in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Happy Christmas!

As Our God became a child for us let us too become children again in the mystery of this perfect night.

Happy Christmas Everyone!

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Confession Blog - Catholic Herald

 Dear All,

Please find below a link to an interview regarding confession on the Catholic Herald. It may enhance your preparations for Christmas!

best wishes


Monday, 18 December 2017

Book Review: Mysticism in the Golden Age of Spain, 1500- 1650, Bernard McGinn

Mysticism in the Golden Age of Spain, 1500- 1650. (The Presence of God, Volume 6, A History of Western Christian Mysticism)

Author: Bernard McGinn

Date: 2017

Publisher: Herder and Herder: Crossroad

ISBN: 9780824500900

pp. 478, hbk


We live in a Golden Age of writing on Christian mysticism. McGinn’s own monumental and era-defining study now sails triumphantly into Spain’s own Golden Age and his galleon delivers us a wealth of riches to admire. From its origins in the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of Abbot García de Cisneros in the fastnesses of the Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia to the quarrelsome but brilliant Fray Luis de Léon, the professor of Hebrew at Salamanca University arrested for his controversial translation of the Song of Songs, the book takes us on an incredible and dazzling journey through this incomparable era of mystical writing. Thus, as well as the titans of the era, Ss. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola, we are introduced to a host of unfamiliar mystics, saints and seers who populate this fabled time and place. We hear of the early visionary and mystic, Juana de la Cruz (1481 – 1534) who ran away from home at the age of fifteen disguised a a man in order to join a community of Franciscan holy women. Here she became a local celebrity famed for her sermons which will seem rather provocative to 21st Century sensibilities. Then there is the controversial figure of María de Jesús de Agreda (1602 – 1665) who had the remarkable ability of bi-locating between Spain and her transatlantic missions in New Mexico. I shall be praying to her from now on whenever I get on a Virgin Airways flight. As well as navigating us skillfully and tactfully through this colourful collection of characters McGinn presents us with thoughtful and arresting surveys of the life and works of the major players of the period. There is very little secondary literature on the great saints that is not thoughtfully assessed, weighed and incorporated into three fascinating central chapters that summarise the state of play with regards to contemporary scholarship on these key figures of Western mysticism. For any serious student of Spanish mysticism this book will become a must-have. We have to go back to Edgar Allison Peers’ three volume ‘Studies of the Spanish Mystics’, published in the middle of the twentieth century, to find anything comparable, and in many ways McGinn’s work will now supersede that masterpiece. Indeed, there is very little to compare with McGinn’s magnum opus. Now into the seventh volume, there are three more projected to come. In the present volume we already have signs of the ‘Crisis of Mysticism’ that will come with the Quietist affair of the seventeenth century and we await these last volumes with anticipation. In the meantime we pray for Professor McGinn’s continuing good health so that the final ships of his fleet may be brought safely into harbour.


Thursday, 14 December 2017

'A Scent of the Divine' - Happy Feast Day of St John of the Cross!

Happy Feast Day of St John of the Cross!

Born on the feast day of St John the Baptist, like his name-saint, Juan de la Cruz points us towards the Christ-child and the approaching Joy of Christmas, often whilst standing in the darkness. But don't forget he also called his night 'more lovely than the dawn'. In the passage below, from my recently published book 'Confession: The Healing of the Soul', I concentrate on the mysterious passage in 'The Living Flame of Love', his last poem, in which the saint urges us to seek out, like a truffle hound, the sharp scent of the rastro of God in the frosty early morning air. Rastro is the scent or spoor left by a wild animal during the night. We know a fox or boar has been in our gardens the night before but we do not see it - all we are left with is the 'trace of the Divine'. An earthy metaphor for a saint often accused of being too other-worldly. So, as Christmas approaches, let us follow the 'scent of the Divine' which will, he assures us, lead us to the Christ-child.

Confessions of Fire - St John of the Cross

Flame, alive, compelling,
yet tender past all telling,
reaching the secret center of my soul!
Since now evasion’s over,
finish your work, my Lover,
break the last thread,
wound me and make me whole!

