in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 31 January 2014

Candlemas, Turtle-Doves and Snowdrops...

According to Jacobus de Voragine, Candlemas (2nd February) derives from two ancient Roman feasts which were both celebrated at the calends of February – one honoured Februa the mother of Mars, the Roman god of war, and the other honouring Februus – one of the gods of the underworld. Either way, both feasts involved lighting the world with candles and lanterns. So we are at the stormy beginning of a new year (for the medievals the year will begin on 25th March – the annunciation of Our Lady – as it did with the Romans and the Spring equinox - preserved today in the beginning of our tax year in the UK...). Finally, after three months of waiting, we in the Northern hemisphere are stepping out of the darkness into the fragile hope of a new year.

Traditionally the feast is associated with two gentle creatures: the turtledove and the snowdrop. The former is in reference to the creature specified for sacrifice for the purification of a mother 40 days after childbirth according to the Book of Leviticus. De Voragine, again, is at pains to stress the gentleness, meekness and divinity of the turtle-dove as opposed to the pigeon – ‘a lascivious bird’ – perhaps a cousin of those gulls and crows that attacked Pope Francis’s doves last weekend?

Sadly our population of turtle doves has declined rapidly in recent years (I picture one here). I can remember them as a child sitting in meadows near our house, purring away with that strange song that sounds more like a cat than a bird. Apparently they are delicious and are regularly hunted on their migration across Europe to the UK. John of the Cross speaks beautifully about them at the end of the ‘Spiritual Canticle’, for him, they presage the end of winter and ‘the time of changes’ and speak of the warm months to come. And what a winter it has been! No snow and ice as yet but such storms! I got back from India to witness my greenhouse raised from the ground by a mini-tornado that hit South London. Fortunately I had moved my lemon tree into the house for the duration but my cactus collection is now looking a little sorry for itself.

George Mackay Brown, the great Orkney Catholic poet, also described this fragile and gentle moment of the year well, using that traditional Candlemas symbol, the snowdrop. Here are two extracts from his diaries:

‘So this is a good feeling to know that we are in the last week of winter. February, I always think, brings winter to a close. But I expect there will be a few wintry days yet...

January, and even more February, sees this swift rising of the fountains of light. The miracle of renewal is happening so quickly before our very eyes... Spring !’ (2.3.95)

 ‘So we pray for the ferocious tyrant of January to pass away, and for his gentler daughter February to assume her reign. See, she comes, snowdrops and crocuses spilling from her fingers...’ (1.2.96)

Thomas Merton too (see earlier post) also sensed this gentle tilt of the seasons six weeks after the Solstice and described it in his own memorable way:

‘Today was the prophetic day, the first of the real shining spring: not that there was not warm weather last week, not that there will not be cold weather again. But this was the day of the year when spring became truly credible...

With the new, comes also memory: as if that which was once so fresh in the past (days of discovery, when I was 19 or 20) were very close again, and as if one were beginning to live again from the beginning: one must experience spring like that. A whole new chance! A complete renewal!’  (17.2.66)

So, on this blessed Candlemas day, I wish you all happiness for the renewal of the year as the ‘fountains of light’ return... and I pray we may have some more clement weather in the weeks to come!



Monday, 27 January 2014

Happy Feast of St Thomas Aquinas!

Happy Feast Day of St Thomas Aquinas!
Especially to all my Dominican friends and their supporters and my university colleagues!

For this post I have gone back to my Indian lectures which I am presently writing up looking at how Thomas’ theology influenced both St John of the Cross and St Ignatius Loyola (both studied him at Alcala and Salamanca Universities). I attach the relevant passages below arguing that John and Ignatius acquired two important qualities from Aquinas:

·        The notion that ‘grace builds upon nature’, ie. that matter is not essentially evil and that the spiritual journey is not a continual struggle with the material elements of our life. Aquinas presents what we would today call a ‘holistic approach’ to the spiritual life.

·        And secondly, that the most direct way of achieving our spiritual potential is to imitate the ‘habit’ of Christ in all our behavior.

I hope you like the extracts and do spend today rejoicing in the beauty of God’s material creation.



