Archetypal or Allegorical Interpretation of the Annunciation

mikhail-nesterov-the-annunciation-1901

Today is the commemoration of the Annunciation, which celebrates the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Blessed Virgin Mary and announcing that she will bear a son who is to be named Jesus (‘Savior’). How might we interpret this event of the New Testament at an archetypal or allegorical level? Perhaps as follows:

To deliver us from the suffering and bondage of our own errors (selfishness, attachment to pleasure, fear, doubt, envy, etc.), God (or the God of our soul), by grace (unearned gift), communicates to the compassionate, nurturing, pure, and innocent principle of our soul (the Virgin Mary), that she will bring forth a Savior (manifest the Christ principle). Therefore despite our suffering and an awareness of our own tendency to error, and of our inability, because this tendency to error runs so deep that we by ourselves cannot correct it, we have hope in a still higher or deeper principle within, the Self-Realization or Christ principle.

Specifically, she is promised that she will bear a son who is both God and man. When the Christ principle is born within us, we are in correct relation to the universe, namely, that of bringing form, purpose, beauty, harmony, integrity and morality to the material universe, living simultaneously as a material and a spiritual being, connecting or yoking heaven and earth. This yoking is the meaning of the word ‘yoga’ (and of the word ‘religion’, the syllable ‘lig’ meaning connection, as in ‘ligament’).

Since salvation comes as a free gift from God, what is our role in the process?  It is to adopt an attitude of pious humility and trust.  We should most definitely be active in the process, but act in response to the promptings of God and the Holy Spirit, and not rely overmuch on ‘our own wisdom’ or be carried away by our own schemes for reform.  That is, our soul should say with the Virgin Mary, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”

Important symbols in paintings of the Annunciation are the lily (purity), and a book (Wisdom).

As always, it is to be emphasized that interpretation of Scripture at an allegorical level does not preclude a more literal or historical interpretation. For Christians allegory enhances, not replaces, traditional teachings. For non-Christians, it supplies a way to understand Christian Scripture as personally relevant.

A second point to repeatedly emphasize is that allegorical interpretation does not deliver a fixed doctrine or certain theory.  Rather, by its very nature allegorical interpretation is suited only to produce hypotheses, which one may then test and potentially confirm by personal experience, reading, or other lines of inquiry, or to suggest general principles which might lead to more accurate interpretative insights.

Christianity for Agnostics

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - La Vierge aux Lys [The Virgin of the Lillies] - 1899

Introduction

One way of expressing the thesis presented here is this:  if one were to design an ideal spiritual-philosophical system for Americans and Europeans, I believe it would contain everything that traditional Christianity has, except for some problematic and potentially dispensable doctrinal elements (e.g., the idea that religious authority can replace personal free inquiry in religious matters). One may participate in the psychological experience of Christianity, in my personal opinion, while at the same time reserving judgment on certain specific doctrines of this kind.  Doctrine can never be perfect, because ultimate realities cannot be expressed in words; any attempt to do so must inevitably produce contradiction.  Or to simply look at the matter historically, the Christian authorities were wrong about Galileo, and it is certain that some doctrines of today will follow the route of the earth-centered universe.

But such limitations are no cause to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. The Christian tradition already exists.  It is the product of centuries of continual refinement, a consummate work, polished and refined by the wise, loving, and inspired hands of countless individuals – each potentially the image of God, but in any case a human being with angelic abilities and aspirations, unimaginable creative potential, and loving instincts  Moreover, this tradition is an organic cultural whole, which operates according to principles yet unknown to science. The suggestion that one might begin from scratch, constructing a new, personal religion, spirituality, or psychological system of equal or comparable quality, by selectively borrowing pieces here and there is unlikely at best.  Such a view is hubris of a very high order, and elevates to personal godhood that meager sliver of consciousness denoted by the word ‘ego’. One may as well try to equal Beethoven in writing a symphony, or Raphael in painting.

Although I am a Christian myself, for this article I wear my hat as psychologist.  My interest in that capacity is to assist others, as best I can, to achieve psychological integrity and self-actualization.  Nothing asserted is contrary to reason. To a significant extent I follow the theories of Carl Jung here (but disagree with Jung on several important points, and would hesitate to call myself a ‘Jungian’).  More fundamentally, I follow the basic trend of intelligently-based rejection of radical empiricism that began with the Romantic movement and is associated, for example, with writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth.  The leading principle of the Romantic argument – which has tragically been lost in the 20th and 21st centuries (yet are  more urgently important now than ever) – is that Enlightenment rationalism allows no place for the experience of the sublime, or those things which give deepest meaning to our lives.

While written from a Roman Catholic perspective,  the points below apply with similar force to other liturgical Christian denominations, such as the Anglican, Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches.  Many of the same arguments might also apply to traditional Judaism.

