Monday, January 19, 2015

Dominican Spirituality

"Mysticism and Prophecy" (1998) is part of the Traditions of Christian spirituality series. This volume is devoted to the spirituality of the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers. And for many, just the mention of the word "Dominican" congers up images of monks in black habit, whose lives are devoted to study and preaching. And that's just part of their story!

Richard Woods OP provides a fascinating introduction to the Dominican tradition. I've had the privilege to read and review several of the books in this series, and again the book does not disappoint. This is an extremely well written work, by a scholar in the field who knows his material and shares it in an interesting way. The result is a terrific overview of the Dominican order also known as the Black Friars.

The format follows others in the series with brief biographical overviews and quotations from the main figures in the order. Wood discusses how the Dominicans key elements to their "spirituality" included community prayer, study and mission (preaching). What a sharp contrast to the Benedictine dictum of prayer and work!

The book then introduces some of the Black Friar luminaries including Dominic, Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Siena, and Jan van Ruysbroeck to name a few. Quite a theological line up which has a unique blend of theology/spirituality! Along the way you learn about Aquinas's positive way to God, Eckhart's negative way and Catherine of Seina's mystical-prophetic way and more! Best of all, in this Dominican overview you are given brief cameos of these great figures which often leave you clamoring for more. For instance, I found some of the eye witness accounts of Aquinas to be both human and inspiring-a welcome relief from the idealized figure most people have of the Angelic Doctor. And as in other volumes, I was pleasantly surprised at just how modern many of these medieval thinkers were. For example, check out the following passage:

"If the ancient theologians and mystics are correct, when we think we know what God is, we are furthest away from understanding. Thomas Aquinas was right, and is indeed only one voice in a vast chorus of mystical agnosticism. As Eckhart, Catherine, the Cloud author, and Ruysbroeck profess, it is when we open both our minds and hearts to the Incomprehensible that we grow closer to God". (pg. 134).

Great stuff. A fun way to learn more about spirituality and the rich diversity of the church and history of spirituality.

The book also has a useful and up to date bibliography.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Quaker Spirituality

“Silence and Witness” (2004) by Michael L. Birkel provides a concise overview of the Quaker spiritual tradition, also known as the Religious Society of Friends. I have to say I was personally drawn to this volume in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series as I was raised in the Philadelphia area and have benefitted from visiting Quaker Meeting houses in the past. I found the quiet and perceived lack of structure something of a challenge to my own liturgical upbringing!

Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable and immensely practical book. Perhaps its most outstanding feature is it’s unique blend of history and quotes from many of the Quaker greats. The opening chapter provides a nice outline of Quaker history. Quakerism was founded during the English Civil War (Puritan Revolution) in the mid 1700s. It got it’s unique name because members trembled or “quaked” before the Word of the Lord-at least according to George Fox! George Fox, one of the founders of Quakerism, had a strong inward spiritual experience which he referred to the inner light and wrote and preached extensively on the inner struggle with good and evil, and God’s righteousness and man’s sin. Fox and other Quakers referred to this struggle as “the Lamb’s war”.

The book moves onto the typical Quaker service and what to expect in the Quaker Meeting House-and it's quite a contrast to what happens in most Christian Churches throughout the land! Quaker services stress silence and "vocal ministry”, that is those who speak during the service. Different techniques are used to keep spiritual focus and include meditation, or saying a mantra. Don’t make the mistake of thinking worship is just an individual experience as there is also a collective dimension to worship. Quakers also practice spiritual discernment and use moral purity, patience, consistency with the Bible, and ongoing vigilance when making collective decisions. A process is described where everyone can air their views and feel part of the collective decision making process to ensure there are no quarreling factions which results in a stronger sense of community:

“When genuinely open to the guidance of God, we can discover a way forward that is superior to any previously held opinion that any one of us brought into the room. When we succeed in getting in touch with our own deepest desires, instead of our surface desires that can be a distortion or digression from the deeper desires, we find that this deep desire are in fact God’s desires. For Friends, those deep desires can often be articulated in terms of our testimonies of equality, simplicity, integrity, and peace” (72-3). 

Makes total sense to me and it seems these principles of discernment could be used in many venues-not just in church!

Another interesting chapter, “Nurturing the Inner Life” demonstrates that Quakerism is more than just gathering at the Meeting house and also includes interior prayer, meditative readings of Scripture, and spiritual nurture from elders. Two devotional texts are also used by Quakers; "A Guide to True Peace" and "A Testament for Devotion” , which are a group of essays by Thomas Kelley. 

