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Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Bishop of London on Christian contemplation

BOL WebLast week I got the chance to interview the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, for my research on spiritual ecstasy. It was an informal conversation, and it was very kind of the Bishop to give me the benefit of his time and wisdom. I thought he’d be a good interviewee because of his interest in contemplative practices and in Christian mystics like Thomas Traherne. And he was!

Do you think spiritual ecstasy is dangerous?

It certainly can be. We have forgotten how dangerous religion can be. We think of it as a minority leisure pursuit – another cup of tea, Vicar. To remember how dangerous it can be, you have to go back to before religion became obstinately metaphysical, to the Civil War, when the streets around here were filled with Levellers and Fifth Monarchists and other fanatics, who had caused a social revolution.

St Paul’s cathedral is, in some ways, Christopher Wren’s answer to religious enthusiasm – God as a mathematician rather than the terrifying arbitrary God of the Civil War.

The great Bishop Butler says to John Wesley: ‘pretending to special revelations of the Holy Ghost Mr Wesley is a very horrid thing. It’s a very horrid thing indeed.’ And it is indeed a very horrid thing. Unless it’s held firmly within a community of interpretation, with a shared communal experience of discerning between evil spirits and good spirits, then it’s very dangerous.

A depiction of medieval dancing mania
A depiction of medieval dancing mania

It’s happened again and again in the Church. Montanism was a clear example of an ungovernable Dionysian spirit in the early Church. It perhaps was there in the dance crazes of the Middle Ages, and in some of the Millenarian movements of the 14th and 15th centuries, as chronicled by the historian Norman Cohn.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a fear of the irrational, a fear of the ungovernable spirit, in the Church.  As a result, the Holy Spirit was occluded, was edited out. If you look at the consecration of prayer in Cranmer’s prayer book [in the 1540s], it does not contain what all the primitive liturgies contain, which is an invocation of the Holy Spirit.

The sixteenth century, which was the century where western churches received their present shape, saw an over-definition of mystery in the interest of polemics, an over-bureaucratization of the church and a cosying up to the nation state.

One of the most feared things as far as the reformed Roman church was concerned was the whole realm of mystical experience – why else did the Church put St John of the Cross in jail? The great spiritual mind of 16th century Spain was persecuted because his kind of mystical exploration is a threat to rigid control, bureaucratic church authority, and the over-definition of mystery in the interest of polemics.

So you’re saying that, in reaction to the unbridled and violent Dionysian ecstasy of the late medieval and early modern era, the Church went too far, and occluded the Holy Spirit entirely?

Yes.  The truth expresses itself as an economy in which the various elements of the truth aspect and balance one another. The truth is not to be encapsulated in a neat formula. It exists as a massive symphony, where the truth is given by the interplay of the various parts. If you omit any part of it, then there is a reaction and exaggeration of the missing element.

This is exactly what happened with the occlusion of the Holy Spirit in the West, and the editing out of the Eplicesis [the drawing down of the Holy Spirit] from western liturgies, and the demeaning of the Christian faith into a list of propositions, which turns God into an idea in the mind.

A Pentecostal service in Kentucky, 1946
A Pentecostal service in Kentucky, 1946

The reaction came in the Romantic revival and finally the Azusa Street Pentecostal movement, which has reshaped the sociology of the world. The Azusa Street explosion of Pentecostalism came because, in the economy of Christianity, the charismatic element is essential to Orthodoxy. In any one life, we see only a very small part of the curve of these great historical movements. It’s our duty to try and see more of the curve, and to knit together fragments of knowledge and relate them to the whole.

The charismatic stream is part of the grand symphony of the Christian faith. And one of the wonderful things about the Church of England in London is that, for various reasons, the charismatic stream has not absolutized itself, has not decided to lead a sectarian apart life, and to leave the church. In fact it is revivifying the church within, and is being saved from folly and rigidity, which always happens when you become sectarian. If you become sectarian in your mentality, and focus on one bit of the Christian economy, what happens is rigidity and eventually disappearance and decline.

The occlusion of the Holy Spirit never really happened to the same extent in the Eastern Church, by the way. The Treatise of St Basil on the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to the Eastern understanding of the Holy Spirit as the Perfector, as the Go-Between.

I rather incline to GK Chesterton’s view – you can’t really be an orthodox Christian without having a charismatic life. That doesn’t necessarily mean special gifts of the Holy Spirit. Such gifts are given to people at various stages of people in their pilgrimage, for good reason, often to break up the crust of convention which is keeping them imprisoned. Once a real fluency in spiritual matters has been achieved, they’re no longer necessary. It’s very dangerous to hold on to some of these psychic phenomena which often attend growing in the Holy Spirit.

