I am glad you feel you are ‘standing still’ in your spiritual life. I should be still better pleased if you felt you were losing ground! Whatever makes for humility is so much to the good.”
So writes Fr. Abbot Dom John Chapman, OSB in his book Spiritual Letters, a book about which Rowan Williams said, “Spiritual Letters was probably the single most influential book for me in my twenties, and still is.” Abbot Chapman was a patristics and New Testament expert as well as student of mystical theology, and his Spiritual Letters is a collection of correspondence that Abbot Chapman wrote in response to inquiries he received from both lay people and religious concerning largely, though not exclusively, difficulties in prayer (we only get his responses, not the letters he is responding to). The book also contains a good series of letters on natural and systematic theology that the (unfortunately often poor) introduction to the volume incorrectly calls “dated.” But it’s the letters on suffering that I found most powerful. I have never read a better guide for the Christian faced with suffering and anxiety.
Born in 1865 in Suffolk, England, Abbot Chapman studied at Oxford before taking orders in the Church of England. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1890, and, eventually, he was elected Abbot of Downside Abbey in Somerset. He spent time talking with contemplatives, learning from them what their prayer was like and analyzing their experiences. To those firsthand interviews, Chapman added extensive reading in St. John of the Cross, Jean Pierre de Caussade, St. Francis de Sales, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and others.
From these he put together a theory of contemplative prayer: That as person becomes increasingly contemplative in his prayer, he will move from “meditation” (thinking about or imagining Our Lord, for example) to a place where meditation, affections, and thinking ceases and are replaced by what seems to be an experience of nothing, but is closer union with God.
A central theme of the Spiritual Letters is the role that distractions in prayer, as well as suffering and anxiety, can play in purifying us. Chapman is often writing in response to people who feel they cannot pray, or cannot pray well, and to those who feel in some kind of spiritual darkness.
A foil for Chapman’s response to these correspondents is the attitude he calls stoicism. For him, stoicism refers to an attempt to place blame for desolation on the person who suffers, as if suffering was or springs from a kind of defect that a person should overcome. Chapman is emphatic that this is not Christian, and that in fact the Christian view is that desolation (which can include e.g. fears about lacking faith) is a gift God gives us to purify us. We do not have to worry about the fact that we suffer, or even work hard to bear suffering joyfully. Our inability to bear suffering well is in fact part of the process of purification; if we bore it easily, Chapman observes, it would cease to be suffering. Our Lord in the Garden asked for the cup to be taken away from Him—that is, He did not want to suffer. But He accepted His suffering insofar as it was the will of the Father, and He is as much our model there as elsewhere.
For Chapman, our own internal state, our feelings and our own reflection on our feelings, is no measure of our progress as Christians—in fact, he goes out of his way to counsel people to think about their internal state as little as they possibly can (“The less we look into ourselves the better”). Chapman advises that it is a mistake to dwell on or worry about our suffering or anxieties—to feel like we have to “solve” or “fix” them in some way by tinkering around mentally in our own internal landscape. Rather, we should accept them as best we can, live in them as God wills, and make as little of them as we are able. (The same holds true for the consolations we receive.)
All the while, we should turn our minds and our attention on our things: our tasks in our jobs, our duties to other people. “There is a danger of ‘devout people’ living for themselves instead of living for others,” he writes. This is all the more so when suffering makes us turn into ourselves, and focus on our own problems, our own pains. This is a mistake. The way forward is to focus our minds outward so that we help other rather than harm ourselves. Chapman gives his readers permission to suffer, and that may in fact be the most comforting thing one can be given in suffering.
Peter Blair is associate editor at The American Interest and the editor-in-chief at Fare Forward. Follow him on Twitter @peterblairai.