This, then, is sufficient introduction.  What follows is a brief listing of specific points, organized around the categories of (1) Psychology, Anthropology and Ethics; (2) Cultus; and (3) Metaphysics.

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1. Psychology, Anthropology and Ethics

Ethics

Christianity is an advanced ethical system that promotes the abandonment of personal egoism.

The pronounced emphasis in Christianity on acts of charity follows from and supports the abandonment of egoism.  In the West, Christian saints and charitable institutions set the standard for egolessness.

The abandonment of egoism, or humility, as it is technically known, also manifests itself in a surrender to God’s will.  Here we encounter a constellation of concepts – Providence, Grace, the Logos, etc. – associated with an orderly plan for all Creation, and man’s role therein. These all point to the potential attainment of a state of harmony between thought, action, and Nature.  While Christianity is often criticized as being dualistic (e.g., denigrating the natural world, and tolerating , or even supporting its exploitation), true Christianity aims for a condition of non-duality.

If one investigates the matter attentively and honestly, one will readily observe within oneself a definite capacity to (1) act in ways that harm oneself; (2) act in ways that harm others; and (3) have negative thoughts (i.e., thoughts which disrupt, rather than serve to integrate the mind).  The honest person will also recognize a tendency to self-deceit, and lack of objectivity in evaluating ones thoughts and actions.  Lacking a better term, we may lump all of the preceding under the provisional term of “sin.”

Sin, therefore, is a useful concept, because it denotes a range of important related phenomena, for which no other term is available.  We could as easily name it “what traditional religions call sin”, but that would be a bit awkward.  Various associations to guilt, punishment, penance, etc., or the idea that “sin” may be defined unconditionally by an ecclesiastic authority we may exclude from our operational definition.

This thing, “sin”, then, exists, and is to our detriment.  Unless one is courageous and honest enough to accept ones capacity for “sin” in some sense, it is difficult to see how one will find happiness, achieve personality integration, or improve ethically.

Soteriology

Salvation.  It is similarly apparent to the honest observer that one exists in a state of need and deprivation.  Most of us live day to day in various degrees (often severe) of unhappiness and lack of fulfillment.  (Recall Thoreau’s remark:  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”)  All too infrequently, we live in states of anxiety, depression, aimlessness, confusion, wasted energy, etc.  For this reason, each person, then, instinctively seeks what we may call psychological salvation.  Christianity is not necessarily the only theoretical means of achieving psychological salvation; but it is an established means, tested by time, designed for this purpose, and especially adapted to the personality structure of Westerners.  It would be difficult to demonstrate that any other means is more effective.

The Christ Principle

Many psychologists speak of a “self-actualizing” principle in the human psyche:  a force, drive, principle, or telos which directs one to levels of greater integration, completion and happiness.  For Christians, this self-actualizing principle can be understood as an inner Christ.  We may call it by other names, but that does not change the significance of this salvific principle.

Inasmuch as this principle is present in all people, it is reasonable to think of there being a universal Archetype – an original principle of which all individual instances are images.  This Archetype would correspond to Jesus Christ as a cosmic principle.  However, it must be admitted that this latter part is more speculative, and more a matter of personal faith and intuition.  The point to be made here is that modern psychology affirms the existence of an individual self-actualizing principle, and this principle is both acknowledged by and central to Christianity.

Forgiveness

The principle of forgiveness is central to Christian ethics.  The earnest Christian affirms, “as I forgive those who trespass against me” with each recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  The Apostle’s Creed also affirms as a basic Christian belief “the forgiveness of sins.”  Christ died, Christians are taught, for the forgiveness of sins.  Nearly his last words on the cross were, “Father, forgive them.” St. Paul, who became one of the greatest Apostles, was previously a great sinner — as though this aspect of his life was meant to engrain in our minds the availability of forgiveness.

If one probes deeply into human nature, one may observe that issues of guilt and forgiveness are of immense concern.  Almost all of our difficulties, personal and social, relate, in some way or another,  to an inability or failure to forgive.  Yet there is never anything gained by not forgiving.  Holding onto anger and resentment is a deep-seated and pervasive flaw in human character.

In no other religion is an emphasis on forgiveness so pronounced. Christianity might well be called a religion of forgiveness.   That this is an ideal many find themselves unable to live up to completely is incidental for our purposes.  What matters is that it is an ideal.

The God-image

A central tenet of Christianity is that the human being is made in God’s image.  This has profound implications for how we view ourselves and other people.

2. Cultus

The eminent psychologist Carl Jung once wrote that, if one of his patients reported that he or she had returned to participation in the Catholic Church, he (Jung) considered that patient cured, or in any case advanced beyond the point that psychotherapy would be of further use.  By this he meant that within the human psyche are archetypal principles and forces that are largely beyond our ability to scientifically understand, but are effectively dealt with by religion.  Religion, properly practiced, in Jung’s view, is a primary means by which our culture has evolved for grappling with these archetypes, and achieving integration of the personality.

