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!