the Week beginning Sunday, September 30, 2012
From Laurence Freeman OSB in THE TABLET 10 May 1997.
of the Soul,”
[One] reason why silence
is so disturbing to us [is this]: As soon as we begin to become silent, we experience the relativity of our ordinary everyday
mind. With this mind we measure our space and time coordinates, we calculate probabilities and count up our mistakes and successes.
It is a very important and useful level of consciousness. It is so useful and familiar a state of mind that we easily think
it is all there is to us: our whole mind, our real selves, our full meaning.
Life, love, and death
frequently teach us otherwise. We bump into silence at many unexpected turnings on the road of life, in unpredictable ways,
in unlikely people. Its greeting has an effect which is both thrilling, full of wonder and yet often terrifying.
Our thoughts, fears,
fantasies, hopes, angers and attractions are all rising and falling moment by moment. We automatically identify ourselves
with these fleeting or compulsively recurring states without thinking what we are thinking. When silence teaches us how unreliably
transient these states really are, we confront the terrible questions of who we are. In silence we must wrestle with the terrible
possibility of our own non-reality.
Buddhist thought makes
this experience—what it calls anatman or “no self”---one of the central wisdom-pillars of its path of liberation
from suffering and one of its essential means to enlightenment. The Buddhist practitioner is encouraged to seek out this sense
of inner transience and rather than fleeing from it to dive headlong into it, as Meister Eckhart and the great Christian mystics
is the Buddhist idea that others generally have most trouble with. How absurd, how terrible, how sacrilegious to say that
I don’t exist. In fact most Christian antagonism to anatman is unfounded or founded on misinterpretation. It does not
mean that we do not exist but that we do not exist in autonomous independence, which is the kind of existence the ego likes
to imagine it has; the kind of fantasy of being God with which the serpent tempted Eve. It is the hubris to which religious
people often fall victim.
I do not exist by myself
because God is the ground of my being. In the light of this insight we read the words of Jesus in the New Testament with deeper
perception. “If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind; day after day he must take
up his cross and come with me; but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). If through silence
we can embrace this truth of anatman, we make important discoveries about the nature of consciousness. We discover that consciousness,
the soul, is more than the amazing computing and calculating and judging system of the brain. We are more than what we think.
Meditation is not what we think.
After meditation: from THE DHAMMAPADA, verses 276-279,
You must make the effort,
the awakened only point the way. Those who have entered the path and who meditate, free themselves from the bonds of illusion.
Everything is changing.
It arises and passes away. The one who realizes this is freed from sorrow. This is the shining path.
To exist is to know
suffering. Realize this and be free from suffering. This is the radiant path.There is no separate self to suffer. The one
who understands this is free. This is the path of clarity.
Key Aspects of the Teaching.
Communion or union
The early Church fathers had no shadow of a doubt that union with the Divine is possible for all: “God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of all, of believers and unbelievers,
of the just or the unjust, of the pious or the impious, of those freed from passions or those caught up in them, of monks
or those living in the world, of the educated and the illiterate, of the healthy and the sick, of the young and the old.”
(Gregory of Nyssa)
The reason for this
is to be found in their theology. The Greek philosophers, in particular Plato, were the first to formulate the idea of our
having something essential in common with the Divine. They called it the ‘nous’,
pure intuitive intelligence as distinct from rational intelligence. Having something like the Divine within us allows us to
know the Divine, as the prevalent idea in early thought was that only ‘like can
know like’. Our everyday experience also confirms that. Only when we have something substantial in common with another
person can we truly relate to them, can we be one in mind and soul.
The early Church Father,
Clement of Alexandria, saw the correspondence between the concept of ‘nous’
and the one expressed in Genesis of us being created in the ‘image of God’. The ‘image’ was for them comparable
to the ‘nous’. Following him Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, Evagrius
and even later Meister Eckhart all saw this ‘image of God’ as proof
of our orginal and essential unity with God. The reason why we can touch and be touched therefore by this ultimate transpersonal
reality is because there is something within us that is similar to this reality. The same conviction we also find in Jesus’
words: ‘The Kingdom of God is within you and among you.’(Luke 17:21) St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘Do you not know that your body is a shrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit?’(1Cor 6:19). Meditation helps
us to actually experience this reality, this living force as Christ within us, energising, healing, transforming and leading
us to greater awareness, wholeness and compassion.
