Ten years ago, an old friend, now a committed atheist, invited me to participate in an online discussion between atheists and Christians. As rancorous as some of the “discussions” were, I miss the tough back-and-forth probing of my own positions.
Articles tagged with contemplation
“He did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid [Mark 9: 5].” With this little detail, Saint Mark reveals quite a bit about the character of Saint Peter and the human condition in general. Under normal circumstances, we are unprepared to behold the full glory of God, and when suddenly God’s grandeur “flame[s] out, like shining from shook foil,” it can be a terrifying, disorienting experience.
We have many testimonies of this encounter. One early, telling encounter was that of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was a priest and probably had entered God’s temple countless times to offer sacrifice. One day, he suddenly saw in reality what he had been celebrating in shadowy, symbolic ways. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up….And I said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips…for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts [Isaiah 6: 1, 5]!” Isaiah is rendered voluntarily speechless until his lips are cleansed by a coal from the altar.
Similarly, Saint Thomas Aquinas, toward the end of his earthly life, was celebrating the Eucharist as he had many times before. This time was different. Like Isaiah, he glimpsed something of the reality that he had celebrated in the half-veil of sacramental mystery. The author of the Summa Theologica, perhaps the greatest intellectual achievement of all time, wrote no more after this, leaving the Summa unfinished. “All that I have written seems as so much straw,” he confided to a friend.
Saint Peter suffers no such scruples. Beholding Christ transfigured, he was properly afraid. Not knowing what to say, however, he said whatever came to mind. In this, he seems to be of a kindred mindset to modern man. Is it not the case that our incessant talking, the swarming proliferation of words, is so much nervous chatter to cover over our anxiety and alienation? We hardly know what to say, yet we can’t stop talking. In our case, I suspect that silence doesn’t occur to us because our fear is not the result of an encounter with the living God, but with the dreadful possibility of His utter absence.
I began by saying that we are not normally prepared to meet God in the unmitigated power of His limitless Being. What the Transfiguration begins to teach us is that, under the dispensation of grace, in the afterglow of the Resurrection and Pentecost, we live under a “new normal.” We live in the in-between time, the time of the holy Liturgy, after the shadows of animal sacrifice but not yet at the full consummation of the world. The Kingdom of God is breaking into the world that itself is passing away. The baptized, as God’s adopted children, are being trained to “see [God] as He is [1 John 3: 2].” The training of our senses and their elevation to the spiritual realm takes place in the liturgy.
This past June, we were blessed to be able to unveil our two newest icons, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, flanking the Mother of God and John the Baptist. Gradually, our sanctuary is being populated with the communion of the saints. Icons are not mere representations of model believers. The iconographer truly receives the image from the inbreaking realm of heaven. Iconography is, therefore, an ascetical craft, a discipline of visual listening and receptivity, a training of the interior vision to see beyond the sacramental into the reality of God’s holy court. At the same time, icons train the worshipper to attune his or her senses to this new reality. The icons are a central part of the liturgical act, and as conduits of grace, help to elevate the sense of sight to its proper spiritual register.
Similarly, sacred music is much more than pleasing ornamentation of holy words. As Kevin Allen and I have discussed at various time in our decade of collaboration, the composer of sacred music must, like the iconographer, exercise a discipline of spiritual listening. The aim is, through purification of hearing, to catch something of the overwhelming beauty of the perpetual song of heaven. At Solemn Vespers this coming Saturday evening (August 5, 5:15 p.m.), the First Vespers of the feast of the Transfiguration, Kevin and I humbly offer two new motets in this spirit. We pray that our double motet will be a similar conduit of grace, to prepare our hearts to hear God’s Word in its fullest transformative power.
Saint Benedict composed his Rule for Monks some time around 540 A.D. Egypt, the cradle of Christian monasticism, had been drastically reduced in the previous 150 years from its high point at the end of the fourth century. Saint Benedict makes explicit reference to the “desert” only once, when describing the anchorites in the first chapter, on the kinds of monks. Since his Rule is written, however, not for anchorites but for “cenobites,” monks who live in communities, we might imagine that this off-hand reference to the desert is a mere nod in the direction of Egypt, without any further thread of connection to the ancient tradition.
