Contemplative spirituality did not spring from Christianity as an isolated and independent event. Nor is it just a recent fad borrowed from the Far East as many fundamentalist would try to report. Contemplative spirituality has been rooted in Christianity from the very beginning. First, let us look at the setting in which Christianity was born.
Hopefully we can all agree that Christianity was born out of Judaism. The teachings of Jesus were in relation to Jewish Law. Jesus was a practicing Jew. His Apostles were all Jewish. For that reason we must take a close look at the array of Judaism during New Testament times. For the majority of Christians, when asked “what were the sects of Judaism when Jesus was teaching?” they can provide the usual suspects: the Pharisees (those bound to the Law above all else) and the Saducees (those bound to the Temple). Granted, those are fairly over simplified summations, but they are not actually our focus here. Beyond these two groups so often mentioned in the Bible, there were other sects of Judaism that were scattered across the deserts of the Middle East. Significant to our discussion, there were ascetics and mystics.
Hopefully a greater majority of Christians today are familiar or have at least heard of the Essenes. This group of Jewish ascetics followed communal practices, voluntary poverty, and celibacy by some. If we follow the various accounts by Josephus, Philo and Eusebius, there were actually several groups that fell under the title Essene; the Qumran community being only one of them. The best estimates put this movement as lasting for several hundred years, and specifically during the time of Jesus.Another group of Jewish ascetics were the Nazarites. Nazarites were qualified by certain ascetic vows that they took as a form of personal sacrifice to God and renewal/purification. Some of these vows included not going near corpses, avoiding grape derivatives and not cutting one’s hair. Samson, for instance, was a Nazarite of sorts. The shortest term for Nazarite vows was thirty days. There were also those who took Nazarite vows as lifelong vows and even infants that were dedicated to the Nazarite path before birth. Nazarite influence is far more closely linked to Jesus’ formation and ministry than many Christians would acknowledge today. Nonetheless, the influence is there and plain to see. John the Baptist, for instance, lived a life of an ascetic Nazarite. Then when Jesus is baptized by John, the first thing he does is run off into the wilderness for 40 days for fasting and interior discipline – a typical period of time for Nazarite vows.
We even find a hint of this in the Gospel of Matthew. Granted there is some interesting exegesis out there surrounding this passage, but I’ll let you google it and see the other interpretations. The particular passage I’m referencing is when the author of Mathew says that Jesus “came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matt. 2:23). First off, there is no mention of prophecy in the Old Testament about the city of Nazareth or a Nazarene. There is, however, prophecy about a redeemer of Israel being a Nazarite. Is it possible that the author of Matthew, being one of the later gospels written, confused the terminology of the prophecy?
(For the “sola scriptora” and “biblical infallibility” camps out there, I’ll be happy to discuss the foundation to that claim, but I’ll allow for that in the comment field rather than taking up that tangent here.)Suffice it to say, this is one interpretation, but even without it, the ascetic influence and practice of Jesus is still evident in his life and in those around him.
To head off some of the more ardent claims against Jewish asceticism, I’ll go ahead and point out that a great number of Jewish scholars today and over the centuries are highly adverse to the idea of any form of asceticism in Judaism. Most often, they claim that it is in fact a complete antithesis to being a good practicing Jew. They say that Jews only fast a few times a year, with Yom Kippur being the most accepted time to fast.
I have difficulty swallowing the idea that fasting has always had such a minor part in Jewish tradition. Considering it is mentioned a number of time throughout Hebrew scripture, from the prophets to the Book of Jonah and scattered throughout the Psalms to say the least, I would said that the ascetic practice was certainly not condemned across the board during the time of Jesus as some scholars have tried to posit. The fact that even the most observant Jew who would seek to follow all of the 613 mitzvot can only do so if they include the 10 vows specifically intended for Nazarites shows how rooted ascetic practice actually is in Judaism. It may not be a central quality, but it is an aspect of it nonetheless.
Beyond the ascetic practitioners in ancient Judaism, we also have classes of mystics. The most often mentioned would be the prophets. Prior to the fall of the second temple, the prophets were key figures who served to balance the religious interpretation of the king or high priests. These prophets encountered God on a very personal level and relayed what they gathered in that to the Jewish people. The priests recognized the legitimacy of an individual’s sometimes unique understanding and experience of God and allowed for their message. Often these prophets were calling the Jewish people back to a more religious and God centered life, while other times their message was directed specifically at the hierarchy who had fallen from God’s plan.
Let me stress this again. The prophets were a fundamental part of Judaism in this role and the priests and kings recognized the legitimacy of an individual’s experience of God even if it was not necessarily Orthodox or in the accepted fashion. After the fall of the second Temple, the role of prophets was down played by the rabbis as much as possible. Without the Temple, the rabbis and the Law became the cohesive force of Judaism in Diaspora. It did not serve their purpose of unity to have prophets with their own experience of God saying anything contrary to the solidifying orthodoxy of rabbinical Judaism. Here history repeats itself as the hierarchy and an institutionalized religion fears and subsequently represses the personal ecstatic experience of God.
Another class of Jews that responded to a personal mystical experience of God were the Merkabah mystics. Drawing from the Prophet Ezekiel and his description of God’s chariot (represented in Hebrew by the three consonants m-k-b), the Merkabah mystics taught that one could ascend spiritually to stand before the presence of God. These practices were strictly guarded and highly restricted. The horror stories and lore around unprepared individuals that experienced God before they were ready was used to scare away any mediocre inquirers.
The basics of it were this: through specific practices and acquired knowledge (gnosis), one could ascend the heavenly realms to stand before the throne of God. This ecstatic experience was not for the feeble spirit. Stories were passed down of individuals who were spiritually unprepared but, regardless, ascended to God’s presence and went insane because of it.
The practice of Jewish mysticism would remain restricted but still continue through the centuries. Its later evolution would take the name of Kabalah. Until the mid 20th century, it was still primarily a teaching that was passed on orally. It is a tremendous loss that the majority of that oral tradition which was strongest in Eastern Europe was all by exterminated by the Holocaust in the 1930s and ‘40s. As Judaism today tries to reclaim this esoteric piece of its heritage, the old restrictions are being cast away as women and younger adults are being allowed to study what remains of the Kabalistic tradition in the hopes of saving it.
All of this was present in Judaism during the time of Jesus. And much of this was present and of great influence in his teachings and practice. This is what we will discuss next.