As in other volumes in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series, this is a fascinating and interesting overview of the Quakers with many wonderful quotes and references. After reading this book, you’ll want to visit your nearest Society of Friends! 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Carmelite Spirituality

"At the Fountain of Elijah" (1999) by Wilfrid McGreal is part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. In typical fashion, the book provides a fascinating and entertaining introduction and overview of the Carmelite spiritual tradition.

The book begins by providing some historical background to the Carmelite order. The Carmelites began in the 12th century when a group of pilgrims and hermits settled on Mt. Carmel in Israel seeking to live a more authentic spiritual life. Mt. Carmel was a place of historic significance and this spiritual idea took hold of many followers. Mt. Carmel after all, had been the home of Elijah the prophet and the mountain was also seen as a place of abundance and beauty. Returning to Europe, Pope Innocent IV approved their way of life which focused on contemplation but also included a deep commitment to a communal life and service to the community.

What is it about the Carmelite tradition that attracts many today? McGreal quotes an American Carmelite who writes:

"The Carmelite tradition speaks to those who long to be apart, to separate from a smothering existence. the tradition offers the lure of wilderness, mountain retreat, vast expanses of desert. In solitude, in a place apart, we searchers hope to hear our heart's desires more clearly, to reassess life, to dream, to be nourished by hidden springs, to meet the One whom others speak of with great assurance. Those who are drawn by the Carmelite tradition are often pilgrims to places unknown, trusting the testimony of others who have taken the same ancient path" (pg. 13).

That phrase a "smothering existence" strikes home! Who today cannot relate to that in our present day world filled with gadgets, noise, and our culture's maniacal stress on speed?

As in other volumes in this series, the reader is also introduced to the major spiritual figures in the tradition. Speaking for myself, I have to say that I find this one of the real strengths of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. For the Carmelites this includes Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, John of St. Samson, Lawrence of the Resurrection, Therese of Lisieux Edith Stein and Titus Brandsma. These are fantastic chapters and provide wonderful overviews of some terrific spiritual luminaries. You get bit sized nuggets on each writer, and learn about such themes as the dark night of the soul and the practice of the presence of God.

Wilfrid McGreal has done us a great service in writing about the Carmelite tradition from the 12th century to the present. The reader gets a taste for the Carmelite Rule, history and some of its major figures. The book is well written and easy to read and I wish it was twice the size! Part of me is a Carmelite as I resonate to the themes of Teresa and St. John of the Cross.

This volume and series belongs in every seminary, church library, and students interested in the history of spirituality. Really good! A bibliography guise the reader to other important Carmelite literature.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Augustinian Spirituality

“Our Restless Heart” by Thomas Martin, is part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series and covers the Augustinian Tradition. Augustine had a towering impact over Western Christianity as no other, and his only real rival was St. Thomas Aquinas. Augustine is a fascinating and talented figure-a gifted theologian, writer, poet, bishop, and monk whose intellectual and spiritual legacy is claimed by Catholic and Protestant alike. Who was Augustine and why is the Augustinian legacy important today? These very questions “Our Restless Heart” tries to answer.

The opening chapter-and perhaps the most important chapter in the book-provides an overview of Augustine’s spiritual vision. There are important historical facts such as Augustine’s early life, relationship with his mother Monica and son Deodatus, and finally his famous conversion. Augustine’s celebrated quote that his heart was restless until he found his rest in God is seen by Martin as a metaphor of “the journey” (peregrinato) and key to understanding Augustinian spirituality (pg. 25). This is a same sense of "journey" that we find in Biblical accounts such as in Abram’s call and in classical literature such as Homer’s Odyssey. The call to grow, the leave the familiar, and to reach beyond  to the unknown.  

Chapter two examines the Rule of St. Augustine, The Praeceptum, which covered the key aspects of monastic life; the basis cf common life; prayer; moderation and self denial; safeguarding chastity and fraternal correction; the care of the community; asking pardon and forgiving offenses; governance and obedience; and observance of the rule. The key charism of the Augustinian Tradition is love where love of neighbor and unity reflect God’s love for us. This is a great chapter as it shows the uniqueness of the Augustine Rule.

