in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Sunday, 23 May 2021

A New Pentecost!

Dear All, Happy Pentecost! On this day of new beginnings and new languages I have decided to move this blog from its present home to a new domain: This was not an easy decision but it has become increasingly difficult to use this blog so I was advised that I should set up a new blogsite. My last blog about my friend Fr Kevin Alban received many viewings stressing to me the need to continue this service. However my technical proficiency is limited so I will have to ‘move with the times’. So, thank you for all the feedback you have given here and I look forward to continuing the conversation as we pursue the soul together on the new site... Come Holy Spirit!

Thursday, 6 May 2021

The Very Rev’d Professor Kevin Alban O. Carm. – An Appreciation

It is with great sadness that the death was announced on 4th May of the Very Rev’d Professor Kevin Alban O. Carm. Since his return to England from Rome in 2014 Fr. Kevin had been very involved with the teaching and delivery of courses at the Institute of Theology and Liberal Arts and the Mater Ecclesiae College at St Mary’s, Twickenham. As well as teaching on the Undergraduate and Masters degrees he was a much valued Doctoral supervisor and examiner who will be greatly missed. Fr. Kevin was born in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1958 and made his profession as a Carmelite friar in 1996 having worked for many years as an English language teacher. He studied history at Balliol College, the University of Oxford and theology in Rome and London. He was ordained priest in 2001 and has been Vocations Director and Director of St Jude’s Shrine in the British Province of Carmelites. From 2001 to 2007 he was based in Rome as Secretary General of the whole Order, and from 2007 to 2013 Bursar General. He was elected Prior Provincial of the British Carmelites in 2017 and died whilst serving in this office. Fr Kevin’s doctorate was in the spiritual writings of the medieval English Carmelite, Thomas Netter, awarded from the University of London. It was published in 2010 by Brepols as The Teaching and Impact of the ‘Doctrinale’ of Thomas Netter of Walden (c.1374 – 1430). As well as teaching at St Mary’s he latterly also taught theology at Blackfriars, Oxford and Mariology at Allen Hall, London. Whilst in Rome he taught at the Beda College and helped set up the collaboration with St Mary’s which is now celebrating its tenth anniversary. Renowned for his love and enthusiasm for medieval Carmelite spirituality he was a leading expert in the field and contributed much to the establishment of St Mary’s MA in Christian Spirituality. He was a great ‘Italiophile’, loving Roman life and culture, but his heart was deeply connected to Aylesford Priory and the British Carmelites and it is fitting that he died there peacefully on 4th May after a short illness. May he rest in peace.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

A Conversation with Gian Bellini OP

Happy Easter! For my blog this week a short poem...
A Conversation with Gian Bellini OP
The experts agree,
The technique is impeccable:
The cloth unfurled
On the morning breeze,
The dawn caressing
A distant cloud.
Yet somehow,
Between the Easter rabbit
And the flying stag,
Something is lost.
The guard sees it,
And is terrified.
The three ladies,
Shivering on the horizon,
Realise the world has now changed.
The soldiers,
Fed up with all the fuss,
Look at their arms
And their weapons,
In a sorry shield of defence.
Christ, himself,
Floats free.
Stepping gently
Onto eternity
With a delicate touch of imprecision -
Eyed coldly
By the vulture in the tree.
‘Come then, my love
My lovely one come –
Winter has passed –
The time of changes ends...’
The young stag
Peers through the lattice,
Seeking again
Those young spring days –
The Pale Light of the Resurrection –
Once seen, never forgotten.
London, Royal Academy, December 2018


Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Fratelli Tutti Seminar - Wednesday 24th February

Please see details below of the upcoming webinar hosted by Las Casas Institute/Blackfriars (University of Oxford) and St Mary's University – Poster also attached. Being without Borders: A Symposium on Fratelli Tutti 24th February 2021 Part 1: 3.30-5pm: What does Fratelli Tutti mean for British society? Part 2: 6-7.30pm: What does Fratelli Tutti mean for global co-operation? Zoom Details: Fratelli Tutti is the latest Encyclical of Pope Francis. It translates simply as “All Brothers” and addresses issues of fraternity and social friendship in a post-COVID global context. He signed it in Assisi, a place synonymous with fraternity, faith and care for creation. To explore the issues raised by Pope Francis, Las Casas Institute/Blackfriars (University of Oxford) and St Mary's University are hosting a symposium sponsored by The Pastoral Review on 24th February when leading academics and protagonists in the field will discuss the significance of Fratelli Tutti for the Church and for the World.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Book Review: 'Saint Catherine of Siena: Mystic of Fire, Preacher of Freedom' by Paul Murray O.P.


