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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Unpublished Correspondence with Stratford Caldecott - a Conversation on Jacob Boehme, Meister Eckhart, and Frithjof Schuon

A few days ago, the Catholic literary figure and theologian Stratford Caldecott passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  Mr. Caldecott was an acquaintance and friend over many years since my adolescence, and in sadness over his passing I would like to share some memories of the friendship he offered me, and print some of the email correspondence we exchanged a couple years ago as it is, like the correspondence of so many other great literary figures, a publishable art form in its own right.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Caldecott, he is known to me primarily as the G. K. Chesterton Research Fellow at Oxford, and curator of Chesterton's manuscripts (and inheritor of many of his personal belongings).  Mr. Caldecott, called "Strat" in the rest of the blogosphere although I will continue to call him by the name I knew him in life, bore the no less eminent positions on on the editorial board of the international theological journal Communio, co-editor of the Magnificat devotional journal in the UK, editor of the cultural magazine Second Spring, and author of many books, including his magnum opus and theological masterpiece, The Radiance of Being:  Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity, which was published last winter.  Byzantine Christians may know him as the editor of Beyond the Prosaic:  Renewing the Liturgical Movement, which included a famous essay by the saintly and widely-venerated Archimandrite Serge of recent memory, and he himself held dear his writings on education - Beauty for Truth's Sake:  On the Re-Enchantment of Education and Beauty in the Word:  Rethinking the Foundations of Education.  I have not yet read his last book, Not as the World Gives:  The Way of Creative Justice.

I met Mr. Caldecott at the 2005 annual conference of the American Chesterton Society, held at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota (minutes from my childhood home).  Dale Ahlquist, president of ACS and a longtime friend of my family's, introduced him to me the evening before his presentation "Reeling but Erect:  How Not to Be a Heretic", which bore with it several alternative subtitles, including "The Transcendent Disunity of Religions", an allusion to Frithjof Schuon's influential book "On the Transcendent Unity of Religions".  (Unfortunately, Mr. Caldecott had already used that title in a conference a few years earlier.)

In complete frankness, Mr. Caldecott was one of the most interesting people I have ever had the joy of dining with.  Serving on the editorial board of the premier theological journal coming from Vatican II, the successor of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, his own journey to the Catholic faith took a long route through an upbringing in the New Age movement, a dabbling in Sufi Islam, the practice of the Baha'i faith, and the study of meditation at the foot of a Tibetan master.

I met him at about the time I was beginning to become interested in the writings of the Swiss metaphysician Frithjof Schuon, leader of the "traditionalist" or "perennialist" interpretation of Sufism, and whose writings were introduced to me by the music of (also recently reposed) Orthodox composer Sir John Tavener.  Caldecott is, to my knowledge, the only published commentor on Schuon whose orthodoxy remains unimpugned and fidelity to the Catholic faith remains public and well-known, although there are other Catholic writers who have positioned themselves in some position vis-a-vis the traditionalist camp.  (Caldecott credits his own conversion to Catholicism to the influence of perennialist Robert Bolton, whose Catholic faith I only knew of through Caldecott's reference.  Kathleen Raine's interest in Jungian psychology has earned her the scorn of the purists.  Jean Hani has written a couple beautiful books published by Sophia Perennis et Universalis; Wolfgang Smith has become notorious for his preference for medieval cosmology; the late sedevacantist priest Rama Coomaraswamy [son of perennialism's godfather Ananda] was revered in Roman Catholic circles opposing Vatican II; Alphonse Levee OCSO was the author of "Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-Dualism", and more famously Jean Borella tried to systematically reconcile perennialism and Christianity, being criticized from the perennialist camp for turning farther towards orthodoxy late in life, and also damned as a heretic in a book written by an SSPX bishop.)

Caldecott was one of those rare souls who could take a figure like Schuon as his guide, be led to the fullness of truth with and through Schuon's influence, engage with Schuon on a deep, serious philosophical level from within the Thomist viewpoint, rise above the questionable academic problems with the perennialist viewpoint, and maintain an incredibly respected reputation within the Catholic theological world, rooting himself deep within Catholic culture with his strong ties to the Chestertonian community.

