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Spirituality, Mysticism, Orthodoxy vis a vis Religion Spirituality, Mysticism, Orthodoxy vis a vis Religion
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-08-10 10:52:41
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Since Voltaire there is around in Europe, and in the West generally, a penchant to consider religion and Christianity in particular, not only incapable of solving any existential problems affecting political and economic modern man, but as being very much part of the problem. It is argued that religion with its orthodoxy and penchant toward oppressive inquisitorial methods is a mere vestige of the what Voltaire, the supreme example of the “enlightened” European man, referred to as “the Gothic,” the barbaric, the medieval, the retrogressive and superstitious; Christianity in Europe, the argument continues, killed any kind of genuinely spiritual mystical leanings that may be present in human nature. The pagan mysteries of ancient Greece contain more mysticism and spirituality than the religion organized in Rome. Citing extensively the religious wars and the Inquisition are integral constitutive part of this argument. The plethora of exemplary saints the same religion produced are simply overlooked.

What is lost sight  in such a bias toward religion (sometimes coupled with a bias toward any sort of academic learning) is that it is precisely Christianity which could have functioned as a cultural cement to overcome the centrifugal forces at play in a polity with disparate languages, disparate heritages and disparate political traditions struggling to form a union, i.e., the European Union. Robert Schumann, a founding father of such a polity said it best when he said: I never feel so European as when I enter a Cathedral. That statement must have Voltaire turning in his grave and has of course been savagely attacked by all sorts of anti-religion extremists who pullulate the intellectual-political life of the continent in the name of separation of Church and State and secularism.

Ironically, the above described people have always come across to me as intolerant extremists who in the name of tolerance and “enlightenment” have de facto replaced one brand of orthodoxy for another, the orthodoxy of religion for the secular orthodoxy of “enlightenment and rationalism”. They seem to be constitutionally unable to grant a fair hearing to religion per se, or at least allow its voice to be heard in the public square. I very rarely engage them in a dialogue, Socratic or otherwise. It is usually an exercise in futility. Sometime I limit myself to advising that they read Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy or The Everlasting Man, but I strongly suspect that such a counsel goes unheeded and is even resented. An example of this bizarre phenomenon, if we ever needed one, was the diatribe that ensued in Ovi’s pages some years ago parading as rational discourse. The man who initiated it had a real ax to grind against religion and did not hide the fact, in fact he was very proud of it. He has since vanished from the scene. In hindsight, I realize now that my initial mistake was that of deluding myself that a proper civil dialogue was possible and desirable. I was wrong. I dare say that those unpersuadable people are the ones who drove the likes of Chesterton, Dawson, and James, to write their books on the phenomenon called  religion and religious experience and Christianity in Europe and elsewhere.

But there is more, sometimes the very same “enlightened” people who doubt everything except their orthodox interpretation of what it means to be enlightened, will make the case that Christianity is devoid of any true spirituality or any kind of mystical tradition; that to find those one must journey to India and perhaps embrace Buddhism, seen more as a philosophy that does not postulate a divinity of any kind than a religion proper. They will argue that Christianity, like modern science, is concerned with the exterior phenomenon; to find the interior one and learn genuine interiority one needs to go East. Even the word religion is eschewed and replaced with the word “spirituality.” Quite often those people are avowed atheists or agnostics and have in fact an ax to grind against religion. They think of it as a dirty word. Some even bring to their side the protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer’s concept of “religionless religion.” 

When however one challenges those assumptions and requests of them some hard evidence for their intemperate charges they are usually unable to refer to any specific kind of mystical tradition in the West. In their animus, they simply believe that it does not exist and let it go at that. All that exists for them is a reprehensible orthodoxy suppressing any kind of individual mystical leaning, the sooner disposed of, the better. In other words, they may be looking for religious “enlightenment” outside the Western tradition exactly because they are ignorant of what is already there in the first place in that tradition. Their substitution is not a real substitution, it is merely an attack.  Let us explore briefly such a mystical tradition. Rivers of ink have been dedicated to it. To be sure in a few pages, all that can be offered is a rather schematic analysis, simply to render an idea of the treasures of Western mysticism that remain to be discovered like 90% of an iceberg under water, in our skeptical cynical era paying much lip service to “spirituality” but acting in a consummate materialistic and nihilistic mode.

