Spiritual Direction with Fr. Tom

Tonight I met with Father Tom Francis, OCSO, for spiritual direction. Here’s a partial (!) list of the topics we covered:

  • How the French school of devotional spirituality that began in the 16th century represents a betrayal of the mysticism of the Spanish Carmelites;
  • How Meister Eckhart’s theology of the Godhead relates to Gregory Palamas’ teaching regarding the energies and essence of God;
  • How the Rule of St. Benedict could be seen as actually undermining the wisdom of the desert fathers;
  • How postmodern theologies of the Holy Trinity might be the best hope for a widespread revival of mysticism in our day (this is a favorite topic of Fr. Tom’s, so no big suprise here);
  • How the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi influenced the Benedictine contemplative Henry Le Saux (aka Swami Abhishiktananda), and why these ideas are important for students of Christian mysticism today;
  • And how Neoplatonic thought weakens The Cloud of Unknowing and why The Book of Privy Counsel (by the same unknown author) may in fact represent a more pure transmission of Christian mysticism.

All this in one hour! And of course, I’ve been given two reading assignments to finish before we meet again: Christophany: The Fullness of Man by Raimon Panikkar, and Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion by Aristotle Papanikolaou.

And before you decide that I am hopelessly stuck in my head when it comes to my personal spiritual discipline, our time together included discussion both about problems in my own contemplative practice, as well as multiple reminders about the necessity to move beyond “knowing” in order to encounter the eternal love-dynamics of the Triune God. One of Fr. Tom’s favorite themes, which he hammered again and again, is how the western church has become so enamored of the intellect that our biggest obstacle to progress in the spiritual life is the seductions of the mind. All this while he is thrilling my mind with his lucid yet complex explanations of mystical theology. There you go: build up the mind and tear it down simultaneously. There must be a lesson in there somewhere.

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  1. Dear Carl
    Well, you said it: not so much Spiritual Direction as a Mental Tumble Dryer!
    SD should ignore the head to warm the heart. ‘Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke…’
    In my ignorance, I do not know Father Tom but I prefer my Carthusian novice master
    Dom Cyril who always says ‘keep it simple’. He shd know, he has 12 novices at Parkminster just now.
    My I like the sound of Aristotle P’s Being with God…

  2. In fairness to Fr. Tom, this was our first meeting after my receipt of an offer from a publisher to bring out my book on mysticism, and so of course a major topic of discussion last night was “how does one write about mysticism in the third millennium?” So the deck was intellectually stacked from the beginning. Fr. Tom is a true contemplative, but also a true theologian. I think part of the task of being a spiritual writer is learning how to be a contemplative theologian – where one does not eschew the gift of the mind, but rather disciplines it and holds it in its proper place in relation to the heart. Meanwhile, Dom Cyril sounds wonderful – the closest Carthusian house to me is over a thousand miles away, so I think I’d better stick with the Trappists who are only 20 miles away!

  3. Thanks Carl
    I knew I shouldn’t be unfair to Father Tom: all sounds well for your big book. What better time to write and invite us to Christian mysticism – the Third Millenium.
    Heart and head go hand in hand?

  4. Well, yes, although I suspect Fr. Tom (not to mention Dom Cyril) would agree that the head should serve the heart rather than vice versa!

  5. Wow!

    You’re way over my head in most of this, Carl!

    I do not mean too intellectual; I could “get” a lot of this if I were familiar with it. It’s just that I have never studied the French/Spanish mystical controversies, or Gregory Palamas, or the Swamis you mentioned, though all of these seem to be fascinating topics.

    There are a number of things that you mentioned that do resonate with my spirit as truthful. For one thing, I can see the basis for saying that the rule of Benedict could be seen as undermining the wisdom of the desert fathers–perhaps in a similar way to the undermining of organic, Spirit-led New Testament church order by the organizing of the church under (and after) Constantine. In the case of the Benedictine Rule I don’t know the details, but I wonder whether the rules themselves properly safeguard the liberty of the mystical spirit in those who come under them. Is this what you meant here, Carl?

    Another topic which attracts me here is the appeal of postmodern trinitarian theologies to potential mystics in our day. Again I don’t know the details, but this looks like a promising area of investigation. If there is a key here for facilitating the spread of a “wave” of mystical understanding and practice, then hey, let’s go for it!

    I strongly agree that The Book of Privy Counseling is far more pure and less “clouded” (forgive the pun) with Neoplatonism than The Cloud of Unknowing in transmitting the essence of mysticism and the practical advice needed to make it work. In my own experience, the first time I got the book (with both volumes in it) I found myself magnetically drawn to the Privy book and totally taken up with that; only later did I laboriously work my way through the “primer” of the Cloud book, relieved to be able to return to The Book of Privy Counseling again and again for later nourishment.

    And I strongly affirm your conclusion of the head/heart controversy, that the head is servant to the heart and not vice versa. In a Wilber-esque “nesting” image we can see the “direct path” of the spirit in apprehending spiritual reality, and then the mind and the senses in descending (or ascending?) nests to contain and express into the recesses of the kosmos the substance that has been communicated (to use a term I have heard only recently) “spirit-to-spirit.” As some of my spiritual mentors and teachers have said, if we bring our mind (and other faculties or “agents”) into submission to the Cross, we can then receive it back again quickened by resurrection energy and ready to serve the interests of the Spirit which are its highest destiny and purpose for being.

    Great spiritual direction is a wonderful blessing, Carl, and rare in this world. You should treasure it highly, as it is evident that you do!


  6. When I first read The Cloud of Unknowing many years ago, I was advised (by John Westerhoff, I think) to read The Book of Privy Counsel first, although in most editions it’s usually presented second. I’m glad I did so. It greatly increased my understanding of The Cloud of Unknowing (which is an oxymoronic statement, if you think about it).

    Having had a few sessions with Fr. Tom myself, I know he can be intensely intellectual and literary one moment (I remember him quoting J. D. Salinger, Ghandi, and Thomas Merton) and deeply spiritual the next. Our beloved brother Carl, as prone as he is to live in a Wilberian ivory tower, is in good hands.

    P.S.: That last sentence was written as a good-natured jest from one who is prone to live in a Kierkegaardian ivory tower. :o)

  7. Privy Counsel rocks. The Cloud is wonderful, but so dang wordy. I am baffled, though by “Neoplatonism” in the Cloud not being in Privy Counsel… I didn’t receive any difference in worldview, just in experience and simplicity. Could you elaborate?

  8. Yes, I too was wondering about neoplatonism being in one but not the other. And how does neoplatonism weaken the book? Please hallucinate.

  9. Well, to get the full/best answer, you’d need to ask Fr. Tom. :-)
    I think he sees the writings of the Cloud author as insufficiently Trinitarian, too otherworldly, too rejecting of the blessings of the creation. My guess is that this criticism would apply to both The Cloud of Unknowing as well as The Book of Privy Counsel, although because the latter text is such an elegant invitation to the contemplative experience, it is the stronger of the two. Also, if my memory serves me correctly, Privy Counsel is more relational: it’s about the authentic self encountering the authentic God; whereas The Cloud does not have as strong a relational component (like Neoplatonism, which of course is all about “the flight of the alone to the Alone”).

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