So how much importance should we give to Holy Spirit encounters or charismatic gifts in our spiritual life?

I have a simple map of spiritual reality. We spend most of our time at the mental ego level, on the surface, with the self negotiating the world around – a self which we have largely manufactured and confected. It is very difficult to get modern people to understand prayer is not just a form of thinking at that level. That’s one of the fundamental errors and difficulties people encounter at the beginning of learning to pray.

'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine'
‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’

At that mental ego level, there are often things of darkness which are unacknowledged. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero says of Caliban, ‘this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’, but often those dark things are left unacknowledged within us. And much religion is really dangerous and I would say lethal, because it is in effect the surreptitious re-ascent of the bruised ego.

We project parts of ourselves – our anger, all kinds of personal psychic material – into the middle distance, deifying it and conducting a solipsist conversation. God is very often a projection of some of this unacknowledged material.

You can see it very clearly: the God which causes people to smite and slay. Sane religious cultures which have lasted for a very long time have discerned that the real fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace and various other things. They certainly aren’t homicidal impulses.

So you have the mental ego level – and the adventure of prayer is to go beyond and beneath that – into the psychic zone, in which very often there are gifts of the spirit, charismatic gifts of various kinds – glossolalia, gifts of prophecy, and ecstatic utterance.

There is a great danger in falling in love with yourself once again as a spiritual person, in becoming too intrigued by these things, and to think ‘because I have these things I am a really serious Christian’. There has to be a continued Copernican revolution, and that revolution always turns us outwards in generosity to our fellows and in adoration to God. St Anthony the Great says we must see the Spirit in our neighbour, and love them.

But instead, what can happen when you have notable charismatic gifts, is once again a turning inwards, an admiration of the self. Lucifer the light-bringer fell, because he fell so in love with his own reflection.

Open-Heart-Open-Mind-The-Contemplative-Dimension-of-the-GospelAnd then after the psychic zone, there is what is called the heart, which for the Hebrews was not the blood pump, the heart for the Hebrews was the vitals, where the spiritual centre was actually located. And once you were quiet enough and had been educated by silence and stillness, and had gone through this journey, from time to time, you tasted from the eternal well-spring that there is at the heart of every life and all life, where the spirit is already there and praying in ways we can’t understand.

So that is the map. Part of being a follower of the spirit of truth in Christ is to make a passage through this dangerous territory, drain the shadows, and acknowledge that this thing of darkness is mine.

And it is a very dangerous thing to enterprise the exploration of the spirit alone and isolated. Unless you do it in community, you are open to delusion and have little way of checking the face of the god that is visiting you.

Our spiritual culture at the moment is so impoverished and primitive. People find it extraordinarily difficult to be serious about angels or discarnate energies. There is a very dangerous and dark realm, which the Christian practice navigates through, by practicing in a community, by modeling oneself on Jesus Christ, by digesting His words not just as ideas in the mind but also as sacramental practice.

Even Luther and Calvin say the Church is a community in which the Gospel is truly preached and the sacraments are duly administered.  It’s a very modern tragedy that religion has become ideas in the mind. That’s why western religion is so feeble.

Where can we look to learn contemplative practices?

Pete Greig, one of the pioneers of the 24/7 prayer movement
Pete Greig, one of the pioneers of the 24/7 prayer movement

You’re asking for other people to engage with. Of course, there is the tradition of John Main and Laurence Freeman. I’m a member of the Eckhart Society – there is a huge renewed interest in Meister Eckhart. Then there is the Eastern tradition on the Holy Mountain, where you will find monks who have gone through the psychic phase and started to live an authentic spiritual life. In the UK, the 24 / 7 prayer movement is one place one could look – Pete Greig is the real thing. He’s a good man. And there are some books one could read, such as Olivier Clemont’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism, or Thomas Keating’s Open Heart, Open Mind; or Mark McIntosh’s Mystical Theology.

But alas we do not have many places where one can go today to learn and practice contemplation – we are very needy.

What about academic centres where contemplative practices could be studied and practiced?

The difficulty is that academia has sold out to a methodology which really depends on something all modern people must use – the experimental method, the metrics – and in this realm, that’s not applicable. The only thing you can do is be clear about the fruits of various practices.

The tree of knowledge was so fatal because it was knowledge wrenched from its source, and lying in atomized bits and pieces. We don’t seek illumination from the whole but from bits and pieces. This is one of the reasons why this civilization is in grave peril. Its arrogance is enormous. It still thinks it can preach to the whole world in the name of some very limited and abstract notions. It is indeed a civilization that is deeply needy.