Similarity has always
been accepted within Christianity – the soul as a mirror of God - but total identity has often been disputed. Yet we
hear in the ‘Gospel of Thomas’: ‘Whoever drinks from my mouth will
become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that person.’ In the
‘Gospel of John’ we find Jesus’ beautiful prayer of unity: ‘that they may be one, as we are one: I in them and Thou in me, may they be perfectly
one.’ (John 17:21)
who experienced this identity and spoke about it were viewed with suspicion. Meister Eckhart talked about the birth of the
‘Word’ in the soul, by which he meant the realisation of the consciousness of Christ within us, which is our link
with the Divine: “Similarly I have often said that there is something in the
soul that is closely related to God that it is one with him and not just united.” St
Teresa of Avila talked in the ‘Interior Castle’ about the seventh dwelling
place of the spiritual marriage as a permanent state of union beyond rapture, a total oneness.
Yet it is communion rather than union we are talking about in Christianity. It is not seen as a total merging, but
“there is no doubt that the individual loses all sense of separation from the One and experiences a total unity, but
that does not mean that the individual no longer exists. Just as every element in nature is a unique reflection of the one
Reality, so every human being is a unique centre of consciousness in the universal consciousness.” (Bede Griffiths ‘The
Marriage of East and West’)
for the Week beginning Sunday August 19, 2012.
From John Main OSB,
MOMENT OF CHRIST
“A Call to the Fullness
One thing we learn in meditation
is the priority of being over action. Indeed, no action has any meaning, or at least any lasting depth of meaning, unless
it springs from being, from the depths of your own being. This is why meditation is a way that leads us away from shallowness
to depth, to profundity.
Learning to be is learning to
begin to live out of the fullness of life. That is our invitation. It is learning to begin to be a full person. The
mysterious thing about the Christian revelation is that as we live our lives fully, we live out the eternal consequences of
our own creation. We are no longer living as if we were exhausting a limited supply of life that we received at our birth.
What we know from the teaching of Jesus is that we become infinitely filled with life when we are at one with the source of
our being, . . . our Creator, the One who describes himself as “I Am.”
The art of living, living our
lives as fully human beings, is the art of living out of the eternal newness of our origin and living fully from our centre,
. . .from our spirit as it springs from the creative hand of God. The terrible thing about so much modern, materialistic living
is that it can be so shallow, without a serious recognition of the depths and the possibilities that are there for each of
us if only we will take the time [to] undertake the discipline to meditate. . . .
In the Christian vision we are
led to this source of our being by a guide, and our guide is Jesus, the fully realized man, the person wholly open to God.
As we meditate each day we may not recognize our guide. That is why the Christian journey is always a journey of faith. But
as we approach the center of our being, as we enter our heart, we find that we are greeted by our guide, greeted by the one
who has led us. We are welcomed by the person who calls each one of us into personal fullness of being. The consequences or
results of meditation are just this fullness of life—harmony, oneness and energy, a divine energy that we find in our
own heart, in our own spirit. That energy is the energy of all creation. As Jesus tells us, it is the energy that is love.
After meditation: from THE SOUL
OF RUMI: a New Collection of Ecstatic Poems,
Love is the way messengers, From the mystery tell
Love is the mother. We are her children.
She shines inside us, Visible-invisible, as we trust.
Or lose trust, or feel it start to grow again.
The Roots of Christian Mysticism
Clement of Alexandria: Jesus, the Divine Physician
Perhaps all identity is born from
conflict. Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher, thought everything came out
of conflict. Christian identity in its infancy also had to engage with and separate from strong religious and philosophical
forces in Judaism, Greek thought and Gnosticism. Alexandria, a city founded in the universalist vision, became the earliest
crucible of this process. Even at the time of Christ when Philo, the Jewish thinker, was reconciling Greek and Jewish minds
and the Hebrew Bible was being translated into Greek, Alexandria was a place where dialogue not coercion was the hallmark
of the quest for truth. Clement of Alexandria, born perhaps in Athens in 150 AD, gravitated towards this extraordinary city
of ideas and there found his Christian mentor. Pantaenus who had visited and studied the philosophy of India, was the first
head of the first Catechetical School in Christianity a position to which Clement succeeded.
When this open season of intellectual ferment was shut down by the persecutions of the early third century Clement,
a married man, was forced to pack his books and flee and died somewhere in exile about the year 215.
