Booknote: The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited and with an introduction by Bernard McGinn. New York, The Modern Library, 2006

McGinn, a Roman Catholic priest and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago divinity school, has done us a great service in compiling this anthology of about 90 excerpts from the best literature on Christian contemplative spirituality. Most of the major figures are represented, beginning with Origen and ending with Merton. The eastern church contributes pieces by Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Palamas, Simeon the New Theologian, and several others. Not unexpectedly, western writers predominate; one can make the acquaintance of Bernard, Eckhart, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and many others. Regretably, the only Russian piece is a snippet from The Way of the Pilgrim.

At $20.00 in paperback the book is a very good buy and suitable for reading in bits and pieces when one is pressed for time. Of course, making time for a more leisurely read is greatly to be preferred.

I'll close by sharing three favorite excerpts.

Evagrius Ponticus

One of the brethren owned only a book of the Gospels. He sold this and gave the money for the support of the poor. He made a statement that deserves remembrance: " I have sold the very word that speaks to me saying: ' Sell your possessions and give to the poor ' (Mt 19:21)."

Anonymous, 14th Century Germany

Learn how to let go of God through God, the hidden God through the naked God. Be willing to lose a penny in order to find a guilder. Get rid of the water so that you can make wine... If you want to avoid things, learn to suffer; if you want to eat of the honey, you should not be put off by the bee's sting. If you want to catch fish, learn to get wet; if you want to see Jesus on the shore, learn to sink down into the sea first.

Thomas Merton

Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinetly abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond both reason and beyond simple faith. For contemplation is a kind of spiritual vision to which both reason and faith aspire, by their very nature, because without it they must always remain incomplete. Yet contemplation is not vision because it sees " without seeing " and knows " without knowing ". It is a more profound depth depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said, and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by " unknowing. " Or, better, we know beyond all knowing or " unknowing."

St Benedict the Bridge Builder  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The image to the left is the fruit of my first (and quite possibly last) foray into icon-production. It was done during 2004 as part of the Lenten series held at Trinity Episcopal church in Santa Barbara, California. I'm a member of Trinity and the workshop was led by Colleen Sterne, who has since been ordained a priest. About tow dozen or more people made icons which were then placed in a corner of the church and blessed during Easter Vigil. They remained there until Pentecost Sunday.

An already-existing icon of St Benedict was computer-scanned by my wife. This yielded a large image which I taped to a piece of particle board with carbon paper underneath. I then traced the image onto the board and colored it with acrylic paint. I customized the final design by superimposing a Canterbury cross (which conveniently appeared at that time on the cover of Forward Movement) and an open book snitched from a Christos Pantocrator icon in an Orthodox church supply catalog.

If you are even remotely familiar with the canons of Orthodox iconography, you will probably be screaming "fake!" or at least "inauthentic!" at this point. The techinical execution of the piece also leaves something to be desired. I freely acknowledge all these sins. However, the icon does manage to visually express the convergence of several strands of my personal spirituality, a convergence that has been brewing for many years.

Benedict has always been accepted as a saint by the Eastern churches, since he lived and wrote long before the split between the Eastern and Western churches in 1054. A number of (much better) icons of St Benedict exist and can be found on the internet. In 985 a Benedictine monastery was founded on Mt Athos, the very heartland of Orthodox monasticism, by Italian monks from Amalfi. At that time Amalfi was a major economic power in the eastern Mediterranean, engaged in much trade with the Byzantine empire. The monastery lasted until 1287, almost miraculously surviving both the Great Schism and the sacking of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204.

Closer to home, at least spiritually, the influence of Benedictine monasticism on the medieval English church was vast, beginning with Augustine of Canterbury. About half of the English cathedrals were also monastic abbeys, and a great many bishops and archbishops were monks. This influence did not die with the break with Rome, since Cranmer's first Book of Common Prayer is in many respects a condensation of the monastic offices outlined in the Rule of Benedict into the services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. The Oxford Movement of the 19th century opened the door for the reappropriation of many other aspects of Benedictine spirituality, a process that continues unabated in the Anglican Communion today.

All this is suggested graphically in the icon. Benedict wears an Orthodox monastic habit. In his right hand he holds a Canterbury cross, an ancient symbol of English Christianity. His left hand holds a copy of his monastic Rule, opened to the first word of the Latin text: obsculta, which means "listen."