Dante Alighieri: Medieval (1265–1321)

THE DIVINE COMEDY’S INFERNO
Canto I

While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
Before mine eyes did one present himself,
Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.

When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”

He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.

‘Sub Julio’ was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.

A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned.

But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
Why climb’st thou not the Mount Delectable,
Which is the source and cause of every joy?”

“Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?”
I made response to him with bashful forehead.

“O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!

Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.

Behold the beast, for which I have turned back;
Do thou protect me from her, famous Sage,
For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.”

“Thee it behoves to take another road,”
Responded he, when he beheld me weeping,
“If from this savage place thou wouldst escape;

Because this beast, at which thou criest out,
Suffers not any one to pass her way,
But so doth harass him, that she destroys him;

And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.

Many the animals with whom she weds,
And more they shall be still, until the Greyhound
Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain.

He shall not feed on either earth or pelf,
But upon wisdom, and on love and virtue;
’Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be;

Of that low Italy shall he be the saviour,
On whose account the maid Camilla died,
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds;

Through every city shall he hunt her down,
Until he shall have driven her back to Hell,
There from whence envy first did let her loose.

Therefore I think and judge it for thy best
Thou follow me, and I will be thy guide,
And lead thee hence through the eternal place,

Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations,
Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate,
Who cry out each one for the second death;

And thou shalt see those who contented are
Within the fire, because they hope to come,
Whene’er it may be, to the blessed people;

To whom, then, if thou wishest to ascend,
A soul shall be for that than I more worthy;
With her at my departure I will leave thee;

Because that Emperor, who reigns above,
In that I was rebellious to his law,
Wills that through me none come into his city.

He governs everywhere, and there he reigns;
There is his city and his lofty throne;
O happy he whom thereto he elects!”

And I to him: “Poet, I thee entreat,
By that same God whom thou didst never know,
So that I may escape this woe and worse,

Thou wouldst conduct me there where thou hast said,
That I may see the portal of Saint Peter,
And those thou makest so disconsolate.”

Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.


Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy has so permeated literature and theology that much of what he wrote about the afterlife is though by many to come from the Bible.  T.S. Eliot said “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.”

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

The best advice I can give is to read quickly the first time. You will know you’re missing more than you’re gaining, but get what you can and then read the selection again. This time, look up some of the unfamiliar people and works. Third time, try reading the lines aloud and let the sound move you. Focus on a single line you want to understand the fourth time through, and read until you understand.

The Comedy is an entire Christian worldview. It isn’t the only possible Christian worldview, because no human book could contain that whole, but it’s a very good one. It combines the best science, theology, poetry, politics, and psychology from the age in which it was written. That means parts of it are wrong, but even where wrong, it stimulated in others the thinking that produced modernity.

The Divine Comedy portrays Dante’s vision of heaven and hell.  What is yours?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


 On Anguish and Beauty

Anthony Esolen

How does one begin to praise the greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy?
It is as wildly various as the flora and fauna that sport across the capitals of an illuminated manuscript.

It is as theologically ordered and precise, in its own way, as the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s leading light in matters of the intellect, the virtues, the church, and the nature of God.

It is as delightful as a romance with Lancelot and Guenevere, as terrifying as the apocalypse of John, and as wondrous as the seraphic vision that came to Saint Francis and marked him with the marks of Christ.

What moment in all of literature can surpass the profound anguish of an Ugolino who looks into the faces of his children, all prisoners on his account, and all, with him, about to starve to death, and who says, in a few stunning words, “I did not weep, I had so turned to stone”?

But then, what moment can surpass the wonder of Piccarda, who has become more human precisely because she has immersed herself in the divine Love? “In His will is our peace,” says she.

If we say it’s hard to find a single human moment, or a single one of the wonders of God as made manifest to man, that does not find its place in Dante’s poem, we say no more than the truth, and yet we still fail to grasp the excellence here. For it’s one thing to find these moments—to find, in the excerpt above, the grim blasphemy of sinners who wish, far more than that they had never been born, that their parents and the whole human race and the time and place of their begetting had never existed; a universal curse. Or to find the paradox that love, that sweetest of desires, had brought disaster and condemnation—as Francesca the gentle-spoken adulteress says, “Love led us to one death.”

What astonishes more than all is to find all these things ordered in an artistic, philosophical, and theological whole, so that Virgil’s encounter with Beatrice is meant to anticipate Dante’s encounter with Francesca, and then with other lovers and indeed other writers of love poetry in the Purgatory, before the pilgrim poet finally meets Beatrice herself; she in turn leads him to Paradise, where he will enjoy at the last a vision of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Such an achievement in poetry had no precedent.

Dante could have done as Milton would do, centuries later, and adapt the meter, narrative techniques, and epic apparatus of Virgil’s Aeneid to his own language. He did not.

