in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 17 March 2017

A Little Celtic Gift for St Patrick's Day...



Happy St Patrick's Day! Especially to all my Irish and Celtic descendent readers. Attached an extract from my new book about the great Celtic gift to the world - Confession!

Love

Peter
 
 
 
From the 6th century onwards, for reasons which commentators find hard to explain, in the Celtic lands of Britain and Ireland a new form of penance and confession arose.[1] Various commentators have presented theories as to why from this period onwards individual personalised confession and absolution took hold amongst these peoples. As Dallen points out, however, there were significant differences between monastic confession as it arose in the British Isles during these early centuries and what would later be accepted by the Western Church at the Fourth Lateran Council as the universal practice of personal confession. Both held in common that there was a ‘tariff’ by which the ‘amount of sin’ could be measured out and penance given. However the Celts had no ritual in their system to mark the penitent’s return to grace within the church (Dallen 1991:103). For Dallen, the Celts and Anglo-Saxons had ‘a fear and anxiety regarding the supernatural’ which ‘expressed itself in a preoccupation with demons and fairies and the like’ (Dallen 1991:103). Which, to this (Celtic origin) reader at least, seems a bit far-fetched. A little more convincing, as Dallen concurs, is the suggestion of the influence of the desert tradition of spiritual direction, which we examined in the previous chapter, on the practices and shape of the Celtic church.

          Accepting that the Celtic church was focussed largely upon monastic foundations and that the desert form of individual spiritual direction was prevalent there it is accordingly not so difficult to explain the origins of this form of confession as an outgrowth of spiritual direction as practised amongst these monastic communities. The clear links between the Celtic and Eastern churches, not least geographical through shared sea routes, and the ongoing tradition of the East to allow Christian leaders other than Bishops, in some cases lay-people and monks, to give forgiveness to sins (See Rahner 1969: 394), suggests that something of this Eastern spirit was clearly abroad in the Celtic church. This new Celtic form of forgiveness of sins, or absolution, was not confined to one specific occasion, or indeed one specific season such as Lent, and could be uttered by a priest or monk using a simple verbal formula (Rahner 1983:14). By the eighth century it is clear that this new form of ‘private’ confession with its accompanying tariff of penances had spread throughout the whole of Western Europe slowly replacing the more public penances of the older tradition.



[1] Within a generation of Augustine’s death St Patrick will write an influential confessio, thus attesting to the early love of the form in the Celtic lands. I am indebted to Bernard McGinn to drawing this to my attention.

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Tristan Wound and the Crisis of the West




Dear All,

First of all, apologies for not posting on here for some time now. I have been busy completing my new book for Bloomsbury: 'Confession - The Healing of the Soul' which has not left much time for anything else. However as I was revising this chapter today I couldn't help but think of our present 'crisis' in the West through the 'Tristan' lens so thought it might be worth posting.

Kind regards

Peter




The first thing to note from the Tristan myth is that we modern souls are orphans. Our good Christian parents have died and we are born alone in the world. As Robert Johnson writes:


          Tristan is the new child, born in the Middle Ages, who grew up over a       millennium to be modern Western man. His mother and father,         Blanchefleur and King Rivalin, symbolise the old order, the ancient mind         of Europe. They die, but they give birth to a child and that child is the   modern mind of the West. He is Tristan, the New Man. (Johnson 1987:    16-17)

 

For Johnson, from his Jungian perspective, the death of the old order is the death of the feminine: ‘she (Blanchefleur) personifies the inner feminine soul of Western man, the feminine values that once lived in our culture. Her death records that sad day in our history when our patriarchal mentality finally drove the feminine completely out of our culture and out of our individual lives’ (Johnson 1987:17). Whereas I admire much in Johnson’s analysis I am not so drawn to his perspective of the birth of Tristan as the death of the feminine. Rather, from the perspective of this book I see the birth of Tristan as the death of the transcendent perspective at the birth of secular culture. In this respect I agree with Johnson when he characterises us moderns as ‘the children of sadness’, we are, he says:

 

          Children of inner poverty, though outwardly we have everything.     Probably no other people in history have been so lonely, so alienated, so   confused over values, so neurotic. We have dominated our environment     with sledge-hammer force and electronic precision. We amass riches on    unprecedented scale. But few of us, very few indeed, are at peace with           ourselves... Most of us cry out for meaning in life, for values we can live     by, for love and relationship. (Johnson 1987:21)

 