This brings us to the important subject of  cultus, which we may define here as all the non-doctrinal practices and traditions of Christianity.

Opponents of religion and Christianity typically level their accusations against specific Christian doctrines. This mistakenly equate Christianity with doctrine.

But much of Christianity’s value comes from its cultus.  This cultus is the result of a millennia-long process of cumulative development and improvement.

Just as our material culture – how to mix cement or build bridges – has improved  through the centuries inexorably, regardless of regimes or wars, the  culture of Christianity, its cultus, has been gradually improved and refined.  Any time an innovation in cultus emerges, it is compared with the present counterpart and the better chosen.  A successful innovation introduced one place can be immediately imitated elsewhere.

So Christianity has grown gradually to satisfy the aesthetic, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of its flock.  When a process like this continues for a long time it produces considerable refinement.  Christian cultus  continually improves to accommodate the deepest needs and propensities of the human psyche.

Three important divisions of Christian cultus are Art, Literature, and Practices.

Art

Fine art. Christianity has inspired many of the finest works of art that Western culture has produced, including paintings, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, and so on.

Music.  Similarly, Christianity has inspired great productions of music from composers such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Schubert, Vaughan-Williams, and innumerable others.  This superlative music evokes feelings and intuitions of the highest order, which no words adequately describe, although terms like Joy, Beauty, Wonder, and Mystery are related to it.  But who has ever composed an Atheist Oratorio or a Skeptic’s Symphony?

Architecture.  What has been said above can also be said of the magnificent churches of Christianity, the basilicas and, especially, the Gothic cathedrals of Europe.  To enter one of these buildings is to enter the realm of the sublime – or, as some would have it, heaven itself.

Literature

Scripture.  Even were it not religious, the Bible would command our utmost attention as an unsurpassed work of literature and psychology.  Every aspect, problem, difficulty and puzzle of human life is somewhere addressed therein.  It has grown organically, reflecting the judgment of erudite and lofty-minded collators and translators.  It passes to us a gem of human wisdom and insight.

I do not believe the Bible is literally true in every detail.  In fact, I find such an assertion contrary both to reason and Christian teaching itself!  But I do consider the Bible as something sacred, numinous – as exemplifying or manifesting a reality higher than this material one.  Whatever you seek from ancient lore, from mysterious writings of great import, however you honor that sacred human urge – seek it first in the Bible and you will not be disappointed.  The Bible is your book.  Approach it as if it were written for you alone.

Patristic literature.  Along with the Bible, we also possess an immense literature by the so-called Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church, both West and East.  Luminaries in this constellation of geniuses include Origen of Alexandria, St. Augustine of Hippo, the Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzus), St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Maximus the Confessor, among others.

These great authors have produced profoundly beautiful and deeply insightful works.  Nobody who reads them is disappointed.  No modern writer today’s approach them degree of knowledge, rationality, and skill.

One might ask:  if these writers are so profound, why are they not better known?  The answer is largely that, in many cases, it has only been recently that their works have appeared in modern languages.  Even the works of St. Augustine have not yet been fully translated.

Doctors of the Church.  Another category of traditional Christian writers is that of the Church Doctors.  Examples include St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Francis of Sales.  Again, these writers show remarkable humanism and insight into psychology.  It is most unfortunate that their works, sources of deep insight and inspiration, are neglected solely because they are Christian or Roman Catholic.

Christian mysticism. The Christian contemplative and mystical tradition is a living one.  Today there are still many monastic centers, carrying on a tradition of mystical practices that originated in ancient times – perhaps even before Christianity.  The works of, say, St. John Ruysbroeck, command our attention if for no other reason than their sheer beauty.

Asceticism.  Many Westerners today, and even many psychologists, recognize the benefits of practices like mindfulness meditation and the watching and analyzing of thoughts.  There is no doubt that these practices have evolved to a very high degree in Eastern traditions such as Buddhism.  Yet no less impressive is the ascetical psychological tradition of the West, found in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.  The  Philokalia  is an outstanding example of this tradition.   The Western ascetical tradition is in no way inferior to the Eastern tradition, yet is better suited to the culture, moirés, and temperament of Americans and Europeans.

Practices

The Mass.  Even were it viewed only as a form of ritual art, the Mass’s value  would be more than sufficiently demonstrated.  Cross-cultural evidence reveals a universal human interest in ritual.  Ritual appears to satisfy needs that cannot be met any other way.  Ritual is a language of the unconscious, and, as such, needs no rational defense.  Many rituals, the Mass included, are connected with personal transformation.  Because Carl Jung’s essay, ‘Transformation Symbolism in the Mass’ (Collected Works, Vol. 11, Psychology and Religion: West and East, 1975, pp 201-98) has treated of this subject admirably well, we need say no more here in this regard.

