Daniel Bourguet is a French pastor, formerly Reformed minister, now leading a contemplative life and writing numerous meditative books of very high quality. The administrator of this site has translated them into English. At this writing (Oct 2016) 7 of the books are available, in 2016, being published by Cascade Books of Eugene, Oregon. The remainder are still only available in French; Daniel’s publishers in France are Editions Olivetan of Lyon. What follows here is a brief introduction; we now have a website up and running: www.danielbourguet.org Here is a recent photo:
It is a wonderful thing to be able to write about him ; it is probable that this is the only place on the internet where you will find a detailed discussion in English of his books and thought.There are some 20 or so books of about 100-120 pages each, and I have nearly completed translation of them together with a brother in a Carthusian monastery, who is working on Rencontres avec Jesus; I am living these books, looking at them very attentively, which perhpas makes it a little tricky to write about; I am immersed in them and it is a little difficult to stand back; I am assimilating what he says into a previously rather different outlook; it can be hard to see the wood for the trees; I always remember a little cartoon about a Creative Writing course in which the teacher advises beginners, “Make sure you write about something you understand…… Don’t write about yourself!”
I first came across a reference to Bourguet in a book by Bob Ekblad. Ekblad himself caused something of a revolution in my thinking, as described in the referenced article; his approach to the people he brings Christ to is very kind, thoughtful, accepting, and overthrows many religious assumptions in a way my background in Pentecostal faith teaching often fails to do; indeed the intimacy with God which is so central to Christian life is rarely explicitly stated in faith teaching. In the case of Kenneth Hagin it is very much a reality; “fellowship”, he says, “is the mother of faith”; but it is something that is understood, not explored, not dwelt upon. A really good example is Hagin’s emphasis on what it means to be “in Christ”; he speaks about this a lot, but the emphasis is always on things we have in Christ, healing, righteousness, forgiveness etc., and not on the relationship. This is fair enough because it simply wasn’t his commission, but it does leave a big gap, and if that gap is not filled it can lead to a very partial understanding of the gospel. The Ekblad books evinced a different take on spirituality and I therefore followed up many of his references, including that to Bourguet. It turns out that friend Bob studied with Bourguet in France; there is a serious theological background; these men are thoughtful and highly educated and careful in their thinking. Bourguet’s books immediately struck the same chord in me as Ekblad’s; when you have a relatively intellectual background yourself it is a great pleasure, particularly, after reading mostly popular almost populist level books, to find someone thinking so carefully.
However these are not theological books; they are deeply devotional, albeit well informed theologically. They are books that require the reader to bring quite a lot to the table in terms of reader input; you have to think. But Bourguet leads the reader into the middle of what he is saying so logically and provokingly that you are liable to just suddenly find yourself thinking new thoughts, seated in a new spiritual landscape. There are elements that are accessible and certainly important to the new believer, but the more Bible knowledge brought to the books the more will be taken away.
So what is it about these books that is so compelling? Put another way, why would I choose to quit my job, as, effectively, I did, and spend prospectively at least a year translating the books into English? As suggested above, rather than go into the personal response, the following will attempt to give a general view of what Bourguet says.
There is both a general outlook and specific themes which are repeated again and again in different forms.
The general outlook is formed by a somewhat alternative way of looking at the scriptures and the spiritual life. There are hints as to how this outlook was formed. Bourguet seems to have been a fairly traditional pastor operating within the Reformed church in France, which would mean somewhat conservative and evangelical (but not pentecostal in the sense of emphasizing spiritual gifts such as tongues); he then seems to have started to look at traditions and writings of the eastern church, both orthodox and more specifically the early Church Fathers. The emphasis here is very different to that prevalent in our western churches; we focus on specific gateway experiences, notably that of being ‘born again’, being ‘saved’ as we say. The alternative emphasis is more on salvation being something to be attained in experience, a reaching out to God, and experiencing of him, of union with him. In the book Spiritual Maladies (as I translate the title), which perhaps has more to say explicitly about this than the other books, Bourguet suggests that the western church has focused very much on what he calls the judicial or juridical side of things, at the expense of the therapeutic, the healing. We urge people to ‘do’ this and that, to respond; the alternative looks to surround people with love and God. Thus, Bourguet looks not to promote decision but to warm, to fill, to suggest; to surround the reader with relationship.
Here is another way to look it this. A good book on eastern Christian thought is The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware. He brings out that an essential of orthodox thinking is that our goal as believers is to see into and draw out what is at the heart of other beings, to find their God given essence. There is a certain corollary here with faith teaching, which says that in Christ you are and have certain things and we enter progressively more and more into that, what we are as new creatures; however the emphasis is somewhat different. The western way is proclamation, telling – ‘this is what you are’; the other way is more to tease out they way we and God co-operate, to analyse, to unfold, to discover in concert with God. Bourguet is very, very analytical; he takes a passage of scripture and looks closely at many things that are suggested by the passage, by the words, constantly looking for God in everything. Something illustrative that comes to mind here is from The Silence of God during the Passion, where there is a lengthy discussion of something that occupies a very short space in the gospels, Simon of Cyrene; you would think it almost impossible that there could be so much there – but it is; much of what Bourguet says is in a sense speculative, but very reasonable, very careful, thoroughly persuasive and full of love for God; the key to this analysis is the seemingly throwaway statement that Simon was the “father of Alexander and Rufus”. So, the general approach is to unfold by careful, prayerful, informed analysis.
