The Impact of God

The Impact of God

Who was Saint John of the Cross, and in what ways are his personal experiences the source of those seemingly, deceptively “impersonal” and “dry” prose writings of his? That’s the kind of question pursued by Iain Matthew in The Impact of God.

Iain Matthew looks first into John’s life and then how it bursts into his poetry. Since all the main prose texts focus on explaining the poems, which are more naturally John’s, they are examined in that light.

If you want to get to know Saint John of the Cross – the idea of the dark night rooted in Christ’s redemption, the idea of the poet-theologian, the idea of a dark night in various circumstances of life, the origins in John’s life of particular images and ideas, his description of and hope for transformation in Christ, his love of the Beloved – this book is recommended. Things aren’t explained away by the history of John’s life. But the spiritual realities and John’s own style are rooted in John’s life – something often needed by those of us approaching from so many centuries away.


Prayer (Hans Urs von Balthasar)

Prayer by Hans Urs von Balthasar

This book was recommended to me by a reader: Prayer by Hans Urs von Balthasar. I probably wouldn’t have had any interest if it hadn’t been explicitly pointed out to me that the title in French is Contemplative Prayer. OK, that is a much more interesting book!

This book exists, as von Balthasar himself notes, as a kind of summary of his most important thoughts and ideas and focus. The thrust of the book is this:

  • Contemplation is necessary to each and every Christian journey.
  • Contemplation is possible because God is the Word and speaks. We listen. We must become silent and deep enough to listen.
  • What are the links between this contemplative, innermost listening and the listening in the Liturgy? in Scripture? in the mediative presence of the Church?
  • What does contemplation show us? There is the humanity of Jesus; there is the blessed Trinitarian life in all its silence and in all its speaking.
  • What tensions or seeming-contraries-in-tension exist in a contemplative act and in a contemplative life? For example, dogma and prayer feed off one another.

I found the book very good for anyone who, though with a background of some sort in theology, wants a simple theology related to prayer and contemplation. It is, in my opinion, much easier to read than the other books I’ve tried by Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Here are three very good quotes from the book:

The simple thing is the greatest thing… As for the will of the “Father in heaven”, it is always clear and transparent, simple and intelligible to the simple heart… It is the will of all those in heaven who share his will, all who, together, enter into the Father’s loving will in all its concrete dimensions… People are only rarely aware of this when they pray. Unless they are rare mystics who actually encounter heaven’s inhabitants – angels, saints, the Mother of the Lord, or the Son himself – they are inclined to act as if they were encountering God in a solitude which is total on both sides, God’s and theirs; as if they were alone in approaching God, alone in trying to come to grips with his word and law. This is wrong in both respects.

This is something the Christian contemplative must be aware of… His life is a service, λειτουργία, of the gracious God, lived out in full personal responsibility, but also as part of the entire company of the saints, which gives his service value in God’s sight.

The fact that I, at this far-off spot in history, can be inserted into the reality of Christ by contemplation and discipleship, is something I owe to the reality of the Church.

Another thing that struck me is the place Father von Balthasar contrasts the wisdom of “sages” and the wisdom of Christian saints (the passage I quote is long but very illuminating):

The Christian never takes the form of a “sage”, that unmistakable man met with in all systems of philosophy whose lofty enlightenment arouses our admiration (and in time gets on our nerves). It may be part of a Christian’s mission to know and say many things about God and divine matters. But most of them, including the genuine contemplatives, the saints, are most and reticent in their knowledge. When they are commissioned to say something to someone, it is as though the words simply come to them from afar, as if they themselves are not totally responsible for the significance and the effect of what they say. Therein lies the simplicity of discipleship: the “surplus” fruit of contemplation is removed right at the outset and put at the disposal of God and the communion of saints. The “sage” has a kind of panoramic view, a kind of spiritual equipoise in the midst of all his actual and possible insights; the like is never available to the Christian because his wisdom lies in God far more than in himself. Somehow or other his head is in heaven, where he lives hidden with Christ, whereas his earthly self, dying daily and rising to new life, treads the path of discipleship and is “salted with fire” (Mk 9:49).

