Modern Catholic Mysticism

A few related threads from different sources in the blogosphere caught my attention today. This essay that follows doesn’t have a clear conclusion, really. It’s more an unfinished line of thought. So if you readers have more to add, to refine, feel free.

At dotCommonweal, Robert Imbelli comments on “Franciscan Mysticism.”

In a reflection for America, I remarked upon an aspect of the Pope’s conversation with Father Spadaro to which I do not think sufficient attention has been paid.

[O]ne appreciates the pope’s striking evocation of the mystical dimension of Christian life. Like Benedict XVI, Francis insists that Christianity cannot be reduced to a moral code. It is preeminently about relationship with a person: the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, his contention that Ignatius of Loyola (who figures prominently in this conversation between two Jesuits) is not in the first instance an ascetic, but a mystic. And that the much-praised Ignatian practice of discernment is not a technique mechanically applied, but “an instrument of struggle in order to know the Lord and to follow him more closely.”

Over at PrayTell, Fritz Bauerschmidt commented on a post from the NLM’s Peter Kwasniewski. I’m less sympathetic than Deacon Fritz. I found Dr Kwasniewski’s essay to be spoiled by the required reform2 caricature and misdiagnosis. And I wasn’t at all on board with the lament about a lack of asceticism in the modern Roman Rite and the subsequent impoverishment of mysticism.

All saints agree that the mystical life is founded upon a healthy asceticism. Where is this asceticism present in the new liturgy? Are the Ember Days and Rogation Days celebrated? Is the pre-Lenten season observed? What of the daily Lenten fast and the multitude of days of abstinence? Why were the character of the Lenten collects and postcommunions so radically altered away from the constant theme of detachment from the world, salutary hatred of self, contrition for sins? The changes, which are many and significant, represent a practical repudiation of the fullness of ascetical spirituality, and thus a closing-off of the steep and narrow path of mystical initiation attained at the cost of intense spiritual warfare and discipline. The ancient liturgy is truly ancient: it breathes the spirit of the martyrs, the Fathers, the monks and hermits, the mystics. Where is that spirit today? Which Catholics are coming face to face with it, week after week, day after day?

There are reasons why Lent was reformed, most especially in light of viewing the season as the apex of evangelization, a preparation period for baptism, and the joining of the baptized community to the concerns of the elect.

My question is this: Did the liturgy really bear so much of this ascetic load? I have some initial familiarity with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and my assessment is that in these, and in other spiritual sources, that asceticism and mysticism is cultivated in many places, but mainly in individual prayer.

Perhaps the emphasis on interiority in the Traditional Latin Mass cultivated time for me-and-God. But the Church’s teaching on the liturgy seems to lean toward a somewhat wider interpretation: “The spiritual life, however, is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 12) But the council bishops did have a recognition of the importance of the Cross and the suffering of Christ: “We learn from (Saint Paul) that we must always bear about in our body  the dying of Jesus, so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodily frame. This is why we ask the Lord in the sacrifice of the Mass  that, “receiving the offering of the spiritual victim,” he may fashion us for  himself “as an eternal gift.” (SC 12)

The lack of mystical opportunities in the liturgy would seem to be more dependent on local handling of the celebration. Are prayers and Scriptures punctuated with silence? Do liturgical ministers prepare for duties with prayer–and not just hold-hands-and-Lord’s-Prayer three minutes before the opening procession?

Let’s dial back to Fr Imbelli. Christianity, he claims on behalf of the last two popes, “cannot be reduced to a moral code.” Or perhaps a liturgical form. Christianity, including its deep mysticism, is at heart, a relationship with Jesus Christ.

And on asceticism, I would never deny its connection with mysticism. Personally, I prefer the notion of sacrifice. When I pick up after my sick wife, or prepare dinner, or perform household tasks I’m inclined to grumble about, I don’t see it as asceticism. (But perhaps it is.) I see it in the sense of sacramental service. I’m sure that when my wife takes care of me, she sees it in a similar vein.

