Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Spiritual Writings of Denis the Carthusian

Over the course of many years I have managed to acquire to quite an extensive library. There have been several books that have had an impact on me, but few that I would put in their own separate class above the rest when it comes to the spiritual life. For example, St. Catherine's 'Dialogue' would be one of the few that I come back to and am enriched each time I re-approach it. It is as if there is a light that comes through the text which penetrates the intellect and offers a unique insight into the mind of God. It is rare to find texts that merit such praise, so when I come across them I get excited about it. So I am sharing a recent finding with my readers.

'The Spiritual Writings of Denis the Carthusian' fall into this rare class of spiritual writings. Denis was born in 1403 in Belgium and was one of the most renowned spiritual writers of his time. His entire life was dedicated to prayer and study. Unfortunately most Catholics have never heard of him despite the fact that he is one of the most prolific spiritual writers of his time, his writings numbering over 150 works. Denis who spent a large part of his life as a Carthusian monk, was well versed in Sacred Scripture, and the writings of the spiritual masters. Denis' first love was his devotion to Sacred Scripture and his second love was the study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Denis studied the works of St. Thomas, Peter Lombard and the Victorines extensively. He wrote commentaries on both Aquinas' and Lombard's most popular works, 'The Summa' and 'The Sentences.' Denis was instrumental in popularizing 'The Summa' as a superior replacement to the longtime standard work of Lombard. The mystical theology of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite was also one of his favorite sources.

The times of Denis in some ways reflect our own time.  During the 1400s there were "liberal" theological currents making its way into the Church and Denis was one of the bulwarks against novel ideas. Denis was instrumental in producing a Thomistic revival of sorts for lack of a better term, during his life. During Denis' time there was a strong movement to adopt the scholastic theology founded on the ideas of John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Denis opted for the earlier form of scholasticism which he believed to be most accurately presented by the school of St Thomas Aquinas. In reading Denis' works this is readily apparent since Aquinas is quoted numerous times throughout, second only to Sacred Scripture.

What makes his work unique in my eyes is the fact that his writings are digestible to men and women of all vocations, not just those in the religious life. Anyone can pick up this book and put the spiritual advice between its pages to use. His writings are also very detailed and Denis explains how one can actually advance in the spiritual life in an extremely tangible way. This is something that I always found lacking in most books. Many spiritual books today tell you about the necessity of prayer and many writers explain what they have experienced in their spiritual lives, but most never fill in the blanks to actually tell you what to do to achieve this. I believe Denis is somewhat unique in being able to answer the questions you have in your head, but never seem to get answered in other books.

Unlike modern writers, Denis understands the human person from an objective perspective and is able to explain how the intellect and the will work in man. Since he understands this properly he is able to actually answer the questions that a person has, who is trying to progress in the spiritual life. Those who are trying to advance in holiness and virtue know all too well the roadblocks that are in their way. Many times however vague recommendations made in modern books leave the reader with many unanswered questions. This is not the case with Denis, as he leaves no stone unturned in examining man's relation to God.

For example, most Catholics have heard of the purgative stage, or purgative way of the interior life. I am enthralled by the fact that Denis actually digs down and tells you what you need to do in order to actually engage in the purgative state. Denis starts with the problem of sin, describing in detail how and why a sinner thinks and why certain things appeal to his or her flesh. He describes the effects of sin in great detail and then proposes the actual steps needed to be taken to actively engage in this purgative stage. Denis is not satisfied in giving vague suggestions such as telling one to pray more, or to guard one's thoughts. He actually tells you how to do it.

For example, after explaining the gravity of sin and the necessity to practice penance appropriate to the sins one has committed in his or her life, Denis gives some concrete examples of how one should begin approaching God. 
"Twice or three times a day, at a convenient moment-especially late or at night- you should go to a quiet and secret place and there accuse yourself before God. There, directing the eyes of your soul to heaven, and the God of heaven pray like this: "God all powerful, eternal, and most kind; Lord Jesus Christ, most merciful, my Creator and the Saviour of my soul, look upon me. I am a most unhappy sinner- worthless, abominable, contemptible. Deep is my wretchedness. I have acted worse than a brute. I have sinned very often and gravely. I have shown you a shocking lack of respect, reverence, courtesy and honour. I have broken your commandments, neither heeding nor caring. I have twisted your precepts, knowing full well what they were. I have hurt you who are all kindness, holiness and charity. My heart I have turned from you, my God. Oh, I cannot enumerate my many sins, nor reckon the amount of good I have failed to do. I have been downright ungrateful to you for your fervours, and your gifts I have abused." 
Denis does not stop by just giving you a prayer to pray and leave you to it. He goes on to explain further the disposition one should have during the prayer.
It is good, then, to think of some of your graver sins in a more special way, and all of them in a general way. And, to the extent that the Lord permits, to grieve at heart and to sigh deeply. Truly to repent, it is not enough to feel sorry, you must beg divine mercy for the grace to grieve as you ought; you must strike your breast and- with God's help-shed tears...
You can see that Denis digs deep to help his readers advance in the purgative stage by describing what one should strive for during this prayer. He explains that repentance is not just a feeling, it is an act that one must engage in.

