The term recollection comes originally from Greek philosophy. For Plato recollection was associated with the forms. It was a kind of remembering in which sensible objects remind us of their eternal forms. In this sense recollection is something like the religious devotion inspired by icons. The painted image triggers our deeper knowing to help us remember the eternal truth which it signifies. The senses, in this understanding of recollection, are what allow material and temporal things to awaken in our souls the awareness of immaterial and eternal things. Like the way sunlight flittering on the surface of a lake can fill our hearts with an awareness of God’s peace or the way music can transport us to spiritual realms. For the Platonists, the key to this is to remember that what we can observe with our senses is actually a reflection of what is truly real in the deepest sense. The peace of God is more real than the flittering light on the lake. Recollection is the remembering of that deeper truth.
In the Christian monastic tradition the word takes on a slightly different meaning. The human soul has a variety of faculties such as: memory, will, desire, knowledge, perception, reason, intuition, and imagination. Many monastic writers have created different schemas of what faculties there are and how they relate to each other, but those details are beyond the scope of this article. The important thing to know is that these faculties are in a state of disharmony in most people. This is the reason for what Paul described in Romans 7:15 when he said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” In this instance it appears that Paul’s will (what he decides to do) was not in harmony with his desire (what he wants to do). This disharmony of our inner faculties can lead to all kinds of trouble and can express itself in a myriad of ways.
Our original state is one of harmony and peace. It is through the chaos of life in human society that we lose this harmony and our faculties become scattered. As the world impacts us and draws us towards materialism, violence, selfishness, and all the other evils we see in our culture, our faculties are shattered into a state of discord and we become a house divided against itself. Therefore, we must re-collect our inner faculties so that they are gathered together and may once again work in harmony.
Often people speak of two kinds of recollection in the Christian tradition – active and passive. It seems to me that passive recollection is an identical idea to contemplation and is more akin to the Platonic idea described above. What we are talking about here is active recollection, and it is something which we can develop with practice and patience through ascetic practices and meditation.
In fact, recollection is the primary goal of asceticism and meditation. These are practices which help us to bring harmony back to our disordered souls. They help us to reclaim the unity of vision which is essential to the monastic life. When, through these practices, we are able to have our will be in line with our desire then we will no longer suffer from addiction. When we are able to have our memory aligned with our reason we will no longer suffer from the traumas of the past. To reach a state of recollection is to become healthy.
Recollection is a kind of remembering. It is like having eyes that can see after years of blindness. It is a kind of clarity of purpose and unity of intention which allows us to direct every aspect of our being towards God. Recollection is free from distraction. It is free from indecisiveness and self doubt. It is like an eagle soaring with purpose high above the earth. From that glorious height the eagle can see at a great distance and it knows where it is and where it wants to be. There is nothing up there to distract it from its goal.
This clarity and sense of purpose is an essential part of recollection. It is what Cassian referred to as purity of heart in his conference with Abba Moses. Our heart is called pure when it is no longer muddied by faculties in opposition with each other. Our heart is pure when our vision is no longer obscured by the vices which are the natural result of this opposition. To have purity of heart is to have eyes which can see.
Abba Moses describes the monastic life as having both a final goal and a means to obtain that goal. He compares it to a farmer working the land. The farmer’s goal is to have a fruitful harvest which will feed him and his family throughout the winter. However, this goal cannot be striven for directly, one cannot simply wish a bountiful harvest into existence. Rather, one must till the soil and break up all the clods to prepare it for planting. The fruitful harvest is what Abba Moses calls the end and the tilling of the land is what he calls the goal.
Our end is to be in the Kingdom of Heaven itself, a return to the divine unity from which we come and to the blessed peace of the angels. The goal by which we obtain this end is purity of heart and it requires a great effort. Just as the farmer cannot make the fruits grow we cannot obtain for ourselves the Kingdom of Heaven. However, we can prepare the soil by uprooting the weeds of vice and planting the seeds of virtue.
We must expend great effort if we wish to obtain purity of heart, which is a state of recollection. Recollection, then, is not an end in itself but rather a goal by which we prepare ourselves to receive that end. Recollection is like a well ordered garden where the water flows in a helpful manner and the rows are straight and easy to maintain. One cannot plant seeds in a garden which has not been worked and prepared. Asceticism is the work of pulling up the weeds and tilling the earth, recollection is the state of a well ordered garden, and contemplation is the fruit which grows there by God’s power. So, we reach a state of recollection by means of ascetic practice and we hope that within that state of recollection God will raise up the beautiful fruits which are the true end of all our efforts.
David Cole and I have put together a virtual retreat on the subject of New Monasticism. It includes six sessions each with a series of talks and a meditation video featuring beautiful nature scenery and Celtic harp music. There are a few videos available for free preview so that you can get a sense of what it’s all about before signing up. You can click the button below to learn more.