Responding to Criticism: The Radical Newness of the Gospel and “Meditation Techniques”

After I published my most recent commentary on the differences between Christian contemplation and various non-Christian “mystical” techniques, at least one reader contacted me to express disappointment that I have softened my stance on these latter techniques and diluted the Gospel. It was claimed that I had compromised Christianity by “permitting” other meditation techniques; it was claimed that I was involved with syncretism.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as I hope to show in this post.

My own experience and “qualifications”

The reader turned a variety of sources and quotes against me. I will not dispute with anyone on this issue, but I would like to defend myself by saying that I do have certain “qualifications” in this area. And those qualifications are simply my experience. And my suffering and loss. It would not be an exaggeration to say that what I have suffered and lost for the sake of my unchanging stance on the radical newness of the Gospel and the relativization of any “techniques” of “prayer” (like Main’s Christian meditation, Keating’s centering prayer, Osho’s transcendental meditation, etc.) is second to that of few people on this planet. What I know deep in my bones is what is known by the person who has fought the fight. In all material terms, I lost. But isn’t that precisely why, in spiritual terms, I should know that I won?

My story is this.

Not long after I started this blog, I became more and more attracted to the religious life (i.e., being a religious brother or religious priest in a congregation/order). Now, being the naturally inculturated person that I am, I did not for this reason flee back to my home country to try to pick up a life there first, then adjust to life there and find a religious congregation/order there. I contacted some congregations/orders here in Thailand.

The end result of the story is that, I gradually discovered that there was, in practice, no way for me to retain my convictions on meditation and contemplation from within any congregation or order in the country. All would at various times force the seminarians and catechist students to practise a form like John Main’s Christian meditation. What was worse, I was stuck in the congregation with the main leader of this practice, who was in a position of both civil and religious authority over me. (There are also more details and complicating factors.)

After several confrontations and due also to other related factors which it is not worth getting into here (in part because, while they are of moral relevance, they do not pertain to the subject of this blog), I decided to leave.

This meant I was jobless, without a home, without any legal right to continue living – in a country half a world from where I am from. I scrambled a life together to keep going and (this was the main goal for several months) not become so compromised as to be prosecutable under the law. When I look back on this time at two years’ distance, I realize that my mental health also plummeted to depths that I hope never to repeat; it took years to recover, and only in the last few months have I been anything like the human being I was before. That priests of Christ would sink as low as they did and do to one everything that they did is an experience not easily recovered from. One can only pick up the pieces gradually.

All of this was for the sake of the clarity of the Gospel. I have never compromised on the radical newness of Christ. I have never called these experiential techniques by the name of “prayer.” I have never encouraged anyone to engage in them. And I never will. This is not a mere theoretical conviction. It is one bought with real and long-term suffering. If anyone is to make any accusations against me, let these few details of my life be known. I think they “qualify” me in a rather unique way.

The practical or moral victory

I would next like to reiterate the manner in which I view the ancient and great human systems conceived by Buddhists, Sufis, and so on. I have great respect for them, just as I have great respect for all great human creations. I can marvel at the Coliseum without condoning what occurred there. I can appreciate the genius of a Rumi or a Jabir without subjecting my Christianity to something less than itself. This is part of the freedom of the Gospel. We are not in chains to a weak ideology or fundamentalism.

So, with such a respect in mind, how do I view modern practices like Main’s Christian meditation, Keating’s centering prayer, and Osho’s transcendental meditation? In the first place, I view them in the historical long run. And in that sense they are offshoots or modern variations on vipassanā, the kind of sitting, word-focused, mind-emptying “Buddhist meditation” that first comes to mind when one hears the words “Buddhist meditation.”

In the second place, I utterly relativize them in the face of the Gospel. That is my strategy, and bear in mind that it is a strategy born out of fire and fight; it is not some thought made up in the comfort of an ecumenical meeting from which anyone and everyone can walk away peacefully and happily to his own home. For the fight that I was in, I lost a home.

