CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM: ITS NATURE AND OPERATIONS.

 

In inviting a Cistercian  monk to participate in this exchange between Catholic Christians and  adherents of the Sufi tradition of Muslim faith, we here in Rochester, are continuing a practice that began in Algeria in 1980. That was a time of distressing turmoil, terror and violence due to divisions among two main groups of Muslims. One of these factions threatened the Catholic Church in that country with extreme violence and sought at the sametime to destabilize the government party. Such  was the situation when the Sufi Brotherhood of Medea, the major city near our monastery of Tibhirine, joined the association composed chiefly of French Catholic priests and religious named the Ribat es Salam (Bond of Peace) whose meeting place was the Cistercian Monastery of Atlas. The aim of this small group was to seek ways to establish  more friendly relations between Muslims and the Catholics in a tension filled society. Joining this association was a bold and courageous move on the part of the Sufis. As the sequel was to reveal, the circle of violence continued and worsened. Some Catholic members of this group, including Dom Christian de Chergé, a good friend of mine, were assassinated, by Muslim extremists as were six other monks of the community there.

The monks= friendly outreach to their Muslim  neighbors was considered to be proselytism by the assassins. The majority of Muslims, however, were revolted by this massacre of peaceable, friendly men, one of whom, Brother Luc, a physician,B whom I knew as a personal friend when in the course of my duties I visited the monastery B operated a free medical clinic for men and women at the monastery. He was considered by the numerous Muslims who benefitted from his expert care a holy hermit, a marabout. When collecting Dom Christian=s private books and papers in his cell after his death, it was found that he was reading a work on Sufism at the time of his abduction. So what we are attempting here today follows upon an initiative that was interrupted by a violence that has spread and which now affects our own country,  continues into our own days and occasions this exchange.

 

I might add one further preliminary observation. One reason that it is the Sufi Brotherhood that participates in such a discussion as ours and joined in those held at Atlas Monastery in Algeria, is that there are point of similarity in Sufi mysticism with Christian spirituality, especially touching on the doctrine that man, the human person, is made in the image of God. In fact, an English scholar, Cyprian Rice, in the 1930s, showed that following upon the Muslim conquest of the lands of Syriac Christianity in the seventh century, the teachings of the Catholic monk, Evagrius Ponticus, which had been translated into Syriac from the Greek, influenced the character of Sufi spiritual teaching.

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The theme we take up this evening, Christian mysticism, has shown itself, over the centuries, to belong to a class of realities and concepts that evade precise definition. There is an intrinsic reason for this feature of our subject: it treats of experience of the transcendent world, and the transcendent, by definition, is not subject to the categories assigned to things by observation, measurement or logic. Karl Rahner discusses this feature of certain words precisely in connection with his examination of mysticism in the teaching of one of the outstanding Catholic Christian mystics, Saint Ignatius Loyola. He puts the case in the following terms.

 

There are some words in which the knowledge, the hope and the love, the ideals of whole generations and centuries are gathered, words which attempt to say at once all that moves mankind, and which, because they attempt to say everything, are in danger of signifying everything and therefore nothing. Such words were, for example, in the history of Western  man: Logos, Illumination, Spirit, Nation (Volk) and others. And among them also belongs the word >mysticism=. >Theological Investigations= 3.(278) Ignatian Mysticism of Joy in the World

           

Others have attempted to provide as clear an idea of mystical experience as they could manage as they sought to bring out the nature and aims of Christian mysticism. Nobody has put the matter more concisely than Saint Thomas Aquinas, himself endowed with  mystical gifts He explains: Athe Holy Spirit inhabits the mind by his substance.@  Consequently, what is believed by Christian faith is consciously realized in mystic experience. This takes place in the apex mentis,the highest point of the soul,  beyond words and images. 

 

Rahner prefers to consider our topic without attempting too precise a definition in order to allow for a fuller scope to his reflections.

