Quick Thought on Gifts

When I was a kid, I remember asking my Mom why we give gifts at Christmas. She told me it was because the wise men gave gifts to the baby Jesus. Of course, that was enough for me at the time (as long as I got my presents).

Now I see that Christ is in everyone, and we still give gifts to Jesus.

The Apostle’s Creed

In The Church that Forgot Christ, Jimmy Breslin muses on the phrase “descended into hell,” and accuses the Catholic Church of taking it out of the Nicene Creed when he wasn’t looking. Of course, nothing of the sort occurred; he’s simply confusing the Apostle’s Creed with the Nicene Creed.

Yet I must admit I too missed that phrase when I joined the Catholic Church and learned the Nicene Creed. I had been familiar with the Apostle’s Creed from my Methodist days, and that phrase, “descended into hell,” spoke to me of the fierceness of Christ’s love. J. Preston Eby saw it as evidence of universalism: If Christ would be willing to descend into hell once (1 Pet 3:18-20), he asked, wouldn’t he be willing to do it again?

When I wrote before that “the Creed” is difficult for me, I meant the Nicene Creed. It was created specifically to re-shape the Gospel into an official belief system which would exclude many Christians. I find the Apostle’s Creed much more a description of the flavor of trust in Christ. There are actually only two words I have trouble with in the Apostle’s Creed, only and virgin. Only, because I sense the entire Creation is the Child of God, and because Jesus himself taught all to call God “our Father.” Virgin, because I see the Lord’s example as theosis, more than kenosis. The “resurrection of the body” isn’t a problem for me, since I never took it to mean “physical body,” but it strikes me that “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” is quite in harmony with the idea of reincarnation/rebirth, held by some early Christians. I would also translate *credo/pisteuo* as “trust,” since that’s a valid translation, and even as his brother said, it’s not about belief. (Jas. 2:19)

My statement of trust:

I trust in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ his Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I trust in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

What is Church?

That’s the question up for discussion at Symphonic recently. I find it an oddly distressing question to grapple with for several reasons. I guess first among those is church has sometimes been an uncomfortable environment for me. I’ve been involved with almost every major expression of “church” in America, both Protestant and Catholic. I’ve been able to see the fragmented, self-isolating nature of the church in a way that people who stay within a single religious framework can’t. If pressed to give a definition of “church” as it is around us today, I’d say it’s a vehicle for a subset of the culture to express itself as being “Christian,” according to whatever that means to them.

An idea presented by Brian McLaren and others in Emergent is that “Protestant church” is a modern invention which is not addressing the post-modern world. (Catholicism/Orthodoxy is pre-modern and has a somewhat different set of problems.) So now many churches are exploring how to be a “new kind of Christian” which is a wonderful, exciting effort.

There’s one thing, though. I don’t think the Church has ever really worked managed to achieve but a fraction of its potential and purpose. [I had to re-word this since it was far too harsh and seemed to imply something I didn’t mean. But on the other hand, if something fails to achieve but a fraction of its potential and purpose, does it “work”?—Jon] And I don’t know if simply trying to find a new way of “being church” will be enough, since Christians have been trying that for two thousand years.

I think the core problem is that “salvation” is not understood. It has shifted to mean “going to heaven after you die,” and the magnificent Good News that Jesus proclaimed in his Kingdom teachings is reduced to a moral code. I believe that Jesus meant living in the Kingdom of God now, and enjoying the same essential union with God that he had.

When I read Paul, I see someone who was literally transformed by this union at once upon encountering Jesus, and I also see his frustration at the fact that other people weren’t. “How is it that you act as mere men?” he asks. He saw church as the sum of all Christs, with Jesus the “first-born of many brothers,” not as “mere men” who loved Jesus.

That, I think points to the essential problem of church today. The theotic transformation of humanity into divinity isn’t happening, except on a very, very small individual basis, and people often have to leave the church to even learn about it, let alone for it to happen. Even the concept of the teacher or master–a spiritually awakened person who lives in divinized human reality is missing. And if someone did appear in that role, in the overwhelming majority of most churches, she or he’d be driven out post-haste.

