Fr. Robert Wild’s The Tumbler of God has opened several doors for me – not only has it helped to deepen my appreciation of just how important a thinker G. K. Chesterton is, but it has made me reconsider just what it is that I believe Christian mysticism to be all about. Fr. Wild spends a good deal of time in the earlier chapters of the book assessing the different ways in which we commonly view mysticism, in order that he may show that Chesterton was someone who had received a mystical grace, but after this he takes a look at Our Lord Himself, pointing out that our assessment of whether or not someone is a true mystic is more often than not based on the lives of any number of saints that have already had that title bestowed upon them, whereas a safer guide in making such an assessment might actually be to return to the Gospels:
‘We have developed, over centuries of Christian reflection and experience, a certain technical conception of what mysticism is. Now, armed with these studies, we go back to the Gospels to see if Jesus was a mystic! Of course, it should be the other way round: the Lord’s Person, life and teaching should be seen as defining true mysticism – what it means to be immediately penetrated with the Presence – since he was the Presence Incarnate. He is the True Mystic, and our theories about mysticism should be based on his life, teachings, and approach to reality.’
The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic (2013), p.71, Angelico Press.
When we try to ascertain whether or not someone is a genuine mystic, we look at the visions and/or spiritual experiences they have had – how closely they tally up with revealed truth, how representative they are of what we know to be true about God as revealed in Jesus Christ. But we do this because in Our Lord we have the case of a human being living constantly in the closest communion possible with God the Father; Jesus is the original mystic because it is His inner life by which we judge the inner lives of all other mystics, He who shows us the way to the Father by so embodying a life lived in harmony with His will that we can say He is the Way. It is perhaps easy to separate out the life of Our Lord from the mystical saints because it was not attended by levitations, or by ecstasies that notably removed Him from ordinary affairs; but the lack of these things is due to the fact that His communion with God is normal – He speaks to the Father as if it were the most natural thing in the world, because for Him, it is.
Mysticism is about purifying the vision and will in order that we might reach the state that Our Lord lived in by virtue of who He is – the attainment of union with the Father. It is the recovery of the natural state that was intended for all of us, but which we lost during the Fall. That we see in the lives of the saints much strain and sometimes great drama in the achievement of this state is because there is a tension between what we are and what we should be, a tension which must be worked through before that union with God can be achieved. It is not just that we are creatures that holds us back, as Our Lord was truly human as well as truly God – it is that our humanity is disordered, whereas His is in perfect alignment with the will of God. His mysticism, therefore, is simple, so as He is the original mystic by which all other mysticism should be judged, perhaps simplicity is what all mystics should be aiming for – perhaps this is the more excellent way which I mentioned at the end of my post on good and evil last week:
‘If you met a person at this stage you might not know that you were meeting a mystic. And the person surely would not know, or even care, if he was a mystic or not. After all the spiritual tumblings and experiences, the true mystic comes round again with simply being a person, although now everything is wonderfully different. Jesus in Nazareth at least fits the definition of a mystic: utter simplicity of life. He started out that way; it was not the termination of a long journey.’
The above description suggests that someone living at the peak of spiritual existence, and atop the heights of mystical insight, would be living in such close agreement with the way we are all intended to live, that it would not be apparent we were meeting a mystic at all. I do not think Fr. Wild means that we would see such a person as ordinary, because the everyday for us is marked by contradiction, disharmony – sin. What I think he is getting at is that our idea of what a mystic should be like is often so removed from the utter simplicity and integrity of life as embodied by Our Lord, that the word ‘mystic’ would not occur to us in the presence of such a person. Perhaps it was for the same reason that the people of Nazareth did not recognise the true identity of Our Lord – they certainly saw Him as being different, but their wider expectations were all out of kilter.
