By Phil Harrold
Alcuin’s feast day is May 20 in the church calendar.
There’s a lot of mindfulness out there these days. The term pops up in the “new stoicism” pitched by motivational speakers to the business world, and in self-help manuals geared to those who struggle with anxiety, thwarted ambitions, or, more generally, the fear of things beyond their control. Mindfulness is invoked in the self-care movement, tackling the ill effects of social media with therapies that probe, prioritize, and protect the self. Before these popular iterations came along, mindfulness had gained clinical attention in cognitive psychology, beginning with the Buddhist-inspired Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program initiated by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts in the late 1970s. He famously defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, and non-judgmentally.”
Whatever mindfulness has come to mean across its heavily researched, commodified, and marketed venues, it constitutes a revolution that has drawn the attention of Christian theologians and practitioners. Journals like Spiritus and Modern Believing keep track of this seemingly new avenue of spiritual practice, encouraging readers not to miss the opportunities afforded by mindfulness for enriching the contemplative experience. Among their favorite reads, Peter Tyler’s Christian Mindfulness: Theology and Practice (SCM Press, 2018) taps the roots of ancient practice within the church, recovering the grace of mindfulness that was there all along. He acknowledges the complexities associated with such a multidisciplinary retrieval and is averse to syncretisms that obscure the integrities of established theories and practices, yet he persuasively demonstrates that Christian tradition has something distinctive and valuable to offer seekers of mindfulness in their “madly turning contemporary world.”
That distinctiveness has to do with the “heartfulness” found in both testaments of the Bible, in the “desert spirituality” of the early Church, and, more generally, the Christian prayer tradition that followed. Tyler identifies two areas of comparison and contrast as he surveys this rich history of mindfulness. First, Christian contemplative prayer has always been a “dialogue of head and heart”; it is not just a cognitive “bare attention” as some strands of mindfulness have assumed. Second, Christian prayer “clearly acknowledges the transcendental/transpersonal within the human personality.” Tyler’s survey of Christian exemplars is compelling, but in skipping over the early medieval church it fails to recognize the conspicuously wholehearted mindfulness of Alcuin of York (d. 804).
Any edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts will tell you about Alcuin’s monastic formation in the Cathedral school at York, and his remarkable career as a reformer and educator under Emperor Charlemagne during the Frankish conquest in western Europe. Anglicans and Episcopalians are indebted to his preservation and promulgation of liturgical prayers, including the Collect for Purity at the start of the Holy Eucharist. Alcuin is also remembered for his spiritual direction of lay women and men at the emperor’s court, and converts well beyond, in what his feast-day prayer describes as a “rude and barbarous age.” Among his devotional writings, a letter-turned-handbook titled On Virtues and Vices (De Virtutibus et Vitiis) advised a new German Christian, Wido, the Count of Nantes and Margrave (or Prefect) of the Breton March, on the essentials for spiritual growth and well-being. The nobleman’s request for such a work was “so warmly made,” and with such a “holy longing,” that Alcuin eagerly responded with a heartfulness enflamed by “holy charity.”
In the first-person plural Alcuin invites his reader to join him in an act of retrieval that expands well beyond their epistolary relationship. Wido is immersed in a Patristic stream of spiritual counsel, originating in the sermons of Augustine (and pseudo-Augustine), and the moral theology flowing from Augustine and Pope Gregory I (the Great, c. 540-604) to Anglo-Saxon monastic teachers like the Venerable Bede (c. 673-735). Alcuin also draws from a long line of monastic reflection on the virtues, beginning with John Cassian (c. 360-after 430), and he is indebted to the evangelistic sermons of famous monk-preachers like Caesarius of Arles (c. 470-542) and Boniface (c. 675-754).
While Alcuin’s handbook is very much a “composite” work, as Willemien Otten observes, it retained the cohesion of a monastic “biblical culture” epitomized by The Rule of St. Benedict, yet mediated to a lay person. Its exegetical and homiletical orientation is pitched to the everyday life of a literate Christian: an individual deemed capable of experiencing a transformative encounter with the Scriptures, most especially in prayerful reading and responsiveness to the guiding truth that is inherent to God’s words and illuminated by a long line of fellow readers. The heartfulness in Alcuin’s handbook is intensely personal in application, yet richly resourced by a tried and tested tradition.
