Christian mysticism can be defined as the experience of direct, personal encounter with the God of love. It is an immediate experience, one that transcends all rituals and dogmas. It goes deeper than all “signs,” whether verbal or sacramental, to attain what they only hint at or point toward. Christian mysticism requires purification, a heightening of the senses and of the spirit. It is not the fruit of abstract reflection or of intellectual intuition. It is a gift of God, but one often associated with the practice of contemplative prayer.

Over centuries of Christian history, such experiences of God increasingly became the domain of a small elite. Mystics’ lives were consecrated to the pursuit of holiness and to preparing themselves for the reception of this gift. Such a vocation was itself considered a “state of perfection.” The earliest mystics of the church were the desert fathers and mothers. In later Western Christianity, this role was assumed by contemplative communities like the Carmelites, Carthusians, and Trappists, but there remained individual, if sometimes idiosyncratic, “fools for Christ.” Gradually there developed classical texts, designed to guide souls in their experience of God. These included The Ladder of Perfection of St. John Climacus (c. 569–c. 649), The Ascent of Mount Carmel of St. John of the Cross (1542–91), and The Interior Castle of St. Teresa of Ávila (1515–82).

Implicit in these approaches was the assumption that mystical union with God is a life-consuming task, one that requires separation from the world with all its temptations and distractions (one of the themes of Thomas Merton’s 1948 bestseller The Seven Storey Mountain). In this tradition, the mystical experience was reserved to those who mastered certain techniques, who had the leisure to pursue such a quest, and who experienced the “mystical states” described in the manuals. But such an approach carried with it an inherent danger: the goal could devolve into seeking one’s own personal peace and perfection. Further, an introverted form of contemplation, coupled with rigid asceticism, could result in a tendency to regard God as a mental object, which in turn could lead some to think that “love of God alone” must exclude all other objects.

Ironically, it was a cloistered Carmelite nun who dynamited these assumptions. St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–97), with her “little way,” opened the possibility of a contemplative life for all, one that looked on the world not with disgust but with compassion. She saw her vocation as being “love in the heart of the church,” and this did not entail flight from the world but a remarkable attention to its salvation. For this young nun, her call was not to be a solitary contemplative but an active member of the Mystical Body. And to do this she had to be acutely concerned with the fate of all. This dimension had never been absent from the church’s mystics, but Thérèse made it explicit.

Less than twenty years after her death, Jacques (1882–1973) and Raïssa Maritain (1883–1960) would take things further still. As active laypeople in the world who possessed a deep desire to know and love God, the Maritains emphasized the elements of a lay spirituality they found in the Thomistic tradition. It defined the contemplative life as one rich in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These gifts, imparted to all believers at baptism and confirmation, were meant to govern all aspects of their lives. One or another (or several) of them might predominate in a person’s life, depending on temperament or concrete circumstances. And some are exceedingly practical: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, for example. But the Maritains also postulated, rather timidly, a grace of “nontypical” or “masked” contemplation for those unable to achieve the dispositions necessary for the classical contemplative life pursued in the monastic orders. A contemplative life amid the noise, rush, and ambiguities of the world will be vastly different from the well-ordered life of the monk or contemplative nun. This recognition marked a further step in articulating the contemplative life “in the world” and linking it to the baptismal grace every Christian receives. This sort of new awareness continued to develop in the years preceding Vatican II.

But the world also changed. The essentially rural, sacral society of the Middle Ages was dislodged by the industrial revolution and the emergence of the secular nation-state. And the evolution of technology was even more dramatic: from quills and carriages to computers and space travel. Those of us living in today’s world of twenty-four-hour news cycles, global financial markets, and personal iPods are exposed to an onrush of information and distraction that is the antithesis of traditional contemplative silence. Moreover, because of technology, work itself is becoming more rushed, competitive, and demanding.

The documents of Vatican II reaffirmed the baptismal dignity of the people of God as kings, prophets, and priests. Laypeople were no longer to be considered simply obedient, submissive sheep, but were called to be active participants in the life of the church and the world. Henceforth it would be impossible to exclude them from full participation in the church’s life, including its contemplative dimension.

Since the council there has been a flourishing of retreats and institutes, prayer and study groups, lay affiliations with the traditional monastic orders. This is, in itself, a very positive development, but it is not something everyone can get involved in. It takes time and even money to make a retreat, and not everyone functions well in group settings or has the intellectual and religious background for this sort of practice. I sometimes wonder whether our conception of “lay spirituality” is not itself elitist—in the sense that it is generally defined by the more articulate, materially comfortable, and better educated members of the lay community. This is, perhaps, inevitable, but the preoccupations and sensitivities of this group are not necessarily those of others in the pews. If the “laity” is to be heard, the quieter, more discreet voices of the “faceless” ones must be sought out and taken into consideration.

Of course, there are other types of mysticism that are not specifically Christian. There is what Jacques Maritain called “natural mysticism,” a state that can be reached by diligent human effort. Through physical asceticism and mental concentration, a person can arrive at an intuition of God’s creative act that starts and sustains everything in existence. This can be an exhilarating experience—perhaps the summit of what a person can achieve through his or her effort. But this is not what Christians understand as the experience of God’s inner mystery. Such an experience can coexist with authentic Christian mysticism, but the two operate on different planes. For “natural mysticism” does not involve salvific knowledge. Still, as a gift of God founded on love, Christian mysticism is not limited to members of the church alone, even as the church and its teachings point the way and dispose us toward reception of this salvific gift. These in turn situate, articulate, and sustain its reception. But there remain no limits to God’s generosity, mercy, and self-revelation.