Why do I study Zen? to learn from a teacher. Without teachers, church makes for a very strange school. It’s as if the second-graders are teaching the first-graders. No wonder most of the kids are biding their time waiting for the bell to ring.

Writing the Unwritable

Susie Miller at Sojourn Ministries has an interesting post which brought back memories for me: why i write G-d…. Coincidentally perhaps, my friend Trev sent me something he’d written, also using “G-d” throughout. During most of my undergraduate years, I was part of a Messianic Jewish congregation in El Paso, which observed the Jewish reverence for the divine name by writing it with a hyphen, G-d.

That reverence is why the Old Testament is filled with the phrase (usually in small caps) “the Lord” instead of the ancient divine name, Yahweh. Most translations follow that tradition, which causes many verses to lose their original meaning. Compare “the Lord is God,” with “Yahweh is God,” which implies that Yahweh is God, and Baal, Moloch, Ashtoreth, et. al. are not.

Susan writes:

Thus i write G-d, like the Hebrews do: to allow there to be Mystery within the very name i use for The Incomprehensible Eternal One….to acknowledge the limits of our rudimentary language and its awkward inability to really name anything, beyond the accepted semiotic usage of the day and time…

On the mystical path, all words and pronouns seem woefully inadequate, and writing “G-d” calls attention to the fact. I might do that myself, except that I hate hyphens as no other mark of punctuation! Jacques Derrida would probably write “God” to show that we’re just borrowing a word for Something beyond all concepts.

icon of ChristA strictly impersonal metaphor, such as the Tao, could be “It”. . . but even capitalized, “It” seems too impersonal. The Sanskrit word Tat (That) seems much better, since “that” can be personal or impersonal. Early Buddhists spoke of Suchness, and called the Buddha “the one who has come from Suchness.” Some Christian mystics used similar words. Meister Eckhart called God “Isness”–emphasizing “him” as the Ground of Being, and Hildegard of Bingen called God hæcceitas, This-ness.

Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ have the Greek words Hō On (The Being) written on the halo’s cross (left), which is the Greek translation of “I am that I am,” the divine name in Exodus 3. Eckhart Tolle also uses the word Being as a substitute for God.

Pronouns are a special problem. The default divine pronoun is masculine and personal, in view of the very common (and often misleading) personal, masculine metaphor of God. Using “divine” sometimes gets around the need for possessive pronouns, but it seems rather weak. I like the definite quality of This, That, and Such, although they’re probably too strange for prime-time, and should be used sparingly.

For God so loved the world, that Such gave This only-begotten Son…

I usually fall back to the “defaults” for convenience. Any thoughts out there?

The Coming of the Cosmic Christ

the healing of mother earth and the birth of a global renaissance

©1988 by Matthew Fox
Published by: HarperCollins, 278 pp.

tying it all together

When I encountered this book in the late 80s, I knew that God was leading me to a different kind of faith than I had encountered in my churches. I had read several other books which began pointing me into this wonderful direction of the Wild Things of God. Walking on Water, by Madeleine L’Engle, was the book that let me know that there was a more holistic, deeper way of being Christian, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy by Tom Sine showed me that it was something which involved action and justice, and Richard Foster’s The Celebration of Discipline revealed that it had been growing throughout Church history. But this one tied it all together, and gave a name to the thing which had been tugging at my soul for several years: mysticism.