There are important hints that Benedict knew the Egyptian tradition well and incorporated it seamlessly into his own proto-European style of monasticism. Finding these clues requires a bit of excavation. The place I would like to begin is in a perhaps unlikely spot, in chapter 64, On the Constituting of an Abbot. The abbot, Saint Benedict tells us, should be chosen “vitae…merito et sapientiae doctrina,” for the merit of his life and the wisdom of his doctrine. This sounds common sensible enough, but in fact it encapsulates an entire way of thinking about the spiritual quest in Christian monasticism. It also justifies Fr. Terence Kardong’s contention that the abbot is to be the “perfect” monk.
Merit of life corresponds to the presence of virtue and absence of vice. It is the first step in monastic conversion, a change of outward behavior. One learns to act…as a monk acts. When monks promise “conversion of life” (conversatio morum) according to the formula invented by Saint Benedict in chapter 58, they are promising to change their way of living. This is not a matter of mere “morals” but is implicated in all kinds of habits, preferences, and in personal comportment. This is the minimum observance “for beginners” [RB 73]. For those who are striving for greater advancement, however, as Benedict goes on to show us in chapter 73, there is the inward transformation of doctrine, new habits of thought about the cosmos and insight into God’s ways. It is not enough for the abbot to be worthy by his exterior actions; he must also have the interior virtues that allow him to give spiritual counsel and make wise decisions about the community’s welfare. It is noteworthy that one of the primary sources of doctrine, according to RB 73, is St. John Cassian, the primary link between European and Egyptian monasticism.
In future posts, I hope to demonstrate Saint Benedict’s direct dependence on the Egyptian desert fathers for this two-fold description of monastic spirituality. What the great monastic theologian Evagrius (354-399 A.D.) described as the practical (or “active”) life followed by the theoretical ( or “contemplative”) life is the best way of understanding Benedict’s emphasis on merit of life and wisdom of doctrine.
I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about George Weigel’s recent post “Catacomb Time?” doesn’t sit right with me. I suspect that it is first of all due to an accumulation of fuzzy complaints with someone-or-other not quite specified. Who inhabit those “Catholic circles” who have “a passion for writing Build-It-Yourself Catacomb manuals”? I honestly have no idea who is meant by this. I suppose that he is referring to the Benedict Option, for which there is no shortage of critics, despite the fact that no one seems to know what it is exactly. The reference to “lukewarm, pick-and-choose” Catholics is always a dangerous one. Who of us doesn’t fall into the “pick-and-choose” category from time to time, even often?
Then there is this larger quote, expressing what seems to me a common enough sentiment, but one I just can’t get behind personally:
This same judgment—Catholicism by osmosis is dead—and this same prescription—the Church must reclaim its missionary nature—are at the root of every living sector of the Catholic Church in the United States: parish, diocese, seminary, religious order, lay renewal movement, new Catholic association.
“Every living sector” of the Church in a country of almost 70 million Catholics? That’s a big claim. I think what troubles me most about this sort of language is the absence of any feint in the direction of the work of the Holy Spirit in animating the Church. Then there is the question of whether my own religious community qualifies as a “living sector” and whether we actually share that judgment and prescription. One reason I balk at that way of phrasing the “judgment” that “Catholicism by osmosis is dead,” is that it privileges what Mary Douglas refers to as “elaborated speech code” (the language of academia, personal commitment and conviction, related to what George Steiner calls out at the beginning of Real Presences) at the expense of “restricted speech code,” the more passive communicative modes of ritual and symbol. Much of what we learn in the Church is at least somewhat osmotic. Yes, we should pay attention at the liturgy, but often times it takes all kinds of exposure at various levels of awareness and engagement before connections are made. Perhaps I sense here, fairly or unfairly, a neglect of the fundamentally receptive nature of faith, prior to any genuine engagement in mission. St. Paul, the greatest missionary of all, spent well over a decade anonymously living the life of a Christian before the Holy Spirit set him apart as the Apostle of the Gentiles. During that time, what was he doing? Praying? Re-reading the Scriptures? I don’t know, but it was certainly a life of withdrawal, maybe not to the catacombs, but a withdrawal nonetheless.