Vatican II ratified this understanding when it looked beyond the visible frontiers of the church to recognize the workings of the Holy Spirit in other religions and in all people of goodwill, all images of the living God. As Jesus taught, every act of authentic goodness comes from the Father of Lights. Swiss Cardinal Charles Journet (1891–1975), who attended the council, had a very simple and luminous formula: Whatever is pure, in any of us, belongs to the church. The church visible should be a sacrament of grace and mercy that extends beyond itself and embraces all human beings. But the institutional church is only the tip of the iceberg. Through it the kingdom is manifest visibly on earth, illumined by faith and fortified by the sacraments. But the church itself journeys in a more hidden manner, in the pure and loving hearts of all peoples, and it reaches its goal through the mystery of the Cross.

I have a number of co-workers who are immigrants. They work two or more jobs, not to purchase luxuries, but to survive and to give their kids a decent education, as well as to help family members in their country of origin. What type of “prayer life” can they have? Gandhi once said that courage is the treasure of the poor. Would not the fortitude of these individuals, who sacrifice themselves through love and without reserve or afterthought, be a gift from the Holy Spirit—a means in itself of “knowing God”? Not conceptually but by “connaturality”—for God, in the Trinitarian mystery, is pure gift. Might not this be the genuine “prayer of the poor” that God hears? There is a saying of the desert fathers that has lost none of its edge: “Shed your blood and receive the Holy Spirit.” It is in the gift of self that a person becomes more and more an image of the living God, revealing the Father manifested by the Son and the Holy Spirit. As St. Augustine says in De Trinitate, “If you see love, you see the Trinity.” God’s love is revealed as both crucified and beatific, as all-embracing and yet unutterable.

St. Augustine also has this wonderful passage: “Love is a powerful thing, my brothers and sisters. Do you wish to see how powerful love is? Whoever, through some necessity, cannot accomplish what God commands, let him love the one who accomplishes it and thus he accomplishes it in that other.” According to Journet’s formula, whatever is done in goodness belongs to the church and is “assumed” in its intentions, incorporated into its collective prayer and the life of the communion of the saints.

Today, the purifications described by the classical spiritual masters are brought about through the suffering of the poor—what they endure through the events of their lives and at the hands of others. Their sufferings are often shouldered without the self-pity characteristic of more “sensitive” souls. The fruit of all this is lives of palpable simplicity and a genuine sense of peace. It is not, however, simply a stoic acceptance of destiny but an authentic love for others that includes a hunger and a thirst for justice, even when events make one feel powerless. A true contemplative life, then, includes a social dimension, a desire to wipe away the tears of others. Such a vision instinctively longs to sees others as God sees them, in their grandeur and dignity, and to experience their defilement as insupportable and blasphemous. The fact that Christ remains crucified in these little ones, that he suffers with them and refuses to descend from his cross, remains a scandal. At the same time, it confirms an obstinate hope and a sense of promise. This is what distinguishes Christian mysticism from gnosticism, certain Asian spiritualities, and other forms of contemporary “spirituality.”

One of my workmates is a mechanic. I’ve known him for more than a decade. We pull one another’s leg a lot. He bums tobacco from me (we both roll our own), and he’s a bit of a character—especially when he’s had a few beers. But it was only recently that I learned, through a newspaper article, that he and his wife had taken in an incredible number of foster children over the years. When I asked him about it, he told me quite simply of the multiple joys and sorrows this had brought him. His obvious love for these children whom nobody wanted, his generosity and willingness to accept heartbreak, was so far beyond anything I was capable of that I could only admire it from a distance. The guy is not particularly pious or intellectual. He simply gives, without fanfare and without expecting anything in return.

In his autobiographical short story “The House of Matryona,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes a poor woman whose life has been a series of disappointments and humiliations, but who obstinately, even foolishly, continues to help others. After her death in a tragic accident, the narrator concludes: “We had lived side by side with her and had never understood that she was the righteous one without whom—as the proverb says—no village can stand. Nor any city. Nor our whole land.” I am no Medjugorje enthusiast, but I was struck by the response that the Virgin purportedly gave to one of the visionaries, when asked who was the holiest person in the village. It turned out to be an old Muslim woman no one had paid much attention to.

Although the baptized have been given grace and enlightenment, this turns out to be more a responsibility than a privilege. It has to be responded to and interiorized. Nor are Christians automatically better than others. Far from it. Of those to whom much is given, much is required.

Like the visible church, contemplative orders are signs of the kingdom to come. That some of the baptized are able to dedicate themselves entirely to developing an awareness of the presence of God bears testimony to the church’s eschatological hope and understanding. But when all is said and done, we have no idea of who carries whom in the great mystery of the communion of the saints. That fact should be a source of both hope and humility.

The mystical life of the church is part of its essence. In its profound silence, hidden in the depths of hearts, it is known only to God. It is a gift, as God is Gift, in the Trinitarian mystery and in the redemptive Incarnation.

Related: Teresa of Ávila, by Barbara Mujica
Dry Bones, by Luke Timothy Johnson

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

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Published in the 2010-12-17 issue: View Contents
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