‘In considering John and the appetites the first thing to take into account, as Chowning states, is that John’s negation ‘has nothing to do with neoplatonic dualism or a denial of creation… (he) is thoroughly Christian and incarnational. He exalts the beauty and dignity of creation and the purpose for which God created the world… thus, creation reflects the presence, beauty and excellence of God and increases love in the person who reflects upon it’ (Chowning 2000:3). As a teacher and novice-master John encouraged his students to find God in nature and the created order around. We saw above how Ignatius talked of ‘God in all things’ and the Exercises ends with a remarkable ‘Contemplation to Attain Love’ where we read of the soul contemplating how:

God dwells in creatures, in the elements, giving them being, in the plants allowing them to grow, in the animals feeding upon them, in people giving them to understand, and so in me, giving me being, animating me, giving me sensation and making me to understand (and how) God works and labours for me in all things created on the face of the earth – that is, behaves like one who labours – as in the heavens, elements, plants, fruits, cattle etc, giving them being, preserving them, giving them growth and feeling. (Exx 235,236)

For both John and Ignatius, God is seen as being in all creation and creation, as created by God, is very good indeed. Included in this is the human person, created in the image and likeness of God with all that that entails. In this respect both John and Ignatius have thoroughly absorbed St. Thomas Aquinas in their university training in Salamanca and Paris respectively. Both show a true Thomist grasp of God’s salvific action proceeding through ‘grace building upon nature’. Therefore, our spiritual practices are not so much concerned with escaping matter and creation but rather examining our own attitudes to nature and seeing how our craving and desire to seize matter is distorting our fundamental orientation as a being created in the image and likeness of God:

John insists that what obstructs our relationship with God is not material reality as such, but the human heart when it craves, desires and tries to possess material objects, people and situations for selfish reasons. (Chowning 2000:4)


Yet, as ever in his approach, John counsels two approaches to this steep and rugged path to perfection. First, that we should not despair in thinking about the path, but rather consider a practical approach to how these desires can be redirected. And secondly, that we take the same gentleness and pastoral sensitivity to the ascent which he himself took in his own dealings with penitents. Thus in A 1.13 he counsels four methods for ‘redirection of the appetites’.

The first is derived from the classic Thomist position described above. We must strive in all our actions and habits to ‘imitate Christ’ at all times. Thomas stresses that we should adopt the habitus of Christ, so that more and more in an unthinking (unconscious) fashion we adopt the ways and manner of living of Christ ‘by bringing your life into conformity with his’. See Summa Theologiae 1a2ae.49-54, Vol 22 translated by Antony Kenny: ‘Dispositions, like capacities, are concerned with good and evil, and dispositions, like capacities, are not always exercised in action’ (49,4.3).’

Teresa of Avila... Doctor of the Church... Oxford 1st February

Dear All

As I received my copy of 'Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul' this morning this by way of notice of the teaching day I will be running at Rewley House, Oxford this Saturday. I attach some of the descriptor below:

Teresa of Avila:
Doctor of the Soul
A day school to be held at
Rewley House, 1 Wellington
Square, Oxford
To enrol online, add the code V620-119 to
the URL for the Department’s website:

With full lunch £71.00
With baguette lunch £63.50
Without lunch (includes t / c) £60.00
Vegetarian option (meal or baguette)?


We will shortly celebrate 500 years since
the birth of the outstanding Spanish mystic,
theologian and scholar St. Teresa of Avila
(1515 – 1582). Dr Peter Tyler will be involved
with the celebrations to mark this event in
the UK and abroad and as a taster to this
special year of celebration he presents a day
exploring the life, times and spirituality of this
remarkable woman. No previous knowledge
of the saint is required. During the day he will
explore the circumstances of late medieval
Spain that formed the young saint and how
she responded to those circumstances in her
unique style of writing. As a woman given to
unusual experiences in prayer and of Jewish
descent she was particularly susceptible to
the investigations of the Holy Inquisition and
we shall examine how she dealt with this in
her work. We shall also look at her links with
her contemporaries and her relevance to
today’s spiritual seekers in a world and church
not so very different from the one she knew.

9.45am Registration
10.00am The Avila of St Teresa
11.15am Coffee/tea
11.45am A woman writing
1.00pm Lunch
2.00pm Mystical speech
3.15pm Coffee/tea
3.45pm Teresa today
5.00pm Course disperses

I am told there are 6 places left so book now if you want to join us... all welcome!



Friday, 24 January 2014

Thomas Merton and Christian Spirituality

Dear All

Following yesterday's post I thought I would post here the epilogue to 'The Bloomsbury Guide'. Re-reading it yesterday I like the exploration of Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968) and his contributions to our understanding of Christian spirituality. I hope you enjoy it.


