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.
Early last year, the Ministry of Culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran awarded its World Prize for the Book of the Year to The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an—originally published in French as Le Festin: Une lecture de la sorate al-Mâ’ida. The book’s author was invited to Tehran to receive the award from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and was subsequently asked to present his findings to academic gatherings in Tehran and at Iran’s principal Shiite university at Qum.
The years just before and after World War II saw breakthroughs in theology that had major impact on Vatican II. For centuries the church had been waging a defensive battle against the abuses of the Enlightenment, the challenges of the Reform, and the rise of the secular nation-state. Theology had been reduced to defending the status quo or nurturing a form of popular piety that would set Catholicism apart from rival versions of Christianity. The “new theology,” which developed above all in France, upset the calm and stagnant waters of scholasticism.
Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe salvi, published a year ago, is magnificent as a theological lesson on the virtue of hope, drawing on Scripture and the church fathers to challenge the misplaced hopes of the modern world.
Some time back, I got an e-mail from an old friend with whom I had lost contact many years before. He was an ex-seminarian from Argentina who had been imprisoned and tortured during the “dirty war” of the military dictatorship. That he had gotten out alive bordered on the miraculous.