Burn that is for my healing!
Wound of delight past feeling!
Ah, gentle hand whose touch is a caress,
foretaste of heaven conveying
and every debt repaying:
slaying, you give me life for death’s distress.

O lamps of fire bright-burning
with splendid brilliance, turning
deep caverns of my soul to pools of light!
Once shadowed, dim, unknowing,
now their strange new-found glowing
gives warmth and radiance for my Love’s delight.

Ah, gentle and so loving
you wake within me, proving
that you are there in secret, all alone;
your fragrant breathing stills me
your grace, your glory fills me
so tenderly your love becomes my own.[1]


Prologue: A Trace of the Divine


          I have felt somewhat reluctant, most noble and devout lady, to explain       these four stanzas, as you asked, since they deal with such interior and    spiritual matters, for which communication language normally fails (as  spirit transcends sense) and I consequently find it difficult to say anything   of substance on the matter. Also, it is difficult to speak well of the           intimate depths of the spirit (entrañas del espíritu, literally ‘entrails of the     spirit’) if one doesn’t inhabit those depths oneself. And as I have not much done that up to now I have delayed writing about these matters. But now the Lord has appeared to grant me a little knowledge and given      me a little fire... I feel encouraged knowing for certain that by my own           power I can say little of value, especially regarding such sublime and important matters. (LF: Prol.1)


So begins the commentary by St John of the Cross on his last, and possibly greatest, poem, The Living Flame of Love. The poem probably written sometime between May 1585 and April 1587 (according to the testimony of Juan Evangelista he only took a fortnight to write it) whilst he was Prior of the Convent of Los Martires in Granada under the shadow of the magnificent Sierra Nevada and Alhambra Palace.[2] The preamble to his explanation above resembles the prologue to the last work of his equally famous co-worker and spiritual associate, St Teresa of Avila. John had arrived in Granada in 1582, the year of Teresa’s death, and I don’t think it is too fanciful to suggest that in this, his last great poem, he recalls the indomitable spirit of the great Teresa whose shade often hovers over the pages. For had she now not reached the place of bliss of which they had both spoken during their long and eventful collaboration together?

At this point of entry to the transcendent he declares that:


          There is a certain “I don’t know what” which is felt yet remains to be        said, a thing which is known but remains to be described, a trace of the     divine discovered by the soul which God has left to track Him down...     (CA 7.9)


It is as if having entered the Grail Castle only poetry will now suffice to convey what is happening. Using the language and imagery of the hunt John speaks of a divine trace or scent (un subido rastro que se descubre al alma de Dios quedándose por rastrear) which we have caught on the early morning air – this alone ( the ‘I-don’t-know-what’) will lead us to the Divine. It is, as he continues, ‘a love that wounds the soul,’ an outstanding experience that really cannot be put into words. It is Abhishiktananda’s ‘Grail’ experienced outside the bus station of Rishikesh, it is Wittgenstein’s fire of longing felt in the lonely dark nights of Norway:


          One of the outstanding favours God grants briefly in this life is an     understanding and experience of Himself so lucid and lofty as to make        one know clearly that He cannot be completely understood or       experienced. (CA: 7.9)


John’s Living Flame is thus his final confession and testament as he goes ‘gently into that good night.’ A testimonial made not to a Priest or Bishop, or even a Discalced Friar, but to a simple ‘unlettered’ lay woman – Doña Ana del Mercado y Peñalosa. Born in Segovia, to which she would return with John to found his convent there, she was at this time widowed and living in Granada with her brother.  John’s final testament is made to a woman, and it is to a woman’s heart that he confides his last attempts at spiritual writing.