Epilogue: Whither Christian Spirituality?



We began this book by asking the questions ‘What is Christian Spirituality?’, ‘Whence does it arise?’ and ‘What distinguishes Christian Spirituality from other spiritualities?’ Drawing on the breadth of wisdom presented in this volume, this concluding chapter will try to suggest a way forward for Christian spirituality. Or, as we may term it, what may be the key elements of a Christian spirituality for the Twenty First Century.

The beginning of the Millennium, starting with the terrible events of 9/11 and its aftermath, has challenged us to rethink how we can go forward as people of faith in a time of darkness. Although we may see around us despair and confusion what arises in the essays of this volume are the gentle words of peace of the Risen Lord that allow us to treasure in our hearts a ‘spirit of optimism’ intrinsic to Christian faith. In addressing this final question, which is very much a question of futures – our future, the future of our faith and the future of our planet – we would like to suggest some forms a ‘Christian spirituality for a New Millennium’ may take. To aid this reflection we will divide these characteristics into the following areas: contemplation, engaged social ethic, psychological insight, embodiment, God in the everyday, awareness of creation and ecumenism. In looking at these categories we shall draw in particular on the insight of the visionary twentieth-century American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, whose life, career, and writings foreshadowed so many of the developments of the later twentieth century and still point the way ahead.



As we have seen, from the very beginnings of the Christian tradition contemplatio – the contemplation of the soul on the presence of God through the inspiration of the scriptures – has been central to all Christian spirituality. As we have seen the Desert Fathers and Mothers saw in contemplatio the vision of the ‘pure in heart’ mentioned in the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:8) and tried to live this through their solitary contemplation. A contemplatio taken up by St Benedict and Western monasticism and manifest through the Middle Ages in the traditions of theologia mystica, the Mendicant movements of St Francis and St Dominic and the great Spanish Carmelite mystics of the sixteenth century, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. Thus, as we enter our new Millennium we do so as heirs to this tradition of contemplation. The tradition is essentially heart-centred - although it is not anti-intellectual (as we have seen some of the greatest exponents of contemplatio have been intellectual giants of the Church, for example, St Thomas of Aquinas and Meister Eckhart), many proponents of the tradition have sought to place the intellect in context often through a use of teasing paradox or ‘shock tactics’ that throw a spanner into the restless whirring of the mind. It is succinctly put by the late Dominican scholar, Herbert McCabe:


Prayer is really a waste of time. The incarnate form of our prayer may be concerned with getting something done, forwarding our plans, and the generosity of God is such that he will let himself be incarnate even in these ways. But the very heart of prayer is not getting anything done. It is a waste of time, an even greater waste of time than play… For a real absolute waste of time you have to go to prayer.[1]


Thomas Merton makes the same point slightly differently in one of his last books, On Contemplative Prayer, published posthumously:


We should not look for a ‘method’ or ‘system’, but cultivate an ‘attitude’, an ‘outlook’: faith, openness, attention, reverence, expectation, supplication, trust, joy. All these finally permeate our being with love in so far as our living faith tells us we are in the presence of God, that we live in Christ, that in the Spirit of God we ‘see’ God our Father without ‘seeing’. We know him in ‘unknowing’.[2]


Prayer and contemplation are not, then, an ‘add-on’ to life, they are at the heart of life. This ‘divine unknowing’, what the medievals called the stulta sapientia (literally: ‘foolish wisdom’ cf. 1 Cor. 1) is thus the beginning of all wisdom and the heart of Christian contemplation. ‘It is the seriousness’, Merton reminds us, ‘of breathing when you’re drowning.’[3] Once we recognise our nothingness and helplessness before God then we can begin to pray. From such a perspective, even a coldness or impossibility to begin prayer is in itself a sign of this helplessness before God – a sign of His grace towards us and the necessity for our dependence upon God’s grace. For, as McCabe and Merton remind us in their own ways, ultimately there can only ever be one teacher of prayer – and that is the Holy Spirit.

Such a prayer, such a contemplatio, is not a fugit mundi, a flight from the world, but leads us back into life, into the arms of the world. Which leads us to our second aspect of a ‘Christian spirituality for the Twenty First Century’: an engaged social ethic.


