They say it’s best not to start with an apology, but perhaps the gnomic titles of my sermons demand if not apologies, then at least a word of explanation. I wish that I could boast that the phrase “ascend downwards, and descend upwards” was my own, but in fact it comes from the pen of the 17th century Anglican priest and Cambridge Platonist, Ralph Cudworth, in a sermon he preached to the House of Commons at Westminster in 1647. Perhaps as I read a brief extract, you might imagine the faces of modern parliamentarians if it were preached to them:
The “divine purposes … they wrapped up in everlasting darkness, and covered in a deep abyss… The way to obtain a good assurance indeed of our title to heaven, is not to clamber up to it, by a ladder of our own ungrounded persuasions; but to dig as low as hell by humility and self-denial in our own hearts … we must send downward, and descend upward, if we would indeed come to heaven.”Ralph Cudworth
Cudworth could assume in his time that the parliamentarians of England would agree with him that the good is to be found in the heights of heaven and the depths of the soul. Now some modern parliamentarians may privately agree with this, but it is not a matter many would nowadays see fit to discuss in the public square. With invisible and eternal gods relegated to the realm of a private conscience, all that is left for the public servants to do, is to argue about the best way to carve up and distribute visible, material goods. The social and environmental results of this approach have not, I think it is safe to say, been entirely encouraging.
I’ll be in that out, the Gospel teaches us to pay attention to the matters of this world, to visit the orphans and widows, as it were. It cools has to be doers as well as heares of the Word. But – and this is desperately important – we must be serious and heroes first, before we can be speakers and duos. We must be contemplatives before we can be activists. Miss the first step, and the results will be disastrous.
So, in what does this contemplation consist? How are our ears to be opened that our tongue may be released? Well, James tells us. We must look upwards to the unchanging reality of the Father of Lights from whom all perfection comes; yet a passage to the light is through entering into the depths of my soul is where the Word is already and always implanted in the darkness. We must ascend downward and descend upward.
You may know that there is quite a lot of Plato’s philosophy in John and Paul, but Christian Platonists ranging from Origen of Alexandria and St Gregory of Nyssa in the East, through to St Augustine, Meister Eckhart, the Cambridge Platonists and the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the West, have long found great spiritual value in today’s passage of James. I recently came across some words of the 20th century Anglican spiritual director Evelyn Underhill which I thought really resonated here:
“You know how Plato spoke of this life as a cave in which men were imprisoned and could only judge reality by seeing the shadow cast by light outside. But for Christians the cave has become a great shrine in which we are taught and moulded for the purpose of our creation – a sacrificial life in union with God.”Evelyn Underhill
Doesn’t this so succinctly capsulate the Christian life of prayer and action, contemplation and service? For Plato, arguably, the cave of this world, even the cave of our bodies, was a kind of prison, shutting our souls off from the light. But for Christians, this can’t be quite right. The word of God, the mind and wisdom of God, the light of gods, decay in the flesh and dwelt among us: by the same spirit with which he was conceived in the virgins empty room, still he dwells within the emptiness of our souls, as long as we do not clutter them up with devices and desires.
Contemplation is our spiritual training to see everything in this world as a manifestation of the mind of God and of his glory. It is to learn to see through the imperfect things around us the perfect blueprint in the realm of the father of lights whether is not a variation or shadow or decay. It is to learn to see water gushing in the desert. It is to learn to make our dumbness speak with the greatest eloquence, our ears hear the most profoundly moving symphony in the mutest of matter.
The alternative is to see this world, and all its creatures, including other people, as just so much stuff, as resources to be used. This is the worldview of secular modernity. This is the result of the application of merely human justice. Fruits yields are bitterness, envy, resentment and division. If you don’t believe me, just scroll through Twitter one of these days. Or better, don’t! – because it’s full of the voices of people who (and some of them are professing Christians) are not willing to wait for what Isaiah calls “the retribution of God” and his salvation, but think that they can force it for themselves, by sheer will. Elder Zosima, in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, has some sobering words for keyboard warriors:
“If the wickedness of people arouses indignation and insurmountable grief in you, to the point that you desire to revenge yourself upon the wicked, fear that feeling most of all.”Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov
It’s something I certainly feel from time to time: and it’s a sure sign that I’ve been neglecting my life of prayer.
Imagine the alternative. We set aside time each day for contemplation of the implanted word which anchors us to the Father of Lights. We bask in the dappled light of the words of scripture, Prayer Book and Bible out for morning and evening prayer each day. We had some minutes of silent contemplation to that, perhaps using a prayer rope or rosary. We make an honest confession before we go to sleep, and pray God to empty the detritus from the cave of our hearts. When there is a boulder that needs an extra push, we go to a priest for formal absolution.
In this way, we prepare ourselves, we make clear the way for the living Word to be born in us as we receive the blessed sacrament of the altar. No empty ritual, no social habit, but illumination from within. Descending into our souls, we ascend to heaven. Ascending to heaven, we descend to the needs of the world.
And then – in God’s time, which may or may not be in sync with our own – we act.