When I say this book “ties it all together,” I’m making an understatement. It’s almost easier to describe what The Coming of the Cosmic Christ is not about, for Fox relates this cosmic Christian perspective to everything. Fox, a Dominican Catholic priest at the time of its writing (now Episcopalian), became uniquely prepared to write this book through his previous works. His earlier books ranged from his translations and commentaries on the wild mysticism of Meister Eckhart (Passion for Creation) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Sheer Joy) to his revelation of compassion as the central theme of Biblical Christianity (A Spirituality Named Compassion), and his treatment of the four essential paths of Christian mysticism in Original Blessing. Passion for Creation (originally titled Breakthrough) was called “the most important book on mysticism in 500 years,” by one writer, and few who have read this groundbreaking work would quickly disagree. Yet The Coming of the Cosmic Christ is the one almost certainly to be remembered as his masterpiece.

the death of compassion

Fox divides the book into five sections, beginning with a vivid image which came to him in a dream: “Your mother is dying.” Using this image, he examines how Compassion is dying as seen by all contemporary crises throughout the world: Mother Earth is dying, hope is dying, the youth are dying, and native peoples, cultures, religions, and wisdom are dying. The news is sobering. Fox pulls no punches on summarizing the world-wide extent of social decay, environmental destruction, political oppression, the devastating tolls of wars and million-dollar-a-minute military spending, religious intolerance, and increasing despair. However, he reminds us that although compassion may be dying, it is not dead! There is still hope, and it is ours to bring to the world.

the answer of authentic mysticism

In the second section he examines what mysticism is, and what it isn’t. Fox shows mysticism as something cosmological, showing the place of the person within all creation, and believes that when true cosmology, true awareness of one’s place in the Universe is absent, persons and cultures will often substitute “pseudo-mysticisms” to fill the void, such as fundamentalisms (of any religion or ideology), militarism, alcoholism, and the brain-numbing worship of popular celebrities. He further shows how Jesus embodies all the characteristics of a true mystic, and is the founder of Christian mysticism.

The third section, titled “The Quest for the Cosmic Christ,” is an inspirational survey of the mystical tradition from the Bible, through Christ and the apostles, through the Church Fathers, the medieval mystics, up to modern-day mystics. This “Cosmic Christ” is not “another Christ,” but simply the living Christ, the compassionate Word, rooted in Jesus, and living today.

The fourth section shows the suffering of Christ continuing in the suffering of the poor, the victims of war and greed, and the sufferings of Mother Earth. They too are Christ, since Christ is the One “in whom all things hold together,” and Jesus identifies himself with “the least of these” on earth.

a vision of the second coming

The fifth and final section is by far the longest. Titled “A Vision of the Second Coming: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance,” this is a manifesto of social mysticism. Fox believes that true mysticism is not, and cannot be, a private affair. It is by nature redemptive, as Christ is, and so we must become Christ, enacting the resurrection of the living Cosmic Christ in our beings and then our actions, to transform society and bring healing to all its suffering, broken parts through love, imagination, peacemaking, and environmental, moral, and social justice. Fox shows, with conviction and enthusiasm, how restoring the mystical mind of compassion (the Christian work of love) can bring a global renaissance to the entire world, including every aspect of society, from religion to sexuality, from peace-making and disarmament to mentoring the young. Remaking the world will require unparalleled creativity. Fox says: “The living cosmology ushered in by the Cosmic Christ will do more than redeem creativity itself; it will propose creativity as a moral virtue—indeed as the most important moral virtue of the upcoming civilization“. Fox urges us to begin a great work, the same great work that Jesus challenged us to 2000 years ago: to live and build the divine Kingdom.

This book is almost certainly the most comprehensive on what a modern mystical Christian worldview can be, and one of the most comprehensive books I’ve seen on anything, period. There are plenty of books on the trends of evil in this world system, plenty of calls for peacemaking, plenty of appeals for spiritual renewal, but Cosmic Christ addresses all these issues and more, with information, insight, and inspiration.

That said, this really isn’t an introduction to the mystical path. For one thing, it’s not an introductory book, but a scholarly examination (with hundreds of footnotes) of the need for a radical change through the world. Secondly, Fox never discusses the personal entrance into the mystic adventure. Too often, he makes it sound like mysticism is another world-view, rather than the transformative encounter with divine Reality. He never mentions meditation or contemplation, and he is quite vague on how exactly to be changed in order to change the world. But this is a different kind of mystical writing: shouting like a prophet for us to embrace a social, global mysticism through action and love. Fox’s courage and genius in proclaiming the urgency of following Jesus’ teachings and building his Kingdom of compassion is beyond inspirational. Simply put, this book changed my life.