Other rituals.  The ancient rituals, rites and ceremonies associated with special occasions – baptisms, marriages, the Easter and Christmas seasons, and so on – must also be mentioned.   It is difficult to convey the aesthetic and deeply satisfying quality of these to any who have not seen them first-hand.  They are a living connection with our ancient past.

In the tradition of Greek pagan religion, one sometimes encounters the idea of theurgy – or ritual practices aimed to promote spiritual growth, in connection with various gods or goddesses.  Some people today find such ancient pagan religions attractive for this very reason.  Yet within Christianity there is the same sort of thing – namely the liturgies, rituals, and sacramental practices – developed to a much higher degree.  But in the case of Christianity, this is a living tradition, not one that modern people have tried to reconstruct based on scanty past evidence and conjecture.

Prayer.  What good person has never felt the deep and spontaneous urge to pray for another, whether it be a relative, friend or the victim of unfortunate circumstance?  The urge to pray is so universal that we can little imagine it not having decidedly positive effect – even if only in the mind of the one who prays.  If we are to pray, if we are pray-ers by disposition, may we not conceive of a technology of prayer?  Should prayer be the only aspect of human life in which tradition and the cumulative experience of others is be of no benefit?  Christianity teaches us how to pray.  Moreover, it contains a rich store of formulas and prayers suitable for every circumstance in life.

Christian prayer is supported by traditional practices. Consider, for example, the folding of hands by a Christian in devout prayer.  In the terminology of yoga, this is called a mudra – a ritual position of the hands, thought to have psychological or spiritual value.  It is good to study yoga, with its various mudras and asanas; yet one should not, in the process, neglect the store of comparable postures and actions in the Christian tradition – the kneeling, the crossing of oneself, the bowing of the head, the raising of hands in characteristic ways.  The ritual positions and actions of a priest saying Mass are exceptionally interesting in this regard, yet are typically taken for granted.

Liturgical calendar.  Over the centuries, the Christian Church has evolved an elaborate and rich calendar, associating festivals and commemorations with various days and seasons.  These no doubt reflect very ancient traditions.  They connect us with the changing seasons, and promote a harmonization of our lives and souls with the natural world

Veneration of saints.  What is remarkable is not so much that there are saints, but that there are so many.  Each saint is the expression of some virtue or human excellence of which the human being is capable.  Each saint, it may be said, corresponds to some archetype of the individual soul.  Each constitutes an ideal whose example we are naturally inclined to imitate.  By studying the lives of the saints, we learn about our own deepest aspirations and potentialities.

3. Metaphysics

The Holy Trinity. To some, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity may seem a strange and arbitrary one.  But, in fact, the doctrine partly derives from the speculation and theories of pre-Christian, Platonic philosophers.  The Trinity solves certain meaningful theological and metaphysical problems.

Divine Mother.  Christianity also makes ample room for and pays due homage to a Divine Feminine principle.  Admittedly, the written doctrine on this point is somewhat unclear and perhaps even a little contradictory.  But, to return briefly to the idea of cultus, clearly at that level considerable attention is paid to the Divine Feminine, and this promotes psychological integration.

Angels.  This subject is a broad one, but one aspect of particular interest is the idea of a guardian angel.  This Christian concept corresponds to very ancient notions of a companion spirit associated with the individual person.  I hope to write more on this at another time; for now let it suffice simply to suggest a possible connection between this concept and a Higher Self.

Communion of Saints.  One of the most extraordinary innovations of Christianity is the concept of a communion of saints – a spiritual community of Christians, both living and dead, into a kind of super-personal organism or institution.  This makes a lot of sense.  If our souls are eternal, and if we may, as many suppose, communicate and help each other at a spiritual level, then would it not be in our interests to form some kind of spiritual organization for mutual benefit and to effect God’s work together?

Look at the challenges of the world today, the great social needs, the injustice, the terrible deprivation of so many.  If you are reading this, it presupposes that you are the kind of person who is moved to concern and action by such things.  Can you solve them by yourself?  Perhaps you have tried, and, if so, likely have not gotten very far.  Would it not make sense to at least explore the possibility of working within a spiritual communion of similarly inclined souls?  If God wants these problems solved, would it not make sense that He would employ such a means as this?

* * *

In the interests of the reader, this list has been kept short and minimal.  Many more items could be included and elaborated on at length.  Let these suffice, however, to supply an honest view of how one Christian views his faith.  Hopefully even the most inveterate skeptic will discern that there is a much firmer foundation here than mere superstition, or failure to exercise disciplined reasoning – the two objections raised most commonly today against Christianity.

