Masked Mysticism: Everyday Suffering, Everyday Sanctity

By Ryan, Jerry | Commonweal, December 17, 2010 | Go to article overview

Masked Mysticism: Everyday Suffering, Everyday Sanctity


Ryan, Jerry, Commonweal


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 Avila (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. Therese 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 Therese made it explicit.

Less than twenty years after her death, Jacques (1882-1973) and Raissa 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. …

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