[1]St John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, translated by Marjorie Flower, OCD: The Poems of St. John
of the Cross, incorporating adaptations by Fr Iain Matthew OCD:
¡Oh llama de amor viva
que tiernamente hieres
de mi alma en el más profundo centro!
Pues ya no eres esquiva
acaba ya si quieres,
¡rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro!
¡Oh cauterio süave!
¡Oh regalada llaga!
¡Oh mano blanda! ¡Oh toque delicado
que a vida eterna sabe
y toda deuda paga!
Matando, muerte en vida has trocado.
¡Oh lámparas de fuego
en cuyos resplandores
las profundas cavernas del sentido,
que estaba oscuro y ciego,
con estraños primores
color y luz dan junto a su querido!
¡Cuán manso y amoroso
recuerdas en mi seno
donde secretamente solo moras,
y en tu aspirar sabroso
de bien y gloria lleno,
cuán delicadamente me enamoras!
[2] For more on the chronology and background of John’s poems see Tyler 2010. For both Teresa and John I will use the BAC Spanish edition of their writings and the Kavanaugh and Rodriguez translations modified where necessary. See bibliography for more details and abbreviations of texts used.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Book Review: Living with the Mind of Christ: Mindfulness in Christian Spirituality. Stefan Reynolds

This, the first book from Stefan Reynolds, is an accessible account of the modern mindfulness phenomenon and its relationship to the Christian mystical tradition. Stefan Reynolds is very well placed to undertake this survey having not only completed a doctorate on the Cloud of Unknowing but spent some time studying with the late Bede Griffiths OSB at his ashram in Tamil Nadu – Shantivanam. Reynolds begins his task by setting before us the biblical roots of Christian contemplation by reviewing the biblical passages pertaining to the ‘mind of Christ’ – or as he transposes it – ‘the mind(fulness) of Christ’. He is happy to go beyond the canonical Gospels to the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas to support his argument that mindfulness and attentiveness are integral to the Gospel message. From here he moves to the modern mindfulness movement reviewing its development in recent decades, especially its clinical aspects. From this he makes an appeal for a more inclusive Christianity that will embrace Christ’s maxim that he is the Way, Truth and Life for all people. From this analysis Reynolds asks the question ‘whether, alongside Buddhism and secular humanism, Christianity can also serve as a broadening and deepening context for mindfulness?’ (p.53). His answer, as demonstrated in the remainder of the book, is ‘Yes’ and for him this is found in the ‘Christian mystical tradition’. Thus, for the rest of the book we have a review of this tradition showing how the various ‘mystics’ reflect the modern concerns of mindfulness, including a host of luminaries from the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, to the early Desert Fathers and Mothers. In reviewing this latter tradition the author translates the key term apatheia as ‘mindful attention’ which ‘establishes health in the parts of the soul that deal with anger and desire’ (p. 84). From here we move to St Augustine and his Confessions where, in Chapter 11of which, Reynolds finds ‘the samatha aspect of mindfulness’ (p.99). However sense-awareness, Reynolds stresses, remains a ‘lower capacity for the mind’ in Augustine which cannot lead to knowledge or contemplation. From Augustine we move to Eckhart and the Cloud where again Reynolds contrasts their respective approaches to contemplation with the work of contemporary mindfulness exercises.  Throughout Reynolds is keen to impress the dictum of the late John Main OSB that ‘the journey of prayer is simply to find a way to open our human consciousness to (Christ’s) human consciousness, and to become, on that way, fully conscious ourselves’ (p. 129) assisted by the use of a prayer-word or mantra as advocated by the group inspired by Main: the World Community for Christian Meditation. Despite his desire to show parallels between the various traditions: Buddhist, Christian and contemporary mindfulness, Reynolds also acknowledges the pitfalls in such syncretism by stressing that mindfulness, in many respects, fails to address what he calls ‘the deeper motivational resources’ that lie at the heart of established religions, especially when it comes to aspects of social action and having a socially-minded ethic. Here, he says is ‘where religions can give resources for the on-going journey’ whilst ‘mindfulness practice can help religions to find their contemplative centre again, to bring religion back to its senses’ (p. 173). Reynolds vision, then, is essentially optimistic, where the dynamo of mindfulness will invigorate and restore a new purpose and drive to the sometimes moribund forms of contemporary religion. Readers may disagree, but I think he presents his argument cogently and with passion. His book, well written and scholarly, will certainly appeal to anyone wanting to know more about the contemporary practice of mindfulness, its place within Buddhism and its relationship to the Christian tradition.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Come Holy Spirit!

 ‘Suddenly from Heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire house’

Acts 2:2

Thoughts from India

Dear All,

It is good to be back from India where I had a wonderful time thanks to the kindness of my friends there. Here are some thoughts to prepare us for the great Feast of Pentecost inspired by my time there.