Centering Prayer:

Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form

by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.
©1980 by Cistercian Abbey of Spencer, Inc.
An Image Book, published by Doubleday, 254 pp.

an introduction and guide

Father Pennington builds upon the spiritual practice of The Cloud of Unknowing, and makes it not only perfectly understandable, but irresistible. He starts off from a place to which none of the other classics (at least which I’ve read) on contemplative prayer ever went, a historical overview on contemplation. He briefly recounts how strains of silent prayer, or contemplative prayer, developed and intermingled from the “Desert Fathers,” the earliest Christian monastic tradition, the lectio-meditatio-oratio-contemplatio tradition of later Western monasteries, the “Jesus Prayer” and hesychast traditions of Eastern Christianity, the Cloud of Unknowing, up to the Carmelite saints of prayer, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. He also gives an overview of how these traditions continued into modern times, and how growing awareness of Eastern methods of meditation increased interest in Christian meditation to the Christian laity everywhere. This of course, is all preliminary, but interesting.

Next is the presentation of “Centering Prayer,” what he calls a new “packaging” of contemplative prayer. It’s the approach of The Cloud of Unknowing, but distilled into three simple “rules.”

Rule One: At the beginning of the Prayer, we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith to God dwelling in our depths; and at the end of the prayer we take several minutes to come out, mentally praying the “Our Father” or some other prayer.

Rule Two: After resting for a bit in the center in faith-full love, we take a single, simple word that expresses this response and begin to let it repeat itself within.

Rule Three: Whenever in the course of the Prayer we become aware of anything else, we simply gently return to the Presence by use of the prayer word.

Pennington’s rules for centering prayer are helpful and brief. I found that I was soon doing centering prayer, rather than just thinking about doing it. Nevertheless, there are many challenges: distracting thoughts, consistency of practice, fitting centering prayer into the larger whole of one’s day-to-day living, service, and the larger whole of one’s spiritual life, for instance. The majority of the pages here are about these concerns—this is a how-to book for busy Christian laypeople, and Pennington beautifully addresses all of these items and more.

Fr. Pennington writes from the perspective of having given workshops and retreats on centering prayer for several years, with experience of helping thousands of people overcome these obstacles. Furthermore, he also brings his perspective as a religious priest, with years of ongoing training in daily deep prayer. The result is a how-to book, describing a practical method for the most elusive of all spiritual disciplines.

ancient and modern voices

Yet on my second reading of Centering Prayer, I find I prefer The Cloud for its emphasis that the true method of contemplation is essentially love, far more than it is a prayer word. There is an analytical tone to the book, which is helpful in some respects, but it seems to me now to quench the infectiously loving and passionate spirit of contemplation as exemplified by the author of The CloudThe Cloud is far more open, far more passionate, far more joyful, and at least after a decent time of becoming familiar with this “contemplative work of love,” more helpful. And as one continues on the path, Privy Counseling may well become the most treasured of all three of these works.

However, I’d urge anyone interested in Christian meditation to read both modern books like Centering Prayer or Open Mind, Open Heart, and classics such as The Cloud and Privy Counsel. Also, check out the Centering Prayer website at http://www.centeringprayer.com.

The Book of Privy Counseling

(Back to Page 1: The Cloud of Unknowing)

book cover

Although not even mentioned on the cover or spine, the greatest advantage of Johnston’s edition over others is its inclusion of another work by this nameless abbot, The Book of Privy Counsel. (Strangely, its title is altered here to The Book of Privy Counseling.) To me, this lesser-known, later work is if anything, even more valuable. Johnston’s decision to include it in with this translation of the Cloud was a stroke of genius and love. With only twenty-one micro-chapters versus the Cloud’s seventy-five, Privy Counseling is shorter and pithier. Radiating an even more mature and transcendent faith, it dispenses with apologetics for contemplation and descriptions of errors, and simply presents sound advice on doing “the contemplative work.” Also gone is the feeling of any halfway or introductory steps; for instance, the author here does not even mention the use of a prayer word as in The Cloud, nor does he forbid the use of words when praying. He simply cautions, “do not pray with words unless you are really moved to this,” and gives the soul its freedom to respond to the Spirit as it will. And while not specifically recommending it as a prayer word, he extols the singularity of the word is:

There is no name, no experience, and no insight so akin to the everlastingness of God than what you can possess, perceive, and actually experience in the blind loving awareness of this word, is. Describe him as you will: good, fair Lord, sweet, merciful, righteous, wise, all-knowing, strong one, almighty; as knowledge, wisdom, might, strength, love, or charity, and you will find them all hidden and contained in this little word, is. (p. 158)

contemplation as the awareness of isness

Perhaps it was this passage which inspired Meister Eckhart, the mystic genius to use the word “Isness” for God. Privy Counseling’s technique is quite different from the Cloud’s. No doubt from both his own growing intimacy with God, and his studies of Pseudo-Dionysius (St. Denis) whom he quotes, the author relies simply on a calm certainty of God’s panentheistic Presence as the “Ground of Being.” The method can be summarized as follows:

  • Become aware of your own being, “do not think what you are, but that you are.” (p.152) Do this not with thoughts, but just the “blind, general awareness of your being.” (p. 156) (This point is striking in its similarity to the Buddhist technique of vipassana, non-judging awareness on one’s being in the present moment.)
  • Knowing that God is “the ground of being,” that “he exists in all things as their being,” that “he is your being,” (p.150) offer your being to him “in words or desire” thus:

That which I am, I offer to you,
O Lord, for you are it entirely. (p.151)

The pure offering of your being to God’s being is considered the most effectual supplication, as it imitates Christ who gave “himself without reserve that all men might be united to his Father as effectively as he was himself.” (p.157) “Conceived in an undivided heart, [it] will satisfy your present need, further your growth, and bring all mankind closer to perfection.” (p. 157)

  • As your practice develops, let your will long “to experience only God…. as he is in himself.” (p. 172)

the work of rest

 Is it difficult? It truly seems easier for me than the methods of Centering Prayer and the Cloud, but Centering Prayer is certainly easier for a newcomer to contemplation to understand. This is an advanced practice, intended for someone with at least a bit of meditative experience under his belt, who doesn’t need an explanation to know the importance of embracing God within the self. It’s contemplation, and contemplation is far from easy. In the final chapter, the abbot addresses the situation with an honesty that will surely make every contemplative and meditator smile:

You may say, “All I feel is toil and pain, not rest. . . . On the one hand, my faculties hound me to give up this work and I will not. On the other, I long to lose the experience of myself and I cannot. . . . If this is rest, I think it is a rather odd kind of rest!”

Yes, I know it is painful and toilsome. And yet I call it rest. . . . Persevere in it with humility and great desire, for it is a work which begins here on earth, but will go on without end into eternity. (p. 188)

Indeed it will. Although I have given a lengthy summary here, please don’t depend on my sketch. Get all the insights of this wonderful teacher for yourself, and let it guide you into the wonder of touching God in this deepest of prayers. It will likely become one of your most valued books, one of the few which may truly change your life.

(Back to Page 1: The Cloud of Unknowing)

The Cloud of Unknowing

two historic jewels of christian mysticism

This translation by William Johnston contains not one, but two of the great books in the literature of contemplation, , the well-known classic The Cloud of Unknowing, and its lesser-known sequel, The Book of Privy Counsel(ing). These 14th century classics by an unknown English abbot have long been among the most respected and beloved texts on the subject, and had a profound influence upon St. John of the Cross’ writings on contemplative prayer. It has received renewed attention in the last few decades as interest in meditation and contemplation has skyrocketed.