Although in my previous post I did not use the word, what I essentially call all these techniques is a hobby. They are a hobby or, at best, a kind of professional interest, but they are not the substance of life, they are not normative, they do not get at the meaning of life, they give no grace, they have no essential connection to the supernatural life whatsoever. They have the same status as plants, books, or food. They are fine interests to have, but they are not your goal, and if you fail to relativize them in the face of your eternal salvation, you sin (“for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” – Rom 14:23). You must certainly be stripped of everything, absolutely everything, in these interests which is not ordered ultimately to the Trinity, Christ, the Cross.

This may seem like a banal thing to say: if these (so-called) “prayer” techniques are just one natural interest among many, how does that say anything forceful about their influence?

Well, just try it. Explain to someone deeply committed to these techniques that they have a hobby. They do not have some great secret that would be fantastic for everyone in the world, but they have a mere hobby. With few exceptions, they will start to froth at the mouth. They do not consider their hobby to be a hobby. They consider it to be beneficial for any and all. Their literature will say this. They, with few exceptions, also think this. (I speak from my own experience.) They think they possess something universal and universally applicable – and you have just downgraded it to a hobby!

This is precisely where the moral victory lies. It does not lie, in practice, in condemnations and blanket bans on these techniques. It lies precisely in showing that, in the particular case of this person, these techniques have played a moral usurpation. They have claimed to be something greater than they are. The evidence is there in the practitioner’s inability to relativize and part with the technique with the detachment that is required of us towards all created goods. The practitioner of these techniques does not know the royal way of the nada nada nada y en el monte nada.

The deeper or “ontosophic” exactness

But the victory is not only practical. It has firm philosophical and theological foundations (which together I like to call “ontosophic” foundations – foundations rooted in the being of things and in all the gradations of wisdom, be they natural or supernatural).

The Gospel “makes all things new” (Rev 21:5). It is a “new and living way” (Heb 10:20). It is utterly above nature so that we call it supernatural. It is unattainable by human beings in their resources within. What the Crucified One offers us is a healing, completion, and augmentation of our self which is completely beyond any human causality.

On the other hand, all of these techniques – Main’s, Keating’s, Osho’s, the ancient Sufis’, vipassanā itself – are just that: techniques. With proper effort and application, they “work.” They are deployments, however bizarre and surprising, of the resources within the human person in its natural constitution. In other words, they are emphatically and demonstratively not supernatural. They are not grace. They do not bring us that infinitely great good which is charity and its peculiar union with God.

What they do bring us is open to interpretation. However, the best interpretations in terms of Christian understanding are undoubtedly those of Jacques Maritain, Olivier Lacombe, Louis Gardet, Henri de Lubac, John C. H. Wu, and the middle-period Thomas Merton. That is, these techniques are able to purify one and so stop the normal human mental and physical activity such that the soul is turned not outward as it normally is, nor reflective on its proper acts as it sometimes is, but bent backwards so completely and so contrary to its normal operation so as to “enstatize” in its very ontological base. It experiences what Thomists call the actus essendi or esse in a very immediate experience. It lies beyond words or utterances. The ontological light becomes blinding. The experience is ineffable. Instead of the mind thinking of its acts or any external object, the mind is turned utterly in on the great ground of being that supports its very own self, and the wall between object and subject is, for but a moment, dropped. This is nibbāna (or whatever else the practitioner names it).

Now, as great a human achievement as that is, it contains its moral dangers. One could absolutize it a bit too much. One could forget the greater structure of reality. One could sin against truth by proclaiming a kind of existential monism (“that, too, is Ātman,” for example). The road is very narrow. The more a created good almost, but not quite, fills us, the more do dangers multiply. Here, the dangers are legion.

But the point is, this experience is not grace. For the person who understands this and who truly, deeply understands the radical gift that the Gospel is, that answers all the questions, at least on their most important points. This nibbāna – even if it may be attained and no matter how wonderful an experience it must be and no matter what great benefits it may bring to one’s psychosomatic constitution or personal pre-morality – is just a created good. It is not the substance of life. It is not the reason for which God created us out of nothing, gave us a life that is his own eternal life, and then redeemed us so that this superadded and superpermeating life that we lost may be found again. To the person who has understood all this, the radical difference of level between the created goods of human nature and the supernatural gifts of grace is fundamental and will guide all decisions, without any need for condemnations and without any moralizing.

