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What can we recover from medieval contemplative culture?

10881517_10152445224901286_9127784824635687208_nEarlier this week, my girlfriend and I toured around Yorkshire and Northumberland, once the stronghold of English medieval monasticism. We visited the beautiful ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, which once boasted the biggest church in England. As we wandered around the ruins, I wondered what we lost, when Henry VIII dissolved more than 1000 monasteries in five years.

We lost our indigenous contemplative tradition. If you mention meditation to westerners, they assume you are talking about something from Asia. Last year, I went to an ‘International Symposium on Contemplative Studies’ in Boston, attended by over 1600 people. Of the 200 or so presentations, there was just one on Christian contemplation, by a sociologist who had not actually tried it.

The common view, expressed recently by Sam Harris, is that Christianity does not have a contemplative tradition. It has a few rare mystics, like Meister Eckhart and St Teresa of Avila, who operated as lone beacons of wisdom within a religion that was quick to suppress them. The very word ‘mystic’ makes contemplation seem something hidden and occult. Even contemporary Christians tend to view contemplation as something either Buddhist or New Age, and therefore deeply suspect.

This is a huge historical error. My research in this area is very raw, but from my initial reading it seems clear that from the 10th century until the Reformation, medieval culture was centred around contemplation. It was a visionary culture, ‘an age of the imagination’ as Michelle Karnes puts it. And contemplation was not an activity confined to the 2% of the population in monastic orders. Similar to today, the affluent laity were hungry for contemplative practices which they could carry out within their busy secular lives.

This contemplative culture gave rise to a rich treasury of contemplative practices. There was the contemplative lyric – visionary or dream poems like The Pearl or Piers Ploughman, designed to teach the reader virtues and guide them to transcendent experiences. There were contemplative miracle plays, which were a sort of mass visualization exercise for the laity. There was contemplative architecture – the abbey and cathedral, vivified with candles, incense, stained glass windows, statues and relics, were walk-through contemplative exercises in awe and piety. There were contemplative maps and travel accounts, designed to take the reader on mental journeys to wondrous lands. There were actual pilgrimages as walking contemplative exercises. There were contemplative objects – relics, prayer-beads, even contemplative needlework.

Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen, having an episode

Above all, there were contemplative books. ‘The prosperous literate laity wanted guidebooks to the mount of contemplation (or at least usable maps to its foothills)’, writes Oxford’s Vincent Gillespie. The monasteries helped to translate, copy and distribute contemplative classics by visionaries like Julian of Norwich, St Bonaventure, St Richard of Victor, the Cloud of Unknowing author, and Richard Rolle. The laity could also access these writings through ‘contemplative compilations’.

These books offered people meditative and devotional programmes. Like self-help books today, they were not always shy about trumpeting their miraculous benefits. The author of the 14th century Meditations on the Life of Christ declares that Christ Himself could appear to the reader ‘on any day…if you would prepare yourself for it with an uncompromised mind with meditations on the Lord’s passion every Friday and Saturday.’

The imagination as a bridge to God

At the heart of medieval contemplative culture was a belief in the power of the imagination to connect us to God. The exalted role of the imagination was built on the philosophy of Aristotle, for whom imagination was a key cognitive capacity that connects the sensory data of the material world to the emotions and the spiritual world of the intellect. For St Augustine, St Bernard, St Richard of Victor, St Bonaventure and others, the affective imagination takes us places where reason alone cannot go, lifting us from the material to the spiritual.

Reading was the main way the aspiring contemplative trained their imagination and guided their emotions to God. The key contemplative technique was called lectio divina, or ‘divine reading’. Guigo II, a 12th century Carthusian monk, outlines the four stages of the practice in his Scala Claustralium: first comes lectio, or a reading of a holy text; then meditatio, thinking about it and perhaps imagining oneself into its scenes; then oratio, or prayer to God; and finally contemplatio, when the mind is no longer striving, no longer imagining, but is rather taken up in rapture by God into the apex mentis, the throne-room, the Holy of Holies within one’s own mind.

Richard of the Abbey of St Victor (a school and contemplative centre in Paris), writes: “If the mind after a long time of searching finally finds the truth, then it usually happens that it receives the new insight with appetite, gazes at it with wonder and jubilation and stays in this amazement for a longer time.’

Fra Angelico's Annunciation, from a prayer-room in San Marco, Florence - each room has a different scene from Christ's life, to aid imaginative meditation
Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, from a prayer-room in San Marco, Florence – each room has a different scene from Christ’s life, to aid imaginative meditation

Many popular medieval contemplative works were guided imaginative meditations, particularly on the life and sufferings of Christ (a technique later adapted by St Ignatius for his Spiritual Exercises). By imagining oneself into Christ’s life, one actually went there, and could connect to Christ, and receive healing, wisdom and grace from him. Christ is God drawn close and made imaginable, palpable, embraceable. From the 11th century on, contemplative practices try to make him more and more real and present, to connect to him in love and sensual imagery.

