The Call to Mysticism – Part 1, What is Mysticism?

June 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Anyone who loves God in the depths of his heart has already been loved by God. In fact, the measure of a man’s love for God depends upon how deeply aware he is of God’s love for him. When this awareness is keen it makes whoever possesses it long to be enlightened by the divine light, and this longing is so intense that it seems to penetrate his very bones. He loses all consciousness of himself and is entirely transformed by the love of God.

Such a man lives in this life and at the same time does not live in it, for although he still inhabits a body, he is constantly leaving it in spirit because of the love that draws him toward God. Once the love of God has released him from self-love, the flame of divine love never ceases to burn in his heart and he remains united to God by an irresistible longing. As the Apostle says: If we are taken out of ourselves it is for the love of God; if we are brought back to our senses it is for your sake. (Diadochus of Photice, bishop)

Such is the life of the mystic. Mysticism is a confusing topic, especially these days when certain forms of Eastern mysticism are so trendy. In his book Truth and Tolerance, Pope Benedict XVI calls each of us to be a mystic to some extent in our lives through prayer and contemplation. What does this mean for the faithful? Since mysticism is something given by God – a grace – to imagine that one could “practice” it would be a misunderstanding of the meaning of Christian mysticism. In this series of posts I will try to flesh out what I think the Holy Father means by this “call to mysticism”.

But first, what is mysticism? You can read the Holy Father’s points yourself here at Google Books. In a nutshell, the key difference between Eastern and Western mysticism is that Eastern mystics desire an annihilation of the individual by the personal accomplishment of union with the divine; on the other hand, Western and Christian mystics desire not an annihilation of the individual, but for God to reveal Himself intimately in the through revelation. Note that God is the one performing the action – a gift of grace – and it is not based on merit of the individual.

The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it this way:

The Catholic Church, as guardian of Christian doctrine, through her teaching and theologians, gave the solution of the problem. She asserted the limits of human reason: the human soul has a natural potentia obedientialis), but no exigency and no positive ability to reach God otherwise than by analogical knowledge. She condemned the immediate vision of the Beghards and Beguines, the pseudo-Mysticism of Eckhart, and Molinos, the theories of the Ontologists, and Pantheism under all its forms, as well as the vital Immanence and religious experience of the Modernists. But she teaches that, what man knows by natural reason, he can know through revelation; that what he cannot attain to by his natural power he can reach by the grace of God. God has gratuitously elevated human nature to a supernatural state. He has assigned as its ultimate end the direct vision of Himself, the Beatific Vision. But this end can be reached only in the next life; in the present life we can but prepare ourselves for it with the aid of revelation and grace. To some souls, however, even in the present life, God gives a very special grace by which they are enabled to feel His sensible presence; this is true mystical contemplation. In this act, there is no annihilation or absorption of the creature into God, but God becomes intimately present to the created mind and this, enlightened by special illuminations, contemplates with ineffable joy the Divine essence.

(Read the rest of the article on mysticism here.)

That general overview of Western mysticism is all for now. Stay tuned for parts II-V in the future!

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