He could have written in the style of the romancers of his own day, like the prodigious and remarkably original Chrétien de Troyes. He did not.
The Divine Comedy is of its own kind, even as it gathers to itself all the Christian and classical learning Dante had inherited. It’s as if a man should study all the paintings of the dramatic Caravaggio and the brooding Rembrandt, and then, inspired by them, compose the Saint Matthew Passion—when, to boot, nothing of that sort had ever been composed before, and nothing quite of that sort would ever be composed again.

———

All of this is to insist that when we read Dante, even in the few cantos above, we bring to our reading more than the habits we have acquired in reading other poets. We must read as composers, as sculptors, as architects, as theologians.

Take, for example, the appearance of Beatrice to Virgil. We understand the necessity of the conversation. Dante the pilgrim is having second thoughts about entering hell—naturally. But instead of giving him an eminently practical reason for trusting him, as, for instance, that if Dante remains in the dark wilderness he will be lost for certain, but if he accompanies Virgil he at least has a chance, the Roman poet becomes for him and for us a courtly lover, swept into obedient service by a vision of a beautiful woman such as had no counterpart in anything he had ever written.

Now, if we conclude that this is just a fine quirk of poetic adaptation, we miss the deep humanity and theology both. Dante expects us to think—that is the object of reason—and to begin to see—that is the object of the intellect. This is, after all, the same Virgil who has just revealed to Dante that he will never enjoy the sight of God, and who has burst into an exclamation of longing and hopelessness: “Happy the man He chooses for His house!” That is the man who now tells Dante he has seen Beatrice, and, even before she gives her name, indeed before she speaks a word, “begged her for the grace of a command.” The ancient pagan is a man like all men, made to be fulfilled only by the vision of holiness itself, the vision of God.

I hope, then, dear reader, that you will not approach this poem as if it were a mere artistic artifact. Such would be to sin against any work of truly great art, but it would be all the more disordered in the case of Dante. That is because Dante himself summons us to a deeper engagement with the world of man and the being and goodness of God.

If we were present on that dread day, under the blank staring of the Mediterranean sun, when, amid those who loved Him and those who plotted His destruction, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, would we confine our thoughts to the picturesque scene, or to the eloquence of the Master? No, we would long to look upon the reality itself. The only human thing to do, the only rational thing, would be to press beyond the human, in love. We would—or at least we should—take upon ourselves the ultimate task of our poet: to seek the face of God.

Anthony Esolen, PhD, is a professor of Literature at Providence College and a senior editor of Touchstone magazine. In addition to authoring several books, he is well-known for his translations of classical works of literature, including Dante’s Divine Comedy.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

A Wild, Wondrous Journey

Christ in the Wilderness
Ivan Kramskoy
Original Title: Христос в пустыне
Date: 1872

FOUR QUARTETS
Little Gidding
T.S. Eliot

Every phrase and every sentence
is an end and a beginning,
Every poem is an epitaph – epitaph, as on a gravestone.

Any action is a step to the block, to the fire,
down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

Matthew 4:1–11
Temptation In The Wilderness

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ”
5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written:
‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’
and,
‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’ ”
8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”
10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ”
11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.


We live in an age that plays loose with facts.  It’s the devil’s playground.  From Genesis forward, the modus operandi of evil is to question the veracity of God, and the results can be devastating.  If Truth does certainly set us free, Truth untethered leaves us in bondage.  We see this interwoven throughout creation, and the coup de gras is always leveled at the imago Dei – the image of God which is the essence of man.

Speaking of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Ken Kovacs said in his book Out of the Depths:

The temptation is real in this story—and it’s serious. These are not trivial amusements trying to lull Jesus away from his work. He’s being tempted by desire, materialism, tempted by power, tempted by influence and glory, tempted by religion. He’s being tempted with an alternative narrative for his life, “If you are the Son of God….” If… Does Jesus know that he’s the Son of God? Is this what he’s really wrestling with in the wilderness? And if he consents, if he claims this identity, accepts this power, what then? How does one then live with such an identity, how does one make use of such power?

Who did God create you to be?  Has you journey to that discovery taken you through a wilderness?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

D I G  D E E P E R


T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

(1888–1965), poet and critic. Born in St Louis, Missouri, he was educated at the Smith Academy, St Louis, Harvard (1906–9 and again 1911–13), the *Sorbonne (1910–11), and Merton College, Oxford (1914–15). He taught for a short time in Highgate Grammar School, London, and worked for Lloyds Bank; from this period his main interests appear to have been literary. Assistant editor of The Egoist from 1917 to 1919 and a frequent contributor to The Athenaeum, in 1922 he became the first editor of The Criterion, which he made a leading organ of literary expression until it ceased in 1939. In 1925 he joined the board of Faber, the publisher. He received many honours, including the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for literature (both in 1948).

