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.

Contemplation and mission

A conversation I was having with a student today reminded me of the importance of that unpopular, old-fashioned idea of ‘evangelism’. The conversation headed in the direction of a belief that people of the far-right, hate-mongers and suchlike, should be stopped from assembling. I expressed my belief that no speech, excite incitement to violence, should be outlawed. I feel this way partly out of a concern that if they stop the racists from speaking and assembling, who will be next? And when will they come knocking on Father Raphael’s door?

I also expressed, in the course of this conversation, my belief that the problem isn’t legislation but the human heart. You can’t legislate evil away.

And so my thoughts about the need for mission arose from this context in two main ways.

First, how can we speak the truth of Gospel into a culture that thinks ‘dangerous speech’ should be banned?

Second, how can we, as Christians, actually see the transformation of the wicked human heart that we all desire?

I no longer know the answer to the first, for I have grown frozen in speaking Gospel.

The second relates to actually making disciples, so is related to the first.

Nonetheless, I was reminded of the need to bring the Gospel to a hurting, broken world.

And all of this ties into the title of this post because I sometimes get a feeling from some corners of the Interwebs that Christians can be drawn into the mystical, contemplative, liturgical traditions of the Church as part of a reaction against some of the spiritual toxicity that is out there in some parts of evangelicalism.

And what I feel like I see sometimes is a retreat not simply from things like politics (which may be a good thing) but from God-talk altogether. Christian spirituality becomes therapy for me, and is spoken of as therapy for a broken world, but without actually engaging in the dreaded discipline of talking to other humans about the Gospel and God of grace, how are we really healing that broken world?

I am guilty of this to some degree, although I resist ‘mysticism as therapy’ as best I can.

My theory has always been that if we engage in spiritual disciplines, we will love God more, look like Him more, and be more comfortable as who we are. As a result, we will be able to speak Gospel to a broken, hurting world, a world that includes both racists and those who want to legislate against dangerous speech.

Question: Can someone give me evidence of this working for them?