Christian Platonism

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Contemplative Christianity in the 13th and 14th Centuries: Latin West

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(click image to view in high resolution)

HERE we extend the previous timeline forward to the 13th and 14th centuries.
Legend: Olive = Benedictine; Light green: Cistercian; Purple: Dominican; Orange = Carthusian; Dark blue = Augustinian; Light blue = Other.

Recommended Reading

Egan, Harvey D. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. Liturgical Press, 1991.

McGinn, Bernard. The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism (1200−1350). (Vol. 3 of B. McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism.) New York: Crossroad, 1998.

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Richard of St. Victor, The Ark of the Covenant as an Allegory for Contemplation

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IN THE 12th century the Abbey of St. Victor outside Paris was a major teaching center. One dominant interest there was to develop a science of contemplation, drawing on such sources as St. Augustine, the Benedictine monastic tradition, and Pseudo-Dionysius. Allegorical interpretation of Scripture reached an advanced level. Richard of St. Victor (1110?−1173), for example, wrote a treatise on contemplation in the form of an exegesis of the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 25. This is variously called Benjamin Major, The Mystical Ark, and The Grace of Contemplation. His writings profoundly affected subsequent Christian mysticism, including Bonaventure, the Rhineland mystics, and Spanish mysticism.

At the end of The Mystical Ark, Richard supplied a helpful recapitulation of the entire work, including a summary of Ark symbolism:

By the tabernacle of the covenant we understand the state of perfection.
Where perfection of the soul is, there also is the habitation of God.
The more the mind approaches perfection, the more closely it is joined in a covenant with God.
However, the tabernacle itself ought to have an atrium around about it.
By atrium we understand discipline of the body; by tabernacle we understand discipline of the mind. …
No person knows what belongs to the inner person except the spirit of humanity that is in him.
The habitus of the inner person is divided into a rational and an intellectual habitus.
The rational habitus is understood by the exterior tabernacle, but the intellectual habitus is understood by the interior
tabernacle.
We call the rational sense that by which we discern the things of ourself;
In this place we call the intellectual sense that by which we are raised up to the speculation of divine things. …
A person enters into the first tabernacle when he returns to himself.
A person enters into the second tabernacle when he goes beyond himself.
When going beyond himself surely a person is elevated to God.
A person remains in the first tabernacle by consideration of himself; in the second, by contemplation of God. …
In the atrium of the tabernacle was the altar of burnt offering.
In the first tabernacle were the candelabrum, the table, and the altar of incense.
In the interior tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant.
The exterior altar is affliction of the body; the interior altar is contrition of the mind.
The candelabrum is the grace of discretion; the table is the teaching of sacred reading.
By the Ark of the Covenant we understand the grace of contemplation.
On the exterior altar the bodies of animals were burned up; by affliction of the body carnal longings are annihilated.
On the interior altar aromatic smoke was offered to the Lord; by contrition of heart the flame of celestial longings is
kindled.
A candelabrum is a holder for lights; discretion is the lamp of the inner person.
On the table bread is placed; by it those who are hungry may be refreshed.
However sacred reading certainly is the refreshment of the soul.
An ark is a secret place for gold and silver; the grace of contemplation lays hold of the treasury of celestial wisdom.
Good working pertains to the exterior altar.
Zealous meditation pertains to the candelabrum.
Sacred reading pertains to the table.
Devoted prayer pertains to the interior altar.

Source: Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979.

Latin: Richard of Saint-Victor, Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, vol. 196, cols. 191−202, ed. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1855.

On the Six Levels of Contemplation – Richard of Saint-Victor

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Seraphim, Petites Heures de Jean de Berry (14th century)

CHRISTIAN mystics have an elaborate system for classifying contemplative experience. In fact, possibly it’s too systematized; at least I personally have never been able to fully understand it. Accordingly, I’d like to de-mystify (no pun inteded) things by going back early in the tradition, to when this effort to classify and arrange experiences was getting started: systematized, but perhaps not overly so.