There exist two main mystical traditions in Christianity: the Western or Roman Catholic and the Eastern, chiefly Greek Orthodox. Let us look at both. Catholic mysticism is centered on prayer. “Prayer”, as used in mystical life, is a blanket term, which covers a variety of mental exercises expressing the soul’s dependence on and quest for God. It is often called “Mental prayer” to distinguish it from worldly prayers. In the Middle Ages prayer was regarded as consisting of three stages: meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.

Reflection on scriptural passages was what meditatio or meditation meant. By oratio was meant intense emotional prayer, nowadays called Affective Prayer. These two disciplines when sincerely practiced, were found to lead to an intimate knowledge, gnosis, of God, which was what contemplatio or contemplation really meant. Unlike Meditation (also known as “Discursive Prayer”) and Affective Prayer, which are within the reach of man’s self-effort, contemplation is a passive state of stillness and silence in which God infuses love and divine knowledge into the soul. Contemplation is the real field of mystical experience.

The conceptualization of mystical experience in Christianity went on for centuries. Among the influences that shaped this process the most important was that of Neoplatonism propounded by the third-century Greek mystic and philosopher Plotinus. Two fairly distinct phases are discernible in the development of mysticism in the West. During the first phase, which extended from the third to the tenth century, Image mysticism prevailed; during the second phase, which extended from the tenth to the seventeenth century, mysticism became more and more Christo-centric.

Image mysticism had its origin in the Biblical creation myth that God created man in His Image. This ancient Jewish idea, combined with the Neoplatonic concept of the immanence of God, gave rise to the belief that the soul in its pristine nature contained the Image of God, and that owing to the stain of sin this image cannot be seen. Through purification and contemplation the Image of God within can be recovered. Some of the early mystics identified this image with the Word, the Logos, who incarnated itself on earth as Jesus Christ. Others, like Gregory the Great, identified it with the “Unencompassed Light” (incircumscriptum lumen) of God.

This more impersonal and intellectual image mysticism gave way to an intensely emotional and personal “bridal mysticism” in the tenth century. The person who brought about this paradigm shift in mystical life was St. Bernard, the celebrated abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux in France. He made the image of the crucified Christ the object of contemplation. He looked upon Christ as the Bridegroom and the human soul as the bride. However, Bernard took the precaution of identifying Christ with the Word or Logos and the human soul with the collective soul of the Church. This precaution was ignored in subsequent centuries and most Western mystics after the tenth century made the humanity of Jesus the object of their love and quest.

Almost running parallel to the distinction between image mysticism and Christo-centric mysticism was another important distinction between two approaches to knowledge of God; the path of affirmation and the path of negation, known respectively as via positiva and via negativa and also as cataphatic and apophatic pathways. In the cataphatic path the mystic sees the fullness of God everywhere. The best example is St. Francis of Assisi, who saw the glory of God in all beings, in the sun, in animals and plants. For such a mystic all created things serve as a rung in the ladder of ascent to God. In the via negativa or apophatic pathway all created things are rejected as insufficient or impermanent and even all thoughts and images are negated in order to realize the transcendent glory and fullness of God.

Like the idea of the Image, apophatic mysticism also had its origin in Neoplatonism. It entered the Western Church through the writings of a fifth-century Syrian monk known to scholars as Pseudo-Dionysius. Though the work was translated into Latin in the ninth century, its influence became widespread only in the twelfth century. St. Thomas Aquinas gave apophatism an epistemological foundation. Blessed John Ruysbroeck, Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross were some of the great mystics of the Middle Ages who were influenced by the Dionysian apophatism.

