P is for Purgation (an alphabet for penitents)

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

-Ephesians 4:22-24

Purgation is never far from Lenten spirituality. The discipline of fasting, and of chastened habits helps us to cast aside the things that hinder us and attend to the stuff that matters. The purgative way is integral to true spirituality. We will not grasp for God with our hands full. There has to be some letting go.

The Christian Mystical tradition places purgation as an early stage of the spiritual life. The mystics name these stages: Purgation, Illumination, Union. There is a purgative stage of stripping off the old self—patterns of behavior, false beliefs, self-centeredness and petty idolatries. Then the ground is paved for deeper spiritual insight and experience (illumination). The illuminative stage likewise involves a letting go of self, but the primary energy is directed at training one’s attention on God. In the final stage, the soul is stripped of self and united with the Divine (union).

These stages roughly describe the shape of spiritual maturity. Purgation is for beginners, Illumination is the promise of those on the way, Union is our telos. However, the spiritual life, like other aspects of life does not always follow a straight ascent. Purgation-Illumination-Union is the cycle of Christian Spirituality: we let go, we attend, we commune.

If that is a little abstract, don’t worry about it. The point is that spiritual progress involves a purge of our old life as we make room for something new. The Apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians to “put off their old self, which was corrupted by its deceitful desires.” For converts in the Ancient world, this meant letting go of religious ideas and the ubiquitous pagan idolatry and learning to locate their lives within YHWH’s story and the redemption Christ brings. It also meant for them, as for us, disciplining passions and desires—the drive for success, greed, covetousness, lust, pride—and seek to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

The mystics are right that purgation is felt most acutely by those who are beginners in the spiritual journey. It involves a radical reorienting of our thoughts, hopes, and actions. This is conversion. But the purgative way isn’t just the purview of beginners. Wherever you are in your spiritual life, there are things you need to purge: attachments to people, faulty understanding, false beliefs about yourself, harmful habits, past hurts, unforgiveness and bitterness, shame. We will not grasp God with our hands full. There has to be some letting go.

The Spirit and ‘the Letter’ of Prayer: a book review

About a week-and-a-half ago, I received a copy of Letters to Jacob: Mostly on Contemplative Prayer in the mail. It was a short book, only ninety pages(more booklet than book). I thought I would breeze through the book, but that isn’t what happened. I’ve been busy and this short book beckoned me to slow down. I read several of these letters through several times. I mulled over them and their implications. The author, Father John-Julian, is a hermit of the Order of Julian of Norwich (OJN). He shares his insights into prayer, contemplation and ascetical theology.

letters-to-jacob-mostly-about-contemplative-prayer-epub-version-4The title riffs off C.S. Lewis’s classic work Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on  Prayer.  The book began as a set of thirteen letters to a young seminarian who was new to ascetical theology and interested in the practice of contemplative prayer (89). The letters went through several revisions and were passed around to other seminarians and even used as a textbook for ascetical theology. This is first time these letters have been formally published and the number of letters has swelled from thirteen to twenty-two. I am uncertain if the letters’ original recipient was named Jacob or if the name alludes the biblical patriarch famous for his wrestling with God.

Father John-Julian’s focus is on contemplative prayer, or what he calls ‘still prayer.’ He writes:

[T]he still prayer I have called mediation is in its simplest form an attempt to make oneself accessible to God—willing to hear what God may convey, or act as God might direct. In other words, meditation really means waiting upon God—open, vulnerable, focused, susceptible, listening and ready. In meditation one tries to be passive and willing to be communicated with. It is the great pinnacle of spiritual life and devout experience (82-83).

Father John-Julian favors the contemplative tradition; however he also describes the proper orientation to prayer in general. Prayer is not about getting God to do what you want (for yourself or someone else) but an orientation toward relationship with the Divine (7-8).  Fr. John-Julian warns against praying for particular outcomes and instead advises  us to pray that we may recognize the will of God (11). Without prescribing a ‘prayer method.’ John-Julian orients us towards communion with the God that is beyond our comprehension.

Along the way, John Julian identifies the various ‘veils’ which impede the development of still prayer. These include:our emotions, boredom, our frenetic activity, expectations, obscurity which sees God as ‘extrinsic to us,’ methodology, ignorance, consciousness of sin, romance, the mistaken notion of spiritual privacy, projection, an over-literalness,  and a desire for practicality. John-Julian draws heavily on Julian of Norwich (for which his order is named), and the English Mystical tradition (i.e. The Cloud of Unknowing) He is gently critical of charismatic, and evangelical traditions that are overly pragmatic and individualistic.

