The Old Testament tells the story of God’s plan for his people, and eventually through them for all mankind, and for the whole of creation. Many different metaphors are used to this end, but the commonest is to present the plan as creating a perfect kingdom to be inaugurated by the Messiah. When the Messiah did come however, in the person of Jesus, he never said that the Kingdom has come, but only that it is to come (Jn 7:39). It is to come, he promises, after a unique and unprecedented outpouring of God’s own infinite love, in such a way that human beings can receive what they have never been able to receive before.
Receiving the infinite love of God would have instantly annihilated a person, according to the teaching of the Old Testament. It only became possible because of what happened to Christ immediately after the Ascension. When, on his return to the Father, he took with him the human nature that he shares with us, something quite literally, out of this world took place. God’s love not only continued to fill his divine nature, as before, but his perfect and unsullied human nature too. This enabled the infinite love of God to be transformed through Jesus into human loving, enabling his human nature to become the means of transmitting that love to other human beings. In the same way that a massive voltage of electricity can only be transposed and transmitted to small receivers through a transformer, the glorified human body of Jesus now became the spiritual transformer that could successfully transmit the infinite love of God into finite human receivers, making possible what was quite impossible before.
The first Pentecost was the first time when this love had been unleashed on all who would choose to receive it, to bring about God’s plan. Before this happened it would have been impossible to see how God’s plan could be put into operation. Even then it took time and an ‘outsider’, in the person of St Paul, to see it being put into operation. St Paul wrote in Greek so he called God’s plan – ‘The Mysterion’. In Greek the word simply means ‘The Secret’. He chose this word, because the plan had only partially been revealed before Jesus came, and never fully revealed even by him, and even now it is only taking place in secret within the personal spiritual lives of his faithful followers. At the time, the first Christians knew that the word ‘Mysterion’ meant not just a secret but,–‘The Secret’, the ‘Secret Plan of God’ now being put into operation through Jesus. It was he who continually sent the infinite love of God, or The Holy Spirit, to draw all who would receive it back home into the eternally loving of God whence they came. (Eph. 1:3-14 & Col 1:15- 21). This plan will continue to operate, until as many as possible can return home to enjoy the destiny that has been prepared for them in Jesus.
The word mystic, derived from the word ‘Mysterion’, was first used in the Christian milieu to describe all those who chose to enter into ‘God’s Plan’ -‘The Mysterion’. It simply means ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’ because the journey to which they had committed themselves is deeply spiritual and cannot therefore be seen by others. They would be characterised by their full blooded daily commitment to offer themselves up, as Jesus had done to the Father, so that like him they would receive the same love that raised him from the dead, so that what had happened to him would eventually happen to them. They were not called mystics, because they had strange esoteric experiences, but because of their total commitment to take part in – ‘The Mysterion’ for themselves and for others. If however, as a bi-product of their total commitment to the love of God, they eventually came to experience that love, as Jesus had done throughout his life, then they came to experience what later came to be called mystical contemplation. At that time such an expression was not used. There was no emphasis on inner psychological states that came later from the influence of Neoplatonism. However the occasional use of expressions like ‘sober inebriation’, ‘spiritual intoxication’, or deep inner peace (Apatheia) were used. Jesus was himself a mystic, the first mystic, in the fullest and most compete sense of the word, because he was not only engaged in a ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ journey into the fullness of God’s love, like his first followers, but because he experienced that love in every fibre of his being all the time, and wanted others to experience the joy that this gave him, as he explained at the Last Supper (John 15:11).
