What is the Contemplative Life and Whom is it for?

What is the Contemplative Life and Whom is it for?

Through our baptism, we are all called to a life of intimate union with Christ, a life turned towards the Father and inundated by the Holy Spirit. Action nurtured in contemplation should be the ordinary of life. A life unified in Christ is a life placed under this double movement, fruit of the Spirit: action nourished by contemplation. Continue reading What is the Contemplative Life and Whom is it for?

The multiple natures of Mary within Western monastic tradition

The multiple natures of Mary within Western monastic tradition

There is one other aspect of Carthusian life, the monks agree, that cannot be passed without mention. Every monk nourishes a deep practical devotion to the Virgin Mary. Carthusians have clung to the tradition of reciting the “Little Office” of the Virgin before the regular canonical hours. They also feel that Mary guides them through their solitary lives each day. “When I think of what I’d do without the Blessed Mother,” one monk says, and his voice trails off. The three monks sit in silence for a moment, shaking their heads, as if an absurdity has been introduced into the conversation. A Carthusian life unaided by Mary is unthinkable. ” Continue reading The multiple natures of Mary within Western monastic tradition

The Story of a Soul ~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus  O.C.D.

The Story of a Soul ~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus O.C.D.

The impact of her posthumous publications, including Story of a Soul published shortly after her death, are extremely significant. The originality of her spirituality, also called the theology of the “Little Way” of “spiritual childhood”, has inspired multitudes of believers and also deeply affected many non-believers. Thérèse’s “little way” is understood simply to mean that we only need to… Continue reading The Story of a Soul ~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus O.C.D.

Traditions of Spiritual Guidance

Traditions of Spiritual Guidance

The Carthusians

To the poor of the world we give bread or whatever else our resources afford or goodwill suggests: we rarely receive them under our roof but instead send them to find lodgings in the village. For it is notfor the temporal care of the bodies of our neighbours that we havefled to this desert, butfor the eternal salvation of our souls. Therefore it is not surprising if we give more friendship and assistance to those who come here for the sake of their souls than to those who come for the sake of their bodies.

Guigo I, Consuetudines Cartusiae (hereafter CC) 20:1; (Latin text with French translation in Sources Chrdtiennes vol 313 (1984), p 206.

(Please note the that the photographs do not relate to the written article (but are of Carthusian origin) and are there purely for aesthetics)

Saint Bruno the Carthusian Ⓒ 2019 Theophilia @ deviantart

THIS extract from the earliest Carthusian customary (c.1125), the Consuetudines Cartusiae of Prior Guigo I, may appear somewhat chilly to those acquainted with St Benedict’s injunction to receive the poor as though receiving Christ himself (though in fact, as Guigo subsequently points out, the monks did give generously of what little they had to be distributed in nearby villages). But it underlines one of the most striking features of the early Carthusians, the ‘unworthy and useless poor men of Christ who dwell in the desert of the Chartreuse for love of the name of Jesus’, as another early prior of the Grande Chartreuse put it: the careful and coherent way in which, from the very start, they set about creating a manner of life that would be appropriate in every particular to the vocation they had embraced. The first charterhouses were, like the Chartreuse itself, in distinctly inhospitable (though not always uninhabited) places; the monks sought to be self-sufficient as far as they possibly could; and one of the distinctive features of the early communities was the way they set about clearing or purchasing the land around the monastery (within the termini they themselves specified) in order to guarantee the solitude they needed. This might seem to imply that the ‘poor men of Christ’ had little to do with the poor men and women of this world.

La Grande Chartreuse

Yet the contradiction is more apparent than real. One of the striking features of the early Carthusians, as with the Cistercians and others, was the way in which, even from their mountainous retreats, they took part in the affairs of the world outside. Like St Bernard (with whom he corresponded), Prior Guigo I did not hesitate to tell the Church how to behave itself, and to use his influence to espouse the principles of the Gregorian reform; and the early monks of the nearby monastery of Portes, one of the first to affiliate to the fledgling order in the early twelfth century, wrote a number of letters offering detailed spiritual guidance both to religious and lay people. 

For all the rigour of their asceticism, then, the early Carthusians did not see themselves as entirely cut off from the needs of the Church as a whole: indeed they saw their vocation not so much as a flight from the world as a flight for the world, and their way of life, centred upon what Guigo I called the ‘quasi bina dilectio‘ (almost twofold love, of God and of neighbour), as a challenge and even a witness to their contemporaries. The reluctance to help the physically poor was part of this asceticism, part of a means to a greater end: those who sought to live with the utmost simplicity and in the utmost poverty themselves would have little material wealth or property to share with others. What they could share was something altogether deeper: a philosophia, or ‘lived wisdom’, that might touch hearts and change lives far beyond the bleak termini of the charterhouse. 

From the beginning, then, what the Carthusians had to offer was not material wealth (they have succeeded, perhaps to a greater extent than any other monastic order, in avoiding that altogether), nor even gems of individual guidance, but the witness of their lives. The Grande Chartreuse itself was founded by St Bruno, formerly chancellor of the cathedral at Rheims, in 1084; and it is clear that the distinctive lineaments and rhythm of the Carthusian life owe their origins to him, even though it was the fifth prior, Guigo I, who (as we have seen) first committed their customs to writing. The life was a coherent and carefully worked out blend of the cenobitic and eremitic, each fulfilling the other; and it was made possible by the institution of conversi who were not so much servants as lay monks, and whose lives involved more manual labour than that of the choir monks, yet who from the start were clearly seen to be integral and full members of the whole community. 