The analytical approach leads in particular directions. The style of writing often involves repeating ideas with slight alterations in the way they are expressed, leading to very precise little discriminations. One of the most frequently occurring words is ‘indeed’; Bourguet keeps adding little things in until the distinctions become so nice as to be exquisite, and then we find him with one of his most common modes of expression; he says that something is wonderful, marvellous, indescribable, fathomless, beyond words, deep mystery, the mystery of the heart of God…. this wonderment is the basic atmosphere the books breathe…and it leads into a particular doctrine too, the doctrine, the fact of the Trinity. A constantly recurring theme through every book is the relationship within the Trinity, the interplay of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; the love within the Trinity is the ground for everything in the universe and specifically in the Christian life; the Trinity is the keynote of the books.
Another constant theme is the humility of God. In both The Tenderness of God and The Modesty of God, this is the central idea; God who withdraws, who is discreet, holds his creation in high esteem, and does not impose himself on it. In Repentance is good news! the extraordinary idea is brought out that God repents, where repentance means telling someone else you have wronged them; a central theme in this book is the extraordinary humility of Jesus which connects to his clear insight into his Father’s heart; this enables him, in his baptism, to repent on behalf of and take on the sins of the entire world. Jesus’ total identification with his Father, the Father’s total preference for his Son, and the Holy Spirit, bringing this good news to people, all evidence God’s humility. The theme is again wonderfully developed in Becoming a Disciple in a discussion of Jesus’ easy yoke, the yoke of the one who is “gentle and lowly of heart”. It is again central to God’s silence during the Passion; is God silent because he has abandoned Jesus? That is what it can look like, and if we read the Bible this way we are liable to see God as abandoning and having abandoned us too; but, no, the Father is discreetly and wonderfully present with Jesus every step of the way, and Jesus is acutely aware of his Father’s feelings – which is why they are not mentioned, but lie hidden, discreetly, silently but present throughout. Relationship between the Father and the Son; this is the foundation for the whole spiritual walk.
Much in keeping with the outlook of the Church Fathers, another major topic is prayer, not in terms of believing, answered prayer, which would be the expected approach in faith teaching, but the practice of prayer as communion with God. Morning, evening and noon, I praise and I meditate and Praying the Psalms cover this. Most of the books look in detail at two or three passages of scripture; the first of these two revolves around Revelation chs. 4 and 5, worship in heaven, and comparisons are made with the parallel passage in Isaiah, bringing out some of the differences between the Old and New Testaments; a major idea is that this ‘cosmic’ worship is something in which we participate in our stumbling efforts, hampered as we are by weaknesses and enemies. The book draws fairly heavily on the Church Fathers; some of their practices seem excessive, but because of their very great difference to our normal approach to prayer in the midst of our busy lives it is all very thought provoking. There are references in many of Bourguet’s books to ‘asceticism’; again, some of it can seem excessive, and we note that the author has taken to living a life of relative seclusion, certainly of contemplation, but we should also note that the asceticism he writes about is really no more than the normal disciplines of the Christian life; but in the extremes discussed we see God working. Praying the Psalms is a memorable exposition of praying the Psalms with their author, that is, with the Trinity. The book closely investigates the place of each person of the Trinity in the psalms and their place, relationally, in our reading. How easily we mistake the psalms, for example, if we do not read them as Jesus would read them, and with his guidance. We must read in close association with Christ.
From Darkness to Light consists of three lengthy meditations. The first is the extended conversation between Jesus and the ‘good’ thief on the cross, leading to the thief’s conversion, an imaginative and entirely convincing reconstruction of the thief’s thoughts. The second concerns Psalm 88, outwardly a cry of despair, but, on examination, a declaration of tremendous intimacy with God under great duress. Lastly, an investigation of Mary Magdalene, from the cross to the tomb, and then Easter morning with her deliverance from obsession with the body of her dead Master into glorious life. As is normal with the books, the very close engagement with the text is simply inspiring. ‘All Scripture is inspired by God…” but we miss so much; this close reading brings the reader closely in touch with the way the Word is indeed ‘God-breathed”. It is not necessary to agree with everything, though I for one pretty much do, to be deeply moved by the godliness evidenced.
Another theme, already touched on, is to do with the Church Fathers, but specifically with particular practices of theirs as they relate to us today – and what comes through the books is that they do relate to us surprisingly directly . Two books here are Asceticism, a way of freedom (which we are intending to publish as Spiritual Discipline, a way….) and On a pathway of spirituality. The former focuses on the place of discipline in the Christian life; the latter investigates monasticism. The somewhat surprising idea of the first is that every step of obedience to Christ is ‘ascetic’, part of our training to run the race as believers; then there are the more extreme forms of asceticism, fasting, solitude etc., and the book hovers between the two views of it; basically it is all about humbling yourself and renewing the mind. There is a chapter on fasting which, unlike every other book I have read on the subject, says why to fast. The book on monasticism, again surprisingly, makes monasticism something relevant to you and I; monasticism is an exploration of the interior life, a full commitment to God – so clearly it applies to us.
In due course it is hoped to be able to give a thorough introduction to each book, but it is also hoped that this short piece will indicate the value of reading the books personally; they are quite sufficiently accessible not to need further explanation.