There is a lot of wisdom in this book and certainly Fr. John-Julian names the heart of true prayer—unity with God. I found this book challenging and underlined a number of passages. As an admittedly low-church evangelical, I am implicated in many of his critiques. There are certainly times where I have been more “results-driven” in prayer than I have been trying to commune with God. I also am some one who is inspired by the contemplative tradition but find it temperamentally difficult (I’m a hyper-extrovert). However in both cases I find myself challenged and drawn into the greater depth of true prayer through these letters.

I recommend this book for those who desire to grow in their prayer life (if there is no desire, you probably aren’t ready for this). Father John-Julian is a wise guide, and I find this short book one of the best contemporary summaries of contemplative prayer. I give this book four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review


Answering the Contemplative Call: a book review

In many ways I’m a failed mystic. I am too extroverted to not feel threatened by silence and solitude. I’m too undisciplined to make contemplative prayer a daily routine. Even my other spiritual-routines (i.e. Bible reading, intercessory prayer, book reviews, etc.) are things that I feel I need to vary fairly often because I get bored and listless with mundane practices. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a better pray-er and have depth in my spiritual life; I want to know God better and be filled up with the Spirit’s presence. I know dailiness is the way to do it, but I tend to try on different spiritual practices the way my kids try on temporary tattoos.

Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path by Carl McColman

Carl McColman has written a book for people like me, who feel the call to the contemplative life but have had too many false starts to really make a go of it.  In Answering the Contemplative Callhe invites his readers into a life of prayer shaped by the Christian mystics. He does occasionally refer to other faith traditions and religious mystics, but in the main, remains Christocentric in his mystical theology.  His pages are littered with references to everyone from the Desert Fathers, Meister Eckhart, The Spanish Carmelites (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross), English Mystics (Julian of Norwich, the Cloud of Unknowing author, Walter Hilton), Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, etc. C.S. Lewis is also referenced a lot because McColman is a Christian and quoting Lewis is what we Christians do.

The book is organized into three sections. In the first section, McColman discusses what it means to recognize ‘the contemplative call.’  In part two he gives advice on how we can prepare for the journey into contemplative prayer. In the last section he paints a picture of what first steps into contemplation may look like.

There is a lot about this book that I really liked. For one thing, I appreciate where McColman roots his insights in the Christian tradition. He delves into the major Christian texts of contemplative theology and commends them to readers. He doesn’t pretend that he says all that needs to be said about mysticism but points his readers towards some pretty great books. Yet he is also not afraid to criticize these masters for their sexism, neo-platonism, or bad theology. A deep experience of God does not entail that an author gets everything right and McColman calls people out.

Also I appreciated the balance he brings. While he explores briefly both the cataphatic and apophatic tradition, he doesn’t pit them against each other or  try to suggest one is more holy or deeper than the other. He commends both. Similarly he also commends the practice of corporate worship to wanna-be-mystics who want to simply get away from people and spend time by their introverted selves in contemplation. McColman rightly points out that that will not do because for Christians  to thrive and grow, private practice is not enough. We are formed in community. A third way where I find McColman balanced in his presentation, is he is careful to guard us from where mysticism can become escapism. By grounding his practice of contemplation in Christ, he keeps the focus of this work Incarnational and warns against spiritualities which attempt to escape embodiment.

I also loved that his description of mysticism/contemplation includes both kenosis and theosis. Kenosis refers in theology to Christ’s self-emptying (as described in Philippians 2). McColman suggests that contemplation similarly calls us to empty ourselves so that we may have a fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit. Theosis describes the movement in the spiritual life where we are gradually transformed into the image of God and partake in his likeness. This is where contemplation (and the Christian life in general) ought to lead. McColman recognizes this. Kenosis and Theosis describe two important aspects of the Spiritual life. They are not in opposition but dovetail nicely.

All this being said, I remain suspicious of aspects of contemplative practice. I have no real qualms against centering prayer, silence and solitude, but my faith has been shaped by the Evangelical commitment to the Bible and the life of Christ. Where these practices (centering prayer et al.i) may be fruitful, I am wary of where they have been divorced from historic commitments of Christian belief. McColman is a religious ecumenist (as I hope am I) but I wonder if his mystical vision, in places, has lost some of it’s particular Christian shape and character (though clearly not all).

This is an introductory text so McColman does not try to say everything that needs to be said.  I did find that this book made me hunger to enter deeper into my practice of prayer and I appreciated a number of insights I found here.  I give it four out five stars.

I recieved this book for purpose of review via Speakeasy and have given you my honest opinions. Thank you for listening to me.