The Gnosis of St Thérèse de Lisieux

The Gnosis of St Thérèse de Lisieux

For October 1 2008

Summary: One can view St Thérèse de Lisieux as a gnostic — and, in a manner of speaking, an ‘alchemist’. A true alchemist seeks not gold, but happiness, and love is the key to true happiness.

Today the Roman Catholic Church is privileged to commemorate the life and example of St. Thérèse de Lisieux. God has providentially supplied for our benefit many saints. Each expresses and manifests certain of God’s attributes. As our soul contains the image of God, the imago Dei, we possess latently those divine virtues and potentialities manifest by the saints. Each saint reveals some dimension of our own soul. Studying their lives and writings assists us in the gradual restoration of the imago Dei, in our self-realization.

In few cases is the saint’s role of exemplar more evident than with St. Therese, the “Little Flower” and the saint of love.

Let us recall some of her more famous quotations:

“Each prayer is more beautiful than the others. I cannot recite them all and not knowing which to choose, I do like children who do not know how to read, I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me. For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”

“Sufferings gladly borne for others convert more people than sermons.”

“The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of it’s scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its lovliness.”

Her saintliness is obvious, but why do we call St. Thérèse a gnostic? Would even she herself not have denied this?

That St. Therese is to be counted high among gnostic Christians is readily seen. It is true, she professed simplicity and adopted no pretense of great learning. Yet this same humble soul is reckoned, by virtue of her insightful writings and exemplary life, as a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, sharing this title with the likes of Augustine, Ambrose, and Aquinas. In in her grasp of Scripture, her ability to sense the deep meanings and subtle nuances of passages, great wisdom is evident. Most of all the illuminated nature of her thinking is demonstrated by its habitual content: Love — its reality, immanence, and greatness. If she is not readily recognized as a gnostic that is only because we ourselves so easily fall from the state of wisdom, and begin to imagine there is some greater thing than Love.

We are too accustomed to seeing simplicity and wisdom as opposites, when in fact they go together. The Lord said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes (Matt 11:25). And as St Paul wrote: the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:25). We know that, as Socrates taught, true wisdom comes with recognition of ones ignorance. Thus we should not hesitate to consent to the classification of St. Therese as a gnostic.

There is here, moreover, an important general point: too often those who wish to be gnostics are overly attached to scholarship, books, and the external trappings of philosophy. It must be admitted, in short, that pride often or usually accompanies an interest in gnostic matters. Many who see themselves as gnostics look consdecendingly on “non-gnostic” practitioners of religion. This was carred to extremes in some heretical gnostic sects, which claimed that only special individuals, that is, those with arcane knowledge reserved for a select few, will be saved.

Al Ghazali on Alchemy

We may easily demonstrate the falseness of a view that equates saving gnosis with special, arcane knowledge. Suppose that great gnosis or wisdom, such as that sought by ancient gnostics, alchemists, and magi, of the sort that would give one the ability to perform miracles or accomplish anything, is indeed attainable. Suppose, further, that some master alchemist, after years of difficult labor and study, finally succeeded in creating the fabulous philosopher’s stone, which gives the possessor the ability to have or do anything wished for.

What, then, would such an alchemist do?

Would he turn lead into gold to gain great wealth? Perhaps; but if so, what after that? Of what use would gold alone be? Simply to have gold, unless it procures for one something better, is insufficient.

One might reply that he would make gold and then buy things with the gold, expecting these things to bring enjoyment and happines. But what this means is that what the alchemist actually seeks is not the gold, but happiness. At best, the gold would be only instrumental in gaining happiness.

But what brings happiness? Plainly, nothing for a human being brings so much happiness as love. It follows that the perfect alchemist would seek perfect love. Gold or wealth might possibly be helpful for this, but, so too it might be a hindrance. For all we know the perfectly attained alchemist might choose the life of a beggar!

As novel as this idea might seem, it is not new. The same principle was expressed in a dazzling spiritual treatise by the Islamic cleric and philospher Al Ghazali in the 11th century, called, fittingly, The Alchemy of Happiness.

Al Ghazali keenly discerned that the idea of turning lead into gold is merely a metaphor for the far more important process of transforming our base personality into something pure and beautiful. This form of alchemy seeks not gold or material wealth, but virtue and love. It is the gaining of virtue that is is the topic of this masterful written work of Al Ghazali.

Considering all this, we may say confidently that St. Therese was a great alchemist and a great gnostic. She found the secret, the formula for happiness — and so completely that she was able to dispense with showy displays of erudition and false knowledge.

