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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.

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.


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.

Spiritual reading and the epiphany of poetry

Jane Davis says that literature saved her life. She grew up in a broken home, with a single mum who died of alcoholism. She left home and lived in squats, with a husband who also eventually died of substance abuse. She was helped by a Women’s Liberation group and then went to study English Literature at Liverpool University. But she was turned off by the entitled middle-class students around her, and the pervading miasma of critical theory.

That’s when she had her epiphany. She told Ashoka magazine:

At the end of my first year, I read Doris Lessing’s Shikasta. Literally overnight, it changed my whole world-view. It’s a brilliant sci-fi novel, and it made me realise there is a religious or spiritual dimension to life and I needed to understand what it was. It brought on something like a nervous breakdown. I was very scared, because I realised I would have to totally change my life. I didn’t know how to behave in this new universe where everything matters. The book made me see that you have a life for a purpose and you’ve got to find out what that purpose is and then you’ve got to do it.

Jane Davis (right), the founder of the Reader Organization, with Sophie Howarth, co-founder of the School of Life
Jane Davis (right), the founder of the Reader Organization, with Sophie Howarth, co-founder of the School of Life

She graduated with a first, and started to teach in a continuing education college. She got to pick what she taught and she used the course to teach herself about great literature – she did a 20-week course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, another 20-week course on Piers Ploughman. She also did a PhD, but she knew that, deep down, she wanted to help get non-readers into reading, to show them that literature can save and transform lives, and that it belongs to all of us.

In 1997 she started the Reader Magazine, and in 2002 she launched the Reader Organization, which runs ‘shared reading’ groups. The group – anything between 2 and 12 people – read a poem or novel out-loud, and then discuss it in detail, bringing in their own experience and stories when they want to. The discussion is guided by a facilitator trained by the Reader Organization.

There are now almost 100 people working full-time for the Reader, which is an extraordinary achievement. Davis is not just a lady with a mission, she is apparently a brilliant people-manager. There are now over 300 shared reading groups around the country, including over 100 around Merseyside (also the home of Philosophy in Pubs, by the by – clearly something in the water up there). There are shared reading groups in many prisons. The Reader has also teamed up with NHS health and well-being boards to help people recovering from mental illness. And it’s working in care homes to run reading groups for the elderly and for those with dementia.

The testimonies from these groups are amazing. And the Reader has worked with The Centre for Research into Reading at Liverpool (run by Josie Billington and Jane’s husband Phillip Davis) to research if shared reading is good for us – a 2011 study found significant benefits for people recovering from depression. This helped to inspire the NHS’  ‘books for health’ programme – although Jane points out there are big differences. The NHS’ programme only ‘prescribes’ narrow CBT books, which people read on their own. There is not the beauty of great literature, nor the community of a reading group.

So why is reading fiction or poetry good for us? Reading in general gives us cognitive benefits, according to a new study by Alice Sullivan – it improves our vocabulary and even our maths ability. Another study last year found reading novels increases our empathic ability to take others’ perspective. It is also very heartening, if one is going through an intense experience or emotion, to find that someone else has gone through something similar and put it into words ‘often thought but ne’er so well expressed’.

I love what Holden Caulfield’s teacher says to him in Catcher in the Rye:

You’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.

I would say it’s wisdom. Poetry and fiction is an accumulation of wisdom about consciousness and experience. And so much of the challenge of our culture, today, involves remembering the wisdom of the past and communicating it. The Reader Organization does that – it tends the flame, it passes it on.

Also, the communal aspect of the shared reading group is part of its magic. The art work is a stimulus to discussion, to sharing about your lives. You listen, and you feel heard. I think that’s a lot what people get from the philosophy groups I run – in some ways, me talking about the philosophy at the beginning is just an excuse to get people together to talk to each other about what really matters to them (this is part of the appeal of the Alpha Course too).

The Saracens philosophy group this week
The Saracens philosophy group this week

This week, for example, the philosophy club at Saracens prepared for their Premiership semi-final by reading and discussing Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior. It was surreal, but also brilliant. And it got the players talking to each other about what really matters – it was beautiful to hear them talk about playing for the camaraderie and joy of it (and they won, by the way).