The more vivid your imagining of Christ, the better – the author of Meditations on the Life of Christ has no worries about meditators basically inventing their own details to add to the Gospels. Christ’s life becomes a sort of fan-fiction universe – you don’t just passively consume the scenes, you enter them, see them, touch them, embellish them. Christ comes to life through such exercises and speaks to you, perhaps literally – it’s fairly common in medieval culture for Christ to appear to people and speak to them, in dreams, visions, trances.

Meditations on Christ, or Mary, or God, or a particular saint, were exercises in ‘affective meditation’ – they took the contemplative beyond mere reason, and connected them to God through love. Medieval contemplative texts are far from the cold rationality of Plato or the Stoics. They burn with love and sensuality. They often use the Song of Songs as inspiration, and the soul’s ecstatic union with Christ or God is described in startlingly sensual terms – the contemplative kisses Christ, enters his wounds, feels Christ within her, feels penetrated by the darts of his love. The word rapture comes from the Latin raptus, which also meant rape – God’s union with the soul is a ravishing, a quasi-sexual union, and the sweetness one feels is comparable to orgasm (and perhaps actually was, on occasion, an orgasm).

That kind of meditation might seem a bit weird to a modern secular audience (it does to me). But there were other imaginative exercises – meditating on the tree of life, for example, on the ‘mystical ark’, or Jacob’s ladder, or a visionary poem like The Pearl. A particularly popular technique, similar to the ancient ‘memory palace’ technique, guided the contemplative through an imaginary palace or cathedral, with each room representing a deeper level of consciousness (this is the technique used by St Teresa of Avila in her Interior Citadel, after a crystal castle appeared to her in a vision).

I think there was a profound connection between the inner architecture of contemplative practice, and the outer architecture of cathedrals and abbeys – in this sense it doesn’t surprise me that freemasonry was considered a sacred and occult culture. The visionary has an idea of a perfect building, which expresses the grandeur of God and the mansion of our soul. They then turn that idea into a reality, with the help of masons. Then others come to worship there, and the idea is impressed onto their souls too. And some of them go elsewhere and pass the idea on.

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Durham Cathedral

And it wasn’t just buildings filled with murals and stained glass windows that were contemplative and imaginative aids. Contemplative books likewise combined words and images – the bestsellers of medieval literature were the Books of Hours, which were beautifully illuminated compendiums of prayers and meditations.

Books of Hours were 'the bestsellers' of the Middle Ages
Books of Hours were ‘the bestsellers’ of the Middle Ages

The aim of all this guided imagination was a sort of inner architecture. ‘To think’, wrote Aristotle, ‘is necessarily to use images’. Imagination is at the heart of much of our cognition. The inner stream of our consciousness and memory is filled with images, usually involuntary and unconscious. An image of a beer comes to our mind, for example, and we are helplessly drawn to the pub. Luckily, we can consciously guide our imagination and impress our memory with images of the good, the beautiful, the divine. We can open the doors of the mansion of our mind (as Augustine put it) and fill it with good images. This will affect what we think, what we do, how we suffer adversity, how we treat others. It will connect us to God, who will shine through our imagination like sun through a stained-glass window. It will help us in the after-life too – contemplation is a preparation for death and purgatory, just as it was for Plato. Indeed, supposedly-true accounts of near-death experiences became popular in the 14th century.

The forgotten city of Atlantis

And then, in five years, Henry VIII and his enforcer, Thomas Cromwell, pulled the plug on that imaginative culture. It dissolved like a rainbow in the mist. Over 1000 monasteries, nunneries and abbeys were closed. Countless contemplative books were lost and destroyed. Abbeys were deserted, statues and relics vandalized. A centuries-old contemplative tradition disappeared, like Atlantis, and western society turned away from the vita contemplativa and embraces the vita activa.

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation both became deeply suspicious of ‘enthusiasm’, of people ‘who boast that they have the spirit apart from and before contact with the word’, as Martin Luther put it. For Protestants, there is the authority of Scripture, for Catholics, the authority of the church. Women, in particular, should know their place. Many of the greatest medieval visionaries were women – St Brigitte, St Edith, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Margary Kempe. They made huge contributions to medieval culture, but are dismissed as ‘fond women’ by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

The Enlightenment continued this attack on the ‘enthusiasm’ of the contemplative life.  The monastic life is a life of idleness, nuttiness, hypocrisy and sexual deviancy. Imagination falls from its exalted position as a bridge between God and man. It becomes ‘phantasy’, something that misleads and deludes.

