The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives
Translated and introduced by John Anthony McGuckin
Publisher: Boston: Shambhala, 2003. ISBN 1-57062-900-5
In The Book of Mystical Chapters, John Anthony McGuckin has selected writings from Christian contemplatives of the ancient monastic communities that sprang up in the third and fourth centuries in Egypt, Syria, Persia, Arabia, Palestine, and the highlands of Ethiopia.
McGuckin explains that these writings were composed as instructions on the mystical path. In this tradition, such instructions took the form of short texts about a paragraph in length; these were called “chapters” (from the Greek kephalaia). Each was “meant to be learned by heart and meditated on over and over again for a day or even a week until the paragraph had broken like a fruit on the tongue of the monk and revealed its inner flavor to the searching mind.” These instructions were organized into manuals for the instruction of monks, each composed of one hundred chapters and called a “Book of Chapters.” Since the mystical path was seen as evolving in three stages – Praktikos (meaning practice, or discipline), Theoretikos (meaning seeing, vision, or contemplation), and Gnostikos (meaning knowledge of higher reality) – the instruction manual was also divided into three sections: Praktikos for new monks, Theoretikos for those with more experience, and Gnostikos for those advanced in contemplative practice. Some of these manuals are still in use today in the monasteries of the Eastern Christian Church.
Taking his cue from this ancient tradition, McGuckin has organized his anthology as a Book of Chapters, i.e., as a collection of one hundred concise, inspiring, and insightful gems of spiritual instruction arranged according to the three sections.
The Praktikos stage is the “purgative” stage of the mystical path during which the seeker attains a certain purity of heart. Here the instructions stress keeping watch over one’s heart, so as to attain stillness within and the freedom from obsessive thoughts and desires. For example, from the ascetic Abba Philemon of Egypt we read:
Keep a careful watch on yourself. Do not allow yourself to be swept away by external obsessions. The tumultuous movements of the soul, in particular, can be rendered quiet by stillness. But if you keep encouraging and stimulating them, they will start to terrorize you and can disorder your whole life. Once they are in control, it is as hard to heal them as it is to soothe a sore that we can’t stop scratching.
Abba Philemon, like many other mystics included in the book, frequently stressed the importance of maintaining a constant repetition of the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Hesychios, the leader of a monastery in Sinai, taught:
Snow can never emit flame. Water can never issue fire. A thorn bush can never produce a fig. Just so, your heart can never be free from oppressive thoughts, words and actions until it has purified itself internally. Be eager to walk this path. Watch your heart always. Constantly say the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Be humble. Set your soul in quietness.
He also wrote, “When the heart has acquired stillness, it will look upon the heights and depths of knowledge, and the intellect, once quieted, will be given to hear wonderful things from God.”
The Praktikos stage requires considerable effort and discipline. John of Dalyutha offers encouragement for those who feel their determination weakening:
If you are tired and worn out by your labours for your Lord, place your head upon his knee and rest awhile. Recline upon his breast, breathe in the fragrant spirit of life, and allow life to permeate your being. Rest upon him, for he is a table of refreshment that will serve you the food of the divine Father.
In the Theoretikos section, the focus shifts to contemplation and the experience of inner light, a stage called “Illumination.” From Sahdona the Syrian we read:
It is only by unfailing and focused gazing that the spirit gravitates to God, but when the luminous ray of the simple eye of the soul is flooded with those intense rays of light that flash down on us from on high, then it is that the fire of God flares up in a great blaze within our hearts.
But here also progress may not be steady, and the seeker must remain firm in his commitment. As John of Karpathos warns,
Sometimes people find themselves brightly illuminated and refreshed by God’s grace for a while, but then this grace may be taken away, and they can fall into depression and start grumbling and even give up dispiritedly instead of energetically renewing their prayers to call down again that assurance of salvation. Such behaviour is like an ungrateful beggar taking alms at the palace door and then walking off indignantly because he was not invited in to dine with the king himself.
The Theoretikos section is replete with reminders that the foundation of all mystical development is love – love of God and one’s fellow creatures. As Maximus the Confessor taught,
The whole purpose of the Saviour’s commandments is to liberate the intellect from its malice and crudeness and to lead it into his love and into love of one another. Out of this love shines the radiance of mystical knowledge that God’s holy power makes possible in us.
The Gnostikos section deals with mystical realization. These instructions may perhaps be understood only by advanced adepts. Ireneus of Lyons quotes from the Gospel of Luke 18:27 to discuss the mysterious possibility that a human may be able to see God and to be enveloped “within God”:
A human being cannot possibly see God, but “things impossible for humans are possible for God.” And so God can be seen by humans when he so allows it, by those he has chosen to see, and when and how he wills to be seen, for God is powerful in all things. … Those who see light are within light and share the brilliance of the light. Just so, those who see God are within God and receive of his splendour, a radiance of the vision of God that gives us life.
McGuckin has provided many useful references and indexes, allowing the reader to approach the book in various ways. For those with an academic interest, each selection is carefully cited to its source. A section on “Authors and Texts” gives brief biographical notes about each writer, with references to all the chapters by that writer throughout the book. For those wishing to know how these teachings are rooted in the Bible, McGuckin provides a note in the margin each time the text quotes from, or even makes an oblique reference to, a biblical verse.
McGuckin’s own recommendation is that the reader not read this book rapidly, cover to cover, in one sitting. Rather, he hopes that the reader will take the time to ponder and digest each of the chapters, finding in each one deep wells of wisdom that surface only slowly. As Narsai of Edessa wrote, “God hides the mysteries he offers us so that he might teach us to search for them in love.” McGuckin offers the book “as a ‘practical manual of assistance’ for those who wish to climb the higher paths of mystical knowledge in the Christian tradition.”
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