Introduction to the English Mystics

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Part of "The English Mystics"

Conference 1: Introduction to the English Mystics

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Richard Rowe, Walter Hilton, and the author of The Cloud. Welcome to you here and also to our television audience, so to speak, and our tape audience. These three form a fairly compact, cohesive whole because they lived in the same, even half century, and they lived in the same area of England, not more than 100 miles apart one from another. But apart from these outer characteristics of geography and time, there's an inner spirit that binds them, and they knew the one or the other, their writings, and they also debate back and forth, and that's kind of fun, and one seeks to correct the other. But there's, I think, a particular spirit of that time and place that inspires them, as I'll try to argue. It's a spirit, I think, that's very much alive in our own time so that we can learn so much from these three.


The term English school refers classically to them plus Julian. We won't touch Julian this time simply because she's so profound, she's so vast, and she's, I think, quite distinct from the other three. She has had, you might know, a series of very unique visions in the space of a very short period of time. Then she spends the rest of her life pondering these visions, and out of them she's able to draw a very deep spiritual theology. Now these three are not like that. They're not focusing on their visions or drawing forth a marvelous theological reflection, but they're trying to help others pray, basically. These are manuals of prayer, we could say, so they're much more accessible to us if this is our desire to learn how to pray better. Then, of course, if you go to the centuries before and the centuries after, you can come up with so many other English mystics. So it is quite


arbitrary to limit to these three. So we're just gathering three out of really a marvelous multitude. We could look at the Venerable Bede, at Saint Ayred, we could look at saints afterwards, also Marjorie Kemp of the same period, go down into the great Anglican mystics, Thomas Traherne, or William Law, or a whole series of others. But we're focusing on these just because we have such limited time. Also, with any one of these, we could spend weeks and weeks. They're so profound. So this is a first introduction that I hope will lead to an ongoing love of these three. Especially the cloud is much read these days. It's just a classic. But to understand the cloud better, I think it is good to bounce him off Richard Grohl, who precedes him, and Walter Hilton, who comes after him, whoever he is. We assume


it is a he. So these, then, are three. They lived kind of towards the middle end of the 14th century, the 1300s in England. That's a faraway place in a faraway time. But a wonderful social historian, Barbara Tuchman, recently wrote a book, A Distant Mirror, A Social History of the 14th Century, with notes of parallels to our own. So A Distant Mirror, even the title suggests, somehow, in many ways, there's so much like the 14th century in our own experience of the 1900s that we can, I think, very much resonate with their experience. We aren't into a cyclical view of history, certainly, but maybe a spiral view, and certain problems, certain events, certain tragedies seem to return with a certain frequency. Well, they


are spirits very much like our own. Some of the characteristics of the 14th century, it was the century of the very terrible 100-year war between England and France. In our terms, these were two very small, poor nations, and they just didn't have the resources to go on with this bloody, drawn-out, staggering, slug-away war that pulled away so many of the young men from England and from France. So much tax money, it just made England totter socially, a terrible time. Well, think of our own experience of wars and taxes. It was the time of the Black Plague, a terrible plague. Of course, science wasn't at a very advanced level, and it was thought quite directly, this was God's punishment for all kinds of infidelities. But historians estimate that something like a third of the people


of England died of the plague, and of France. It seems that Richard Roll, the first man we'll look at, he died of the plague. But if you imagine your town, just imagine that in the course of 100 years, a third of the people died just of this one disaster situation. Of course, we have our own lights of cancer and polio and AIDS now. But it was quite a shock, that dimension of their experience. Then the social unrest caused by the heavy taxation caused by this dreadful, drawn-out war. Think of all the Vietnam protests, etc. But we had the peasants' uprising and angry, radicalized priests leading the peasants and inciting them on with all kinds of really kind of pre-communist ideology and hopes.


To go back to a kind of a just classless society, etc. And the king, therefore, had to defend himself at home as well as abroad. And dreadful social unrest. Then the situation of the church was not pretty. It was the time of the so-called Babylonian captivity, where the pope had had to flee off to Avignon, and remember again that France was the hated enemy of the English. So here's all these good English Catholics whose spiritual leader is under the political control of the French. So it's not a very happy situation. But for all of this, for this very painful age, there's a flourishing of mysticism in England, in France, in Germany. This is interesting. Is there any causal connection? Many historians would suggest, well, it might be that it's such a disastrous time, you're forced to


think about the ultimate things. You're forced to think about the afterlife and to go within, since the outside is not that consoling. To ask, what is it all about? So all these mystics, women mystics, men mystics, the women just... There's this magnificent explosion of women visionaries, mystics, writers, Mictilde, Gertrude. Just today, we've been celebrating St. Bridget, a wonderful visionary prophetic foundress of a kind of a Benedictine order up in Sweden, who wrote off angry letters to the popes in Avignon, advising them to get back to Rome, as did Catherine of Siena, another great mystic from Italy. Angela de Foligno, Eckhart Toller, Sousa, Reusberg, etc. So in the Eastern Church, Gregory Palamas, this flourishing of the so-called hesychast mystical tradition. So there was


