Winter Reading List

Three Andrew Louth books:
Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology
St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology
The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys

Two Eric Ormsby books:
Time’s Covenant: Selected Poems
Facsimiles of Time: Essays on Poetry and Translation

Several partridges, each in his pear tree:
C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love
Alessandro Scafi, Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth
Stephen Shoemaker, Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption
Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible

Waiting for a dark and stormy night, two by Russell Kirk:
Old House of Fear
Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales

On the Mystical Life

In the light of all this, how does my book, written nearly thirty years ago, stand now? I would now see it, not as providing the background for the development of, and understanding of, the ‘Christian mystical tradition’, in some uncomplicated way—as perhaps I originally intended. Rather, I see it now as raising a whole raft of questions about what we are to take the ‘mystical tradition’ to be. In particular, what we find in the Fathers undermines any tendency toward seeing mysticism as an elite, individualist quest for ‘peak’ experiences; rather for them the ‘mystical life’ is the ‘life with Christ hid in God’ of Colossians 3:3, a life which is ecclesial, that is lived in the Body of Christ, which is nourished liturgically, and which is certainly a matter of experience, though not of extraordinary ‘experiences’. One could perhaps make this point by finally reflecting briefly on the transformation of one of the words used by the Fathers in connection with the ‘mystical life’: the word theoretikos. The modern word ‘theoretical’ (and indeed the word theoretikos in Modern Greek) means abstract, hypothetical, speculative—the very opposite of practical and experiential. The modern mystical quest is precisely not theoretical; it is a search for genuine personal experience, as opposed to ‘theoretical’ knowledge. Much modern Christian apologetic exploits this split between the theoretical and the experiential, and presents Christianity as a matter of lived experience, not abstract theoretical matters, among which the dogmatic is often included. In the Greek of the Fathers, however, this split can scarcely be represented in words or concepts. Theoretikos means contemplative; that is, seeing, and knowing in a deep and transformative way. The ‘practical’, praktikos (see above on Evagrios), is the personal struggle with our too often wayward drives and desires, which prepares for the exercise of contemplation, theoria; that is, a dispassionate seeing and awareness constituting genuine knowledge, a knowledge that is more than information, however accurate—a real participation in that which is known, in the One whom we come to know. The word theoretikos came to be one of the most common words in Byzantine Greek for designating the deeper meaning of Scriptures, where one found oneself caught up in contemplation, theoria, of Christ. The mystical life, the ‘theoretical’ life, is what we experience when we are caught up in the contemplation of Christ, when, in that contemplation, we come to know ‘face to face’ and, as the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘know, even as I am known’ (1 Cor. 13:12).

Andrew Louth, last paragraph of “Afterword (2006)” in his new edition of The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007)


To speak of love is to dare to speak of God, for, according to St John the Theologian, ‘God is love, and he who dwells in love dwells in God’ [1 Jn 4.16]. And the astonishing thing is that this chief of all the virtues is a natural virtue. Thus, in the Law, it is given pride of place: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ [Deut 6.5]. When I heard the words ‘with all your soul’ I was astounded, and no longer needed to hear the rest. For ‘with all your soul’ means with the intelligent, incensive and desiring powers of the soul, because it is of those three powers that the soul is composed. Thus the intellect should think at all times about divine matters, while desire should long constantly and entirely, as the Law says, for God alone and never for anything else; and the incensive power should actively oppose only what obstructs this longing, and nothing else. St John, consequently, was right in saying that God is love. If God sees that, as He commanded, these three powers of the soul aspire to Him alone, then, since He is good, He will necessarily not only love that soul, but through the inspiration of the Spirit will dwell and move within it [cf 2Cor 6.16; Lev 26.12]; and the body, though reluctant and unwilling–for it lacks intelligence–will end by submitting to the intelligence, while the flesh will no longer rise in protest against the Spirit, as St Paul puts it [cf Gal 5.17].

Just as the sun and moon, at the command of God, travel through the heavens in order to light the world, even though they are soul-less, so the body, at the behest of the soul, will perform works of light. As the sun journeys each day from east to west, thus making one day, while when it disappears night comes, so each virture that a man practices illumines the soul, and when it disappears passion and darkness come until he again acquires that virtue, and light in this way returns to him. As the sun rises in the furthest east and slowly shifts its rays until it reaches the other extreme, thus forming time, so a man slowly grows from the moment he first begins to practice the virtues until he attains the state of dispassion. And just as the moon waxes and wanes every month, so with respect to each particular virtue a man waxes and wanes daily, until this virtue becomes established in him. At times, in accordance with God’s will, he is afflicted, at times he rejoices and gives thanks to God, unworthy as he is to acquire the virtues; and sometimes he is illumined, sometimes filled with darkness, until his course is finished.

All this happens to him by God’s providence: some things are sent to keep him from self-elation, and others to keep him from despair. Just as in this present age the sun creates the solstices and the moon waxes and wanes, whereas in the age to come there will always be light for the righteous and darkness for those who, like me, alas, are sinners, so, before the attainment of perfect love and of vision in God, the soul in the present world has its solstices, and the intellect experiences darkness as well as virtue and spiritual knowledge, and this continues until, through the acquisition of that perfect love to which all our effort is directed, we are found worthy of performing the works that pertain to the world to be. For it is for love’s sake that he who is in a state of obedience obeys what is commanded; and it is for love’s sake that he who is rich and free sheds his possessions and becomes a servant, surrendering both what he has and himself to whoever wishes to possess them. He who fasts likewise does so for love’s sake, so that others may eat what he would otherwise have eaten. In short, every work rightly done is done out of love for God or for one’s neighbor. The things we have spoken of, and others like them, are done out of love for one’s neighbor, while vigils, psalmody and the like are done out of love for God. To Him be glory, honour and dominion through all the ages. Amen.

St Peter of Damaskos (eleventh or twelfth century), Discourse XV
Philokalia, Volume III

Wit Stwosz: The Dormition of the Virgin

Golden mantles ripple like tents before a storm
a surge of hot purple lays chests and feet bare
the cedar apostles raise their enormous heads
a beard dark as an ax hovers over the heights

The woodcarvers’ fingers bloom. A miracle eludes
their grasp so they grasp at air–stormy as strings
Stars grow turbid in the sky they make music too
but it doesn’t reach earth it stays high as the moon

And Mary falls asleep. She sinks to the bottom
of surprise. Tender eyes hold her in a fragile net
she falls upward as a stream runs through fingers
and they bend with effort over the building cloud

Zbigniew Herbert, 1990
(an impression of Wit Stwosz’ carved altarpiece in the Basilica Mariacka, Kraków)

New Cambridge Paragraph Bible

I recently wrote to Cambridge University Press, enquiring whether there were, as I’d heard from some little bird, plans to issue a new edition of the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible incorporating the corrections included in the recent paperback edition, but in similar but smaller formats to the hardback and leatherbound editions of the original printing. In response, I received a note from Christopher Wright, Publishing Manager for Bibles at Cambridge University Press:

We do intend to publish the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible in smaller formats using the updated text, and have said as much informally to various people, but we have not yet committed to a definite schedule or publication date. Given the current state of our publishing commitments, and the completion of the editorial process, I do now see an opportunity arising next year so I would hope to bring these out during the second half or towards the end of 2008.

In granting permission for me to quote his response, he wanted to make explicit the extremely tentative nature of this schedule. It is not established, and subject to change. Still, it will be good news for those fans of the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible that smaller, corrected editions are planned.