Yet we should also see such people (those who have achieved a state of perfect union with God) as being different too – that sense of dislocation and of unrest which is our lot due to the Fall should be absent, and this would indeed make them stand out. A life animated by love of God, rooted in the Tree of Life and turned away from the temptations of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil should stand out not by being wild or self-consciously different, but in its purity – its close correspondence between desire, intent and action. This is not to say that the great mystics of the Church’s history who have been transported by ecstatic visions or gone through great trials of purgation were not genuine mystics – far from it – only that it is not in these moments that we judge their mysticism to be genuine. It is the state of heart and mind that resulted which is key:
‘In prayer, the Lord was surely totally absorbed in intimacy with his Father. But this absorption is not like that of many of the mystics, totally insensitive to what is going on around them; or even lifted above the ground in levitation. The Gospel often tells us he prayed while in the company of his disciples. It’s a very probable theory that unusual manifestations such as ecstasy and levitation are due to the weakness of human nature, unable to sustain the Presence. Christ manifests the perfection of our nature, at home with the Presence.’
To be at home with the Presence of God, and to enjoy the simple trust in and love of God that accompanies such a state of affairs – that is a good summary of the goal of all mysticism, and is what we see in the life of Our Lord. It is also what is made possible by reception of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, as they ‘adapt man’s faculties for participation in the divine nature…They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity…They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life’ (CCC: 1812-1813). Seen this way, Christian mysticism is no more than the continual cooperation with these gifts of God, so that we evermore grow to see our whole life as seen in the light of His grace; in other words, so that we become at home with the Presence of God.
It is this possibility of closeness to God, and the opportunity to live in harmony with what the world sees as weakness and foolishness (c.f.; 1 Corinthians 1:25) that proved the greatest point of distinction between Christianity and the pagan world. Because through Christ a way was laid open to be at home with God (and thus with our own nature) through the gifts of faith, hope and love, the response to this offer amongst Christians made them conspicuous by the same kind of ‘abnormality’ noted in the simplicity of the true mystic above. Chesterton himself describes this difference between the two systems in the twelfth chapter of Heretics, where he counters the suggestion that it was in asceticism that Christianity differed from paganism:
‘The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope and charity. Now, much easy and foolish Christian rhetoric could easily be poured out upon those three words, but I desire to confine myself to the two facts which are evident about them. The first evident fact, I say, is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperance, are the sad virtues, and that the mystical virtues of faith, hope and charity, are the gay and exuberant virtues. And the second fact, which is even more evident, is the fact that the pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be…
…Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.’
Heretics (2001), p.67, House of Stratus.
To trust always, to hope against hope and to be truly charitable (i.e.; to give completely of oneself, regardless of whether the recipient deserves it or not) are sane ways to behave for one who lives continually in the light of God; but to the world they are madness. However, it is these three theological (note that Chesterton refers to them as mystical) virtues which animated all that has been achieved by Western culture – its hospitals and hospices, orphanages and almshouses, the recklessness of its art and aspiration of the universities, and the continual resurrection of all that it held dear after each setback from within and without. Nowadays, faith has nearly disappeared, charity has grown cold and inconsistent, and if we hope at all, we do not know why or where to place it – it is no wonder therefore, that what is left of our culture is slowly petering out.
Nevertheless, the important point here is that these three theological/mystical virtues, which lie at the heart of what it is to enjoy the mystical experience, are essentially simple. At the end of all ascetic endeavour, after all the ecstasies have passed, what characterises authentic Christian mysticism is the calm acceptance that God is God, we are His creatures, and that our good lies in loving Him and obediently following His will for us. To achieve this is of course not a simple thing at all – but if any of us are to attain this state (which is also the same thing as authentic holiness) then we must always have before us the simplicity of the goal. To guide us towards that goal and nurture us on our way, we only have to turn the pages of the Gospels, and follow the life of Our Lord, the original mystic. There is a good reason that the prayer He left us is so uncomplicated, for so is the life that He lives adoring the face of the Father, and so did He mean our lives to be again.