To begin then, in the 12th century, Richard of St. Victor proposed a classification of contemplative experience into six ascending grades. The six forms of contemplation are associated with the six winged seraphim in Isaiah’s famous vision (Isaiah 6:1–3). His system strongly influenced St. Bonaventure, who, a century later proposed his own six-fold classification of contemplative experiences.

Richard’s classification is not simply derived from experience (i.e., phenomenological observation), but also relies on a theoretical premise. Specifically, he sees the human mind as having three divisions: (1) sense perception and sensory imagination; (2) discursive reasoning or ratiocination (Latin: ratio; Greek: dianoia); and (3) pure intellection (i.e., immediate intuitive grasp; Greek: noesis). From this three-fold division he derives his six ascending grades of contemplation, as follows:

  1. Sense experience alone. Example: contemplating natural beauty for its own sake; a purely aesthetic experience.)
  2. Sense experience combined with reasoning. Example: contemplating natural beauty, and then thinking about what it implies (e.g., a providential and wise Creator).
  3. Reasoning guided by imagination. Example: admiring a flower and considering how its unfolding petals correspond to human mental development.
  4. Reasoning alone. Example: noticing some process within ones own mind, and that leading to some further self-insight.
  5. Insight above, but not contrary to ratiocination. Example: an insight into some aspect of God’s nature or being that conforms to logic.
  6. Insight above and contrary to or completely uninterpretable by ratiocination. Example: an insight into some aspect of God’s nature or being that is beyond or contradicts logic.

This discussion appears in The Mystical Ark (Benjamin Major) 1.6.

The arrangement is systematic, but not overwhelmingly so. He emphasizes that contemplation is something fluid and dynamic. That is, during contemplation the mind moves freely among these levels. He likens things to a hawk or kestrel that flies higher or lower, sometimes hovering, sometimes diving, sometimes returning for a second look, and so on. This is an intriguing analogy not only because of its aptness, but also because it’s likely an insight derived from his own contemplative practice (level 3 contemplation).

In Book 5 he supplies another classification concerning contemplation at the highest levels, noting that one may experience (1) expansion (dilatio), (2) elevation (sublevatio), and finally (3) ecstatic loss (alienatio) of consciousness.

Benjamin, youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons, is, for Richard, is a symbol of contemplation. He basis this on the Vulgate version of Psalm lxvii.: Ibi Benjamin adolescentulus in mentis excessu: “There is Benjamin, a youth, in ecstasy of mind.” (whereas the modern English Bible reads: “Little Benjamin their ruler.”)

His two works, Benjamin Minor (The Twelve Patriarchs) and Benjamin Major (The Mystical Ark) consider the ascetical/moral preparation for contemplation, and contemplation itself, respectively.

At the birth of Benjamin, his mother Rachel dies, and Richard writes: “For, when the mind of man is rapt above itself, it surpasseth all the limits of human reasoning. Elevated above itself and rapt in ecstasy, it beholdeth things in the divine light at which all human reason succumbs. What, then, is the death of Rachel, save the failing of reason?” (Benjamin Minor 73).

So in sum, we can see that Richard’s ‘system’ (if that’s a fair term to apply) is a felicitious combination of knowledge derived from experience and dialectic. As such it represents, arguably, a remarkably high level of synthesis between experience, creative imagination, insight and rational analysis.

A century later Scholasticism would be in full swing, the balance leaning progressively more and more (up to this day!) towards intellectual analysis (or perhaps we should say, towards a dissociation of rationalism and mysticism).

References

Richard of Saint-Victor. Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. MIGNE (Paris 1878–90) 196.

Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979.

Henry More

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CAMBRIDGE Platonist Henry More (1614 – 1687) studied Plato and Plotinus, Hermeticism and Christian Cabalism. A prolific writer, he produced, among other things, a marvelous set of poems collectively titled A Platonick Song of the Soul.  The set includes four poems, all written in the poetic style of Spenserian stanzas (named after Edmund Spenser, whose most notable work was the Neoplatonic allegory, The Fairie Queen): Psychozoia, Psychathanasis, Antipsychopannychia and Antimonopsychia. The word “Soul” in the title refers both to the individual human soul and the Platonic world soul. Strongly influenced by Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology, they explore many themes of Platonism and Neoplatonism, including metaphysics and ethics.

