Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Is Mysticism Normal?

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[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.

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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.”

There is no supernatural contemplation that does not include a generous activity by the Holy Spirit in the soul

There is no supernatural contemplation that does not include a generous activity by the Holy Spirit in the soul. The difference between acquired and infused contemplation is not the difference between a contemplation that is entirely active on one hand and one that is entirely passive on the other: it is rather a distinction between a contemplation in which our activity predominates and one in which the activity of the Holy Ghost predominates; in the higher degrees of “passive” contemplation the activity of our own soul is submerged, absorbed by that of the Holy Spirit. Even in acquired contemplation there is an element of passive subjection to the Holy Ghost; otherwise it is not really supernatural contemplation.

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NOW that these preliminaries have been treated, we may examine the main question. What does it mean to say that mysticism is a normal development of the Christian life?

     In the first place, every Christian is potentially a contemplative and the end for which we were created is the vision of God and the perfect love flowing from that vision. “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” (John, 17:3) The very nature of the human soul, according to the teaching of St. Thomas, points to this end as the highest fulfilment of every capacity implanted in us by our Creator. There is no doubt, then, that the beatific vision enjoyed by the blessed in heaven, which is the most perfect and super-abundant kind of mystical contemplation, is the normal end of the Christian life. It is what we were made for, it is what Jesus Christ died on the Cross to obtain for us. In this sense, the souls of the saints in heaven are the only truly and completely normal Christians and they are the greatest mystics, the most perfect contemplatives. We, on earth, are not leading the life that was planned for us as “normal” by God. Nor are the souls in Purgatory leading the “normal” Christian life. Needless to say, nothing is more abnormal than damnation, which leaves the soul, by its own free choice, completely and eternally wrenched out of the place originally planned for man by God.

     Nothing is more “normal” than the beatific vision which, nevertheless, completely transcends all our natural powers and is most “extraordinary” if it be compared with our natural way of knowing things; for there God, instead of appearing to us through the medium of abstract or even infused species, becomes Himself as it were the “species” by which we know Him in a direct intuition which is the product of an immediate contact of our intellect with His divine Being! Therefore it is clear that we are not using the word “normal” to mean anything like “natural”. The Christian life is not merely natural, it is supernatural, and consequently it is what is supernatural that is normal in the Christian life.

     To say that the mystical life is the normal way of Christian perfection generally means that the mystical life (whether it is actually reached by many or by few does not matter) is, in itself, and in the abstract, part of the ordinary system of graces and other means Offered by God for the sanctification of men. This means that the mystical life is something that is arrived at according to the ordinary laws of normal spiritual development. Father Garrigou-Lagrange takes the word normal, in this sense, to mean that therefore there is a general, remote call to the mystical life offered to every Christian in the state of grace. The mere fact that you are a Christian and are in a state of grace should mean, according to this theory, that by corresponding to grace you may quite normally enter the mystical life. Note that we say mystical life and not mystical prayer, for there is a distinction. This will be treated later.

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BUT now, suppose for a moment that the call to the mystical life, instead of being general and offered to all Christians, were a special vocation. We do not hold that it is, but even supposing it were, would it therefore be abnormal and extraordinary? Why should it be? The vocation to the priesthood is a special vocation: but is it abnormal? Is it extraordinary? The priesthood falls within the normal economy of graces by which God has willed the sanctification of men. He does not will all men to be sanctified in the priesthood, but He has willed that some should become saints by faithfully and zealously carrying out the duties of the priesthood. The vocation to the religious life is a special vocation. Is it abnormal or extraordinary for a Christian to be sanctified in the cloister? There are many other special vocations that all fall within the limits of the normal Christian life. Even if the vocation to the mystical life, or the vocation to mystical prayer, were to be considered special vocations, it would not necessarily follow that they were extraordinary vocations.

     This is a distinction that is not generally taken into account. People have often discussed this problem as if there were no alternative between the general call offered to all Christians and a completely extraordinary and esoteric vocation offered to a few stigmatics and prophets.

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THIS brings us to the distinction between the mystical life and mystical prayer, which was mentioned earlier in this article. This particular point was taken up by the too little known Trappist authority on prayer, Dom Vital Lehodey, and it has recently been espoused in this country by my distinguished confrere, Fr. M. Raymond, O.C.S.O. The distinction is essential for a true understanding of the whole question.

