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1 Introduction: A School for the Soul in Solitude 1
2 The Two Goals and the Long Road Ahead 16
3 Faith 30
4 Separation 40
5 Stillness 53
6 Breathing, Existence, and the Spirit 60
7 The Problem of Evil and "Unclean Spirits" 70
8 The Mind 84
9 Invocation of the Name 94
10 Study, the Bible, and Reading 106
11 Nature 126
12 Psalms 134
13 Knowledge and Love 14
Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness. A. N. Whitehead, Religion in the Making
The core of the soul is sensitive to nothing but the divine Being, unmediated. Here God enters the soul with all he has and not in part, and nothing may touch that core except God himself. Meister Eckhart, Sermons, 1
I magine yourself in a dark wood. Not only that, but imagine that this dark wood is all that you know — indeed, the only environment you have ever known. Imagine, further, that the canopy of branches above you is so thick with leaves and festooned with vines and hanging mosses that the sky has never been visible to you. You have no idea of what the sun in its direct brilliance looks like. The moon and the stars are luminaries you have never seen. The dome of heaven is veiled, and any notion of a vast expanse of space beyond this world is likewise beyond your comprehension.
I use this image to suggest the confining mental limitations of the world in which we actually find ourselves. That which blocks out the sunlight and starlight in our experience is not the trees of a forest, but the surroundings of our man-made environment. The heavens above us are more likely to go unnoticed because of the skyscrapers or the billboards or the television or the computer screen before our eyes. The man-made world is firstly an inner condition, a downright soul-sickness, a delusion that begins in the human imagination. From there, "from within, out of the heart of men," it becomes concrete; so much so that the modern secular city may well be, with its temples built in homage to commerce, the exteriorization of our civilization's "collective soul." Nature is pushed aside by the enormous and the sprawling, obscured by detritus and the absurdly ugly; and then, wrapped round all that, are serpentine highways congested with tiny fuming wheeled boxes; and finally come the larger domestic boxes of the suburbs and the many square miles of shopping centers pushing ever outward into the surrounding landscape far and wide.
Along with the ravages of secular ugliness, what is often intentionally blotted from sight and hearing in our civilization are the expressions of humanity's religious mind. In other words, what has ever been the heart and soul of culture — the origin and sustainer of philosophy, arts, ethics, and virtually everything else that opens up human existence to its sacred dimension — is being displaced by the profane and the tawdry so rapidly that we scarce can take it in. Those things that are good, beautiful, and true have never been under such relentless siege as they are in the modern world.
However, the tension between the man-made "world" — the world of illusion made concrete — and the religious mind behind all humanity's great traditions is not a new development. In Christian language, when the word world (kosmos) is used in its negative sense, it means precisely the man-made civilization that makes tangible the interior rejection of the spiritual dimension. St. Augustine famously used the analogy of two cities to describe this inner struggle of man's condition, a cleavage that runs not only through every civilization, but also through each human soul. When this condition is described at the level of the individual soul, it is called in the Epistle of James "double-minded" (literally, dipsychoi — "two-souled ones"; James 1:8 and 4:8). St. Augustine, referring to the same condition on the collective, civilizational level, wrote, "Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self."
Augustine's "earthly city" is what the New Testament means by "the world," and the First Epistle of John defines the world in this manner: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world" (1 John 2:15-16).
These three aspects of human civilization divorced from God and the perennial religious mind are, then, the following: sexual lust, whereby one person is objectified, depersonalized, and viewed as existing solely for another person's gratification ("lust of the flesh," which is the opposite always of a self-giving exchange of love); avarice or greed or mere acquisitiveness ("lust of the eyes"); and hubris or arrogance, possibly meaning of a national or ethnic nature, as exemplified and promoted by all the empires and governments of the world in every age ("pride of life").
If one pauses for a moment to reflect on this program by which the world's agenda is recognized, one rather quickly notices that not a lot has changed since this deft analysis. In fact, we might perhaps see these three things far more starkly and rudely in our present day than ever before. They constitute our cultural identity to a gigantic extent. What should scare us, if we have even a smidgen of religious consciousness, is that it has grown so gigantic that all too often we no longer even notice it. It is more and more like a dark wood we have always lived in, insensible to what lies beyond.