More is known for having attained certain elevated states of consciousness. He explained in an autobiographical passage how in early life he had an insatiable desire for secular learning, but eventually this left him empty.

But after taking my Degree, to pass over and omit abundance of things (…) [i]t fell out truly very happily for me, that I suffer’d so great a disappointment in my studies. For it made me seriously at last begin to think with my self; whether the knowledge of things was really that supreme felicity of man; or something greater and more divine was: or, supposing it to be so, whether it was to be acquir’d by such an eagerness and intentness in the reading of authors, and contemplating of things; or by the [purging] of the mind from all sorts of vices whatsoever.

Also unhappy with the strict Calvinist doctrines of his childhood, he characterized his general state of mind in a short poem titled, Aporia (i.e., puzzlement or impasse):

Nor whence, nor who I am, poor Wretch! know I:
Nor yet, O Madness! Whither I must goe:
But in Grief’s crooked Claws fast held I lie;
And live, I think, by force tugg’d to and fro.
Asleep or wake all one. O Father Jove,
’Tis brave, we Mortals live in Clouds like thee.
Lies, Night-dreams, empty Toys, Fear, fatal Love,
This is my Life: I nothing else do see.

He further explained how he then investigated various religious writings that discuss the moral and intellectual purification that are a prerequisite for an authentic spiritual life:

Especially having begun to read now the Platonick Writers, Marsilius Ficinus, Plotinus himself, Mercurius Trismegistus; and the Mystical Divines; among whom there was frequent mention made of the Purification of the Soul, and of the Purgative Course that is previous to the Illuminative; as if the Person that expected to have his Mind illuminated of God, was to endeavour after the Highest Purity. ”

But amongst all the Writings of this kind there was none, to speak the Truth, so pierced and affected me. as that Golden little Book, with which Luther is also said to have been wonderfully taken. viz. Theologia Germanica [note: a 14th work on Christian mysticism influenced by Meister Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius].

After his conversion and purification,  which lasted several years, he enjoyed certain exalted states of consciousness, described by himself and his biographers.

More knew and had scholarly debates with alchemists like Thomas Vaughan (the twin brother of metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan), and evidently considered the real purpose of alchemy to be to effect a religious transformation of consciousness.

And that insatiable desire and thirst of mine after the knowledge of things was wholly almost extinguish’d in me, as being sollicitous now, about nothing so much as a more full union with this Divine and Coelestial Principle: the inward flowing Well-spring of Life eternal. With the most fervent prayers breathing often unto God, that he would be pleas’d throughly to set me free from the dark chains, and this so sordid captivity of my own will.

But here openly to declare the thing as it was; when this inordinate desire after the knowledge of things was thus allay’d in me, and I aspir’d after nothing but this sole purity and simplicity of mind, there shone in upon me daily a greater assurance than ever I could have expected, even of those things which before I had the greatest desire to know. Insomuch that within a few years, I was got into a most joyous and lucid state of mind, and such plainly as is ineffable; though, according to my custom, I have endeavoured to express it, to my power, in another stanza of eight verses.

The poem More refers to here is called Euporia (fullness):

I come from Heav’n; am an immortal ray
Of 
God; O joy! and back to God shall goe.
And here sweet Love on’s wings me up doth stay.
I live, I’m sure; and joy this Life to know.
Night and vain dreams be gone: Father of Lights,
We live, as Thou, clad with Eternal Day.
Faith, Wisdom, Love, fix’d Joy, free winged
Might,This is true Life: All else death and decay.

His, biographer, Richard Ward, supplies some examples of More’s religious experiences:

When yet early in the morning he was wont to awake usually into an immediate unexpressible life and vigour; with all his thoughts and notions raying (as I may so speak) about him, as beams surrounding the centre from whence they all proceed.

He was once for ten days together, no where (as he term’d it) or in one continued fit of contemplation: during which, though he eat, drank, slept, went into the hall, and convers’d, in a measure, as at other times; yet the [thread] of it for all that space was never once, as it were, broken or interrupted; nor did he animadvert (in a sort) on the things which he did.