The ashram where I was staying in the Himalayas had been started by Vandana Mataji, a co-worker of the French Benedictine, Henri Le Saux. Born in 1910 to a poor Breton family, Le Saux had a long interest in India and Indian spirituality joining at an early age the minor seminary at Châteaugiron in 1921 before entering the Benedictine order at the Abbey of Sainte-Anne de Kergonan in 1929. In 1948 he sailed to India to begin a monastic community with his fellow French priest, Jules Monchanin, their aim being to live the ancient Western monastic life within the frame and ambit of classical Indian ideas, philosophy and spiritual practice. The monastery they founded, normally called Shantivanam (The Forest of Peace), survived their passing and today flourishes, however while they both lived there it largely remained (as both priests liked it) a quiet and empty hermitage. Both priests began wearing the kavi of the Hindu renouncer in the 1950s at which time Henri le Saux took the name Abishikteśvarānda (throughout this article I have used the normal English version of his name, Swami Abhishiktananda, omitting the diacritics). In 1968, Swami Abhishiktananda decided to head north to the source of the Ganges where he spent the final years of his life alternating between a small hermitage he had built there and seeking to convey his message to a new generation of seekers to India.

          Still controversial today after his death in 1973 there are elements in his life and writings that pre-empt our twenty-first century concerns in a prophetic fashion. A few days after my return to England we suffered the horrendous attack on the Manchester Arena. Watching the groups of mourning, distressed and disconsolate folk in that proud city I was reminded once again of the Swami’s message: that we must open up to the new possibilities that are now arising. Accordingly in this article I would like to concentrate on a key aspect of the Swami’s teaching: that we are now being called by the Risen Christ to a new awakening and the instrument for that call will, certainly, be the ‘vent de l’esprit’.


The Trinitarian Nature of Christian Prayer

In her wisdom the Church presents us with a wonderful series of mysteries to contemplate week by week as we proceed through the church year, beginning with the Annunciation, passing through the mysteries of the Incarnation, the call to Christ’s ministry and suffering leading to his Crucifixion and Resurrection. Now we are led at this climax of Easter to the Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. All this culminates in the great feast of the Trinity which we celebrate shortly. For, as the church reminds us, we cannot think of Christian life, Christian vocation, Christian action or indeed Christian prayer outside the Trinitarian perspective. As St Paul puts it in the Letter to the Romans (8: 26 – 29):


The spirit participates in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we should,

But that very Spirit supplicates on our behalf with unutterable groanings.


And the Father who searches the heart knows the mind of the Spirit,

Because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to God.


We know that in all things God works for good for those who love God

And they are called according to God’s purpose.


And for those whom he knew long ago

He also destined that they be conformed to the Ikon of his Son


So that He would be the first-born of a large family.


The passage is truly wonderful as we realise that our Christian prayer is caught up in the ‘conversation’ between the Father and Son by the Spirit, even if we have no idea what our ‘groanings’ are going to accomplish. The inevitable consequence of being caught up in this conversation is that we are initiated into ‘the large family’, the Church, to which we are destined by virtue of our baptism. Thus, for Abhishiktananda ‘the Church is essentially a spiritual reality and the Christian religion is, first of all, a living experience in the Spirit’ (Renewal of the Indian Church: 1). Therefore, he continues, Christian life must be lived at the level of the Spirit, if we do not allow the Spirit into our prayers and lives we are not really acting as Christians. The Gospel writers talk of Christ as the lodestone of the psyche (or soul) that leads to the Spirit – the pneuma. Christ, as it were, produces, an ethical field that surrounds our thoughts and souls, so that the psyche now has a moral or ethical life. By focussing our lives on Christ, they suggest, we will be led to the Spirit. Contemplation in the Christian tradition is thus not something that focuses on attaining esoteric inner states through self-absorption, but rather it is the process that leads the soul (the psyche) to the Spirit – the pneuma: ‘Those who try to make their psyche secure will lose it, but those who lose their psyche will keep it’ (Lk 17.33 see also Matt 16.25, Mk 8.35 and Lk 9.24).