As the first mystical theologian
he has left us an enduring model of a Christian mind so deeply coloured with the catholicity of the mind of Christ that he
proclaimed that ‘nothing that is not against nature can be against Christ’. A Christian humanist who saw the Word
of God doubly preparing for the Incarnation by means of Greek philosophy as well as the Hebrew Bible, Clement presented Christianity
in a way that the educated world could respect. Imagine today how much better one feels at one’s core beliefs being
represented by a Ratzinger or a Williams rather than by a single-issue fundamentalist. Clement’s catholic mind contrasts
with his African contemporary Tertullian’s whose faith had a very different tone – “what has Athens to with
Jerusalem?” he asked dismissively. Even as a ‘Christian Platonist’,
though, Clement held to the fundamental doctrines of the Incarnation, the human-divine nature of Jesus and of Christ as universal
saviour (‘everyone has need of Christ’) not as a dogmatic test of conventional orthodoxy but as an inspirational
revelation. For Clement the Incarnation is a work both of ‘tuition and revelation’ and this continuous breakthrough
into faith sustains the freshness and largeness of his theology just as it must have grounded and steered his prayer. In him
we see that theology and experience are not meant to be separated.
Clement is the first theologian
to speak of salvation as ‘theosis’ (divinisation). It is not a legal process. Sin for him is not an infraction
of rules meriting punishment but the irrational result of ignorance. He uses a metaphor that Julian of Norwich would also
employ to illustrate her theology of salvation – the Adam who fell into a ditch because he couldn’t jump over
it and couldn’t get out. The second Adam came to help him, not to punish. It is in the imageless depth of one’s
prayer that this theology of salvific mercy is born and grows. Salvation for Clement is not a reprieve but freedom, health,
knowledge, life. The ‘medicine of the divine physician’, the Word who has eternally ‘held the helm of the
universe’ and who, incarnate, is known to be the ‘all-healing physician of human infirmities and the holy charmer
of the sick soul.’
Knowing this is faith. Clement
therefore sees Christians as ‘true gnostics’. Although he defends Christian belief from a takeover bid by Gnosticism
he does not deny how and where the Gnostic approach is true. Clement’s view of the disciple’s personal growth
of this spiritual knowledge is expressed in his three great works. The Protrepticus
(Exhortation) introduces the pagan mind to Christ as Logos with an emphasis on belief. “Everyone may choose to believe
or disbelieve.” In the Paedogogus (Tutor) he focuses on the educational work
of Christ and the purification of the disciple. Here we see the first illustration of what could be called an integral Christian
‘spirituality’ – faith as a holistic way of life with a socio-economic significance touching on how people
dressed, ate, wore jewellery and scent, went to the baths, walked, spoke and made love in the marriage chamber. In Stromateis (Carpetbags) a more esoteric style addresses more advanced pupils in whom direct experiential knowledge
of the truth has already begun to appear. These three stages of the spiritual journey will become normative for the whole
tradition. Christ the Teacher ‘trains the Gnostic by mysteries, the believer by good works, the hard of heart by corrective
discipline’. The neophyte obeys from fear, motivated by the desire for rewards, the believer forms good habits, the
Gnostic obeys through love and has no desires because she has all she needs through the Holy Spirit and she is as like God
as is humanly possible.
Irenaeus, Athanasius and later
Augustine shared with Clement the key patristic belief that the import of the Incarnation of God is the divinisation of the
human being. This brave assertion – one that became dangerous later in the tradition - attracted the Gnostic then just
as it attracts the vaguer ‘New Agers’ today. The Christian meaning of the idea however is precise and rational.
It links personal experience with the ever-ineffable mystery of God’s nature. Theosis is the work of love, not thought
alone. We will see continually in our survey of the tradition that contemplation is
the work of love. ‘The more someone loves God the more deeply he enters into God,’ Clement says and what makes
this possible is what Aquinas would call ‘co-naturality’. It is an idea of Plato that Clement developed in Christian
faith through the verse in Genesis that says the human being is made ‘in the image and likeness of God.’ We can
only know that which we are like. It is the nous (mind), the most inward part of
the soul according to Plato that makes it possible to know God. But to translate this as ‘intellect’ today is
misleading. It is much closer to that function of mind called ‘buddhi’ in Sanskrit or the ‘heart’
in the Scriptures. For Clement nous is the meaning of the human as “image
of God” and it is the organ of prayer.
