When Origen’s father was martyred his mother only prevented him from offering himself for the same fate by hiding his clothes. One of his great works is The Exhortation to Martyrdom where he sees this witness to faith as a sign of total discipleship.
He came close to achieving this during the Decian persecution at the end of his life (253AD) when he was arrested and tortured. The Church however is immeasurably richer for his making the total gift of himself through ink rather than blood.
Born in Alexandria in 183AD he succeeded Clement his teacher as Catechist for the Christian community and, according to Bernard McGinn (in his magisterial four-volume A Presence of God: A History of Christian Mysticism), became ‘perhaps the greatest interpreter of Scripture Christianity has ever known’. His place in the mystical tradition is central and established that mystical consciousness need not be either misty or schismatic. A great and disciplined active mind can co-exist – as the moon to the sun, as Origen says – with the deepest prayer. Reason and faith are sisters just as are Martha and Mary.
Like Gregory of Nyssa and most of the masters of this tradition we are surveying - he did not equate contemplative experience with altered states, locutions or apparitions. Rather he stresses transformation in love and the fruits of the spirit in daily life. His integration of what we might call head and heart – what the Greeks called ‘nous’ (mind) – challenges our very understanding of ‘experience’. In his ‘Commentary on John’ he says that ‘the nous which is totally purified and is raised above the material to attend to the contemplation of God with the greatest attention is deified by what it contemplates.’ His output was enormous – he exhausted a permanent team of seven scribes and as many copyists ‘as well as girls skilled in penmanship’ – and he wrote commentaries verse by verse on nearly every book of the Bible. Nearly three hundred of his hundreds of homilies survive.
As a good Alexandrian he treasured philosophy but as a Christian rejected the Greek idea that the dual contemplation of the cosmos and the microcosm of the human being was sufficient to reach truth. Revelation is also needed and this comes through the incarnation of the Logos and the mystical meanings of Scripture it makes possible. His methodology was rigorous though not of course systematic like the Scholastics. First he established the correct text and analysed the meaning of each word.
Then he questioned each detail – why did Peter have his feet washed last, what did the dirt symbolise, Mary and Joseph looking for the lost Jesus in Luke symbolise the exegete seeking meaning, the forty-two camps of the Israelites in the desert correspond to the same number of generations of Jesus’ ancestors. This method is intoxicating to read and at times transported him to a state of union when he was ‘visited by the Word’. Although Origen rarely speaks of his personal experience, Hans Ur von Balthasar says of him that ‘there is no thinker in the church who is so invisibly all present’ in his work. Benedict XVI said that for Origen ‘to do theology was essentially to explain, to understand the Scriptures……his theology is the perfect symbiosis of theology and exegesis’.
Origen rejected the esotericism of the Gnostics and established the three levels of scriptural interpretation, linking them to the common stages of personal spiritual ‘ascent’. Not surprisingly, this schema is itself biblically symbolised in the three books of Solomon. Proverbs leads to the moral sense and illustrates the purgative way. Ecclesiastes gives a spiritual knowledge of the world and expresses the illuminative way. In the Song of Songs the highest love and desire for God teaches the unitive way. In his Commentary on the Song Origen introduces his theory of the spiritual senses into Christian mysticism. Like earlier rabbis he thought this erotic poem should not be read by the young. (There are temptations even in reading scripture).
But he wholly appropriates and incorporates eros into theology by his reading of the poem’s sensual symbols. ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth’ shows the mind receiving the teachings of the word. ‘Thy breasts are better than wine’ suggest to him the beloved disciple resting on the breast of Jesus – better than the wine of the Old Testament. The breasts mean the ‘ground of the heart in which the Church holds fast Christ.’ Like Plato, Origen saw erotic love as a way of ascent to the highest reality but this becomes a transformation of desire happening in the fellowship of the Church. The erotic is not always sexual because we can passionately desire non-sexual objects. But he goes further than Plato in claiming that God himself must be Eros if the erotic part of us leads us towards God. ‘I do not think I can be blamed if one called God Eros just as John calls God Agape’. He follows the implications of this symbolism all the way and comes to conclusions that resonate with a Meister Eckhart or Mother Julian more than a millennium later. ‘Every soul’, he says, ‘is the mother of Jesus’ because this passionate union of eros, ‘wounded with love’, leads to a birth experience.
Unlike Clement Origen was unmarried and his mystical praise of virginity mystifies many today who see sexual love as spiritually significant because it is physical rather than regretting that it has to be. Even mystical traditions evolve. But there is no better authority to consult than Origen as we try today – as he expressed the spiritual work itself –‘to set love in order’. It would be to underestimate his intelligence and the mystical tradition’s use of the erotic to see all this merely as Freudian sublimation. For Erasmus one page of Origen is worth ten of Augustine. In his insistence that the love of God must eventually save all beings even the devil, he speaks to another of the deep theological concerns of our time, the question of inclusivity.
Reading scripture for Origen is a mystical experience but it is not the whole of prayer. We do not pray, he says in a timeless definition, to get benefits from God but to become like God. Praying itself is good. It calms the mind, reduces sin and promotes good deeds. In On Prayer and his commentary on the Our Father he asserts that through Jesus, ‘that minister of unsurpassed grace’, and the Holy Spirit the human being can possess wisdom. We are the friends of the Teacher who shares all knowledge with us. We possess the mind of Christ. But we must understand that prayer is more than asking for trivial things. We should go for the light itself rather than the worldly shadows of things. Prayer is not, he says, vain repetition that numbs the mind into temporary quiescence. It should be prepared for by detaching from anger and agitation and through forgiveness.
Then ‘the person who composes his mind for prayer is inevitably profited in some way’. Prayer combines the action of all three persons of the Trinity in us. Our entire life is one prayer. He concludes the treatise with some practical suggestions concerning posture, location, and times, showing that prayer for him was not just a theological idea. The Christian should pray not less than three times a day, ideally facing East, standing with arms outstretched (sitting, kneeling or lying down if necessary). Every place is suitable for prayer and at church we have angelic forces concentrated. But everyone should have a ‘holy place’ set aside in his own house, if possible, for praying in quiet and without distraction.
Origen’s influence is profound. His authority also has that humility and openness one sees occasionally in great masters of any craft. His endless associations of words and meanings are hardly simple yet he never seems to lose touch with a basic simplicity grounded in his passion not only for the text but for the person of the Logos. All his labours, he said, were to illustrate that most seminal of all simple ideas about God that the beginning and the end are one and ‘God is all in all’.
Laurence Freeman OSB
For further help with setting up and leading groups, please look at the ‘Christian Meditation Groups’ Website in English, Spanish and French, based on the book ‘A Pearl of Great Price’ by Laurence Freeman