     The distinction between the mystical life and mystical prayer is based on St. Thomas's teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Ghost. Indeed, it is upon this Thomist theory of the Gifts that the whole structure of the argument for the normality of the mystical life rests.

     Here is the theory, distilled from the masterly treatise of the Spanish Dominican, John of St. Thomas.

The will does not get itself together and move itself into action, it is moved, passively, by the Holy Spirit.

     We are led to sanctity by the Holy Spirit, through what is technically called the “grace of the virtues and of the gifts”. This is the normal equipment given us by God to bring us to perfection—that is, to union of love with Him. The Holy Ghost, by grace, illuminates our intellect and inspires and strengthens our will to produce supernatural acts. These acts are produced on two levels. First, according to a “human mode” –that is, through the infused virtues. Here the Holy Spirit moves us to act according to the standards and the regulation of reason. Grace enlightens and strengthens our minds and wills to produce acts in which our faculties move themselves. And our faculties move themselves according to their own proper and human mode. That is to say, enlightened by grace the reason deliberates, basing its arguments on the principles of the Christian faith, and offers persuasion to the will which then goes into action, perhaps not without a great struggle, and accomplishes a good work which is willed by God.

     The second way in which the Holy Ghost moves us to act supernaturally is something altogether higher than this. Here we are enlightened and strengthened, inspired and moved, not according to the human mode but in a way more appropriate to God Himself. Our action is no longer regulated merely by reason and based on deliberation: it accords with a higher standard, the standard of God Himself, which is beyond the grasp of our reasoning. Here the mind does not regulate or adjust itself, but is immediately regulated and adjusted by the Holy Spirit. The will does not get itself together and move itself into action, it is moved, passively, by the Holy Spirit. This passivity, however, does not rob us of freedom. On the contrary, our freedom is in a certain sense increased by the action of the Holy Spirit, for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”. (II. Cor., 3:17) The immediate presence of the Holy Spirit moving the will makes us slide into action not with labor and difficulty but with a breathtaking ease and suavity and joy which betokens at least a momentary liberation from the “law” of self-love in our members which so frequently and so disastrously conflicts with the law of God. Here, then, instead of moving ourselves by our own power, we move and are moved (there are still two cooperating agents!) by the power of the Holy Spirit. The special motion of the Holy Spirit is both the efficient and formal cause of this supernatural activity, and its product is what goes by the name of heroic virtue.

     The term mystical life, as used by the Thomists, applies to this latter mode of activation, where the soul is under the domination of the Gifts of the Holy Ghost. This is what is held to be the normal way of Christian perfection and this mode of supernatural activity belongs to the integrity of Christian saintliness.

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MYSTICAL prayer is simply a subdivision of the mystical life. Of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, some are ordered to the works of the active life, like Fear, Piety, Fortitude. Others are ordered to the works of the contemplative life, to contemplative prayer. Wisdom and Understanding are the Gifts by which the Holy Spirit produces in the soul that immediate experience of God, known and “savored” in a fruitive, though obscure, contact of love which is the hallmark of mystical contemplation.

     But one thing must be made clear about: the works and activities of the mystical life. The actions which souls under the immediate guidance of the Holy Ghost produce, according to the manner we have described, need not be essentially extraordinary. Generally speaking, souls leading the mystical life under the dominance of the Holy Spirit, overcome the usual difficulties of Christian life, but do so with an exceptional perfection and simplicity and modesty and regulation and interior purity which proceed from the direct action of the Holy Spirit and which give their works tremendous merit in the sight of God, although they may be completely ignored by men.

     The Thomist thesis is, then, that the mystical life, quite apart from manifest graces of mystical prayer, is the normal way of perfection, the ordinary way to sanctity. Among the many proofs, I need only mention one that is exceptionally strong. It is this. Benedict XIV, in a classical statement of the signs of heroic virtue required by the Church before she will beatify a candidate for the honors of the altar, lists them as follows: first, the matter of the acts must be above the common strength of men; secondly, the acts must be performed with great promptitude and ease; thirdly, they must be accomplished with a certain supernatural joy, and finally this must be verified not once but on frequent occasions. These four conditions cannot be verified without the special motion of tile Holy Ghost which places a man in what we have called the mystical life. From this, it would clearly follow that if the Thomist theory of the Gifts is correct, the mystical life is not only in the normal way of perfection but is required by the Church for beatification.

Mystical prayer is a subdivision of the mystical life, and the mystical life is normal. Therefore mystical prayer is also normal.