Brought up in the American *Unitarian tradition, Eliot passed through a period of agnosticism reflected in his earlier poetry, e.g. Prufrock (1917) and Poems 1920 (1920). The expression of his sense of the emptiness of life reached its climax in The Waste Land (1922) and is also seen in The Hollow Men (1925). These early poems rejected the poetical tradition as it had developed in England since the 18th cent. and found inspiration in the 17th-cent. *Metaphysical poets and the 19th-cent. French symbolists. In 1927 Eliot was baptized in the parish church at Finstock, Oxon, and in 1928 he declared his viewpoint to be ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and *anglo-catholic in religion’ (Preface to For Lancelot Andrewes). Henceforth much of his poetry, culminating in Four Quartets (1935–42), expressed his religious search, his struggle with faith and doubt, and his attempt to find fresh meaning in tradition; here he turned notably to *Dante, as well as to such mystics as St *John of the Cross and *Julian of Norwich. His influence as a poet was immense. His attempts at poetical drama were less successful, but also sought to communicate something of the dilemmas of faith, explicitly in Murder in the Cathedral (1935; written for the *Canterbury Festival of that year), but no less genuinely in his later plays, The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and The Elder Statesman (1959). He was also influential as a critic; many of his early essays were published in Selected Essays (1932; 3rd edn., enlarged, 1951), and his later essays collected in On Poetry and Poets (1957) and To Criticize the Critic (1965). He was deeply interested in the social implications of Christianity and discussed these in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes towards a Definition of Culture (1948).

For more on his work Four Quartets see HERE

 

Desert Fathers and Mothers

This was a third- and fourth-century movement of Egyptian and Syrian Christians who left cities and villages to live in the desert. They were inspired by the wilderness formation of such biblical exemplars as Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus, and also of contemporaries such as Antony, whose fame helped spread this populist movement. While some individuals were drawn to self-glorification through excesses in self-denial, most participated in shared mentoring and worship, and some joined nascent monastic communities.

The movement was partly a reaction to the perceived decadence of the age and the moral laxness of the church after becoming the religion of the Roman Empire. Their response was a radical (from Lat. radix, meaning “root”) call for a return to the core fundamentals of Christian faith: repentance, prayer, fasting, silence, and compassion. In going to the desert, many felt they followed Christ’s command to “go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.… Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).

The appeal of this austere countercultural movement swept across all levels of society, attracting men and women, rich and poor alike, scholars and illiterate, young and old. By AD 346 there were choices in the desert: one might opt for the eremitic life (to live alone as a hermit) or the cenobitic life (to live in community). The vast majority of the desert fathers and mothers were laity, not clergy. Living in caves or simple handmade huts, they soon attracted others, like John Cassian from Scythia, who observed the lives of the desert teachers and their disciples and wrote of their experience. This resulted in a new literary genre: the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum) and the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Vitae Patrum). While sections of the Vitae Patrum are hagiographical, the Apophthegmata Patrum are probably very close to the actual wisdom of the desert as shared at the time—simple aphorisms and stories that have retained a freshness and wisdom throughout the centuries.

The movement may appear similar in its practices to Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, in which disciples gathered for spiritual guidance at the feet of a guru or Zen master. Yet it is not entirely so. While these Christian disciples would approach an abba (old man) or amma (old woman) to ask for “a word,” there was never any hidden, esoteric teaching imparted to a chosen few. Often the healing ministry of Christ was continued as the hungry, the poor, and the possessed came to the desert for help and intercessory prayer. Sometimes scholars might approach an illiterate monk for “a word,” or the sick reach out for a healing touch; a mayor might approach a woman of poverty for “a word,” and so on. The characteristic dynamic was one person seeking God’s presence, speaking to another person seeking the same.

The movement cohered in a shared commitment to the discipline and purity of leaving all to follow Jesus, rather than around any one elaborate doctrinal system. Nevertheless, the movement was thoroughly Nicene in its beliefs, the great Antony himself on occasion leaving solitude to publicly defend orthodoxy. It was a lean spirituality of the one thing; asceticism helped strip away all that was superficial without sacrificing orthodoxy itself.

Hesychia (silence) was practiced in order to hear God’s voice, in the spirit of the biblical exhortation to “be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). This was not to be simply a stubborn clamping shut of one’s lips, but rather expectant waiting and humble watching. As John Chryssavgis has explained, such “silence is fullness, not emptiness; it is not an absence, but the awareness of a presence.” Sleeplessness also helped one watch for Jesus. Fasting allowed one to be fed by every word that proceeds from God. Prayer was not scheduled activity, but continual striving toward God. Like the spiritual journey itself, it was that toward which one should always strive; though not always easy, it was always worth the sacrifice. As Amma Syncletica noted, “In the beginning, there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first it’s smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result.” Yet common sense was the byword, preventing pride in one’s own accomplishments: “If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up to heaven, take him by the foot, and throw him to the ground, because what he is doing is not good for him” (Chryssavgis).

The desert fathers and mothers recognized the natural ebb and flow of the spiritual life. There is a social dimension, a time for mentoring and guidance, but there is a necessary time for solitude and discipline too. The Sayings show the teachers conferring among themselves, growing through dialogue and discussion, and then withdrawing into solitude and silence. The metaphor of withdrawing “into the desert” to be with Jesus has been crucial in the history of spiritual formation. The sayings and lives of the Fathers show how these Christians tried to live the Christian life with integrity and radical simplicity without being compromised by their culture, nor forgetting their commitment to care for one another. They continue to influence many diverse writers, from Roman Catholics Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen to Orthodox John Chryssavgis to evangelical Shane Claiborne.