By placing these “mystical techniques” in their proper ontosophic register, one at the same time highlights the greatness, the loveableness, and the desirableness of the Gospel, which rises high above all the goods of the earth. And by painting such a picture of the radical newness of the Gospel, one makes it attractive. Christian prayer shows itself as something absolutely other, and the goal towards which it marches is absolutely and infinitely greater. Attraction will pull us in much more than condemnation will push us away.

Why these techniques cannot be “banned” or “forbidden” outright: the inherent absurdity

With all that said, it remains to address the reader’s remaining concern: Why leave any room to “allow” these non-Christian “mystical” or “prayer” techniques at all? I take it for granted that, by now, the reader is well aware that I do not “permit” these techniques to any and all, nor do I admit that any particular person has a disinterested, detached, or morally rectified pursuit of these techniques. There is a moral dimension involved, just as there is with everything in the world. (It should be clear by now how difficult, if not nearly impossible, to attain such a moral purification is for committed Christians who refuse to sin against the truth.) What, however, remains to discuss is why – in contrast to some other, more reactionary writers and bloggers – I leave a little “wiggle room” and do not resort to an outright condemnation or ban.

There are several ways one could illustrate the point.

But take Zen (Chinese: Chán) as the illustration of choice.

Now, to anyone who knows anything, Zen is Buddhism. That is to say, the goal or end or final cause of the activity of a Zen practitioner is, at least in theory, identical to the goal or end or final cause of the practitioner of other Buddhist techniques and schools: nibbāna. Now, if we grant that the “saving” or “enlightening” experience aimed at is identical, at least in broad strokes, then we must say that the technical precision of the Zen way is also a technical precision that, while following a different path from vipassanā, at least aims to, by a kind of short-circuit of the human being’s typical methods of working and thinking, attain the same natural fruition and ineffable experience. What vipassanā pursues by steady purification and emptying-out of the faculties, Zen will attain to by a structure of trust and mental short-circuiting.

So, say that someone you trust – like a teacher or a friend – asks you the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This is a Zen question. It is a kōan (Chinese: gōng’àn). And it has been asked in an environment of trust and respect. Say you think about the question. You have already participated in a Zen practice which, if completed in the right frame of mind and with the right shock value, would or could lead you abruptly to a nibbāna fruition (which, in my view is, as I have said, a naturally produceable experience of the deepest ground of being within the structure of the human person, ineffable and normally inaccessible in all its ontological energy).

Can a ban on kōan “techniques” be accomplished? How does one propose to ban such riddle-questions? Or would one ban situations of trust instead? Or riddles posed within situations of trust?

Any of these options would be completely absurd.

And make no mistake, the goal of Zen is identical to the goal of all Buddhism. It takes its methods as different from the most well known meditation techniques like vipassanā, but it does not aim to attain something less than quintessentially Buddhist “enlightenment.”

So, if we are obliged to leave some wiggle room for any Christian who has enough of a sense of humour to “allow” Zen kōans in some capacity, then we are equally obliged to leave the door open for other “techniques.” But, as I insist, these techniques must be morally rectified. If they are to be engaged with, they must be utterly relativized and de-universalized in the face of the Gospel, and they must reject any claim whatsoever to being prayer. And that is no small matter. Just witness how much the majority of practitioners will froth at the mouth at the very suggestion that their prized technique does not apply to all and has only the status of a hobby. I do not say that it is impossible, and I do not judge anyone who, for whatever reasons, attempts to place such techniques in their own proper, relativized place; for all I know, they may have their reasons, and it is not my place to be a busybody. No matter what, I would caution that the proper placing of any good in these techniques is a tall order (but I also emphasize that I have no right to say any more than that).

