Mysticism and asceticism in the Internet age

Every once in a while, I think that those of us who write about the disciplines or about mysticism/contemplation really have no idea what we are saying, and that the true contemplatives are not bloggers, but more likely people like my friend Father Raphael who doesn’t even have Facebook and spends a lot of time praying the Jesus Prayer, serving his parish, and studying the Scriptures and the Fathers.

Some of us, though — we just can’t help writing or talking about this stuff, even though we fall afoul of St John of the Ladder (‘Klimakos’ being Greek for ‘of the Ladder’) who says that unless you engage in praktiké, you’re not qualified to teach it.

Anyway, here are four types of people interested in these things; you’ll find us all on the web.

  1. Readers. This is my group, so I’ll start with us. We read a lot of spiritual books, and sometimes we talk about them. If we’re in a braggy mood, we might even list some (Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, John Cassian, the Rule of St Benedict, The Philokalia vol. 1, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheos of Gaza, Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, a Cistercian anthology, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, the Venerable Bede, Cyril of Scythopolis, St Jerome, some Origen, some Evagrius Ponticus, Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Kallistos Ware, William Law, Julian of Norwich, and so forth). Somehow, we think this means that we are spiritual, even if we don’t put into practice a vast amount of what we read. We are deceived.
  2. Mysticism and asceticism lite. This is the group that hasn’t read the primary sources of ancient, medieval, and early modern Christianity but only a few contemporary authors who talk about them. We Readers pridefully show contempt for them. “I read St Ignatius of Loyola,” the Reader will say, “and the prayer of examen is much deeper and more difficult than what these people say.” There is a chance that, if the Readers could peer in the mysticism-lite heart, we would see shallowness that imagines itself to be deep. On the other hand, at least these guys actually engage in some of the disciplines instead of reading about them and then feeling good about themselves. They are probably closer to the Kingdom of the Heavens than we Readers are in our pride.
  3. Mysticism as therapy. This is an interesting group. They rightly grasp hold of the fact that Christ heals our wounds and cures our diseases. They have also had contact with some of the psychological literature that shows how things like “meditation” and practising thankfulness lead to stronger emotional health. So when they read Julian of Norwich or The Cloud of Unknowing, they gravitate towards how contemplative practice is there to help us feel better. They are not wrong — only partly right. The great truth we should all grasp from John Cassian, St Hildegard, Julian of Norwich, or The Cloud is the greatness and majesty of God and how that is the main purpose of ascetic exercise and contemplative pursuits. One again, at least this group seeks to put into practice the tradition.
  4. Social action as asceticism. This group is probably holier than the rest of us, even if I think they are inaccurate in their understanding of the tradition. These are the people whose main concern is the really active life of serving the poor, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoners, etc. For them, this is the true heart of the Christian spiritual tradition, and the rest of us are off-base. They may be right.

These are probably not exactly fair, I admit. And some of us veer between the different groups. All of us need grace to draw near to God wherever he wants to meet us, whether we read too much and practise too little, do too little but think big of our doings, do things for slightly off-base reasons, or spend our time in service of others but not seeking pure prayer.


Tomorrow, after we have celebrated St. Pancake Day today, is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent. One of the nice things about St. Leo the Great’s sermons is that they are ‘festal’ or ‘liturgical.’ Unlike exegetical sermons, their purpose is not to bring out the meaning of a biblical passage; rather, their purpose is to bring out the meaning of a liturgical feast.

I’ve been working on them slowly, starting around November; thus, in Advent I read his sermons on Advent, at Christmas on Christmas, at Epiphany on Epiphany. Now we are at Lent, and I am savouring his Lenten offerings.

In Sermon 41, Pope Leo says:

It is indeed fitting for us at all times, dearly beloved, to live wisely and purely, and to direct our wills and actions to what we know is pleasing to divine justice. But, when those days approach which the mysteries of our salvation have made brighter for us, our hearts must be made clean with more zealous care, and the discipline of virtue must be exercised more earnestly. As these mysteries are greater than any one part of them, so our observance also should surpass in some way our usual custom, and those who celebrate the feast withmore solemnity should also find themselves so much the more elevated by it. (Trans. Freeland & Conway, p. 176)

I agree. It is time for us to prepare our hearts for the celebration of the Feast of Feasts, of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus from the dead, of the day of our salvation, of the mysteries that make us into new people.

Many of us will be giving up chocolate or meat or coffee or alcohol or television or something along those lines. Others will read a spiritual book or do a deep study of a portion of Scripture. Still others will give extra of their money to a charity.

This last is something that Leo would approve of greatly, as seen in Sermon 40, where he reminds his congregation that the Lord approves of a fast that consists of giving to the poor and clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.

What is more radical than giving of our money and giving up soda pop is giving of ourselves. Here is where I fail to live up the high falutin’ rhetoric of this blog most notably, I think. When do I give to the poor? When do I give my time and energy and skills to aid those less fortunate?

Perhaps I should take more seriously this call of Leo’s that runs back not only to Jesus in the Gospels but to YHWH in the Old Testament. Perhaps this Lent is the Lent to truly change how I live.