The Silent Ecumenism of the Mystical Tradition

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In his 2006 article for First Things, ‘Europe and Its Discontents’, Pope Benedict XVI lists those things that united mediaeval Europe, East and West — Christianity, a belief in being successors of Rome, and monasticism. Of the last he writes:

The last factor I would mention is monasticism, which throughout the great upheavals of history continued to be the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of the ultimate guidance of humankind. As a pre-political and supra-political force, monasticism was also the bringer of ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.

Benedict is writing here from the perspective of society and culture, of course. And I cannot deny the major importance that the monastic and ascetic movement has had and still has across Europe. This paragraph makes me also think, however, of a phrase Diarmaid MacCulloch used in one of the lectures of his ‘History of Silence’: The silent (or quiet?) ecumenism of mysticism (or asceticism?).

As you can see, I don’t quite remember the quotation exactly (I’m notorious for that). Nonetheless, the point comes across.

Whatever differences may exist between power structures of western and eastern Christianity, whatever variations amongst our respective liturgical inheritances, whatever divergences in dogma and formal, confessional teaching of doctrine, the ascetic and mystical tradition of Christianity finds its common source in the Prophet Elijah and St John the Baptist as well as the wellsprings of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Judaean deserts — and its different streams taste remarkably similar.

It is my experience, at least, that the main differences between the Eastern Orthodox/Byzantine/Russian spiritual writers and those from the west (primarily Catholic or Mediaeval) are of emphasis, but they are united in their experience of God. They are also united in their promotion of the disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, contemplation — while steering us clear of illuminism. The goal of all of this, this entry into the Interior Castle (to borrow the term from St Teresa of Ávila), is to encounter the Giver, not His gifts.

And all of them (much to the chagrin of the Reformed) will speak in terms that are best understood by the word synergy. That the encounter with God, the quest for purity and the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity requires everything of us, requires much effort and labour on our part. Yet it comes, in the end, only because of the grace God. It is wholly dependent on God, yet we are required to seek to purify ourselves so that God will purify us. We are told to seek His face so that He will show it. I am thinking here of St Theophan the Recluse and St John Cassian, one at the end of the Russian tradition, the other at the beginning of the western.

Perhaps, then, Christians should spend more time praying together and more time praying alone. And then, having encountered the Most Holy Trinity Who is Himselves a Communion of Persons, we can find greater communion with each other.

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What is a mystic, exactly?

Yesterday I was part of a very interesting conversation in the comments of my friend James’ Facebook status, a discussion ranging from grammatical gender to the human soul and the Godhead. His status was making an observation about (to quote James), ‘Brother Lawrence, classic Christian mystic’.

One of his friends, well after a bunch of us had gone through notes about gender, mysticism, and the gender of the word for spirit in Hebrew, Syriac, Latin, Greek, and English, asked the (seemingly) basic question about Br. Lawrence:

Christian ‘mystic’ – how does that work?

James answered:

I think the term is pretty loose, [Anastasia]* – he’s called a mystic because he strongly emphasises the ‘at hand’ presence of God in his writing. But in reality, he’s likely no more or less a ‘mystic’ than Jesus, Paul or many of the OT figures! He’s actually pretty cool reading – and because his writings are four centuries old, they’re all online free!

Thus, at a certain level, Brother Lawrence. He stresses the reality that God is present with you at all times. You just need to be aware of the immanence of the transcendent God. This is an important strand of ‘mysticism’, represented not only by the Carmelite brother in Practising the Presence of God but also by Presbyterian missionary Frank Laubach’s writings — of which I first came aware in Richard Foster’s book Prayer — such as Letters by a Modern Mystic.

However, is a mystic, therefore, simply someone who seeks (and succeeds?) to be aware of the presence of God everywhere, in everything, in every place, at all times? Someone who seeks to find God in his or her daily life — washing pots and pans, writing letters to family and friends, even blogging of all things?

Such a definition comes close to Andrew Louth’s in the introduction to his book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, where he says that mysticism ‘can be characterised as a search for and experience of immediacy with God.’ (p. xv) Such a definition goes beyond the seek for the transcendent God in the everyday, though. In Louth’s definition, we are searching for and hoping to experience immediacy with God — we are hoping that the Kingdom of the Heavens, which is in the midst of us, will come and touch us. We want to join our Groom at his Banqueting Table under the banner of His Love.