In what sense these techniques “may” be permitted

Based on the above, I do not consider it controversial to say that these techniques “may” be permitted. They may be. They may not be. It entirely depends on the history, abilities, and dispositions of the subject who proposes to practise them. Exactly as it is for hobbies and professional interests.

You may be permitted to go build another Sagrada Familia.

But I highly doubt it. Morally speaking, you would be required to be competent in engineering, so as to not place others in physical danger. Morally speaking, you would also be required to be a competent artist and architect, so as not to waste the financial resources of the persons who contribute to your undertaking. And the moral requirements could be multiplied. If I say that you may be permitted to build another Sagrada Familia, that just means that I think the undertaking is theoretically possible and does have a good goal in mind. There is something within human nature waiting to be deployed and better discovered or manifested. There is something inherently good involved, even if it is a limited good and must be pursued with moral conditions in mind. In other words, to say that you may do this thing says nothing of the exceptional moral conditions required to attain the goal, and though I would perhaps like the goal to be accomplished (for I consider Barcelona a bit too far from where I live and I do so love the Sagrada Familia), I do not encourage you to pursue this goal.

However, I leave the possibility open. It is not my duty to police your hobbies and professional interests. (That is hardly even the job of an individual’s spiritual director. Normally we would hope for there to be more than policing going on in spiritual accompaniment.) And that applies equally to these nibbāna techniques. In the first place, as regards the shortcuts and short-circuits of Zen – for it would be absurd to condemn thinking about riddles. In the second place, as regards some vipassanā-derived techniques – for I remain open to the possibility of a purification of their moral and theological errors.

There may come a day when enough philosophical and theological preparation has been made so that there is profound and immediate truth to this statement: “Christians may be permitted to engage with some of these techniques, purified of their moral disorders and reoriented within an ontosophic foundation of truth, both philosophical and theological, which acknowledges the profound newness of the Gospel and sees these techniques as attaining a merely relative absolute which is neither an adequate description of the whole of reality nor the goal for which we were made by the Trinity (nor even a taste of it).” I fully embrace the possibility. It is not without precedent. The Church has found its children in tension and then reconciliation before.

One thousand years ago, a kind of Christian philosophy autonomous in itself but subservient to theology and faith was but a dream. One thousand years ago, Peter Abelard was the foe of Bernard of Clairvaux. But then we had Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. A certain historical moment was passed and, instead of Bernard fighting Abelard and philosophy, then we had Friar Albert and Friar Thomas integrating it. It found and thereafter knew its place. Of course, various efforts at disintegration were felt, too, but the possibility of integration and the possibility of being a Christian philosopher remained possible from that time forward.

Likewise, today there seems (at least for most of us) to be no path opened, for the moral dangers have choked the road of these other “meditation techniques.” If they ever become possible to practise for a particular person or in general, it will be by acknowledging their status as mere hobbies or professional interests which attain to nothing of the Gospel newness, the radical greatness of grace, and sheer heights of the supernatural which comes from, is planted in, and leads back to the Cross, both in its suffering for this life and for the great glory of the Crucified One in the life to come. They will have become so relativized that their compelling force is all but lost, and the person who feels any attraction towards them knows that the smallest drop of grace implanted in us by the Three Persons who will to dwell within us by a supernatural love is infinitely, infinitely, greater than one, or even a thousand, experienced moments of nibbāna.

Implications for the orientation of this blog

Over the past four and a half years, the orientation of this blog has never changed. It was always conceived to flow within the channels carved out by Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, and part of that “spirituality on the roads” includes the above “ontosophic” analysis of the different varieties of meditation and contemplation that have sprouted up in this messy world.

The fact that I acknowledge certain human values and leave open a hope for the relativization of these second, non-Christian mysticisms in the face of grace is just that: a hope, an openness in the face of what my neighbours have lived. I will not engage in the project, vast as it would have to be, of recovery and integration. It is not a project that interests me. (If anyone else is interested in such a project, they must pursue it without sinning.)

I, for my own part, am only interested in the essentially and quintessentially Christian contemplation. The love that compels us to contemplate the Trinity, Christ in his humanity, and the potential or actual presence of Christ in our neighours will remain, as it always has been, the plan of this blog. I’m not sure why any readers were concerned about this, but I offer written testimony and assurance.

