From In the Footsteps of the Mystics: A Guide to the Spiritual Classics
Why does one person respond to a question about the spiritual life in one way, and another person answer the same question in quite a different manner? Personal experience is a powerful factor, as are church tradition, historical era, education, age, gender, and social class. These factors may account for an array of answers too various to catalogue. Some, however, seem to fall into patterns which give us categories for understanding the shape and flow of our relationship with God and allow us to identify our own place within the much wider spiritual tradition.
What do patterns of spirituality look like? What do they describe? As we look at two questions which are common to those who seek union with God – the goal of every spiritual quest – namely, “Is your approach to God more a matter of the mind or of the heart?” and, “How do you best pray?” we note that answers to each of these questions reveal a polarity. The question, “Is your approach to God more a matter of the mind or of the “heart”? raises the question of whether the spiritual method emphasizes the illumination of the mind (speculative) or the heart or emotions (affective). For example, William Law clearly opts for the illumination of the mind (speculative) when he writes: “The greater any man’s mind is, the more he knows of God and himself, the more will he be disposed to prostrate himself before God in all the humblest acts and expressions of repentance. Now if devotion at these seasons is the effect of a better knowledge of God and ourselves, then the neglect of devotion at other times is always owing to great ignorance of God and ourselves.”
Answers to the question, “How do you best pray?” reveal another polarity: Some ascetical or spiritual methods advocate the development of images in meditation, others advocate emptying techniques. Thus, for example, Jacob Boehme writes about the experience of prayer in image-rich language which fosters an imaginal technique: “To all hungering, repenting souls: they will discover properly within themselves how the old father of the prodigal son comes toward the poor, changed repentant soul and falls around the neck of its essence of life with his love, and with his love embraces and kisses it, grasping it in his arms, and speaking to it with power.” In contrast, Gregory Palamas clearly suggests why an emptying technique is important in meditation when he speaks of an “unknowing”: “Beyond the stripping away of beings, or rather after the cessation of our perceiving or thinking of them accomplished not only in words, but in reality, there remains an unknowing which is beyond knowledge.”
Some seek illumination of the mind; others seek illumination of the heart. This is the first polarity: mind/heart. Some use techniques of engaging the senses in image-rich meditation, others use techniques of emptying the senses in contemplation which abandons images. This is the second polarity: imaging/emptying of images. These polarities do not represent better or worse, right or wrong. They simply describe patterns and preferences which are likely to appear in spiritual or ascetical methods which assist the quest for union with God. On either scale an individual might find himself or herself strongly or weakly positioned toward one or other pole. An individual might also find himself or herself drawn toward one or other style depending on the particular time in his or her life, or on the circumstances in which the quest for union with God is being worked out. But as the old saying goes, “Everybody has to be somewhere,” and these patterns, with the options they imply, do allow us to describe what an individual’s spirituality “looks like.”
This is all the more the case because both polarities function at the same time; thus two polarities yield four basic approaches to the spiritual life: heart/imaging, heart/emptying of images, mind/imaging, mind/emptying of images. One or other of these will best describe a starting point for the individual’s quest for union with God.
Imagine a circle which represents an attempt to hold together in tension all four approaches. Urban T. Holmes in A History of Christian Spirituality calls the circle a circle of spirituality. This is a gracious phrase. Most forms of spirituality will emphasize one of the four approaches which result from the intersection of the polarities of heart/mind, images/emptying of images. But every spirituality which is sensitive – that is, every spirituality within this circle of sensibility – will respect all other spiritualities, not only for what they are in themselves, but also for what they offer to each other.
A sensitive spirituality will, however, maintain a certain tension with those other dimensions that are not emphasized as a corrective to an exaggerated form of prayer. “Sensibility” defines for us that sensitivity to the ambiguity of styles of prayer and the possibilities for a creative dialogue within the person and within the community as it seeks to understand the experience of God and its meaning for the world. Without that tension we fall into excesses. (Holmes)
To the extent that we are strongly attracted to one of these approaches to the spiritual life (heart/images, heart/emptying of images, mind/images, mind/emptying of images) we will be less comfortable with the approach which is directly opposed to ours. We could adduce technical reasons for this but the simplest argument supporting this position is common experience. If, for example, we are strongly attracted to a heart/emptying of images approach, the Ignatian Exercises (or any imaginal technique of meditation which seeks illumination of the mind and will) will seem very foreign, dry, distracting, even offensive. This does not mean that such an approach should be avoided forever! We can readily guess that it will serve as a corrective to the heart/emptying of images approach. As Holmes rightly notes: “A sensitive spirituality will maintain a certain tension with those other dimensions that are not emphasized as a corrective to an exaggerated form of prayer. Without that tension we fall into excesses.”
While each approach to the spiritual life has validity, no single one is likely to prove adequate. The more we find ourselves drawn consistently toward one approach, the more we need to have that approach challenged by its opposite. The person, for example, who is deeply rooted in an approach which stresses heart/images needs to learn of the absolute mystery which dwells in inaccessible light – a perspective emphasized by those whose approach is mind/emptying of images. Similarly, the one whose approach is heart/emptying of images needs to explore forms of meditation which seek illumination of the mind using imaginal techniques. By the use of the four approaches to the spiritual life based on these two polarities it is possible to make comparisons and to define spiritual practice and its immediate objectives with some clarity – the assumption being that in all methods the ultimate goal is union with God.
Preferred forms of approach to union with God may shift over the years as we mature and as the circumstances of our lives change. For example, people whose worlds have been shattered by unexplainable and unavoidable evil may – however imaginal their techniques of meditation had been – come to mistrust all the images of God which had given nourishment previously. Other people may, in the awakening of their ability to think and study come to rejoice in a hitherto untapped enthusiasm for the illumination of the mind through imaginal techniques. Nevertheless, many people find that there is one approach that, more than the other three, requires no “processing.” Without any thought or effort, that approach seems compatible with one’s natural gifts. This does not keep us from needing, exploring, even rejoicing in, other approaches.