Epilogue

I was pleased, or perhaps reassurred, to notice for the first time, only after writing this note, the Apostolic Letter in which Pope John Paul II in 1997 declared St Therese a Doctor of the Church, namely Divini Amoris Scientia (The Science of Divine Love). Some passages from the Letter follow:

1….During her life Thérèse discovered “new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings” (Ms A, 83v) and received from the divine Teacher that “science of love” which she then expressed with particular originality in her writings (cf. Ms B, 1r). This science is the luminous expression of her knowledge of the mystery of the kingdom and of her personal experience of grace. It can be considered a special charism of Gospel wisdom which Thérèse, like other saints and teachers of faith, attained in prayer (cf. Ms C, 36r·)….

7. From careful study of the writings of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and from the resonance they have had in the Church, salient aspects can be noted of her “eminent doctrine”, which is the fundamental element for conferring the title of Doctor of the Church.

First of all, we find a special charism of wisdom. This young Carmelite, without any particular theological training, but illumined by the light of the Gospel, feels she is being taught by the divine Teacher…

Thérèse offers a mature synthesis of Christian spirituality: she combines theology and the spiritual life; she expresses herself with strength and authority, with a great ability to persuade and communicate, as is shown by the reception and dissemination of her message among the People of God.

The last point is important: Thérèse’s pursuit of gnosis was not motivated by selfish aims, as is so often true with those who merely call themselves “gnostics”, but by a great love and intense desire to share the good news of the mystery of God’s salvation with others. Such compassionate yearning for others to know the meaning of God’s love is deep, innate, and immensely powerful. This sense of compassion is a powerful and perhaps essential motive force promoting the attainment of true gnosis.

Thérèse’s teaching expresses with coherence and harmonious unity the dogmas of the Christian faith as a doctrine of truth and an experience of life. In this regard it should not be forgotten that the understanding of the deposit of faith transmitted by the Apostles, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit: “There is growth in insight into the realities and words that are passed on… through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience.

Again, a broader point here is to remind those of us who who pursue scholarship, research, and philosophy that these constitute neither the only nor, arguably, the most important path to wisdom or gnosis. The gnostic should never feel superior to or denigrate the accomplishments of a devout and pure “simple soul”, whose attainments in love — which is the ultimate standard of gnosis — may far exceed our own.

In seeking gnosis let us never overvalue our books, translations, history, and metaphysical speculations. Such things constitute philosophical scholarship, which is potentially important, but is not to be confused with philosophy itself, which, as its very name suggests, is an activity of love.

St Columbanus

Reading From the Rule of St Columbanus

Perpetual light in the temple of the eternal High Priest

How happy, how lucky are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes! How blessed it is to be wakeful and watching for God, who created all things, who fills them with being and exceeds all of them in greatness!

I am a lowly creature but I am still his servant, and I hope that he will choose to wake me from slumber. I hope that he will set me on fire with the flame of his divine love, the flame that burns above the stars, so that I am filled with desire for his love and his fire burns always within me!

I hope that I may deserve this, that my little lamp should burn all night in the temple of the Lord and shine on all who enter the house of God! Lord, I beg you in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son and my God, give me a love that cannot stumble so that my lamp can be lit but can never go out: let it burn in me and give light to others.

And you, Christ, our gentle saviour, in your kindness light our lamps so that they shine for ever in your temple and lighten our darkness and dispel the shadows of the world.

I beg you, my Jesus, fill my lamp with your light. By its light let me see the holiest of holy places, your own temple where you enter as the eternal High Priest of the eternal mysteries. Let me see you, watch you, desire you. Let me love you as I see you, and before you let my lamp always shine, always burn.

Beloved Saviour, show yourself to us who beg a glimpse of you. Let us know you, let us love you, let us love only you, let us desire you alone, let us spend our days and nights meditating on you alone, let us always be thinking of you. Fill us with love of you, let us love you with all the love that is your right as our God. Let that love fill us and possess us, let it overwhelm our senses until we can love nothing but you, for you are eternal. Give us that love that all the waters of the sea, the earth, the sky cannot extinguish: as it is written, love that no flood can quench, no torrents drown. What is said in the Song of Songs can become true in us (at least in part) if you, our Lord Jesus Christ, give us that grace. To you be glory for ever and for ever. Amen.

Patristic Psychology

The ancients were far better psychologists than we give them credit for. It is a supreme folly of modern men to think we are vastly intellectually superior to the ancients. True, we are technologically more sophisticated, but there is no evidence that we are fundamentally better and deeper thinkers than they.

Indeed, there is good reason to think just the opposite. Modern culture suffers from the effects of three centuries of radical materialistic empiricism. It has reached the absurd point that we have a purported science, psychology, which barely acknowledges the existence of the psyche. We have fallen into the habit of believing that whatever we cannot touch, see, or measure does not exist.

One consequence of this is that centuries’ worth of sophisticated Western psychology originating in antiquity and developed by Greek and, later, Christian writers, has been entirely neglected in the curriculum of modern academic psychology.

It is now abundantly clear that we need to get beyond the limiting empirical-skeptical paradigm. But as we do so, we shall discover that we do not need to re-invent psychology: we instead need to pick up the thread where it left off (around the time of the Renaissance).