something about that age, in spite of all the disasters, and maybe because it was also marked by this flourishing of mysticism. What do we mean by mysticism? We just mean in the most simple terms, this very deep experiential communion with God. It's just taking our Lord's first commandment to love the Lord our God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and take that to a point where it's not just in the head or kind of gritted teeth, but there's this taste and see that the Lord is good. That's all it means. So mysticism is simply the natural unfolding of what we're granted in baptism. It's simply becoming mature Christians. It's like in any relationship, I-thou relationship, it might be a friendship, it might be father-son, mother-son, it might be spousal, romantic, that deepens, deepens,


deepens. When more and more there's this kind of con-natural sharing, psychologists call it cathexis, this kind of two become one. Well, that's what happens as we grow in love with our beloved God, who is beloved father, who is beloved mother, friend, spouse. So that's, well there's this flourishing of mysticism. It's kind of encouraged by the age. Whatever is happening, no matter how disastrous it is, you can always pray. And very often in such a situation, not only is that the only consolation available, but it's the only thing that can get you through as resource, as light. There's not much reference to this disastrous time. In any of these writings, they were so focused, the writers, on this deep communion with God. Also in Julian of Norwich, she had an ongoing contact through all these pilgrims who would come and consult with her. But we don't need to be just torn


apart and kind of decimated by the disasters of our times. We should be able to, I think, be aware, confront, minister to the needy, et cetera. But I think these mystics, and also the mystics of our own age, teach us that this might be a call to move beyond the temporal and the penultimate into the ultimate, to find the still center that can hold the whole together. I'm just reading an interview with Cardinal Martini, who's a wonderful ecclesiastic of Italy, the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan. He was the rector of the Biblicum in Rome. He's a wonderful biblical scholar. They're asking him, where's the church going? What are the signs of the times? He said, one of the principal signs of the times is his interest in contemplative prayer, all these prayer groups that want to go to a deeper level, a shared experience of God. All these parallels with our own age, two world wars, and Korea, and Vietnam, and


now Bosnia that seems to drag on for so many decades, this threat and fear of nuclear disaster, and so on and so forth, of alcohol, drugs, urban unrest, et cetera. All this, I think, causes many to think, hey, what's it all about? I've only got one lifetime. What am I going to do with it? The out there is less appealing, so you go within, kind of thing. Apart from that, the contemplative spirituality that these three offer is so inviting that even if we lived in a very different time, they've been popular right down through the ages, whatever was happening, especially the Cloud and Julian. Now we want to also fill out the picture with the other two. Were you all given this outline of the schedule? Good. For our tape audience, I'd like to read a quote on the bottom of that schedule, which


our participants here have already been able to read. It's a very succinct kind of rave notice from Thomas Merton about the English school. If you want a first good introduction to the English school, particularly these three mystics plus Julian of Norwich, there's this wonderful essay, The English Mystics by Thomas Merton. It's in his volume, Mystics and Zen Masters. As he grew older, he just fell in love more and more with the English mystics. They became his primary nourishment of his spirituality. Towards the end, especially of Julian of Norwich, there's one quote where he acknowledges that the early Merton was all taken up with a Carmelite school of Therese and John of the Cross. He said, now he wouldn't sell Julian for all the Carmelites and all the West Indy Islands and all the jewels there and all the rest. So this is what more and more nourished him. His prayer was basically


the prayer of the cloud. We have very few autobiographical passages in Merton about how he experienced prayer. He wrote so much and so much about contemplative prayer, but it was from a kind of an impersonal or more theological, but precisely what he experienced. We have only one or two published passages, but they say it was very much like the cloud in that wordless apophatic moving into a kind of a very mysterious communion with God that can't even be expressed. He says in this essay, there is every reason for interest in the English mystics. They have a charm and simplicity that are unequaled by any other school. I think we could use some simplicity in our very complicated age. And they are also, it may say, generally quite clear, down to earth and practical, even when they are concerned with the loftiest of matters. They never seem to have thought their life with God something recondite or even unusual. They were simply Christians. If you get into this whole area


of spirituality, if you go far enough, you can meet some fairly eccentric people. People can sometimes almost seem to think that the more bizarre they become, the more mystical they are. That's not necessarily the case. These are three, well, at least two of them. Richard Rowe is a bit bizarre himself, but the other two are very practical, sane men with senses of humor, with just their feet on the ground. And this is extremely important because we're entering an area where you can go weird and where it's good to be guided. Also, all three of these are serious theologians. This is important. That is, they are in touch with the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and how those doctrines nourish our prayer so it's solid, so it's safe. Again, it's possible to go so weird in this area of prayer, et cetera. Marjorie Kemp did, in fact. And you can even go slightly nuts. This is an area that's high