Fr. Johnston’s superb translation makes these 700-year-old manuals feel almost contemporary. There are no anachronisms, no words that make you run to the dictionary, nothing that takes you from out of your living room to medieval England. You feel almost as if a living person is teaching you about this wonderful method of prayer. The Cloud is far more readable than other contemplative works I have read, such as Teresa of Ávila’s The Interior Castle, and Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross.

the cloud: meditation as concentrated love

Yet it is every bit as passionate. The title comes from the author’s metaphor of contemplative prayer as struggling to get beyond a “cloud of unknowing” which separates us from experiencing God’s presence. He dismisses the idea of using understanding as a means of reaching God, since God is unfathomable; instead, he suggests, we embrace God with our love. Having established that love is the means of going through “the cloud,” the author urges the reader to “beat upon the cloud of unknowing with the hammer of your love,” and to “pierce the cloud of unknowing with the arrow of your love.” The author’s passion for God is contagious, and his prose is inspirational. The Frimster could easily find a year’s worth of profound and moving quotes for the home page here!

As for technique, the author urges the reader to dispense with meditations (visualizations), petitions, and so forth during the time of contemplation, in order to be present to God alone, not God and meditations, etc. He suggests the use of a short word like “God” or “love” to bring one back to being alone with God whenever distracting thoughts intrude, which is central to the Centering Prayer method.

There is a dull middle zone of around twenty short sections dealing with errors to avoid, which will not speak effectively to most modern readers. Nonetheless, upon reading The Cloud again, I’ve understood and appreciated it far more than I did upon my first reading. Its method really comes down to one word: Love. Over and over, the author describes the quiet prayer as love: “this contemplative work of love,” “lift up your heart with a blind stirring of love,” and “each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love.”

There are few books which radiate such a powerful and infectious love of God. The author really is driving home one thing: Love is the beginning, end, and means of deep prayer. Nothing else is necessary, but a willingness to spend time alone with God in love.

Go to page 2: The Book of Privy Counseling.

Saint Francis

an amazing encounter with the “alter christus”

It’s always best to drop your baggage and approach each book you read with a fresh, expectant state of mind, but undoubtedly, many people will find that difficult with Saint Francis, as I did, with an aversion to wordy translations. No matter. By the time I was fifty pages into the book, that “baggage” was history, and I was entranced by Kazantzakis’ incredible retelling of this man’s story, the man whose life was so radically distinctive in purity, poverty, and peace, that he created one of the most lasting and far-reaching reforms in Church history.

Saint Francis starts slowly, with Francis’ companion Brother Leo mourning the death of his friend and bemoaning the years of self-denial he suffered in following Francis and his life of self-imposed deprivations. He begins to write of the life of Francis, at first erratically, and then, chronologically, remembering how he met him, and how God began changing Francis. From this point on, (about the fifty-page point) Leo’s recollection becomes a seamless chronological narrative, inevitably progressing from fascinating to gripping to utterly captivating. I read the last seventy or so pages in one sitting, and felt I was not in this time or space, but with Francis himself at the incredible close of the earthly phase of his life.

Unlike The Last Temptation of Christ, Saint Francis is much more biography than fiction. The main fiction Kazantzakis uses is making Brother Leo the constant companion to Saint Francis, and thus an eyewitness to all the miracles in his ministry. (In reality, although Leo was one of his first brothers and biographers, he did not accompany him on all the journeys.) Leo also conveys the irresistible charisma of Francis, and the contagiousness of his vision of abandoning all worldly desires to pursue and serve Jesus through boundless love for not just every person, but everything, with determined peace, and perfect simplicity.

This book is dangerous, in the same way the Gospel is dangerous:If you are satisfied with your spiritual life and want no challenges, don’t read this book, because it might blow you away.

Am I exaggerating? Soon after I began read Saint Francis, I seriously began to consider formally becoming a Franciscan. While I’ve since realized that I don’t have a Franciscan vocation, something of the spirit of St. Francis has stayed with me to this day, years after encountering this wonderful book.

Don’t read this book at all, unless you want to fall more deeply and passionately in love with Jesus Christ. But if you do, run to a rare bookstore or library and get it! And as Francis would say, may Peace and Good rain upon you.