There were no novice masters in the early charterhouses; and monastic formation took place in the cell: Guigo I says that one of the experienced monks (as well as the prior) would be deputed to visit the novice there ‘to instruct him in necessary things’. The life of a Carthusian choir-monk was minutely prescribed, and with good reason: the balance of solitude and community, the blend of prayer, physical work, recreation and study was carefully structured and maintained. From the start, then, spiritual guidance in the charterhouse was primarily a group affair, not an individual one: the whole community, in their corporate liturgy, chapter meetings and recreation as well as in their long hours in solitude, took responsibility for one another; and their founder described their life as ‘His [Christ’s] school, under the discipline of the Holy Spirit’. Tilden Edwards has pointed out that group spiritual direction is in fact the standard form of guidance in the Christian tradition; and the Carthusians were and still are among its exemplars. What this meant in practice is the subject of most of the remainder of this article. 

First and foremost, and notwithstanding the emphasis on the community already noted, the Carthusian monk or nun s had to develop a considerable capacity for self-knowledge and awareness. In a remarkable set of meditations, written in about 1115, Guigo I reflected constantly and critically on his own experience and reactions. This is what he wrote about a disaster at Vespers: 

Notice how, when you recently tripped up in front of the brethren by saying one antiphon instead of another, your mind tried to think of a way of putting the blame on something else–either on the book itself, or on some other thing. For your heart was reluctant to see itself as it really is, and so it pretended to itself that it was different, inclining itself to evil words to excuse its sin. The Lord will reprove you, and set before you what you have done: you won’t be able to hide from yourself any longer, or to escape from yourself. 

Some of the meditations are extremely short, such as the pithy Meditation 87: ‘Insult any harlot you like–if you dare’. Invariably, however, the emphasis is upon self-scrutiny: 

There are certain tastes, like that of honey; and there are certain temperaments and passions, like those of the flesh. When these things are either taken away or damaged, notice how this is for you (quomodo sit tibi vide). 

It is also worth noting that this self-scrutiny involves a genuinely pastoral concern for others: 

Notice how you can, in the hope of what is to come, love the harvest in the young shoot, and the twisted tree-trunk. In the same way you must love those who are not yet good . . . 

Not much is gained if you take away from a person something that he holds onto wrongly; but it is if, by our words of encouragement and by your example, you get him to let it go of his own accord…

This is not unhealthy self-absorption, but the indispensable precondition, not only for the Carthusian life, but for any life centred upon love: indeed the psychological acuteness of Guigo’s emphasis on understanding yourself and reflecting on your reactions to all that happens to you is remarkable. To know ourselves, as Guigo makes clear throughout his 476 meditations, is to become aware both of our inherent predisposition to run away from the truth, and of the divine love existing deep within us. Yet to face this truth will invariably be painful: for it is not just the truth, but the truth crucified, that we are called to worship (‘Sine aspectu et decore crucique affixa, adoranda est veritas’); and by discovering what it means to love God without condition or strings attached, we are freed from the dependence on (or possessiveness of) others in order to love them as we should do–to seek their true good, not simply what we think is good for them. The theology of love underpins the whole of St Bruno’s and Guigo’s conception of the Carthusian life, and informs its most practical prescriptions; and this constant and rigorous probing of one’s own interior intentions and reactions is its most fundamental prerequisite.

Secondly, the Carthusian life was characterised by the coherent interweaving of theology and lifestyle, of the individual and corporate, that is embodied by the Latin word utilitas. In his meditations Guigo I wrote: 

Happy is the person who chooses somewhere he may work without anxiety. Now this is a sure choice and worthwhile thing to work at (labor utilis) — the desire to do good to all, so that you want them to be people who do not need your help. For the more people seem to be concerned with their own interests (propriis utililatibus), the less they are doing what is good for them. For this is the distinctive good (propria utilitas) of each individual — to want to do good to all. But who understands this? 

Whoever, therefore, seeks to work for his own good, not only does not find it, but also incurs great harm to his soul. For while he seeks his own good, which cannot be sought at all, he is rejected by the common good, that is, by God. For just as there is one ~ nature for everyone, so also there is one common good (ita et utilitas).

It is worth noting in passing Guigo’s psychological perception here too: the emphasis upon seeking to set people free from being dependent on your help is a fundamental aspect of all spiritual direction. The emphasis on the common good, on the essentially corporate aspect of Carthusian spirituality, is even more important however, and underlines the stress on group support and guidance referred to above. And the integrated nature of their lives went further than that: both Guigo I and the Carthusians of Portes, writing letters of spiritual guidance, stressed the interweaving of what was traditionally called ‘spiritual exercise’ (the fourfold monastic pattern of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation) with public liturgical worship, physical exercise, study and other aspects of the common life. This a crucial point: whether later Carthusian (and other) writers, such as Guigo II, (whose Scala Claustralium or ‘Ladder of Monks became very popular after his death in c.1190) explored in great detail the relationship between the four different ingredients of ‘spiritual exercise’, Guigo I shows no interest in that at all, instead concentrating on emphasising the relationship between all of them and the other, more corporate, aspects of the Carthusian life, as well as to the heart of the monastic vocation itself. Love of God, and of neighbour— the two parts of the quasi bina dilectio belong together: by devoting his life to those exercises which, in the context of solitude and poverty, dispose him to receive and be transformed by the love of God, the monk who has apparently renounced his neighbour discovers instead the surest possible means of loving him. 