And then let us not forget who is the patroness of the Church’s missions.
I will leave it to reader to think about the connections between the contemplative life and missionary effectiveness.
Let me end with a little more explanation from Mary Douglas. In the first chapter of Natural Symbols, she relates asking her progressive clerical friends (in 1970) why they think it’s a good idea to move away from the Friday abstinence to more personally meaningful acts of charity–like working in a soup kitchen on Friday.
I am answered by a Teilhardist evolutionism which assumes that a rational, verbally explicit, personal commitment to God is self-evidently more evolved and better than its alleged contrary, formal, ritualistic conformity.
I will admit to nitpicking here a bit, but I think that it is worth watching our language very carefully on these points, lest we saw off the branch upon which we sit. The overall tone of the article supports an individualistic and activist mode of Church life that has the potential to undermine the communal, receptive, gratuitous, gracious, and humble life of faith and hope. Surely one of the points of the young Josef Ratzinger’s “Future Church” article is precisely that we are being called away from “edifices…built in prosperity,” as part of an invitation to leave behind triumphalism. Weigel comes uncomfortably close to a triumphalism-minus-edifices. It is striking that after the long quote from the future pope, a quote that ends with an emphasis on “faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world,” Weigel never again mentions faith, Jesus Christ, or even God. Again, I will admit that finding such lacunae in a blog post runs the risk of straining justice. But as a monk, I am inclined to be watchful on these counts.
More than anything, this serves as an introduction to Mary Douglas, whose work I have put off writing about for long enough…
UPDATE: Recall that the relationship between mission and contemplative life is the crux at which our community began. Also, that while it is hard not to agree that practicing one’s faith will require great resolve and strength in the coming years, maybe decades, this must be a practice rooted in repentance and joyful humility, grounded in the sacrifice of Calvary, celebrated daily in the liturgy. Finally, while Fr. Ratzinger did say that the future Church will make “bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members,” [emphasis added] this mention of individual members needs to be read in the context of the future pope’s voluminous writings on the liturgy and the Church. The initiative he is calling for surely must be greater fidelity to the reality of the ongoing Incarnation in the local church (including a high mystical “Ignatian” vision of the bishop as Christ and priests as the bishops’ vicars). Otherwise, Weigel might be heard to be inviting individuals to greater creativity, initiative in a maverick kind of sense, rather than in a sense of responsive answerability toward the gospel. And the first step may well be admitting that I’m part of the problem with the contemporary Church.
The Ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father is the founding moment of the liturgy. The Good Shepherd went off in search of His lost sheep–us–by laying aside His dignity and prerogatives as Son of God and becoming flesh for our sake. Becoming obedient to the Father even unto death, He won our salvation and returned to the Father as the pioneer of our salvation. In our baptisms, we are united with Christ, and in the liturgy, we participate, really experience our own ascensions to the Kingdom of Heaven, as daughters and sons of God in the Holy Spirit.What an astonishing claim! And yet, it is our faith, the faith we profess every time we enter a church, recall our baptisms by signing ourselves with holy water in the form of the cross, and enter into the everlasting dialog of love between Father and Son. Yet because it is such an astonishing claim, we need practice in order to continually realize the Truth into which we have been received. Our minds need constant renewal, lest we fall back by a preoccupation with the earthly appearance of things. As I mentioned in the previous post, this vigilance requires us to hold in tension God’s transcendence, the goal toward which we move in our ascension in Christ, with God’s immanence, His real presence to us in all things through the eyes of faith. Thus the things of the world are transformed by contemplation, a gaze informed by faith, and this informing faith is oriented toward the Father “who is above all and through and in all [Ephesians 4: 6].”
In Gothic church buildings, this symbolism of ascent is signified by the long “vertical” shape of the nave. One enters at the baptismal font, the gateway to life in Christ, and moves toward the altar through stages, not necessarily “closer to God,” Who is in any case not at all bound to the sanctuary, but through the purification of the soul, the understanding and the will, so as to be more and more conformed to God. Christ the Mediator is symbolized variously by the direction East (from whence He shall come at the parousia), the altar (incised with five crosses, the five wounds by which the risen Christ is recognized), the priest (whose initial movement to the altar is a representation of Christ’s Ascension), and finally by the Blessed Sacrament Itself.