This is an historical comment which I’ve made before, in my own way, and was glad to see appear here (it gives confidence):

This doctrine of the contemplation of heaven can easily be purged of certain Platonic accretions found in the Fathers and redirected along the clear, simple lines dictated by the realism of the Gospel… The Platonic error lies less in the exaggerated emphasis on contemplation as the vision of eternal Ideas than in the underestimating and despising of activity, of earthly work, which seemed beneath the dignity of the educated Greek. At this point Christianity has reversed the values by reference to the humble form of the carpenter’s son…

But for all the talk of the Church of Heaven (which I appreciate very much!) there is also focus on the Humanity of Jesus; for example:

True holiness in the Church, with its influence on history, has always been connected with the straightforward endeavour to take the humanity of Christ seriously, and all the kitsch to be found in Christian life and Christian art arises from the failure to take it seriously.

Here is an intriguing one:

Compared with former times, the contemplative life of today’s Church often manifests a greater fullness of Christianity’s ecclesiological and soteriological aspects.

An intriguing comment! Given that the parable of the sheep and goats comes from a parable about the end of the world (Mt 25) and that this is the place that one most easily goes to support the contemplative idea of seeing Jesus in our neighbours, I think that’s an interesting remark. It would be hard to deny that this aspect of “seeing Jesus in others” was often on the sidelines until a Charles de Foucauld and a Jacques Maritain. But now it is much more “front and centre”. That is one example of Hans Urs von Balthasar being right in this quote.

This quote –

Contemplative prayer has a radiation of its own in ways the person involved does not know (and will not know while on earth).

– reminds me of Marie-Joseph Le Guillou‘s work regarding the Transfiguration of the human body by the Spirit and the emphasis of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain on the secretness of contemplation, its diffusive effects, and our poor eyes.

In general, I came away from the book much better and much clearer in my head and in my heart. However, there are few passages in which I found a choice of words unusual. For example:

No mystic in the tradition of negative theology has undergone more profoundly than [Christ] the “dark night of the senses and the soul” which signals the entrance into the absolute…

This is a bit confusing. For Saint John of the Cross’ poem and for his explanations in the Dark Night and the Ascent of Mount Carmel, the “dark night” as described is specifically intended to purge beginners of certain sins and ways of acting, and progressives in the spiritual life of their own bent in sin and imperfections. All of which doesn’t apply to Jesus. In his humanity, Jesus could, of course, enter more deeply into the absolute who is the Divinity. But I think this is a very different sense from that in which the “dark night” is typically used and is faithfully used, given the lengths at which John of the Cross insists on the dark night being “necessary” because of sins and imperfections in us. This is just a question of words. No doubt. But it could be clearer.

This book is much more and much greater and much deeper than the few quotes given here. It is a wide and deep plan of contemplative prayer for all. As mentioned above, I recommend it as a work on prayer for people with a theological background or inclination.

The Open Gate of Mercy

The Open Gate of Mercy by Father Joseph Maier CSsR

In the past, I have posted about the Mercy Centre in the Klong Toey slum in Bangkok: I blogged about a book called Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse.

In the past year has been published a new book (The Open Gate of Mercy) with the same structure and many of the same themes: Father Joe Maier CSsR tells us about adults and children in the slums, their lives, the horrors and the joys, which all mean that we must look deeper, to see Jesus active in these lives on some level, or despair. Since we must not despair, certain events and situations required a contemplative gaze on the Beloved Jesus in our neighbours. It’s the only way out. The kind of practical knowledge that one gains from books like The Open Gate of Mercy means that we must love more. There’s no other option. The truth deepened requires love deepened.

Here is the publisher’s description of this book:

The Open Gate of Mercy is a collection of real-life stories of the poorest of the poor who share our City of Angels. We have seen many of them on Bangkok streets, but we often pass them by without taking any serious thought about who they are.

School-aged children trying to sell flower garlands we try to ignore when we are stuck in our car in a traffic jam. Old women and men hastily pushing their junk carts trying to quickly cross a busy road. Street vendors who sell us fruits, lunches, snacks, t- shirts, knick-knacks, etc. Who are they? Where do they come from? What are their families like? What happiness, sorrows, hopes or fears occupy them in their lives? The answers to these questions most of us are blissfully unaware.

In nearly 40 individual stories, Father tells us about these people that we see but never really know. The stories Father Joes recounts also tell us about their families and their community, and others like them whom we ordinarily never have any chance to meet. Each story stretches our worldview and transports us to a universe where we witness the daily lives of slum residents. Father Joe guides us on a journey through the heart of a community that he’s devoted most of his life in serving. Always with love and respect, he shows us that in spite of a life devoid of privilege, everyone possesses an inner dignity.