risk if you're not in a solid support community or if you're not guided by very solid texts like these. So simplicity, clarity, practicality, there's a great deal that can be said for that, I think. Very much rooted in the biblical patristic monastic centuries. They didn't just come make up this stuff, but it's a re-expression, a re-articulation of what comes out of the Christian past in terms of contemplative prayer. Now, they're basically benedictine theses for though none of them directly were. And then there's another lovely quote from Merton. They don't go gloomy, they don't go bitter and mean and judgmental and get into hellfire. Very strange things, again, can happen when you get into this. But they're into the very center of the Christian faith and proclamation, which is Easter, which is the victory, which


is joy. And that's what mysticism should be all about. Here's a somewhat longer quote, which I think is a good one, just to motivate us to read on. The masters of the English school, each in his own way, teach a doctrine of simplicity and joy. One finds in them nothing tragic, nothing morbid, no obsession, no violence. There is in the English school less blood and anguish, less hellfire and horror than is to be found in any other school of Christian mysticism. I think this is very consoling for us. We live in such a down age, it's important to recover Christian hope, Christian joy. Not that the physical sufferings of Christ on the cross were not real to them, witness the first visions of Lady Julian, but the light of mercy and the joy of life in the risen Savior transfigure even the vision of the crucified. And this is, of course, as it


should be. So we just want to live our resurrection, that's at the heart of our liturgical year, at the heart of our Christian faith. Well, if you really want to live it, pray. Enter into the life of the risen Christ, and to help you on that way are English mystics. They're not just kind of carbon copies, one or the other. Each one of these is very different, and their writings are very different. And so in the, we mentioned before how kind of a cohesive unity there is, but still unity within diversity, and diversity within unity. So that the author of Cloud is quite unlike Walter Hilton, who criticizes, critiques the author of the Cloud. And they're both quite unlike Richard Rowe, very unlike. They both critique him. So it's, I think that's good, to get some kind of dialectic and discussion and debate going, knowing that there's not just one way to journey on in prayer.


For instance, Walter Hilton tends to offer an overview of the Christian life, from the first beginnings of baptismal life in the Lord, to the highest levels of union with God. But the whole range, and to put particular areas of this into this larger context. But the second treatise of his, Stairway or Scale to Paradise, is a great example of this The second part, very much more focuses specifically on contemplative prayer. But the Cloud is very, very focused just on that form of wordless contemplative prayer. So if you want to just specialize in that area, certainly read the Cloud. But then as we'll see, there are other treatises by the same author of the Cloud, that take the same theme, or take other themes, from different angles. And so you can even get a wider range on the English spirituality


by reading the various writings now available in English of the author of the Cloud. Then Richard Rohl, those first two, the Cloud writer and Walter Hilton, are rather careful, sober prose writers. But Richard Rohl, as we'll see in the next tape or tomorrow morning, is just a poet. He's just full of passion and wildness. He's a four on the Enneagram. He has his wild moments of up and down and great joy and anger and depression. And if you're into the more passionate, read Richard Rohl. If you're into the more kind of reserved and almost dry and careful, but with a kind of a wry humor, et cetera, read Walter Hilton or the Cloud. But they are helpful also in, again, this variety. As we hear in this room, or our listeners, we're all different, one from another. But each one of us, just again in virtue of our baptism, is called to this deep contemplative prayer the three are talking


about. Indeed, theologians would argue, just in virtue of our humanity, we're called to this prayer. Because the God who redeemed us in Christ is the God who created us and created us for God. So there's that famous quote from Augustine, you have made us for yourself, O Lord, and we are restless till we rest in you. That's just the basic theme of these writings. And as we claim them and appropriate them, we start simply to live who we are. We become who we are as Christians and simply as human beings. So if all this is helpful, this won't depend primarily on my conferences, fortunately, nor even on these books. They're going to depend primarily on you and me, to what extent we seriously commit ourselves, risk intimacy with God in prayer. Certainly in this particular


period of the conferences, of whatever other form of prayer is available here at the New Camaloli, both liturgical prayer, the silence after vespers, the silence of your own rooms, the beauty of nature, et cetera, all these different dimensions of Christian prayer, that's the real weekend workshop. And especially then, after you descend from the mountain, just that perseverance in being faithful to who we are called to be as just loving children of God, loving friends of God, loving spouses of God. We're reading in Refectory now the letters of another great English mystic, the Benedict in John Chapman. And he's just very practical and very challenging. And he has this wonderful aphorism, the only way to learn how to pray is to pray. And the only way to learn how to


pray well is to pray often. So that's the bottom line. Certainly Richard Rowe would agree with that and Walter Hilton and the author of The Cloud. But we can be helped along the way. We need ongoing encouragement and guides. And a tremendous help is this English school. These books really can sustain us and help us on the way, help us to pray often, help us to pray well.