Christ goes forth from the sanctuary at two crucial moments in the liturgy. The first is the gospel procession, where the Word becomes flesh, as it were, in the human voice of the priest of deacon who proclaims it. The gospel book is carried in procession from the altar to the people. The second movement “outward” is the carrying of the Body and Blood of Christ from the altar (again!) to the people, who now receive Christ Incarnate in Holy Communion. In this latter case, there is a complementary movement of the faithful toward the altar, “caught up together with [those who have died in Christ]…to meet the Lord [1 Thessalonians 4: 17].”
Here I am describing a dynamic liturgy, with a lot of movement. It is not what most Catholics think of when they think of liturgy, which unfortunately seems to bring to mind standing and sitting in one pew and watching while the priest does a bunch of things far away. What I have described is quite possible, even desirable in the present “ordinary” form of the Mass, and to a certain extent the reforms that followed Vatican II have made this latent dynamism more obvious (and this represents a restoration of certain elements of the Mass that had fallen away in the Tridentine period, which I personally consider to have been a bit ‘bureaucratized’, with a liturgy too much influenced by the Roman Curia and not enough by monks!). Orthodox liturgy tends to display this dynamism more openly, and often Orthodox liturgists will draw connections between the in-and-out motion of the priests and deacons with the mysterious energies of God, that go forth and return to Him [cf. Isaiah 55: 11]. And this connection in turn is sometimes reinforced with references to Eastern theologians like Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). But this dynamism is everywhere evident in Catholic sources, especially through the thirteenth century. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas is entirely patterned on what is called the “exitus-reditus” movement of God’s creative and restorative Word and Spirit, breathing outward into creation and gathering inward toward salvation and exaltation.
Our monastery church is a neo-gothic structure. The first altar that we had built for the church was slightly larger than four feet square and stood in the center of the sanctuary, at the eastern end of the building. Though it served us well, it was slightly small both for the space and for the number of concelebrants typical at our Eucharistic liturgy. After a benefactor came forward to commission the great iconostasis that you see on our home page (and above), we knew that it was time to commission as well a new altar. Present liturgical discipline favors a stone mensa or “table” on the altar. If we were to do have a stone altar constructed, we had two choices, necessitated by the weight of the potential structure. We could first of all restore it as a ‘high altar’ against the easternmost wall of the church. This would be easier and more cost effective, since there was already an iron and brick support in place there, and since we were already celebrating Mass ad orientem. The other option was keeping it in place and building a new support. This would have been quite costly. Moreover, the building itself calls for the altar to be at the very head of the structure, as the “Head” Who is Christ.
When the iconostasis and altar were installed last year (and I will have much more to write about the icons, so stay tuned!), the architecture of the church really came into strong focus. I can say with some assurance that all of the brothers have found this new arrangement to be a tremendous blessing and aid to prayer. The danger of such an arrangement is that the very strong vertical thrust might lead guests to feel faraway from the action and left out, as if God had retreated somewhere relatively inaccessible and only peeked out for communion. How could we help newcomers to feel more welcomed, to have a sense of God’s nearness without undoing the brilliance of the transcendent recaptured in our high altar and iconostasis? This was the challenge that we took up when we began to plan the last phase of our renovation of the church, the construction of the new choir.
As many of you know, I am working on a memoir. This was first suggested to me by an editor at Paulist Press after a short interview I gave appeared in the Sun-Times few years ago. From January 1994 until July 1997, I performed in a jazz/rock sort of band called OM. And the transition I made, from playing at the Taste of Chicago, then five months later beginning my novitiate, has generated some interest. This band was not so typical. As I was working on the book on Monday, I noticed the fact that in some way or other, most of the significant persons who went through the band (our line-up had up to six people, including horns and violins) are now educators. I include myself in that group, since I am the prior of what Saint Benedict calls “a school of the Lord’s service.”