Saint Catherine of Siena: Mystic of Fire, Preacher of Freedom

Author: Paul Murray O.P.

Date: 2020

Publisher: Word on Fire Institute

ISBN: 978-1-943243-64-8

pp. 184 hbk


If ever the world needed the help and wisdom of Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa, St Catherine of Siena, it is now. In Professor Murray’s eyes, the ‘mystic of fire’, as he calls her, speaks as clearly and loudly now as she did 650 years ago in her beloved native Italy. ‘For all her brilliance’, as he writes in the Introduction to his new book on her, ‘Catherine comes across to us more as an apostle than an intellectual, more as a preacher than a scholar’ (iv). In this respect she shares her theological method with her great late medieval sisters, Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila (proclaimed, like Catherine, a Doctor of the Church, 50 years ago in 1970 by St Pope Paul VI) - not scholastic but rather women who speak to the hearts and minds of the faithful by means of direct expression and exhortation. We will look in vain for a Summa from these women but rather, according to Murray, what we get from Catherine is a ‘Summa set on fire, her writings characterized not by academic speculation but rather by a passionate and anguished concern for the salvation of the world’ (iv). And it is on these dual aspects of Catherine’s message – her ‘mystical fire’ and her ‘preaching of freedom’ that Murray dwells in this attractive book. His work has three distinctive parts. First, ‘Bondage into Freedom’, looks at the role of freedom in Catherine’s writing. As unexpected as it is welcome, Murray wants to show how the extraordinary and passionate life of Catherine, her brave encounters with the ‘powers’ of her day, stem directly from a theology of freedom that pervades her writing. To this end he brings her into conversation with the first of two intriguing partners: the Renaissance Platonist and philosopher, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. In the second part, ‘Fire and Shadow: Catherine’s Vision of the Self’, Murray examines Catherine’s writing on self-knowledge and, like freedom, the central role that this plays in her message. Here he introduces his second conversation partner, the 20th Century Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. In particular, he explores here the notion of ‘shadow’ in Jung and Catherine. Finally, the last section, ‘Laudare, Benedicere, Praedicare’ is possibly the most Dominican section of the book as he emphasizes the importance of praise, blessing and preaching in Catherine’s theology. Again, Murray’s exposition of Catherine’s approach to prayer, the wellspring of Christian life; apostolic ministry, especially to the poor and marginalized and evangelical proclamation of the Gospel, offers a substantial pastoral (Dominican) theology of practice which he demands the reader takes seriously as a call to a new ‘order of life’. As with so much of Murray’s writing what is attractive in this new book is that the reader can approach it on several levels. For the serious scholar of Christian spirituality there are riches indeed here. The author’s own translations of Catherine’s writings, especially her letters, are fresh and appealing and in themselves are worth the read. However (scholar of Christian spirituality as I am) I turned first and avidly to the chapters on Pico della Mirandola and Jung. I was not disappointed. By placing Catherine into dialogue with Mirandola, one of the leading lights of Renaissance thought, we see how Catherine was very much a daughter of her times, fitting into the open and questing culture of early Renaissance Italy. It is not for nothing that she was canonized by her fellow Sienese, Aeneas Piccolomini (Pope Pius II) a renowned master of Renaissance scholarship. It is doubtful whether (Anglophone) scholars of Catherine will have read much of Mirandola and by including substantial extracts from his writings it is hoped that the author will initiate a deeper interest in this key figure. Mirandola’s notion of umanesimo - humanity balanced between heaven and earth in a unique act of creation by God, as expressed in the ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ – perfectly complements Murray’s exposition of Catherine’s sacred humanity. As Mirandola expresses it in words given to God the Creator in an imaginary conversation with Adam: ‘We have made you neither celestial nor terrestrial, neither mortal now immortal, so that, as the free and sovereign sculptor of your own being, you can fashion yourself into whatever image you choose’ (p.30). In contrast, perhaps, Carl Jung will be better known to readers of the book. Or is he? Following that great Dominican son of Croydon, Victor White O.P., Murray questions some received wisdom on Jung and quotes White with approval: ‘I think the friendliness of Jung represents a far more serious and radical challenge to religion as we know it than did ever the hostility of Freud’ (p.83). For White, in his dialogue with Jung, this came down to Jung’s understanding of the shadow and evil, which White, good Thomist that he was, interpreted through the Angelic Doctor’s lens of ‘privatio boni’. In this respect Catherine too is a true daughter of the Order as she proclaims that in God there can be no shadow only ‘light surpassing all other light’ (p.84). In navigating these psycho-spiritual rapids I usually advise students to recognise and acknowledge Jung’s clinical importance and contribution whilst gently critiquing his less well developed ventures into Christian theology. Fortunately Murray adopts a similar tactic and accordingly allows us to see the profound psychological wisdom of Catherine, tempered as always by her Dominican worldview. But for those less interesting in academic disputes on the nature of evil, the book will be equally rewarding. The final section, in particular, is a heartfelt exposition of Catherine’s ‘practical theology’ by a celebrated modern master of the subject. Throughout, Murray echoes Catherine in stressing that ‘I am not writing to you about what God has done and is still doing, because there is no language or pen up to the task’ (p.114), but rather rests his commentary on the interface of ‘what can be said’ and ‘what cannot be said’. Catherine, through Professor Murray’s pen, makes manifest the divine healing love of God that, as I stated at the outset, the world sorely needs right now. A book to treasure and return to.