An Engaged Social Ethic

One of the most precious insights of Christian contemplatives and writers in the past half century has been that there is no such thing as a Christian contemplation that does not engage with the world. Merton, the deeply contemplative Trappist monk, also engaged in the struggles of the anti-Vietnam protestors, the black rights groups and the anti-nuclear lobby. The ultimate irony was that after his sudden and tragic death in Bangkok in 1968 his body was transported back to the United States in the same aeroplane carrying the bodies of the young men and women killed in the Vietnam conflict.

          From Merton’s writings we can draw out three aspects of his understanding of such an engaged social ethic:

First, how such an ethic reiterates the essentially Trinitarian nature of Christian spirituality. As we have seen in this volume, much Christian discourse over the past half century has sought to re-engage with the Trinitarian model at the heart of Christian theology and social anthropology. For the modern theologians we could describe ourselves as homo relationis – instead of ‘I think therefore I am’, our twenty-first century motto could be ‘You are therefore I am’. As God is defined in terms of relatedness then our basic anthropology, as reflecting God’s triune life, can also be defined through relatedness.

One of the key characteristics of Christian spirituality in recent years has been the search for and, indeed, recovery of Christian community. L’Arche, Iona, TaizĂ©, Focolare are just a few of the new movements that have sought to refind Christian community and have proved especially popular with the young. Such communities have all, in their own way, sought to rediscover the essential communitarian, trinitarian basis that lies at the heart of Christian anthropology.

The second aspect of our understanding of the ‘engaged social ethic’ is our relationship to and analysis of violence in society. In Faith and Violence Merton places our First World Western consumerist behaviour in the context of a radical social analysis that still bites today:


The population of the affluent world is nourished on a steady diet of brutal mythology and hallucination, kept at a constant pitch of high tension by a life that is intrinsically violent in that it forces a large part of the population to submit to an existence which is humanly intolerable… The problem of violence, then, is not the problem of a few rioters and rebels, but the problem of a whole structure which is outwardly ordered and respectable, and inwardly ridden by psychopathic obsessions and delusions. [4]


The third and final part of our understanding of this social ethic in a way combines our first point with our second: that there can be no social engagement unless it is rooted in deep contemplation and awareness of self. In the famous ‘Letter to an Activist’ written to Jim Forrest on 21 February 1965, Merton emphasises the importance of not attaching to the results of activism: ‘face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.’[5] ‘All the good that you will do’ he adds, ‘will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.’ Along with alcohol, sex, food and consumer goods, it seems we can add social activism to the list of things we use to fill the void that lies at the centre of our aching hearts. ‘The great thing’ he concludes ‘is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths.’


Psychological Insight

The past century has seen enormous strides in our understanding of the psyche, its subtleties and forms. Sadly this has not necessarily been matched with a concomitant increase in our awareness of the integration of the spiritual and psychological. For historical reasons, modern psychology grew up with a distrust and wariness towards religion, an attitude which was by and large reciprocated by the churches. Fortunately the past two decades have seen a rapprochement in this attitude with both sides willing to dialogue and learn from each other. There have, of course, been notable exceptions on both sides and from the Catholic tradition both Thomas Merton, and his near contemporary, the British Benedictine monk, Dom Bede Griffiths, stand out.

In a letter written in the 1960s to a friend of his, Dr Mary Allen, a Jungian analyst, Griffiths makes some startling analogies between the psychological insights of the twentieth century and the ancient Christian ascetic traditions of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. For Griffiths the life of prayer is essentially a ‘reordering’ of the unconscious through the reflection of God’s love: ‘The point is that though these sins (Pride, Lust etc) are largely unconscious our will has consented to them. This is the mystery of original sin’.[6] Much of the life of prayer then, becomes for Griffiths, a purification of the unconscious on this radical level: ‘We are all by nature under the  power of these forces of the unconscious. . .  these forces may be kept down, to some extent a kind of balance established, and that is the normal human condition, but it is very inadequate’. Struggling with the forces of the unconscious we have two choices – to repress them or to give way to them in an undiscriminating fashion – ‘becoming slaves to passion’.  The first option, so common in the West, represses these forces so much that we become slaves to them, in which case we are controlled by the all-controlling, all-powerful, all-knowing ego. ‘The average Christian’ says Griffiths, ‘simply represses the unconscious like everyone else and lives from their will and reason’.