One of the interesting points of the memoir has to do with parallel themes in my former work as a musician and my life now as a monk. One such parallel has to do with the marginal status of both monks and artists in the world. Artists are often restless until they can pry open some hidden aspect of reality and show it to others. But then, not everyone has eyes to see what is uncovered, at least right away. Some ‘fusion of horizons’ needs to take place, to introduce others to the language of poetry, art and music, and then the unique perspective of the artist.At some point, my bandmates and I realized that for the average listener to take an interest in what we were doing, we needed to undertake some efforts at teaching. We took our cue from Wynton Marsalis, who was then teaching young people how to listen to jazz. In music, any effort to educate runs into serious problems, since musical interest is usually considered a matter of personal taste. The idea that one might deliberately change one’s taste because of someone else’s expertise smacks of snobbery. Yet any musician worth hearing ought to be passionate about the quality of the music she or he is performing. And this passion depends on the music being more than a personal predilection–somehow the it must be true, and this truth must be urgent. It doesn’t really belong to the performer at all. The performer is at most a conduit, maybe a conjurer. At least the performer is a witness.
Any good teacher is in a similar position. Henri Nouwen suggested many years ago that the model of education today is based in a kind of violence that is competitive (students competing for scarce recognition of achievements), unilateral (the transference of a commodified knowledge from strong teacher to weak student), and alienating (marking the gap between the material to be mastered and the real life that comes once one gets the degree). We’ve all had good teachers, though. What were they like? One of the best classes I took in college involved working through Newton’s Principia.
What was fantastic about the class was that the professor wrote out, and actually worked out, Newton’s proofs on the blackboard, inviting us to work through them with him. I will never forget his enthusiasm, as if he were the one discovering this and not Newton…rather that we were discovering the beauty of nature’s patterns together, with Newton as quirky guide, friends on an amazing journey past the veil of sense to the mathematical harmony of physics.
Sometimes a learning experience of this sort can be so powerful that it requires a reordering of our old way of thinking. Learning to like jazz or to understand calculus takes time and a kind of ‘conversion’ (Newton had to invent calculus to figure out the moon’s orbital math!). The early Christians called this metanoia. Metanoia means literally to change one’s mind. This idea is also expressed as repentance. When Jesus began His ministry, he preached, “Repent [Metanoeite!] and believe the gospel [Mt. 4: 17].” Learn to think differently! We must undergo a kind of education–note that Jesus spends much of His public life teaching. He teaches not so much a series of facts. Nor does He just impart information. Repentance involves learning to think anew about old facts, seeing from a new perspective, noticing things that had always been there, but discovering in them God’s presence and transforming love. It requires something like contemplation.
Monastic formation is perhaps the most radical instance of this Christian conversion, but it is simply what all Christians pledge to do at baptism. The thought patterns of the old Adam must give way to the new Adam, to the mind of Christ [Phil. 2: 5; 1 Cor. 2: 16]. Recognizing how exactly the old Adam thinks is not so easy, for our cultural upbringing lingers in unsuspected ways. What’s more, we live in a peculiarly blind kind of culture, that no longer recognizes its own dependence on tradition. Freud thought that he discovered a universal psychological law in the Oedipal complex, but in fact, he was merely noticing the modern Western tendency to want to do away with one’s fathers. This habitual refusal to recognize our intellectual and cultural debts causes disruptions and discontinuities in our background tradition, and therefore in our thinking.
In our monastery, we are trying to counteract this situation with different approaches to teaching. One test case, upon which I will dwell more at length in a future post, would be the following question. Can a modern Christian learn to read the Scriptures from the profound spiritual sense that guided the formation of theology from St. Paul until Rupert of Deutz? We live in a scientific age, and Catholic Biblical scholars have been celebrating their freedom to engage in historical-critical method for the past sixty years. Should we even bother to go back to allegory?
But what if the historical-critical method and our enthusiasm for it would turn out to be an unhealthy preoccupation with the world that is passing away? What if it locks us into the very worldview that a conversion is meant to leave behind? Given the present struggles of the Catholic Church in her historic lands, this kind of question bears asking and patient and careful response. It also may call for metanoia. Repent and believe!