And he hath been heard likewise unaffectedly to profess; that his thoughts would often-times be as clear as he could almost desire: and that he could take them off, or fix them upon a subject in a manner as he pleas’d. So that he himself seems plainly to have got that Chimical Art spoken of in his Ethics [Enchiridion ethicum, 1667] of making the volatile fixum, et fixum volatile, the volatile fix’d and the fix’d volatile; upon which some promise themselves, it seems, such wonderful matters: that is, he had reduc’d his spirits (as he there goes on) to a sufficient tenuity and volatility; and could yet at the same time, fix them steadily, at his pleasure, upon any object he had a mind to contemplate. Which things are notwithstanding (I conceive) to be understood with their reasonable qualifications. It was pleasant, he said, to go quick in a man’s thoughts from notion to notion, without any images of words in the mind. And elsewhere [Preface, An Explanation of the Grand Mystery of Godliness, 1660] he speaks more particularly of the exceeding great pleasure of speculation, and that easy springing up of coherent thoughts and conceptions within: And how that the lazy [i.e., relaxed] activity (as he there calls it) of his mind, in compounding and dissevering of notions and ideas in the silent observation of their natural connexions and disagreements, was as a holy day, and sabbath of rest to his soul. His very dreams were often regular, and he could study in them. And the constitution of his spirits was moreover such, if I may be allow’d to mention it, that he could on design sometimes, by thinking upon distant external objects, bring them as to his view; and thus continue, or disolve them for a time, at pleasure.” Source: Richard Ward, Life of Dr. Henry More, 1710, pp. 41−43.

More’s own experiences are important in understanding his own understanding of godliness, or as patristic writings call it, theosis (divinization).

References

Crocker, Robert. Mysticism and enthusiasm in Henry More. In S. Hutton (ed.), Henry More (1614-1687) Tercentenary Studies, 137-55. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

Grosart, Alexander Balloch (ed.). The Complete Poems of Henry More. Edinburgh University Press, 1878.

Henry, John, Henry More, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), < https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/henry-more/ >.

Hutton, Sarah (ed.); Crocker, Robert. Henry More (1614–1687): Tercentenary Studies. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

Jacob, Alexander. Henry More: A Platonick Song of the Soul. Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Leech, David. Henry More: Bibliography. Cambridge Platonist Research Group. 2017. < https://cprg.hypotheses.org/bibliography/henry-more >

Ward, Richard. The life of the learned and pious Dr. Henry More. London: Jos. Downing, 1710; modern edition (eds. S. Hutton, C. Courtney, M. Courtney R. Crocker, R. Hall) Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000; ebook: Springer, 2013.

Art: Henry More (detail), by William Faithorne; etching and line engraving, 1675. National Portrait Gallery NPG D22865.

Platonism as Psychotherapy

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Portrait of Plato. Luni marble. Roman copy after a Greek original of Silanion. Inv. No. MC 1377. Rome, Capitoline Museums, Museum Montemartini.


 

QUESTION: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?

Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.

To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.

Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?

Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our ideal or intended state, what ADD is relative to our habitual state. That is, many of the same cognitive abilities that are impaired in ADD are also impaired in our ordinary fallen state — to a lesser, but still to a very serious degree.

Another analogy is to intoxication.   If one can achieve the higher level of mental function Platonism aims for, one’s ordinary state of mind may seem as one of comparative drunkenness.

But rather than list the problems of our ordinary state, which are only too evident and familiar, it is better to examine the nature of the healed, ‘saved’, or ‘redeemed’ state.

Q: What are qualities of this healed or ‘saved’ mental condition?

In answering this question we are helped considerably by the writings of humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow noted that many people have, either through meditation or other spiritual practices, or else sometimes spontaneously in connection with love, nature, or art, certain heightened experiences. Sometimes these are very brief and intense (peak experiences), and sometimes less intense but of longer duration (plateau experiences). For details, interested readers may consult Maslow’s works (especially Maslow, 1968; 1971). It suffices here to note that peak and plateau experiences are associated with increased sensory and mental clarity, aesthetic appreciation, bliss, insight, and absence of disturbing thoughts or emotions. Maslow summarized this condition by calling it one of Being, as contrasted with our usual condition of becoming. [Note: Few people realize that these terms are explicit references to Platonism, the source of the Being–becoming distinction.]