Written from Segovia, where (naturally) I came to visit the burial place of Saint John of the Cross.

At the chapel with the remains of John of the Cross (Segovia)

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Pagan Contemplation vs. Christian Contemplation

We should notice here the difference which exists between the contemplation of Christians and that of pagan [Greek] philosophers. The latter sought only their own perfection, and hence their contemplation affected their intellect only; they desired only to enrich their minds with knowledge. But the contemplation of the saints, which is that of Christians, seeks as its end the love of the God whom they contemplate. Hence it is not content to find fruit for the intelligence, but penetrates beyond to the will that it may there enkindle love.

The saints desired above all in their contemplation the increase of charity.
Saint Albert the Great

Mencius (Mengzi) and the Dark Night

mengzi-edithLet it never be said that Christianity has nothing in common with the good of other religions and philosophies. Whatever is good and true in other religions and philosophies, Christians are free to take and, recognizing their value, thank God for the crumbs scattered over the globe. It may not seem enough to live off, but it is still food.

One of my favourite philosophers is Mencius (perhaps more properly called Mengzi). After Confucius (Kongzi) he is probably the most important ancient Chinese philosopher. He is not, of course, a philosopher in the theoretical tradition of the Greeks, but he is a kind of practitioner of life, as philosophers aimed to be in ancient China.

What strikes me especially about Mencius is how otherworldly his perspective is. I don’t mean he doesn’t care for this world. No, I don’t mean that at all. What I mean is that, for Mencius, this world is cared for only and best by those who let themselves be formed by the other world. And Mencius is very direct. It will hurt. When “Heaven” molds us to complete some good in this world, we will first feel as if we can do no good at all. We will feel withered. We we languish. We will suffer in mind and body, until the whole of our nature is brought into conformity with its purpose:

When Heaven is about to bestow a great responsibility on a particular person, it will always first subject one’s heart and resolution to bitterness, belabour one’s muscles and bones, starve one’s body and flesh, deprive one’s person, and thwart and bring chaos to what one does. By means of these things it perturbs one’s heart, toughens one’s nature, and provides those things of which one is incapable. (Mengzi 6B15)

It strikes me that this is remarkably like a description of the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. Everything one does must fail. We must be brought to nothing, humiliated; we must be (subjectively) annihilated under the hand of God (Heaven) in order to be objectively conformed to a great mission, calling, and usefulness for others. Indeed, this very same Heaven tests and proves us if we are to be of use to it for what else could be the meaning of the interior growth which is obtained through the tears of this world?

This is a fascinating description of life from a pre-Christian thinker. It takes a very high view of the landscape of life. It is intent on the activity of “Heaven” and our place in usefulness for the world.

There is a lot of similarity with Mencius’ exposition of the lot of the person who intends to be useful for this world, under the hand of a much more powerful Heaven, and the description which Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) gives of the dark night of the soul:

Each individual familiar with the interior life knows that it is precisely those called by God to achieve the extraordinary who must also pass through extraordinary tests. These are not only worldly difficulties and needs but rather spiritual suffering and temptations even harder to endure – that which mystical theology terms ‘the dark night of the soul.’

These sufferings exist to toughen us, to loosen our hold on our own judgment and ideas, and to throw us into relying on God and his providence.

Contemplation, beginning as it does with the onset of the dark night, thus makes us useful for others. It is in becoming more of our God-given self and less reliant on our own judgment and ideas of our self, that we become more useful for others. That is the seeming paradox of contemplation. Contemplation vivifies action. In fact, the more of the darkness of contemplation through which we pass, the more we will be able to do for this world and the place of ourselves and others in the next.

Before All Else: Being

Before all projects, before all plans, before all works and actions is being. Being comfortable and alive in Christ interiorly (and exteriorly); being with and existing with others exteriorly (and interiorly).