For Further Reading:

D. Chitty, The Desert a City (1966); J. Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert (2003); T. Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (1970); Y. Nomura and H. Nouwen, Desert Wisdom (2000); B. Ward, The Lives of the Desert Fathers (1981); idem, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (1975).  Kelby Cotton, “Desert Fathers and Mothers,” ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 395–397.

When Jesus Wept

The Angers Apocalypse Tapestry, The Tears of St John, Maine-et-Loire: Château d’Angers, c.1373 © Centre des monuments nationaux

THE CONVERT
G.K. Chesterton

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright
And I came out where the old road shone white,
I walked the ways, and heard what all men said…
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live

John 11:32–44

32 Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. 34 And He said, “Where have you laid him?”
They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!”
37 And some of them said, “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” 41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” 43 Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” 44 And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”

Revelation 21:1–6

21 Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
5 Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
6 And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts.


There are times in all of our lives when our burdens seem too heavy to bear. Common fears and insecurities, though individually small, can become overwhelming when they pile upon our heart. Some, like the death of a loved one, are large on their own and though none of us are spared, we feel individually assaulted. In those dark days when our clouds deny the sun, it’s easy to believe that God is far and inattentive.

We take some comfort to read Jesus saying “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted”, but it is His tears at the grave of Lazarus that reach us. Though the Lord knew He was moments away from raising his friend from the dead, His mighty heart was broken by the grief of Martha. Yes, the resurrection is coming and someday all pain will cease. There’s comfort in that knowledge, but beyond a promise of better days, our Savior comes to weep with us.

As Ken Kovacs wrote in his book Out of the Depths:

The point is this: the everlasting life that Jesus gives is basically the same on both sides of the grave! Jesus gives life on both sides of the grave! This means that we don’t have to die in order to know something of Christ’s resurrection life. With Jesus, “Life is changed, not taken away.”  This also means that until that day—when “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as the English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) loved to say—until that day we can be confident that the life of Jesus meets us in our places of pain and torment and suffering, that Jesus’ anger rages against all the things, all the forces of death that cause us to weep; he weeps for us, he weeps with us, and his life-giving presence fills all those places of grief and absence that we know about all too well in our lives. Our tears mixed with his tears. Our tears, when mixed with his tears, flowing together, can actually become the place we encounter the Lord of Life! This means we are people—saints!—that witness God’s new life in the midst of this dying world; God’s resurrection life bring us to life, even in this life marked by tears and pain and sorrow—this is the work of God making all things new!

The poet Emily Dickinson expressed this masterfully:

Savior! I’ve no one else to tell—
And so I trouble thee.
I am the one forgot thee so—
Dost thou remember me?
Nor, for myself, I came so far—
That were the little load—
I brought thee the imperial Heart
I had not strength to hold—
The Heart I carried in my own—
Till mine too heavy grew—
Yet—strangest—heavier since it went—
Is it too large for you?

How have your tears connected you to Jesus?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

Ken Kovacs
Ken Kovacs

Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.

Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/

 

D I G  D E E P E R


Julian of Norwich

She was, by her own description, a simple creature.  Shy and adverse to attention, she was a recluse of self-imposed sequestration. Her room was a cell from which she had limited contact with the outside world and though her writings were virtually unknown during her lifetime, she is a towering pioneer of English literature.

Emily Dickinson?  Yes, but 500 years ahead of her came Julian of Norwich.

Unlike Dickinson who apparently wrote continuously, Julian’s writing is limited to a single known book which has come to be called Revelations of Divine Love.  She just called it Showings.  The book is based on sixteen visions she experienced at thirty years of age: fifteen on May 8, 1373 and another on the following day. She saw visions of the sufferings of Christ and of the Trinity and then meditated on these visions for twenty years.  Her book contains the visions and her interpretations.

So why has this obscure little book from a reclusive woman so greatly impacted literature and liturgy?  For one, it is the earliest known writing of prose by a woman in the English language.  More significance lies in the power of her words.

In his work Seeds of Destruction, Thomas Merton wrote

“Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. I think that Julian of Norwich is with Newman the greatest English theologian.”

Beyond her theological impact, her life has influenced literature as well, including T.S. Eliot.  Eliot found Julian’s hopeful, simple view of the power of God’s goodness to be a microcosm of the church at large.  In Julian the rituals of the devotional life were extensible to the redeeming power of God’s love.  His masterwork Four Quartets cannot be fully understood absent an understanding of his references to Julian and others (including John of the Cross and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing.)