While peak and plateau experiences are of limited duration, Maslow also noted that over time a person may become more adept at bringing them about. As they become a more common feature in one’s life a general positive transformation of personality may occur.

Maslow, however, operating in the scientific-positivistic climate of the 1950’s and 1960’s, did not sufficiently emphasize the moral or spiritual aspects of the Being state.

Q: Can you elaborate on the moral aspects?

Yes, and this is very important. There is an unfortunate tendency today to confuse morality with moralism. The latter is a rigid frame of mind which seeks to conform all behavior to fixed rules, largely proscriptive (“thou shalt not…”). This legalistic approach does little to develop ones innate moral sense. Rather, it is often yet another manifestation of the fallen condition of the mind.

Morality is something different, something positive. It affirms that human beings are designed to be moral; and that moral actions and virtue come naturally and instinctively, and are essential to ones happiness, well-being, and integrity of personality.

Platonism sees an integral connection between intellectual and moral life. Moral development comes from intellectual or illuminative insights into ones own nature. Platonism seeks to cultivate the life of ones higher mind, the source of these intellectual and moral insights. This has two components, the purgative and the illuminative. The purgative part of Platonism seeks to correct our habitual forms of negative thought and emotions, which impair our ability to consult our higher mind. The illuminative part is concerned with actually accessing the higher mind.

Q: And the spiritual aspect?

The spiritual aspect of Platonism is what some writers call the unitive life. It is, of course, something understood by experience, not description. However certain leading principles of this state can be noted.

In general, we could describe this state as a form of humility, in which the ego no longer seeks to be ruler of ones psyche, but rather is content in the role of helper to something greater than itself. Now as to what this other entity is, opinions vary. The traditional view, of course, is that it is God. Some, however, such as Jungian psychologists, understand this other as a higher self or Self. To some extent this distinction doesn’t matter — provided that the ego has sufficient respect for this ‘other’ that it relates to it as something holy and sacred. The proper relationship of the ego to this entity, whatever it is, is one of piety and trust.

In this way a person is no longer constrained by the limitations of egoistic over-control, and the various forms of mischief the ego can create. One is more creative and spontaneous, and, in a word, more happy. Various names given to this condition are self-actualization, self-realization, and individuation.

Another way of seeing things is that Platonism is a form of yoga. Etymologically, the word yoga is related to the word yoke. It refers to establishing an ongoing connection or yoke between the ego and this higher ‘thing’ which is God or a higher Self. Note that the word religion has the same meaning of re-connection, as the stem ligio means to connect or bind, and is related to the word ligament.

So we see that, despite certain differences, Platonism, yoga, and traditional religion all aim to restore a kind of natural state or harmony of soul in which the ego finds its proper role. All of these traditions express a kind of instinctive knowledge human beings have that their ordinary state, where the ego is out of control, is unnatural, but can be corrected.

Q: What then is the relationship between Platonism and religion?

Platonism overlaps with that part of traditional religion concerned with Wisdom. Wisdom is an important part of religion, but it is not the only part.

Nevertheless, Platonism complements and may enhance ones experience as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. Many of the greatest Christian thinkers throughout the centuries were also Platonists — for example St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus Confessor in the East. Traditionally, Greek philosophy has been called the handmaid of theology, and this is an apt description of Platonism.

Q: Is Platonism for everybody?

Each person is a unique individual, with their own preferred ‘yoga’. For some a yoga of the heart (e.g., charity and service) is best; for others a yoga of Wisdom such as Platonism is more suitable. In general Platonism will appeal most to people who already have a strong intellectual inclination. It is my observation that in modern times people are overall becoming more intellectual, so that Platonism may have broader appeal today than in earlier centuries.

Q: Very well. How does one go about learning Platonism?

First you should know that most of what is written about Platonism, especially in modern times, is of dubious value. Modern philosophers, generally speaking, no longer understand philosophy as a form of psychotherapy, but see it only as an arena for abstract speculation, controversy, and other forms of self-aggrandizement.

