Elsewhere: Catholic Kabbalah

Portrait of Giles of Viterbo in his old Palazzo (Source)

Over at Church Life Journal, Andrew Kuiper has a tour-de-force article on the history and theology of Catholic Kabbalah. His review of four Catholic Kabbalists – Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Giles of Viterbo, and St. John Fisher – is a model of intellectual history. He does a great job showing the continuing relevance of Kabbalah for Catholic (and other Christian) thinkers throughout the centuries.

The piece is amply cited and provides several helpful theological considerations. I thought Kuiper’s nod towards Sophiology was particularly enlightening. If Christian Kabbalah has a place in Catholic theology today, I predict that it will be in the writings of latter-day Sophiologists.

If I were to offer a criticism of Kuiper’s piece, it would be a very minor one at that: he makes no reference to the works of Margaret Barker. Her research has shed a new light on the roots of Christianity and Jewish mysticism (in both its Merkabah and later Sephirotic developments) in the memory of the First Temple. Reading Kabbalistic texts through a Temple lens can ease their Christian interpretation. But I digress.

Pico della Mirandola, a pioneer in the Christian use of Kabbalah. (Source)

Perhaps the most exciting part of the article, for a historian of the period, is Kuiper’s various references to the Kabbalistic books written by these Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries. I would particularly keen on finding the text of Giles of Viterbo’s Shechina or Pico’s Heptaplus. Some of these hard-to-find volumes have never been translated into English.

It is not easy to summarize the teachings of the Jewish mystics, nor their Christian interpreters. Kuiper does both with commendable attention to detail and obvious competence, all while keeping things clear and concise enough for a lay reader. This article also provides a badly-needed defense of the respectability of Kabbalah as a field of study. Its bastardization in recent times, exemplified most clearly by Madonna et al., has led some to question whether Kabbalah is anything more than a gnostic mishmash of magic with Hebrew letters. I have heard colleagues dismiss it entirely as a field of serious inquiry for a historian or theologian. This tendency seems especially strong with Christian academics, many of whom retain outdated ideas about Jewish mysticism or who simply haven’t up with the post-Scholem rediscovery of Kabbalah. Kuiper’s intervention is a broadside against this boring complacency. It’s not exactly “a cruel angel’s thesis,” but it is one worth defending.

Elsewhere: Mother Mectilde de Bar and the Prayer of Devekut

One of the great works of Vultus Christi has been the exposure of many English-speaking Catholics to the spiritual treasures of the continental Benedictine tradition, especially the life and work of Mother Mectilde de Bar. The good nun was a profound mystic of the Eucharist and a spiritual heir to the French School. Anyone with any interest in Benedictine life, Catholicism in early modern France, or spirituality generally should take note.

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Mother Mectilde de Bar (1614-1698), foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. (Source)

I am very happy to refer my readers to an excellent translation of one of Mother Mectilde’s letters of spiritual direction. The translator, an Oblate of Silverstream, has rendered the 17th century French into elegant and very readable English. A job well done!

Here’s a particularly potent excerpt:

The whole of Christian perfection consists in continual attention to Jesus Christ, and a constant adherence or submission to His good pleasure. These two points contain everything, and their faithful practice will lead you to the highest degree of perfection. Blessed is the soul who observes them.

The first point consists in seeing Jesus Christ in everything; in all events and in all our dealings; in such way that this divine sight removes from us the sight of creatures, ourselves, and our interests, in order to see nothing except Jesus Christ. In a word, it is to have the presence of God continually.

The second point consists in being constantly submissive to His holy will; in being so much subject to His good pleasure that we no longer have any return, at least voluntarily, by which we can withdraw from this respectful obedience.

I am reminded, in reading this passage, of a concept in Jewish mysticism called devekut. To practice devekut is to cleave to God constantly, even in the midst of everyday, profane activities. The Rabbis who founded and nurtured Hasidism in the 18th century made it a central feature of their mystical praxis, though the idea has roots in the Temple traditions of the Old Testament (vide Barker 2004, 37). Dr. Margaret Barker notes that, according to the older, priestly understanding of the word “cleaving” in Hebrew, “to cleave” meant quite literally to join. However, this sense was displaced when the Moses-focused Deuteronomist tradition came to ascendance. The new meaning of “cleaving” was, instead, obedience (Ibid. 37). Mother Mectilde has here joined both meanings in a salutary way.

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An icon of the Holy Eucharist, showing Christ the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. (Source)

However, I think she places a bit more emphasis on the first, as the primary and indispensable basis of the second. She goes on to write,

Have Jesus Christ imprinted and carved on the center of your soul. Have him in all the faculties of your mind. May your heart be able to think of and long for nothing except Jesus Christ.  May your whole inclination be to please Him. Attach all your fortunes and your happiness to knowing and loving Jesus Christ.[1] May nothing on earth, however great it seems, prevail in you against the constant union you should have with Jesus Christ. May neither heaven, nor earth, nor hell, nor any power, ever separate you from Him.[2]

She continues on and apostraphizes Divine Love, writing

O Jesus all powerful and all love, work in us these two effects of mercy: attract us by your omnipotence and transform us by your love into Yourself.

O love, O love divine, may you burn in us, and that you may consume in us everything that is contrary to you and opposed to your workings.

O life that is not animated by love, how can you be called life? You are a hideous death, and most terrible.

O pure and holy love of Jesus Christ, do not allow a single moment of my life to be spent without love; make me die and throw me into hell a thousand times rather than not to love Jesus Christ.

The first line here is the key; this is the loving and even conjugal language of devekut, not simple obedience. But obedience is implied as the sustaining force and natural result of such attentive love.

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A hesychast at prayer. (Source)

It seems appropriate to me that Mother Mectilde, a Benedictine, should advocate for this kind of “cleaving” prayer, vigilant love in every moment. It has always been the task of the monastic throughout history to preserve this kind of remembrance of God that is itself a form of His presence in the heart. Precisely this “cleaving” constitutes the positive good underlying hesychasm in the East, but it can also be found in many monastic writers of both East and West. Mother Mectilde is not speaking alone. Indeed, she expresses the perennial Wisdom that has always infused the monastic life and made it fruitful.

Read the whole thing over at Vultus Christi.