This exploration of the practice and theology of the early Carthusians may appear to have very little to do with the wider subject of spiritual guidance within the Carthusian tradition as a whole. In fact, however, it has everything to do with it: the distinctive features of Carthusian spiritual guidance are not to be found by examining later works which happen to have been written by Carthusians but which in most cases could as easily have been written by members of any religious order, but by coming to see that it was their whole lives, and above all their common life, which was their primary contribution to the lives of others. When Guigo I wrote his life of St Hugh of Grenoble (and, to a considerable extent, when Adam Abbot of Eynsham wrote the life of another early Carthusian, St Hugh of Lincoln), he was not producing just another work of hushed hagiography, but offering what is in effect the essence of the Carthusian life as it could be (and was) lived by busy Christians ‘in the world’: both Hughs were bishops, both were described as incarnating the theology of love which lay at the heart of the Carthusian vocation, and as seeking, in lives unconditionally devoted to God alone, to be free to discern others’ true worth as well as to issue prophetic warnings about social and ecclesiastical evils. Instead of simply giving the world aims, the Carthusians gave it people: a significant number of bishops and others emerged during the centuries from the termini of the charterhouses. Instead of compromising their own form of life, they offered its virtues, suitably adapted, for those living in the world. 

Not everyone, then, has to renounce everything and don the white Carthusian cowl in order to recognize, and live, the distinctive principles and dynamic which informed and still inform their vocation. The slow and costly process of reflecting regularly on your own experience and reactions, and above all on your own motives and intentions; the concern to foster a thoroughgoing openness, even passivity, towards God in order to be more free to love other people without seeking to dominate or manipulate them; the willingness to work away at creating (and helping others to create) a pattern of life that integrates both solitude and common life in such a way as to fulfil each; and the readiness to seek a genuine simplicity of life which might help you live in loving and hidden identification with the physically poor and deprived–all these are essential dimensions of any authentic Christian spirituality. And to achieve them we will need guidance; not only, or even primarily, the one-to-one individual guidance that has in recent years become popular, but also the kind of critical yet loving mutual support and encouragement that a group, family or Christian parish community can offer its members, not by the eloquence of its speech or even by the quality of each person’s private piety, but precisely by the openness and attentive love which informs its common life. 

The spirituality of the Carthusian life was influenced, like that of any other order, by the prevailing insights and circumstances of the times; and most of the authors and texts mentioned in the remainder of this article wrote letters and treatises on spiritual guidance which in large part could have been written by members of any contemporary enclosed order. The 1972 Statutes of the Order contain restrictions in this respect which not all former Carthusians have observed. The Statutes explicitly say, for example: 

We never give spiritual direction by letter; nor may any of us preach in public. If seculars do not benefit from our silence, much less will they from our speech.

From earliest times, however, the Carthusians were able to reach people without speaking: Guigo I himself describes in detail the distinctively Carthusian form of praedicatio muta, which was the copying of manuscripts, a form of apostolate peculiarly well suited to contemplative monks. This practice continued thereafter: Michael Sargent has pointed out the way in which late medieval Carthusian monks, particularly (though not only) in England, translated and copied earlier spiritual texts, partly in order to make them available to a wider literate (but not Latin-reading) lay audience, partly to combat the spread of Wycliffite and other forms of heresy. This is important: the Carthusians have never entirely separated theology from spirituality, and have never entirely lost their concern for truth, even in periods when the practice of prayer was at its most affective. The ‘Mirrour of the Blessed Life of Jesu Christ’ by Nicholas Love (c.1410), a Carthusian of Mount Grace, Yorkshire, is a good example of this: is a translation of an earlier work by the Pseudo-Bonaventure, and its popularity suggests that it served both a devotional and a propagandist purpose.

The writings of some later Carthusians certainly suggest that their praedicatio was anything but muta—and (as has already been said) much of it contains little that is distinctively Carthusian. Ludolph of Saxony, for example, who was a monk of the charterhouse of Coblentz and who lived from 1295 to 1377, wrote a Life of Christ which (to judge by the number of manuscript copies and printed editions) was widely disseminated: its emphasis on imitatio Christi was typical of the age, though Ludolph’s reflections on the delights of natural beauty recall similar passages in the beautiful letter of St Bruno to his friend Raoul le Verd. Others produced works that were more explicitly concerned with spiritual guidance: Robert, a monk of the charterhouse of Le Parc-en-Charnie in France who died in 1388, wrote Le chastel perilleux, a treatise written to his cousin, who was a Benedictine nun: it is full of practical advice about contemplative prayer, praying in common, the sacramental life and other subjects likely to be of interest to both religious and lay readers. Others seem to have acquired something of a reputation as spiritual guides: the prolific Denys, a Dutch Carthusian who lived from 1402 to 1471, wrote innumerable letters of counsel, only a few of which survive, and also complete sequences of sermons, both for religious and for those ‘in the world’: his complete works fill over forty substantial volumes. Finally, Richard Methley (1451-1528), also of Mount Grace, wrote a number of treatises on the monastic and spiritual life, and appears to have been in some demand as a director. 