To be the ikon (image) of God is, for the mystical thinker, not a frozen state but a dynamic process. We are a becoming like, a being in process of assimilation to God. There is a tendency to abstraction in all this –
the body doesn’t get much of a look in and contemplation might seem rather spectral. But Clement’s Christian anchor
in Incarnation controls this. The ‘true gnostic’ is a fully involved ecclesial Christian. Good works flow from
prayer and as a Christian contemplative he is ‘greater in the kingdom who shall do and teach. (because) all to him are
The combination of transcendence,
expressed in theosis, and immanence, expressed in love, is infinity. In Clement
perfection means we never become perfect and that ‘every end is a new beginning.’ The imageless nature of contemplation
– what Origen, Clement’s successor, was to call ‘pure prayer’ is the experiential work of this theology
in which we are continuously moving ‘through holiness into immensity’. Clement’s is the first great articulation
of the apophatic dimension of knowing God to which everyone is summoned. ‘We
may attain somehow to the conception of the Almighty, not knowing what He is but what He is not.’ The mature Christian,
we learn from Clement at the beginning of our tradition, is theologically bilingual. She can say: where is God not? Nowhere.
So, God is everywhere. This covers all bases and avoids the hubris that has led us in this age to the folly of scientism,
believing only what we can see and measure.
Immense as has been the impress
of Clement’s mystical intelligence on Christian thought and spirituality it is the depth and breadth of his encounter
with Christ that makes him that rare combination, a loveable authority. For him Jesus ‘has a voice of many tones and
varied methods in the salvation of men. His aim is to create true health in the soul’. Jesus as saviour has found out
for all the ‘rational drugs which tend to quickness of perception and salvation.’ Behind the architecture of a
great mind we feel the intimacy of one who is caught up in the wonderful beauty of love.
Readings for the Week beginning
Sunday, August 12, 2012
An Excerpt from John Main,
DOOR TO SILENCE:
“Being Present Now,”
If we are truly attentive to the mantra
we cannot image God. We cannot construct any idea or icon of God. In the context of this pure attention, pure faith,
we learn that all images, ideas, memories and words fall short of the reality we are paying attention to. They are unreal.
They are illusion. So in meditation we realize that God is not an absent memory or an abstract dream. God is.
In the simplicity and faithfulness
of the practice God is known not as [an entity] we think about or imagine or talk to or analyse, but as all reality. To go
forward to meet God in pure attention is to know and to be known by God. To know is to love. To be loved is to be known. To
be loved by God is to love God. We need to divest ourselves of all the intermediary processes. All images, thoughts and language
The simplifying practice of saying
the mantra teaches us to pay full attention to what is directly. To pay full attention to the One who is personally. To prepare
for this we learn the discipline of mindfulness. We learn the discipline of selflessness, not to be thinking of ourselves.
Not to be caught up in a web of our own self-reflective weaving. Not to be snared by external circumstances. But to live from
the depth of our own being, from the depth of being itself.
Meditation is a discipline of presence.
By stillness of body and spirit we learn to be wholly present to ourselves, to our situation, to our place. It is not running
away. By staying rooted in our own being we become present to its source. We become rooted in being itself. Through all the
changing circumstances of life, nothing can shake us.The process is gradual. It requires patience. And faithfulness. And discipline.
The humility of meditation is to put
aside all self-important questioning. To put aside self-importance means to experience ourselves poor, divested of ego, as
we learn how to be. To be present to the presence. We learn, not out of our own cleverness, but from the source of wisdom
itself, the Spirit of God.
From TALKS WITH RAMANA MAHARSHI:
On Realizing Abiding Peace and Happiness
The ultimate Truth is so simple. It is nothing more
than being in the pristine state. This is all that need be said. Still it is a wonder that to teach this simple Truth there
should come into being so many religions, creeds, methods, and disputes among them. . Oh, the pity!. . . .[Because people]
want something elaborate and attractive and puzzling, so many religions have come into existence and each of them is so complex,
and each creed in each religion has its own adherents and antagonists.
For example, an ordinary Christian will not be satisfied
unless he is told that God is somewhere in the far-off Heavens not to be reached by us unaided. . . .If told the simple truth—“The
Kingdom of Heaven is within you”---he is not satisfied and will read complex and farfetched meanings into such statements.
Mature minds alone can grasp the simple Truth in all its nakedness.