It was that ability to be truly perennialist and truly and fully Catholic at once, in one act, in the eyes of the whole world, that I admire and have looked up to in Mr. Caldecott, as it is that very synthesis I was seeking myself, being a faithful, orthodox Catholic (at the time, of the Roman rite), yet drawn to the wisdom and depth of Schuon's religious philosophy, seeking to grasp the truth of both.  I have always looked up to Mr. Caldecott as an intellectual role model, a pioneer in a path I sought to blaze and follow myself, in a small pantheon of personal heroes beside such other minds as Aidan Nichols OP, Francis X. Clooney SJ, John Chryssavgis, Catherine Pickstock, and a few other contemporary theologians whose thought and work have inspired and guided me.

At the time, I was a lad of 16 years of age - excited, enthusiastic, homeschooled, and not necessarily in possession of the best conference/classroom etiquette.  My participation in the ACS conference was enthusiastic and vocal, to phrase it mildly, asking multiple questions (not necessarily of a superficial nature, or easy to answer) after each lecture, and I'm afraid basking a little in the opportunity to show off my brains, having a precocious intellect and having been reminded of the fact frequently growing up.  After Mr. Caldecott's lecture the next day, my hand shot up first as soon as he had finished speaking, and Mr. Caldecott gave a nervous smile and said something to the effect of "Jimmy's asking a question; now I'm a bit nervous."

(My question to him was actually just following up on learning of his possession of Chesterton's manuscripts.  I asked if he had discovered any new books that were left unpublished.  A rather naive question, to be sure - Mr. Caldecott answered no, but he had discovered articles here and there that Chesterton had penned.)

In July 2012, seven years later at a more mature age, I realized that I had much to learn from a mind like Caldecott's, and little time to learn it, and that the only way to truly learn from him as I ought, I had to overcome my social shyness and write to him.  And so I did.  The letters that we exchanged involved my blog - I wrote to him asking for feedback and guidance - and they are certainly every bit as worth publishing as the letters of equally honorable literary figures of past times, including C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton.  I am confident that Caldecott will be remembered as a modern-day Inkling, with the same prestige as Lewis and Tolkien, and with that confidence, I am publishing our correspondence, just as Lewis and Tolkien's correspondence has been published.  The other authors on the receiving end of the letters (myself in this case) are always irrelevant, except in rare cases like letters from Lewis to Tolkien, or the letters from Lewis to St. Giovanni Calabria, but in order to maintain the flow of the conversation, I am printing both my own and Caldecott's.

When I introduced myself, I did not point out that I was the kid who had asked him a question after his talk.  I was embarrassed about my conduct at the conference.  So these letters, for all intensive purposes, represent the effort and care Caldecott took to talk to someone who was, for all he knew, a stranger, a story repeated over and over again in the memories shared by those who corresponded with him.  Caldecott always took the time to respond in depth to every letter he was sent, by email or handwritten, and his letters show a profound humility and deep reverence for truth.

My first email is dated July 17, 2012:
Dear Mr. Caldecott,

I have been following your blogs since you started them, and have wanted to correspond with you for some time, since I am interested in many of the same things you are and I could learn a lot from you.  (I am an orthodox Greek Catholic, I am finishing my masters in physics, and I have a strong preoccupation with the writings of G. K. Chesterton, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Frithjof Schuon among others.  Although I have no theological training [but following the advice of Chesterton, that won't stop me from thinking about theology!], I want to redeem or salvage the many beautiful insights Schuon has given us in a manner fully compatible with and implanted in the heart of the Orthodox/Catholic faith, but I am somewhat unsure where to start.)  Until now I have had nothing tangible to ask you.  Since you started this series of posts about Jacob Boehme (whom I have read and found completely incomprehensible), I want to ask you some pointed questions about him for further clarification and insight.

(1)  "According to Boehme, cosmogony recapitulates theogony.  That is, creation is preceded by, and echoes, the primordial "birth of God"...Through this third principle, which describes the operation of the Holy Spirit, the fulness or content of the divine nature streams out into the void and (having, one supposes, nowhere to go) is “reflected back” from it as though in a mirror. To this illuminated reflection Boehme gives the name Sophia, Wisdom. At first no more than a dream of the divine Imagination, when clothed by the desire of God in an eternal, imperishable body she becomes “Uncreated Heaven”, the Kingdom of Beauty or Body of God in which his Glory is forever manifested."  