As time passed, then, the Carthusians became involved in the practice of spiritual guidance to a degree far greater than was envisaged either by their founders or by their modern successors. And yet the primary concern of the Carthusians has never been spiritual guidance, but the way of living which, as we have seen, was their most distinctive act of witness. The establishing in 1984 of the first Carthusian monastery in the Third World, in southern Brazil, illustrates this point: their principal contribution to the poor among whom they now live is likely to be this hidden and loving identification, in the crucified pauper Christus, that is articulated in the Carthusian vocation, rather than any commitment to an active apostolate. And to a society less committed than ours to the pursuit of privatised perfection, such an apostolate might be infinitely more fruitful than we suppose. Why? Because, better than any frantic activist, it may help us all to rethink our values: in the desert, waiting and passivity and silence are inherently creative, not useless; apparent redundancy in the world’s eyes and your own can allow God to use you for his purposes; in and through the poor, the solitary and the powerless, God ushers in the kingdom of heaven. The most recent Statutes of the Order express this with simple eloquence: 

In choosing this, the ‘best part’, it is not our advantage alone that we have in view; in embracing a hidden life we do not abandon the great family of our fellow men; on the contrary, by devoting ourselves exclusively to God we exercise a special function in the Church where things seen are ordered to things unseen, exterior activity to contemplation… 

If, therefore, we are truly living in union with God, our minds and hearts, far from becoming shut up in themselves, open up to embrace the whole universe and the mystery of Christ that saves it. Set apart from all, to all we are united, so that it is in the name of all that we stand before the living God.

Continue reading “Traditions of Spiritual Guidance”
The silent and hidden apostolate of the contemplative

The silent and hidden apostolate of the contemplative

The Church, in her fidelity, values all things according to the preferences of her divine Spouse. Now, our Lord esteems His elect not so much by the activity of their works, as by the hidden perfection of their lives; that perfection which is measured by the intensity of the divine life, and of which it is said: ‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Again it is said of this divine life: ‘You are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God.’”

The good always seeks to spread.

In fact, the more perfect a being, the more good they radiate around themselves. Everything that is full of life, joy, love, seeks to spread love, joy and life. This is true for all things and in all areas of one’s life. Take the example of a flower which is perfection within a plant; it spreads the radiance of its colour, its fragrance and its seeds. A bird which is happy to live freely, rejoices the whole countryside with its melodious song.

Its the same for man. When a person has found something that they are happy with, they want to share it with everyone, a magnificent landscape, an inspiring book, just to give an example. All life, all joy, all love, wants to spread even if just a little. Because what we liked, what exhilarated us, that should and ought to also please our fellow men and exhilarate them in turn. 

It is therefore a consequence of human solidarity if we are full of ourselves and therefore full of bitterness and envy, we will only pass on to others what we have. However, if we are filled with the peace and gentleness of Our Lord, we will overflow with that peace and gentleness which enables us to console others. 

We are able to distinguish two kinds of joy and love: expressed and unexpressed joy, manifested and hidden love, in short, the active outer life and the contemplative inner life. 

A Carthusian at contemplation.

In the active exterior life, you know that you are able to communicate your beliefs and feelings, and how you achieve it. If truth be told, this is a gift that not everyone has in their possession; it depends a lot on one’s physical make-up. Those who have a beautiful voice, a profound air, gracious manners, and whatever else there may be? They know how to impose themselves upon others and transmit their ideas or their desire. They are the great orators, they are great teachers of men; some among them, are saints, other politicians, or even men who, without being on a public platform, succeed within society in uniting enthusiasm and empathy for them. 

Yet, it is quite another thing to have a heart filled to brim with love and a radiating mind or to have a gift in gratifying and persuading others. These are two quite distinct genres. 

You could, for example, be aflame with the love of God and have compassion for the poor, but be witless or blind and not have two pennies to rub together; in this case, no one would ever suspect what is within your heart. 

I read somewhere the story of a child who cried when he was happy and laughed when he was sad: it was impossible for him to communicate his joy and his sadness, but he still had inner joys and sorrows.

So we have to conclude this: a good word, a smile, these are really good entities and they spread a little consolation around them, just like a flower or a bird of spring. But this radiance of our words, of our actions, is not yet the radiance of our ideas or our feelings. 

Our ideas and our feelings, all that we have in the heart of light and love, these are realities which are no longer physical, material, but moral, spiritual, invisible, that is to say therefore, that they must also have a spiritual, invisible radiance. 

To better understand how necessary this is, let us for example compare, a good thought toward a star.