The Roots of Christian Mysticism
The occasion for the first great divide
in the history of Christian spirituality was an esoteric and eclectic form of mysticism that is still with us and erupts from
time to time in Hollywood blockbusters. ‘The truth is out there’, the Da Vinci Code or Stigmata claim and ancient
secrets concealed by nefarious Catholic cardinals and albino monks are finally revealed for all by American anthropologists
on the run from the Vatican and the police. Since the discovery of a cache of Gnostic (from gnosis, knowledge) texts in the
Nag Hammadi find in Upper Egypt in 1945 there has been a hugely renewed interest in this tradition and its relation to orthodox
Christianity. Coinciding with feminism and the public exposure of the human weakness of the clergy and of religious institutions
this movement developed an exaggerated importance. It created a market in a spiritual vacuum that suppliers of religious revelations
were quick to fill. Probably half of western undergraduates think there is something substantial in the Jesus-Mary Magdalene
myth; and that, once upon a time there really was a feminist, liberal, humanist, democratic Christianity suppressed by centralisers
and inquisitors. In fact hierarchy and liturgy developed very early in the life of the Church.
Heresies are not necessarily always the repressed forms of an early perfection. They can also be experiments in which
there is much to admire (the Greek for heresy means choice) but that are later found to be wanting.
Gnosticism is an important shaping
element of our tradition which is why most Gnostics considered themselves Christian. Yet it is as difficult a movement for
scholars to define, as is our own ‘New Age’. It is also difficult for Christians to reject Gnosticism in its totality,
just as one cannot deny that a wayward relative or black sheep does belong to the family.
The First Letter of John with its sublime teaching on love - that could not be found in a Gnostic text - becomes sharp
when it refers to those ‘many antichrists’ who broke ranks with its community. ‘They never really belonged
to us; if they had they would have stayed with us’ (2: 19). This is the bitter language of hurt family feelings. Maybe
the Doubting Thomas of the Gospel of John (20:24), who touches the physical body of the risen Jesus and believes, is a riposte
to the Gnostic Thomas and his inability to accept the full meaning of Word made flesh.
The oral and literary material of
memories about Jesus was collected in the synoptic gospels between the years 70 and 90. But it was another three centuries
before a definitive canon was established omitting, for example texts such as the Shepherd of Hermas but including a problematic
one like the Book of Revelation. It helps to focus if we compare the Gospel of Thomas, a Syrian text of disputed date but
probably about 75AD, with the mystical and indeed partially Gnostic doctrine of the Johannine scriptures, the Gospel and Letters.
Thomas is not a narrative but a collection of sayings of Jesus – ‘the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke’
(1) – some of which some scholars believe to have a claim to authenticity. The esoteric tone of the text characterises
Gnosticism but is not altogether lacking in the canon either: ‘To you the secret of the kingdom of God has been given;
but to those who are outside everything comes by way of parables’ (Mk 4:11). This is a saying echoed in all the synoptics
although their overall sense is not to speak of a hidden teaching but one openly given and often misapprehended even by the
close disciples: ‘Do you still not understand? Are you minds closed? You have eyes. Can you not see?’ Jesus asks
the Twelve. (Mk 8:17-18).
In both Thomas and in John there is
an emphasis on immanence, the divine presence indwelling. But the Gnostic text adds an impersonal omnipresence: ‘Split
a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there’ (78). In John Jesus personalises this
presence while raising it to the highest mystery of his union with the Father: ‘As you Father are in me and I in you,
so also may they be in us’ (Jn 17:21). There is a sense of discipleship in Thomas but the disciple is called to a self-reliance
and self-realisation that makes it a different kind of discipleship than that found in canonical teaching. In Thomas, Jesus
can be asked questions but tells the disciples to go off and work it out for themselves. In John the ‘friendship’
Jesus shares with the disciple makes it a warmer relationship than any we glimpse in the disconnected sayings of the Gnostic:
“Jesus said I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring I have
tended’ (13). The Gnostic Christian is essentially equal to Jesus because the same light and divine nature pertains
to both. The catholic Christian becomes one with Christ, by grace, a child of God by ‘adoption’. The language
overlaps but the sense is distinct. But when John says ‘we shall become like him because we shall see him as he really
is’ the proximity of the two kinds of mystical language is obvious.