What I think poetry and literature particularly do is reach a part of the psyche that rational philosophy doesn’t necessarily reach. The symbols, the rhythm, the metaphors and paradoxes, these go deep into the soul, beyond the pre-frontal cortex. Jane Davis says that a good sign of poetry is it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Emily Dickinson said ‘if I feel physically that the top of my head has come off, that’s poetry’. It’s a sort of liturgy or spell – and sharing that reverie or even ecstatic state together is very good for us, I believe. It opens a window to the spiritual, and stops us getting too claustrophobic in the narrow cell of our selves.

Poetry can give us epiphanies – a sudden insight into our lives and the human condition – a seeing from another angle, from above, from within, a revealing of the beauty and pathos not just of our lives but of life. Jane Davis’ favourite writer is the novelist Marilynne Robinson, and she has a special genius for capturing these epiphanies  – it might be seeing a couple walking down the street hand-in-hand, and the poignancy and eternity of that moment takes your breath away.

Lectio Divina - the art of spiritual reading
Lectio Divina – the art of spiritual reading

It is a spiritual thing. For centuries, Christian monks and lay-people practiced something called lectio divina, or spiritual reading, where you read, considered and digested a passage of scripture, savouring in a deep and physical way the explicit and implicit meanings, the symbols, the parallels with other texts, and the resonance with your own life and where you are now. Spiritual reading helped to grow your inner world, as St Augustine put it – to expand your soul into a many-roomed mansion. Around the 16th and 17th century, that practice passed into the world of poetry, through writers like George Herbert and John Donne, who used many of the spiritual practices of contemplative Christianity in their poetry. Today, poets and writers may not be orthodox Christians, but many of them still keep those contemplative practices alive in the belief that art is good for our souls.

TE Hulme once said that Romantic poetry is ‘spilt religion’. A more positive way to put it is that the Reader Organization offers a form of spirituality for an undogmatic and multicultural age. It uses the language of religion – epiphanies, mission, revelations, converts, testimonies – and some of the practices of religion – shared reading, spiritual reading, liturgy – and offers them to people who might not be sure what they believe, but who instinctively seek for that spiritual dimension to life.

It also keeps alive a tradition of adult education that has almost disappeared. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, faith groups, socialist groups and universities all worked to spread education, to teach people how to read and discuss ideas and art. In the second half of the 20th century, however, many universities closed their extension courses, further education colleges became focused on teaching ‘skills’, and the left-wing intelligentsia lost interest in adult education and fell in love with obscure continental theorists. Thank God, then, that people like Jane are keeping the flame burning.


In other news:

The Huffington Post is turning into a hot-bed for Stoic philosophy, thanks to its managing editor, Jimmy Soni, who is a Stoic, and its CEO Arianna Huffington, who is also a big fan of it. Two pieces on Stoicism from the site – one’s an interview with a Stoic former Green Beret. And the other is a general piece on why we need more Stoic philosophy in our lives. Maybe this new wave of Stoic enthusiasm will help my book sell more copies in the US! Lots of nice reviews for it on Amazon at least.

Here’s a great programme on helping Muslim populations in the UK with mental health issues – including finding an indigenous way to talk about things like depression. Great idea – and a great way to fight extremist Islam, which feeds off despair and alienation.

And here’s a good article on why social activists can avoid ‘burnout’ through contemplative practice.

Tanya Luhrmann, a great anthropologist, writes for the NYT on dreaming in different cultures.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci gave a talk this week on Scientism. Here are the slides.

Prince is touring the UK! Here’s a brilliant vid of a James Brown gig in the 80s, where Brown invites Michael Jackson on stage to dance, and then Jacko invites Prince on stage from the audience too. Prince is wasted and gets his bodyguard to carry him to the stage! Hence the Kanye West line ‘ride around on my bodyguard’s back like Prince in the club’. Hooray for Prince.

Finally, might as well end with a poem. Being in a religious community is hard. Being in any community is hard. It confines your freedom and that chafes. But maybe we discover a greater freedom in service. George Herbert, vicar and poet, thought about this a lot in the 17th century. His poem ‘The Collar’ is a great exploration of this experience. Have a read.

See you next week,