Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life
By Robert Davis Hughes, III
New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008
Review by Carl McColman
I’ve quoted from this wonderful book more than once in this blog. Now the time has come to write a more in-depth review of it. First, a disclaimer: I’ve known Bob Hughes since the late 1980s, when I managed the campus bookstore at Sewanee: The University of the South where Bob teaches theology. I learned a lot from Bob back then, and so I approached the book with the assumption that it would provide an in-depth examination of its topic. It more than lived up to my expectation.
As Bob himself put it, this book aims to be “the first fully constructive spiritual theology since before Vatican II.” Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life begins with about seventy pages devoted to surveying the history of spiritual theology (also known in earlier times as mystical theology or ascetical theology), particularly unpacking the reasons why mysticism became marginalized after the Reformation, and why the entire discipline of spiritual theology more or less collapsed after Vatican II, largely because trends in ascetical theology in the early to mid-twentieth century were essentially rendered obsolete by the council. Of course, even if theologians and the church at large were not paying much attention to a theology of the Spirit, the Spirit himself (or herself, as Hughes clearly prefers the ancient Syriac rendering of the Holy Spirit as feminine) was on the move, as evidenced by the post-conciliar explosions such as the charismatic renewal, the interest in Christian meditation and centering prayer, the growth in oblate and lay monastic associations, and the increased (actually, emergent) interest among lay Christians in the writings of the classical mystics (of which my own work post-2005 is but a modest example). Hence, Hughes correctly discerned a need in the larger discourse of the Christian community: a survey of the issues and concerns related to the theology of the Holy Spirit, anchored in the tradition but fully engaged with the issues of our time. This is what Beloved Dust sets out to do. And while I may lack the academic knowledge or credentials to identify any specific scholarly weaknesses in Hughes’ argument, speaking as a layperson for whom spiritual theology is deeply relevant to my own identity and practice as a Christian, I’d say this book is not only a splendid compendium of the first two thousand years of Christian spiritual wisdom, but it offers plenty of food for thought to nourish us as we move forward into the third millennium.
Although he acknowledges the weaknesses in the traditional developmental map of the spiritual life as purgation – illumination – union, Hughes retains this tripartite model, both because of its Trinitarian character and because it so neatly corresponds with three central events of the life of Christ: his baptism, his transfiguration, and his resurrection. With the life of Christ in mind, Hughes recasts this mystical itinerary as conversion, transfiguration, and glory. But just as the Christian experience involves a coterminous relationship with all three persons of the Blessed Trinity, so too the spiritual life should not be understood as sequential: as if we undergo conversion and then, done with that, move on to transfiguration as a prelude to the final experience of glory. Rather, the clear evidence of how spirituality manifests in so many unique ways in the lives of different people down the ages reveals that the Spirit can bring us to continual, life-long conversion — a process that never ends, at least not on this side of eternity — that can coexist simultaneously with the experience of luminous transfiguration and joyous glory. Hughes uses the metaphor of waves crashing on the shore to suggest that these three aspects of the spiritual life are “tides of the spirit,” moving in a circular rather than sequential manner.
He also considers the “slack” between tides as a metaphor for John of the Cross’s famous concepts of the dark night: the dark night of the senses, when we are called to ever-deeper detachment from our earthly addictions and will-to-control, and the far more terrifying dark night of the soul, when even our attachments to God and to matters of the Spirit are called to be sacrificed on the altar of utter self-donation to the Ultimate Mystery. These “darknesses” exist and persist beneath, before and beyond our experience of the Light of God, just as profound silence exists beneath, before and beyond our words as well as our apprehension of The Word.
Throughout Hughes’ study, a deep appreciation of the Trinitarian nature of Christian spirituality remains central to the narrative, as does his titular metaphor of humanity as dust, beloved by God, called into being, given life, and ultimately deified through the continual unmerited grace bestowed upon us by our loving creator. Consideration of classical categories of ascetical theology — such as the cardinal and theological virtues — anchor this book’s function as a continuation of the tradition.
Chapters on the behavioral sciences and spiritual growth, considering both psychodynamic and sociocultural theories, are no doubt necessary for Beloved Dust’s overall goal to articulate a constructive theology that is both meaningful and relevant for our time. But to this lay reader, those chapters felt pedestrian and dull, particularly compared to the overall tone of the book, which is delightfully accessible and engaging, due in no small part to Hughes’ personal and familiar style of writing. And while sometimes the author’s concern for speaking of God in a post-patriarchal manner struck me as a bit too artificial (I just couldn’t relate to his decision to speak of the Father using the un-gendered but impersonal title of “the Fount” — I’m much more engaged by Wm. Paul Young’s gender-bending depiction of “Papa” as a motherly figure), Hughes’ obvious love for the tradition prevents him from collapsing into the rhetoric of political correctness.
The “transfiguration” chapters form the book’s strongest section, primarily because of the brilliant discussion of the work of two of the twentieth century’s most important mystics, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Simone Weil. His unpacking of Weil’s four forms of the implicit love of God is particularly juicy. The final section on “glory” is beautifully written but seems far too short, even with the author’s humble insistence that he himself “knows precious little” of the deified life.
Beloved Dust has already won a major award: the 2010 Poullart Libermann Award in Pneumatology, from Duquesne University. This award is only offered only once every five years to “the most significant scholarly contribution to the area of pneumatology in the preceding five year period.” Given how well this book has achieved its objective as a celebration of Christian mysticism as the graced work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, it’s an apt honor.
Follow this link to purchase your own copy of Beloved Dust: www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0826428436/earthmystic. You can also visit Bob Hughes’ website at www.robertdavishughes.com.