As God lights a star in the night sky, He instills within our minds an act of trust in Him and a desire to comfort all the poor suffering hearts upon the earth. What was most valuable and most important? The star, or the act of faith and charity? It is obvious that what is within our soul is far more important than the whole the celestial sphere; a scientist pointed out that if a man is materially very small in the presence of the stars, he is infinitely greater than all of them through his spirit since he can know them and know that God has created them, whilst the stars don’t know anything about God or creation.

So a good thought is infinitely greater in value than a star! A heart full of love is a home hotter than the sun! Could you ever believe that God would allow this absurdity, of a star to radiate its light which radiates billions of miles away and for millions of years, to make known the ardour of this distant entity, of this spinning globe of matter? in the frozen vastness of space, and that a soul united to God is deprived of its radiance or that its radiance depends on some type of unfortunate physical conditions: a voice more or less clamorous, a more or less intelligent air, a more or less considerable force? No! A hundred times no! 

The Church that is right when she teaches us the extraordinary and important dogma of the Communio SanctorumCommunion of Saints — the fellowship of those united to Jesus Christ in Baptism. All of our good thoughts and our good sentiments, our acts of Faith and Love which are just like spiritual stars; they radiate both faith and love ad infinitum. They are centres of consolation, and of strength; souls which are united to God forming an immense constellation which dazzles the eyes of angels and which must never be extinguished in the heavens of Holy Mother Church. 

The apostolate of the contemplatives, a silent and invisible apostolate, rests entirely upon this affirmation: love is something tangible, concrete, and even what is most real in the world, and the world can only be saved through acts of Faith and Charity

Carthusian nun at prayer

This is what God is asking of man, it is what repairs the evil caused by sin, it is what consoles and strengthens those who are suffering, not through good words, or money, not even (outward) examples of virtue, it is Faith and Charity, which give life to these words, to these alms, to these examples.

But Faith and Charity still have a far more extensive action than the external works which they have to animate.

Indeed, a heart united to Our Lord, an immolated soul cooperates in the redemptive action of Our Lord which in turn radiates love within hearts, in union with the hearth of divine Charity.

Outer works reach only the exterior part of men; inner acts of charity impart life and consolation to countless souls within hearts.

The material alms are extremely limited, but the alms of contemplatives are an inexhaustible source within both time and space. 

Thérèse of the Child Jesus

If the role of contemplatives is so little understood and so difficult to support, it is because, here, everything happens in the invisible; it is absolutely necessary to live in the night of supernatural Faith. But what makes this life so difficult is also what makes it worth. A man’s life is substantial and beautiful insofar as it is animated by Faith. Those who only believe in what they see are cowards who achieve nothing at all and will meet their death in a pensioner’s reclining chair, or behind a grocery counter without ever having made a fortune, because it takes a certain kind of daring and fearlessness to make a fortune! It is through a leap of faith that all great businesses become possible. Imagine what kind of a leap of faith it took for Christopher Columbus to be the first to set off on an uncharted and perilous ocean and discover the Americas! Well, to be a cloistered religious, to be contemplative, one has to have significantly greater faith. We must set off just as Saint Peter did, walk upon the sea which at any moment seems intent on swallowing us up. You have to (as the Little Flower Thérèse of the Child Jesus reminds us) go through extremely dark tunnels, so dark that you begin to wonder if the sun still prevails. You have to take a chance and risk your life, you have to throw yourself eyes closed into the arms of the Good Lord who is waiting for us within this darkness. This is the price of the heroism of the saints! Entering the unknown, taking a chance and without a second though, make the jump based on good faith. Its a risk that many would not take.

But what these heroes — whom are bolder than all of the navigating and explorers in history—, are discovering is not the New World, the continent of America, it is not even El Dorado or the Seven Cities of Gold —a new earthly paradise— it is, right here below, on earth, the true Kingdom of Heaven, promised by the Son of God.

It is for those who live like this in Faith that Our Lord said: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29) and here I would like to remind you all that Faith in Our Lord is not blind faith. The Bible does not tell us to exercise “blind faith,” but a faith which is firmly embedded in objective reality.

Prayer to Saint Bruno

Saint Bruno

O God, merciful Father, who called Saint Bruno to the solitude of the desert to found the Order of the Carthusian monastery; We ask you to free us from the sorrows of this world through his intercession and to grant us the gift of peace and spiritual joy that you have promised to those who persevere in seeking you.

Amen

Continue reading “The silent and hidden apostolate of the contemplative”
The conditions of inner peace.

The conditions of inner peace.

God never disturbs a soul who sincerely wants to come to Him. He warns, He may even retake it by force, but He never does it through confusion or distress. He sees the souls faults, sees its repentance, He repairs it, and He does all of this peacefully. If a soul is troubled, that trouble always comes from itself or is demonic in origin, and the soul must first of all be allowed to calm down. Continue reading The conditions of inner peace.

The Canticle of Brother Sun

The Canticle of Brother Sun

St. Francis reaffirms the divine character of Creation also in its material aspects, against the Cathars, who in those same years claimed that God had created the spiritual reality, while the material reality was of demonic origin. St. Francis of Assisi also argues against the mercantile mentality that was rapidly spreading throughout the known world and for which nature was being exploited simply for economic purposes, while the saint from Assisi argues that nature provides man with everything he needs and therefore invites us not to worry about scrambling about continuously, seeking ever greater but useless material goods. Continue reading The Canticle of Brother Sun

Prayer, contemplation and spiritual progress in the works of John Cassian

Prayer, contemplation and spiritual progress in the works of John Cassian

Human nature is to be transformed into what wine symbolises — 

namely, the Spirit. Notice that the miracle does not annihilate but 

transforms the water… we come to the wedding as guests and we 

leave as brides.