The apophatic principle is frequently conveyed through the Biblical story of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. At the heights he was lost in a cloud, and it was through the cloud that Moses saw God face to face. In the same way, the mystics say, God can be realized only through a Cloud of Unknowing, a state of mind in which it is free from all forms of cognition, thinking, imagination, conceptualization, etc. As far as worldly objects and knowledge are concerned, it is a state of total ignorance. It is described as “darkness” only in comparison with the “super-luminous light of God”.

In the earnest practice of mystic contemplation, you have to leave the senses and the activities of the intellect and all things in this world of nothingness or in that world of Being, and with your understanding laid to rest you should strain as much as you can towards union with Him whom neither being nor understanding can contain. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of yourself and all things... you shall be led upwards to the ray of that Divine Darkness which transcends all existence. Dionysian apophatism reached its culmination in Meister Eckhart, who spoke of the “desert of the Godhead”, and in St. John of the Cross, who wrote about the “Dark Night of the Soul”. Although apophatic (via negativa) mysticism dominated spiritual life in the West, cataphatic (via positiva) mysticism was also quite popular, especially with women saints.

The Roman Catholic Church has produced a large number of saints, many of whom have left vivid descriptions of their spiritual experiences. Not all these experiences, however, can be called “mystical”. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the most authoritative Roman Catholic theologian after St. Augustine, God can communicate spiritual truth to man in three ways: (a) by a “corporeal visio” of something real together with an intellectual light to judge it; (b) by an “imaginary vision”, in which mental images are either produced or rearranged in the imagination, along with an intellectual light to judge its meaning (These “visions” and “locutions” are difficult to distinguish from false imaginations produced either by one’s own brain or by the devil.); and (c) by an “intellectual vision” of pure, unfalsifiable truth without any phantasmata; known as lumen sapientiae, this is the knowledge which angels have (and also Adam had before the Fall) and is not in itself liable to error. This true knowledge is infused during contemplation devoid of all conceptualization. It was this apophatic experience of divine truth that St. Thomas regarded as true mysticism.

However, even this intellectual vision (lumen sapientiae) is far lower than the direct experience of the Essence of God which takes place in heaven when God is seen as He really is without any medium. This vision, known as lumen gloriae or “Beatific Vision”, is possible only after death for the blessed. This is the ultimate end of human life, which Christ has won for mankind through his self-sacrifice. St. Thomas, however, held that this Beatific Vision of glory was granted to Moses and also perhaps to St. Paul while they were still on earth. So, the foundation of the epistemology of Catholic mysticism was laid by St. Thomas Aquinas. Later writers did little to add to this, and what great mystics like St. John of the Cross did was to build the superstructure of their experiences upon this foundation.

The epistemology of St. Thomas Aquinas was derived from Aristotelean psychology. From this psychology he took two main ideas: (a) all knowledge is the result of an impression made on the mind; (b) the intellect has two dimensions: a passive one and an active one. The central idea of the scholastic theory of cognition is that just as our senses perceive objects by means of an impression on the sense-organ, which impression is not itself perceived but is the “medium by which” we perceive the objects, so also our intellect knows by means of impressions which are the “medium by which” it knows ideas.

Thus there are two kinds of impressions or species impressae. Sense impressions are called species sensibilis impressae; the resulting conscious precepts are known as species expressae. Intellectual knowledge stems from the phantasmata (mental images of objects) out of which the “active intellect” disengages the universal nature which, as species intelligibilis impressae, inform the “passive intellect” and there become concepts known as species expressae or verbum mentis. Ordinary people can know God only indirectly. In his major work, Summa Theologica, St. Thomas explains how this happens. In man’s present state the only species impressae that he receives are conveyed to the mind through the senses; they are but attributes of material objects “abstracted” (that is, considered apart) from the objects. Hence by means of these impressions the mind (a) directly knows abstract qualities which exist individually in material objects. Further (b) our intellect knows the individual things themselves indirectly by their qualities and (c) it can arrive at some kind of knowledge of non-material things by reasoning from its abstract ideas. Thus it cannot know God directly but can demonstrate His existence and His nature from creatures by abstraction and negation.