     The question of mystical prayer is not so clear. Mystical prayer is a subdivision of the mystical life, and the mystical life is normal. Therefore mystical prayer is also normal. But a general vocation to the mystical life does not necessarily imply a general vocation to mystical prayer.

     In actual fact, the greatest saints are those who combine in themselves all the Gifts of the Holy Ghost in an unusual degree: they excel at the same time in action and contemplation.

     But does the perfection of transforming union become the matter of a general call offered to all Christians? From the teaching of the greatest doctors on this subject—for instance, St. Bonaventure, St. Bernard, St. Thomas, and above all St. John of the Cross, it might seem so. St. John of the Cross is so explicit on the point that there can be no room for doubt as to his opinion. He identifies perfect charity with the mystical marriage, as did St. Bernard and the Cistercian theologians of the twelfth century. He even asserts that it is only when one has reached transforming union that one is able to fulfil, completely and in all perfection, the will of God as it laid down for us in the first commandment, because it is only when we have passed through the Dark Night of total mystical purification from every creature attachment and every imperfection, that we are able really to love God with our “whole heart and our whole mind and our whole strength” in all the literal truth of those words.

     However, St. John of the Cross himself admits that this perfection is a pure gift which depends entirely on the good pleasure of God, and all theologians agree that no matter if mystical marriage be the normal term of the ascent to Christian perfection on earth, great numbers of souls will never in fact reach it, through no fault of their own. Therefore it becomes, in fact, a special vocation.

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BUT the most practical angle of the question of mystical prayer is on a much lower level. What Christians need to realize is not so much that the highest level of mystical union is abstractly open to all, but that the lowest level of mystical prayer is really much more common than people imagine. By this lowest level of mystical prayer, I refer to a prayer which, though infused, at least according to the Thomist sense of the word, is not perceived or realized. It is that latent or “masked” contemplation which would seem to be offered to those who are barred, by temperament or vocation or other circumstances, from ever becoming fully mature contemplatives, and there are many such. Perhaps the majority of Christians will never in fact enjoy the graces of manifest infused contemplation on earth. But it would seem likely that no one who arrives at the degree of perfection in what we have described as the mystical life, will be deprived of the comfort and strength of this masked or latent contemplation. This is the grace given to so many saintly souls in the active life who, though their prayer is apparently very humdrum and prosaic, nevertheless find God in an obscure and subtle way in all the activities they perform in His service. There is an unaccountable strength and peace, a certain interior “lift” which takes hold on souls who know how to find God in His will, and which carries them through difficulties and through problems in a way that bears witness to God's intimate presence with them and in them as they go about their duties for His love. They never realize, perhaps, how close He is to them. They know they are not pure contemplatives, and sometimes their relations with God in formal prayer are distressingly commonplace and dull, so that they are perhaps tempted to give up all hope of sanctity, falsely believing that to be saints they have to burn with a flame that they can really feel. And yet, God is with them in their work. They have a wonderful gift, which they themselves can barely appreciate, of finding Him in their daily tasks, in their common round, and in the people they deal with. It is something so diffuse and tenuous that they can never grasp it or explain it, and it does not help them much to try. If they rationalize the experience, they instantly lose hold on their tenuous possession of God and He slips out of their ken.

     These are the “masked” contemplatives. They are mystics, but they do not know it. And generally, even if you tell them so, they will not be inclined to believe you. They will always fear that you are joking, and that a term so exalted as that could not possibly apply to them.

     The truth is, they are the little ones who will perhaps turn out to be much higher, in heaven, than many who seemed great by more manifest graces of prayer.

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WHAT, then, is our conclusion? The mystical life is essentially the normal way of Christian perfection. The mystical life is one to which all Christians, in general, receive a remote call. On the other hand, manifest mystical prayer, infused contemplation in the strict sense of the word, may perhaps be listed, though normal, as a special vocation. It is not for all in the same sense as the mystical life is for all. However, the mystical life, by its very nature, includes at least a latent element of infused prayer, and the call to the mystical life implies a call at least to masked contemplation.

Thomas Merton is, as a member of the Trappist community at Gethsemani, Kentucky, Father Louis, 0.C.8.0. He is the author of The Seven Storey Mountain and The Waters of Siloe.

Thomas Merton was the author of "Man in the Divided Sea," and many other books. He was a member of the Trappist Community at Gethsemani, KY. He died December 10, 1968.

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