Rick Wilcox

All The Kingdoms Of The World by Malcolm Guite

Tentaciones_de_Cristo_(Botticelli)

So here’s the deal and this is what you get:
The penthouse suite with world-commanding views,
The banker’s bonus and the private jet,
Control and ownership of all the news,
An ‘in’ to that exclusive one per cent,
Who know the score, who really run the show,
With interest on every penny lent
And sweeteners for cronies in the know.
A straight arrangement between me and you,
No hell below or heaven high above,
You just admit it, and give me my due,
And wake up from this foolish dream of love …
But Jesus laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.
Love is the waking life, you are the dream.’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ (Luke 4.5 − 7)

Malcolm Guite reads today’s poem


We understand worldliness.  It is the siren song that calls us to promises of glory wrapped in the façade of fame, money and power. No one is immune to its lure, and its talons pierce every aspect of our culture from our neighborhoods to the churches in which we worship. Though we understand the fabric of worldliness, we rarely speak of it and conveniently forget its contradictions to Christian life.

In The Word in the Wilderness Malcolm Guite writes:

A symptom of this amnesia, this serious spiritual malaise that afflicts our culture, can be found in our extraordinary use of the word ‘exclusive’ as a positive term! The liberal West is allegedly the most inclusive culture that has ever existed: we deploy a great deal of rhetoric about including the marginalized, and take care that everyone should use politically correct and ‘inclusive’ language. But this is, of course, just a fig leaf. One look at the advertising in any magazine or on any website, one glimpse of the commercials that saturate our airwaves, tells a different story. Any estate agent advertising residential properties (or ‘homes’ as they like to call them – as though a home was something you could sell) reveals that their favourite word is ‘exclusive’. Come and view these ‘exclusive’ flats. Or come with us on this luxurious and ‘exclusive’ holiday! And nobody asks, just who is being excluded?

When we follow and envy the glamorous people of the world we say “What a dream life that would be!”  As Malcom says

It is as if the purpose of dreams is to enmesh us deeper in the tangles of getting and spending, not to lift our vision, change our perspective and give us glimpses of heaven.

What did Jesus mean when He said “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also?”

 

IMG_0181Matthew 25:35-40

For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’


 

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Art: The Temptations of Christ, by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510)
Fresco. Sistine Chapel

 Malcolm Guite and Word in the Wilderness

Malcolm Guite
Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings.  For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page

Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith

 

51vg-xoskvl-_sy346_For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.

Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.

Julian of Norwich, A Very Brief History by Janina Ramirez

RickShe was, by her own description, a simple creature.  Shy and adverse to attention, she was a recluse of self-imposed sequestration. Her room was a cell from which she had limited contact with the outside world and though her writings were virtually unknown during her lifetime, she is a towering pioneer of English literature.

Emily Dickinson?  Yes, but 500 years ahead of her, the same description could be applied to a much more anonymous person – Julian of Norwich.

Unlike Dickinson who apparently wrote continuously, Julian’s writing is limited to a single known book which has come to be called Revelations of Divine Love.  She just called it Showings.  The book is based on sixteen visions she experienced at thirty years of age: fifteen on May 8, 1373 and another on the following day. She saw visions of the sufferings of Christ and of the Trinity and then meditated on these visions for twenty years.  Her book contains the visions and her interpretations.

So why has this obscure little book from a reclusive woman so greatly impacted literature and liturgy?  For one, it is the earliest known writing of prose by a woman in the English language.  More significance lies in the power of her words.

saints_paper

A recently published book by Janina Ramirez has given fresh momentum to Julian’s renown.  Dr Ramirez is an Oxford scholar and a BBC commentator on the Middle Ages.  Her new book Julian of Norwich, A very brief history is a concise weekender with a refreshing tone on a story worthy of broad attention.

In his work Seeds of Destruction, Thomas Merton wrote

“Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. I think that Julian of Norwich is with Newman the greatest English theologian.”

Beyond her theological impact, her life has influenced literature as well, including T.S. Eliot.  Eliot found Julian’s hopeful, simple view of the power of God’s goodness to be a microcosm of the church at large.  In Julian the rituals of the devotional life were extensible to the redeeming power of God’s love.  His masterwork Four Quartets cannot be fully understood absent an understanding of his references to Julian and others (including John of the Cross and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing.)

Janina Ramirez has provided great service to both clergy and the lay reader alike.  We would all be well served to spend a couple of days enjoying her highly readable book, and then likewise devoting several weeks to a slow, deliberate mediation with Julian and her single, essential masterpiece.

Join the discussion on Facebook HERE 

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

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“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”


RickPrayer is communication with God, but what does that mean?  Prayer emphasizes God’s mystery, inscrutability, and immanence—God is closer than our very breath. We get to know God not by the route of information, but by holding in abeyance what we think we know about God, or even ourselves, in order to let His love and fellowship flood our being in a place that resides beyond our senses.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:

Sometimes music can reflect ideas and feelings that words simply cannot express. And sometimes, when poetry reaches its highest level, it can function almost like music—moving the reader with a transcendent force beyond our comprehension. T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets borrows its title from a musical form, and it offers up poetry that expresses some of the deepest universal human realities with the musicality of poetic expression. These are poems filled with images drawn from deep wells of the remembered and the half-remembered, meditations on the nature of time and memory, and ruminations on human frailty, suffering, and the nature of a living faith. Many readers have found them to be not only resplendent poems but also aids to meditation and prayer, as they seem to find ways to almost say the unsayable and provide glimpses of universal spiritual experiences and moments of enlightenment.

