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Our Help is in the Name of the Lord: The Mystical Calvin

By January 30, 2015 One Comment

calvinsladderIn forty minutes I’m going to walk into class, light a candle, and lead students in a time of “meditation.” We’ll use scripture to focus our time and help push the hectic and cynical thoughts through our mind’s eye so we might finally enter into prayer. Spiritual Formation is the class – we just finished reading Nouwen’s book on the topic and have started Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. As you can imagine, students from the beginning are somewhat skeptical. It all sounds much to Catholic – we are, after all, Reformed Christians. We’re Calvinists… we don’t do such things. We say extemporaneous prayers–you know, prayers we mean instead of prayers we read–and we work hard, showing God how grateful we are through our obedient engagement of our vocation. I appreciate that students are uncomfortable. I remember being uncomfortable. The practices of prayer and meditation run counter to the rhythms of our culture. We are so used to living according to the patterns of technology, Iphones, computers, and megabytes. Our imaginations are shaped by popular music, youtube videos, and video games. Sitting in a room, starting at a candle, practicing silence and meditation is difficult.

Given the unspoken assumption that these practices are Catholic (Which, by the way, I don’t have a problem with. I have a deep appreciation for the Catholic church.) I’ve spent the last few class periods introducing them to the “mystical” Calvin. My own re-discovery of Calvin has focused on just how deeply medieval his writings are. At the center of his theology is unification with Christ; he uses the metaphor of a ladder with scripture and the sacraments as rungs that allow us to begin the climb to encounter God; and he valued the practice of prayer in a way that echoes the ancient forms of centering prayer and meditation. Knowing that Calvin appreciated the work of Bernard of Clairvaux helps me to see that his view of prayer was much more than confessing our sin or unworthiness, it was also the means by which we snuggled into God’s “bosom.” Calvin writes:

“And Scripture repeatedly uses the expression to raise our prayer, meaning, that those who would be heard by God must not grovel in the mire. The sum is, that the more liberally God deals with us, condescendingly inviting us to disburden our cares into his bosom, the less excusable we are if this admirable and incomparable blessing does not in our estimation outweigh all other things, and win our affection, that prayer may seriously engage our every thought and feeling. This cannot be unless our min, strenuously exerting itself against all impediments, rise upward.” (Institutes Book 3 Ch. 20. 5)

The first scripture passage I plan to read this morning is from Psalm 124 – “Our help is in the name of the Lord…” Calvin would be proud.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at

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