Article brought to you by: Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
By Norbert Isles
February 3rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
"Seeing the mystic immobile, crucified or rapt in prayer, some may perhaps think that his activity is in abeyance or has left this earth: they are mistaken. Nothing in the world is more intensely alive and active than purity and prayer, which hang like an unmoving light between the universe and God. Through their serene transparency flow the waves of creative power, charged with natural virtue and grace." (from Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe)
As written in Wikepedia, "The Migration period, also called the Barbarian Invasions or Völkerwanderung (German: wandering of the peoples), was a period of human migration that occurred roughly between the years 300 to 700 CE in Europe, marking the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages". Historians attribute the salvation of Europe from these plundering barbaric races and the subsequent rebuilt of western civilization through the influence and activity of monastic communities.
Historian Mc Neill, William H., in A World History wrote that "In a violent and barbarous age, communities of monks, devoted to the service of God, were small islands of calm in a stormy world. Especially in the Latin West, monasteries became the main institution that preserved a minimum of intellectual culture during what are often called the Dark Ages".
What about monasticism that precisely brought this about? The way of life of the monks resulted in the gradual, yet massive transformation of European society economically, culturally and religiously after the fall of the Roman Empire. It is general knowledge, as Woods Jr, Thomas E, Ph. D. wrote in How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization , that "the monks preserved the literary inheritance of the ancient world, not to mention literacy itself, in the aftermath of the fall of Rome".
But the impetus of this movement was attributed not primarily to the outward ministry but rather to the essential vocation of the monks in the monastic community. And this vocation is the singular dedication to a life of union with God. It accounted for the overflow of effective power in their labor that produced the kind of results that both arrest the decay and effect the restoration of western civilization. O'Connor, John B., O.P. , in Monasticism and Civilization wrote:
"Consequently, we must not judge the civilizing influence of the monks, the tremendous thing they did for society and humanity, as though they were the works of professional humanitarian whose lives were dedicated to these achievement in the execution of which they were but following a profession in which they had been carefully trained.
Had the monks contributed nothing to the reconstruction of society, to the advancement of civilization, to the material betterment of the world, they could not justly have been deemed deserving of censure. Such was not their vocation nor their sphere of life. For this reason it adds immediately to the credit and fame of their glorious accomplishments that they assumed these tasks gratuitously, purely from a supernaturalized love of their fellow-men."
The Heart of Mysticism
That this is God' vision and strategy for the world is very much rooted in the way God has acted through the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Fr. John Fuellenbach, SVD , who spent most of his life as theologian reflecting on the vision of Christ stated in The Reign of God: the mission of the Church that there are two basic things the Lord is on fire or passionate about: revealing God as Father and proclaiming the reign of God.
This obsession for the Father's business may be seen early in the life of the Lord as recounted in the infancy narrative. When he was lost and subsequently found by his parents and questioned about his whereabouts he responded by saying: "Didn't you know that I am about my Father's business". And all throughout his life he demonstrated that his business is to be with the Father, to listen to him and to simply do the will of the Father.
In the life of the Lord we see that intimacy with the Father is bound up with passion for his reign; they are inseparable, yet the manner of his reign always proceeds from his intimacy with the Father. It is not an agenda that he pursued independent of the Father's love. The essence of the Christian life is seen in the example of the Lord's relationship with the Father and the Father's mission for him. "I do nothing on my own; I only do what I see the Father doing."
This example of the Lord is most closely and clearly manifested in the monastic vocation and in the individual lives of the mystics. This can best be described as passion or obsession for God. The saint, man or woman of God, the mystic, what they all have in common is oneness with God and obedience to His will in everything.
How Mysticism Benefits the World
Mysticism has two practical consequences for the world. Life of union with God preserves the world from corruption and destruction. This is illustrated in the Old Testament story of Abraham and Lot, wherein Abraham bargained with God to preserve Sodom (& Gomorrah) if only he will find a certain number of holy people (Genesis 18:23-33). This need not be a great number. There seem to be a mathematical relationship wherein for the sake of the few, a multitude is saved.
In the New Testament, the Lord illustrated this in the parable of the salt; salt being the primary substance that prevents corruption. This mathematical aspect has been demonstrated in the history of the church, particularly monasticism's role in arresting further degradation of western civilization.