Thomas Keating, “The Kingdom of God is Like …,” p. 22.

Introduction

St. John Cassian

In his two works, the Cenobitic Institutions and the Conferences of the Fathers, John Cassian described in great detail the path of spiritual progress for those who seek perfection or, one could say, that happiness that consists in the contemplation of divine things. Although written as two distinct works, the Institutions and Conferences have been conceived as a single project and form a whole that expresses two stages of the spiritual life. In the preface to the Conferences Cassian explains the link between the first part, the Institutions, and the second part, the Conferences, in this way: 

“From the external and visible aspect of monastic life — which I have dealt with in other books — I will now pass to deal with the interior and invisible life. From the prayer of the canonical hours, I now come to deal with that continuous prayer of which St. Paul. Thus the one who in reading the previous work earned the name of Jacob according to the spirit (after having eradicated the carnal vices), now, through the study of the teachings of the Fathers of the desert, will be able to reach the contemplation of divine purity, he will be encouraged to call himself Israel, he will learn what duties are to be observed on the very summit of perfection.” [1]

Here we find a summary of Cassian’s entire doctrine and his key ideas: the spiritual life understood as a passage from the exterior to the interior; the final purpose of “continuous prayer” which is at the same time the contemplation of divine things, the invisible things; the active (or current) life, the first step necessary to make further progress, symbolised by the figure of Jacob, and the end of the contemplative life, represented by the name Israel. It must be added that the place where this development takes place is “the inner man”, a terminology clearly inspired by himself. Paul. [2] This is the vision of possible spiritual progress that is precisely developed in the twenty-four conferences that follow. Here I will only address a few main points.

I. Jacob / Israel 

Jacob/Israel

The use of the names Jacob/Israel to designate two phases of the spiritual life puts us in contact with a rich tradition. This etymological/allegorical interpretation dates back at least to Philo of Alexandria who explains that “he who loves knowledge believes that one must leave the land of sensation, which has the name (חָרָן) Ḥārān”. Later he says that Jacob left Ḥārān at the age of seventy-five and, after explaining the meaning of the number, he continues: 

“In this issue we find the ascetic, still intent on gymnastic training and who has not yet been able to achieve a definitive victory. Indeed, it is said that “the souls born of Jacob were seventy-five in all” (Ex 1,5). [200] Souls, and not children of bodies, belong, therefore, to those who fight and do not succumb in the truly holy struggle for the conquest of virtue, even if they have not yet broken the bridges with the irrational and still pull the mass behind them of sensation. Jacob, in effect, is the name of the one who paws and prepares himself for the fight and the clash, but who has not yet won. [201] But when it became clear that he was able to see God, then his name was changed to that of Israel.” [3]

The allegorical/etymological interpretation of the two names Jacob/Israel, which is also found in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and in Anthony’s letters, [4] documents the widespread diffusion of the concept of the possibility of spiritual progress in early monasticism. Cassian himself returns to terminology in his twelfth lecture where he expands the interpretation with a chain of other allegorical interpretations. Referring to the text of Genesis 32:28, he says: 

“Whoever has passed the degree of chastity depicted in the” suppliant “Jacob, will not only paralyse the nerve in the side, but from the struggles for continence and from the work to substitute virtue for vices, will rise to the glorious title of Israel, and the his heart will no longer deviate from the right direction.” [5]

Cassian states that David also distinguished these two moments in the life of the spirit. He quotes the first part of the first verse of Psalm 75:2 “God made himself known in Judea,” explaining that the verse means “in the soul that has yet to confess his sins because Judea means confession”. Then he explains that “in Israel, which means” he who sees God “or — as another etymology wants — in man perfectly upright before God, the Lord is not only known, but “great is his name”, that is, the second part of the verse of the psalm. He then moves on to the second verse of the psalm: “His abode is established in peace” and comments: “In other words, the abode of God is not where the struggle against vice takes place, but in the peace of chastity and in the perpetual tranquility of heart.” [6] 

II. The goal of contemplation 

To better explain the difference between these two moments in the life of the spirit represented by Jacob and Israel, Cassian introduces the distinction between the end and purpose of the spiritual life.

Based on the saying found in Luke’s Gospel, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), and following an already established interpretation, he identifies this interior kingdom with contemplation. This is the goal of the spiritual journey: to see God, to become Israel “he who sees God”.

