in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Monday, 16 January 2017

Book Review: 'Contemplative Prayer', Dom David Foster


Book Review – Peter Tyler

 


Contemplative Prayer: A New Framework

Author: David Foster

Date: 2015

Publisher: Bloomsbury

ISBN: 978-1-4081-8710-4

pp 216  pbk, £12.99

 

 

Dom David Foster, a monk of Downside Abbey, begins his book with a somewhat alarming experience for a Benedictine monk – a sense of having ‘lost God’ in his student days and how he subsequently had to build up a new relationship with God coming from this place of comparative darkness. From this starting point he constructs an analysis of prayer from what he terms the ‘philosophical point of view’. To this end he references his account of prayer from the perspective of many 19th and 20th Century, mainly European, philosophers including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche and William James. If these names put you off then this is not a book for you for Foster loves his philosophy and his philosophers and brings his wide acquaintance with their theories to bear on his experiences of prayer. If, on the other hand, these philosophical discussions appeal then you will find the book of great interest and fascination. Particularly well done are the sections on the apophatic or Dionysian perspectives on prayer and how they relate to the current ‘postmodern’ or what he sometimes terms ‘nihilist’ culture within which we currently reside (in the West at least). His supposition throughout, supported in his argument by writers such as Wittgenstein and Heidegger, is that ‘contemplative prayer springs from the roots of our human being’, which for him, using Heidegger’s phraseology, is a case of being related to our ‘underlying structure of our experience of being.’ The problem, I always feel, when constructing a philosophical analysis from various thinkers who often contradict each other is what do we do with the discrepancies and rough edges between the various viewpoints – either we must face them head on, avoid them or smooth them over. Foster goes for the last position and so we find Wittgenstein’s linguistic analyses, Heidegger’s philosophy of being (or should that be ‘Being’?) and the Nietzschian ‘transvaluation of values’ all brought together in a great synthesis around the Christian experience of ‘contemplative prayer’. As I have said, for those of a philosophical bent this may well prove attractive. For those without that particular affliction I hope the book will still appeal as it does at least induce a dialogue between our strange postmodern times and the older narratives of Christian contemplative prayer for, as the author states, this search ‘has taken people to the frontiers of experience, where we need to recognize the limitations of reason and conceptual thinking.’ If, as Wittgenstein suggested, our philosophical speculation acts as a finger pointing to that ‘whereof we cannot speak’ then it has probably done as much as it can in the present times. Dom David concludes by hoping that contemplative prayer will ultimately lead us beyond philosophy to the place where we ‘have life and have it in abundance’. 

 


 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Happy Christmas!




With warm wishes that the mysteries of Christmas will bring you and your family much joy!


Lord, Lead us from the non-existent to the existing
Lord, Lead us from darkness to light
Lord, Lead us from death to immortality...


ॐ ऄसतो मा सद्गमय । तमसो मा ज्योततगगमय । मृतयोमाग ऄमृतं गमय । ॐ शात्तः शात्तः शात्तः ॥
 



Peter

 

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Happy Feast Day of St John of the Cross - ¡Viva Juan de la Cruz!


Happy Feast Day of Saint John of the Cross. Through his prayers may the burning Fire of God fill your hearts as we approach the mysteries of Christmas!

 


St John of the Cross – The Living Flame of Love

Flame, alive, compelling,
yet tender past all telling,
reaching the secret center of my soul!
Since now evasion’s over,
finish your work, my Lover,
break the last thread,
wound me and make me whole!

Burn that is for my healing!
Wound of delight past feeling!
Ah, gentle hand whose touch is a caress,
foretaste of heaven conveying
and every debt repaying:
slaying, you give me life for death’s distress.

O lamps of fire bright-burning
with splendid brilliance, turning
deep caverns of my soul to pools of light!
Once shadowed, dim, unknowing,
now their strange new-found glowing
gives warmth and radiance for my Love’s delight.

Ah, gentle and so loving
you wake within me, proving
that you are there in secret, all alone;
your fragrant breathing stills me
your grace, your glory fills me
so tenderly your love becomes my own.

