“The Christians of the future will be either mystics …”

I’m off to another wedding in Wisconsin. But, before I leave, I would like to direct your attention to an article by Professor Lawrence Cunningham in the current Notre Dame Magazine. Here are a few excerpts:


… The Greek verb muein means to close the eyes, and, by extension, to see what is hidden. It is the root of the word musterion, which we translate as “mystery but not mystery” — a deep puzzle that is not fully disclosed. Saint Paul uses this terminology in his letters. He most likely thought the revelation of Christ was the true musterion, as opposed to the then-popular mystery religions that also promised secret knowledge to its initiates. For Paul, mystery is the uncovering of what has hitherto been concealed.

The adjective mystikos (or, roughly, “mystical”), coming from the same root muein, was used by the early Christian writers in reference to sacred scripture. It referred to both a plain sense of scripture and, for the believer, a hidden sense. All of the Old Testament has the hidden sense of pointing to Jesus Christ, even though the plain sense had to do with the sacred story of the Jews. Similarly, the Holy Eucharist is plainly bread and wine. Through the eyes of the believer, it has the hidden meaning of the real presence of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine. Thus, we speak of the Eucharistic Liturgy as the celebration of Sacred Mysteries. Likewise, it was common to speak of baptism as a “mystical regeneration” in the name of the Trinity; it only seemed to be a ritual bathing but was, in fact, regeneration into the new person. Finally, the adjective described the Church: It is a visible reality, but it is also for the eyes of the believers a hidden reality — hence we speak of the Mystical Body of Christ.

In other words, that which is mystical is that which is no longer concealed; its revelation comes from discovery and seeing through the eyes of faith.

Around 500 A.D. the Christian tradition received a newer meaning attached to the adjective “mystical.” A monk claiming to be the Dionysius who was converted by Saint Paul in Athens (see Acts 17:34), wrote a series of books. Among them were The Divine Names of God and Mystical Theology. The former book was an attempt to account for all of the names by which we call on God. In the latter book (scarcely 10 pages long in English translation) he argues that the reality of God is beyond naming. Speech about God (theology) is hidden in the vast mystery of the divine reality; God is mystikos — hidden.

We can, the books tell us, say many things about God while at the same time God is nameless because divine reality is more than we can grasp. In attempting to speak about how speechless we are when confronting the reality of God, we are indulging in mystical (hidden) discourse to and about God (theology).

When a person has a deep experience of the reality of God in prayer that is beyond words, one touches upon the reality of the mystery of God. One forgets the self praying and is enveloped in the presence of God. That self-forgetting awareness of the presence of God is what we would today call a mystical experience. Those who have such an experience cannot fully describe it; they are compelled to use the language of analogy or poetry or paradox: God is todo y nada — Everything and Nothing.

A couple of generations ago, the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote an influential essay on the future of Christian faith. The essay began with a rather startling opening gambit: The Christians of the future will be either mystics or they will not be Christians at all. Rahner was convinced that the traditional culture of Catholicism, of the kind that he knew as a young person growing up, was eroding rapidly under the pressure of increased urbanization, the aftermath of the world wars, the shift from rural and village life to that of the metropolis, and other factors which encouraged the secularization of life. People might well not remain faithful to their Catholic faith simply because they were born into it. As a consequence, if people did not have a deep experience of God they would not commit themselves to a sustained life of Christianity. The sheer pressures of culture would act as a powerful reactive force against “folk” or “cultural” Catholicism.

By being a mystic, what Rahner had in mind was nothing more than this: People would remain actively Christian if they had been shaped by a profound encounter with God. That experience (or those experiences) would anchor a person in faith and allow that faith to spill over into an active Christian life.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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