The third and fourth chapter examine how the Augustine order reinvented itself and became part of the Mendicant reforms. Chapter five-is one of the most fascinating in the book-and demonstrates how the Catholic Humanists and Protestant Reformers found inspiration in different parts of Augustine, claiming the Bishop of Hippo as their own. It is a tribute to depth of Augustine that Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jerome Seripando call all claim to different parts of the Augustan cannon. This is best demonstrated when John Calvin wrote “It is Augustine who is the best and most faithful witness of all antiquity whom we most often cite” (pg. 127). That statement could have easily been written by the other three reformers. 

This is a great introduction to St. Augustine and to many of his theological and spiritual writings. Writing a book on Augustine is no easy task and to write a fresh and interesting book on Augustine and the entire Augustinian tradition is remarkable achievement. I really enjoyed this book and it left me asking for more.

Let me conclude this review with a quote from Augustine, the Doctor of Grace himself, as it reflects on the kind of person he was:

"What do I want: What do I desire: What do I burn for? Why am I sitting here? Why do I live? there’s only one reason: so that we may live together with Christ. This is my intense desire, this is my honor, this my richness, this my joy, this my glory…I DO NOT WANT TO BE SAVED WITHOUT YOU” (pg. 160).

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Benedictine Spirituality

"Prayer and Community" (1998) by Columba Stewart is another title in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. The volume covers the Benedictine tradition, the largest monastic tradition in Christian monastic orders and tells the important story of one of the greatest laypersons in the history of the Church.

The significance and impact of Benedict and his rule was massive and presented the Christian experience in a new way. The Benedictines transformed monasticism from a solitary and often wandering tradition into a communal brother and sisterhood highlighted by a permanent location and a daily rule of work and prayer. Benedict put on end to the Celtic "rule" which in his eyes was too loose and unorganized. Benedict replaced the Celtic notion of wandering with stability as he felt the spiritual life could only flourish within a fixed structure and rule of life.

And what a "system" Benedict produced! Benedictine houses required each monk agree to lifelong poverty, chastity, total obedience to the abbot and the Rule, and a commitment to remain within the order for life. And for Benedictines, the recipe of success was also a unique blend of prayer and work centered around the liturgy of the hours, the lectio divina, personal prayer and silence. The Benedictine houses and monasteries were not just places of worship but also places of learning and culture. Benedictine communities were often linked with sprawling monasteries, farms, industries such as wineries, cheese making and a host of other monastic industries. 

As I have indicated in some of my other reviews in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series, the best way to learn about the Benedictines is to visit a Benedictine monastery first hand. You will be amazed at how wonderful and enriching the experience can be. Here you will experience the Benedictine charism of hospitality, as well as the unique rhythm of monastic life. To me, this is the great feature about Stewart's book-he summarized the major points of a 15 century old tradition which is still a helpful guide for many today. I mention this only because I was raised in a Protestant home and then in my twenties went to a Benedictine monastery in up state New York and experienced monastic life first hand-it was a fantastic experience! This was Holy Cross Monastery which is linked here.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Celtic Spirituality

"And now for something completely different"! 

Yours truly has agreed to review several of the books in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series. This provides a great opportunity to discuss some of the great spiritual traditions which surrounded the Celtic tradition including the Benedictine, Augustinian and Dominican to name just a few! So stay turned for some Continental overviews as we step out of the Celtic world for a bit. 

But as you would expect, I must begin these reviews with the book on the Celtic tradition. 

Journeys on the Edges (2000) is part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series by Orbis books. As indicated in other reviews in this series, the overall aim is to reveal the breadth and depth of Christian spirituality. Journey on the Edges (JOE) highlights the unique contribution of the Celtic tradition and primarily focuses on Ireland although readers will be aware that the Celtic tradition extended throughout Britain and into Europe, making headway even into Italy.

The title is appropriately selected, for as I read and re-read JOE I felt as if I was on a journey and the book moves at a fast pace. First, the author dispels some of the popular misconceptions surrounding Celtic spirituality. JOE debunks the notion that there was ever a unique Celtic spirituality or even a unique “Celtic Church’ which some writers believed grew apart from the Roman Catholic Church. Then O’Loughlin discusses some of the key elements to the Celtic point of view. From St.Augustine the Celts received a sacramental view of the earth and universe. From Eucherius they learned of monastic model of tranquility and from Cassian they learned principles of desert spirituality. Clearly, these monastic, desert values fit in well to the rural calm throughout most of Ireland and the model flourished. 

The book then moves on to discuss how many Celtic writers thought of themselves as living of the edge of the world, and of time itself, far away from Rome, the then center of the known world. Anyone who has travelled in Ireland or the Scottish Highlands or islands even today, can understand this sense, of remoteness and timelessness. Try and what that sense of remoteness was like over 1500 years ago!