 

Translated by Marjorie Flower, OCD: “The Poems of St. John of the Cross”


 

¡Oh llama de amor viva
que tiernamente hieres
de mi alma en el más profundo centro!
Pues ya no eres esquiva
acaba ya si quieres,
¡rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro!

¡Oh cauterio süave!
¡Oh regalada llaga!
¡Oh mano blanda! ¡Oh toque delicado
que a vida eterna sabe
y toda deuda paga!
Matando, muerte en vida has trocado.

¡Oh lámparas de fuego
en cuyos resplandores
las profundas cavernas del sentido,
que estaba oscuro y ciego,
con estraños primores
color y luz dan junto a su querido!

¡Cuán manso y amoroso
recuerdas en mi seno
donde secretamente solo moras,
y en tu aspirar sabroso
de bien y gloria lleno,
cuán delicadamente me enamoras!


Below are some recent reflections on this wonderful poem starting with John's own commentary on them...

 
I have felt somewhat reluctant, most noble and devout lady, to explain       these four stanzas, as you asked, since they deal with such interior and    spiritual matters, for which communication language normally fails (as  spirit transcends sense) and I consequently find it difficult to say anything   of substance on the matter. Also, it is difficult to speak well of the intimate depths of the spirit (entrañas del espíritu, literally ‘entrails of the spirit’) if one doesn’t inhabit those depths oneself. And as I have not much done that up to now I have delayed writing about these matters. But now the Lord has appeared  to grant me a little knowledge and given me a little fire... I feel encouraged knowing for certain that by my own power I can say little of value, especially regarding such sublime and important matters. (LF: Prol.1)

 

So begins St John of the Cross’s commentary on his last, and possibly greatest, poem, The Living Flame of Love. Probably written sometime between May 1585 and April 1587 (according to the testimony of P. Juan Evangelista he only took a fortnight to write it) whilst he was Prior of the Convent of Los Martires in Granada under the shadow of the magnificent Sierra Nevada and Alhambra Palace, this introduction resembles the prologue to the last work of his equally famous co-worker and spiritual associate, St Teresa of Avila. John had arrived in Granada in 1582, the year of Teresa’s death, and I don’t think it is too fanciful to suggest that in this, his last great poem, he recalls the indomitable spirit of the great Teresa whose shade often hovers over the pages. For had she now not reached the place of bliss of which they had both spoken during their long and eventful collaboration together? She began her last masterpiece, The Interior Castle, thus:

 
Few things which I have been ordered to undertake under obedience have been as difficult as this present task: to write about the matter of prayer. Because, for one reason, the Lord doesn’t seem to be giving me the spirit or desire to do it. For another, for three months now I have had noises and weakness in the head that have been so great that I find it hard even to write about pressing business matters. However I know that the strength that arises from obedience has a way of simplifying    matters that seem impossible, the will is determined to attempt this task even though the prospect makes my nature suffer a lot; for the Lord   hasn’t given me enough virtue to enable me to continually wrestle both with sickness and occupations of many kinds without feeling a great aversion to such a task. (M: Prol.1)

 

So, both saints approached their last and possibly greatest tasks with equal aversion. Teresa complaining of ‘noises in her head’ which meant she couldn’t even attend to the necessary business of running a newly created religious order and John fearful of his own spiritual immaturity to write of such matters. Both protestations are belied, of course, by the masterpieces that they then went on to produce. Yet, I feel it might be a mistake to pass over these first protests too quickly. If such renowned spiritual masters challenge the whole task of writing about spirituality shouldn’t we pay attention to this? As much as Wittgenstein, Freud or Augustine, they stand on the abyss of unknowing that opens up with alarming rapidity when we stare into our souls, seeking to map that abyss with the tentative stutterings of their language. The ‘I know not what’ of John’s Spiritual Canticle. John’s Living Flame is thus his final confession and testament as he goes ‘gently into that Good Night.’ A testimonial made not to a priest or bishop, or even a Discalced Friar, but to a simple ‘unlettered’ lay woman – Doña Ana del Mercado y Peñalosa. Born in Segovia, to which she would return with John to found his convent there, she was at this time widowed and living in Granada with her brother.  John’s final testament, then, is to a woman, and it is to a woman’s heart that he confides his last attempts at spiritual writing.