 

We do after all possess a vague empirical concept of Christian  mysticism : the religious experiences of the Saints, all that they experienced of closeness to God, of higher impulses, of visions, inspirations, of the consciousness of being under the special and personal guidance of the Holy Spirit, of ecstasies, etc., all this is comprised in our understanding of the word mysticism, without our having to stop and ask what exactly it is that is of ultimate importance in all this, and in what more precisely this proper element consists.@ (279, 280)

 

This difficulty in defining with precision just what it is we are reflecting on when we meditate on mysticism has more causes than one. The several reasons become evident the more closely we consider our theme. We cannot touch on the nature of mysticism without coming upon our concept of the human person and the experience of self. As curious as it may appear to common sense, it has not proved possible to arrive at a concept of the human person that satisfies all. If you wonder at this and wish to verify this statement, ask any ten people you encounter randomly a question taken from the Psalms: AQuid est homo?, What is man?@ And follow up this question by another: AWhat specifically constitutes the human as such?@ This issue has taken on fresh significance in recent decades due to the extraordinary advances in the sciences concerned with the structure and functioning of the human body, the brain and the senses in particular. At present not only molecular biology and neurology but also electrical engineering is being employed to explain the workings of the brain, its relation to thought and perception and the very nature of consciousness. Marvin Minsky, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, to name but one such researcher, in a book published in 2006, AThe Emotion Machine@, has one chapter on The Self and another on Consciousness. Obviously the interpretations given to the data uncovered by investigations in these sciences are serving the philosophical prejudices of those who employ them. In a majority of instances, this philosophy is materialist and has no place for mysticism or spirituality or even religion. These views are dominating the concept of man as taught in many of the Universities today under the guise of science. This development makes it all the more necessary to form and communicate a concept of the self and the person that does justice to the whole of the human individual, body, psyche and spirit, and of the self. Among the best scientists today there are divergent views set out on the significance of the empirical findings. Gerald Edelman, a Nobel Laureate and expert on brain science, is convinced that scientific exploration is incommensurate with the requirements of explaining consciousness. Such divergent views, however well founded, are conveniently passed over by the vocal majority of scientists. So much for scientific objectivity! In our times there is accordingly a particular urgency concerning the concept of what the self and the person truly are. Christian mysticism has always been based, from earliest times, on an anthropology that defined the self and the nature of the human person in terms of a relation to God. This definition of the human as an image of God has been explicit and consistently disseminated through the centuries. The Catholic basis of mysticism is, in short, the doctrine that the human person can be understood only in a relation that is transcendent; man and woman cannot be understood apart from God. And God is triune, one in being and nature three in persons.  Transcendent, complete in Himself, God has no need of creatures; at the same time He is love, and it is through love He spoke the Word, and through the Word created all that is. In creating man and woman in love he made us according to his own image and likeness.

 

Rightly to conceive of the nature of the human person becomes even more urgent when examining the matter in dialogue with Muslims. For the major difference between our faiths theologically arises from the way Muslims interpret the two fundamental doctrines of Christian belief, namely, the Trinity, and the doctrine that Jesus Christ is man and God. That there is but one who is God is the central article of faith for Muslims as well as for orthodox Jews  But that he is at the same time three in person is rejected by both Jews and Muslims. It is impossible in a dialogue between Muslims and Catholics dealing with mysticism, to ignore this radical difference. Obviously, such belief is not without profound  influence on religious experience and mystical experience in particular.

 