          This then colours how we view contemplation in the Christian tradition. As Abhishiktananda puts it: ‘by contemplation we do not refer simply to a life of habitual separation from the world and its lawful activities, that is to the acosmic life of the monk or hermit’ (Renewal of the Indian Church: 5). Christian contemplation is not a withdrawal from the world but a call to re-engage with the world, but, and here is the rub, with the Spirit at the centre of our activity. What St Ignatius called ‘becoming a contemplative in action’. In a letter to Antonio Brandao written in 1551outlining how he saw the balance of prayer and work in the life of his Jesuit scholastics, he gave a list of practical activities wherein they can find God, concluding the letter by stating that: ‘this kind of meditation – finding God our Lord in everything – is easier than lifting ourselves up and laboriously making ourselves present to abstract divine realities. Moreover, by making us properly disposed, this excellent exercise will bring great visitations of our Lord even in short prayers’ (Letters of St Ignatius in Ganss: 353). As this passage reveals, action and contemplation are for Ignatius two sides of the same coin and one cannot develop mystical pieties without at the same time developing a life of Christian action in the world. Over-emphasis on the latter has sometimes led to downplaying the former.

So therefore as we contemplate these great mysteries of Pentecost let us remember that the descent of the Spirit reminds us of our essential Trinitarian nature: rooted in Christ we look both to the Father in Heaven as well as to our fellow suffering humans on earth. We all live in what Abhishiktananda called ‘the cave of the heart’ but we also extend our hand of service to suffering humanity in the tears and bloodshed of bombs, death and civil strife. For contemplation is ‘the constant attention to the mystery which we are, by nature and grace, in the deepest recesses of our own spirit’ (Renewal of the Indian Church p.6). Edith Stein, the great Carmelite martyr of Auschwitz, reminded us that we sit with the ‘God-man’, Jesus Christ, on the axis of the infinite spirit and finite suffering flesh. Let us remember this constantly in the coming days of what the Orthodox call ‘The Bright Week’ – recalling our birth-rite in the Spirit and our duty to our fellow suffering humanity.


Come Holy Spirit!

Bringing from Heaven

The radiance of your light.


Come Father of the Poor

Come giver of all gifts

Come light of our hearts!







Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Sods and Clods

A new book - a new allotment! As I start writing the new book on mindfulness and Christian contemplation I turn the first soil on my newly acquired allotment in South London. Let's see what grows!


Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Contemplation to Give Love - Mindful Contemplation for Easter

Happy Easter!

I am presently working on a series of meditations that combine mindfulness with the Christian contemplative tradition. Here is the 'Contemplation to Give Love' which I hope you might enjoy exercising over the Easter period.

God Bless


St Ignatius of Loyola ends his Spiritual Exercises with an ecstatic ‘Contemplation to Attain Love’. Here is a part of it:

I recall the gifts I have received, my creation, redemption and other gifts particular to myself , I will ponder with deep affection how much God our Lord has done for me, and how much he has given me...

I see how God dwells in all creatures, in the elements, giving them being, in the plants, in the animals – feeling in them, in humans giving them to understanding and so in me, giving me being, animating me, giving me feeling  and understanding...

I will speak as one making an offering with deep affection: ‘Take, Lord, and receive, all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and all my will – all that I have and possess... Give me only your love and your grace that is sufficient for me. (Exx 234 - 235)

In a similar spirit I usually end a retreat or set of exercises with a group with a ‘Contemplation to Give Love’. Here it is:

Again, take the usual time to prepare yourself for the exercise. Make yourself comfortable – feet on the ground, bottom on the seat/floor, back straight. As before spend some time with the breathing and body exercises we have already done. Now, as in a previous exercise move your awareness to the heart centre. As before notice the feeling there and invite Jesus to bring his healing touch there. Feel the warm hand of Christ on your heart giving you the love you need at this moment. When you are ready I now want you to transfer that love to those around you. It may be people in your house or the room or it may be a close friend or family member. Picture that person in your mind’s eye and give them the love and healing touch that you have received from Christ. Wish them all good things and that they will find the peace they are looking for. Now I want you to extend that love and warm energy to all your family and friends. Bring each of them in turn into your mind’s eye and transfer that love energy to them, wishing them all the best for their journey through life. Now I want you to give that love energy to all your work colleagues, to those who live near you and those you may have met today. Again, picture them before you – whether you actually like them or not – and transfer this loving-kindness to them. Pray that they may prosper and have a good and fulfilling life. If at this point you recall someone to whom you have difficulty transferring this love stay with them a while and if necessary ask Jesus to come and help you.

