Saturday, my host family took me to visit the town of Ely, which is near Cambridge where I’m enjoying a short sabbatical. Much of the medieval cathedral and its monastic buildings are still in existence. While I was there, the Worchester Cathedral Chamber Choir offered a short concert of pieces by Elgar, Handel, John Ireland, and others. Afterward, we all had tea. It was a splendid day.
Articles tagged with virtue
We have the custom of watching one movie a month in the monastery. I pick out the movie, which is to say, we watch a lot of Alfred Hitchcock.
Internet chatter about Jordan Peterson continues unabated. I was hoping to write a slow and leisurely commentary on the phenomenon of his appearance, but I’m not sure one has that luxury. So I am going to jump in a say what I find hopeful about his ideas and the response to those ideas, and then offer some critiques of the same. Afterward, I may take the time to unpack the different themes in his writing and lecturing, particularly in the ways in which his approach and startling insights can help those of us tasked with spreading the Gospel.
In my previous post, I noted that behind the Rule of Saint Benedict, there lies hidden the influence of the Desert Fathers. Benedict recommends that the monk eager for advanced pursuits in monastic spirituality should read the “Institutes” and the “Conferences.” Universal tradition as well as common sense asserts that he is referring to St. John Cassian, who spent nearly two decades in the Egyptian desert learning the monastic life. You can find indices to Cassian’s two most important works, the Institutes and the Conferences at the Order of Saint Benedict website.
What I wish to emphasize here, and in keeping with my aim to write brief and manageable posts, is one key connection between these two books and the two-fold path to spiritual maturity. I wrote last time that Saint Benedict is primarily concerned with the correction of behavior in his Rule for monks, but that he also acknowledges, in quiet ways, that beyond the cultivation of virtue and the elimination of vice, there is the further contemplative aspect of monastic (and Christian) life, what Benedict calls “wisdom of doctrine.” The Institutes correspond to the “active” life of conversion, and the Conferences are concerned with the “contemplative” life of adepts.
The first stage of spiritual growth, the correction of behavior, is therefore the primary concern of Cassian’s Institutes. Note that Cassian does not give us what we would consider “morality.” Rather, he is interested in teaching the times of prayer, the style of dress for monks, and the organization of communal life. This is exactly parallel to Saint Benedict’s Rule. The connection is not just one of a common culture. The Rule of the Master, an Italian monastic rule from the generation before Benedict, and Benedict’s primary source, cribs from Cassian’s Institutes, so that we can say that St. Benedict’s Rule is a kind of grandchild to the Institutes. Cassian goes somewhat beyond communal organization, and spends the last eight books of the Institutes on the eight vices and how to identify the thought patterns that go with them. So again, we are not so much in the realm of morality as moderns understand it. Cassian is interested in psychology, how our thoughts influence our behavior.
This emphasis on psychology is the link between the active and contemplative stages of Christian spiritual growth. Before we can properly understand doctrine, we must first work against behaviors that are not consonant with Christian doctrine, but then we must also go after the thought patterns that underlie wrongful behavior. This cleansing of the mind of wrongful thinking allows us to receive true “theology,” knowledge of God. This is the focus of Cassian’s Conferences.
In the next several short posts, I hope to walk with you through the two stages with more attention to the particular battles with behaviors and thoughts, along with recommended reading in monastic spirituality.
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!