For my Christian Ministry class at Truett, I am reading Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, edited by Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass (Eerdmans, 2002). For this week, I read, "Deepening Practices: Perspectives from Ascetical and Mystical Theology” by Sarah Coakley of Harvard University. I found her insights intriguing. I present a summary of her conclusions below and welcome your comments.
Christian Practices for a Deeper Knowledge of God
Four foundational truths undergird Coakley's discussion of Christian practices:
(1) Christian practices are the things Christian people do individually and together over time to address basic human needs in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world. Such practices include everything from prayer to hospitality to sabbath keeping to healing.
(2) God uses Christian practices, infused with God’s grace, to form us into Christ’s likeness after our baptism. They are the fundamental means of our growth in Christian life.
(3) The more we implement Christian practices and grow in Christ’s likeness, the more we rely upon God’s grace. We tend to think the opposite is true: that the more we become like Jesus, the less grace from God we will need. That is a lie. As we grow in Christian virtue, we will be leaning even more into the grace of God.
(4) Christian practices allow us to know God in ways that mere intellectual knowledge does not. That is to say, there are some truths of God that cannot be gained in books or confessions, but must be known through experience.
Coakley suggests that along with the three classical categories of Christian practices (with which Protestants will be relatively unfamiliar), there are corresponding levels of spiritual engagement, or spiritual knowledge. Neither the three categories of practices, nor the three levels of spiritual engagement, should be rigidly divided from one another. Instead, they will blend together in one's experience and the discoveries from each level are never thrown away, but incorporated and built upon in the next. Perhaps they can be visualized as a scroll unfurling. Each page is connected to the other, but they gradually reveal more of what is written inside.
Purgative practices are those practices in external virtue that arise following your initial commitment to belief at baptism. The emphasis is upon separation from the world and the development of a distinctively Christian way of life. The appearance of such practices may be oppositional or reactionary and somewhat legalistic (i.e., “I won’t listen to anything but ‘Christian’ music” or “I must not miss any activity of the church”).
An historical example is Clement of Alexandria’s (c. 150-215) Paedagogos (“The Teacher”), a manual of sorts for elite young men following their baptism. It offers opinion and regulation on all manner of things: bed coverings, plucking hairs, piercing, behavior in public baths, and even whether or not one should kiss his wife in front of the servants. Once again, the emphasis is upon rigid distinction between the Christian and pagan way of life through the regulation of most of one's daily life.
Illuminative practices are those practices that both facilitate and accompany the beginning of your internal identification with Christ. The emphasis is upon becoming acquainted with Christ and developing a Christian internal life. These practices will have an affect on beliefs, as experience with Christ shapes theology (i.e., “My meditation on God’s love has caused me to reject a theology of determinism” or “My time at the homeless shelter has convinced me that God loves the outcast”).
An historical example is the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, an unsystematic and non-theoretical approach to regulating life in a cenobitic house. Though called the Rule, there is not a focus on rules, but repeatable community practices meant for character formation over time. Some of Benedict's practices include psalm-singing, harvesting, and welcoming strangers. Here, there is no longer an emphasis on keeping the world at bay, but there is also not an implication that such practices will immediately elevate one's virtue. Instead, the Rule is to be followed so that, over a lifetime, there may be "a habituating of love, an imitation in a more than extrinsic way of the life of Christ."
Finally, unitive practices are those practices that lead to a deep union with the Godhead through prolonged and repeated observance. The emphasis is upon knowing God in ways that mere intellectual knowledge cannot provide. These practices are time-consuming, difficult, and painful, focused upon a cultivation of continuous active surrender to God (i.e., “I am making the ‘Jesus Prayer’ a constant refrain in my heart”).
Evagrius of Pontus is one historical example, who sought to be “incorporated into the life of the Trinity” through “pure prayer.” Still, his quest to have direct contemplation of the Logos through prolonged conemplative prayer has a mixed approach to the body and the material work, making his thoughts dicey from the perspective of orthodoxy.
Teresa of Avila experienced a very earthy union with God that transcended the ecstasy for which she is famous, drawing her back to the “pots and pans” of daily life. In the "Seventh Dwelling" of the Mansion she explains that this union with God brings a knowledge of the Trinity is deep within the body. She considers it a "higher state" to be able to withstand lasting union without physical ecstasy or collapse and that an incarnational engagement in the "ordinary," is required of all those who have the trinitarian reality revealed to them in this way.
St. John of the Cross has a similar account of union in The Spiritual Canticle, but he makes the seemingly more daring claim that the soul can actually breathe with the "very breath" of the Spirit that moves between the Father and the Son. The soul becomes knit into the life of God through the long practice of contemplation.
Coakley clarifies regarding unitive practices: "it is the sui generis responsiveness of the soul before God that is the hallmark of these states, in which contemplation is cleary now no human practice at all, but the direct infusion of divine grace." One might call this an "active surrender" to God's grace. Also, "the practices of prayer that have all along sustained this process may be purified and simplified...into silent responsiveness, into an empty waiting on God that precedes union in its fullest sense." In this state, the Trinity is no longer an authoritative ecclesial doctrine of God's nature, but a life into which we enter through union with Christ.
This spectrum of interactive forms of beliefs and practices--purgative, illuminative, and unitive--is such that over a lifetime of faithful observation of both public acts of worship and charity on the one hand, and private devotions on the other, one might hope ultimately to come to "know" God in God's intimate life.
What do you think?