As I stated at the beginning of this book, week after week, I see the children of sadness who live in the West. Shorn of meaning we live the life of ‘triste’. And as Johnson points out, this alienation, this ‘cut-off-ness’, extends to all elements of our dealing with reality, especially the environment. In his ground-breaking encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis characterised this tendency as our present ‘throwaway culture’ and our worship of ‘rapidification’ (LS: 18). Like Saint John Paul II, he critically analyses ‘progress and our human abilities’ (LS: 19) and the unholy ‘alliance between the economy and technology’ which ‘ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests’ (LS: 54). Within this critique (always of course within the spirit of dialogue and respect) there is even a critique of the scientific method itself  (‘ a method of control’) which should not be allowed to assume the divine right to have the last word on every matter. For, in contrast to the mechanising objectification of the scientific-economic gaze, the Pope advocates a vision of each creature that respects its creatureliness. ‘Each creature,’ he states ‘has its own purpose’ and in this he echoes the ancient church tradition which goes back to the desert elders of God being found in the ‘book of creation’ which we read by engaging in contemplation (‘God has written a precious book,’ LS: 85). This precious book of creation is therefore not just for aesthetic consideration but contains the full biodiversity of all creatures, the loss of which, as with all the other events cited, affects us all (LS 32-4).

          Thus, the ‘child of woe’ is born into a world torn apart – alienated from itself and the sources of creation around it. The young Tristan must first engage in ‘the study of books and language’ (p.68) which is for him ‘the beginning of cares’ for:

 

          In the blossoming years, when the ecstasy of his springtime was about to   unfold and he was just entering with joy into his prime, his best life was        over; just when he was beginning to burgeon with delight the frost of care (which ravages many young people) descended on him and    withered the blossoms of his gladness.[1]

 

Where has childhood gone? In the frost of care our young ecstasy is quenched by the technocratic society within which we live, for ‘he was learning the whole time, today one thing, tomorrow another, this year well, next year better’ (p.69). Our technocratic society demands this constant 24 hour learning made worse by the demands of the internet to which the young psyche is now glued. 

          Unfortunately, a psyche such as ours, unhinged from its transcendent moorings, is more susceptible to corruption, distraction and ruin and in the next stage of the saga we hear that the young Tristan preoccupies himself with all the distractions available to the medieval lad – peregrines, games, fine silks and the hunt. Again our technologically obsessed age has brought all the distractions one could possibly imagine into the heart of our lives. Twitter, Facebook, social media and computer games could fill up our whole day should we allow them.

          During this period of adolescent distraction (we are told he is 14 years old) the first of many strange incidents connected with the sea occurs to Tristan. At the mention of the sea a psychologist’s ears prick up. ‘The sea that brings all chances’ is almost a character in itself during the Tristan saga. Granted that the saga originates from the Atlantic isles surrounded by the constant ebb and flow of the sea and in the flickering uncertain light of the coast, yet the sea itself seems to fulfil a deeper function within the story. Johnson, following Jung, takes it as a symbol for the unconscious, ‘our nostalgia for the mysterious, unexplored depths of our own psyches, for the hidden potentialities within our own souls: for what we have never known, never lived, never dared’ (Johnson 1987:25). Thus, as in the Parzifal legend (See Tyler 2013), we have in the legend a record of our first adolescent encounter with the unconscious, at the age set by the Lateran Council ‘as the beginning of discernment’, normally understood as 14. As with Parzifal’s encounter with the transcendent at that age, so Tristan must come to terms with the unconscious. But like his fellow seeker, Parzifal, he also makes a mess of it.

          What happens?  One morning a bright merchant’s ship arrives in Brittany from Norway. Tristan, his guardian Foitenant and his tutor, Curvenal, are invited onto the ship where Tristan is distracted by a beautiful chess board. Distracted as any youngster today would be by a game-boy or computer console he challenges the Norwegians to a game and becomes completely absorbed by it. Like that other story, the Sleeping Beauty, where the adolescent cannot focus on the task before her but falls into a hundred-year sleep, so the boy Tristan denies what is happening and observes only the game before him. Two things now occur, his guardian, the Marshall, gets bored with the adolescent game and leaves the ship whilst the Norwegians look on the boy and realise ‘they have never set eyes on any young person with so many talents’ (p.71). Eyeing the boy for potential exploitation they abduct him by letting slip the anchor so the ship sails off with the boy and his tutor. So engaged are they in the game that they fail to notice what is happening until it is too late. So, Tristan’s first encounter with the ocean/unconscious is a disaster – he is carried off into a very dangerous and hostile situation. With our present-day heightened awareness of child abuse, especially of teenagers, Tristan’s fate seems eerily prescient. Fortunately for the boy a storm is now raised in the ocean/unconscious. The deeper forces of the unconscious have been roused and for eight days it rolls the ship, so much so that the Norwegians, terrified, agree to land the boy on the nearest shore that beckoned: Cornwall.

 

... To be continued!

 



[1]In seiner ersten Freiheit, wurde all seine Freiheit vernichtet.’ Tristan, p..68, 2075 – 2080


 

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