As far as I’m concerned, this book is recommended, especially if one wants one’s eyes and heart opened and stretched further. ^^

Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings

Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings by Robert Ellsberg

Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings by Robert Ellsberg begins with a 20-or-so-page biography and then continues with selected writings and written quotations for about 100 pages.

This was one of my first introductions to Blessed Charles, the “little brother” of Jesus who wanted to “see Jesus in all people”. His life is a big trajectory filled with many small trajectories; telling it in 20 pages is hard. His writings are numerous and rarely designed for someone else to read; selecting from them is hard. It cannot have been easy to write or edit this book.

In fact, as the book itself notes, all of Blessed Charles’ writings are available in French. What’s available in English is limited (see this page for a bibliography). This book tries to correct that and focuses on key themes in Charles’ life and, consequently, his writings:

  • the hidden life of Jesus at Nazareth
  • the theme of “crying the Gospel with our lives”
  • abandonment to God’s will

There are some very thought-provoking passages on the Eucharist. But given how much the Eucharistic presence drove Brother Charles’ life, perhaps the emphasis is not as much there are one might expect.

I think most people who have read this book and also my blog can guess that my emphasis in reading Brother Charles’ life would not be exactly the same as the author’s. But this book is still, in my opinion, a very good book and a very good resource for anyone interested in Charles de Foucauld or in a contemplative life lived among the daily ups and downs of the world.

The Fulfilment of All Desire

The Fulfilment of All Desire

When I first read The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, I thought I had read a great synthesis of the teaching of the Doctors of the Church. And I had.

But this present book has a scope that is wider, but aims at the same depth.

The Fulfilment of All Desire by Ralph Martin has the subtitle A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints, and it is accurate. The title and the subtitle say what they mean. This is a book that I didn’t know about until recently; it is packed full of things I love:

  • The book follows the scope of the spiritual life: a spiritual awakening or conversion, the purgative way (beginners), the illuminative way (proficients), and the unitive way (the “perfect” who still commit venial sins without the intention to do so).
  • The purgations or “dark night(s)” are discussed, too.
  • It is based on the writings of seven Doctors of the Church: Augustine, Bernard, Catherine of Siena, Teresa, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Thérèse. This is a very impressive list. There is Thérèse, who probably never committed a mortal sin. There is Augustine, with his wandering life and conversion story. There is Francis de Sales, practical and immersed in the world. There are Teresa and John of the Cross, inside Carmel. There is Catherine, who lived a withdrawn contemplative life until she reached the unitive way, then became apostolic in her way of living. The variety is great. But so is the consistency!
  • The emphasis is on the validity of the three-stage journey for every Christian in every walk of life: the universal call to holiness. There is no watering down of the message of the Doctors of the Church. The three stages of the spiritual life are presented without compromise, but still as a gentle, divine invitation, in language particularly attentive to the ears of those immersed in the bustle of the world.

The format and detail are very good. The individual terminologies for the spiritual life, used by each Doctor, have even been put into a reference table together in the first chapter. I am amazed.

Perhaps the one thing that could have been helpful is a discussion of the relationship of contemplation to our neighbours. It has to be implicitly there, because the spiritual life is discussed from many angles. But an explicit mention of the act of seeing Jesus in or behind our neighbours might have made this point clearer and, in fact, more accessible to the general audience intended.

With that one reservation, I simply recommend this book. It is long. It is worth it. This is a synthesis of the “wisdom of the saints” on the three stages of the spiritual life. It is open to the reading of the “apostle” on the “unitive way”, to the “proficient”, and to the “beginner” who has never heard of the true teaching of the saints regarding contemplation and the spiritual life.

The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life

Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life

I have known about this book for years, practically since my first conversion experiences. Only recently have I read it. I could have profited from this book at any time! It’s a great little book.

The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP (1877–1964) is a short book that summarizes and synthesizes the spiritual teaching of two Doctors of the Church: Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint John of the Cross. The focus is on the “conversions” between different stages of our spiritual life. What is meant by a “conversion”? Father Garrigou-Lagrange simply means that we pass from one very different stage of life to another. Our life “turns around” and “turns back to God” more and more with each conversion.

