It was after Quietism (1687) was condemned that the faithful were left with a spirituality that was primarily a moral teaching, without the love derived from mystical contemplation that would enable a person to live that moral teaching. It was in the words of Monsignor Ronald Knox, “a joyless moralism” that was influenced by Jansenism that spread far and wide despite its condemnation by the Church. Jansenism was a sort of Catholic Calvinism born at the beginning of the seventeenth century in which the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers were substituted for the Bible, but sadly love was lost in translation. For them, most people were heading for hell on the doom and gloom express. Only the few could board the flight for heaven after a life of unremitting mortification and misery. After visiting their headquarters at the Convent of Port Royal near Paris, visitors would come away, as Knox put it, “not so much feeling privileged that they had met people on the way to heaven, but feeling that they themselves were most certainly on their way to hell!”
Fortunately, the gloomy ethos generated by this narrow-minded moralism gradually lifted with the introduction of more uplifting and inspiring devotions like the devotion to the Sacred Heart. Sadly however, when this led people to the mystical crèche where saints are made, there was no one to encourage, instruct or guide them through the purification where the love that leads to union is learnt. Genuine mystical theology then withered after the condemnation of Quietism and has never bloomed in quite the same way since.
A mystical marriage
The spiritual life begins and ends with a marriage, a mystical marriage with Christ. Take love out of any marriage and what you are left with is but a drab and dreary daily monotony in which you exist rather than live together. You merely exist with, at best, a mutual tolerance and a set of unwritten rules and regulations tacitly accepted by both parties to keep the peace, rather than living in the peace that only love can generate. It is the same with the mystical marriage to which we are all called when love is withdrawn, but with one difference. If something goes wrong it is we, not Christ who has stopped loving. If this marriage breaks down it is because we did not seriously try to love in the first place, or because we stopped when we were given the privilege of being led to the place where human love is purified for marriage with the divine.
That generation after generation has been born with an inherent desire for union with God is beyond question. However, it is also beyond question that a spirituality that cannot lead a person on through purification to that mystical union is not fit for purpose. That is why there have been so few great mystical guides in the last three hundred years or more compared with the many hundreds of mystics, saints, and mystical writers who spanned the centuries from St Bernard, who was born in 1090, up until the condemnation of Quietism in 1687.
Introducing Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP
The moralism that Monsignor Hughes said prevailed after the condemnation of Quietism has resulted in a clear distinction between Moral Theology and Mystical Theology that did not exist before. The point is made quite clearly by the great Dominican theologian, Garrigou-Lagrange, perhaps the greatest spiritual theologian of the twentieth century. In his book The Three Ages of the Interior Life that fuses the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas with that of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, he states quite emphatically:
“Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, authors have deemed it necessary to distinguish absolutely between moral and mystical theology. Thereby they have compromised the unity of the spiritual life. The perfection which moral theology speaks of, becomes an end and not a means to a more intimate and more elevated union. Mystical theology then was no longer of any importance except to a few privileged souls” (Chapter 52: page 548).
Ascetical and Mystical Theology
The unity to which he refers can only be attained in the spiritual life when the moral and the ascetical life is primarily seen as the means by which a person opens themselves to receive the love of God. It is this love, the Holy Spirit, who can alone draw us up into Christ, beginning now in this life and reaching its consummation in the next. In him we begin to forget ourselves as we live for God and for his honour and glory in all we say and do. However, take this mystical life away and the moral and the ascetical life merely becomes a way of life in which we try to make ourselves perfect by our own unaided endeavour and for our own honour and glory. This is what Fr Garrigou-Lagrange means when he says that since the demise of mystical theology the ascetical life has too often been an end in itself, a method of making oneself perfect by achieving moral perfection by one’s own endeavour. Inevitably it leads back into the old heresy of semi-Pelagianism and into a spirituality that is self-centred not God-centred, anthropocentric not theocentric. Authentic Christian spirituality is, and always has been focused on facilitating the action of the Holy Spirit within, and that is why, what was first called ‘The Way’ came to be called the spiritual life. For in the spiritual journey the Holy Spirit is at all times at work purifying and refining the love that is being prepared for union.
Sometimes in darkness, sometimes in light
Sometimes his presence is experienced in darkness, sometimes in light, sometimes in presence, sometimes in absence, sometimes in obscure contemplation, sometimes in pure contemplation. It is then that a person becomes more passive as God’s action becomes more active. Never does a person cease to act, but this action now takes place in, with and through Christ under the ever more penetrating influence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Before the rise of moralism that began to view the ascetical life as an end in itself, St John of the Cross made it clear that his mystical writings were for all, even though he was writing for the sisters of the new Carmelite reform. Writing almost eighty years ago, Garrigou-Lagrange was delighted to say that the distinction between the moral, the ascetical and the mystical life was no longer accepted by himself and a small group of similar minded academics. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century this view still remains the opinion of only a few academics and their followers in the rarefied atmosphere of university campuses, but that is all. On ground level nothing much has changed to reverse the massive spiritual imbalance that began after the condemnation of Quietism. What academics discuss in learned papers has not filtered down to the ordinary men and women in the pew. Or if it has, it has not been transposed into the teaching that encourages, inspires, directs and guides them to journey on come what may, into and through the mystic way where they are transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Mystics should not so much be in the mainstream, but be the mainstream
There are of course some exceptions to the rule. There are still people who have tried to journey on in the mystic way despite living in a spiritual climate in which ‘devout moralism’ still prevails. Sadly, they are considered mavericks or misfits. I have been privileged to meet some of them who, despite the conventional wisdom that discounts the importance of mystical theology, have managed to travel along and through the dark night regardless. But sadly, they have had to do this as eccentrics, oddities quietly journeying on the periphery when they should, not so much be in the mainstream, but be the mainstream. A new and effective Christian Renaissance cannot take place, nor can it be sustained without people like these.
Called to a mystical marriage with Christ
It is only because both the old scholastic theology and the new biblical theology have failed to be transposed into simple accessible and practical mystical spirituality for all, that the simple truths that everyone knew and lived by in the early Church have been forgotten. This truth is that by our very baptism we are called to a mystical marriage with Christ. No one doubted for a second that this was for all and that it was the beginning in this life of what would only reach its ultimate consummation in the next. Nor did anyone doubt that like other marriages this marriage involved a daily close mutual interpenetration of loving that reaches its most intimate moments in prayer. The sort of abstruse and intellectual arguments that made even some of the most respected and orthodox theologians question whether the mystic way was for all, would have both mystified and horrified our early ancestors in equal proportions.
It is just further proof, if such proof is necessary, that the prevailing spirituality that has reigned since the condemnation of Quietism, is not only seriously deficient but aeons away from the profound mystical spirituality bequeathed by Jesus himself to the early Church. It is both profound and mystical because it calls all who would listen to him to a mystical marriage with him which was destined to flower, not just in heartfelt love, but in a love that would completely possess and pervade the body too, beginning in this life and reaching its climax in the next.
All the themes in this story can be found in the books, Wisdom from the Western Isles- The Making of a mystic and Wisdom from the Christian Mystics – How to pray the Christian Way