Lessons from the mystics for our time

Fausto Gomez OP

All saints and mystics speak to us of God and God’s love, and of their experience of the existential presence of God in their lives. They talk to us of Jesus Christ, who is their spiritual master, mystic and lover, and of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the depth of the soul and gives Christ’s grace and his divine Gifts. They talk effectively in their teachings and, above all, with the moving testimony of their life permeated by love, humility, prayer, detachment, the cross, joy, contemplation and compassion. 

After carefully studying the classics of Christian/mystical spirituality, theologian Peter John Cameron concludes that he finds seven recurrent themes: (1) belief in God’s love; (2) God’s mercy, sin, and the mode of the soul; (3) the instrumentality of the Church and the communion of saints; (4) the importance of prayer and struggles with aridity; (5) the dynamics of detachment and holy indifference; (6) the redemptive role of suffering; and (7) devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

Although mystical life has often been almost exclusively connected with extraordinary supernatural phenomena, in reality it is similar to spiritual/moral life, to a good Christian life, which begins with the presence of God’s grace (and the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity) in the soul and develops through the experiential realization of that loving presence. 

Mystical life, writes H. C. Graef, “is nothing else but the life of grace lived at its highest level.” For Meister Eckhart the beginning of a mystical life consists in “living a Christian life in all seriousness and fulfilling the established moral duties.” For his part, his brother Dominican Henry de Suso adds: the mystical life is “the way to live everyday life in freedom and in serene interior abandonment, and to make of the daily conflicts and disappointments an opening to God and the ground of our soul.” 

The mystics are often sidelined by Christians, as if they were to be admired but not imitated. They are considered unreachable, but they are not. We just have to listen to them, which is to read their lives and their teachings. An expert tells us: “If we were more familiar with the masters of Christian spirituality, then it would be less likely for young people to go after some oriental guru to slake or quench their thirst for the spiritual” (Jacques Philippe).

All believers in God are called to holiness, that is, to a mystical life which is loving union with God, who is holy; “to an intimate union with God, and, in a sense, to deeper holiness”; Christian discipleship is an ongoing call to mission and to holiness (St John Paul II).  

 All Christians are called to holiness, to the mystical union with Christ, although only some receive special graces or extraordinary signs of the mystical life (CCC 2014). Mystical life, then, simply means loving union with Christ, which is called “mystical union, because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments – ‘the holy mysteries’ – and, in Him, in the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.” Thus, holiness for the disciples of Jesus means union with God the Father, through Jesus Christ the Son of God and Mary, and in the Holy Spirit

There is within each human person a mysterious search for God, a longing for divinization. In all religions, especially in the three Abrahamic religions, there is a desire to be one-with-God, to experience God in life. Experiencing God in Christ implies necessarily experiencing the neighbor, our brother or sister. St Thomas Aquinas, theologian and mystic says that love of neighbor may be higher than contemplation: “Therefore, to labor for the salvation of our neighbor even at the expense of contemplation, for the love of God and neighbor, appears to be a higher perfection of charity than if he would cling so dearly to the sweetness of contemplation as to be totally unwilling to sacrifice it even for the salvation of others.” Pope Francis quotes Saint Thomas: The noblest deeds are the works of mercy, “even more than our acts of worship”; “Mercy is the beating heart of the Gospel,” and loving the needy neighbor is the priority, the distinguishing characteristic of all the followers of Jesus, “the great criterion” of holiness also today (Gaudete et Exultate).

  Words to ponder, from Pope Francis: Holiness “is not swooning in mystic rapture,” but in practicing the preferential love for the poor. This special love of the needy neighbor is not – cannot be – opposed to love of God in prayer and worship: “I don’t believe in holiness without prayer” (no. 147). Truly, “the primacy belongs to our relationship with God, but we cannot forget that the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others” (Gaudete et Exultate; cf Mt 25:40, 45). 

Spiritual/Mystical life leads us towards a deeper experience of God in our lives, to experiencing God One and Triune in ourselves, in others, in the needy and poor of the earth, and also in God’s creation. Indeed, in our time the mystical dimension of creation is especially felt: nature is our common home, which is permeated by the power and beauty of God. It is said of St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) that her first book was the Breviary “after the stars and the flowers” (Perez de Urbel); she experienced ecstasy contemplating a flower or the sunset.  A mystic of nature, Jakob Bohme (1575-1624) writes: “You will not find a better book that will help you to know in depth the divine wisdom than a walk through a green meadow: there you will smell and taste the marvelous energy of God.” 

Let us close with the sublime verses of St John of the Cross in his awesome Spiritual Canticle

Pouring out a thousand graces, / He [Jesus] passed these groves in haste; 

/ And having looked at them, / With his image alone, / clothed them in beauty.