THE EYE OF CONTEMPLATION
In the middle of the ninth century the Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena got into trouble with the leaders of his church. He publicly opposed St. Augustine’s doctrines of original sin (intensifying the consequences of the fall) and predestination (the fall was always in the mind of God, its consequences already decided). He called them “a most cruel and stupid madness”.
John lived in France, working for Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks. John’s role was to superintend the palace school and to translate rare Greek texts. Although a layman, he had been educated in an Irish monastic school – the Irish monastic schools at the time being among the very few places in Western Europe where Greek was still taught. He countered the Augustinian orthodoxy with the Neo-Platonist argument that ultimately God, the One, must necessarily contain everyone and everything, or not be the One. His arguments were dismissed, in an interesting choice of calumny, as “pultes Scottorum” (Gaelic porridge – since ‘Scotus’ then referred to a language group rather than a place). Nonetheless he stuck to his position, under the protection of his king, and managed to avoid obeying a summons to Rome to explain himself.
John makes a somewhat pointed statement about the spirit of contemplation versus a certain kind of activism in his Homily on the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John. As I read it, Peter founded the church in Rome is identified with the papacy, whereas John Scotus is modelling himself on the gospel writer. “Peter is always presented as the model of faith and action, while John portrays the type of contemplation and knowledge. The one indeed leans on the bosom of the Lord, which is the sacrament of contemplation, while the other often hesitates, which is the symbol of restless action. For the execution of divine commands, before it becomes habitual, may shatter the pure brilliance of virtue and fall short in its judgements, clouded by the fog of sense-bound thinking. The keenness of profoundest contemplation, on the other hand, once it has perceived the countenance of the truth, neither hesitates, nor slips, nor is darkened by any cloud”. In a sense contemplation becomes a quiet resistance: resistance supported by a way of stillness and insight.
(This story is told in Christopher Bamford’s (2000) The voice of the eagle: the heart of Celtic Christianity: John Scotus Eriugena’s homily on the prologue to the Gospel of St. John Great Barrington, MA: Lindisifarne Books (New translation, with reflections and commentary. Foreword by Thomas Moore.) the book was published in 2000 and there is a Kindle edition.