in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 30 May 2014

St Paul's Cathedral, Sunday 1st June, 1-2pm

Dear All

Below is notice for an hour long session I will be giving at St Paul's Cathedral here in London this Sunday to which all are welcome (and it is free!). I will no doubt continue last week's 'mindfulness/mental prayer' debate!




St Paul’s Forum | 3b Amen Court, London, EC4M 7BU | email. | tel. 020 7236 3553 | web. | twitter. @StPaulsForum

St Paul’s Cathedral, 1 – 2pm on the first Sunday of the month

A Sunday lunchtime series in which some of the liveliest contemporary theologians and spiritual teachers speak about the challenges, contradictions and joys of being a Christian in the world today. Each event includes time for questions and answers. The events are in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral, admission is free, unticketed and open to all. For films of previous events please go to

Sunday 1 June
Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul
Peter Tyler
May God protect me from gloomy saints! said St Teresa of Avila, the least gloomy of saints. At the centre of the great flowering of mysticism in 16th century Spain, Teresa has been described as a ‘woman beyond frontiers’ - an ecstatic, eccentric and highly creative writer and thinker who has inspired and astonished generations with the boldness of her insight into prayer, devotion and the nature of God’s love. In his new book Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul, published this year, the 500th anniversary of her birth, Peter Tylerbrings refreshing new light to the life and work of this great mystic and considers how it is that Teresa’s ‘language of the soul’ finds such resonance in contemporary spiritual life, including the worlds of psychology, meditation, mindfulness and personal development.

Dr Tyler is Reader in Pastoral Theology and Spirituality at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, a practising psychotherapist, and the author of several books about the sixteenth century Spanish mystics, and is co-editor of The Bloomsbury Guide to Christian Spirituality (2012). He blogs on and is the Director of InSpiRe (

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Teresa of Avila, Mindfulness and Mental Prayer

Interestingly enough I have been asked from two quarters today about the relationship between 'mindfulness' and 'mental prayer' in Teresa of Avila's writing. The first came from the sisters of the Discalced Carmel at Ware where I led a day on Teresa today. (for more information on this beautiful place see )

There we looked at the passage I wrote below where I emphasised that this may be one way of throwing light on Teresa's definition of mental prayer as an association of friendship, frequently practised on an intimate basis, with the one we know loves us. The second comes from Christopher Howse who reviews this section of my book in today's 'Daily Telegraph'. I think as always he is judicious in his assessment of my writing and especially when he emphasises that I am not claiming that Teresa is a closet Buddhist (see the whole review on ) . However what he doesn't mention in the article is that one of the main reasons for my preferencing the term (not least because of contemporary interest in it) is that I believe it corresponds well with Teresa's desire to move the centre of attention of our prayer to 'the heart'. However, as at Ware today, it is wonderful to see Teresa's writings still exercising interest and debate 500 years after they were written. I quote the whole passage from 'Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul' below for those interesting in seeing what I wrote.

