been a recent topic.*

When we start trying to reach for the invisible God, however, the non-rational aspects of how we live are to become entwined with our reason. We should seek a union of the mind in the heart (cf. Theophan the Recluse). We can reason that He exists, we can maybe ascertain some of his attributes from nature, we can reason truths about him from the Scriptures, we can formulate systematic theology about him, we can apply reason to the writings of the theologians and the history of the church.

And then we should step beyond that, into contemplation.

Here, I think, we will meet God’s love and start to love him.

Contemplation in the Christian tradition isn’t just thinking about stuff, like how sometimes I contemplate the terrible horror Captain Picard must have gone through as Locutus of Borg at the Battle of Wolf 359. It is seeking to apply the affective aspect of our spiritual self to the encounter with God. Sometimes it includes meditating on passages from and truths of Scripture — like thinking about Capt Picard only setting our minds on higher things. At the meditative stage, all those truths and aspects we have reasoned about can be avenues to God.

But contemplation also calls us beyond the rational. It involves a clearing of the clutter of the mind, an ignoring of the many dissonant, flapping thoughts (logismoi) that constantly plague the human mind. In this respect, it looks like Buddhism,** but it goes where Buddhism tends not to go. Thomas Merton considered the practices of Zen Buddhism as essentially psychological, as a way of calming the psyche; Merton, of course, is a slippery fish, and his ideas changed as his life went on, as discussed here.

But the Christian does not seek to empty the mind to stay empty (I understand that at least some Buddhists do, based upon conversations with a Buddhist).

The Christian wishes to fill him/herself with love of the Holy Trinity, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, with the love of Christ himself, experienced by clearing away the clutter, by entering into peace, into what Greeks call hesychia.

When we practise contemplation, all those things we have reasoned about go beyond mere thoughts we hold. God become more than an object of study — he becomes a subject to encounter. He becomes the Subject to encounter.

This is what those mediaeval mystics I’ve blogged about were seeking; what Carmelites like St John of Cross, St Teresa of Ávila, and Brother Lawrence found; what Theophan the Recluse and Elder Porphyrios are discussing in relation to the Jesus Prayer. Contemplation is a path to love of God.

Thus, through the mystics and their ways, we can enter into a life suffused with the greatest commandment — love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.

*Love/eros for God 1: Preliminary Thoughts; Love/eros for God 2: Beyond commandments; Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross; Love/eros for God: Elder St Porphyrios, ‘Christ is Our Love, Our Desire’.

**I am thinking here of the Jesuit Anthony de Mello in particular and his book Sadhana: A Way to God. De Mello argues that Greek philosophy gave ancient Christianity the intellectual apparatus to speak accurately of God, and that Buddhism can give modern Christianity the techniques to come nearer to him. I think the Christian tradition is self-sufficient in this regard, but the simple parallel with Buddhism may be helpful to some readers.

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 Last Week: St. Teresa of Avila

So I meant to do a post on St. Teresa of Avila last week. And then I didn’t.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) rocks. Hard. She was a Discalced (“Shoeless”) Carmelite nun involved in the Catholic Reform movement of the sixteenth century, along with our friend St. John of the Cross (saint of the week here). Sts. John and Teresa took their part in the healing of Christ’s church in sixteenth-century Spain particularly through the reform of the Discalced Carmelite monastic order.

This is a reminder that Catholic Reform wasn’t simply sending out the Inquisition to burn a few Prots. For the record.

St. Teresa, like St. John, was a contemplative and a mystic. She was blessed by God both with visions as well as with genuine spiritual insight. Thus she was able to help lead her monastic community of nuns well and help work through reforms. Even if some of her confessors doubted her visions.

But men are like that.

St. Teresa of Avila is most famous for her book Interior Castle. I read the translation by E. Allison Peers, whose interest in Spanish literature and mysticism has blessed us with translations of St. Teresa’s works as well as St. John’s and a fine biography of my old friend Ramon Llull. Anyway, Interior Castle is amazing.