Here we can only point out in passing one of the major reasons for this difference of faith that has such fateful consequences in the course of history and which continue today with renewed violence that is justified, in part, by the belief that in attacking Christians the Muslim is serving the cause of the one God, Allah, against Polytheists. The fundamental issue here is the different concept of Person. That is hardly surprising. For the great minds of antiquity, and in particular, the classical Greek philosophers, never evolved a philosophy of the person as such. The term prosopon in fact meant face, countenance, a mask in classical times. Later it came to refer to the individual=s bodily presence or existence. Only in the course of the debates among early Christians was the concept of the person as a substantial relation within the same, single nature finally elaborated. This meaning as applied to the Trinity is precisely conceived and easily confused. For it only adumbrates, expresses in halting, shadowy language the unique reality of the infinitely mysterious inner life of the One Living and True God. Used with reference to the Blessed Trinity, it applies to the human person only analogously. Fundamental to the modern concept of the human person is individual, subjective consciousness, free will and distinctive mind; personal relations are spontaneously considered reciprocal exchanges of distinct minds, wills and consciousness. In the Trinity, however, none of these attributes is applicable, for in God there is but one nature, one consciousness, one will, one mind, participated in reciprocally by three distinct and substantial living relations. Karl Rahner points out that the term Aperson@ as understood in modern times is quite different from the meaning assigned to it in reference to the Trinitarian doctrine of the Church. For this reason its use relative to the Trinity is increasingly problematic as the idea of person emphasizes radical autonomy and independence. He suggests that it Awould be more appropriate to speak of three... modes of subsistence in the one God in his sole one nature (AOneness and Threefoldness of God@, Theol. Invest. 18, 113)  Such a concept is intellectually abstract necessarily for it applies to nothing in the created world, and bears only a remote analogy to what we can know by human perception; person is a transcendent concept that refers to an incomprehensible mystery. Who and what it refers to must ever remain ineffable, beyond the capacity of language to bring to expression. Person in connection with the Trinity, then, is more of a code word, having a unique application in so far as it applies to the inner life of God. That God is so constituted is not the conclusion of human reasoning but a datum of revelation by God; nor can human language adequately express but only intimate the nature of God. And so not only Muslims but even many Christians, in practice and unconsciously, conceive of the Trinity as if, in fact, comprising three distinct divinities, rather than the one Divine nature subsisting in three substantial relations..

 

That our concept of person is central in mysticism will be evident to anyone who considers in detail the teachings of Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist mystics. There is no time here, of course, to demonstrate this assertion in detail. Let us consider a statement of one of the representative Catholic theologians of the Middle Ages, Richard of Saint Victor, living in 12th century France. In his work, De Trinitate, ( 3.xiv) he defines  person as a Astanding in relationship@; love constitutes the person:=esse ad alios= (>being for others=). He concludes from this concept that God is love, not a single person, monolithic, but shares by nature. Clearly this aspect of God is the enabling reality that makes Him accessible to us in faith and in prayer which is the activation of faith. It is, accordingly, the basis of all true mysticism.

 

Later on, as the concept of person was further refined, there evolved an interest in the uniqueness of the person as applied to human subjects. Concern with understanding the self in greater detail was one of the consequences. The necessity to distinguish the true from the false self became, and remains, an issue. >The true self is brought into being by love= (Denis de Rougement, The Myths of Love.=). It is the experience of Trinitarian love that imparts to the mystic the concept of person, which is a mirror of the Divine persons. True self-knowledge is the fruit of the experience of personal, Divine love.

      

Karl Rahner comments on this feature of our human condition. He rightly emphasizes that Awhen we have said everything about ourselves that can be described and defined, we have still said nothing about ourselves, unless we have included or implied the fact that we are beings who are referred to the incomprehensible God.@ He goes on to explain why intelligence and knowledge alone cannot arrive at this true understanding of man. ABut this reference, which is our nature, can only be conceived and understood when we allow ourselves freely to be grasped by the incomprehensible, ratifying the act which, while remaining inexpressible,  is the condition of possibility of all intelligent expression.@

Only God himself reveals man to himself and He does so only to those who surrender to Him in faith. There is a transcendental dimension in our very nature; we are essentially transcendent beings who cannot be adequately described and defined by any material or behavioral observation. The mystery to which we are referred by our very nature is not a limitation of our knowledge, not due to our ignorance; it is not provisional but rather is Athe propriety which always and necessarily characterizes GodB and through Him, usB so much so that the immediate vision of God which is promised to us as our fulfillment, is the immediacy of the incomprehensible.@ (T. I. 4, 108)

 

Jesus, at the Last Supper, concluded his lengthy discourse, according to Saint John, with a prayer addressed to his heavenly Father in which he reveals the essence of Christian mysticism, without, however, using the word. AThis is eternal life, that they might know you, the true God , and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.@ (17.3) Truly to live is to attain to knowledge of God by experience. For the word know as our Lord uses it, carries the experiential resonance it bears in Biblical language when a person is the one known. This personal knowledge of God is itself life-giving; it is the only true, full life; in fact, as the Lord says, it is eternal life.