Already during the first conference, however, Cassian was trying to give his reader at least a fleeting appearance of the happiness that awaits those who make progress in contemplation. He explains that “divine contemplation is to be understood in several ways” and offers a long list of possibilities, or possible starting points for developing contemplation. God is known not only through his incomprehensible essence, but through all creation. The grains of sand and raindrops also offer a starting point for contemplating his providence. The whole history of salvation, long-suffering, mercy, the grace of God, offer opportunities for contemplation. First of all it is the Incarnation of his Son that gives us material for the knowledge of God. Cassian concludes: 

“On all these occasions we rise to divine contemplation. Considerations on the type of those enumerated so far can be had in almost infinite quantities: they are born in our intimate in direct relation to the perfection of our life and to the purity of our heart”. [7]

III. The purpose of purity of heart 

To reach this end, this happy condition of continuous prayer in which everything leads us to divine contemplation, we must acquire “purity of heart”. This is the “purpose” of the spiritual life. With “purity of heart” vision of God or contemplation becomes possible. To explain what the distinction between the end and the purpose means, Cassian introduces the example of the archer who, to obtain the prize (the end), must aim at the target (the scopos). Then he quotes Paul: «the holy Apostle, speaking elsewhere of our goal, says: “Forgetting what is behind me, and throwing myself at the things ahead, I go after the sign (Latin: bravium), to reach the reward of God’s supreme vocation”». Cassian insists that the Greek text is clearer and also mentions it: kata skopon dioko. Then he adds a paraphrase: “It is as if the Apostle said: “In aiming at the target, I forget what lies behind me — that is, the vices of the carnal man — and I try to reach my goal which is the heavenly reward.”” It must be added, however, to avoid misunderstandings, that, according to Cassian, this celestial prize can already be obtained in this world. The kingdom of God is within us.

Whoever does not keep his gaze fixed on the target (purpose), which is purity of heart, is in great danger. “It is inevitable — says Cassiano — that a soul, which no longer has a point to refer to and anchor itself to, changes at every hour and every moment, according to the thoughts that occur and under the solicitation of external events: that is, it changes the I mean by changing impressions.”  [8] This target is called purity of heart because it refers to the elimination of vices and passions. [9] The practice of the other virtues is to make our heart pure and keep it «unassailable to all perverse passions. Thus we will climb – as on a ladder (istis gradibus) — towards the perfection of charity”. [10] From a positive point of view, the target is charity, charity that cannot coexist with vices, with anger, with pride, with the contempt of a brother.

In the tradition prior to Cassian (Philo, Clement, Origen, Evagrius Pontus) this purpose was called apatheia. The phrase “purity of heart” comes from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:8) and offers certain advantages. The reward promised to the “pure in heart” is that they will see God. Thus we see the connection with the end, that is, contemplation. At the same time, with the use of this terminology Cassian avoids the now disputed terminology of apatheia, at least in the West with the anti-Stoic and anti-Evagrian controversy of Jerome. [11] The problem for Cassian is not the theoretical one, whether it is possible to eliminate all passions, but rather the impossibility of coexistence of vices with charity or with the vision of God. Cassian underlines and reiterates this impossibility in various ways. In the fourteenth lecture on spiritual science he explains: 

«If one wants to reach contemplative science, he must first commit all his study and all energy to acquire practical science, because it is true that practical science can be obtained without the theory, but theoretical cannot be obtained without practice. The two sciences are like two distinct but ordered steps, through which our weakness can ascend to heights. If the two steps follow one another in the order described, you can reach the peaks of the spiritual life, but if the first step is removed, it will no longer be possible to fly to the top. It is useless to think of reaching the contemplation of God who first does not avoid the contagion of vices. [“The spirit of God flees deception and does not dwell in a body that is enslaved by sin” (Wisdom 1:45)]”. [12]

In other words, it is impossible to progress in the life of prayer and contemplation without making progress in the moral life. According to Cassian, the essence of the spiritual life lies in the depths of the soul (animae recessu). “In our depths there can only be one situation: either the knowledge of the truth or its ignorance; either the love of vice or the love of virtue”. 

Then he quotes Paul: “The kingdom of God is not food or drink, but justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And he concludes: 

“If the kingdom of God is within us and consists of justice, peace, joy, whoever lives in these virtues certainly lives in the kingdom of God. On the contrary: whoever lives in injustice, in discord, in the sadness that generates death , is a citizen of the kingdom of the devil, hell and death. In fact, from these signs the kingdom of God and that of the devil are distinguished”. [13]

These generic considerations become more concrete in the course of the analysis of the different passions and vices. The person, for example, under the domination of the vice of gastrimargia (“gluttony”), is unable to withstand the struggles of the inner man. [14] 

She is too busy with the desires / pleasures of the throat. The incompatibility of vice with prayer/contemplation applies to all eight vices / thoughts. However, Cassian particularly emphasises the destructive potential of the passion of anger. Contemplation means seeing God, but the vision of a God of love is incompatible with the hatred and anger that destroy the inner and spiritual vision. Cassian says: “The impulses of anger, from whatever cause they are provoked, blind the eyes of the soul, and therefore, throwing into the sharpness of the gaze” the deadly beam “of a worse evil, they prevent us from contemplating the sun of justice”. [15] Towards the end of the conferences he returns to the topic in the context of an explanation of the need not to react to offences: 

“If one considers these and other similar damages well, not only will he bear all the offences, but also the insults and punishments of all kinds, even the most cruel, that can come to him from men. And the reason is that the thoughtful man will see how nothing is more harmful than anger, nothing is more precious than the tranquility of the soul and purity of the heart. For such a pearl, not only carnal goods deserve to be despised, but also those that seem spiritual: assuming that they cannot be acquired and preserved without endangering the tranquility of the heart”. [16]

IV. The small method 

The possibility and quality of contemplation depends on the extent to which the heart becomes purified, emptied of vices, of the motions of passion that blind the inner eyes. Without moral and spiritual progress, the contemplation of divine goodness will not come badly. The angry person is unable to experience the joy of human existence; he is not capable of making good use of opportunities, not even of giving thanks to God for all that he has received. The same thing goes for the proud man or greedy for money, and so on. All vices hinder that continuous prayer recommended by the apostle. 