So now we’re looking for an authentic wisdom which is inhabiting the whole Christian economy, with the right kind of balance and poise. Being sane and poised enough to love without distortion or hidden agendas. To be able to relate all knowledge to the whole, to the Pleroma, to the purposes of God. These are some of the aspects of wisdom, as opposed to knowing a hell of a lot.

Do you think there needs to be a contemplative revival in the Church?

The church needs huge reform in this respect, but certainly not the kind of fidgeting we’ve had in the last 50 years – fidgeting about structures and regulations, about the ministry, about this that and the other, and being a dull echo of the secular consensus, which of course says that the supreme value of life is individual choice whether in goods or morals.

The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women – it’s that it’s spiritual incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us. That’s the real truth, and that’s why people are fascinated by other ways which have remained less disturbed by the gospel that really grips this society, which is that there should be no constraint on individual consumer choice in goods or morals. That’s the very opposite of the truth. Autonomy is the story of the fall, not redemption. The church has accommodated itself so much, and is so lacking in distinction.

A lot of people (including me) believe it’s possible to have spiritual experiences in various different traditions and beyond any tradition.

Spiritual But Not Religious is a new upper middle class religion. You take a bonne bouche of Sufism, season it with Californian Buddhism. It’s delightful. And your deity of course is your taste. There is no genuine spiritual progress without committing yourself to a way.

I don’t deny there are other ways that help people to make spiritual progress. If you start honestly on a way, you find yourself in a place where there is plenty of commerce and conversation with followers of other ways, but you can do it authentically. But you have to commit yourself to a way, because otherwise the Copernican revolution never occurs – you , your ego and your taste, are still in control, and the profound bouleversement does not occur.

So you can get to God via, say, Buddhism or Islam or even humanism?

You can’t to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not to say there are other ways to different destinations. There is only one Way to God as Jesus Christ has revealed Him, and that way is by feeding on His word and as part of His community and His sacraments. There is no other way to that destination.

But it would be very strange if this was a world created by God and marked by the Noachian covenant with all human flesh, in which God had left no vestige of Himself and His healing and ennobling spirit except within one strand or stream.

Mindfulness - a bestseller written by Danny Penman and Mark Williams, the latter of whom is head of the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness and also an Anglican priest
Mindfulness – a bestseller written by Danny Penman and Mark Williams, the latter of whom is head of the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness and also an Anglican priest

So I don’t find the denigration of other ways essential. It is the fact that there is no other way to the Father except through Jesus Christ, that does not mean that all other ways have no element of truth within them. But I am clear that unless you commit yourself to a way, rather than being idly neutral or taking a bit from here and there, there’s no spiritual progress whatsoever.

It’s the balance of practice, conviction, generosity, compassion, community and creativity, properly related to the ultimate pole – God who no man has seen at any time, only Jesus Christ who has revealed the Father. When you come into the presence of God, by this portal – there are other portals which may take you to different places – you come through a passage of self-sacrifice and giving oneself away, which paradoxically does not result in obliteration, but in the most extreme ecstasy and joy at the discovery which lies at the end of all this – that one is fearfully and wonderfully made, one is a unique and beloved child of God.

If I’m a Christian, do I have to agree with everything St Paul says?

Well…I wouldn’t say that, because the Holy Scriptures are, again, symphonic. You’ve got to immerse yourself in the Biblical worldview, which begins to bring into the foreground the grand themes. Of course, bits of the Scriptures are things of their own time. But it isn’t an either / or. You don’t sit in judgement on the Scriptures.

This is the crucial thing: how do you go through the desert of criticism, with spiritual and intellectual integrity, granted that the primordial gift of innocence before the Scriptures is not possible for modern people. You arrive at a point where you develop the critical approach, because doubt is not the opposite of faith. Faith is going beyond, beneath, embracing, saying ‘yes!’ Grasping a vision. The opposite of faith is sin, a turning in on oneself.

Paul Ricouer
Paul Ricouer, theologian and philosopher

That’s the opposite of faith, not doubt. Doubt is extraordinarily creative, as long as it doesn’t turn into corrosive scepticism, stopping us from any kind of commitment. You can be committed as far as you can be.

This largely comes from the astonishing work of Paul Ricouer. His work on Biblical criticism is all about how you can enter with spiritual and intellectual integrity into second innocence. And it’s possible. Indeed, the ‘nubbly bits’ are extraordinary fuel, as long as you continue to live with it.