The Gnostic call of Jesus is from
chaos to a meaningful quest to find oneself as a child of God: ‘Jesus said, “Those who seek should not stop seeking
until they find. When they find they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed they will marvel and will rule over all’
(2). This has an obviously different tone from the main gospels as does the call to renunciation. Behind Thomas’ asceticism
lingers what has been called the ‘cosmic paranoia’ of Gnosticism and the deep dualism of a cosmology that rejected
the first chapters of Genesis. The world for the Gnostic is a mistake not a divine creation which God contemplated and found
to be good. The ‘singleness’ of the Gnostic is different from the unity of the catholic Christian
Gnosis is nevertheless an important
element in the New Testament, especially in John and Paul. Clement of Alexandria, as we will see next week, called the mature
Christian a ‘Gnostic’. The influence of Gnosticism on the development of Christian mystical tradition has been
powerful, though largely by negation rather than affirmation. It set boundaries, defined for example by the polemic of the
‘Against Heresies’ of Ireneaus of Lyons that later Christian mystics had to be prudent about crossing. In the
end, however, the argument was not about the value of knowing but about its content and meaning. This meaning was defined
by the addition of two other key themes used to express and interpret the mystical experience of the Christian, faith (pistis)
and love (agape). For Paul the ‘greatest of these is love’ and for John ‘God is love’. For Thomas
salvation comes through gnosis. For the New Testament gnosis arises from the marriage of faith and love. What is above all
conspicuously absent from Thomas’ Gospel is the theme of forgiveness and the love of enemies. It is this that makes
the mysticism of the catholic tradition a real and transformative incarnation.
The implications of these differences
for mystical theology are immense because they shape the identity and tone of a community. What difference, if any, do they
make to the mystical experience in itself? This is a difficult question at the heart of all mystical traditions and one that
today opens up the dialogue between religions. No description of an experience escapes the skin of language or the life of
its community. Only silence does that. Yet the experience of silence creates community, deserving to be called ‘catholic’
by being unified in the total diversity of its members. Yet again, not all interpretations of this experience are of equal
integrity just as not every understanding of scripture is right. Thus we see sadly some truth in Cardinal Newman’s quip
that ‘mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism’. The catholic/ gnostic dispute shows that we must beware of
ignoring the resonance between different interpretations of the silence found in mystical experience – the meanings
of knowledge, faith and love. But the same dispute shows that there is also a need for the authority of tradition and its
interpreters in order to defend the unity of a spiritual community which itself helps to prepare us for and sustains us in
the never-ending journey into this silence.
Readings for the Week beginning Sunday August 5, 2012
from Laurence Freeman, OSB, The Tablet, August 10, 2004.
In the dry heavy heat
of a Tuscan afternoon the bus drops off retreatants, from several continents. They now have to walk carefully down a steep
path toward the guest house and monastery. The path is a parable, made of narrow, ancient terracotta bricks, many crumbling,
missing or replaced with new ones. .
Even as they watch
their step down the beaten path they see the views over the wooded valleys and breathe in the pungent scent of ginestra. They
are also worried about their bags, wondering what their rooms and food will be like. But they are already forgetting London,
Houston, Singapore and Geneva and, to their surprise they have already begun to feel at home. They have arrived.
I have seen this for
fifteen years now, the reactions of those coming for the first time to the annual silent Christian meditation retreat at Monte
Oliveto Maggiore, the mother-house of the Olivetan Benedictine congregation. The sheer physical beauty of the place, just
south of Siena, is disturbing at first, like being introduced to a very beautiful person. The peaceful is-ness, the self-confidence
of the place and the at-homeness of the white habited monks who live here becomes more amazing as you get used to it. There
are not many places in the modern world where there is such a combined sense of stability, harmony and hospitality. Your first
thought might be that it is so much of a home to someone else that you are condemned to being an outsider. But it proves to
be one of those rare places with the grace of making everyone feel at home –meaning you feel you can let go, be yourself,
remember who you are.
In an age of religious
fundamentalism it is enlightening to find a deeply religious environment, which welcomes people of diverse views and cultures.
That does not immediately pounce on differences or apply labels of approval or exclusion. That does not harshly judge and
condemn or acquit in the name of Christ or Allah or Yahweh. I guess it is this, the friendship of the body with the mind in
an environment of natural beauty, the wondrous friendship found in contemplation with strangers, the being together in a living
stream of tradition that has not been dammed and gone stagnant, that makes people feel at home.