The English contemplative tradition passes from monasteries to poetry. It’s no accident, perhaps, that the decades and centuries after the Dissolution lead to the great flowering of metaphysical poetry, to the contemplative wonders of Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, Traherne, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Blake (no women however). But the English poets are imagining within a culture that is losing its religious faith, that increasingly doubts the value of what cannot be scientifically proven. By the late 20th century, Ted Hughes worries that we are losing our capacity to dream dreams – he suggests we need to train our imagination using imaginative meditations like St Loyola’s exercises.

The medieval marriage of sacred words and imagery also declines after the Reformation, with the exception of William Blake’s illuminated poems, or the engravings of Gustave Dore. The word is sundered from the image. The image becomes ever more colonized by the word – look, today, at conceptual art. The ‘sacred marriage’ of word and image survives in a somewhat bastardized form perhaps in comic book culture – tales of marvels and wonders somewhat comparable to the medieval lives of saints, though not always with much ethical purpose.

Comic book culture, like Allan Moore's Promethea, still marries words and images, and still has an idea of the magical power of the imagination
Comic book culture, like Allan Moore’s Promethea (pictured), still marries words and images, and still has an idea of the magical power of the imagination

Guided imaginative meditation is not really a mainstream practice today. It’s used in a very simple manner by professional sportspeople – imagine the goal-posts, that sort of thing. And it is quite popular in self-help, ever since Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, described how he imagined a counsel of ‘Invisible Counselors’, including Emerson, Darwin and Napoleon, who would appear to him each night and offer him advice on how to grow richer. The New Age, and particularly shamanism, also draws heavily on guided imaginative journeys – although medieval contemplatives would warn that imagination unconnected to reason can easily end up in delusion, and even in demonic possession.

While Buddhist contemplation is hugely popular in the West today, it tends to be a very Protestant ‘imageless meditation’ – concentrate on your breath, or a word – although there is of course also a rich tradition of Buddhist, Hindu and Daoist visualization practices, including meditations in which one imagines walking through a palace or being pierced by the loving rays of a God or spiritual being.

What should we imagine?

I wonder if, slowly, we are returning to a more positive idea of the imagination. Perhaps fantasy literature – the capacity to imagine other cities, other worlds, other beings – is becoming more respectable and mainstream. It’s not just escapism – it’s a profoundly human activity, to imagine something ideal, to bring back one’s imagination repeatedly to that ideal, and to draw energy and power from it. Imagination is prophetic – uniquely among animals, we can imagine reality to be other than it is, and then make our dream real.

Today, however, we no longer have a common imaginative storehouse of images which we can visit. Europeans don’t typically believe Christ was the only son of God, and so that image, that bridge to the Divine, has lost much of its sacred power for us skeptics. After two centuries of imagining, we still haven’t really come up with much to replace Him – not Gandalf or Luke Skywalker or Batman or Aslan or Mickey Mouse, as interesting and rich as these figures are.

DCD_InfinitelyHeroicAlexRossGiclee

Speaking personally, I am not sure that Christ was quite such an exalted figure as the Bible claims he was. I don’t think he was God, though he may have connected to the God we all have within us more than anyone before or since. I think many of the details in the Gospels, particularly the Nativity, were fan-fiction rather than accurate history. Given my skepticism, I wonder if meditating on Christ can still connect me to God? Why would I meditate on his wounds, if I don’t think his death actually redeemed the human race? Then again, perhaps meditating on his suffering and his love is still redemptive, even if you don’t think it was the cosmic lynchpin that Christians say it was?

Well, these are questions for me to work out. Let’s imagine ahead. As the laity’s appetite for contemplation grows, is it possible that we create new contemplative centres in our society, that new contemplative orders start to appear? Over the coming centuries, will contemplation and the imagination once again assume a more central place in our outward-focused culture?

A key part of any potential contemplative revival, it seems to me, involves building a contemplative culture within universities. In the Middle Ages, universities and monastic orders supported each other. But eventually, it became more of a zero-sum tussle for power and money. When Henry dissolved the monasteries, many of their assets ended up being grabbed by universities. The universities gradually put forward an instrumental model of knowledge which was sadly divorced from the ideals of contemplation, virtue and wisdom. That’s partly why universities are in crisis today, in my opinion.

But things are beginning to change – the mindfulness movement in the US is being spear-headed by some contemplative centres, particularly at medical schools but also at places like Brown and Virginia. There are also mindfulness centres here in Oxford, Exeter and Bangor. I wonder if there could be contemplative centres which also explore and research the west’s own contemplative practices, to see what we can recover for our post-religious age. Because personally, I think it would be a great pity if we cast aside so many centuries of indigenous contemplative culture and all became secular Buddhists.

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.