          Now I want you to transfer this love energy to all in your city, town or region. Again contemplate all these people – some being born today, some dying, some ill and sick, some just married or newly engaged. Those in happiness, those in despair – equally alike transfer this loving-kindness to them, this heart-energy that they will find the peace they are looking for.

          Now I want you to transfer this love across the world. In particular bring before your mind all those trouble-spots in the world that you hear about on the TV and radio. Bring those who are at war, who suffer in conflict, who have lost loved ones into your loving-kindness. Bring the leaders – religious and civic – into your concentration as you give your loving heart energy to them. Again, evoke the name of Jesus to be with them now in their hour of difficulty.

          Now transfer the energy to all the animals and plants that surround you at this moment – the birds, insects, creatures and animals in your neighbourhood. Like St Ignatius thank God for their being and transfer to them all loving-kindness for their peace and contentment.

          Finally, like the saint, transfer this love to all the created elements around you. Thank God for the mystery of this fragile planet and pass the loving-kindness to the greater mysteries of God’s love dwelling in all created elements.

          Finish the exercise with a short prayer of thanksgiving before opening your eyes again.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Lent Day of Reflection: 'Living with the Mystics - St Ignatius of Loyola', St Nicholas Church, Guildford, Saturday 1st April

Dear All,

I am delighted to be visiting Guildford this Saturday to lead a day of Lent reflection with the World Community for Christian Meditation looking at the life and writings of St Ignatius Loyola. All welcome!




A Study Day to explore

Peter is Professor of Pastoral Theology and Spirituality at St Mary's University, Twickenham, a UKCP registered psychotherapist, and Director of St Mary's research centre InSpiRe. His books cover many subjects including psychotherapy and spiritual direction, Christian spirituality and the mystical tradition.

St Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) was a Spanish priest and theologian, who founded the religious order called the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Often viewed as the military genius behind the Jesuits, recent research has revealed the mystical side of Inigo Lopez de Loyola, better known as St Ignatius of Loyola. In our day together we shall draw upon this research to understand the mystical dimension of Ignatian spirituality.

'Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, memory,
understanding, and my entire will. To Thee, O Lord, I
return it... Give me Thy love and Thy grace,
for this is sufficient for me.'

*     Open to all

*     Bring your own lunch - tea & coffee provided from 10am

*     No charge - suggested donation £10

For more information

please call Ray or Vicky Lamb on 01252 705064
or contact St Nicolas' Parish Office ( 01483 564 526

Friday, 17 March 2017

A Little Celtic Gift for St Patrick's Day...

Happy St Patrick's Day! Especially to all my Irish and Celtic descendent readers. Attached an extract from my new book about the great Celtic gift to the world - Confession!


From the 6th century onwards, for reasons which commentators find hard to explain, in the Celtic lands of Britain and Ireland a new form of penance and confession arose.[1] Various commentators have presented theories as to why from this period onwards individual personalised confession and absolution took hold amongst these peoples. As Dallen points out, however, there were significant differences between monastic confession as it arose in the British Isles during these early centuries and what would later be accepted by the Western Church at the Fourth Lateran Council as the universal practice of personal confession. Both held in common that there was a ‘tariff’ by which the ‘amount of sin’ could be measured out and penance given. However the Celts had no ritual in their system to mark the penitent’s return to grace within the church (Dallen 1991:103). For Dallen, the Celts and Anglo-Saxons had ‘a fear and anxiety regarding the supernatural’ which ‘expressed itself in a preoccupation with demons and fairies and the like’ (Dallen 1991:103). Which, to this (Celtic origin) reader at least, seems a bit far-fetched. A little more convincing, as Dallen concurs, is the suggestion of the influence of the desert tradition of spiritual direction, which we examined in the previous chapter, on the practices and shape of the Celtic church.