          However, in baptism in Christ we have entered the deepest depths of the unconscious to allow their purification: ‘It is Christ alone who can set us free from the unconscious. Baptism is a descent beneath the waters, a conflict with Satan (in which the soul is mystically identified with Christ) in which the daemonic powers are defeated and the healing powers of the unconscious are realised to give birth to new life.’ This, for Griffiths, is what should happen in our Christian life – ‘The Holy Spirit should penetrate to the depth of the unconscious to the ultimate root of being, and transform us.’

So many of us, especially in the West, lock up the forces of the unconscious and are terrified of opening up their contents ( often with good reason), alternatively we see around us total unconscious ‘acting out’ of the destructive unconscious forces of the psyche. The Life of Christ penetrating into the darkest depths of the unconscious can bring liberation and healing in a most unexpected and profound way. The goal, following Griffiths, is to bring about a marriage of the conscious and unconscious, the male and female, animus and anima in which each is preserved and reintegrated in Christ.

Examining the lives of Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths we see exactly this ‘reintegration of the self in Christ’ through marriage of different poles of the self. Merton, living from the unconscious as a young man embraces the hard ethical demands of the Christian life when he enters the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani (as does Griffiths when he enters Prinknash Abbey), only with age and experience realising that the hard edges of ego-control have to be surrendered to allow a softer entrance of the spirit into all aspects of the self, bringing about what Blake calls the ‘marriage of heaven and earth’. As we saw above in the chapters written by Richard Rohr and Bernadette Flanagan, it is highly likely that through deepening awareness of the gendered life of the Spirit that Christians will increasingly learn to articulate the spiritual quest in the Twenty First Century.



The Christian spirituality of the new Millennium will not only be psychologically aware but embodied. It takes all aspects of the self seriously, including the erotic. A point observed by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est. Benedict’s encyclical restores eros to its rightful place at the centre of Christian life, reinvigorated and renewed in agape: ‘Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved.’[7]

The new spirituality is not just a school of the head but a school of the heart and intuition that gives as much importance to the arts, liturgy and embodied expression as it does to scholastic theology. As Merton puts it in Zen and the Birds of Appetite: ‘In our need for whole and integral experience of our own self on all its levels, bodily as well as imaginative, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, there is not place for the cultivation of one part of human consciousness, one aspect of human experience, at the expense of others, even on the pretext that what is cultivated is sacred and all the rest profane. A  false and divisive ‘sacredness’ or ‘supernaturalism’ can only cripple us.’ [8]


God in the Everyday

The breakdown of the barrier between the sacred and the secular leads to our fifth aspect of the spirituality for the Twenty First Century –the breakdown of the barrier between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary. It is what the eighteenth-century Jesuit Jean Pierre de Caussade referred to as the ‘sacrament of the present moment’. Merton, again, put it thus: ‘There is no longer any place for the kind of idealistic philosophy that removes all reality into the celestial realms and makes temporal existence meaningless… we need to find ultimate sense here and now in the ordinary humble tasks and human problems of every day.’[9] Merton himself, following the artistic example of his parents, was a keen photographer and his photographs, illustrate the ‘quiddity’, the ‘this-ness’ of everyday objects. The essence of the Creator ‘shining out like shook foil’ in all creation.[10]


Awareness of Creation

This awareness of the present moment – ‘the power of now’ – leads to a wider cosmic awareness and our own place within creation. Faced with the ecological disasters of the late twentieth century we are forced more and more to reassess our place within creation and our commitments and responsibilities to the world around us. Merton in the late sixties talked about the need to address those problems ‘ which threaten our very survival as a species on earth.’[11] How prescient he was in this respect and how pressing now the task which is finally being taken up by contemporary theologians as explored so well above by John Chryssavgis and Mary Grey amongst others.



The seventh and final aspect of our ‘Christian spirituality for the Twenty First Century’ is the importance of openness to dialogue between the Christian denominations and the faiths. As we have seen in this volume, in the past decades, following the decrees of Nostra Aetate at the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has embraced ecumenical and interfaith dialogue with gusto under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II and now under Pope Benedict XVI. Slowly we talk to each other and slowly we edge towards healing the scandalous divisions of centuries. As we live at this precarious moment in our planet’s future the ecumenical imperative becomes even more important than ever. As with all our seven aspects of the spirituality for the new Millennium, Merton was again ahead of his time embracing dialogue with Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. The four chapters above have articulated in some depth the perils and promises that this new dialogue will be revealing in the coming decades of the new century.


