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.