 

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Pursuit of the Soul: Oxford University 19th November 2016

Dear All,

Please find below details of our next 'soul day' at Rewley House, Oxford on 19th November. Everyone is welcome!

Best wishes

Peter

 
 
 

Friday, 23 September 2016

Book Review: Taboo or To Do? Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson


Book Review – Peter Tyler

 
 
 
 
 

Taboo or to do? Is Christianity complementary with yoga, martial arts, Hallowe’en, mindfulness and other alternative practices?

Authors: Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson

Date: 2016

Publisher: Darton, Longman and Todd

ISBN: 978-0-232-53253-1

pp 224  pbk

 

Successive waves of non-Christian belief and practice have been hitting the shores of Christianity in the past few decades. Following in the footsteps of the Beatles, the ‘West’ has become fascinated with, successively, Transcendental Meditation (TM – remember that?), yoga, Tai Chi, and latterly, mindfulness. Each in its way has held up the promise of spiritual and emotional wellbeing, usually through the pursuance of certain programmes, courses, and nowadays, apps or online interaction. The authors of this new book – two Australian Baptists – round up all these with many of the usual suspects in the battle to keep Christianity untainted by such distractions: astrology, tarot, and even aromatherapy, crystals and angels. The result is an interesting and diverting book, not least in the insights it throws on the unease these practices have caused in some quarters of Christendom. From a Catholic perspective, and to give the authors their due they respect this, this of course is nothing new. We are reminded (p.206) that during the re-evangelisation of Britain by St Mellitus he was advised by Pope St Gregory the Great not to destroy pagan temples but to ritually purify them and re-consecrate them back to Christ. This is largely the position the authors adopt in their survey. Taking each practice in turn they examine the case for and against the adoption of the practice and offer what they call ‘case studies’ for discernment of each. I get the sense that this will be enormously helpful for the readership to which the book is intended (probably not this reviewer) and will help many Christians who are unacquainted with such practices to feel less threatened by them. The weakness in the book lies in the potted biographies of each practice. For a book of this size one cannot expect in-depth academic analysis however some of the summaries do appear on the facile side and any practitioner of Buddhism, Hinduism or Taoism reading the book would probably be shocked by some of the trite generalisations made. Not to mention the Roman Catholic reader – one of the few RC’s mentioned, Dom Bede Griffiths OSB, is considered ‘out there’ and the text has several odd statements such as suggesting All Saints’ Day might be celebrated in a church the evening before (isn’t that the whole point of All Hallows Eve?) and the even more startling: ‘we know of churches where angels are taboo’! That said I applaud the open-mindedness of the authors which is probably not so easy considering the milieu from which they are operating. However the authors might profitably have learnt more from Christians living in societies such as India who have had to deal with these interactions for millennia and have made a fine art of sifting the helpful from the unhelpful amongst the spiritual practices within which they find themselves immersed. Generally the presentation is fine, apart from some annoying typos and the continuing DLT trend not to include an index – which really should be curtailed – and in this instance no bibliography either. Douglas Adams is quoted on p.208 and to quote the master again, in the view of the authors the practices discussed are ‘mostly harmless’. However in expressing ‘the need for the Christian community to show maturity and take a lead’, to accept that we live in ‘a syncretistic world’ and realise that we must carefully discern how to ‘exercise Christ-honouring discipleship without “demonizing” other ways of approaching life’ the authors are to be commended. 