best wishes

Teresa’s first account of oración mental in her writings is an extended account in The Life, Chapters Eight to Ten. Here she contrasts the peace she receives from this activity with the ‘war so troublesome’ where she would frequently ‘fall and rise’ (V: 8.2 con estas caídas y con levantarme) as her passions came and left her. Her mental prayer ‘drew her to the harbour of salvation’ (V: 8.4 a puerto de salvación). She refers to it here and later as her ‘trato con Dios: Que no es otra cosa oración mental, a mi parecer, sino tratar de amistad, estando muchas veces tratando a solas con quien sabemos nos ama’ / ‘For mental prayer is none other, it appears to me, than an association of friendship, frequently practised on an intimate basis, with the one we know loves us.’[1] The pivotal word ‘Trato’ that Teresa uses to convey the intimacy and immediacy of mindfulness causes the most variation in translation. Allison Peers, in his usual robust fashion stays with ‘intercourse’, whilst Kavanaugh and Rodriguez opt for the ‘intimate sharing between friends’. Of her older translators Matthew chose ‘straight commerce with God’, Woodhead ‘conversing in prayer’ and Cohen ‘communion’.[2]
          Where Teresa’s method of prayer differs so clearly from the Buddhist mindfulness detailed above is the role that visualisation and symbolic representation of Christ plays in her meditations (See, for example, V: 9 1-4). Even though the gustos and regalos we discussed in Chapter Four will be a necessary part of her Mental Prayer the symbolic function discussed in the previous chapter plays an even more important role. However where Teresa’s account of mindfulness converges with the Buddhist accounts above is the importance of drawing attention away from intellectual and mental activity to the location of what she calls ‘the heart’. As we discussed in Chapter Six, this is not an anti-intellectual move but rather a consequence of the strategy of the Medieval mystical theology to which she is heir. To overcome the whirring discourse of the intellect we will need to concentrate on the mindful ‘trato’ with the beloved. This is why I feel the term ‘mental prayer’ can be misleading and why I preference ‘mindfulness’ as a translation of oración mental. ‘Mental’ seems to have the contemporary association with the mind and intellectual activity whereas, I would suggest, Teresa is advocating something closer to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness outlined above, and certainly closer to the contemporary practice of mindfulness discussed by commentators such as Kabut-Zinn. As she says later in Chapter Thirteen: ‘Ansí que va mucho a los principios de comenzar oración a no amilanar los pensamientos, y créanme esto, porque lo tengo por espieriencia’ / ‘Therefore it is of great importance, when we begin to practise prayer, not to be intimidated by thoughts, and believe you me, for I have had experience of this’ (V: 13.7).[3] Or as she later puts it in Chapter Seventeen, rather poetically translated by Matthew, the thoughts are like ‘unquiet little Gnatts, which buzze, and whizze by night, heer and there, for just so, are these Powers wont to goe, from one to another’ (V: 17.6)

[1] Again, a tricky passage to translate and preserve the sense of intimacy Teresa wants to convey here. Allison Peers retains this sense with his translation: ‘Mental prayer, in my view, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him Who we know loves us.’ Kavanaugh and Rodriguez give a more distant: ‘Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing less than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.’
[2] Matthew, for example, translates the passage above with: ‘For Mentall prayer, is no other thing, in my opinion, than a treatie, about making friendship with Almightie God; and a frequent and private Commerce, hand to hand, with him; by whome, we know, we are beloved.’
[3] Matthew: ‘It is therefore of great importance, for them, who beginn to hold Mentall Prayer, that they doe not subtilize too much, with their thoughts.’ Kavanaugh:  ‘not to be intimidated by thoughts.’ Allison Peers: ‘not to let ourselves be frightened by our own thoughts.’ Lewis: ‘not to let our thoughts frighten us.’

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Blessed Ramon Llull, Archbishop Kevin McDonald, Professor Sara Sviri, Abbot Timothy Wright, and Religious Dialogue...

After what seems years of planning we are now in the final countdown for our Dialogue Conference: Ecclesiam Suam: The Catholic Church in Dialogue which will be held at St Mary's University, Twickenham from 16th - 18th June. There is so much going on it is invidious to pick out highlights so I direct you to the full conference website on

I am so honoured to be in dialogue with my old friend Professor Sara Sviri from the
Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Sara is a world expert on the Sufi traditions and has chosen to present on Ibn Arabi and the inter-religious dialogue of medieval Spain. This prompted me to make a study of the figure I have illustrated on the right of this blog - Ramon Llull. My paper is not complete but it is entrancing to enter the life and thought of this remarkable man and I am really looking forward to dialoguing with Sara on his relevance to today.
Other highlights from the conference will be the launch of a new edition of Ecclesiam Suam with an introduction from the eminent ecumenicist Archbishop Kevin McDonald.
 Finally I must also mention a presentation from my friend Abbot Timothy Wright whose newly published 'No Peace Without Prayer' I received this week for review. As well as his own presentation on current Muslim-Christian dialogue Abbot Timothy will introduce a screening of the powerful film 'Of Gods and Men', many of the monks who are depicted on which he knew personally.
Finally, it is great to announce that a kind charitable trust has given us money to allow bursaries for the conference so whether you would like to come for a day or the whole event do get in touch. As we daily hear news of new barbarisms please pray for the success of our conference and the deepening dialogue between all people of good will.