But the intellectual ideas thus formed in the mind are not really understood by the mind unless it represents them by the imagination; it “turns to images” (phantasmata) so that it may behold the universal in the particular, wherein alone it has real existence. We can represent to ourselves spiritual truths and spiritual substances (God, angels and souls) only by phantasmata (images) which we know to be inadequate, yet in which we behold something more than the phantasma.

An angel or a disembodied soul is an intelligence independent of bodily organs; it understands spiritual things as they are, without “turning to phantasmata”. Since it has no bodily sense-organs, it cannot get impressions by the senses. Therefore its impressions (species impressae) must be “infused” in some way natural to it, but unknown to us. These species will not be abstractions from matter, but purely non-material. Furthermore, such pure intellects, instead of knowing the universal in the particular, know the particular in the universal in one glance; they do not argue from fact to fact, from premise to conclusion, but in one act know the conclusion and the premises in it. Thus the angelic cognition resembles the intuitive perception of senses rather than the analytic and synthetic process of reason. Its knowledge is direct, immediate, and intuitive, in comparison with the abstracting and reasoning mind of ordinary people. In this way it is possible for angels to know God intuitively instead of by reasoning.

The main thesis of St. Thomas Aquinas is that it is this angelic knowledge of God that is attained in apophatic contemplation by the infusion of pure intellectual species. When the soul is freed from all desires and images, God infuses knowledge of Himself through pure intellectual species into the soul, resulting in lumen sapientiae or “intellectual vision”. This angelic intuition is utter ‘darkness’ to the intellect itself but it inflames the will with intense love. This pure contemplation was termed “the Dark Night of Spirit” by St. John of the Cross. The mystic or prophet can understand and communicate the truth which he has thus received only by “turning to phantasmata”.

St. Thomas held that Adam in his state of innocence (before the Fall) could see God in this angelic fashion by pure species. In other words, pure apophatic contemplation restores to man the state of Adam before his Fall. The only difference is that Adam’s infused knowledge was “from the irradiation of divine Wisdom”, whereas we get it by divine Grace (“sanctifying grace”) infused at baptism. (It is regarded as one of the seven “gifts of the Holy Spirit”). This view of higher mystical experience had earlier been propounded by St. Bernard and Richard of St. Victor, but St. Thomas gave it a proper epistemological foundation.

St. Thomas also held that God may infuse images along with intellectual species; then an “imaginary vision”, as described earlier, results. This is the realm of prophecy. Images and words, however, can express pure truth only in an inadequate and symbolic way, and spiritual images often get mixed with worldly images and concepts. Hence such visions and locutions are liable to error except in so far as the “intellectual light” helps the prophet to understand them.

Finally, according to St. Thomas, all mystic experiences, including the highest lumen sapientiae, fall far short of the “Beatific Vision” of God in heaven, which is possible only after death. In this vision God is seen “as He is” by means of Himself, He Himself being united immediately to the human intellect so that He is both the thing seen and the ‘means by which’ it is seen. This divine impression is called lumen gloriae. Thus the blessed “participate” in their measure in the act in which God knows Himself without medium, and are united to Him as Act (God is actus purus, “pure Act”) without losing their own individuality; they are transformed into God without ceasing to be themselves. This participation in divine Glory is the ultimate goal of all mankind. Catholic theology holds that Jesus Christ’s salvific work will be completed only when all human beings are elevated to this state and thereby the Divine Pleroma (fullness) is restored. Teilhard De Chardin called it the Omega point.