 

 

 

 

Peter Tyler

September 2016

 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Swami Sadanand and Swami Abhishiktananda


 
 
Dear All,
 
I have recently submitted two articles to be published by the 'Pastoral Review' and 'Vinayasadhana' concerning these two giants of contemporary Indian spirituality: Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri de Saux) and Swami Sadanand. I had the great privilege to meet the latter earlier this year shortly before he died in April and the encounter made a lasting impression. These articles are part of the fruit of that encounter and I am sure there will be much more to come. I reproduce parts from both here.
I am grateful to conversations with, inter alia, Fr Kurian Perumpallikunnel CMI, Fr Jose Nandhikkara CMI, Fr Anto Vattakuzhy CMI, Fr Saju Chackalackal CMI and Cecilia von Bertrab to help formulate some of the ideas contained here. For more information on Swamiji's life and work see http://mattersindia.com/2016/04/revolutionary-catholic-ascetic-dies/ and http://www.swamiachan.com/.
The articles are dedicated to his memory:
‘The wellbeing of all creatures is the joy of God; everything in the universe is the gift of God, proclaiming his presence; everything I offer at your feet at every moment; O my God your will is my will’ (Swami Sadanand).

 

 

Swami Abhishiktananda

From an early stage of his time in India, Abhishiktananda asked the question: ‘Does Hindu sannyāsa really have an equivalent in Christianity?’ (Diary entry, 7.1.1954, p.88)[1] and it was in exploring this end that much of the rest of his life in India was dedicated (he never returned to his native France). For him, especially after spending time on the sacred mountain of Arunachāla in Southern India, the heart of sannyāsa became a complete stripping, a complete emptying which for him was centred upon silence, solitude and poverty:

 

          Sannyāsa involves not only withdrawal from society, from the social and    religious framework, from social and religious obligations etc. but also a         fundamental commitment beyond the intellectual framework of one’s          life. (Diary 7.1.54, p.88)

 

We could argue that Abhishiktananda’s sannyāsa was even more extreme than the Hindu version (certainly more so that Tagore’s). The Hindu tradition involves a ritualised stripping away prescribed for certain castes (and indeed gender) only. What Abhishiktananda was advocating was something far more radical – it was a ‘sannyāsa beyond sannyāsa’ – a stripping away that also included the stripping away of all (what he saw) as unnecessary religion accoutrements. In 1954 he wrote in his Diary that ‘Sannyāsa, in its total renunciation and its total liberation, is incompatible with ecclesial Christianity, which does not admit the possibility of itself being transcended’ (7.1.54, p.88).  In 1954 it was the transcendence of Christianity that preoccupied him. Twenty years later in his last written essay, on sannyāsa, he prescribes it as the ‘renunciation of renunciation’ – it would for him ultimately go beyond every religious form, including Hinduism. The Hindu attempt to make  sannyāsa the fourth stage of life was, he felt, ‘an attempt of Hindu society to win back, and at least to some extent, to reintegrate with itself those who had renounced everything’ (The Further Shore: p.17).[2] No doubt this attitude was inspired by the wild (and possibly psychotic) swamis he met on the banks of the Ganges in his own final period of renunciation. At this stage there is no theology or learning left, such a person has become what he calls a ‘fire sannyasi’ (The Further Shore, p.22) who ‘becomes indifferent, on that very day he should go forth and roam’ (The Further Shore p.22).

          Despite his desire to live this extreme lifestyle this was to prove impossible for him. He had difficulty living in isolation at Gyansu, his little hut on the banks of the Ganges, and spent half the year there and the other half teaching and travelling in the Plains. After his own heart attack in July 1973 he realised he would never live in his ‘cave’ again and died later that year in a nursing home at Indore.

 

The Possibility of Christian Sannyāsa?

If then the traditional practice was too much for a spiritual titan such as Henri le Saux is the practice one that is defensible or indeed legitimate for Christians? As is often the case, Tagore suggests a possible compromise solution. As a young man, writing in 1892 in his early thirties, he made an interesting remark with reference to sannyāsa:

 

If by nature I were a sanyasi (sic), then I would have spent my life pondering life’s transcience, and no day would have gone by without a solemn rite to the glory of God. But I am not, and my mind is preoccupied instead by the beauty that disappears from my life each day; I feel I do not appreciate it properly. [3]

 

And a year later:

 

There are two aspects to India: the householder and the sanyasi. The first refuses to leave his home hearth, the second is utterly homeless. Inside me both aspects are to be found. [4]

 

And I think it is in such a ‘creative unity’ as Tagore expressed it that we can find the ‘coincidence of opposites’ that I think could best characterize the ‘Christian sannyāsi’.