All good wishes


Saturday, 17 May 2014

Thomas Merton Reads Freud

Yesterday I had the privilege of giving some lectures at the London Centre for Spirituality as part of my current 'Pursuit of the Soul'. We had some lively conversations so I didn't cover everything I had prepared. Here is a part I omitted, for those who were there yesterday, and to give a flavour to those who weren't there. It seems I am on the trail of Merton right now! I have some more news about our Catholic Dialogue Conference in June which I will be posting shortly... watch this space!

Best wishes


Freud, the ‘godless Jew’, may not have been a militant atheist but the mental map he developed is essentially a godless one. There is no room for the transcendent in Freud’s schema and it would prove to him and his followers at best a distraction and at worst a hindrance to good mental functioning. It is perfectly possible to follow all the ideas of the object relations school without any place for the transcendent. Freud himself vacillated during his life from being actively opposed to the transcendent to seeing it as an irrelevance. The key aspect for good mental functioning was appropriate ego strength and an ability to be open to the ‘unknown thing’ with a listening ear to its demands.[1]

          When we survey the current practice of spiritual direction in the West, and indeed much writing on Christian spirituality, one of the most surprising things is the extent to which so many Christian writers take the paraphernalia of Freudian analysis and apply it unthinkingly to the Christian position. As Freudian language became widespread in the mid-twentieth century so Christian writers, at first sceptical, adapted it to their musings. A good example of this is the twentieth century Trappist monk and social activist, Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968).

As a young man wanting to reject Christian values Merton had turned towards psychoanalysis. At this point he saw analysis as offering an opportunity to ‘indulge the appetites’:


I, whose chief trouble was that my soul and all its faculties were going to seed because there was nothing to control my appetites – and they were pouring themselves out in an incoherent riot of undirected passion -  came to the conclusion that the cause of all my unhappiness was sex-repression! ( Merton 1948:124)


This quote comes from the Seven Storey Mountain, his best-selling autobiography published in 1948 and charting his journey from pre-war hipster to post-war monk. In it he is censorious about psychological analysis and suggests ‘if I ever had gone crazy, I think psychoanalysis would have been the one thing chiefly responsible for it.’ This sense of mistrust towards analysis is typical of the time.

However, as he continued to live at the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky, coming into increasing conflict with his abbot, Dom James Fox, and wondering if the Cistercian vocation was right for him afterall, he became increasingly interested in psychoanalysis. Prompted by meetings with the psychiatrist Gregory Zilboorg he began to take this element of the personality more seriously so that by the time he was addressing his conferences to novices in the abbey in the 1960s he begins to use a lot of psychological, and Freudian terms. He also became increasingly interested in types of what we would today call ‘transpersonal psychology’ that took the spiritual life seriously and sought to integrate it into psychological development to which we shall return at the end of this chapter.

Of all Christian writers in the latter half of the twentieth century interested in Christian spiritual direction, Merton is something of a pioneer. Although flawed, his last books reveal an attempt to integrate the findings of psychological analysis with spiritual insight. In Contemplative Prayer[2], for example, the integration of the two is almost seamless and he writes with mastery of the spiritual life using tropes from the early Desert fathers, John of the Cross and metaphors from Freud such as ‘the ego’ and ‘the unconscious’ with ease:


The ‘flame’ of which St John of the Cross is speaking is a true awareness that one has died and risen in Christ. It is an experience of mystical renewal, an inner  transformation brought about entirely by the power of God’s merciful love, implying the ‘death’ of the self-centred and self-sufficient ego and the appearance of a new and liberated self who lives and acts ‘in the Spirit’. (1973:110)


In this respect these later writings come close to the ideal of psychological language as ‘mystical discourse’ which I am presenting here. The only problem with such appropriation is that it can tend to blur the original significance of the terms for a writer such as Freud: a significance we have described in this chapter. For Merton, the psychological tropes of Freud offered a means of examining his life as a ‘reintegration of the self in Christ’ through the 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 Gethsemani. Only with age and experience does he realise 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, his great inspiration, calls the ‘marriage of heaven and earth’. This is far from the inner psychic conflict that Freud imagined and points more to influence of his one time collaborator and student, Carl Gustav Jung.