If you believe you live on a pinnacle of enlightenment and eminence from which you can judge all times and places, there’s very little hope for you. If you’re prepared to read the scriptures with people from other ages and cultures, and prepared to say ‘I can’t take that’ while continuing with engagement, you may find some of those difficult passages yield as our musical taste changes, as our understanding of life and the great pattern changes, you may find they have a different valency.

But I don’t think you have to say, at this particular point, that because St Paul wanted, in the Philemon, to return a slave to his master, that you’re committed to upholding the institution of slavery, as Cardinal Newman thought. That shows the limitation of Cardinal Newman.

Distraction therapy, or ‘shut up and deal’

Last week, a reader called Tom wrote in with this story:

I am finally coming out the other side of a pretty deep existential crisis (possibly a result of drug use) and I am seeing the colour flood back into my life. I have just turned 29. The last 5 years have been pretty bleak and filled with crippling anxiety. Everything I once believed and valued seemed to be lies and the world felt hollow. I then began looking for the truth.

The deeper I looked into philosophy, Buddhism, meditation, health and fitness etc the more questions and uncertainty I created for myself. This ramped up my motivation to find the answers.  The more I looked, the more uncertainty I created, and the more I needed to look. During this period my anxiety became crippling.

how_the_frisbee_took_flightFortunately I was able to realize what was going on and pull myself out of this cycle. I decided for a period that I would cut everything out of my life that caused uncertainty. This included reading or listening to any self help, philosophical, health and fitness etc article or podcast. I focused on filling my days with play, eg frisbee, non-fiction books, comedy, eventually friends. Within two weeks to a month, I felt like a completely different person.

I think there is a tendency for thinkers/sensitive types, whatever you want to call us, to over-think and intellectualise depression. I think in hindsight, if I had just ridden out the depression, I would have fallen back into life fairly quickly. However, my need to find answers lead me down a rabbit hole of depression and anxiety.

I will still have questions because that is my nature. However, I now understand the importance of diverting my attention and hope I am now better able to ask whether a particular line of intrigue is helpful or unhelpful to my quality of life.

I like Tom’s advice. Sometimes, in the darkness, we need to give our minds a rest, and find a distraction. Games are good for that. It reminds me of Billy Wilder’s film, The Apartment. Shirley Maclaine’s character has tried to kill herself with an overdose. Jack Lemmon’s character finds her, resuscitates her, and then tries to keep her awake and busy by playing cards with her. When she asks him what’s the point in life, he replies: ‘shut up and deal’ – a line she repeats to him at the end of the film, when she has recovered and they’re in love.

ApartmentMac58598257

One of the few philosophers who understood our need for distractions amid the existential confusion was Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician. He’s a fascinating figure – he was one of the leading mathematicians of his age, he almost died in a riding accident, and then had a sort of near-death experience (known as his ‘nuit de feu’ or ‘night of fire’), after which he became a religious philosopher. But he’s fascinating even if you’re not theist –  he’s really the first existentialist philosopher, in that he has an acute sense of the mystery of existence and the absurdity of human endeavour.

His Pensees, or ‘thoughts’, are a collection of brief meditations on existence. Here’s one of them:

449407The only good thing for men is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short what is called diversion.

That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness…What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think about our condition, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.

That is why this man, who lost his only son a few months ago and was so troubled and oppressed this morning by lawsuits and quarrels, is not thinking about it any more. Do not be surprised: he is concengrating all his attention on which way the boar will go that his dogs have been so hotly pursuing for the past six hours. That is all he needs. However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts….Without diversion there is no joy, with diversion there is no sadness.

Now, Pascal is being somewhat hyperbolic here. His ultimate hope is that we will make a leap of faith beyond boredom and diversion and put our trust in the Christian God. Personally, I believe in the Socratic approach – I think we can learn to discover and challenge the core negative beliefs underlying our suffering. But we can’t do that all the time. Sometimes we just need a break from our ruminations.

There is even a type of therapy built around just this insight, called ‘Distraction Therapy’. Therapists have experimented with using different forms of distraction to take patients’ mind off their physical pain, such as games, videos and music. One experiment projected nature sounds and images into hospital rooms when patients were receiving a painful bronchoscopy. The ‘significantly reduced pain’ in the patients, apparently.

Schirn_Presse_Glam_Karl_Stoecker_Brian_Eno
You won’t feel a thing

Many hospitals now use distraction therapy, like Chelsea and Westminster, which is teaming up with the musician Brian Eno to design ambient light and sound installations to take patients’ minds off the pain. Imagine Brian Eno jumping into the operating theatre, in full glam regalia. That would be distracting.

So the next time you have the blues, you could go to a psychodynamic therapist, lie down, and really pick that scab. Or you could try the Billy Wilder approach: shut up and deal.