Apart from the differences in dogma, the Greek Orthodox Church differs from the Roman Catholic Church in the greater emphasis it lays on mystical and ascetic life. Whereas in the Catholic Church spiritual life is mostly liturgical, in the Eastern Churches individual prayer and contemplation constitute the main part. In Eastern Churches mystical experience is considered to be the natural culmination of Christian spiritual life. They possess a rich mystical literature in the form of the collection of the teachings of contemplatives and ascetics who lived as hermits in the desert regions of Egypt, Sinai, and Syria. Orthodox mystical theology was developed mainly by three theologians who lived in Cappadocia in the fourth century: St. Basil, his friend St. Gregory of Nazianzus (also known as Gregory the Theologian) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (who was Basil’s brother).

One of the important points in the theology of the Cappadocian Fathers is the clear distinction they made between God’s Essence (ousia) and Energies (energeia). According to St. Basil, man cannot know even the real substance of the physical world; we can perceive only the properties of matter, not matter itself. Still less can we see of the actual Essence of God; what we can perceive is only the Energies of God.

In mystical contemplation these divine energies become manifested as the ‘uncreated Light’. This Light is identified with the light that appeared on Mount Tabor during Christ’s Transfiguration. The vision of this uncreated light is the goal of contemplation known as theoria. For the attainment of the uncreated Light, a distinctive spiritual technique known as Hesychasm was developed by the Desert Fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries in the desert regions of the Middle East by combining (a) austerities, (b) apophatic prayer without images and (c) repetition of the Jesus Prayer, which may be regarded as a kind of Greek Mantra. To this was added in the eleventh century a certain bodily posture and breath control. All these, however, represent only the first stage of hesychasm, known as “praxis”.

As this prayer deepens, it becomes theoria or contemplation and the seeker sees the uncreated Light. Greek saints have given vivid descriptions of this interior mystic Light such as: “far surpassing in brilliance the whole light of the heavens”, “a truly divine fire, uncreated and invisible, eternal and immaterial, perfectly steadfast and infinite, inextinguishable and immortal, incomprehensible, beyond all created being.” The vision of the uncreated Light is one of the most distinguishing features of Greek mysticism.

However, it is not the last stage of contemplation. Beyond that lies the union (henosis) of the soul with God and the resulting divinization (theosis) of the whole personality. Surprisingly, this union takes place not in light but in darkness. Gregory of Nyssa, who developed this idea of union in darkness, compares it to Moses entering the cloud. Gregory’s apophatic mysticism was carried further by Simeon the New Theologian in the eleventh century and by Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century, but it never assumed the extreme form found in Catholic mystics such as Eckhart and St. John of the Cross.

Mystic union is not the union of substances but of energies. It results in theosis or deification of the whole personality. This is the ultimate goal of human life on earth. The idea of deification is far more common in Greek mysticism than in Catholic mysticism. Thus, Purification, theoria and theosis constitute the three stages of the Greek mystical path known as Hesychasm. These stages do not exactly correspond to the three stages of contemplation in Catholicism, namely, Purgation, Illumination and Union.

How does mystical experience take place? We have seen that in Roman Catholicism, mystical experience is understood in terms of certain mental processes. But in Greek mysticism mystical experience is regarded as the function of certain faculties. Just as physical eyes are needed to perceive external objects, so also an inner spiritual sense is needed to perceive the energies of God. This spiritual sense, regarded as the ‘eye of the soul’ , is the nous. Unfortunately, the word “nous” is used in different senses in the teachings of Greek mystics. We may, however, take it to mean the intuitive faculty. It is different from reason and is said to be located in the heart. Owing to Original Sin, the nous remains stained or clouded. When it is purified by divine grace during contemplation, it becomes fit to receive the reflection of Divine Light. The nous then becomes as clear as a mirror. Describing this process, St. Gregory of Nyssa says: Just as those who look at the sun in a mirror (even though they cannot gaze at the sky itself) see the sun in the shining of the mirror no less than those who look at the solar disc itself; so too if you have been dazzled by the light (of God), in so far as you recover the grace of the image deposited in you at the beginning, you possess what you seek within you. Image mysticism (that man carries the image of God in his soul), which we encountered in the Catholic tradition, finds clear expression in the Greek tradition all through its history.



    
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