Key concept #1: Liturgy is theology. In fact, it is primary theology.
The “Benedict Option” as exercised by actual Benedictines, is not a rejection of the world, but of regnant worldviews that distort and obscure the gospel. Which is to say such worldviews obscure reality. This is because Christ the Truth came from the Father to free us from sin and error. Worldviews are not so easy to change. They are generally the whole background of everything we think and do. To subject our worldview to a systematic examination can be profoundly disorienting. We should recall that it took Saint Paul many years to sort out the full implications of his conversion (he doesn’t specify, but note the passage of seventeen years in Galatians 1: 18–2: 1, some of which was certainly spent rethinking everything). Saint Antony the Great retreated to the desert around the age of 20 and emerged as a public figure again at 50. Things take time.
But it helps when others can point out something of the goal, something of the discrepancy between what we had been taking for granted and what our new worldview-in-Christ should look like.
In the early Church, theology was roughly the equivalent of contemplative prayer, a first-hand, personal knowledge of God. This is to be distinguished from knowledge about God or from mere knowledge that God exists, hearsay accounts of God. But contemplative prayer took for granted the Church and the Church’s regular engagement in liturgy. Liturgy is our participation in the exercise of Christ’s high priesthood, the lifting up of our hearts and minds to God, our mystical encounter with God.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the word ‘theology’ began to undergo a certain transformation, becoming the more familiar academic concept. This wasn’t entirely bad; in fact, there were many good things that came about from the more systematic application of philosophical methods to the common fund of the knowledge of God.
But this new idea of theology is at a second remove from the encounter with God. At least it can be performed that way. This began to be felt as a problem in the early nineteenth century, as the effects of the Enlightenment began to be felt even within the Church. The roots of the liturgical movement are found in the efforts of Dom Prosper Gueranger and the Wolter brothers at Beuron. In both cases, an effort was made to experience a fuller liturgical celebration. The movement gained greatly in the twentieth century and bore real fruit in the Second Vatican Council (even if it’s taken us time to sort of the wheat from the tares in the intervening years). The liturgical reforms of Vatican II were meant to help re-open the font of theology to everyone, to make available the insights of Benedictines like Odo Casel, Lambert Beaudoin, and Blessed Columba Marmion, for the whole Church, especially those outside the cloister.
Joseph Bottum relates a telling anecdote in An Anxious Age. He is discussing contemporary Catholicism with students in California. One tells him, “I just go to church for confession, to pray, and to take Communion.” The gist of the story, in Bottum’s version, is that young people tune out the homilies and don’t expect much from priests, other than that they show up and dispense the sacraments. What strikes me in this quote is the lack of any sense that Communion, confession, and prayer are all liturgical acts, couched in a whole world, strewn with Biblical vocabulary, thick symbolic gesture, and so on. Rather than living an entirely new life in Christ, the sense is that we go on living in the old world, the one that’s passing away, and from time to time we get our sacramental immunization shot a church, then return to that old world, hopefully not to lose too much fervor along the way. This is better than skipping church! But is it adequate to the New Evangelization that we are being challenged to undertake?
We all know (thanks to Vatican II and Saint John Paul II) that the Eucharist is the source and summit or our baptismal lives. But how do we make sense of it? The Church has given us a whole liturgical discipline to assist us in unpacking the life-altering content of Christ’s gift.
Acclimating ourselves to this “Liturgical Asceticism” (I use here Notre Dame prof David Fagerberg’s term) takes time. And so often when I mention this idea of liturgy as primary theology, the concern is that we need something more immediate, effective, engaged! Something slimmed down for a jet-set generation.
But this was part of my point in mentioning Paul and Antony. Learning to see with spiritual eyes does take time. Yes, there are prodigies like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who benefit from saintly parents and a strong Catholic culture in general. But for most of us, in most ages of the Church’s history (we conveniently forget that the first thousand years were not always so resoundingly successful in the West!), divinization is a long, and sometimes arduous process. And why not? Isn’t the God of all peace worth the finite struggles of this temporal life? More to come.