          Accepting that the Celtic church was focussed largely upon monastic foundations and that the desert form of individual spiritual direction was prevalent there it is accordingly not so difficult to explain the origins of this form of confession as an outgrowth of spiritual direction as practised amongst these monastic communities. The clear links between the Celtic and Eastern churches, not least geographical through shared sea routes, and the ongoing tradition of the East to allow Christian leaders other than Bishops, in some cases lay-people and monks, to give forgiveness to sins (See Rahner 1969: 394), suggests that something of this Eastern spirit was clearly abroad in the Celtic church. This new Celtic form of forgiveness of sins, or absolution, was not confined to one specific occasion, or indeed one specific season such as Lent, and could be uttered by a priest or monk using a simple verbal formula (Rahner 1983:14). By the eighth century it is clear that this new form of ‘private’ confession with its accompanying tariff of penances had spread throughout the whole of Western Europe slowly replacing the more public penances of the older tradition.

[1] Within a generation of Augustine’s death St Patrick will write an influential confessio, thus attesting to the early love of the form in the Celtic lands. I am indebted to Bernard McGinn to drawing this to my attention.

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Tristan Wound and the Crisis of the West

Dear All,

First of all, apologies for not posting on here for some time now. I have been busy completing my new book for Bloomsbury: 'Confession - The Healing of the Soul' which has not left much time for anything else. However as I was revising this chapter today I couldn't help but think of our present 'crisis' in the West through the 'Tristan' lens so thought it might be worth posting.

Kind regards


The first thing to note from the Tristan myth is that we modern souls are orphans. Our good Christian parents have died and we are born alone in the world. As Robert Johnson writes:

          Tristan is the new child, born in the Middle Ages, who grew up over a       millennium to be modern Western man. His mother and father,         Blanchefleur and King Rivalin, symbolise the old order, the ancient mind         of Europe. They die, but they give birth to a child and that child is the   modern mind of the West. He is Tristan, the New Man. (Johnson 1987:    16-17)


For Johnson, from his Jungian perspective, the death of the old order is the death of the feminine: ‘she (Blanchefleur) personifies the inner feminine soul of Western man, the feminine values that once lived in our culture. Her death records that sad day in our history when our patriarchal mentality finally drove the feminine completely out of our culture and out of our individual lives’ (Johnson 1987:17). Whereas I admire much in Johnson’s analysis I am not so drawn to his perspective of the birth of Tristan as the death of the feminine. Rather, from the perspective of this book I see the birth of Tristan as the death of the transcendent perspective at the birth of secular culture. In this respect I agree with Johnson when he characterises us moderns as ‘the children of sadness’, we are, he says:


          Children of inner poverty, though outwardly we have everything.     Probably no other people in history have been so lonely, so alienated, so   confused over values, so neurotic. We have dominated our environment     with sledge-hammer force and electronic precision. We amass riches on    unprecedented scale. But few of us, very few indeed, are at peace with           ourselves... Most of us cry out for meaning in life, for values we can live     by, for love and relationship. (Johnson 1987:21)


As I stated at the beginning of this book, week after week, I see the children of sadness who live in the West. Shorn of meaning we live the life of ‘triste’. And as Johnson points out, this alienation, this ‘cut-off-ness’, extends to all elements of our dealing with reality, especially the environment. In his ground-breaking encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis characterised this tendency as our present ‘throwaway culture’ and our worship of ‘rapidification’ (LS: 18). Like Saint John Paul II, he critically analyses ‘progress and our human abilities’ (LS: 19) and the unholy ‘alliance between the economy and technology’ which ‘ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests’ (LS: 54). Within this critique (always of course within the spirit of dialogue and respect) there is even a critique of the scientific method itself  (‘ a method of control’) which should not be allowed to assume the divine right to have the last word on every matter. For, in contrast to the mechanising objectification of the scientific-economic gaze, the Pope advocates a vision of each creature that respects its creatureliness. ‘Each creature,’ he states ‘has its own purpose’ and in this he echoes the ancient church tradition which goes back to the desert elders of God being found in the ‘book of creation’ which we read by engaging in contemplation (‘God has written a precious book,’ LS: 85). This precious book of creation is therefore not just for aesthetic consideration but contains the full biodiversity of all creatures, the loss of which, as with all the other events cited, affects us all (LS 32-4).

