Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Problem of Mysticism. . .

The problem arises when we use ordinary words in an unusual sense.  Mystical means to most folks something opposed to material, to the intellect, and to the external.  So when we speak of St. Theresa or St. John of the Cross of one of the many other mystics in Christian tradition, it seems as if we are talking about people who disdained the material, the intellectual, and the external in favor of an ecstatic, pentecostal style Christian faith and piety.  For many, such Christian mystics are often seen as having more in common with the mystery religions of paganism than with the formal Christian faith of book, mass, and intellect.  It is an easy mistake.

While these Christian mystics would say that their experience represented a piety obscure to the intellect, they were not opposed to the formal piety of Word and Mass.  Just the opposite, they found their mysticism in the knowledge of the Word of the Lord and through the Mass (and the prayer offices).  Their life and work is lived not in opposition to the means of grace but expect to be judged by the pattern of the Word of God made flesh and crucified and the means of grace in which He is known. 

I say this only because it seems that today the people who are spiritual but not religious seek a spirituality which is opposed to the material and lives outside the forms and structures of ordinary religion.  They often read the Christian mystics in ways that make it seem as if they agree with a mystical commonality that stretches past ordinary barriers of religious expression.  They are reading these mystics wrong.  Neither St. Theresa nor St. John of the Cross would ever suggest that there is a mystical spiritual in opposition to the concrete forms of the Word of the Lord and the Mass.  Their mystical experience is the fruit of the fullest submission to that Word and the Eucharistic presence of Christ.  In fact they see a great unity between the formal and the spiritual, between the concrete of Word and meal and the mystical work of the Spirit through these means of grace.

Tragically, there is a desire today to find voices of support for those who seek a spirituality not necessarily of any religious persuasion and a piety in opposition to the forms and structures of the Church and the sacramental life of the baptized within the Church.  Christians have worked to marry Eastern forms of such piety with the Christian but what inevitably happens is that the piety departs from the very marks of a distinctive Christian piety and identity and becomes something unrecognizable both to the faith and to the Christian mystics so often cited in the predisposition against the formal and material. 

There are many today in love with an idea of piety which has no doctrinal truth or dogmatic content.  Such fascination for spirituality apart from Christ and the Word and Mass which nurture and nourish the true piety of the faith is, in reality, the love of self and the pursuit of the god who is me (only the me not confined to space and time).  There is no Christian spirituality which is not the fruit of the baptismal encounter with the crucified and risen Lord, the faith born of the Spirit's work through Word and water, the Word of the Lord that bestows what it says, confession and absolution which is the shape of our daily repentance, and the penultimate spiritual experience of our participation in the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

Just as when I read the spiritualists who are in love with their pursuit of things in opposition to the material, I find it impossible to read those Christian authors who have no sense of the vitality and vibrant presence of Christ in the sacramental life of the Church.  Popular Protestant and evangelical authors who address spirituality and Christian piety speak a different and foreign language than the mystics of old and the true voices of Christian tradition whose lives are formed from the baptismal miracle of new life and directed to the Word and Table of the Lord where Christ still comes to us beyond feelings and emotion. 

Sadly, however, too many Lutherans are at home with the idea of a spirituality distinct from and in opposition to the concrete forms of the means of grace.  They have read too much of the popular writers of piety and Christian life and they end up with a faith in which the means of grace play a very small part.  The end result of this is a vulnerable spirituality which finds strange the shape of the liturgy and the church year -- a distance from the very means by which Christ comes near to us.  Left with the false assumption that spontaneity and ecstasy are the highest values of all, their lives are built upon the pursuit of an endless dream and they end up disdaining the greatest treasures of grace afforded to us within the life of the church -- the means of grace.


Anonymous said...

"Such fascination for spirituality apart from Christ and the Word and Mass which nurture and nourish the true piety of the faith is, in reality, the love of self and the pursuit of the god who is me (only the me not confined to space and time). "

I can relate this somewhat to my personal experience. One of my adult children, with her family, have become Quakers. Now one might say, "OK, Quakers are Christians," but it turns out that is not necessarily true. They are quite at home with atheists in their midst, it seems.

I know very little about the Quakers (tall black hats and loafers with buckles is my image), so I wrote the the "Clerk" of the Meeting they attend. I asked what the Quakers believe, what sacraments do they observe, what do they say about the historic Creeds, etc. The Clerk replied in due time saying that (1) they have no creeds at all, (2) they observe no sacraments, and (3) their believe is primarily "the search for God in other people." (Seemed like a difficult search!)

Thus they are "spiritual" in the sense of searching for God, but they are not religious in the conventional sense at all. I weep for my daughter and my grandchildren.

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

ginnie said...

The last paragraph says it all.

William Tighe said...

Re: "Spiritual but not religious;" it's actually a pretentious and damnable notion. Far, far healthier and sensible to be "religious but not spiritual."

tubbs said...

Yes, closing your eyes and thinking warm fuzzy thoughts makes you spiritual............

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