Is Boehme talking only about what later theology will call the "immanent" Trinity, as this paragraph seesm to indicate, or also the "economic" Trinity?  In The Way of Christ, Boehme described Sophia as the bride of the soul engraced by Christ - the life of grace depicted as the wedding between the soul and Sophia.  "When Christ the cornerstone moves in the corrupted image of man in his deep conversion and repentance, the Virgin Sophia appears in the movement of Christ's spirit in the corrupted image in Her Virginal clothing before the soul."  (The Way to Christ, p. 60)

In Eastern theology the uncreated energies of God pertain both to the "immanent" and "economic" Trinities, since the Holy Spirit proceeds energetically from the Son (according to the definition of the "Palamite Councils", the 14th-century Council of Constantinople and Blachernae) and we are also divinized energetically by the Taboric Light of the Uncreated Energies.  Since I am only an amateur and you understand Boehme better than I do, (a) do you think it is correct to identify Boehme's Sophia with the Church's notion of the Energies?

I have a personal blog that nobody reads (not even my mother or my fiancee) in which I argued this at greater length in the following post:

I understand if you do not have the time to patronize me on this, but if you could please read it and give me your feedback as to whether I am thinking about Boehme correctly I would appreciate it.

(2)  Is Boehme's Sophia the same insight that Alfred North Whitehead had in Process in Realitywhere he talks about the "antecedent" and "consequent" natures of God, with the latter being related to the "created Sophia"?  (Unfortunately I had to return the copy of Whitehead's book to the library some time ago so I cannot quote exactly what the author said - but it seems that with Boehme's Sophia being related to the Divine Energies which created the world, this world explain in a better way than Whitehead did how God is reciprocally affected by the world.)

(3)  In the third paragraph of that same post ("Boehme and the Birth of God"), would it be correct to say that the "energies" that you speak of are understood in the same way that "energies" are in the Palamite tradition?

My apologies for the length of this post (I am long-winded), and thank you for your time and patience.  I would enjoy corresponding with you about this since I do not know anyone else who knows what they are talking about.

Sincerely in Christ and the Theotokos,

Jimmy Broberg

P.S.  You would probably not remember this, but I have actually met you before in person, at the annual conference of the American Chesterton Society back I think in 2002.  You gave a talk about Blake - I think you might have entitled it "The Transcendent Disunity of Religions" - and I made an embarrassment of myself by asking far too many questions.  I ate dinner at your table the night before you gave the talk.  I was homeschooled my entire childhood and was oblivious to the fact that I wasn't supposed to ask dozens of questions from every speaker (and having mild asperger's syndrome did not help me catch on).  [EDIT, 2014 - the talk was in 2005 and was entitled "Reeling but Erect:  How Not to Be a Heretic".  He gave a talk in 1999 by the title "The Transcendent Disunity of Religions" at a different conference, so on account of my mistake there, he would not have even remembered which conference I had met him at.]

Mr. Caldecott wrote me back the same day:

Thanks - good to meet you (again)!  Just to let you know I will reply. I am not feeling too well at present, but your letter is interesting, indeed fascinating. 

Just don't think of me as a Boehme expert by any means. I am struggling with him too. 

Later that day, he wrote a lengthy reply:

Dear Jimmy,

Your blog is great, and I will recommend it. Impressive piece on homosexuality. I will read more of your pieces when I have the time.  [EDIT, 2014:  Mr. Caldecott was referring to my essay, still in draft form as the core to a much longer and deeper essay I have been researching for several years now, here:]

Re Boehme, I am no expert, and I would advise you look at Wolfgang Smith's "Christian Gnosis" book, since he is a (Catholic) perennialist and admirer of Boehme.

Off the top of my head, I don't think Boehme's description tallies too clearly with the dualism of  immanent/economic Trinity, or rather one could say this is too simple a duality for him, so that rather he could be said to describe a series of "stages" of the extroversion of the Trinity (in itself totally transcendent).