Conclusion: ‘A New Role for Religion’

So then, our personal list of the seven aspects of the ‘Christian Spirituality for the Twenty First Century’, or better, an ‘Engaged Christian Spirituality for the New Millennium’ embraces contemplatio, an engaged social ethic, psychological insight, embodiment, God in the everyday, awareness of Creation and the ecumenical.

                   Reading the contributors to this volume there is always a sense of optimism. It is a sense that God the Father, through the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ is leading us into new paths and new ways that are unknown to us. We live in Meister Eckhart’s Now-Moment, the place of potential and renewal where the Eternal Creator gives birth to the Eternal Child within us if we will but let it happen.  As the great tenth-century Orthodox theologian, St Symeon the New Theologian, reminds us, the natural condition of Christians is to be caught up in the great Cosmic renewal of the Logos by birthright from baptism, what is extraordinary is that we have forgotten who we are and how we are related to the cosmos. In this new ecumenical spirit – the great spirit of renewal which blows through our churches at the present time – we are called and challenged once again to respond to the great tradition of 2000 years of Christian spirituality in a new positive spirit of optimism and humility.




Bibliography and Further Reading


Baker, R. and Henry, G. (1999), Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story. Louisville: Fons Vitae.


Pope Benedict XVI (2005), Deus Caritas Est. Accessible on


McCabe, H. (2002), God Still Matters. London: Continuum.


Merton, T. (1967), Mystics and Zen Masters, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

(1968a), Faith and Violence, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

(1968b), Zen and the Birds of Appetite, New York: New Directions.

(1973), Contemplative Prayer. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

(1985), The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, ed. William H Shannon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.




[1] McCabe, H. (2002), God Still Matters. London: Continuum, p.75.
[2] Merton, T. (1973), Contemplative Prayer. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, p.39.
[3] Merton,’ Lectures to Novices’, quoted in Baker, R. and Henry, G. (1999), Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story. Louisville: Fons Vitae, p.154.
[4] Merton, T. (1968), Faith and Violence, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, pp.78-79.
[5]Merton, T. (1985), The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, ed. William H Shannon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
[6] Griffiths, B. (2005), ‘Letter to Dr Mary Allen’  reprinted in the Bede Griffiths Sangha Newsletter. March 2005, Vol 8:1
[7] Pope Benedict XVI, (2005) Deus Caritas Est. Accessible on
[8] Merton, T. (1968a), Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New York: New Directions, p. 30
[9] Ibid.
[10] See also Pearson, P. (2003), The Paradox of Place: Thomas Merton’s Photography. Louisville, KY: Thomas Merton Centre at Bellarmine University.
[11] Merton, T. (1968a): 30.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Bloomsbury Guide to Christian Spirituality

The Bloomsbury Guide continues from strength to strength. Two news items this week. First, I received a message from Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Assam with whom I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days in Bangalore earlier this month. I sent him a copy and he told me how delighted he was with it. He also asked us to pray for his peace mission in North East India. He is presently negotiating a peace initiative for a dialogue between the Rengma Nagas and the Karbis and asks for us to hold this in our prayers.
And then from the States I receive a message from ‘Choice Journal’ which presents reviews of academic journals. To my surprise the Bloomsbury Guide has been awarded one of the ‘Outstanding Academic Titles’ of 2013 – wow! Apparently it demonstrates:

• overall excellence in presentation and scholarship
• importance relative to other literature in the field
• distinction as a first treatment of a given subject in book or electronic form
• originality or uniqueness of treatment
• value to undergraduate students
• importance in building undergraduate library collections

(see for more)

After all the hard work Richard, myself and the contributors put into it it is great to have this accolade. My thanks to everyone who helped make this happen.



