Mysticism, Monasticism, and the New Evangelization

Mysticism, Monasticism, and the New Evangelization

Pascha at Holy Resurrection Monastery, Saint Nazianz, WI, in 2013 (Photo: Holy Resurrection Monastery website)
Pascha at Holy Resurrection Monastery, Saint Nazianz, WI, in 2013 (Photo: Holy Resurrection Monastery website)

Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est opens with this thought:

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christan is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should . . . have eternal life.’

Pope Benedict XVI in God is Love (Deus Caritas Est)

I’ve been pondering this quite a bit and the more I ponder the more I seem to stumble across examples of various ways in which we Christians often talk and act and live as if what really matters are the ethical choices or the doctrines or the lofty ideas. (And yes, I fall into that trap too.) It’s not that morals and doctrines and such don’t matter. They do, terribly. But they must spring from this relationship, this encounter. Yet
i’ve also been noticing that when something challenges some of these champions of morality or doctrine and points out the primacy of relationship and encounter, they treat that challenge as fuzzy emotionalism.

I suppose it’s understandable because many of us have been put off by a sentimental and overly-emotional faith education which is almost devoid of doctrinal and moral teaching. Just go look at almost any textbook used in parish CCD classes and you see this shallow sentimental approach. On the other hand, those textbooks also fail in the realm of actually fostering that encounter with the God who is Love.

Anyway, all that was dancing in my head and then a friend shared this this article at Catholic World Report: Mysticism, Monasticism, and the New Evangelization that argues that “the New Evangelization requires a rediscovery of Christian mysticism, and a revival of the monastic setting which is its natural home.”

Some highlights:

The article, co-authored by Benjamin Mann and Abbot Nicholas Zachariadis, starts off by looking at the phenomenon of people who are “spiritual but not religious.” I like their response:

This public hunger for spirituality reflects a legitimate need. Christians must rediscover the mystical core of the Gospel, and present it to the world through the witness of monasticism.

Yes, it is a genuine hunger and we should acknowledge it as such without being dismissive towards the people who don’t see the value in religion. In other words, meet people where they are instead of demanding they come to us.

But we can acknowledge where people are and see the legitimacy of their need without denying that spirituality without religion is lacking:

“Ultimately, we need both mysticism and structure. The spiritual life is not just about connecting with God, but also involves public worship and communion with others. With no doctrinal and dogmatic center, it is hard to tell true experiences of God from delusions – and hard, too, to discern God’s will among the morass of human opinions. For these reasons, and many more, “spirituality” needs “religion.”

I really like that point about discernment: how do we know we aren’t being deluded? Communal worship, a community of believers, a way to cut through the noise and chaos, to learn how to discern God’s will and how to discern spirits.

And some more bits that caught my eye. (Really, you should go read the whole article.)

The mystical life is neither mindless nor emotionless, but it puts the intellect and the emotions at the service of something greater.

Yet there is a temptation to substitute other things for that direct encounter between the soul and the Lord. We often shy away from that transforming union with God, replacing it with something else: something we can comprehend or control, which takes less discipline and sacrifice.

This temptation is pernicious, because most of our substitutes for mysticism are good and necessary in themselves: doctrine and theology; moral virtue and good works; sacred music and art; social action and reform. All of these things can support a transcendent relationship with God – but none of them can take its place. They cannot substitute for our spiritual union with God in Christ.

When lesser goods occupy the place of the mystical life, we become spiritually blind. Doctrinal orthodoxy, moral uprightness, and the externals of Church life become substitutes for God’s very presence. Surrounded by the paraphernalia of holiness, we believe we are close to God, when in fact our hearts and souls are far from him.

Oh this paragraph demands that I take a hard look at myself and ask how the “paraphernalia of holiness” have got in the way of my closeness to God. Ouch.

The neglect of Christian mysticism has severe consequences. If they are given doctrine and morality with no clear path to union with God, Christians are tempted to seek the very inverse: spirituality without objective truth, mysticism with no moral or intellectual guide rails.

And then a solution to the problem: More monasticism.

Thus, we suggest that Western Christians should also look to monasticism, as much as possible, as a point of entry into the living mystical tradition.

We hope, too, that monasteries in the West may regain their historical status as cultural centers, places of pilgrimage and spiritual direction. Eastern Christians are well equipped to help the West recover its heritage in this regard.

Western Christians have no need to “Easternize” themselves, however. The Christian West should look Eastward, not for externals to adopt, but to gain a deeper understanding of itself.

The New Evangelization must offer many things, including sound catechesis, moral guidance, social action, and reverent worship. All of these things, however, must be put into their proper context. They are ultimately not ends in themselves, but aspects of the path to union with God.

Without this transcendent dimension, our New Evangelization runs the risk of simply creating new institutional structures, to offer doctrine and morality as if they were ends in themselves.

I keep thinking of a story that Dom was telling me about. A nun giving a presentation to a bunch of students at a Catholic school was met with outrage when she dared to broach the topic of sexual morality. And when the outraged students complained the nun was censured. It’s not, of course, that the Church’s teaching is wrong. But it is very sad indeed that the students clearly do not understand those teachings. And it does seem to me that until they have had that deep encounter with Christ they are not truly ready to receive and understand and accept the hard teachings of the Church, which must always be understood in the context of love.

How do we do that? How do we prepare rich soil so that the Word doesn’t fall on rocky ground and wither and die?

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  • +JMJ+

    Melanie, I have enjoyed your series on Spe Salvi, but did not comment because I haven’t read Pope Benedict’s encyclical myself. But I happen to have Deus Caritas Est an arm’s length from me right now, where I put it after trying to reread it last month. It will be a pleasure to start again and to read along with you! 🙂

    I first read Pope Benedict’s description of Christianity as an encounter with Jesus in his book Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: Holy Week. It was quite moving. The Holy Father is an incredibly gentle teacher.

    Speaking of teachers . . . I have been following the story of Sister Jane Dominic (though at a distance) and I think that your take on it is a good one. If we don’t have a deep encounter with Jesus, how can we accept the hard teachings? Even those who had met Him and walked with Him turned away when He started talking about His Flesh being food and His Blood being drink. We need to have a real relationship with Him–to be able to say, “Where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”–before we can be steadfast in our faith.

  • I just wanted to drop a note to say even though I haven’t commented, I am really enjoying the snippets of Benedict that you have been posting lately.

    Also the story Sr. Jane Dominic is quite upsetting to me. She lives and teaches here in town and I have heard a presentation at the Motherhouse by her in the past. She is such a great and dynamic speaker. Everything you would expect from a fine teacher. For her to be publicly put through the wringer is so wrong.