The way out of our man-made dark wood is, for each of us, a solitary venture and a necessary one.
First, we must decide that we need to go beyond it and embrace a larger reality than the one to which we have become accustomed. Then, we must begin the daunting task of doing what needs to be done. To do this could mean that we put resolutely behind us pestering voices that would tell us of the futility or idiocy of such a pursuit. There will always be those who will insist — for reasons of "practicality" or "science" or "progress" or "national interest" or "civic duty" or "family responsibility" or whatever else can be conjured up — that the dark wood is all there is and all that matters and all that should matter to us. But we should stubbornly and rebelliously put our packs on our backs and move on anyway. We travel with others who have made and are making the same spiritual journey, but it's going to be our own two legs — actually, our own minds — that will carry the weight of the journey.
I'm reminded of someone who long ago described himself as being in a similar dark wood and pursued by three wild beasts. Dante Alighieri begins the very first canto of his Divine Comedy in this way:
Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true.
The three beasts that hem him in and frighten him are a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf (cf. Jer. 5:6). Respectively, taken in the moral sense, these represent lust, pride, and avarice — those same three marks of man's delusional world as listed by St. John. What the three beasts symbolize reappear in numerous forms throughout the first two parts of the Commedia, first in their final consequences for the human soul if they remain unchanged by the grace of God (Inferno), and then in their purgation as the soul is transformed through repentance and absolution (Purgatorio).
Dante's journey is a solitary one, even though he is guided by Virgil, then his beloved Beatrice, and finally St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The three beasts of the dark wood are both external to him and, as the Purgatorio makes evident, internal to him. Dante must move from the divided condition within his own soul, ceasing to be "double-minded," and progressively come to possess "singleness of vision" — which means "to seek first the Kingdom of God" (see Matt. 6:22-24 and 33, KJV, wherein Jesus says that the eye must be "single" — in Greek, haplous; this refers to the single-minded focus necessary for apprehending God and his righteousness).
The point is this: the way out of the dark wood requires personal solitary effort. The man-made forest is all around us. The beasts are both outside and within. And, if we want to know for ourselves the truth of sages and mystics down the ages, we need to undertake the journey personally. We also need to be transformed and purged from the world's illusions — that is to say, from lust, avarice, and pride in all their multifarious shapes.
This endeavor is, to be sure, the primary purpose of "private prayer." It is a frequently overlooked fact that every time Jesus' teachings on the practice of prayer are recounted in the Gospels, he speaks of it in its solitary mode. Likewise, with only a few exceptions, when he is depicted at prayer, he has gone off apart to be alone. Private, solitary prayer is essential if we are to "know" God and be transfigured by the encounter. Jesus firmly commands each follower of his, "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt. 6:6). So crucial is the pursuit of solitary prayer for the Christian disciple that the fourth-century desert father Evagrius of Pontus dared to rephrase Jesus' summons to follow him in this very pointed way: "Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and, taking up your cross, deny yourself, so that you can pray [i.e., in solitude] without distraction" (Chapters on Prayer, 17).
That we need corporate prayer is not in doubt. The Eucharist above all is a corporate prayer, and it is the heart of the church's life. Yet local churches, especially nowadays in the West, are often not much help in leading their people into the practice of personal prayer. Even when they are not utterly compromised by mundane agenda, trivial activities, politics, or a general loss of the sense of the sacred, modern churches of all stripes are usually more concerned with the social than the personal dimension of religious life. They have a vested interest in promoting the social and the corporate above the private, even to the point of occasionally — and quite wrongly — stressing that the corporate is more important than the personal. In many churches today there can still be heard from the pulpit the dubious notion that "we are not saved individually, but in a body." Well, that may well be true as far as it goes; but the implication that individual prayer is of less value than the corporate is alarmingly at odds with the teachings of Christ. Modern churches do all they can to make the exoteric aspect of Christianity accessible to as many as possible, and do so for a handful of commendable reasons; but the grave loss of the esoteric aspect of prayer, as something both vital and (one might wish) available through practical pastoral teaching, is largely the reason for the spiritually flat, trite, and boring condition that prevails in much church life. This state of affairs really began in the fourth century when the Roman Empire became "Christianized," leading to the proliferation of the monastic life as a way of preserving Christianity's interior core.
