by Peter Traben Haas
Jennifer Bryan, Associate Professor of English at Oberlin College has written a very helpful resource for understanding the importance and prevalence of the contemplative dimension of Christianity prior to the Reformation, especially in England. I was astounded to discover the ample examples of ideas and books written during the 14th and 15th centuries that celebrated the inward, contemplative dimension of devotional faith.
In particular, I was grateful to learn about Lectio Spiritualis, a term I had never come across before (as best I can recall). Bryan, following scholar Brian Stock, suggests that Lectio Spiritualis was a widespread and popular lay movement adapting the monastic practice of Lectio Divina. Bryan contrasts the two this way: “whereas Lectio Divina helped the reader slowly internalize the biblical text, creating a more exact correspondence between reading and prayer, Lectio Spiritualis emphasized the subjective words and images that might arise in the reader’s mind both during and after the textual encounter.”
Important books from this era include not only the well known yet anonymous Cloud of Unknowing and the celebrated The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, but also such lesser known devotional masterpieces as:
A Talking of the Love of God
The Prickling of Love
The Seven Points of True Love and Everlasting Wisdom
Scale of Perfection
Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ
Bryan’s work, Looking Inward, provides an important bridge for reuniting the forsaken contemplative dimension with Post-Reformation Christianity. In many ways, it is evident that the contemplative/devotional uprising in the immediate centuries preceding the Reformation perhaps made the Reformation possible. Particularly, the inward, private self, nurtured by the Spirit of God through Scripture reading. All the more accessible after the printing press made books readily available in the early 16th Century. No doubt, huge themes are involved here; ideas that dove tail into modern concerns of authority and the autonomy of the self. And which continue to unfold as we push the depths of inquiry into the mystery of human consciousness and its connection with and cultivation through the contemplative practices.
Further indicating the renewal of the contemplative dimension and its connections with the monastic ethos, Carl McColman’s new book Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality crowned 2015 as a special gift to me. In many ways, McColman’s book is similar to my own current project of writing a manual for church leaders to re-apply contemplative insights for the renewal of local churches. McColman’s work goes a long way to doing just that. And, I trust many congregations will be the better for it.
PairingMcColman with Margaret Malone’s recent work Living in the House of God, it is evident to me that the church is gifted with two voices clearly articulating a contemplative vision and rediscovery of the monastic charism for the sake of the church’s flourishing.
Finally, Cyprian Consiglio, Prior of the extraordinary New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California has also contributed to the renewal of the contemplative dimension, particularly the conversation around Ken Wilber’s (and others) developmental spectrum of consciousness. Consiglio’s book Spirit, Soul, Body: Toward an Integral Christian Spirituality also pairs nicely with the work of Paul Smith, Integral Christianity .
Overall, it’s beautifully evident that Consiglio is working to bridge the chasm between the East and the West. In part, his approach interprets the important writings of Bede Griffiths. I first came across Consiglio through his deeply meaningful Prayer in the Cave of the Heart, and later met him during my visits to the Hermitage. My favorite chapter of his new book Spirit, Soul, Body is “Map of Inscape, the Soul.” The reason: because he offers a comprehensive discussion on what the soul is, integrating wisdom from the East with some aspects from the West, and in so doing, the Asian traditions help us discover the subtle territory of the soul in a deepened way, something we can thank them for by cultivating our own soul in the silence of meditation.
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