Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stages of perfection

I'm trying to get another set of lessons prepared, this time on the 3'rd 500 years of church history. Along the way I learned of Neander, who wrote his history by focusing on biographies. Luckily a translation into English has been scanned. Unluckily the text generator goes absolutely nuts when it hits Greek, and makes random changes in spelling and punctuation. (And the page headers!).(*)

So I was tooling along and ran into Bernard of Clairvaux.

In the first place, as it respects Bernard, it will be necessary
here to refer back to what we observed in the history of monasticism, concerning his religious position. We saw that the
experience of the heart, growing out of faith, was with him
the main thing ; that he allowed that sort of knowledge in religion alone to be the right one which leads man back into the
recesses of his own heart, and teaches him to be humble.

The man whose entire life belonged to monasticism, and that
mode of intuition which lies at the bottom of it, contemplating the matter from this point of view, did not consider
the highest aim of the Christian life as genuine Christians
required that he should do, the humanization of the divine, the
ennobling of all that is human by a divine principle of life,
but a stage of Christian perfection above the purely human, a
soaring upward of the contemplative spirit that leaves all that
is human behind it. The highest, to his apprehension, is not
that which is to be reached by the harmonious development
of all the powers of man's nature ; but it is the rapture of inspiration, which, overleaping all intermediate stages, antedates the intuition of the life eternal.

" The greatest man," says Bernard, " is he who, despising the use of things and of sense,
so far as human frailty may be permitted to do so, not by a
slowly ascending progression, but by a sudden spring, is
sometimes wont to reach in contemplation those lofty heights."

To this kind he reckons the account of St. Paul, how he was
caught up to the third heaven. He distinguishes three dif-
ferent stages or positions: "That of a practically pious life,
maintained amidst the relations of civil society, where sense
and the things of sense are used in a sober and orderly manner,
according to the will of God ; second, where one rises by
a gradually progressive knowledge from the revelation of
God's invisible essence in creation, to that essence itself; third
and highest, where the spirit collects its energies within itself,
and, so far as it is divinely sustained, divests itself of things
human, to rise to the contemplation of God.
if At this last
stage the man attains immediately to that which is the aim of
all aims, the experience of the divine. To the same point the
other two stages also tend, but by a longer way. That which
is highest cannot be taught by words, but only revealed through the Spirit. No language can explain it ; but we may by prayer
and purity of heart attain to it, after we have prepared our-
selves for it by a worthy life."

I highlighted a little chunk (and put in some paragraph breaks) that sounded very familiar. The last time I checked the theme that the most "evolved" state of any species was a disembodied mind was all over the place in science fiction. I'd bet you could trace the theme back to the platonists if you were willing to work at it.

The problem is that this isn't at all obviously a Christian theme. That the "highest cannot be taught by words" is well known apophatic theology; indeed it is well known in other religions as well. But that the greatest union with God is only possible when we have divested ourselves of "things human" seems to this observer to conflict with the claim that the most perfect union with God was in the person of a Jewish peasant.

That seems to imply that there is no necessary limit on the perfection of a union between the human nature and the divine. If our natures were changed (when we try that we typically botch it), the nature of that union would change too, but infinity isn't necessarily bigger than infinity.

(*) Looking at the PDF I now understand why: some pages of the book were used to identify the book as library property by having the name of the library punched through them. I can figure out the letters, but I wouldn't expect an OCR program to manage.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Bernard wrote "Oh Sacred Head, Now Wounded," I recall, and was greatly respected for his sanctity in his own day. So...I am hesitant to be at all dismissive of the ideas of someone clearly more advanced in the faith than I. I know also that I am not of mystical bent myself, which is likely my lack.

Yet I still don't think this is quite right. What does happen to those who sincerely wish to meditate upon God is not automatically what is best. They may feel that it is, but that track may have its own temptations and snares. Other Good Things certainly do - generosity, leadership, industry, self-denial. St Paul mentions quite a list in 1 Cor 13.

I think the mystic naturally tends to the dualist, gnostic, and ultimately docetic ideas that matter is bad, spirit good.

james said...

If asked to explain what he was talking about, he might have defined terms in ways that would void my complaint. If I wasn't already modestly familiar with aphophatic theology the Wikipedia article's language would have been jarring.

I'd not thought before of what the special temptations are of the mystic life. Married life and monastic life we know the temptations of well enough (experience or literature), but those aren't the only poles.

I'm not terribly familiar with mystics from other religions, but the few I can recall back up your supposition that mystics are apt to be dualists.