I am not much good on the Essence/Energies thing, because I am not Orthodox and am not convinced by the Palamite theology (I am more guided by Balthasar and Bouyer on that). But I know Schuon and co[mpany] endorsed it. To the extent I understand what I am talking about (which is hardly at all), I would think the Energies could be identified in some way with Sophia, although it is complicated, because he often talks of her in terms of the manifestation of the "essences" of God rather than the "energies". I will go on looking into this.

I don't really understand about the Unground. In one way it seems to be feminine, as if it were to be identified with Sophia. He sometimes speaks of God/Spirit and the Ungrund in terms of Will and Craving (which sounds rather brutish and puts many people off), or as Willing and Seeing (Mirror). It is as if he were peering into the Trinitarian relations and conceiving them afresh, rather than using conventional theological formulations. Thus (in Six Theosophic Points, First Point):

"15. And herein we understand the eternal Essence of the triad of the Deity, with the unfathomable wisdom. For the eternal will, which comprehends the eye or the mirror, wherein lies the eternal seeing as its wisdom, is Father. And that which is eternally grasped in wisdom, the grasp comprehending a basis or centre in itself, passing out of the ungroundedness into a ground, is Son or Heart; for it is the Word of life, or its essentiality, in which the will shines forth with lustre.
16. And the going within itself to the centre of the ground is Spirit; for it is the finder, who from eternity continually finds where there is nothing. It goes forth again from the centre of the ground, and seeks in the will. And thn the mirror of the eye, viz., the father's and Son's wisdom, becomes manifest; and wisdom stands accordingly before the Spirit of God, who in it manifests the unground. For its virtue, wherein the colours of the wonders shine forth, is revealed from the Father of the eternal will through the centre of his Heart or Ground by the forthgoing Spirit....
19. Thus the essence of the Deity is everywhere in the deep of the unground, like as a wheel or eye, where the beginning hath always the end; and there is no place found for it, for it is itself the place of all beings and the fulness of all things, and yet is apprehended and seen by nothing. For it is an eye in itself, as Ezekiel the prophet saw this in a figure at the introduction of the spirit of his will into God, when his spiritual figure was introduced into the wisdom of God by the Spirit of God; there he attained the vision, and in no other way can that be."
Does any of this help at all?

Maybe this will:

All for now.

Stratford Caldecott

On July 19, 2012, I replied:

Dear Mr. Caldecott, 

Yes, your response was quite helpful.  Thank you for writing me back.  I will check out Smith's book, although I've always been a bit suspicious of him because of his reputation for preferring traditional cosmology over real physics.  (I'm a bit biased due to having taken most of my college philosophy classes with Edward Macierowski, who studied with Henri Corbin at Seyyed Hossein Nasr's school in Tehran, and did not have a high opinion of Nasr's views on science which happen to be similar to Smith's - also, I grew up a seven-day creationist Protestant, and have a strong aversion to creationists now that I am a Catholic with a degree in physics.) 

Following up on your response on two points, (a) Do you think I would be correct in making a strict identification between Boehme's "Ungrund" and Eckhart's "Gottheit"?  If so, orthodox theology would require that both be identified (in traditional Trinitarian terms, which obviously Boehme is trying to avoid) with God the Father.  Eckhart's "Gottheit" would seem to me to be one valid application of Theodore de Regnon's oft-quoted over-simplification about Latin philosophy considering the nature in itself and proceeding to the person, viewing personality as a mode of nature, with Greek philosophy starting from the person and proceeding to the nature as its content.  An Orthodox such as myself would say that the Regnonian Latin way of thinking (in itself simply a different method) leads one to erroneous conclusions when exaggerated to claim that there is somehow some real separation between the primordial Unity and the Trinity, or a derivation of the latter from the former (an error Schuon certainly makes, and Eckhart arguably does, but which Boehme seems more careful about).  The Christian East is quite insistent on the primordiality of the Trinity, or I would say the co-primordiality of the Unity and the Trinity.  God the Father must be the Gottheit/Ungrund, not some manifestation of it or consequence of it.  The Essence of God (in Palamite terms) pertains to the Trinity; by placing the Trinity on the level of maya in divinis Schuon makes the Trinity purely energetic thereby falling into the heresy of modalism. 