St. Teresa had this vision, see, and it was of the mansions of the spirit. As in, your own spirit. And first you get past the outer world which is full of distracting lizards and stuff like that. Then you get further and further into the castle/through the mansions. Each mansion is about the cleansing of your soul at some level and what each stage looks like.

At the centre, when God has purified your heart through prayers and effort and trials and, ultimately, His good grace, there is the light of His Spirit. And it is there for anyone who is able to enter into the stillness and take the effort to stop being distracted by the lizards.

But most of us, unlike people like St. Teresa, St. John, St. Gregory Palamas, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton, spend much of our lives gazing at those damned lizards.

And that’s not the blessing that calls us to. He calls us to a union of love with him.

So spend time in quiet. In silence. In prayer. With Jesus. Enter the mansions of the spirit. Find Him in the light at the centre of your soul, calling out to you gently while you’re busy staring at lizards and honey badgers.

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.

The Impact of the Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have a powerful impact, stretching far beyond the deserts of Egypt.  While I was engaged in my research into John Cassian’s demonology, I wanted to organise my comparative demonologies into “Desert” and “Not-Desert”.  I was advised that, while this was a useful exercise for organisation, the boundaries of the Desert are not so easily defined.

For example, one of my “Not-Desert” sources was St. Augustine of Hippo.  As a source for demonology in relation to John Cassian, he shows us that, if Cassian did not draw ideas directly from the Bishop of Hippo Regius, their western locale informed both men’s writings.  However, to say, “St. Augustine of Hippo is not a Desert influence,” is to ignore the fact that St. Augustine had desert influences upon him, both in his Rule and from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony.  St. Augustine, in fact, cites the Life of St. Antony as being instrumental in his road to conversion.  The Desert has impacted St. Augustine.

Another man impacted by the Desert whose ideas on spirits resonated with John Cassian’s is St. Gregory of Nyssa.  St. Gregory did not himself spend time in Egypt.  However, his elder brother Basil, who confirmed his ordination to the episcopate in 372, did.  Furthermore, when we think of the interconnectedness of the Eastern Church, we realise as well that both St. Gregory and Evagrius Ponticus were present at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that Evagrius maintained contact with people outside of Egypt after he retired to the monastery at Nitria (Kellia? I forget).  Who knows what words of Evagrius may have made their way to Nyssa?

By the late 300s, anybody who was anybody had some contact with the Desert Fathers, including St. Jerome who had his own monastery in Bethlehem, where some of the Desert ascetics lived as well, and Rufinus who spent time living amongst the Fathers, and Egeria of the bestselling travelogue.

In the West, Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony was translated by the mid-fourth century and circulated widely (thus St. Augustine’s acquaintance with it).  As well, a collection the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, were made available in Latin by the 500s.  They had a wide circulation, not only with the Life of St. Antony but also with the Lausiac History and Rufinus’ translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto — all gathered together, these are called the Vitae Patrum.  Monks all over Western Europe would continue to read these works down to the Renaissance, seeking wisdom for how to live.

In wide circulation as well were John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences.  These two works had a lasting impact on western spirituality in mediating the Desert tradition as well as much of Evagrius Ponticus’ spiritual wisdom.  For more on the legacy and impact of John Cassian, read my post on the topic.

St. Benedict felt the impact of the Desert as he organised his monastery and Rule.  He recommended that his monks read John Cassian.  Thus did John Cassian’s mediation of the Desert pass into the round of monastic reading alongside the Vitae Patrum.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Desert Fathers would make their impact visible in the Franciscans, in the Augustinians, even amongst the Brethren of the Common Life, being cited by Thomas a Kempis as worthy reading.