Monday, 20 January 2014

Teresa of Avila Conference June 2015

Dear All
One of my first duties on returning is to publish the poster for our forthcoming Teresa conference in June 2015. With Professors Julia Kristeva, Bernard McGinn, Gillian Ahlgren and Rowan Williams having agreed to speak it looks like being a tremendous event. We have limited numbers to 100 so do consider booking early! We also have a powerful Carmelite presence, both Discalced and Carmelite including Wilfrid McGreal, Matthew Blake, Iain Matthew and the Carmelite sisters from the UK. Do please keep this venture in your prayers and we look forward to welcoming you next year to celebrate Teresa's big 500! best Peter

Teresa of Avila – 1515 to 2015: Mystical Theology and Spirituality in the Carmelite Tradition

Proposed Programme Thursday 18th June 2015

Day One: Teresa in Her Context

08.30 onwards Registration (Reception and Refectory)

09.00 Arrivals 09.30 Welcome and Introductions. WDR

10.00 Keynote Address: Professor Bernard McGinn

11.00 Break

11.30 Keynote Address: Fr Wilfrid McGreal OCarm

13.00 Lunch – Dolche Vita Cafe 14.00 Short Papers – K Block 16.15 Break – Tea/Coffee available

16.45 Keynote Address: Dr Edward Howells/Dr Peter Tyler

18.15 Finish 18.30 Supper – Refectory (residential delegates only) 19.30 Evening Event 21.00 End of Day One – SU Bar open

Friday 19th June 2015

Day Two: The Impact of Teresa

09.30 Keynote Address: Prof Rowan Williams

10.30 Break

11.00 Keynote: Fr Matthew Blake OCD/Fr Iain Matthew OCD

12.30 End of morning Session 13.00 Lunch – Dolce Vita Cafe 14.00 Short Papers 15.30 Optional Tour of Walpole House 17.00 Eucharist (Chapel). 18.00 Conference reception – Senior Common Room 19.00 Conference Banquet. Waldegrave Drawing Room. (Bar open afterwards, D121)

Saturday 20th June 2015

Day Three: Teresa in the 21st Century

09.30 Keynote Address: Prof Julia Kristeva

10.30 Break

11.00 Keynote Address: Prof Gillian Ahlgren

12.30 Lunch – Dolce Vita Cafe
13.30 Short Papers 15.00 Break

15.30 Final Session: Carmelite Life Today. The Carmelite Sisters Close of Conference at 17.00

Prayer, Worship and Meditation Each day of the conference the Roman Catholic Eucharist will be celebrated in the Chapel Crypt at 8.30am. The college Chapel Crypt and Interfaith Prayer Room will be available for meditation and prayer throughout the conference. For all of the above see Conference website on for more details.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Abroad thoughts from Home...

Dear All

Having just got back and slept most of last night I can begin to reflect on the wonderful time in India. I was also delighted to receive messages about how much you had enjoyed these posts. I certainly enjoyed presenting them. Using my limited skills I have tried to attach a video of the Indian rite liturgy at Vidyavanam. This, and the joy and faith of the seminarians, have been the abiding memories of my visit. St Peter's seminary is one of several seminaries in Bangalore (including the CMI one at Dharmaram), each with about 200 seminarians each. Coming from UK where our seminarian numbers are comparatively low, this is staggering. Tagore wrote at the end of his life that he had looked to the West for the future as a young man, now, an old man during the middle of World War Two, he thought that the future light 'would come from the East'. I suspect the same for Christianity. Our future will lie in the hearts and minds of these kind and generous people. To meditate and experience their devotion was truly life changing. I shall be giving a day at the House of Prayer in East Molesey next month and I hope to share some of these experiences there... even doing a little bit of the light puja!




Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Forest Wisdom

Written on a rock in the ashram of Vidayavanam near Bangalore (see posting above) are the words: ‘Let wisdom emerge from the forest’. This was the inspiration of Fr Francis Vineeth CMI when he founded the ashram 17 years ago. After that time, with the grateful assistance of Frs Anto and Jojo, it is still going strong. It is as much a small thriving village as an ashram with its own dairy herd, vegetable and crop land and extensive range of fruit trees. The food is exceptionally good and varied and the water clean. Each morning begins in darkness in ‘the cave of the heart’ – Fr Vineeth’s chapel (see picture) - which to my Celtic eyes resembles a long barrow or dolmeth. As the morning liturgy proceeds with bhajans, flowers and incense, the first rays of dawn strike the window above the priest’s head and the whole ‘barrow’ is illuminated ( I will try and attach a video clip). After our silent breakfast it is time for teaching and following the sacred tradition of India this will happen under the trees. I share my visit with a small group of seminarians on retreat from all over India. Their stories are heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure and we quickly make friends. Today they have asked this western scholar to give a talk under the trees (I attach some of the text below). This is the first time I have taught under a tree and the effect is magical – students cannot drop off and the birds and butterflies seem to join in the fun. The text? Well as I sit in my cell day after day I thought something from the desert fathers would be appropriate.