Occasionally an ordinary experience—a sight or sound or smell—can trigger a sense of being swept into a timeless moment, a place where time stands still and the breath of eternity rustles through our hearts and minds. Eliot’s Four Quartets both records and arouses such mystical moments. These are meditative poems that wed the musicality of words with profound spiritual insight to awaken a connection with something—ultimately Someone—who transcends time.

Has poetry ever helped your prayers? How so?

Join the discussion on Facebook HERE 

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

D I G  D E E P E R


T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

(1888–1965), poet and critic. Born in St Louis, Missouri, he was educated at the Smith Academy, St Louis, Harvard (1906–9 and again 1911–13), the *Sorbonne (1910–11), and Merton College, Oxford (1914–15). He taught for a short time in Highgate Grammar School, London, and worked for Lloyds Bank; from this period his main interests appear to have been literary. Assistant editor of The Egoist from 1917 to 1919 and a frequent contributor to The Athenaeum, in 1922 he became the first editor of The Criterion, which he made a leading organ of literary expression until it ceased in 1939. In 1925 he joined the board of Faber, the publisher. He received many honours, including the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for literature (both in 1948).

Brought up in the American *Unitarian tradition, Eliot passed through a period of agnosticism reflected in his earlier poetry, e.g. Prufrock (1917) and Poems 1920 (1920). The expression of his sense of the emptiness of life reached its climax in The Waste Land (1922) and is also seen in The Hollow Men (1925). These early poems rejected the poetical tradition as it had developed in England since the 18th cent. and found inspiration in the 17th-cent. *Metaphysical poets and the 19th-cent. French symbolists. In 1927 Eliot was baptized in the parish church at Finstock, Oxon, and in 1928 he declared his viewpoint to be ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and *anglo-catholic in religion’ (Preface to For Lancelot Andrewes). Henceforth much of his poetry, culminating in Four Quartets (1935–42), expressed his religious search, his struggle with faith and doubt, and his attempt to find fresh meaning in tradition; here he turned notably to *Dante, as well as to such mystics as St *John of the Cross and *Julian of Norwich. His influence as a poet was immense. His attempts at poetical drama were less successful, but also sought to communicate something of the dilemmas of faith, explicitly in Murder in the Cathedral (1935; written for the *Canterbury Festival of that year), but no less genuinely in his later plays, The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and The Elder Statesman (1959). He was also influential as a critic; many of his early essays were published in Selected Essays (1932; 3rd edn., enlarged, 1951), and his later essays collected in On Poetry and Poets (1957) and To Criticize the Critic (1965). He was deeply interested in the social implications of Christianity and discussed these in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes towards a Definition of Culture (1948).

Sources & Resources

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 542–543.

Complete Poems and Plays (1969). A facsimile and transcript of the original drafts of The Waste Land, incl. the annotations of Ezra Pound, ed. by V. Eliot (widow) (1971). Letters, ed. id. (1988 ff.). Biographies by L. Gordon (2 vols., Oxford, 1977–88) and P. Ackroyd (London, 1984). The many symposia on Eliot and his work include those ed. by R. March and Tambimuttu (London, 1948), A. Tate (ibid., 1967), and J. Olney (Oxford, 1988). F. O. Matthiesen, The Achievement of T. S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry (1935; 3rd edn., 1958); H. [L.] Gardner, The Art of T. S. Eliot (1949); id., The Composition of Four Quartets (1978); G. [C.] Smith, T. S. Eliot’s Plays and Poetry: A Study in Sources and Meaning (Chicago 1956]); H. Kenner, The Invisible Poet (New York, 1959; London, 1960); C. H. Smith, T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Thought and Practice (Princeton, NJ, and London, 1963); H. Howarth, Notes on Some Figures Behind T. S. Eliot (1965); E. M. Browne, The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays (Cambridge, 1969); M. Lojkine-Morelec, T. S. Eliot: Essai sur la génèse d’une écriture (Publications de la Sorbonne, 2nd ser. 17; 1985); C. Ricks, T. S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988); P. Murray [OP], T. S. Eliot and Mysticism: The Secret History of Four Quartets (1991). D. Gallup, T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (2nd edn., 1969); B. Ricks, T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography of Secondary Works (1980). R. Ellmann in DNB, 1961–1970, pp. 325–9.

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Booty, John. Meditating on Four Quartets. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1983.
Dale, Alzina Stone. T. S. Eliot: The Philosopher Poet. Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1988.
Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1943.
———. Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975.
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1988.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

 

Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com

 

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.

