Why Not Mysticism?


I know this piece went up before I left, but I noted the 100-plus comment thread yesterday. I got to about number 25 and thought, “same old, same old,” yawned, and moved on. Wouldn’t serendipity bring me to begin the first letter of Peter toward the end of my retreat, and then dang! That 1 Peter 2:11-17 pops up this morning, talking about relations within and outside of the community of love.

While the internet age might render even one hundred twentysome comments irrelevant by the end of the week, the issues of the Church are still with us. It’s only logical: the internet never seems to solve any problems, just stoke the fires of the opposing camps. But I’m still curious about what these conservative Catholics are doing, and is the Commonweal pushback fruitful?

As you might guess, I’m going to triangulate off the political spectrum–because this is a one-hundred-percent political issue as it’s being framed today; make no mistake. My chief criticism of the Catholic Right is that they are in large part embracing a hermeneutic of subtraction. Michael Voris concedes my point when he ascribes to the surgical approach to the Church’s problems.

In turn I’ll concede it’s a pretty rational approach, though. I have, say, an alcohol addiction. I’ll just cut out the booze. Or better yet, I’ll cut out the people who “force” me to drink: my nagging spouse, my brat kids, my crazy boss. And then when the day is done, I’ll settle in with my only true friend who understands me. The bottle. Jesus nailed it:

“When an unclean spirit goes out of a person it roams through arid regions searching for rest but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my home from which I came.’ But upon returning, it finds it empty, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and brings back with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they move in and dwell there; and the last condition of that person is worse than the first.”

The perception is clear, and I think many are misled into thinking that all they have to do is rid themselves of the “unclean spirit” of poor catechesis, bumbling liturgical implementation, polyester dancing nun puppets, and voilà: you get a freshly minted orthodox Catholic, ready for battle, and toked up on all the right blogs.

I suspect more of what’s really amiss is the substitution of an active intellect for the real poverty of the Catholic Church: a deeper union with God. That union is offered. Offered to all believers. It’s not something you can find in books or the catechism or the blog of the month. It’s not something you can find in the new media. More likely, you will have to turn off the phone, the computer, and the tv to get closer.

When I got back into town yesterday, I ran across this quote from the last Pope Benedict, in the last century:

We must earnestly draw the attention of souls to the conditions required for the progress of the grace of the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit–the perfect development of which is found in the mystical life.

Thomas Merton and many others of the century since have quietly, insistently reminded us that a more mystical union with God is rightly the path of any believer. It requires no intellect. It requires no ideology. It is open to anyone who seeks: lay or clergy, man or woman, adult or child, left or right, secure or alienated, blogger or not.

My own impatience with the expression of the hermeneutic of subtraction is that the choice offered is so impoverished. An enormous block of marble is attacked, but instead of pruning to give us a sculpted scene, or even a larger-than-life statue, we are given a fingernail clipping: something acceptable to all the carvers. If that.

Not to deny the heartfelt aspirations of many neoreformers: there is much with which to be dissatisfied these days, both within the Church and without. Unless we are eager to be overrun with demons in multiples, my suggestion is to take a deep breath (literally!) and steer a truer course toward God.

One of the questions that turned up on my retreat was whom to trust. This writer, that writer, this commentary, that commentary, this way, that way: where do you go in all the catholicity presented to us? A simple answer came (another serendipity) as I was finishing up my lectio with 1 John 5:9a:

If we accept human testimony, the testimony of God is surely greater …

There’s a context as to why this is so, but I want to wrap this up.

So the questions I have of these Catholic convulsions on all sides: with what are you replacing all of these things you concede are demons? And especially if you are espousing radical notions, where is your own radix (root) in all this? Great Church reformers like Hildegard and Catherine of Siena were lay mystics. Their criticism of popes, emperors, “effeminate clergy,” and others in authority was based not on political action of the Karl Rove/Deal Hudson flavor. They were rooted in God, not rotted in people. Where is the excuse for us not to attend to God’s testimony and journey on the mystical way? And for the rest of us, why would we think of paying attention to a non-mystic above a mystic, or above even that small, stirring, nearly hidden voice of God?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Hermeneutic of Subtraction, Politics, spirituality, The Blogosphere. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why Not Mysticism?

  1. Aside from the occasional tweet or Facebook post, I have largely dropped out of the blogosphere, both as participant and observer. Some of this has to do with my mind being occupied by the normal hubbub of daily life (child, job, money, parish commitments).

    But I also notice that when I do check in with my RSS feeds, I don’t linger too long over them. And I never read comboxes. The reason for this is the same as the reason I don’t watch cable news anymore: it all gives me a headache.

    I still don’t like the music that comes from the liturgical-industrial complex; I still support the Holy Father; I still prefer liturgy of a more traditional style faithful to rubrics; I’m still staunchly pro-life. But I’m afraid that for me, the blogosphere is, with few execptions, nothing but noise.

    I was on retreat a couple of weeks ago myself, at the Abbey of the Genesee. I spent some time with Abbot Emeritus John Eudes Bamberger. He is in many ways traditional and orthodox, but that may be almost beside the point, because he shared with me and other retreatants a depth of spiritual life that can come only from silence. In the five days I was there, I progressed spiritually and psychologically more than I had in the previous several years. As Elijah learned, and as Fr. John Eudes reiterates, God is accessible only in silence.

    And our purpose is to seek God and live the Gospel. But unless I make that the focus through prayer, I run the risk of making false gods out of political and theological positions, Palestrina, cappa magnas and catafalques. None of these are bad per se, but they can be easily fetishized.

    • Todd says:

      Yes, Abbot John Eudes is outstanding. I remember him well from the occasional presentation. Genesee is also where my first retreat experience was as a college student. Left and right and silly things get stripped away when you dive into the experience of God more fully.

      Good for you, my friend.

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