“I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the strivings and sufferings of the world…Grant me the remembrance and the mystic presence of all those whom the light is now awakening to the new day. One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life…All the things in the world to which this day will bring increase; all those that will diminish; all those too that will die; all of them, Lord, I try to gather into my arms, so as to hold them out to you in offering…” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – from Hymn of the Universe
The history of Christian mysticism is peppered with rich fare, the heady extrapolations of soulish delight uniquely the territory of those fearless ascetics, monastics, hermits, and contemplatives who journal their journeys. It is the stuff of heavenly lore with heroes of inner battles fought and won, the likes of which we lay-folks can only imagine. One finds there a burning cauldron of purgation, a gleaming mirror of illumination, and the sweet rest of union. I read them lustily, with an aching expectation of tiny droplets of light for my faltering journey.
That same history is fraught with the cheap thrills of mystic wannabes, hucksters, and spiritual amateurs unsuited to such a dangerous pilgrimage. The existential nature of mystical theology makes it particularly vulnerable to either deep-diving into shallow waters or worse, shallow-diving into deep waters. And it can be hard to tell the difference. Even the Church from whence sprang these instructors of the spiritual way had difficulty determining where mysticism ended and heresy began.
Here’s the deal. To be honest, as I read the mystics, I am struck by a number of things. Firstly, there is an undeniable courage required to mine the depths of God. From Augustine to Thomas Merton, women and men of rigorous faith coupled with a thirst for perfect union with their God, have sought to unpack their way in the Way. The literary legacy left behind has formed for us the corpus of Christian spirituality. It is the library to which I turn time and again for a way out of my tunnel and into God’s cave.
The more I read however, the more I see that they can be just as systematic and linear as academy theologians even as they describe the inner motions of the soul on its journey toward union with God. The roots are similar, but there are only so many ways to peel a banana. One has this threefold way, the other this sevenfold path, still another refuses steps altogether.
This is my struggle, one not unique to me – what is so often lacking is a clear connection between the complexities of the soul’s journey to God and the equal challenges of the dusty and broken world that is the home for all souls under construction. Inordinate amounts of time and energy is spent discussing their own soul’s progress in their own conversion. They almost seem to be in competition with one another as to who has experienced union with God most profoundly. There is much talk about God but turned, as it were, consistently inward.
Make no mistake, I love the mystics and will read them for the rest of my natural life. Moreover, I am usually combating the prevalent North American spiritual philosophy of ‘git ‘r done pragmatism. These matters are not generally ones that concern me to this degree. But, some questions vexing me these days: What is the relationship between the soul’s call to continual conversion and the call of the Church to be the redeemed and redeeming community? If one can discover the mysterious movements of God in the deepest parts of one’s own soul, what use do we have of one another? Of liturgy? Of Word and Sacrament? Of the Moral Law? How does all of this translate to the peasant farmer with far too little extra time on his hands to even be concerned about the threefold way, or the thirteen steps of Marguerite of Porete or anything close to an Interior Castle? Not everyone has the benefit of monastic solitude, a spiritual director, access to helpful resources, perhaps the ability to read the same(!), or a brother/sisterhood of likeminded seekers intent on finding their souls. Without that clear connection, it would seem to be too similar to the program of gnostic therapeutic dualism of contemporary evangelicalism.
The Gospel has both an inner and an outer intent. The aim of the Gospel is the ongoing restoration of the cosmos, souls and all. And the cruciformity of the Gospel calls us, nourished or not, whole or not, unified or not, in sacred ecstasy or not, into a world that badly needs these discoveries. Everyone must learn to find solace outside the monastery walls, mystic and lay person alike.
The above piece by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin gives me a peek into that kind of active contemplation. It speaks of offerings and gatherings, of sustaining grace amid the sufferings of the world. My soul cries out for the depths of the contemplative life (“as a deer pants for flowing streams…”). But my heart cries just as loud to share what I see with those around me who have no frickin’ idea what I’m talking about, but who long for it all the same.
Does that make sense? What do you think? Help a guy out, will ya?
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Image 1, “Hesychast”, by Oleg Korolev, found here
6 thoughts on “Solace outside the monastery walls”
No doubt we could all contemplate more but the Scriptures don’t seem to call us to a mystical life, but to do what we do in the world to God’s glory. We see the busy life of the apostles and what came from that. If God wanted them to stop for a while He put them in prison!
Grace be with you.
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Thanks for your thoughts here, Mr. Brown. I would respectfully disagree however. Jesus himself was completely satisfied on more than one occasion to turn his back on immediate, pressing needs to attend to his soul in the presence of his Father. And the scriptural narrative suggests quite clearly that, it was from such places of deep spiritual refreshing that he does his Father’s will, including choosing the Twelve.
Even a cursory reading of Paul shows a rich interior life, punctuated with love and mystical experience. Moreover, even the architects of western theology, Augustine, Origen, Dionysius…well all of them really, built the foundation of early Christian spirituality from the scriptures.
What you are parroting here is more western pragmatism that has no time for attending to the love of God because it’s “just too busy.” Let’s ask our wives what they think the next time we tell them there’s no time for intimacy because there’s too much to do!