In the East, the monasticism of Egypt has continued in unbroken ascetic labour to this day.  Its sister monastic movements, inspired and sprung from the soil of Egyptian toil, exist to this day, living by the same desire for detachment and prayer in Mt. Athos and in the monasteries of Cyprus, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, Ukraine, the Americas.

They were enshrined to be required spiritual reading for all eternity in the Philokalia.

In the contemporary world, the Desert Fathers have impacted Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Benedicta Ward, Richard J. Foster, Christopher A. Hall, and me.

Will they impact you?

The Ascetic Revival Begins Today

funnelbuttMy apologies for not warning you.  Put down that burger!  Lower the Slurpee!  Don’t even think about eating candy!  Flex your knees and get ready to pray!  Turn of the TV!  Rearrange your Internet schedule!

The ascetic revival has begun!  To read about the environmental benefits of asceticism, click here.

I’ve decided to take seriously the books I’ve read about simple living, prayer, and self-denial.*  I’ve read a lot of them.  But reading doesn’t mean learning.  A person could read the entire corpus of ascetic and spiritual literature and conceivably come away unchanged.  Or a person could simply hear the Gospels read once a week and be transformed from the inside out; or, like Abraham, someone could hear the voice of God without having any spiritual instruction or access to Scripture.  Palladius writes:

Words and syllables do not constitute teaching — sometimes those who possess these are disreputable in the extreme — but teaching consists of virtuous acts of conduct, of freedom fro injuriousness, of dauntlessness, and of an even temper.  To all these add an intrepidity which produces words like flames of fire. (The Lausiac History: Letter to Lausus 2, trans. Robert T. Meyer, ACW 34)

Therefore, a simpler life dawns.

I shall pray morning, noon, and evening.  Morning shall follow the daily office and sometimes noon and evening as well.  The flexibility will allow me to spend time using different forms of prayer.

I shall fast once a week.  You won’t know which day, and this isn’t the bragging Christ warns of.  It is, rather, an exhortation that we should all fast at least once a week.  They say it accrues much spiritual benefit.

My eating shall be moderate.  This includes no pop or Slurpees save in time of celebration.  I guess that’s the old rule surrounding wine, but I’m already too cheap to drink wine.  This also includes avoiding overeating and snacks between meals — this latter is practised by monks who follow Augustine’s Rule, such as Dominicans.

I shall spend time in Scripture-reading every day.  This has been a lifelong discipline that every once in a while I fall out of for days, weeks, or months at a time.  By God’s grace, I shall maintain this discipline.

I shall exercise my body.  The Benedictines believe in hard, physical labour.  I am an urban apartment-dwelling middle-class Canadian.  I have no garden, no chickens, no building to maintain or to build.  Therefore, I shall discipline my body through exercise, chiefly through my bicycle and through walking almost everywhere.  I’ll ride my bike three to five times a week.

What else?  Buy no unneeded stuff — books, CDs, DVDs.  Don’t rent when it can be borrowed for free.  Don’t waste time watching it or reading it when there’s a better option.  Spend more time with people in pleasant occupation and company, less time simply entertaining oneself.  Continue weekly attendance at church; possibly add an extra to ensure I receive Eucharist.  Hunt down time for solitude.  Talk with Jennifer about how we might be able to spend time in service to others.

Do you have any ideas how you and I can help start the ascetic revival of the 21st century?  If you think it’s already begun, show us where and how!

*The Lessons of St. Francis by John Michael Talbot; Celebration of DisciplinePrayer, and Devotional Classics by Richard J. Foster; The Inner Experience by Thomas Merton; Flirting with Monasticism by Karen E. Sloan; Finding God: The Way of St. Benedict by Esther de Waal; Ecstasy and Intimacy by Edith Humphrey, and other moderns.  The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius; The Life of St. Benedict by St. Gregory the Great; The Institutes and The Conferences by John Cassian; The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa; The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila (well, most of it); The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross; The Letters of Saint Antony the Great; the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto; The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus; The Rule of St. Augustine and other classics.