Nevertheless, the surprising international popularity of the film Into Great Silence (Die Grosse Stille), made by German director Philip Gröning and released in 2006, should remind us that there still exists a desire for the personal and solitary engagement with God as found in the genuine Christian tradition. The movie spends nearly three hours immersing the audience into the life of the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse in the magnificent French Alps. It is an exquisitely beautiful record of European monastic life, visually stunning and — if one stays with it — profoundly moving. It is to be remembered that the Carthusians are hermits, committed to a life of profound solitude, and gathering only on occasion for liturgy and social interaction.
Interestingly, the film appeared the very year that the "new atheists" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, etc.) were beginning to make a media splash with their spate of books. It seems to me that the best rejoinder to their brashness, noise, and "scientistic" chest-thumping was simply the silence and authenticity depicted in this cinematic masterwork. Not an "answer," of course, in the apologetic sense, it is nevertheless powerful visual testimony to something that remains hidden and transcendent throughout the film, veiled just behind the visible activity of monastic prayer. It almost certainly depicts a life beyond the ken of the latest bunch of pop atheists, quietly calling into question the shallowness of their criticisms.
Sadly enough, however, this same religious experience, grown from the careful cultivation of interiority, is frequently unknown to the majority of Christians as well. For one thing, in our loud age of extroversion it is difficult to impress on individual Christians the need for developing the requisite balance of introversion in their lives. Everything in their busy world is geared to distract them from prayer, and distraction — as noted in the quote taken from Evagrius above — has always been the worst danger to developing spiritual awareness, and the first thing warned against by all the great masters of prayer.
And yet Into Great Silence was a popular film, and universally well-received by critics who might more typically have been expected to dismiss it. Clearly it "spoke" to viewers, summoning from them the sense of a normally unheeded desire.
This is a roundabout way of introducing the purpose of this "school for the soul in solitude." Let me explain, then, what this small book is meant to be.
This is a book that provides basic elements of a given subject. It's not an exhaustive text but rather a minimal one, something fundamental. It is focused on the cultivation of one's solitary prayer, and its elements are grouped under a series of subjects that have been ruminated upon and offered for reflection. Perhaps other things and better might have been said about each of the themes addressed. Doubtless many other headings could have been included, but the idea was to keep the book both compact and (one hopes) substantial. It is a book for Christians who are consciously seeking an encounter with the consciousness of God. The whole endeavor of the Christian's spiritual life is to "seek the Lord" in whom we already "live and move and have our being," since he is "not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27-28). Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke put it, "God is only a direction given to love, not its object."
To explain the book another way, its purpose is to prepare the reader to do something knowledgeably. No effort is made to give precise directions or step-by-step details; rather, the goal is to give ideas the reader can take and utilize as he or she will. Ideally a school helps one to think for oneself, and it is hoped that this small text will so engage the mind that the reader will have something to ponder in quiet reflection. It is assumed that if one knows why this or that aspect of the solitary prayer life is worth doing, then the first steps have thereby already been taken toward incorporating it into one's practice. This requires having some definitions on hand. Understanding is certainly more than definitions, of course, because genuine understanding is based on one's experience. But definitions are necessary, too, and so it is that we are concerned with concepts in this book.
The headings are succinct, sometimes just a single word. They are for the most part progressive in their ordering, though this is not always the case. This text is not a handbook providing methods or techniques. Instead, it is a text that is intended to suggest the concepts that one's own experimentation can shape as it will. Spiritual practice is as individual as the person engaged in it, even if its general elements remain recognizable from one person to the next. As T. H. White had Merlyn say at one point to young Arthur in The Once and Future King: "In future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance."
Excerpted from The Yoke of Jesus by ADDISON HODGES HART Copyright © 2010 by Addison Hodges Hart. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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