Ancient discipleship

To my Protestant ear, the title of John Anthony McGuckin’s collection of meditations sounds suspicious. I’ve had books with similar titles (and covers) thrust at me at airports. But a good deal of my suspicion was grounded in Protestantism’s general suspicion of mysticism.

The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations of the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives is, on its most apparent level, a collection of thoughts from the first fourteen hundred years of Christianity. Ironically, the included writers trail off about the time of the Reformation, when a large portion of the church began to associate mysticism with an unacceptable spiritual subjectivity and asceticism.

McGuckin’s introduction explains the arrangement of the meditations he has chosen, and, in doing so, he makes an excellent case for mysticism’s continued relevance. McGuckin, an Orthodox priest and a professor of early church history at Union Theological Seminary, arranges the meditations in three “centuries,” each of which is a collection of a hundred aphorisms. This arrangement is modeled after the manuals of instruction put together in early Christian monasteries. The order of the three centuries offers both a relevant pattern of spiritual growth and a model for discipleship.

The three centuries represent three stages of spiritual development. While the editors of these early manuals understood overlaps among these stages, they insisted that some things came before others, and that progress in the spiritual life was measurable, or at least discernable by a religious community.

The purpose of the first century of meditations, known as “Praktikos,” is to guide new monks and other seekers toward “a mastery of the knowledge of the inner self.” This inward emphasis was based on Genesis’s creation story in which mankind was made in God’s image. God gives us our souls to keep as a sort of inactivated blueprint of the spiritual life. To know one’s self, then, is the first step in knowing God.

The distrust of psychology evident in many Evangelical circles today is based on Protestantism’s own brand of spiritual subjectivity. Mysticism’s flair for allegorical interpretations of the Bible may appear subjective to many Protestants, but the fear of psychology evident in some Evangelical circles would appear subjective to the early Fathers in a more fundamental sense. If there are no guidelines for how we see ourselves – no discernment of “the multiple versions of the false self we often construct” (to use McGuckin’s words) – how can we grow in the knowledge of the truth?

[book cover]McGuckin is part of a movement that reclaims the early Christian contemplatives’ role as precursors to modern psychology. Anslem Gruen, a Benedictine monk, makes McGuckin’s point about the Fathers and psychology from the vantage point of another tradition. In Heaven Begins Within You, Gruen writes:

The way to God, for the desert fathers, always passes through self-knowledge. Evagrius Ponticus put it this way: “If you want to know God, learn to know yourself first!” Without self-knowledge we are always in danger of having our ideas of God turn into mere projections. (Gruen 18)

Many of McGuckin’s Praktikos reflect the tension between the desire for spiritual progress and the mundane and painful work of self-knowledge. Here is an example of a Praktikos, from Evagrios of Pontus and translated (as are all the meditations in Mystical Chapters) by McGuckin:

Someone who is tied up cannot run.
Just so, the spiritual intellect
that is still a slave to its obsessive desires
can never see the domain of spiritual prayer,
because it is dragged all over the place
by compulsive ideations
and cannot achieve
the necessary intellectual stillness.

The second stage of spiritual advancement represented by the book’s second “century” is known as “Theoretikos,” which means “seeing.” The demarcation between these first two stages is not as clear as, say, enlightenment in some Buddhist traditions, but the idea is similar. The disciple has had the benefit of some insight from the mastery of some spiritual practices, but the practices and insight may not have yet lead her to a wounding experience. The disciple’s master helps her discover the prejudices and repressions that keep her from God’s arrow of love.

What strikes me most in the aphorisms making up this middle century is the predominant metaphor of seeing. My own Charismatic background has seemed to favor the metaphor of hearing. For instance, I have spent more than twenty-five years of my life among people that ask one another what God has been saying. We struggle and fear when God seems to be silent. I hope I still value God’s voice, but I have a new appreciation for seeing in the spiritual sense.

One of Jesus’ sayings about being born again does not get much circulation in Protestantism: without a spiritual birth, we cannot “see” the kingdom of God. How much of the kingdom do I really see? What if my spiritual birth involves a longer gestation period than my Evangelical background would settle for? What if the whole period of Praktikos is a preparation for a spiritual birth, for an awakening or a seeing? Wouldn’t that explain things, both in the Bible and in life? Paul’s telling a church that he “labors until Christ is formed” in them? Jesus’ telling Peter that he needed a conversion experience three years after Peter had “left all” to follow Jesus? John’s promise that receiving Jesus gives us the “power to become” children of God?

The final stage of discipleship, and of the book’s meditations, is Gnostikos, or “knowing.” Often, these were meditations taken from conversations or correspondence among masters of the spiritual life, to which others were not privy. Unlike the first two centuries, these collections were not teaching tools but enigmatic signals by which one master of the spiritual life might recognize another.

I am only half way through reading this final century, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m still in the Praktikos stage and the Gnostikos writings, while interesting, do not hit me as forcefully as the meditations in the earlier part of the book. Second, I’m taking McGuckin seriously when he suggests that we read the meditations slowly, as they were first intended. Monks would hear one aphorism in the morning and meditate on it for the rest of the day. (I must admit that I have not used Mystical Chapters every day since I first picked up the book two years ago. Even at the slow pace McGuckin suggests, I would be finished by now if I had!)

The verse form of the meditations is appealing, and it lends itself to a thoughtful appreciation of each word or idea. I was so inspired by the format that I wrote my own Praktikos (which you may read here).

Mystical Chapters includes a brief biography of each of the thirty-one sources of the meditations. It has a table showing the source of each of the three hundred meditations. It does not have an index, but I have made one for the portion of the book that I have read so far. You may find it here, and copy it if you wish to.