My sense is that modern Christians see asceticism as less an interior denial, and more as a demonstrable action for others. Dr Kwasniewski laments present-day impoverishment. I’m not so sure. 20th century saints provided great examples of an outward mode of sacrifice/asceticism: Mother Teresa caring for Kolkata’s dying, Jesuits and lay women martyred in Central America, Dorothy Day in New York. Consider also the popularity of memoirs of people like Thomas Merton who sacrificed the world and his worldliness for a monastery. And I see in my own generation and among current young people a willingness to serve in the mission apostolates in this country and abroad. Those opportunities were not as readily available outside of religious life in centuries past. And even outside Christianity, I note the emphasis on public service in many school situations: my daughter’s high school and the university across the street from where I work.

Before I would be quick to condemn today’s Catholic liturgy for being complicit in marginalizing mysticism, I’d consider how inspirational the Low Mass really was.

Ignatius of Loyola seems a good saint for the current century, challenging us to find God in all things. Liturgy, yes. But also individual contemplation, service, family life, work, play, and likely yes, even when the modern liturgy fails to meet our higher expectations.

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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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One Response to Modern Catholic Mysticism

  1. John McGrath says:

    St. Ignatius Loyola was hauled before the Spanish Inquisition. What was his crime? “Having a personal relationship with God.” He was saved by the intervention of a member of the Spanish Royal Family (the Inquisition reported to the King, not the Pope). Those running the Inquisition believed that only “objective parayer,” not “subjective prayer,” should be allowed. Objective Prayer? The public ceremonies and rituals conducted by the clergy, prescribed and standard prayers of personal devotion.

    St Ignatius came to his religious understanding and practice in the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages coercion of conscience was considered an obligation, but not in the Renaissance. Even Machiavelli emphasizes that the Prince, once absolute in authority, must work to win the consent of the people, using whatever means possible of course, including lying and fear. He recommends various “soft” ways to win that consent, advising against relying solely on coercion.

    St. Ignatius worked to win back Protestants and indifferents to consent to Catholicism through reason and the senses. On the reason side they developed the art of the sermon, Scriptural commentary, rigorous modern education, and tableaux (artistic renditions enacted by people of some of the Ignatian prayer scenarios). Their Rococo churches were designed around an idea: that grace is the counterpoint to gravity, that just as gravity draws the body down to the earth, grace draws the soul and spirit up to the heavens and to God. The concept of “grace drawing upwards” was illustrated by the use of the gyre, the circular upward movement of object caught in a whirlwind. In the churches saints and people were the objects being drawn upwards..You would be directly familiar with the gyre in those dramatic prairie storms that produce whirlwinds. small and large, drawing objects upward. The churches were deliberately designed to be lush, to arouse the senses but in a way that led to spiritual uplift.

    Mysticism is no more than the presence of God experienced in the mind and the soul and in at least some of the senses. Ignatian prayer puts us into the life of Jesus as if we are actually present and in sympathy with Him, experiencing what he experiences. But Ignatian prayer also puts us into the inner life of the Trinity. The Jesuits managed to make the abstract Trinity an object of popular devotion, especially in the Tyrol.

    Another non-medieval form of Mysticism is the Benedictine (the order having been founded by Romans during the waning of the Roman Empire). That is an austere and quiet mysticism, in which the presence of God is infused into regular ritual (including the Mass, the Office, meals), intellectual and aesthetic labor, and physical labor.

    I personally always have liked the medieval St. Mechtilde of Magdebourg. Our fifth grade teacher regularly read passages to us about the visions of St. Mechtilde. We also had to put our heads down and practice mild, shortened forms of Ignatian prayer. We were able to stay at rest, I think, because we also did 5-10 minutes of energetic exercises throughout the school day. The nun believed that boys needed to be exercised regularly and that having boys sit quietly through a school day was against nature. She was getting a graduate degree from an Ivy League university in Western Mysticism.

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