[1] For an extended recent discussion on Freud’s relationship to religion see Chapter Five in Beverley Clack’s Freud on the Couch (Clack 2013).
[2] Published posthumously in 1974.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Dom Eudes Bamberger OCSO and Thomas Merton

Dear All

As I prepare my paper on Merton for our Mystical Theology conference in the summer in Durham I found the blog/website of Dom Eudes Bamberger OCSO at the Abbey of the Genesee in New York  . Many of you will no doubt be familiar with this remarkable monk and his work but for those of you who are not I recommend this site highly. Bamberger worked closely with Merton and on the site is a remarkable testament of their time together ( I have included some of the extract as it will give you a flavour of the nature of their relationship. Merton's ability to 'dissemble' is brought out very clearly and explains why some readers have difficulties with Merton. Do read it and form your own opinion. Having spent the last few weeks working on Merton again I must say how every time I do he comes more clearly into focus.
We must also be grateful to Bamberger for the work he has done on Evagrius and Cassian (two more areas of study of mine at the moment) and again the site has some extracts from this work too. So we salute a remarkable gentleman who seems to be as productive as ever in ripeness of years.

best wishes


'Merton not only met us in the classroom and for private discussion, he also worked with us in the fields and forests. In those days he had not as yet developed the bone problem that later resulted in surgery on his spine. I recall how energetically he wielded a hoe working in company with a group of us juniors. During that same period of time (1952-1955) he would take a group of us simple professed out to the woods outside the cloister enclosure where a former tool shed had been adapted to serve as a hermitage where he had permission to stay and do reading and some of his writing. As we set out on one such occasion I remember his quoting a passage from the Scriptures that took up the theme of escaping into solitude. I am not sure of the precise passage, but recall distinctly the flavor of his exhortation. It is captured by the following text from the prophet Jeremiah: "Flee and save your soul, be like the wild ass in the wilderness." (31:6), upon which proclamation we scattered, in the adjacent fields and woods to spend time in silent reflection and prayer.

On a later occasion, having had considerably more contact with Fr. Louis so that we knew one another better, he invited me to join him at his newly constructed hermitage so as to participate in a meeting he had arranged with a Hindu monk, member of a monastery in India who was visiting him. The three of us had a protracted exchange concerning various religious matters. Naturally one topic we covered in some detail was Hindu belief and monastic practice as well as our own. The discussion proceeded in a friendly climate that Merton was adept at creating. However, his contribution at times was too sympathetic and yielding; giving the

impression he had no objections to certain Hindu beliefs that are clearly not acceptable to Catholic teaching. After the Hindu monk left us to return to the abbey I pointed out to Fr. Louis that his comments and manner went too far at some point. He could give a false impression as to the Catholic teaching. He readily replied: "Sometimes you have to go along with those guys", making it evident by further comments and his whole manner that he did not at all agree with the Hindu position on the matters that are objectionable for a Christian; rather, he was making himself agreeable by dissembling any disagreements. This kind of accommodation does not seem honest to me or even productive in the end. Merton, at an earlier time, had intended at Cambridge University to qualify for the British diplomatic service. Had he pursued that course with application he surely could have competed with the best! Americans have not always agreed with this feature of the English style. Michael Mott has commented on this persistent tendency to adapt himself to others in ways that could be misleading. This tendency to accommodate himself without a serious commitment to the impression he made was operative in more subtle ways and in a variety of situations as his diaries and some letters clearly establish.

However, this incident was the only one of its kind involving a point of faith that I, at any rate, witnessed. There was no such equivocating when I was with him at an encounter with Sidi Abdesalam, the Sufi master from Algeria. Fr. Louis invited me with two or three other monks to join in a meeting to discuss prayer and spiritual experience. The conversation was cordial, open in spirit, and without any equivocal statements by any of us. Merton was a capable, reliable, and facilitating presence. On another occasion, Fr. Louis expressed to me in private sharp criticism of a prominent priest friend who visited at the Abbey with a group of Protestant ministers for his excessively liberal behavior at a liturgy with that group. My impressions were that the tendency to make himself agreeable to others had strong roots in Merton’s character, a tendency that contributed to his friendly manner as well as to his strong sense of sympathy for human suffering. This trait in my opinion, played a prominent role in Merton’s increasing contributions to causes of peace and justice.