For this and other reasons, there is no substitute for reading Plato’s own works. This is made easier by the fact that Plato was great literary genius as well as a philosopher. Once you get accustomed to them, Plato’s dialogues are very easy and enjoyable to read.

I would recommend starting with one or two of Plato’s early dialogues, such as Charmides or Lysis. These make for pleasant reading and, while they are not his greatest works, help one get a ‘feel’ for Plato.

Eventually one will want to work up to his more significant works: Phaedrus, Symposium, Phaedo, and of course what is perhaps his greatest, The Republic.

After reading one or two of his dialogues, you might want to read some of the myths which Plato placed in several of his works. This may help give you an appreciation of Plato’s mystical and intuitive side, which complements the more analytical style found in his prose.

Not all translations of Plato’s works are of equal value. While some modern translations are excellent, others are not. I generally find older translations, especially those of Benjamin Jowett, and those the Loeb Classical Library, more than satisfactory. The Jowett translations, all in the public domain, can be readily be found online. Many of the Loeb editions are also in the public domain and can be found at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.

I have also provided short explanations of certain key terms found in Plato’s works which may assist you.

Related:  Reading Plato’s Republic as Psychology

 

References

Arvanitakis,  K. I. Psychic structure, psychic illness and psychotherapy in Plato and Freud. Confin Psychiatr. 1980;23(3):164-72.

Cavarnos, Constantine. Fine art as therapy according to Plato. ΦΙΛΟΣΟΦΙΑ (Academy of Athens) 7, 1977, 266−290.

Cushman, Robert Earl. Therapeia: Plato’s Conception of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Westport, CT, 1976. (repr. 2001, Transaction).

Gill, Christopher. Ancient psychotherapy. Journal of the History of Ideas 46.3 (1985): 307-325.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a psychology of Being. 3rd ed., Foreword and Preface by Richard J. Lowry. Wiley, 1999. 2nd ed., Van Nostrand 1968;  1st ed., Van Nostrand, 1962.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971. (repr. 1993, Arkana).

Thome, Johannes. Psychotherapeutische Aspekte in der Philosophic Platons (Psychotherapeutic Aspects of Plato’s Philosophy). Hildesheim: Ohms-Weidmann, 1995.

 

Christianity for Agnostics

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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.

* * *

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.

St. Ignatius Loyola and the Discernment of Spirits

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From the life of Saint Ignatius from his own words by Luis Gonzalez

Put inward experiences to the test to see if they come from God

Ignatius was passionately fond of reading worldly books of fiction and tales of knight-errantry. When he felt he was getting better, he asked for some of these books to pass the time. But no book of that sort could be found in the house; instead they gave him a life of Christ and a collection of the lives of saints written in Spanish.

032IgnatiusLoyolaBy constantly reading these books he began to be attracted to what he found narrated there. Sometimes in the midst of his reading he would reflect on what he had read. Yet at other times he would dwell on many of the things which he had been accustomed to dwell on previously. But at this point our Lord came to his assistance, insuring that these thoughts were followed by others which arose from his current reading.

While reading the life of Christ our Lord or the lives of the saints, he would reflect and reason with himself: “What if I should do what Saint Francis or Saint Dominic did?” In this way he let his mind dwell on many thoughts; they lasted a while until other things took their place. Then those vain and worldly images would come into his mind and remain a long time. This sequence of thoughts persisted with him for a long time.

But there was a difference. When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Angel Fra_Angelico-Annunciatory_Angel-detail

Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy. And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience. Later on, when he began to formulate his spiritual exercises, he used this experience as an illustration to explain the doctrine he taught his disciples on the discernment of spirits.

– from the Roman Catholic breviary, 31 July 2009

Further Reading

First Rules for the Discernment of Spirits (from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius)

Second Rules, for More Probing Discernment of Spirits (from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius)

On Ignatian Discernment of Spirits.  Chapter 12 of All My Liberty, by Fr. John A. Hardon SJ

Written by John Uebersax

July 31, 2009 at 2:38 pm