The Inner Temple

The Cloud of Unknowing distinguishes between the active life and the contemplative life. The active life is parish ministry. It is Sunday morning services, soup kitchens, and bible studies. It is about the outer person and how we interact with the world. The active life is the foundation of the church, where everyone must begin their spiritual journey. 

All Christians are called to the active life of justice and mercy as described by the prophet Micah who said, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” The teachings which Christ gives us in the gospels also emphasise service to the poor and oppressed above everything else. To be a disciple of Christ is to act justly in the world.

The contemplative life, according to The Cloud, is built on top of the firm foundation of the active life. The flowering of our prayer will forever be dependent upon the kind of lives we live. If we walk in the light of truth then we will approach the temple of prayer with a clean heart. This is why Jesus says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” We need to have right relations with the world if we want to pray in truth.

Unlike the active life, the contemplative life is something that is voluntarily given, not something that is required of us. You can be a good Christian without being a monk but you can’t be a monk without first taking up the active Christian life. The practices of the outer person pave the way for the practices of the inner person. We need the foundation of action if our intention is to build a temple for contemplation upon it. One should not build castles in the sky.

The word contemplation conveys a robust and varied meaning. Etymologically, it means to create a temple with God. It comes from the latin contemplatio which has two meanings. It means to gaze attentively at something and it also means to create a space for religious rituals to be performed.

The first half of the word con- means “together” and the second half of the word -template means “temple”. Contemplation, therefore, is a temple in which the creature and the creator gaze attentively at one another. It is a sacred rite that requires a symbolic structure in which it can be performed. An early medieval Welsh prayer attributed to Moucan describes the soul as a temple of God quite beautifully. In this prayer Moucan laments because the temple of his soul has been ransacked by his own sins. This is the version of the prayer that is found in my book Psalter of the Birds.

Give the water of lament to my head
   And the water of tears to my eyes
Because the gold in the temple has lost its lustre
   The temple which you built in me

The stones of the sanctuary have been scattered
   Which were once square and lovely
Two gold plated cherubim have been shaken 
   By the flames of the Chaldeans

The candelabra of knowledge and wisdom
   And the veil of purity are almost ruined
And so is the anointing oil at the table
   Which is prepared for Father, Son, and Spirit

The two columns of the altar
   Beautifully made, inside and out
The ocean of bronze, cauldrons and lavers
   Are souls in their own way

Lightweight shields and stringed instruments
   Badges, dishes, countless silver bowls
These parts of my soul have been ruined
   And flung out into the streets
Woe to me, since my cedar dwelling
   With all its houses is far from here

My soul once dwelt there for many years
   I have wasted my father’s goods
Associating with those who commit adultery
   Eloe Sabaoth

The contemplative life is both the temple we create for God in our souls and the act of creating that temple. The word contemplation can be used to describe the spiritual state of union with Christ and it can also be used to describe the practices that help us to build the structures of the mind that form the temple. The virtues we develop and give life to in our hearts and minds are the ritual furnishings of this temple. Knowledge and wisdom are the candles on the altar, the veil represents purity of heart, and in the centre of it all, in the Holy of Holies, dwells the eternal light of God. 

In Institutes, Cassian describes the monastic vocation as the building of a temple in imitation of Solomon and his temple. He contrasts the outer temple and the inner temple saying that the inner temple is beyond the reach of worldly power and empire. The temple Solomon built out of wood and stones was eventually overrun by a violent and oppressive king but the inner temple, where the light of Christ the king shines, will never be overtaken by anything outside of ourselves. He said,

“You are setting out to construct a true and spiritual temple for God not out of unfeeling stones but out of a community of holy men, one that is not temporal and corruptible but eternal and impregnable; and you also desire to consecrate very precious vessels to the Lord, not forged out of dumb metal or gold or silver and afterwards captured by the Babylonian king and set apart for the pleasure of his concubines and princes but out of holy souls that shine in the fullness of innocence, righteousness, and chastity and that bear within themselves the indwelling light of Christ the king.” (trans by Boniface Ramsey)

Jesus himself used this sort of imagery as well. When the temple of Solomon was overrun by greedy merchants who exploited the people, Jesus came and drove them away, turning over their tables and grabbing hold of their whips to drive out the cattle. When they challenged his authority to speak on behalf of God and her temple, Jesus said that he would give them a sign. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Later on, after the resurrection, his disciples remembered that he had said this and understood that he was referring to the temple of his body – Christ’s humanity which was crucified and rose again.

Paul also used this language when talking about the unity of Christians. He told the Corinthians that the community of Christians is God’s temple, in which the Spirit of God dwells. Paul tells them that he has laid a foundation for this temple which is Jesus Christ himself. The new outer temple is the Christian community and, as Cassian so wisely pointed out, this collective temple is forged out of souls who have themselves become dwelling places for God. We build our inner temples, as coworkers with God, so that together we can build an outer temple in the form of Christian community. The church is the body of Christ which has been crucified and resurrected.

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