Thursday, 23 July 2020

Book Review: Ronald Rolheiser 'Domestic Monastery'

Domestic Monastery
Author: Ronald Rolheiser
Date: 2019
Publisher: Darton, Longman and Todd
ISBN: 978-0-232-53412-2
pp. 89 pbk
I must begin this review with a confession. I received this book just before Christmas, read it on a grey misty day, made some notes for review and then put it aside. The Christmas festivities and work demands took up my attention from there and then the covid crisis hit… In many ways this has proved providential. For if Fr Rolheiser’s new book was relevant BC (Before Covid), well it is essential reading PC (Post Covid). His premise is simple, but in writing on spirituality it is more often than not that simplicity hits the spot. Essentially he hopes to persuade us that ‘monasticism’, ‘silent retreat’ and ‘spiritual seclusion’ are not just for a cloistered elite but are not only accessible, but even essential for all, especially those engaged in busy family and work lives. To this end he weaves a short punchy text that is rather charmingly illustrated with old woodblock drawings and etchings (no credits or references given, alas). Those familiar with Fr Rolheiser’s style already – straightforward and honest spiritual reflections founded on good learning and often delivering a punch at the end – will not be disappointed. The text, though not long, has a clean symmetry and structure which make it something to return to again and again. Within are so many spiritual themes that it is invidious to pick out examples. However to illustrate Fr Rolheiser’s argument I shall do just that. The first of these, quoting St John of the Cross (one of his favourite inspirations), is that the contemplative life is not based on abnegation and denial but, rather, a mixture of withdrawal from the world and the cultivation of tenderness and mildness: ‘withdraw from the world and become mild, bringing the mild into harmony with the mild’ (p.11). Giving us numerous examples he shows how this ‘milding’ is just as likely (if not more likely) to be achieved by a busy mother as a spartan recluse. His second point, that great spiritual progress can be achieved by ‘staying in our cell’ doesn’t need to be reiterated PC. If we have learnt one thing over the past few months it has been the need to live with, and face, our lives, warts and all, as we work out our own socially isolated covid seclusion. Which draws us to Fr Rolheiser’s third point: the need in the spiritual life for rhythm, routine and ritual. How many of us, I wonder, have resorted to routine and ritual these past few months to get us through the sheer mechanics of surviving the covid lock-down? As he reminds us: ‘monks sustain themselves in prayer not through feeling, variety or creativity, but through ritual, rhythm and routine’ (p.42). Prayer, for Fr Rolheiser is ‘a relationship, a long term one and lives by those rules’ (p.43). Pointing out the necessary tension that lies between contemplation and action (as well as that between ‘passion and purity, intellect and will, community and individuality’, p.55) Fr Rolheiser shows us the ‘creative tension’ that lies in the path of those who seek a ‘Domestic Monastery’. One last point. I particularly enjoyed Fr Rolheiser’s exposition of the spirituality at different stages of life as he clearly and unflinchingly stresses the need in our final years ‘to not so much struggle as to how to give our lives away but with how to give our deaths away’ (p.69). Strong stuff but, again, so appropriate to our mortality haunted times. So, in conclusion, I would not only recommend you buy a copy of this small spiritual classic but that you purchase one as a gift for those friends, colleagues, loved ones and family members who have struggled these past few months to make sense of the impact of the deadly covid virus. This charming little book will, I am sure, bring a lot of healing to a traumatised world. Thank you Fr Rolheiser.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Healing Anger with Thomas Merton and Fr Thomas Kochumuttom CMI