Still there is more to be said as he gives more advice to the penitent, even getting down the physical position one should take during prayer that will better incline their heart towards God.
Then get down on your knees, or lie down prostrate. Join your hands, or hold them out as though you were stretched on a cross. Pray to God for full and complete remission of all your sins, and say words such as these: Most merciful, most loveable, most desirable and infinitely sweet Lord Jesus Christ, forgive me.....
The great theological master goes on giving the rest of the prayer by elaborating on Sacred Scripture and examines St. Thomas' thought on progressing in the spiritual life.

This hardback book is divided into six basic Chapters or parts, which can be read simultaneously. You can read a few sections of each part going back and forth marking your pages as you go since the topics are so closely intertwined. The first part pertains to contemplation and runs about 150 pages. The second part aims at prayer and runs almost 100 pages. The third focuses on meditation and goes on for about 120 pages. There is a section called 'The Fountain of Light and the Paths of Life' which covers general topics on the spiritual life and that clocks in at around 50 pages. The last 70 pages or so ends with instruction on the monastic life and an exhortation to novices.

Each section is neatly divided up into digestible chunks of one, two or three pages each separated by a topic heading. For example one of the chapters on Contemplation has a section called, 'On the causes of our infirmity and on the instability of the human mind when it comes to contemplation'. The way the book is broken up makes it a true spiritual manual, which will be used again and again over the course of one's life.

Although this book is a bit expensive I believe it is worth every dollar. If one takes the time to carefully read and put into practice the advice Denis gives on each page, I believe that they will come closer to God. In this age of watered down Pollyannish "spiritual" self help books, Denis the Carthusian shines through as a breath of fresh air. His writing is engaging and I when I sit down and read his works, it is as if Denis was writing just for me. He knows the questions I have in my head or the difficulties I will have and answers those questions in great detail. I imagine him sitting in his cell with the Scriptures, the writings of St Thomas, St Augustine, Hugh of St Victor and the Church Fathers, wrapped in contemplation as he carefully puts the ink on the vellum. I wonder if he ever imagined that his writings would be read over 500 years after he wrote them?

At this time there are only three volumes of Denis' works that have been translated into English. They have all been done by Ide M Ni Rian, RSCJ. The three works are, 'The Spiritual Writings', 'Vices and Virtues' and 'Gifts of the Holy Spirit'. I am grateful that this gentleman has taken the time to translate these wonderful works into English and it is my hope that he is working on further publications of Denis.

We have to start the purgative way if we want to reach the quiet of contemplation, the dazzling visions of divine things; if we want to draw near to God, to please Him and be united with Him. The purgative way is what you might call a striving or serious effort of the soul, the following of a path or method that tends towards purgation of the heart from passion, ignorance, error and sin. The purgative way makes the spirit free for acts of penance, while subjecting the body to the spirit and the senses to the rational part of the soul. All this entails a refusal to be conformed to this world (Rm12:2), a throwing off of 'the old man with his deeds' (Col 3:9), and a restraining from those carnal desires that war against the soul (1 P 2:11). Denis the Carthusian, Contemplation.


Unknown said...

Hey man! I originally saw your comment on Amazon about this book. I have been wanting to get my hands on Denis' writings and this one would be a good place to start. However, the book costs around $500 on Amazon which is way too much. Not that I wouldn't spend that much on books, but for that price I could buy most of the books you listed on the "Read It!" page. So, do you know where I can purchase this book for say under $50? Or do you know if there is any digital version of it in English or Spanish? Feel free to email me.

James Bellisario said...

Hi Jose. Unfortunately it looks like it went out of print. If I run across one I will let you know. I was looking for another copy not long ago and I could not find one reasonably priced either. I wish you luck in your hunt. Its a great theological work.