Mystery vs certainty

Spirituality and fundamentalism are at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. Spirituality seeks a sensitive, contemplative relationship with the sacred and is able to sustain levels of uncertainty in its quest because respect for mystery is paramount. Fundamentalism seeks certainty, fixed answers and absolutism, as a fearful response to the complexity of the world and to our vulnerability as creatures in a mysterious universe.

David Tacey, ‘Rising Waters of the Spirit’

Friendship and intimacy

I urge you … to open your heart to friendship and intimacy, remembering that your friendships are an extension of your contemplative prayer. They are indeed contemplative friendships. As mystical contemplation necessarily brings suffering and emptiness, dark nights and enlightenment, so too will intimate friendship bring suffering and emptiness, dark nights and enlightenment. As mystical contemplation leads to human authenticity so does mystical friendship; as mystical contemplation leads to self-transcendence so also does mystical friendship. You will find that deep purification takes place, and that you become transparent to another person and she to you …

I came across this statement from William Johnston’s Being in Love: The Practice of Christian Prayer at a quiet day at Tabor Carmelite Retreat House, Preston, on Saturday. I simply couldn’t believe it when these words were read out by the retreat leader. I was just stunned, utterly stunned …

Best Reads 2013. III: Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain SpiritualityThe Solace of Fierce Landscapes, says Frances Young in Brokenness and Blessing, is the kind of book she would have liked to have written herself. Published by Oxford University Press, this is a well-informed exploration of desert spirituality. But it offers more than that. Talking about ‘the permeable boundaries between critical scholarship and lived experience’, Belden Lane also reflects on his own experience of spending time in wilderness places; and he gives a very personal account of his journey alongside his dying mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and cancer as well as his attempt to come to terms with his father’s somewhat mysterious death earlier on in his life.

The book is in three parts, which reflect the traditional three stages of the spiritual life: Purgation: Emptiness in a Geography of Abandonment; Illumination: Waiting in a Silence Beyond Language; and Union: Love as the Fruit of Indifference. These three stages, notes Lane, are symbolised by the desert, the mountain and the cloud.

There are chapters on:

  • spirituality and the environment,
  • wild terrain and the spiritual life,
  • prayer without language in the mystical tradition,
  • the symbolism of Mounts Sinai and Tabor in the Christian tradition,
  • the landscape and theology of early Christian monasticism,
  • the desert Christians’ counter-cultural spirituality of attentiveness, indifference and love.

And, to give you another list, which is the only way I can even begin to do justice to the book’s richness without giving an extensively long account, Lane offers insightful thoughts on:

  • abandonment of control (and the desert as teacher of renunciation and abandonment),
  • letting go and the emptying of self,
  • loving that which cannot be understood,
  • the power of compassion as the fruit of indifference (the notion of indifference might require some explanation, but you have to read Lane for that),
  • a new harmony with the land,
  • learning to pay attention,
  • the transformation of desire into love,
  • meeting love in the most unlikely places,
  • the power of silence to connect and heal,
  • liturgy and the reaffirmation of ordinariness.

Woven into the fabric of the book are interludes, called ‘mythic landscapes’, in which Lane takes his personal account of the journey with his dying mother as well as his repeated experiences of wilderness places as the starting point for further reflections on issues such as a spirituality of brokenness, the gift of nothingness in a desert landscape, the unexpected gifts of grief, and a spirituality of desire.

Having had some recent desert experiences myself, I have found this a rich and rewarding read.

Learning from monks, nuns and friars

Ian Adams, Cave, Refectory, Road: Monastic Rhythms for Contemporary LivingCave, Refectory, Road: Monastic Rhythms for Contemporary Living by Ian Adams, another short book of just under 100 pages, adopts an approach to spirituality and Christian living that seeks to learn from the strengths of the monastic tradition. It represents the movement of ‘new monasticism’, in which key monastic principles are applied to ‘regular life’ in a non-monastic setting.

Such a life finds expression in the cave, which symbolises withdrawal in order to make space for stillness, prayer and contemplation; the refectory, which stands for commitment to a place and community, for hospitality and presence; and the road, the life that is open to travel, encounter and world-engagement.

Adams offers perceptive comments on the monastic rhythm of life with its different approach to time, prioritising prayer, silence and stillness over everything else; and there are thoughtful chapters on the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability, which are reinterpreted as simplicity, devotion, humility and rootedness.

This is a gentle and reflective book that seeks to point the way to an authentic spirituality focused on being and living.