          In the Indian tradition the sannyāsi ‘owns no place and no person and has to be by definition a solitary wanderer’ (Thottakara p.561). The Christian, in contrast, by virtue of their consecration to Christ, remains in service to the world even though they do not identify with the world’s goals and aims.[5] Yet, in spite of the differences between the extreme Hindu version of sannyāsa (as attempted to be practised by Abhishiktananda) and the Christian versions of active holiness it is possible to see both Indian sannyāsa and Christian spiritual life as two aspects of the final encounter and relationship with the ultimate goal of human life – our encounter with the limit of human mortality and the embrace of Sister Death. Thottakara calls it ‘the Yoga mind’ that integrates apparently bi-polar realities and he mentions Fr Francis Vineeth CMI, founder of the Vidyavanam ashram near Bangalore, as an example of a modern sadhu ‘who tries to awaken the religious-spiritual consciousness of the sadhakas and develop in them a soul culture that is deeply rooted in the age old principles of Indian spirituality and in the immensely rich Christian spiritual traditions without at the same time negating the positive values of matter, body and this world’ (p.558). At heart what Indian sannyāsa and Christian spiritual life have in common is that for both renunciation, whether of the world or the ego, must be connected with love and surrender to the creator.[6] In this way both Indian and Christian traditions embrace on the threshold of the infinite.

          Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the rich life of Swami Sadanand, a Christian sannyāsi, who died earlier this year. Swamiji, as he was popularly known, had spent his whole life since taking the robe of a sannyāsi, pursuing justice and truth for the poorest and most alienated in India whilst also practising the deep ascetic and meditational life of a sadhu. He famously befriended the murderer of a Catholic nun, Sr Rani Maria, whilst he served his time in prison so that when he was released, and repented his crimes, he was accepted into the late nun’s family. Such was the fame of this reconciliation that Pope Francis invited Swamiji, the nun’s murderer and family to Rome in 2014. I had the great good fortune to meet Swamiji shortly before his death earlier this year and, perhaps more than any argument in this short article, his presence and life are a convincing testimony to the possibility of Christian sannyāsa. To experience his smile, won despite a lifetime of hardship and suffering, was to experience the loving blessing of the Saviour. In loving tribute I dedicate this article to his memory.

 


 

 



[1] Edited by R. Panikkar and published as:  Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary (1948 – 1973) of Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom H. le Saux). Trans. D. Fleming and J. Stuart. Delhi: ISPCK, 1998. Hereafter ‘Diary’.
 
[2] The Further Shore, Abhishiktananda. New Delhi: ISPCK, 1975.
[3] Letter to his nephew, 15th June 1892 from Shelidah, reprinted in Glimpses of Bengal: Selected Letters by Rabindranath Tagore, ed K. Dutta and A. Robinson, London: Macmillan, 1991.
[4] Letter to his nephew, 7th February 1893, ibid.
[5] Although, as Thottakara notes, in recent years Buddhists, Hindus and Jains have all taken to more communitarian models of sannyāsa imitating in many ways Christian monastic models of service to the world, the poor and downtrodden (p.562).
[6] It is interesting that the entry to the final stage of sannyāsa in Indian tradition is accompanied by a renunciation ceremony. The Christian tradition of consecrated life has no such ‘vow’ or ‘ceremony’ to mark this final phase – perhaps it might be something that should be developed?

Thursday, 15 September 2016

PhD Scholarship at St Mary's University Twickenham - Spirituality and Reconciliation

Dear All,

Please find below an advert for a new PhD scholarship at St Mary's. Please feel free to circulate to anyone you think may be interested.

All good wishes

Peter