The Cloud of Unknowing

 

1
Ad Reinhardt
Painting, 1958

EXPOSITIONS OF THE PSALMS
St Augustine of Hippo

There is a different kind of prayer without ceasing; it is longing. Whatever you may be doing, if you long for the day of everlasting rest do not cease praying. If you do not wish to cease praying, then do not cease your longing. Your persistent longing is your persistent voice. But when love grows cold, the heart grows silent. Burning love is the outcry of the heart! If you are filled with longing all the time, you will keep crying out, and if your love perseveres, your cry will be heard without fail.

Matthew 6:6

But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.


What exactly is prayer?  The fast answer is that it is talking to God, but what does that entail?  Must it be spoken words, or can it be thought words – or no words at all?  The disciples clearly recognized the importance of prayer in Jesus’ life because they asked Him to teach them to pray.  What we call the Lord’s Prayer was His template or model.

We all know what it means to feel a longing for God that defies our vocabulary.  Over seven hundred years ago an unknown monk wrote an essay to his student who had asked for help with prayer.  That document, now known as The Cloud of Unknowing is among the oldest English language works, and it has been in continuous print ever since.  Listen to its rich prose:

You only need a naked intent for God.
When you long for him, that’s enough.
We can’t think our way to God.
That’s why I’m willing to abandon everything I know,
to love the one thing I cannot think.
God can be loved, but not thought.

The book speaks of seeking God through contemplation, by emptying your mind rather than filling it with thoughts.  In this sense, prayer picks up where our earthly abilities fail.  It is the great equalizer – leveling the simple and the genius, the child and the adult.  We unite with God as Romans 8:26 says “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

T. S. Eliot is one of many literary figures influenced by The Cloud of Unknowing and its opaque, but luminescent spirituality. Eliot’s Cloud-inspired words, from East Coker say

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.

Prayer emphasizes God’s mystery, inscrutability, and immanence—God is closer than our very breath. We get to know God not by the route of information, but by holding in abeyance what we think we know about God, or even ourselves, in order to let His love and fellowship flood our beings in a way that lies beyond our senses.

In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton said:

We thank Him less by words than by the serene happiness of silent acceptance. It is our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.

As Acts 17:28 says “for in Him we live and move and have our being.

Join the discussion on Facebook HERE 

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud is an anonymous book on contemplative prayer, written c. 1390–95, most probably by a Carthusian of Beauvale Priory (Notts.). While the Cloud is not primarily controversial, there are marks of the same concern which is found in *Walter Hilton (c. 1343–96) to present traditional spiritual methods and aims in the face of Lollardy, as well as warning against attachment to the ‘heat, sweetness and song’ associated with Richard Rolle (d. 1349). There is evidence of some interaction with Hilton, but whereas Hilton addresses overall a wide circle of readers, the Cloud (and its corpus) are directed particularly to contemplatives.

The book’s title is drawn from the writings of *Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500), where the author affirms that all the teaching of the Cloud may be found in (Pseudo-) Dionysius. The core of Pseudo-Dionysius’s apophatic Mystical Theology is the search for union at a supra-intellectual level with God, who in his transcendence exceeds both all that may be affirmed and all that may be denied of him. This union occurs in the ‘luminous darkness’ (exemplified by Moses’ ascent of Sinai), or the excess of God’s light experienced as darkness, as all that can appeal to sense or intellect is left behind. The Cloud speaks of leaving created things under a ‘cloud of forgetting’, in order to penetrate with a ‘sharp dart of longing love’ the cloud of unknowing that veils God’s presence. The author of the Cloud knew Pseudo-Dionysius through such Latin mediators as John Sarrazin (1140–67) and Thomas of Vercelli (d. 1246), who in various respects modified Pseudo-Dionysius. Latin theology makes more explicit that the soul’s ascent towards union with God is an act of love, a gift of God’s grace. Among other Latin writers in the Dionysian tradition, the Cloud’s author certainly knew something also of the De Mystica Theologia of the Carthusian Hugh of Balma (1289–1304), echoing (inter alia) his account of imageless prayer without premeditation, a movement of love and not of intellect.

In fact the Cloud is firmly rooted in the monastic tradition of spiritual guidance, and in Latin theology. There are echoes of *Augustine (354–430), Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), *Bernard (1090–1153) and *Richard of St Victor (d. 1173). Augustine’s teaching on the ordo caritatis, the rightly-ordered love of God and of neighbour, is fundamental. Humility and charity are the two interdependent virtues in which the whole Christian moral life is implied. The author is also in accord with *St Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74) at various points: on the name ‘Is’ as the most appropriate to God (in contrast to Pseudo-Dionysius, who prefers ‘Good’); on the capacity of charity to unite us directly to God while we are unable in this life to know him as he is; and on the theology of ‘operant grace’. In the latter mode, as distinct from that of ‘co-operant grace’, where there is deliberate conjunction of the human will with grace, God moves the will directly and without impediment, yet with the will’s consent, ensuring the soul’s spontaneous conformity to his will. The Cloud sees this as concomitant with ‘perfect humility’, which has regard only to the greatness of God in his love and worthiness, and so is self-forgetful. In contrast, ‘imperfect humility’ has regard to one’s own qualities, especially to one’s own sinfulness, and thus is necessary but is still self-regarding. Entry into the ‘cloud of unknowing’ opens the way to ‘perfect humility’.