Such a broad definition, however, covers the entire breadth of the Christian life. I sing Psalms on Sunday to encounter the Living God. For similar reasons do I read the Scriptures, receive the Eucharist, read spiritual books, listen to sermons, pray. But when we think of the term mysticism, it is not the daily, ordinary that comes to mind — although, perhaps it should. Perhaps the ‘mystical’ and the ‘ordinary’ should overlap, just as God breaks into human history in various points, just as Heaven and Earth seem to overlap.

Still — what do we usually mean by mysticism?

Mysticism is generally the internal life of the Christian, whether individually or in community (I reject the notion that one must be a solitary or ihidaya or monachos — monk — to have ‘mystical experiences’), as the Christian meets with and encounters the living God. In this vein, Lacoste’s Dictionnaire de Théologie says that mysticism is perceiving God through activity, a true feast of the soul through the interior to christ; it consists in ‘an experience of the presence of God in the spirit, by the interior enjoyment that an entirely intimate sentiment gives us.’ (‘Mystique’, p. 779)

We experience Him and He transforms us. In order to encounter God in the everyday, those who follow the mystic’s path set apart times and places for special remembrance of Him and His works. The normal round of Christian prayer and Bible-reading is part of this (as my uncle says, if you don’t read the Bible and pray, what kind of Christian are you?), yet there is a certain cultivation of the inner human being implicit in how the ‘mystic’ would go about this, hoping to receive from God The Inner Experience (to cite the title of a book by Thomas Merton).

Most commonly there are two particular types of prayer engaged in mystics as part of the ‘inner ecumenism’**  that mysticism provides Christianity. There is meditation. In the Christian sense, as used throughout the Middle Ages and conveniently organised by St. Francis de Sales, this is an activity of the mind. In meditation we pray to God and think over deeply a passage of Scripture, seeking to gain understanding and insight from God (see his Introduction to the Devout Life).

Sometimes, as described in Richard Foster’s little booklet Meditative Prayer, we imagine things. Perhaps we imagine ourselves placing all of our troubles in a box and giving them to Jesus. Perhaps we imagine the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon us like a fire and filling us up. Perhaps we imagine Christ on the Cross dying and loving us to the end. Meditation is the prayerful repeated calling to mind of the things of God through word and image.

The second type of prayer is contemplation. Contemplation is prayer beyond words. Some people give lessons on how to seek this state of prayer, this level of dispassion, such as Anthony de Mello’s book Sadhana: A Way to God. De Mello encourages you to spend a few minutes simply clearing your mind of all thought and seeking to wordlessly apprehend the presence of the Triune God in your midst. These psychological techniques are not necessarily to be scorned as some do, but we are to realise that they are psychological and mental.

For our spirit to commune with the Spirit, we must be willing for the Holy, Strong, Immortal God to take us beyond the pale of our experience. We must be willing to realise that all of our efforts in prayer, meditation, contemplation — these alone cannot bring us to God. In part, as St. Teresa’s Interior Castle reminds us, this is because God is already inside us. In part, this is because everything hinges upon God’s grace.

And so we come to my favourite part of thinking about mysticism. Mysticism is rooted in mystery, rooted etymologically in those ancient Greek-Egyptian-Roman-Near Eastern cults that promised special knowledge and salvation to the initiated — to those who have entered in (to give the etymology for initiated). Mysticism is an entrance into the mystery of the grandeur of the Presence of God. We come by His grace alone into his presence and experience whatever created beings can experience of union with the uncreated Creator.

The experiences of those who have been ushered into the throne room of God, into the Mystery, have at times been visions, such as Isaiah’s Throne Room vision in chapter 6. Some have encountered/experienced the ‘uncreated light’ of God’s grace. Others have felt a stillness, calmness, and peace such as no human action could bring. Still others have heard the Voice of God. Some have felt the warmth and tenderness of a mother’s love. Others have had, through their visions, converse with Jesus (think of Lady Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love). Many have entered the Cloud of Unknowing and realised how little they truly know. Others have simply known the joy of the presence of the Lord.

So, what is a mystic?

I think a mystic is a person who seeks to have an awareness of God in all times and all places and who cultivates an inner spiritual life through prayer and meditation that helps that awareness increase, being ushered into the Throne Room of the God of all.

If you think you want to brave mystical literature, any of the above books to which I have linked is a pretty good starting place. Although not one of the online, public domain ones, I highly recommend Richard Foster, Prayer, which deals with all sorts of prayer and has been a great help to me.

*Not her real name. But James is, in fact, James.

**Cf. Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘The Triumph of Monastic Silence’, The Gifford Lectures 2012, Tuesday, April 24. Available online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmozaTn196M