The reading of Scripture was the first in a series of formative practices that Alcuin interspersed with short lessons on virtues and spiritual gifts. The spiritual disciplines are distinctively monastic in origin, and the opening instruction especially so. Alcuin begins with the bold assertion that “[w]e know what heaven is like when we read the Sacred Scriptures.” We also learn what we are like, “and whither we are heading, as though we were watching ourselves in a mirror.” The Bible is not only a source of truth about God and ourselves; it is also truth-telling as God speaks directly to the reader through its written words.
This is a directional sort of truth, “train[ing] the mind to understand” to the extent that it is turned away “from the vanities of the world” and toward “the love of God.” The cumulative effect of this reorientation is the “purification of the soul.” The conscious sense of God’s speaking presence in meditative reading also indicates the ultimate purpose of the “whole of Sacred Scripture,” which is “our salvation.” Such is “the right path,” the telos, for life, and it is well marked as the knowledge of God and of ourselves point us towards heaven. Such mindfulness is clearly directed by external coordinates that form inclinations and inform practical reasoning.
Not surprisingly, Alcuin assumed that there was a reciprocal relationship between Bible reading and prayer: “when we pray, we talk to God, and when we read, God speaks to us.” The “prayerful, slow, and audible reading of Scripture” was, according to medieval scholar Bernard McGinn, a contemplative pursuit of the meaning of the text — the inner meaning, no less, as the divine Word was brought to consciousness by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Meditative reading was an intensely self-involving activity in the midst of a communal form of religious life that had been organized and, we can even say, optimized for a love of learning and a desire for God (paraphrasing the title of Jean Leclercq’s classic book on the subject). In this context, grammatical and exegetical study disclosed the meaning of Scripture through a personal sense of attachment to the text. In classic Augustinian fashion, Alcuin assumed that any reader, even a solitary lay person, could receive this “first gift” in training the mind “to understand,” and always in tandem with a “second gift,” the drawing power of God’s love. Here we see the distinctive dynamic of mindfulness-turned-heartfulness at the core of Alcuin’s spiritual direction.
After the reading of Scripture, the next practice in Alcuin’s handbook is “compunction of heart,” which he initially defines as “humility of the mind conjoined with tears, a remembrance of sins and a fear of judgment.” More than a bundle of emotions, it is a multifaceted experience that attentive readers (or listeners) undergo as God’s words orient their day-to-day lives toward eternity. Compunction may be a matter of the heart, but Alcuin associates it with various “acts of the mind.” It leaves deep impressions, bestowing self-knowledge, instilling reverent fear, and eliciting a desire for God. While it is divinely initiated, it presses upon, and even pierces, the heart, evoking intense feelings, longings, dispositions, and a certain intentionality in response to the awakening and calling of the divine Word. Alcuin will expand on this agency and its associated expressions in his subsequent chapters on confession and penance, but the journey always begins with compunction’s “heartfelt sorrow for sin” and continues in the assurance of God’s loving forgiveness.
Such is the distinctively Christian mindfulness, or heartfulness, that Alcuin commends in his spiritual direction to Wido. It is notable that Alcuin commends two practices that convey an inseparable relationship between head and heart. The reading of Scripture may seem largely cognitive — knowing, learning, and truth-seeking are prioritized — yet the Word trains the mind to understand in a heartfelt way. This inner movement discloses a transformative knowledge of God and ourselves, filling us with new desires and dispositions. In the practice of compunction, our hearts are stirred by acts of the mind like remembrance, judgment, anticipation, and a recasting or retelling of our lives. In our mindfulness, we encounter God as transcendent, yet with a heartfulness that is personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal. This is a real presence. Instead of cluttering or conflicting the mind, it clarifies.
Whatever the self may be, no matter its inconstancy, its burdens, and despite its relentless bombardment by the noise and neuroses of our age, a distinctively Christian mindfulness can be found in Alcuin’s advice to Wido, and perhaps also in the heartfulness of his Collect for Purity at the start of our worship:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Phil Harrold (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is a retired professor of church history now living in Ridgway Colorado. His research and writing have focused on the intersection of faith and culture, with a growing interest in Christian discipleship for the common good.