God, as Aelred of Rievaulx
bravely said, is not only love. God is friendship, with oneself, others and the environment. Those who are not in friendship
can know nothing of God - even, and especially, in the most heartless certainty of the religious fundamentalist that they
are defending God against his enemies. The anxious homelessness that characterizes our fragmented society, however, has engendered
a contemplative homing instinct even deeper than fundamentalism. In a place like this, the homing instinct for God intensifies
among human warmth, tolerance, hospitality and gentle religion. It is part of the spiritual search of our time to long for
such a feeling of connexion and mutual trust, for a religion that nurtures community rather than division. And perhaps it
is this inclusive, catholic sense of being at home with difference that is the meaning of the real presence.
When Bernardo Tolomei,
a rich Sienese nobleman came here to seek God 700 years ago he was abandoning a comfortable home for what was then a dangerous
wilderness. He lived in prayerful solitude and when companions joined him, adopted the Rule of St Benedict. St Catherine of
Siena, a Joan Chittister of her day, berated him, as she lambasted bishops and clergy for their lukewarmness, for accepting
too many monks from wealthy families, and he obediently widened his vocation base. . . .When plague struck Siena he left his
new contemplative home and returned to care for the dying in his old city where he too soon fell sick and died. The cycle
of his journey shows that the peaceful sense of being at home is not restricted to one place and that the more you let go
of it the more you are at home. If you really are at home with the self in God you will find yourself at home, in peace and
An excerpt from Julian of Norwich, Chapter 67, REVELATIONS OF DIVINE LOVE
Then our Lord opened
my spiritual eyes and showed me the soul in the middle of my heart. The soul was as large as if it were an eternal world and
a blessed kingdom as well. Its condition showed it to be a most glorious city. In the midst of it sat our Lord Jesus. . .
most gloriously is he seated within the soul, in rightful peace and rest. . . .Nor will he quit the place he holds in our
soul forever. . . .For in us is he completely at home. . .
The Roots of Christian Mysticism
St Paul is often credited
with founding Christianity. Certainly it would not have developed as it did without him. Nor would he have developed it as
he did, if he had not been thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus and in a blinding light had seen Jesus and had his
life utterly changed. To say he shaped the future form of Christianity does not mean he deposed Jesus, but that, like us,
he did not know him ‘after the manner of the flesh’. Though Paul insists on the humanity of Christ he is not much
interested in the historical Jesus. Nor does it mean that Paul was preoccupied with structures and rules. In fact religiously
he was radical, a pioneer not an administrator, a mystic rather than a lawyer. St Peter called Paul his friend and ‘dear
brother’ and recommended his letters, though cautioning that there were passages that were hard to understand and that
could be misinterpreted (2 Pet 3:15). Peter had tussled with him at the Council of Jerusalem over admitting gentiles into
the Christian fellowship. In Rome they were both revered equally as they awaited their fate. But tradition traces the See
and succession of the Prince of the Apostles to Peter not Paul. Paul was perhaps not the kind of person you would choose as
a safe pair of hands in a diocese.
He was probably born
into a prosperous Jewish family in a pluralist Greco-Roman city. Some think that in his twenties he came to Jerusalem to study
the Law and by his own admission became a fundamentalist zealot hounding Jesus’ followers. Before his conversion experience
and by his self-description he ranks with the worst of ayatollahs or Grand Inquisitors. Not only was he right but others should
be punished for being wrong. Afterwards, he reversed his deepest religious ideas concerning grace, sin and salvation. This
religious revolution however was not primarily intellectual but spiritual. For several centuries beginning with Paul and the
apostolic church, theology developed under the influence of mystical experience born in deep contemplation. Over time the
tables turned, especially in the western church, and theology as the ‘queen of sciences’ separated from the supposed
‘subjectivity’ of prayer and began to monitor the experiential and to scrutinise the ‘personal’ verification
of faith. The roots of this perennial, natural tension between the spiritual and religious, so commonly invoked today, can
be seen in the letters of Paul, though he could not have guessed where it would lead.
His first Letter to
the Thessalonians is the first piece of Christian writing and in its third verse expresses the triad of faith, hope and charity
that, like so many of his formulas, shaped the church’s theological vocabulary. His use of these and other terms influenced
all later mystical writers – gnosis (knowing through personal experience), pistis (faith as personal relationship),
agape (divine love). Through his letters, written to small house churches, in whose lives he had a passionate, even possessive
parental interest, we can guess at his complex religious personality. Like Moses he seems not to have been a charismatic speaker.