For the medievals, God was not distant and separate from the material world. To the mind of the Middle Ages, everything that exists has meaning, everything is a sign pointing to God, and everything is mystically connected. –Rod Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life
I would go even further, or perhaps simply draw out the implication of this observation in Dreher’s most recent book. Everything in the universe is a message from God, teaching us how to live with Him in love. Can we learn to understand this message? Can we learn the ‘language’ of creation? Or is this just a dream? After all, isn’t it possible that every person simply reads his own meaning into things? Isn’t this idea of the cosmos having an inherent meaning just a romantic, childish fancy that sober modern men and women have left behind?
Dreher underlines the fact that the meaning really was objective in his following sentence: “The point of life…is to let go of one’s ego and live in harmony with God and the cosmos.” Again, I agree with his observation of the medieval mind. If this is true, however, it would seem that merely personal interpretations of the cosmos would risk reinforcing the ego (and for Dreher, hell is “a dark and loveless place of absolute egotism”), and that harmony with more or less brute objects within the cosmos would require a degree of acceptance of how things are. This idea is profoundly at odds with the modern scientific view. But this modern view is at best incomplete, at worse completely erroneous, as I hope to demonstrate in future posts.
So how does one go about learning the language of the cosmos? Can we learn to say with St. Antony the Great, “My book, O Philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God, the book is before me?” Perhaps we should ask instead, “How did St. Antony come to this knowledge of the language of God?”
Antony learned this language within the monastic world of the third and fourth centuries. In this world, there are two disciplines required to learn the language of the Creator. The first discipline is the acquisition of virtue. Without virtue, our desires distort the meaning of things. For the temperate man, food is a sign of God’s love and constant sustenance of our life. For the glutton, food is there to serve the ego’s craving for pleasure. For the chaste person, sexuality is a wondrous and mysterious gift for building up the human family through mutual self-giving. For the unchaste, it is for personal enjoyment and domination of others.
The second discipline is the training of the mind in God’s language through meditation on the Scriptures, especially as explained in the liturgy and the homiletic writings of the saints. The Church Fathers made a great effort to read creation in the new light of the Resurrection of Christ. There is really very little arbitrary about this, and the persistence of certain kinds of reading support the idea that there is a kind of objective reading of things. This work is what the first systematic theologian of the spiritual life called ‘natural contemplation’. For the great monk Evagrius of Pontus, natural contemplation was about finding the ‘reasons’ for things. All things came to be through God’s Word, and therefore contain in them a message from God, a rationality and purpose. We are invited to decode this message.
And as Dreher so aptly puts it, the recognition of God’s loving presence in all things makes Him astounding near.
In most writings on the spiritual life since Evagrius, natural contemplation is left out. His system lists three stages of the spiritual life: the practical or active life of moral purification from the distorting passions; the acquisition of knowledge of the reasons for things, or natural contemplation; and then finally contemplation proper, the knowledge of God as God is, no longer mediated by created things. In simplifying this into the two stages of ‘active’ and ‘contemplative’ (and further distorting this ancient distinction by turning it into the canonical description of two types of religious life), we have lost the idea of natural contemplation.
When you speak of contemplation in religious circles today, most people are going to think of a withdrawal from created things to one’s inner world and direct converse with God. Contemplatives are sometimes criticized for disengagement with the world, for a kind of navel-gazing self-absorption. What the contemplative claims to experience as God is, I think, rightly called into question. Aren’t we just inventing an idea of God? Or confusing our feelings with God?
Natural contemplation undercuts the accusation of egotism and solipsism in the larger work of contemplation (so does the active life of acquiring virtue, but I will save that for a later day). Acquiring an understanding of God through His prolific ‘writings’ in the natural world requires us to be attentive to the reality of things. This was the insight that revolutionized the world of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…” The living God has arranged every molecule, continually sustains each whirling electron and gives pattern to all manner of charged inscapes. When we attend with care to His works, reading them like the love letter to humanity that they are, we come to know the very mind of God. And then, when we close the doors of our senses and pray to God in secret, it is that God, not a wishful projection of our own insecurities, that we encounter.
God’s blessings to you!