Briefly, what I propose here is that some department(s) of psychology — most logically located at a Catholic or Orthodox university or seminary initiate a special program in Patristic psychology. The aim would be to present, develop, and train students and future teachers in a full system of psychology — specifically that area of psychology that relates to personal spiritual development — based on principles found in the Patristic tradition, earlier Greek philosophy, and later writings of Doctors of the Church (St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, St. Gregory Palamas, St. John of the Cross, etc.).

Indeed, one of the first challenges would be to more clearly identify what this particular field of psychology is — it is not exactly clinical psychology, nor cognitive psychology, nor depth psychology, nor personality psychology, not transpersonal psychology. Rather it shares elements will all of these. For now, I propose to call this a psychology of personal spirituality or even the study of psychological salvation.

The book, Orthodox Psychotherapy, by Archimandrite Hierotheos S. Vlachos, appears to me the best one currently available that might serve as a starting point.

Orthodox Psychotherapy

From the Introduction:

The term “Orthodox Psychotherapy” does not refer to specific cases of people suffering from psychological problems of neurosis. Rather it refers to all people. According to Orthodox Tradition, after Adam’s fall man became ill; his “nous” was darkened and lost communion with God. Death entered into the person’s being and caused many anthropological, social, even ecological problems. In the tragedy of his fall man maintained the image of God within him but lost completely the likeness of Him, since his communion with God was disrupted. However the incarnation of Christ and the work of the Church aim at enabling the person to attain to the likeness of God, that is to reestablish communion with God. …By adhering to Orthodox therapeutic treatment as conceived by the Holy Fathers of the Church man can cope successfully with the thoughts (logismoi) and thus solve his problems completely and comprehensively.

Let’s consider a single example of where this might lead. Cigarette smoking is one of the greatest health epidemics in the world today. Yet modern medical psychology is unable to conceptualize or treat the problem adequately. One reason is that medical psychology here is ‘out of its depth’. Smoking can only be understood fully, and remedied, by understanding it in its spiritual context. Smoking is not just a physiological addiction, a habit, or a conditioned reflex. It originates with factors and forces the material level.

Let me make a statement boldly, but then allow me to qualify it: Smoking is a sin, and it is demonic.

Now what is meant by ‘sin’ and by ‘demonic’ here? That is precisely the question. ‘Demonic’ here, for example, doesn’t mean there are invisible goblins jumping around placing cigarettes in people’s paths and tricking them into smoking. The mere word ‘demon’, or, to use the original form, ‘daemon’ is a linguistic token, a symbol, used to denote a concept that is, at some level, experientially self-evident. There is a realm of mental experience and activity, with behavioral correlates, that, lacking any clearer term, we have come to describe with the word, demonic. One quality of this activity is that it is energized in a certain way as though coming from a force outside us. Basically, this much is all we can say with certainty — and in saying this much we have not committed ourselves to a specific metaphysical position.

In short, that smoking is sinful and demonic is known to us intuitively and experientially. This is present in our “folk wisdom” and manifest in colloquial language. If someone says of a person, “he has finally rid himself of his demons” nobody ever asks what that means. We ‘know’ what it means, at least roughly — we simply cannot explain it in words.

It’s even more obvious that smoking is sinful in the psychological sense of being self-destructive activity, and corresponding to a ‘fallen’ cognitive state — certainly one in which one is not being directed by anything like Wisdom or higher mental powers. It requires a turning away from God in the mind and heart to smoke. So while smoking a single cigarette perhaps isn’t much of sin, it is still, technically speaking a sin — and we shouldn’t lose sight of that or be too hesitant to apply the term.

Thus, it is more correct to say that “smoking is sinful and demonic” than it is to say, “all this talk about sin and demons is obsolete and unscientific — smoking has nothing to do with them.”

Another time we may pursue further this particular exampler. For now, let it serve to illustrate the broader point: that modern psychology, in trying to restrict itself to a narrow ‘scientific method’, has in the process rid itself of the power of human intuitive wisdom. Patristic psychology, among other things, can aid us in reacquiring a system of psychology that is at once scientifically, logically, and philosophically rigorous, and also more fully consistent with our experience as human beings. It can be, simply put, a psychology of both the mind and the heart, in contrast to modern version of psychology that is only a science of the mind (and only a portion of the mind, namely the rational mind, at that).

But the other point illustrated is the practical relevance of this proposed enterprise. How many lives are wrecked, and how many hundreds of millions of dollars are lost due to the effects of cigarette smoking? It is a huge problem. We have, in our arsenal of weapons to levy against it, a 2000-plus year old tradition of thought developed by the keenest psychological minds the West has ever produced — and, for reasons already alluded to above, these ideas have been put aside. Isn’t it only logical that we now make a most serious effort to see if these ideas can help us overcome the scourge of tobacco smoking?