He was fiery in loving and in anger. He could be tender, harsh, forgiving and impatient. His ‘thorn in the flesh’,
whatever it was, kept him humble in his drivenness and his total immersion in the experience of Christ. ‘In Christ’
appears 164 times in Pauline writings, referring always to this life whereas the phrase ‘with Christ’ refers to
the next one.
Like other founders,
the line between the man and the myth is tenuous. Only about half the Pauline letters are now thought to have been written
by him. Yet Paul is greater than his personality and historical identity. His conversion experience, however, is utterly personal
and is described more than once in his letters and in Acts. It floored him for three years before he could resume life. Mystical
experience, he shows us, is transcendent but cannot be separated from the individual psyche in which it occurs and which it
can overload. Paul’s experience was a ‘light mysticism’ but the writings it inspired contain material which
was subsequently mined for all kinds of Christian mystical literature including the dark night. Paul’s theology contains
in a non-systematic way both the kataphatic (what we can say about God) and the apophatic (saying what we can’t say).
He tells us that ‘in Christ the Godhead in all its fullness dwells embodied’ (Col 2:2), an important element in
the developing dogma of the Incarnation. He also prays that through faith Christ may dwell in our hearts in love and that
we may ‘know’ its totality ‘though it is beyond knowledge’ (Eph 3:17).
His conversion was
only the beginning and perhaps as much of an implosion of his dark side as a full mystical moment. In 2 Cor 12 Paul refers
to an experience of being ‘caught up into paradise’ (‘whether in the body or out of the body I do not know
– God knows’) in which he heard ‘words so secret that human lips may not repeat them’. It has similarities
in expression to Jewish apocalyptic mysticism but is unique too, especially in being so explicitly autobiographical. The significance
of telling this however is not to ‘boast’ but to insist that people form an estimate of him on the basis of what
they see. And what is he like? Just like us. He was given a ‘thorn in the flesh’ to keep him humble and despite
his prayers God did not remove it. Thus he was kept weak. And it is weakness
not mystical experiences he is proud of because the power of Christ rests on the weak and divine power is seen fully only
in human weakness. ‘For when I am weak then I am strong’. Here we see the essential renunciation of power that
is at the heart of the mystery of Christ and the Christian life. Christian mysticism
focuses not on the subjective experience which easily puffs the ego but on the work of God in the greater context of the world
and the service of others.
This description of
ecstasy, fuelled many subsequent mystical writers like Origen and Ambrose. It helped them to Christianise Platonic ‘theoria’
(vision) that became a key Christian word for contemplation. In allowing connections with earlier figures like Plotinus it
shows how inter-faith dialogue flourishes in the mystical, a point not to be forgotten today as Islam and the Christian West
line up politically. Reading Paul’s description of spiritual transformation Gregory of Nyssa expanded on the concept
of epiktasis, the never-endingness of the experience of God. Paul taught that ‘we are being transformed into (Christ’s)
likeness with ever-increasing glory’ (2 Cor 3:18). By contemplating the Risen Christ the human being, as an image of
God, is both healed and completed. Christian mystics emphasise the priority of experience but warn of eye-catching ‘experiences’.
Freezing attention on individual experiences is spiritual consumerism. The extension of experience over time is faith.
Two more aspects of
Paul’s mystical experience that shaped the Church should be highlighted. First, its impact on moral thought. Paul’s
conversion and ongoing enlightenment in Christ led him to jettison religious law as the way to rectify the human condition.
He discovered the fatal attraction of seeing sin as the breaking of a rule that the law could in turn put right. In Romans
he sees the Law as a band-aid solution. It cannot do the radical surgery needed to heal that self-alienation in the human
soul which is the root of sin. What achieves it is grace and, wonderful news, where sin is grace abounds all the more. From grace it is but a step to seeing love as the primal energy of prayer and deepening
union with Christ and others. For Paul the cosmic Christ is the inner Christ. Knowing this is the sober intoxication of love
that dispels ‘fantasy. And as Bernard Lonergan, the 20th century Jesuit theologian came to believe, ‘The
love of God that floods the inmost heart through the Holy Spirit He has given us’ (Rom 5:5) is the Christian experience.