          Thus, the ‘child of woe’ is born into a world torn apart – alienated from itself and the sources of creation around it. The young Tristan must first engage in ‘the study of books and language’ (p.68) which is for him ‘the beginning of cares’ for:


          In the blossoming years, when the ecstasy of his springtime was about to   unfold and he was just entering with joy into his prime, his best life was        over; just when he was beginning to burgeon with delight the frost of care (which ravages many young people) descended on him and    withered the blossoms of his gladness.[1]


Where has childhood gone? In the frost of care our young ecstasy is quenched by the technocratic society within which we live, for ‘he was learning the whole time, today one thing, tomorrow another, this year well, next year better’ (p.69). Our technocratic society demands this constant 24 hour learning made worse by the demands of the internet to which the young psyche is now glued. 

          Unfortunately, a psyche such as ours, unhinged from its transcendent moorings, is more susceptible to corruption, distraction and ruin and in the next stage of the saga we hear that the young Tristan preoccupies himself with all the distractions available to the medieval lad – peregrines, games, fine silks and the hunt. Again our technologically obsessed age has brought all the distractions one could possibly imagine into the heart of our lives. Twitter, Facebook, social media and computer games could fill up our whole day should we allow them.

          During this period of adolescent distraction (we are told he is 14 years old) the first of many strange incidents connected with the sea occurs to Tristan. At the mention of the sea a psychologist’s ears prick up. ‘The sea that brings all chances’ is almost a character in itself during the Tristan saga. Granted that the saga originates from the Atlantic isles surrounded by the constant ebb and flow of the sea and in the flickering uncertain light of the coast, yet the sea itself seems to fulfil a deeper function within the story. Johnson, following Jung, takes it as a symbol for the unconscious, ‘our nostalgia for the mysterious, unexplored depths of our own psyches, for the hidden potentialities within our own souls: for what we have never known, never lived, never dared’ (Johnson 1987:25). Thus, as in the Parzifal legend (See Tyler 2013), we have in the legend a record of our first adolescent encounter with the unconscious, at the age set by the Lateran Council ‘as the beginning of discernment’, normally understood as 14. As with Parzifal’s encounter with the transcendent at that age, so Tristan must come to terms with the unconscious. But like his fellow seeker, Parzifal, he also makes a mess of it.

          What happens?  One morning a bright merchant’s ship arrives in Brittany from Norway. Tristan, his guardian Foitenant and his tutor, Curvenal, are invited onto the ship where Tristan is distracted by a beautiful chess board. Distracted as any youngster today would be by a game-boy or computer console he challenges the Norwegians to a game and becomes completely absorbed by it. Like that other story, the Sleeping Beauty, where the adolescent cannot focus on the task before her but falls into a hundred-year sleep, so the boy Tristan denies what is happening and observes only the game before him. Two things now occur, his guardian, the Marshall, gets bored with the adolescent game and leaves the ship whilst the Norwegians look on the boy and realise ‘they have never set eyes on any young person with so many talents’ (p.71). Eyeing the boy for potential exploitation they abduct him by letting slip the anchor so the ship sails off with the boy and his tutor. So engaged are they in the game that they fail to notice what is happening until it is too late. So, Tristan’s first encounter with the ocean/unconscious is a disaster – he is carried off into a very dangerous and hostile situation. With our present-day heightened awareness of child abuse, especially of teenagers, Tristan’s fate seems eerily prescient. Fortunately for the boy a storm is now raised in the ocean/unconscious. The deeper forces of the unconscious have been roused and for eight days it rolls the ship, so much so that the Norwegians, terrified, agree to land the boy on the nearest shore that beckoned: Cornwall.


... To be continued!


[1]In seiner ersten Freiheit, wurde all seine Freiheit vernichtet.’ Tristan, p..68, 2075 – 2080