Me being me I am already thinking about ways of bringing groups to experience these riches. Once I am back at St Mary’s I will be talking with my InSpiRe colleagues about a possible future study pilgrimage to visit some of these wonderful places I have seen over the last few days. So please watch this space if you are interested. Tomorrow morning I leave early for England with fond sadness and joy in my heart.


Best wishes





Desert Wisdom


The metaphor and reality of the desert burns itself into the consciousness of at least three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three arise from the desert and contain a nostalgie for former times when God first revealed God’s self in the harsh burning environment of the wilderness. For the Jews it is the place where God revealed God’s self to Moses at Horeb appearing in the burning bush (Exod. 3), that very essence of the dry, desiccated wasteland within which Moses found himself at that time. It was the inhospitable place within which the people of Israel were tested for forty years as God played cat and mouse with their hopes, expectations and theological understandings, culminating in the revelations of God’s nature and covenant on the inhospitable peak of Sinai (Exod. 19). After the deportation and exile to Babylon the prophets looked back nostalgically to their people’s time in the desert and longed once again for God to lure and ‘seduce them’ (Hos. 2:14) back to the wilderness where the Valley of Suffering would once again become the ‘door of hope’. There, they sang, Israel ‘shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt’ (Hos. 2).

            Likewise, Christianity ‘appears in the wilderness’ in the shape of the quasi-shamanic figure of St. John the Baptist. He emerges from the desert, writes St Mark, ‘clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist’ eating ‘locusts and wild honey’ (Mk. 1). This child of the desert, a true prophetic soul, wild and unkempt, pulled no punches in his dealings with the powers and authorities of the city – the classic antithesis to the desert dwellers. In his delight in infuriating, challenging and generally rubbing those in power up the wrong way, he set a precedent that his disciple, Jesus, seems to have enjoyed emulating.

            John arises from the desert and Jesus, we are told in Matthew 4, begins his ministry there. His first act after his baptism at the hands of John. Thus, at the start of his ministry Jesus withdraws immediately to the desert to begin battle with the devil – that traditional inhabitant of the wasteplaces. We shall have more to say about him and his little demon helpers later.

            Thus from its earliest beginnings Christianity recognises the importance of entry into the desert as a necessary stage in the spiritual journey. Its importance in the earliest stages of Christianity (for example, St Paul after his conversion spends time in the deserts of Arabia described in Galatians 1) means that it becomes ‘archetypal’ for all Christian spirituality that will follow. Of course, as Christianity unfolds this will not necessarily be about actually entering the physical desert of the Middle East. For the early Celtic Christians at the Western fringes of Europe their desert was to be found in the wild and untameable ocean besides which they would often live or upon which they would set out on voyages of spiritual self discovery. As the late middle ages collapsed into the modern age and the growth of the cities reduced the terrain of the desert, the new orders such as the Carmelites stressed the importance of finding the desert in the city. St Teresa of Avila, in her reform of the order in the sixteenth century insisted that her ‘carmels’, her ‘little deserts’, should be placed at the centre and heart of the cities of sixteenth century Spain, where, by and large, they remain to this day. In the twentieth century the Italian Little Brother of Jesus, Carlo Carretto, felt that the desert was to be found in the city and made sure that the little brothers and sisters of Jesus would live in the most rundown, socially deprived inner city estates. Today the sisters and brothers in the UK live in the hardest hit neighbourhoods of the great cities such as Birmingham and London.

            So, as Christianity emerged ‘desert spirituality’, as it is often called, emerged too. Not just a physical dwelling in the desiccated or abandoned places but also a dwelling in the inhospitable places within. An invitation to all people to move out of their comfort zones and move to the places of loss, driven-ness, pain and grief that our ordinary lives so deftly and easily mask through addictions, consumerisms, promiscuities, greeds and violence. For us 21st century children of Freud and Jung it is the place of the unconscious where we are no longer in control and more primitive and basic urges and desires take over. It is ultimately a spirituality of paradox for, we are told, it is in the uncomfortable places that we do most to avoid that God chooses to reveal God’s self to us. Here we will find the ‘living water’ that ultimately we are seeking – not in forests, cities and verdant places but in the neglected, dry and dead places on our earth and in our selves.