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.

Books … or people?

Fact: I am not a sap who typically says things like, ‘It’s the human connections that really matter. It’s about the people in our lives. People matter more than experiences. What’s really important is family and friendship.’

Allow me briefly do that.

I am about to read the book Prayer by Timothy Keller as part of a church group. Fact: I have never read a Tim Keller book before. I’m not really the sort who reads American ‘celebrity’ pastors. I do read British ‘celebrity’ Orthodox bishops and archimandrites, though. Due to my own trajectory, my own personality, my own past, my own likes and dislikes, my own sins, my own virtues, I am less likely now to read books by people like Tim Keller than books by people like Father Zacharias of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England.

I was thinking about this, and about writing a post about that trajectory, and the books that have helped me get where I am, from Andrew Murray’s A 31-Day Guide to Prayer read whilst a teenager, to James Houston’s The Tranforming Power of Prayer at age 22, to now, 33 years old and reading Kallistos Ware in my spare time (and St. Cyril of Alexandria at work!).

At the end of that draft, I felt, ‘To what avail?’

And I thought of Fr Raphael’s tutelage in the Jesus Prayer. And I thought of the accountability of praying the daily office with my brother as part of the Witness Cloud. And I thought of the time spent talking about spiritual growth and prayer with a number of people over the years — friends, family, mentors.

If my hard heart is softer, my mind more attuned to God, it is more recognizably so through these interactions.

But the books have helped. I know that they have. Yet sometimes one feels like, after so many books about prayer, Morning Prayers, Jesus Prayers, extemporaneous prayers, prayers in tongues, etc, etc, one still sits at the bottom rung of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, as poor and sinful as ever one was at the start.