Dear Friends,
I was recently asked to celebrate the ministry of Fr Thomas Kochumuttom in India with a Festschrift. I was delighted to write a chapter on his approach to healing anger from a Buddhist and Christian perspective. I include here some of the last section of the chapter on how his writings relate to those of Thomas Merton. I hope the full chapter will be published later this year.
Best wishes
Having engaged in dialogue with both Buddhist and Western psychological views of the self I would like to return to the opening task set out in this chapter – namely, how can this dialogue help us when encountering the pastoral situation of healing anger in a Christian context? Once again we can return to Fr Thomas’s writings on the subject where he presents us with the Christian approach to the problem (CL: 117 – 118). This can be summarised thus:
1. We must first ‘delve deep into the unconscious and uncover the hidden and forgotten experiences and be reconciled with them’. Whether we are Buddhist, Christian or Western Atheist, we all have the same minds as human beings. What the dialogue of this chapter shows is that, to use the phrase of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951), we all form our ‘pictures of the facts’ (Wir machen uns Bilder der Tatsachen, Wittgenstein 1993 1:14). Whether we call that picture ‘unconscious’ or ‘skandha’, in our reflection on our most shameful and negative acts we return to these ‘hidden and forgotten experiences’ as we seek to be reconciled with them. How is that done? Fr Thomas continues:
2. By ‘positive thinking, forgiveness, repentance, rationalization and self-acceptance’. A whole book could be written on this path and constraints of space do not permit me to explore them further here. Perhaps Fr Thomas may yet write another book that does that! For now, I refer the interested reader to my book Confession: The Healing of the Soul (Tyler 2017) which in like fashion explored many of these themes as manifest in the Christian sacrament of Reconciliation.
If we follow this path, says Fr Thomas, ‘that is indeed liberation and enlightenment’. Yet, running like a golden thread through his teachings, FrThomas reminds us that for Christians this healing forgiveness has one mediation – in the person of Jesus Christ, the living Lord and Guru. For whereas ‘Adam’ in the Christian tradition holds all the sufferings and dukha described by the Buddhists, Christ, the ‘new man’, the ‘new Adam’ holds the liberation , the sukha, of all beings. And this perhaps marks the strongest divergence between the Buddhist path presented above and the Christian path followed by a Christian contemplative such as Fr Thomas. For as Fr Thomas explained in his earlier Comparative Theology:
The Buddhist way is for the most part a psychotherapy. This is quite understandable, indeed, for according to the Buddhist diagnosis the basic illness of man is mental, namely that his mind is badly determined and controlled  by the unhealthy factors generating in him restlessness, tension, anxiety etc., as a result of which he is unable himself as a mature man. (Kochumuttom 1985:136)[1]
Writing on this same point shortly before his death, the 20th Century American Cistercian, Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in the Preface to his book The New Man in 1967, mused on how we can ‘convert’ emotions and states of mind from the destructive to the constructive.
First, he suggests, there is psychoanalysis: ‘if you have a great deal of money and can afford a long analysis – and can find an especially good psychoanalyst’. Yet, even with this, psychoanalysis can, at the best he suggests, only lead to ‘workable compromises which enable us to function... we are not born again, we simply learnt to put up with ourselves’ (Merton 1989: 145). Freud himself held up no great hope for ultimate liberation or enlightenment arising from therapy, rather he often expressed the aim as one of reaching ‘normal neurosis’ or ‘common unhappiness’ (see Tyler 2014: 98).