(There is an illuminating exchange of letters between Robert Bolton and Charles Upton, printed in the journal Sacred Web here: in which Upton describes Ishvara or saguna Brahman as an emanation from nirguna Brahman.  It would certainly seem from a perennialist point of view that the Trinity must be identified with Ishvara for both its personal nature and its role as creator of the universe - but to say that the Trinity emanates from some "Gottheit" almost as if the Gottheit/Ungrund were a separate and higher (an)hypostasis would seem to be unavoidably heretical and modalist.  Gottheit/Ungrund/Nirguna Brahman/Nirvana/Nothingness-beyond-Being, whether as discussed by Paul Tillich or Frithjof Schuon or Eckhart or Boehme or T. J. J. Altizer, must from an orthodox Christian point of view be God the Father.  Christ has taught us to call Nothingness Abba, and I don't think the perennialist synthesis always fully grasps that paradox.) 

(b)  Further regarding the Essence/Energies distinction:  From Aurora, copying and pasting from part three of your blog:
"for the divine being consisteth in power, and not in body or flesh.The Father is the whole divine power, whence all creatures have proceeded, and hath been always, from eternity: He hath neither beginning nor end.The Son is in the Father, being the Father’s Heart or light, and the Father generateth the Son continually, from eternity to eternity; and the Son’s power and splendour shine back again in the whole Father, as the sun doth in the whole world.The Son is also another Person than the Father, but not externally, without or severed from the Father, nor is he any other God than the Father is; his power, splendour, and omnipotence, are no less than the whole Father.The Holy Ghost proceedeth from the Father and the Son, and is the third self-subsisting Person in the Deity.... he is nothing less or greater than the Father and the Son; his moving power is in the whole Father.”" 

Since Boehme claimed to have derived his teaching from the experience of God alone and not from the Schoolmen, it would seem incorrect to try to pin his use of the term "power" (energy) to either Aquinas or Palamas (and I would be highly surprised if he had access to Palamas), and he seems to be using the term in a little less technical way.  Saying that the whole divine being consists in power seems to be equivalent to Aquinas' "actus purus", but I still think that his "Sophia" is equivalent to Palamas' "energias".  Aquinas' actus and Palamas' energeias have different meanings, a fact which von Balthasar badly and horribly misunderstood.  (I do not pretend to be more intelligent than von Balthasar, but I was taught Palamas by an Athonite schemamonk - so I can feel confident in asserting that I understand it better than von Balthasar by virtue of learning it from a more direct authority.) 

In the East, "essence" refers to what-God-is-irrespective-of-what-God-does, God in Himself, found fully and completely in each person of the Trinity ("one in essence and undivided", as we sing during Liturgy in the hymn of Severus).  (Hence the East insists that God's essence is unknowable, for to know God's Essence would be to be God as a strict identity - but this is clearly not what the West means in speaking of the Beatific Vision, even in Angelus Silesius, and this was what von Balthasar got confused on.)  "Energy" means "the capacity of a nature or hypostasis to be known or participated in" (Christos Yannaras' words), or more generally "operations", and since we know God by participating in Him and by how He manifests Himself to us, we know Him "energetically".  The fact that we do know God energetically is precisely what makes real union with Him possible - and defending the possibility of real union with God is precisely the whole point of the entire hesychastic theology, as Hieromonk Stephen never stopped stressing.  (Von Balthasar's claim that it makes God unknowable is just wrong, plain and simple.)  The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son only because the Son participates in the working of the Father, therefore we insist that the Holy Spirit proceeds "energetically" and not "hypostatically" (this is why the filioque is so repugnant to us).   

In the West, God's "essentia" is the same as His "natura" which is manifest to us in his "operationes", so to say that God is "actus purus" as Aquinas and Boehme do does not mean that in Palamite terms God is pure Energy without Essence, and nor does imply the heresy of the Messalians who said that we could know God's essence perfectly and completely (treating "essence" simply as a statement of terms - one might "define" God by one or another attribute of His nature like Being Itself and then claim that they "know God's essence perfectly".  St. Clement of Alexandria had some pretty harsh words to say about one such early heretic, in the Stromateis Book 2ish.) 