 

Mysticism, as Christianity presents it, is the perception of a hidden life with God, made possible by the presence of the Holy Spirit of God within the believer by grace operating through faith in Christ, the Son of God, who is One with the Father. The mystical experience anticipates, imperfectly but really, the definitive vision of God face to face, possible in its fullness only after death. This knowledge of God is inseparable from the person of Jesus Christ who is the Son of God, one with him in nature, while relating to him as a substantial person. The Christian=s knowledge of God is modeled on the relation of the Son to the Father: to know the living God is possible only to the one who is united with him in his Holy Spirit. This union is a pure gift of God=s favor, a grace bestowed freely. This action of the divine Spirit with us, alters our very being, rendering us like God in the depths of our self. Of course, there always remains the distinction of natures: the human person is transformed so as to be similar to God without, however, breaching the gap that ever separates the One God from his creatures.

 

This process of transformation rendering the human person capable of life in the light of God=s glory, is the very purpose of the Incarnation of the Word of God in the man Jesus Christ. This belief was stated already in the second century by Saint Irenaeus of Lyons: AGod became man that man might become god.@ It was the rallying cry of Catholic believers at the time of Arian persecution and was take up by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, word for word.

When we speak of Christian mysticism, then, we treat of more than prayer and contemplation; we deal with life itself, lived in its fullness of appreciation by the experience that God is, he dwells within making the believer into a likeness of his own Son and thus rendering him capable of eternal life. AThis is eternal life, that they might know you, the true God , and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.@

 

Christian mysticism , then, is but the conscious realization of the life of he Spirit of God within the person who believes with living faith in the person of the Son of God made man. This realization may take place in the form of pure prayer in certain gifted individuals, accompanied by extraordinary phenomena. As Saint John of the Cross points out, these extraordinary communications from God are but means, and not essential to union; in fact he recommends they be given little importance. The essential feature of Christian mysticism is the experience, conscious or not, of intimate contact with the very substance of God. 

Abbot Cuthbert Butler, osb, after a thorough study of our topic, has given a brief description of Christian mysticism: which he describes as Athe divine embracing, the union of the soul with the divine Substance.... This knowledge consists in a certain contact of the soul with the Divinity, and it is God Himself who is then felt and tasted,, though not manifestly and distinctly, as it will be in glory.... We believe that this touch is most substantial and that the Substance of God touches the substance of the soul.@ (What Mysticism Is@ in AA Sheed & Ward Anthology@ 229; he has in mind here St. John of the Cross, cf p. 12 and 216-24 of Western Mysticism). Dom Augustine Baker: states his view even more concisely:  AIt is a real experimental perception of God=s divine presence in the depth and center of the spirit.@ (Sheed, 230) But it is Karl  Rahner who makes the most useful point when he discusses in elaborate detail the various forms that this experience of God assumes in the concrete experience of faithful, dedicated Christians. His entire discussion deserves attentive reflection. Their drift is summed up in a few sentences. The experience of the Spirit which is the essence of Christian mysticism, Aoccurs always and everywhere in the life of someone who has awakened to personal self-possession and to the act of freedom in which he disposes of himself as a whole. But in most cases this does not come about expressly in meditation, in experiences of absorption, etc., but on the material of normal life: that is, when responsibility, fidelity, love etc., are realized absolutely@ (Theological Investigations 18, A Experience of the Holy Spirit@, 207). He adds that this experience can be implicit, not thought of consciously as religious, though religious meditation and prayer prepare one for it. He carries further the conclusion he draws from this subtle analysis of human consciousness when he notes that AHe whom we call God dwells in this nameless and pathless expanse of our consciousness... He is the encompassing, never encompassed ground and precondition of our experience and its objects. ...transcendental experience is always also experience of God in the midst of ordinary life.@

 

This mysticism of ordinary life is not elitist, but rather, is faithful to the teaching and example of our Lord who invited all to faith in him and through him to arrive at knowledge of the Father. Just as he prayed for all on the night before he died for all: AFather, that all may be one@, having first defined for us the nature of our final goal in that same prayer:AFather,@ ... this is eternal life to know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.@ (John 17.3) The process of attaining to this knowledge is the sum of Catholic mysticism and the union with God resulting from participating in this process is its aim and end. Ω  

 

 

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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