A second means to transformation, according to Merton, is through mass movements ‘sometimes of extremist character, sometimes messianic and political quasi-religious’ (Merton 1989: 145). Yet this is an ideology or a political ‘cause’ rather than a metaphysical transformation. Merton wrote perceptively of the movements he had witnessed in the 20th Century – Nazism and Communism. Yet, as we now move into the post-pandemic phase are we not seeing the rise of new political and ideological movements, often based on nationalist or narrow racial bases? Can these liberate? Will these provide the answers our times desperately seek? Our analysis here suggests not. Rather, as Fr Thomas suggested earlier, we are to seek that spiritual transformation of the whole person. Like him, Merton acknowledges a psychological ‘unconscious’ dimension to this work:
It is a deep spiritual consciousness which takes man beyond the level of his individual ego. This deep consciousness, to which we are initiated by spiritual rebirth, is an awareness that we are not merely our everyday selves but we are also One who is beyond all human and individual self-limitation. (Merton 1989: 146)
And as with Fr Thomas, so Merton sees this ‘rebirth’ for Christians as the adoption of the persona Christi: ‘to be born again is to be born beyond egoism, beyond selfishness, beyond individuality in Christ’ (1989: 146/7). This ‘rebirth in Christ’ is as much a ‘rebirth of the passions in Christ’. With regards to anger this must be immersed constantly into the Jordan of the unconscious so that Christ may absorb and transform it. This is not a one-off process but something that recurs throughout life:
Birth in the Spirit happens many times in a man’s life, as he passes through successive stages of spiritual development... True Christianity is growth in the life of the Spirit, a deepening of the new life, a continuous rebirth, in which the exterior and superficial life of the ego-self is discarded like an old snake skin and the mysterious invisible self of the Spirit becomes more present and more active. (Merton 1989: 147)
So then, to conclude our dialogue and this chapter, Fr Thomas suggests in his essay that when we deal with particular pastoral situations, such as the dealing with anger, we do so on two levels. On one level there is our individual story reflected in the conscious levels of the ‘ego’. But on the other there is a metaphysical, or what he calls a ‘collective consciousness’. Our individuality is thus a sharing in the mystical body of Christ:
As each individual should become enlightened with regard to his personal unconscious, so, in and through the same process of personal enlightenment, the whole humanity becomes and should become enlightened with regard to the collective unconscious, eventually resulting in the emergence of the new creation – the new earth and the new heaven (Rev 21:1) with God becoming all in all (I Cor 15:29). (CL: 119)

[1] Gay Watson develops this theme in her ‘Resonance of Emptiness’ from which I have drawn liberally in this chapter. She concludes by suggesting the ‘next turning of the wheel of Dharma’ in the West will inevitably be connected with its involvement with the evolving practices of psychology and psychotherapy. This ‘prediction’ made in 1998 has partly been realised with the mass ‘mindfulness’ movement that has become so prevalent in the West in the past decade. When I researched my ‘Christian Mindfulness’ in 2017-8 I had an interesting conversation with the noted Buddhist scholar, Rupert Gethin, who also suggested that what might be happening in the West today is the development of  mindfulness as a new phenomenon in the West that ‘eschews traditional Buddhist practices (such as devotional rituals) and the traditional framework of karma and rebirth... and replaces these with a more therapeutic framework’ (Tyler 2018: 15). Thus, Fr Thomas’s identification of the samskara skandha with the Western unconscious, as explored in this chapter,  looks set to remain important as Buddhism evolves and develops in the West in tandem with psychology and psychotherapeutic practices.