And this is but one example. We could also list among the current psychological problems that debilitate modern society alcoholism, depression, materialism, despair, and apathy. All of these are addressed by Patristic psychology, and none are adequately addressed by modern psychological theories.

Why Catholicism for Europe: Reason 2

2. Philosophical and psychological depth

Today many people equate Christianity with simple-mindedness. Another group — fundamentalists — naively insist on a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible.

The truth is that Christianity encompasses an extremely sophisticated system of religious, philosophical, and psychological thought. This system, though based on ideas present in Scripture, required several centuries to articulate and elaborate. This task was accomplished by the Church Fathers — figures such as St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. John Chrysostom in the East, and Sts. Justin, Irenaeus, Ambrose and St. Augustine in the West, to name but a very few. In fact there are well over 100 writers commonly considered as Church Fathers. But this is just the top tier; beyond these are dozens more erudite, profound, insightful, and articulate Christian thinkers of late antiquity whose works have come down to us.

They were among the most brilliant and best-educated philosophers of their times — men who followed in the footsteps of Plato and Aristotle. The works of these Greek, Latin, Syrian, and Egyptian Fathers are a vast storehouse of knowledge still scarcely mined. Many of their works have not been translated into modern languages yet — not even all those St. Augustine.

As these works become more widely known and studied (thanks in part to the Internet) the profundity and modern relevance of their thought will become increasingly clear.

10 Reasons Why Europeans Should Rediscover Their Catholicism

Today many people in Europe and the United States have rejected or view with little interest their own Christian traditions.  Since people naturally seek deeper meaning in life, this leads many to turn instead to Eastern religions — to Buddhism and the religions of India, for example — for spiritual answers.

There is certainly nothing wrong with studying Eastern religions.  But one should not dismiss ones own traditions in the process.  (Even the Dalai Lama says that!).

Here let me list some reasons why modern Europeans and Americans — especially those who come from a Christian background — should reconsider their native Christianity and, in particular, their Catholicism.

I’ll try to be as brief as possible. My view is that one person cannot prove or convince another of matters like this.  Instead, I work on the assumption that if anything I say here is true, then you already know it latently.  I just wish to give you a reminder, or to gently nudge your own inner intuition and attention.

I’ll start posting these reasons one or several at a time over the next few days or weeks. (Please excuse typos — I’ll edit these out later.)

Let’s begin, then, with the first reason.

1. Christianity is Europe’s “folk religion”.

Modern people greatly admire indigenous religions.  For example, the religions of Native Americans, Africans, or Australian Aborigines are studied closely; we seek in these traditions elements of deep, genuine, experience-based religion, “untainted”, as it were, by centuries-long accretions of overrationalized doctrines, dogmas, institutional formalities, etc.

Few consider that, after nearly 2000 years, Christianity has become a genuine indigenous religion of Europeans.  Further, much pre-Christian tradition has been smoothly assimilated into Christian practices and customs — and remains available to Westerners in this form.  To (re)connect with Christianity, then, is to connect with ones roots.

The Two Threads

There are two concurrent threads in the development of Christianity.  There is doctrine, as found in the Bible and developed by early Church writers and later theologians.  But also there are the unwritten customs and traditions of Christianity.

The latter include religious liturgies, practices, and art.  These things are not governable by written rules.

Religious art is of special interest.  Deep truths are expressed by religious art — truths of the heart and soul; things beyond words.  Generations of our ancestors have preserved and transmitted these truths to us in art and customs.  We would be most foolish to neglect these.

To walk into an old church in Europe and to see the magnificent, expressive, and deeply symbolic art is to be immediately struck with the richness and importance of this dimension of our religious heritage.

We look with admiration at ancient or indigenous art, trying to decipher its symbolism, convinced that it conveys some great hidden truths.  Yet how many approach our own rich heritage of Western Christian art with the same diligence, respect, and interest?

Similar considerations apply to religious practices. Why are Westerners intrigued with Tibetan prayer beads, while dismissing the Catholic rosary as superstition?  Why show such interest in the asanas of yoga, or investigate Buddhist hand mudras, while remaining unaware of the complex prayer postures of the Catholic mass?  Who today takes seriously the significance of kneeling, or of the folding of hands in prayer?  People seek to learn the use of Tibetan meditational mandalas, but fail to appreciate their own traditions of deep, devout prayer before an icon or religious statue.

Another example: many Westerners today are interested in Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam.  One wonders how many of these people know that Sufism was strongly influenced by earlier Christian monastic and mystical traditions in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.  While Sufism is all the rage, the numerous writings — inspiring and sophisticated — of this earlier Christian tradition are neglected.

Indeed, the grass across the fence always seems greener.

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