The New Testament speaks of the kingdom of God as a lamp that lightens the house or like a city on top of a hill (Matthew 5:13-14). This imagery is so eloquently realized in the building up of Monte Casino which attracted visits even of Barbarians. And after the predation of Europe by the Barbarians, it is in the monasteries that the seed of the new civilization that would rise were reproduced, stored and later rediscovered. Indeed monasticism has become the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
The problem of the cleavage of the active and contemplative life became a development in the history of the church and in the modern world the active life became predominant. There was a decline in the monastic institutes over the years and in the history of the world this is accompanied by parallel rise of modern heresies and global conflict. The active institutes were not able to cope up with the challenge of secularization and rationalism that resulted in godlessness among the nations.
However, in the first half of the 20th century God raised up a monk who brought the monastic charism to the attention of the world and re-awakened interest in the monastic life. That person among others is Thomas Merton. He confronted the problem of cleavage between the contemplative life and the active life and pointed out their essential unity, coining the word contemplation in action. Through him the mystical life became accessible through writings that for the most part directed at monks, but where nevertheless, become increasingly applicable and directed to wider readership as well.
Mysticism for Everyone
We should begin to see the mystical spirit not as a special charism but rather as the essence of the Christian life. There is a need for a creative formulation of the mystical way of life so that it becomes more accessible to the ordinary Christian. The voluminous record and concentration on the high end of mysticism has given the exclusivity of the mystical graces to the domain of elite saints and mystics. This is primarily because mystical literature focused on the extra-ordinary and unique fruits of the mystical experience.
But ordinary Christians not schooled in the deep insights of the mystics can also experience the mystical life. This is illustrated by the story of Cure de Ars. When asked about what he was doing, why he had been regularly spending long hours sitting at the back of the church before the Blessed Sacrament he replied simply: "Nothing. I just look at Him and He looks at me."
Ruth Burrows, in her Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, identified two kinds of mystical experience as "lights on" and "lights off" experience. Most of the mystical literature we have refer to the "lights on" experience, but not much is written about the "lights off" experience. It is this "lights off" dimension which offers a door for theological and pastoral reflection and can eventually open the door for the wisdom needed for mystical growth to the whole church. This spirituality of extraordinariness in ordinariness is beautifully described by Dwight Longenecker, in the June 2002 Touchstone Magazine article of the same title, as "Everyday Grace".
This spirituality is exemplified in the life of St. Therese of Liseux; and her life can be a model for guiding ordinary souls into the practice of extraordinary love in ordinary life. While mysticism is a gift freely given from God, it is continually being offered as unconditional love by God. Therese's little way of love offers a theology of mysticism wherein conscious union with God, initiated and sustained by him, is nevertheless accessible to everyone who has faith.
Need for Mystical Agenda
What is needed at this point in time is for the church to rediscover the monastic/mystical spirit and ask God to make it available to the Church as a whole. The reason for this, as shown above, is that the mystical life exemplifies the essence of the Christian life. Whenever the mystical spirit is in bloom the power of God flows, transforms and enriches not only the Christian life but the condition of life in general.
Just as in the early medieval time the monastic charism spilled forth to the communities and towns, eventually realizing the parable of the leaven in the history of western civilization, so there is a need in these present days for the radiation of the mystical spirit and way of living to the rest of the believers. And this will create an ever increasing powerful force for the transformation of the world through the reign of God.
There is a need for a new theology and a new praxis for making the mystical agenda at the heart and forefront of the Church of this age.
The preparatory movement for this has been initiated and on-going with the advent of a new Pentecost among the Pentecostal churches in the early part of the 20th century and in the mainline churches through the charismatic movement during the last half. In time this movement ran counter with the contemplative spirit but later prominent leader and theologian of the charismatic movement, Ralph Martin, resolved this in his article, Charismatic and Contemplative: What Would John of the Cross Say?, by merging both realities as fruit and parcel of the same movement of God's Spirit in the Church.
Scripture and God's action in Christian history showed that whenever the mystical spirit is in bloom God's power for transformation of the world become evident in the very fruits that manifest itself in the culture of the world. That the mystical spirit need not be the privilege and province of a select few but rather a gift meant to flow to the whole church is an idea that the church need to embrace and translate into a theology and pastoral practice for all.
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