The Cloud thrice refers in passing to ‘another man’, who may well be Walter Hilton. The third reference is mildly critical, as if the (Augustinian and Gregorian) approach to God by introversion—the search for the ‘image of God’ within and yet beyond the soul—favoured by Hilton and by many others might seem to ‘localize’ God. The Book of Privy Counselling, intended to elucidate difficult points in the Cloud, answers just such criticisms of the Cloud’s presentation as the profoundly incarnational Hilton might have made. Comparison of Cloud and Privy Counselling shows no doctrinal difference between the two books. But what is stated in passing in the Cloud is, where necessary, restated more clearly and emphatically in Privy Counselling. The latter explicitly identifies the rejection of distinct images of God and the entry into the ‘cloud of unknowing’ with response to Christ’s call to deny oneself and take up the cross (Mt. 16:24), a text used by Hilton in Scale, 1. Privy Counselling also seems to echo Hilton in its use of John 10:9; 10:1; to insist that conformity to the virtues of Christ in his incarnate life is the only true way to contemplation. Again, Privy Counselling has a forceful passage on the sanctifying value of spiritual aridity which goes far beyond anything in the Cloud but accords with Hilton. The use of John 16:7 in this context (echoing Augustine) stands close to the use made by Hilton of more particularly Bernard’s teaching on the transition from the carnal to the spiritual love of God in Christ. Privy Counselling also marches with Hilton’s Scale, 2 on a fluctuation between aridity and awareness of God’s presence within contemplation. Conversely, Hilton’s Scale, 2 seems to draw on the Cloud for its teaching on imperfect and perfect humility, and ‘operant grace’ as ensuring (for the duration of the experience) conformity to God’s will.

There is no evidence that the Cloud was known outside England until the late sixteenth century, through an English Carthusian copy used by Benet Canfield (1562–1611) and later by Augustine Baker (1575–1641). Parallels have been drawn between *St John of the Cross (1542–91) on the ‘dark night’ and the Cloud (and Hilton), but St John cannot have known the English writers. However, the Cloud’s apophatic and affective theology, in conjunction with Harphius (Henry Herp, d. 1477), Blosius (Louis of Blois, 1506–66), Canfield and Constantin Barbanson (1582–1631), became an important constituent in Augustine Baker’s teaching.

Sources & Resources

Art: Ad Reinhardt Painting, 1958: Art as Negative Theology

“Consider, for example, the twentieth-century abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt, who was deeply influenced by Theosophy. He “developed a religious perspective that blends Eastern and Western mysticism to form what is, in effect, an artistic via negativa,” says postmodern theologian Mark Taylor. Reinhardt is best known for a series of black paintings that represent, in his own words, a “mystical ascent.” The mind leaves behind “the world of appearances” composed of separate images until it reaches an “undifferentiated unity.” In this state, there is “no consciousness of anything” and “all distinctions disappear in darkness.” The mind attains “the divine dark.” It has immersed itself in the cloud of unknowing.

“We might borrow a label from Francis Schaeffer and call this a form of “mysticism with nobody there.” An experience like this may lift us out of the mundane world, but to connect with what? Not with a transcendent person who loves us, but with sheer silence and emptiness. Novelist Susan Sontag calls it a mysticism that ends “in a via negativa, a theology of God’s absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.” In the same way, Sontag says, abstract art tends toward “the elimination of the ‘subject’ (the ‘object,’ the ‘image’), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.”
______
Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning (Nashville: B&H, 2010).

Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Aspen nos. 5 & 6 (a multimedia magazine of the arts published from 1965 to 1971).

John P.H. Clark, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000), 129–131.

Texts (critical editions): The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling (ed. Phyllis Hodgson; London, rev. edn, 1958);

Deonise Hid Diuinite and other Treatises on Contemplative Prayer (ed. Phyllis Hodgson; London, 1958);

The Cloud of Unknowing and Related Treatises (ed. Phyllis Hodgson; Salzburg, 1982).

Texts (modernized versions): The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Treatises (ed. J. McCann; London, 6th rev. edn, 1952), includes Augustine’s commentary on the Cloud;

The Cloud of Unknowing (ed. James Walsh; Mahwah, NJ, 1981);

The Cloud of Unknowing and other Works (ed. C. Wolters; Harmondsworth, 1961).

Studies: D. Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (London, 1961);

W. Johnston, The Mysticism of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ (New York, 1967);

J.P.H. Clark, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’: An Introduction (3 vols.; Salzburg, 1995–6); R. Tixier, ‘Mystique et Pédagogie dans “The Cloud of Unknowing” ’ (PhD thesis; University of Nancy, 1988).