[This article first appeared in the November 14, 1949 issue of Commonweal]
WHAT is the normal fullness of Christian sanctity? What is the spiritual ideal which we should all ordinarily seek, by making use of the graces won for us by Christ on the Cross and dispensed to us through the usual channels? Are there two kinds of Christian sanctity, one reached by an “ordinary” way of everyday, virtue, another reached, by an “extraordinary way of mystical graces? Is mysticism designed by God to be the portion of a few extraordinary souls, or does it enter into the normal economy He has planned for us all?
If mysticism is for all, does that necessarily mean that the Christian saint will experience manifest graces of mystical prayer also? Or does Christian perfection only imply a dominance of the Gifts of the Holy Ghost, which activate us in the heroic practice of the mystical life, without necessarily giving us a recognizably experiential knowledge of the presence and action of God in our souls—which would be classified as infused contemplation or mystical prayer? Is there a general call to the mystical life, or is the mystical life a special vocation? Is mystical prayer a special vocation, or is it even an extraordinary vocation?
These questions have been discussed repeatedly since the first World War. With the passage of time and with the careful study of the French Thomist, Father Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., who is the chief exponent of the thesis that the mystical life is in the normal way of Christian perfection, it seems that this thesis is being accepted as the more common opinion. Father Maréchal says that “this doctrine echoes the most authentic tradition and now meets with scarcely any opposition.”
Yet some people remain in doubt. For one thing, there seem to be very few mystics among us, and, at least so it appears, most of the people in our convents and monasteries and in the world at large seem to have no chance of entering the mystical life. Still, although sanctity, too, is sadly rare, one does meet with men and women who practice real virtue but vcho, nevertheless, do not appear to have received any mystical graces. Another strong objection to the thesis, and a practical one too, is this: all too often you find Christians who, in a burst of misguided fervor, decide that they are called to mystical prayer and pro ceed to plunge into an interior life which is r strange concoction of home-made spiritual excite ments, cooked up by an overheated imagination. This lasts for a month or two, or even a couple of years, only to end in a nervous breakdown ol a relapse into complete moral apathy, tepidity, and indifference to the spiritual life.
BEFORE answering the question, Is Mysticism Normal? we shall dispose of some preliminary matters. First, no theologian worthy of attention holds that infused contemplation is the essence of Christian perfection, which consists in the union of the soul with God by perfect charity. Charity is of the very essence of perfection. To be a saint is to be perfect in love. Charity, in the saint, unites all the other virtues with itself and in some sense includes them all, and charity unites man with God as with his last end, so that the saint loves God for Himself alone and lives for God alone, excluding all inordinate attachment to anything less than God. Such is the teaching of Saint Thomas on Christian sanctity.
Anyone with experience in the struggle for Christian perfection realizes that there are very virtuous men and women who reach a high degree of perfection without ever receiving the grace of mystical or infused contemplation, at least in a clearly recognizable form, on earth. Such souls may actually reach a higher degree of sanctity than other less perfect souls who, nevertheless, do receive the gift of passive, contemplative prayer and an experiential knowledge of God dwelling and acting in their souls. In fact, the grace of infused prayer, far from being perfection, is only another—and very effective—means to perfection. It ought to be well known that God often sees fit to grant this grace to Christians who are far from perfection, in order to lead them more rapidly in the ways of virtue and sanctity.
In this respect the doctrine of the Church is that mystical contemplation and the graces of the mystical life are free gifts of God. Although they may be merited de congruo, by disposing oneself properly, God may still withhold the enjoyment of these gifts on earth; He gives them to some souls and refuses them to others without our being able to determine exactly why He so dispenses His gifts. All we can do is acknowledge with St. Paul that “each one has his proper gift from God” and that the Holy Spirit distributes these graces according to the function each soul has in the Mystical Body of Christ.
It should not be necessary to add that infused contemplation does not mean visions, ecstasies, revelations or the gift of prophecy. These so called charismatic gifts are clearly outside the ordinary way of Christian perfection, for they do not belong to the normal means by which God has willed to bring men to union with Himself. They are extraordinary gifts given to individuals not essentially for their own sanctification, but for some special purpose in the spreading of Christ's Kingdom.
Infused contemplation is intimately connected with charity and is an experiential perception of God, as He is in Himself, realized by a union of love with Him, rather than through the medium of images and species which cannot truly represent Him. Jesus Christ, in the Gospels, clearly indicated that to those who loved Him and His Father, and did the will of His Father, there would be granted an intimate and experiential knowledge of God as He is in Himself—that is, of the Blessed Trinity, and this knowledge would be denied to those who did not love Him and who belonged to “the world.” “He that loveth me shall be loved of my Father: and I will love him and manifest myself to him .... My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our abode with him.” (John 14:2I, 23.) “Now we have received not the spirit of this world but the Spirit that is of God, that we may know the things that are given us from God .... But the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God, for it is foolishness to him.” (I. Cor. 2:12, 14.)
We are not here claiming that these texts necessarily refer to infused contemplation in the strict sense, although St. Thomas seems to interpret them in that light. They might also refer to a lofty form of acquired contemplation. This is another much discussed point. The highest degree of “acquired” contemplation rejoins and seems indistinguishable from what many writers call “infused.”