Other sections of the book discuss key figures and subjects such as the medieval philosopher Eriugena; St. Patrick; St. Brendan; the contribution of penance to Catholic theology; and a discussion of some sermons to assist us to understand the mind of that time. O’Loughlin remarks; “we see a particular vision of the Christian life coming into focus. It is one which finds echoes of the divine order in the human body and external world, and it sees a pattern for life in the earthly life of Jesus. Here the sacramentalism found in learned monastic texts has been brought into the common currency of preaching to women, men and children on a Sunday” (131). What is particularly surprising here-and in contrast to Latin Christianity-is that the divine order is linked with both the human body and the physical world. And here I think lies some of the major contributions of the Celtic spirituality-a spirituality of the body and the physical world-not just of the mind and intellect!

I like this book, it surprises me as I turn the pages and touches on subjects I do not see cited in other books on Celtic spirituality. JOE is not what I expected but I say that in a good sense for I feel it tried to fill in some of gaps which exist in Celtic studies.That being said, JOE has the feel of an academic book, and is a probably best fitted for college or graduate students. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

"Awake: The Life of Yogananda" Film Review

AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda

This past weekend, my wife and I went to see a new film about
Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder of the Life Realization Fellowship. The film, AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda, is a well produced and colorful film, lasting about an hour and a half and provides an overview of the life and work of Paramahansa Yogananda.

You might be wondering what this has to do with Celtic Christianity? No, Yogananda was not born in Cork, Ireland, nor did he speak any Gaelic! However, as this is a blog about spirituality, and as someone interested in learning more about the practice of meditation, Yogananda is an important spiritual figure that one should know. Millions of people, including myself have read Yogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi"(1946) and benefitted from reading it.  "Autobiography of a Yogi" is a funny and entertaining read, which describes Yogananda's encounters with spiritual men and women, and his coming to America. Not many people in the West were familiar with eastern spirituality in the 1930's but even then, there was an appetite for things Eastern. Yogananda gave thousands of lectures in America and started several communities across America, the main house being in Mount Washington near Los Angeles, California.  Yogananda's broad message was that self-realization was possible through yogic control of the mind and body which anyone could learn and practice.

If you've never read "Autobiography of a Yogi" then seeing this movie provides a fine introduction. The book is ranked as one of the top 100 religious books of the last century. Overall, I felt the film made some great points. Notably, that many Americans remain interested in spiritual practices, and in spiritual practices which include a deep sense of mystery (mysticism) and a kind of spirituality which embraces all aspects of one's self-not just the mind. Translation-many people find meditation and yoga so helpful, attractive and restorative because it is a mind PLUS body spiritually, which adds up to wholeness!

Moviegoers, I would also advise you to take the time to read the book which can be found in almost every second hand book shop. One sees it everywhere! The book provides a nice introduction to Hindu spiritual literature-the Vedas, Upanishads and the Mahabarata. And the book also has those fascinating and hilarious accounts of  holy saints; the Perfume Saint, who could conger scents at will; the Tiger Swami, who wrestled and defeated tigers; and the Levitating saint. You will also want to read about Yogananda's meeting with the Catholic Saint, Therese Newmann, who ate nothing but a communion wafer daily for years. And of course, you will learn about Yogananda's great teachers; Lahiri Mahasaya and Swami Sri Yukteswar. Much of this is passed over in AWAKE!

To be honest, having read the book, I was disappointed by the movie-which came off like a long ad for the Self-Realization Fellowship. I did enjoy aspects of the movie such as the old videoclips of Yogananda interspersed with comments by Steve Jobs, George Harrison and Deepak Chopra.  I also appreciated learning more about Yogananda's meeting with Gandhi.

Surprisingly, you can also learn something more about the Bible by encountering Yogananda.
Yogananda was well read in the Bible and expressed a reverence for Jesus, who he referred to as "the Galilean Master". Yogananda also wrote a commentary on the Gospels (something I wish I knew about when I was in seminary) called "The Second Coming of Christ" which many have find to be a fascinating blend of Western and Eastern thought. It's unlike any biblical commentary I have ever read and I found many of the interpretations to be fresh and new. For example, Yogananda interprets the second coming of Christ, as Christians living in the world and being Christ in the world. This seems to me a needed compliment to interpretations focused on a literal return of Christ.

A trailer for the film can be found here.