  • Due to original sin, barring a miracle, one begins life “outside the fold” of grace, so to speak.
  • Then (1) we are converted to God by grace (for example, Baptism or our first free act decision that chooses love). We are “beginners”; we walk on the “purgative way”. We make steps. We love God more than anything else, but we still love other things in such a way that they do actually get in the way. But, even so, we don’t fall into mortal sin. We love God, despite all our imperfections.
  • Because we are made to love God fully, God does not want us to remain “beginners” in the spiritual life. He wants us to be cleaned up. Since we are made up of body and spirit, that means we need to be cleaned in both our senses and our spirit (especially, will). The next “conversion” is that of the senses. The (2) dark night of the senses dries up our reliance on images and sensations. Then we become “proficients” on the “illuminative way” that has glimpses of contemplative union.
  • Again, that’s not enough for a jealous God. He is far too jealous of our mind! He’s jealous, but our spirit is still our own and not entirely God’s. So God sends the next dark night, that of the spirit (3). This conversion opens the door to the “unitive way” in which God is enjoyed nearly continuously (consciously or unconsciously).

That’s three conversions. It’s also three ways to live the Christian life. The exposition follows John of the Cross’s dark nights using examples that Catherine of Siena drew from the lives of the apostles:

  1. They converted to beginners as Jesus called and taught them.
  2. They were needing conversion because they were able to run away; this second conversion began for Peter when Jesus looked at him (Lk 22:61–62) and for “the disciple whom Jesus loved” when he lost Jesus’ physical presence at Calvary (Jn 19:25–27).
  3. They were needing another burst of energy to take their will in every respect; this came at Pentecost.

Two Doctors of the Church feature prominently in Father Garrigou-Lagrange’s simple book. Two Doctors! Yet the book is intended for “beginners” to read so that everyone has an idea of what the spiritual life looks like, in broad strokes, even if individual cases result in slower stories, stories with more action and less contemplation, and so on. The journey is always unique. Each life is unique. Each story is unique. However, the broad strokes remain the same because, as this book points out repeatedly, the structure of the “dark nights” or “conversions” is based on the nature of grace and the nature of human beings (body and soul). It’s just a matter of spiritual “logic”.

I recommend this book for anyone who wants an idea of what the spiritual life looked like for the Apostles and what it always looks like according to two Doctors of the Church (who, despite their great differences in temperament and charism, are in agreement with one another).

Theology of the Church

Theology of the Church

Over the course of several decades, Charles Cardinal Journet (1891–1975) wrote a three- or four-volume treatise on the Catholic Church as a fundamental mystery and revelation in the Christian faith (Church of the Word Incarnate).

Three or four volumes: this was long.

But it was the work of a contemplative theologian who loved the Church and wanted others to love her, too.

Cardinal Journet summarized the first two volumes of his treatise. This became Theology of the Church. In fact, it’s not only summarized, it’s made easier to read. It was designed “for popular readership” according to the English-language publisher. Actually, the book is dedicated to the Little Brothers of Jesus, a contemplative-in-the-world religious ordered inspired by Blessed Charles de Foucauld. In short, it’s a book written by a contemplative for contemplatives, thrown into the mud and muck of the world and sometimes lacking time to study and read.

That is the target audience: contemplatives tossed about the waves of the world, wanting an anchor in the Church, what the Church is, and who the Church is. One of the most startling themes of Cardinal Journet was taken up both by the Council and by the Credo of the People of God (1968):

The city of God, the Church, is without sin but not without sinners.

This is not the only way to view the Church, though. The opening pages of Theology of the Church talk about three ways that people saw Jesus when he was on earth: (1) just any other man walking down the road (Jn 6:42); (2) a more penetrating vision that sees in him something unique and surprising (Mt 6:13); (3) finally, the eyes of faith see him, with Thomas, as he really is (Jn 20:28). Charles Journet then says that there are three similar ways of viewing the Church: as any religious organization, as a kind of unique surprise, and with the eyes of faith. It is the eyes of faith that Cardinal Journet helps illuminate.

Georges Cardinal Cottier describes the book thus:

In the present work the brevity of the text hints at a catechetical style, so that the essentials can be easily understood and committed to memory and provide food for meditation; for the theology of Charles Journet naturally flowers into spirituality and prayer.

I don’t know where I’d be without this book. I really don’t know. If one wants to maintain a contemplative view of the Church while being tossed about by the world, in both its madness and its goodness, I can’t see any better way than digesting Charles Journet’s theology.

(Concluding thoughts: There are a couple of substantial developments that Journet later came to: first, through his friend Jacques Maritain, Charles Journet realized that this “catechesis” on the Church can be summarized by saying that the Church is a person of the order of grace; second, the later volumes of the larger Church of the Word Incarnate deal with questions of history that are not treated in Theology of the Church.)