This is the surprising message that one gets by reading the life of Charles de Foucauld, by exploring the writings of Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, or by knowing that Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus exist, living their lives side by side with the poor simply as friends and sisters and brothers, without planned works. How could we have forgotten the overriding value of simply who and what we are, in a kind of rest at the centre of our heart, which overflows onto the tiniest of our gestures, lines on our face, attention to details in the lives of others, and so on? How could we have forgotten that, beneath all the action anyone could do to or with others, there exists the substructure of the relationship in itself?

It is hard to imagine, but somehow we can forget all this. Yet many have remembered. One of the greatest and longest reflections Jacques Maritain made in his life was on the place of the values, hidden within us, which manifest themselves externally, though perhaps in masked ways. It’s not that the “interior life” is unmanifest on the outside. It is manifest, but it is manifest first as being, not as doing or planning or acting. With regards to contemplation itself this is true:

JacquesContemplation… is frequently the treasure of persons hidden in the world… souls who live by it in all simplicity, without visions, without miracles, but with such a flame of love for God and neighbour that good happens all around them without noise and without agitation.

It’s also true of the value of relationship coming before doing things to or doing things with others:

What do men and women want first of all? What do they need first of all? They need to be loved; to be recognized; to be treated like human beings; to feel respected in each and every value that they bear within themselves.

For that it does not suffice to tell them: “I love you.” Nor does it suffice (far from it!) to do some good towards them. It is demanded to exist with them, in the most profound sense of the word… to be there.

VanOr, yet more succinctly, from Little Văn, we learn that

the heart is a thousand times more precious than the goods it gives.

The heart is the original. What comes out of it is second. The original is what we crave the most, the seeing of it. Let the heart be seen and held in common: that’s the most important part.

When we are tempted to forget the original value of being and being with, which exist before anything that leaves from our heart and especially anything that we try to plan, let us turn to the Church. Thankfully, the reminders which the Church has given us are very good. Before doing comes being. Look at a Blessed Charles. Look at the expositions of a Jacques Maritain. Look at the approved way of life of the “contemplative in the midst of the world” religious congregations which are the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus. They are signs for the rest of us: signs of the times and signs of life, which is, to be sure, being.

The Body is in the Soul (Not Vice Versa)

At Our Lady of Perpetual Help Minor Seminary in Sriracha, Thailand

It’s a somewhat well known statement of Saint Hildegard’s:

The body is in the soul, not the soul in the body.

The statement says many things. In the first place, it destroys any Platonic or Buddhist notion that we are “placed” in bodies or incarnated in a particular way, unspecific to the type of our soul. In philosophic terms, we may have to square with the notion that the soul is the form of the body; they are made for one another and go together; they are not added on superfluously; the body is not something lesser and unworthy to be escaped. In Christian terms, we happily recall that Jesus didn’t just “place” himself in a body; he actually took on human nature. When he was incarnated, when he was a boy, when he was a man, he wasn’t just placed somewhere. In fact, his body was in his soul. What a wonderful place to be! A body in a soul fully united into the Divinity in the person of the Word!

The body is in the soul. From the negative point of view, this saves us from many errors of looking down on the body or trying to separate the soul and body. We can’t denigrate the good creation.

The body is in the soul. From the positive point of view, this evokes many of the themes of Christian contemplation. In the first place it tells us that the body, which is like the periphery or exterior wall of Saint Teresa’s Interior Castle, is founded on what is deeper. And one can assume that the deeper one travels into the soul, up to the highest point and down to the most interior depth of the spirit where God sets up his abode, the more tightly the exterior wall of the body is pulled into the spirit. The body is in the soul. And the body can, in obedience to the Spirit and under its regime, be more and more in the soul, more and more in the Spirit who governs and inspires the soul. And the more tightly the body is pulled in, the more the interior peace and charity transform and transfigure the exterior wall which is the body.

The body is in the soul, not the soul in the body. If we thought it were the other way around, our anthropology of contemplation just wouldn’t do. There would be no interiority of contemplation and also no transfiguration of the flesh. But as things are, both of those truths are simultaneously real. Contemplation takes us deep inside. What is deep inside becomes visible outside.

Some related posts:

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.