Grace and peace, dear brother
PS: I intend to write further blog posts to address the contemplation-action pendulum that has always been an issue in the church!
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The Great 20th Century mystic Fr. Thomas Merton defined contemplation as seeking God, coming to know one’s true self, and learning one’s relationship to the world. He regarded contemplation as the highest form of awareness — the awareness he speaks of, is greater awareness of our True Self.
The True Self in relationship recognizes the true self of others making mutual love possible; our inner self comes to life through the works of charity; in prayer and solitude we nourish the True Self so that we can give and receive love; liturgy is meant to nourish the True Self and unites us with others in a communion of love.
In Merton’s religious experience, he felt united to all the people aware of the “sacred beauty” of their hearts. This was only possible through prayer and contemplation; being open to God’s revelatory action; by explicitly trying to transform the false self (stop trying to impress people, have a cause greater than self; challenge the claims of instrumental reason to be the best or only way of dealing with contemporary problems; we try to discover and awaken the true self; the complete discovery of the true self occurs only in death but on this earth we can let go of the false self and discover something of the true self by contemplative prayer and by complete surrender.
The true self emerges within a horizon of faith in God who calls us to authenticity; but Merton knew that the true self can only emerge in the context of committed relationships and social interactions; failure to move toward the true self promotes guilt feelings because it involves a moral demand beyond ourselves; it is not selfish or self-centered; it is an ideal that responds to the desire for fulfilment which avoids narcissism – because it is path to God and love of our neighbour – nay, even the love of our enemies!
Consequences of knowing and understanding the True Self
Merton was convinced we all have unique vocation to do God’s will and carry on the mission of Christ; we are co-creators of the world; we are all called to believe and we become saints by being ourselves; the measure of our identity is the amount of our love for God and for our fellow man; we must decide to be real or unreal, true or false; the path to sanctity is through discovering my true self; only by finding God can I find myself; only God can teach me to find God and myself in loving relationship.
James Findlay, in his talk on “Active & Passive Contemplation” states: “…being in love with each other is a gift that arises between two people… and as the gift arises, one must commit oneself to the gift, and to do “loves work”. So to it is with our prayer… as it arises within our hearts, and we feel so grateful for God’s grace, it is this gratitude ‘gift within our hearts’ that compels us to become faithful to Love’s work. Love’s work, is really surrendering ourselves over, in vulnerable openness, to the passion that is arising within us. This surrendering of oneself over is our meditation and our prayer.”
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Good brother, David Brown who also joined the conversation around this post has made the apt observation that the busy lives of the apostles seemed to reveal little of the contemplative life we herein describe. What I find fascinating however is that, any real pursuit of contemplative awareness and love of God, has all but disappeared from western Christianity since the Reformation. Instead, we’ve turned mystery into certainty, faith into facts, contemplation into coercion, rhema-breath into reason, prayer into pragmatism, ecstasy into exhaustion.
The result? One of the least effective iterations of the Church maybe ever. A more self-congratulatory, fractured, lost, hateful, tired, and anxious bunch there may never have been!
THAT is what false self looks like. The architects of our theology and faith knew this. They knew the cult of busy and how easy the “active life” becomes our idol. Our readings of scripture are shallow as piss on a plate compared to theirs. Many of them would never make it past the front door of our doctrine-SS, morality-police churches to even teach Sunday School!
If we are to recapture early Church, Gospel faith, it won’t be through the cult of leadership. It won’t be through better strategizing. It won’t be through working smarter rather than harder. It won’t be through “taking stands” on all the right stuff. It will be from stopping.
Then what? We see in our peripheral vision the eyes of the eternal God weeping for us to return to first things. The considerations of relationship and love always fuel everything else. Not the other way round.
‘And he said to them, Come he yourselves apart into a desert place and rest a little, seems to me to give the balance. We certainly need to be apart with Jesus. But the apostle says ‘Whatsoever ye do, labour at it heartily, as doing it to the Lord and not to men’. And John, the great contemplator, would seem to have had to labour in the salt mines.
As for ineffectualness – does that not arise from not giving the Scriptures their true authority?
Thanks again, Mr. Brown, for engaging with me here. Your concerns for an holistic spirituality (I tend to shy away from the more western, rational term ‘balance’) are well founded. In fact, the mystical tradition itself had many debates and spent much time considering this very thing. The life of contemplation in which one fanned the flame of love for God alone alongside the ecclesiastical, liturgical, and sacramental responsibilities of living the Gospel life among a broken world is the fullness we seek.
Unsure what you mean regarding ‘ineffectualness’, but this much I know, ever since abandoning a more rationalist, culturally-derived evangelicalism in favor of a deeper, more historic faith, my view of the scriptures is considerably higher than when it was primarily viewed as the holy DVD manual. It is ironic to me that the ones most vocal about “scriptural authority” sometimes have the tiniest view of the very scriptures that spawned the entire Christian spiritual enterprise, specifically the mystics who utilized them profusely in developing the contemplative life.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, R