It happened some few years later, on an occasion when I was free to spend the day alone, I took the customary path to the more distant hermitage. As I proceeded on my way I traversed a wooded area and observed Fr Louis walking alone. I remained partially hidden by the trees not far away from him. Due to the disposition of the trees he did not see me till I was rather nearby so that I could clearly perceive by his features and his preoccupied way of walking that he was burdened , preoccupied with some quite distressing matters in his thought. As I drew nearer he suddenly noticed my presence and abruptly altered his whole manner and features. He greeted me with a warmth of expression and smile that characterized his customary behavior in the presence of others, displaying but briefly the embarrassment he felt at having allowed something of his darker interior self to be observed. This dividedness was so well concealed in

daily life as to remain unrecognized by even close associates in and outside the monastery. Nor do biographers give prominence to the considerable suffering it created for him or recognize the role it played in what was to be a crisis in his life some time later. The circumstances are quite involved, and I found myself at the height of the situation dragged into the matter. Before discussing the events associated with this scene, another happening made me further aware of a feature of Merton’s ways that contributed to further knowledge of his character.

As I recall that scene in the woods, I associate it with a statement Merton made some years later in a letter he wrote to me concerning a discussion we had shared the day before. The meeting we had was occasioned by events resulting in a rather acute inner crisis for him. When in the hospital for surgery on the spinal problem he had become emotionally involved with a young student nurse. He remained in communication with her after returning to the monastery following convalescence. Predictably these activities became known to a brother in the community who brought it to the attention of Dom James. The abbot upon learning of the phone calls engaged Merton to break off their relationship. Shortly after this happened, I, knowing nothing of these events, received a letter sent to me by a priest I knew through earlier professional contact. He expressed concern for Merton’s well-being having been consulted by some layperson who sought his help for the monk acting in so irregular a manner. This is some of the background that led to my being asked by the abbot to speak with Fr. Louis so as to be of some assistance this situation. At his same time, another related circumstance resulted in my being brought into the situation and occasioned my intervention by way of a confrontation rather emotionally charged.

The day after this initial discussion, he wrote me a letter to give his reflections on our exchange. He begins his observations in the following terms:" Our talk yesterday has been fruitful in this: it has suggested some helpful perspectives anyway." But he soon qualifies this statement in a way that gives the unfounded impression that I had implied he was previously without inner conflicts: "Anyone who thinks that I was whole and consistent before simply does not know me." However, as he copied this letter into his diary (cf. "Learning to Love", 106, 107), he makes a further comment, the result of more reflection on my criticisms and advice with a quite positive decision:" However, there is no harm in taking seriously his (Fr. Eudes) advice . . . I’ll accept the fact that it is perhaps a much bigger problem than I realized. And try to work it out." Subsequent course of his behavior reveal the results of his efforts in this direction that led to his inner resolution of this crisis...'

Monday, 5 May 2014

Mystical Theology - Renewing the Contemplative Tradition. Durham University 3rd - 5th September 2014

Dear All


Just working on my paper this weekend for the new conference at Durham in the autumn:

Mystical Theology: Renewing the Contemplative Tradition


This will be a collaborative event between St Mary’s University and the Project for Spirituality, Theology and Health, and the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University and will be held from  3rd-5th September 2014 at St John’s College, Durham. It is a three-day conference exploring the tradition of mystical theology from contemporary academic and practitioner perspectives and speakers include:

Archbishop Kallistos Ware

Professor Andrew Louth

Canon Rosalind Brown

Dr Bernadette Flanagan

Professor Corinne Saunders


Prof Chris Cook and Julienne McLean have been co-ordinating it with myself.

Costs (including accommodation and all meals) are: Residential Single £258, Residential En-Suite £278 (including lunch only), Non-residential £156. For bookings and further information contact:

Louise Elliot Tel: 0191 334 2883 Email:

For Call for Papers see

I have decided to present something on Thomas Merton and Wittgenstein and will put an extract up here when it is ready. We are also hoping to publish the papers after the conference.

In the meantime, best wishes