However, if continuous prayer is not possible while the vices and motions of passion remain in the heart, prayer itself always remains a possibility in every moment of the spiritual life, indeed a principal instrument in the search for purity of heart. Towards the end of the second conference dedicated to the subject of prayer, after having spoken of the different types of prayer, Abbot Isaac reveals a small method, “a secret that has been revealed to us by those few Fathers belonging to the good old days “. The secret consists in continually repeating the verse of the psalm: “O God, turn to my help, Lord, hurry to help me” (Psalm 69:2). Isaac explains that this verse is suitable for expressing “all the sentiments of which human nature is capable; it is perfectly suited to all states and all sorts of temptations ». It expresses humility, vigilance, the recognition of our weakness, the confidence to be heard, the ardor of charity, the awareness of the dangers. This verse, incessantly invoked, becomes “an impregnable wall, an impenetrable armour, a very strong shield”. The abbot concludes: “In short: that verse is useful to everyone and in all circumstances. Asking to be helped always and in all things is equivalent to clearly recognising that we need God’s help when everything is favourable to us and smiles at us, as when trials and adversities assail us”. [17] 

He then offers a long list, in satirical form, of the occasions when this verse must be repeated. Some examples will make us the most concrete method:

«Does the passion of the throat haunt me?” Do I go in search of foods that the desert does not know? In my squalid solitude do I breathe the scent of the foods that are on the table of kings? Do I feel attracted to wanting them, even against my will? Here I will have to say: “God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me». 

The list of occasions follows the order of the defects already analysed in the Institutions and also in the Conferences. The verse can be invoked against sleep or when sleep escapes us, and against the temptations of the flesh. 

«I want to immerse myself in spiritual reading, in order to fix my thought in God; but here is the headache prevents me. Or: it is still early morning and my head falls drowsy on the pages of the sacred book and I feel obliged to increase the hours that the rule assigns to rest, or to anticipate the rest of this day. Sometimes, precisely during our meetings, sleep prevents me from continuing to recite the Psalms. In these situations, there is nothing to do but invoke: “Lord, come to my help, God, hurry to my help”».

«I’m still in the stage where it is necessary to wage war against vices: the flesh suddenly tempts me, tries to wrest my consent while I take my night’s rest. Lest an adverse fire burn the fragrant flowers of my chastity, I will cry out, “O God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me”». 

We must also invoke him against anger, greed, sadness, vainglory, pride. However, even if the heart were purified from all these vices, the temptation of spiritual pride would remain. Therefore we must continue the invocation of this prayer. But this form of prayer is not only useful in the fight of the active life against vices and temptations; it also serves in every moment of the contemplative life. For example, Abbot Isaac says: 

«I feel I have rediscovered, by gift of the Holy Spirit, the direction of the soul, the stability of thoughts, the joyful readiness of the heart. I feel that, due to a sudden illumination of the Lord, a source rich in spiritual thoughts is produced in me, abundant revelations come to me on the holiest mysteries, which until now had remained completely hidden from me. To deserve to remain in this luminous state for a long time, I will say repeatedly and fervently: “O God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me”». 

Isaac concludes the list of possible occasions with a passage that brings to mind another passage from the Scriptures where the Israelite is recommended to repeat the shema prayer. The prayer of this verse must be meditated continuously in our heart.

«In any work, in any duty, even while traveling, the monk must always sing that verse. In eating, in sleeping, in every other need of nature, he must meditate on those words. This continuous thought will become a formula of salvation that will not only protect from the assaults of the demons, but will also purify from every vice and from every earthly stain; it will raise to the contemplation of celestial and invisible things; it will lead to an ineffable ardor of prayer, which only a few know from experience».

This verse is for the monk his schema and, paraphrasing Deuteronomy, Cassian adds: 

«You will write those words on your lips, you will carve them on the walls of your home, in the depths of your hearts, so that they are a recurring theme for you when you pray, may they also be your continuous prayer”. The use of this prayer will lead to that continuous prayer recommended by the apostle and remembered as the goal of monastic life already in the Preface of the conferences. But it is capable and useful in bringing us to union with God that words are no longer able to describe. This prayer, explains Isaac, “is not fixed on some image, indeed it is not expressed even through words: it is born of a leap, from a fiery mind, from an unspeakable rapture, from an insatiable alacrity of spirit. The soul, transported out of the senses and visible things, offers itself to God amid unspeakable sighs and groans.» 

Here is the path of the spiritual life from the point of view of prayer and contemplation. This small method, this simple form of prayer should accompany the monk along the entire path of spiritual progress, from the beginning with external prayer to the peak of contemplation. He is able to lead him even to prayer so internalised that words are no longer needed. 

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