In the immanent Trinity one cannot make a distinction between essence and energy, since the East holds to a triadology of communion (cf. Zizioulas etc.) and the West expresses the same theology by calling the Persons "subsistent relations".  Instead the distinction is between hypostasis and energy.  For example, following the defined teaching of the Council of Constantinople-Blachernae which is dogmatic for us (whether we are Eastern Catholic or Eastern Orthodox) we say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son "energetically" but not "hypostatically".  Boehme seems to be going beyond this by saying that the Son and Spirit are both energetically reflected in the Father, a very profound thought.  It is certainly true that in the economic Trinity the Son is begotten of the Spirit at the Annunciation, and if cosmogony recapitulates theogony - or if there is any partial truth in Rahner's dictum about the unity of the economic and immanent Trinities - then the reciprocal energetic manifestation of each Person in each other would be expected, as well as required by the full expression of perichoresis in the Trinity. 

I don't think Boehme would have had a clue as to what I'm talking about.  He was a cobbler who had never studied Byzantine theology.  But I do think that he did hit on an insight about perichoresis that naturally lends itself well to explanation in terms of essence/energies, and that, unless a disharmony arises somewhere else, that the synthesis between Boehme and Palamas I attempted in the article I sent you last time is illuminating.  You can judge for yourself and let me know.  But I would have to sell you on the essence/energies distinction. 

I should probably go to bed now.  I enjoy talking/writing too much, and could be up all night at it.  I will be busy the next week and may be slow in writing back again.  I have to defend my masters' thesis a week from Monday.  The paperwork submitted to the graduate school said that I have completed writing it.  I haven't started it yet - slight miscommunication between the secretary who handles the bureaucratic stuff and my advisor.  I'll start it when I get back in town on Sunday.  My best friend's getting married tomorrow, and since he's a physical chemist I imagine that the event will be a completely disorganized mess which I will probably be spending the weekend trying to put together or clean up the mess from. 

Yours in Christ, under the Pokrova, 


Caldecott's reply came the same day:

Thanks, Jimmy. I believe you may have persuaded me that Balthasar misunderstood Palamas! In any case I will ponder the whole thing (to the extent my chemotherapy treatment allows). Most of it I find myself in agreement with. As to whether the Ungrund can be simply identified with the Father, yes and no. I see the problem, but I suspect there is a way of making a distinction that does not put the Essence "before" the Persons (or the Person of the Father as the Principle of the Trinity), and I feel it in Eckhart. I have tried to dance around this mystery a bit in my Communio piece on Eckhart, which I am incorporating into a forthcoming book (where the Boehme stuff will find a home also).
Get back to your duties, and I will to mine, but we will stay in touch as long as God permits.

On July 31, I replied,

Hi Mr. Caldecott, Your new series of posts about spiritual warfare is a good idea.  I would encourage you to actually publish it, in book form, not just on your blog.  Have you read Lorenzo Scupoli's Spiritual Combat ?  I haven't, regrettably, but despite being written by an Italian Roman Catholic it is a staple of Orthodox spiritual literature. Peter Kreeft has (rather boldly considering the attitude of most neo-conservatives in America towards Islam) adopted the term jihad as a virtue.  (He also spoke of the virtue of islam, which is bolder yet.)  Modern Islam may have emphasized the "lesser jihad" to the detriment of the "greater jihad".  But we as Christians should all be jihadis - we should all be Crusaders, both in the lesser and in the greater jihad.  For those of us (like me) inordinately interested in Islam, Kreeft's use of the terminology is a beautiful way to incorporate whatever is good and holy in Islam into its proper proportion within the greater context of Christianity. I hope you continue your series of posts on Boehme.  I was learning quite a bit from them. Yours truly, 

He replied on August 24 by sending me a thesis he had found on Bulgakov, without any substantial commentary to share.

My last email was dated October 29, asking him to subscribe me to an online newsletter whose website simply directed subscribers to contact him, wishing him well as he had been feeling sick, and telling him that I had completed my masters and accepted a professorship.

I look forward to finishing the conversation in Heaven.  Stratford Caldecott, pray to God for us!  Eternal memory, and blessed repose!  Vecnaja pamjat, i blazhenny pokoj!

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