The word mystical was used by the Fathers of the Church then, to refer to the ‘hidden ‘journey into God’s love, that was their prime preoccupation, as it was for their people, for whom they wrote many works full of advice and encouragement. However they never used the word ‘Mysticism’, a later word derived from the Greek word ‘Mysterion’ that is used today. It is used to describe various states of esoteric or transcendental awareness that many have been encouraged to pursue. They have been wrongly led to believe that by using mental techniques, like mantras for instance, they can attain mystical contemplation which they cannot. There’s a million miles of difference between mystical contemplation, as described in the Christian tradition, and a certain man-made peace of mind or mindfulness, that can be obtained by forms of mental yoga. I do not condemn these forms of mental yoga, they have their purpose, but I just want to make it clear that the peaceful state of mind that they may help to generate is not mystical contemplation, as understood and explained in the authentic Christian tradition. In this tradition no one is encouraged to seek out mystical experiences for their own sake, rather they are encouraged to seek out the love of God for his sake. As in all authentic love, the pleasure that may ensue is not sought for its own sake, but it is the result of giving oneself in love to another for their sake. We have another word to describe a person who seeks out another for their own personal pleasure and satisfaction! In the Christian mystical tradition no one will come to experience true mystical contemplation until the ‘bounty hunter’ in them, which encourages self-seeking and self-satisfaction, learns to seek out and love God for himself alone. That’s why, on their mystical journey, a person has first to pass through what St Catherine of Siena called ‘The House of Self-knowledge’ or St John of the Cross called ‘The Dark Night of The Soul’. These titles are given to the ‘place’ where a self-centred person has to learn the selflessness that will enable them to be united with Christ, the perfect selfless one, for unlike things cannot be united, dross cannot be bonded to gold. Inevitable learning the truth about oneself is not a particularly pleasant experience, and it shouldn’t therefore be surprising that it leads to a certain depression. It is only by accepting the truth about oneself and then by opening oneself to the truth about God’s all-consuming love, that leads a person from the ‘Dark Night’ into the bright light , when that love finds its home deep down within.
The many counterfeit forms of ‘Mysticism’ that are in vogue to-day have become ever more rampant thanks to the condemnation of a false form of ‘mysticism’ called Quietism in 1687. This condemnation was the signal for witch-hunts against all forms of prayer that seemed to encourage inner recollection, spiritual quiet, or contemplation. Even St Teresa and St John of the Cross came under suspicion and all talk of mystical prayer has come under suspicion ever since. When seeking the spiritual help that I never found, I was warned that ‘Mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism’! Few, were ever encouraged to journey on beyond first beginnings in prayer into contemplative prayer, because few, in my own case no one, knew anything about it. In his monumental history of the Catholic Church, Monsignor Philip Hughes put it this way:-
“The most mischievous feature of Quietism was the suspicion that it threw on the contemplative life as a whole. …. At the moment when, more than at any other, the Church needed the strength that only the life of contemplation can give. It was the tragedy of history that this life shrank to very small proportions, and religion, even for holy souls, too often took on the appearance of being no more than a divinely aided effort towards moral perfection.”
The way to fill the gap left by the demise of true Christian mystical life is to go back to relearn the profound mystical (hidden or secret) theology that was at the heart and soul of early Christian spirituality, long before monasticism or religious life began to flourish. Despite the excellent work contained in the scholarship that preceded the Vatican Council, by scholars of every denomination, it failed to understand the mystical theology that permeated the everyday life of the first Christians. In the great studies of early Christianity you find little if anything on this subject, except little more than a footnote on ‘the devotions of the first Christians’, if anything at all. In those days the mystical, or hidden inner journey, was not an extraordinary way for the few, but the ordinary way for all. Perhaps the scholars were themselves children of their time, and, like their contemporaries, were suspicious of mystical theology and were understandably wary of what was being introduced as it’s counterfeit. In most conciliar documents their failure was not as apparent as it was in the document on the Liturgy.
Although this document was able to, both reproduce and represent the principles that comprised the early Christian liturgy, ignorance of the quality of the daily mystical spirituality that inspired and animated it, has undermined its successful implementation. Until this ancient mystical spirituality is re-introduced and practised daily by the faithful, the action of Christ may still be made present at Mass, but the fullest possible participation in his action will not be as apparent as it was in the early Church. Then, St Justin said, the faithful were so conscious that the Eucharist was the fullest possible liturgical expression, of what they offered and sacrificed for the honour and glory of God every day of their lives, that their participation in it was alive, vibrant, and dynamic. At the end of the Eucharistic prayer, for instance, when the words – ‘Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and Glory is your almighty Father for ever and ever,’ were said, he insists that the Amen that followed, nearly raised the roof of the ‘church’! No matter how perfect the liturgy may be, no matter if it’s every word and every rubric satisfies everyone, it will never be perfect. It will never be perfect until the offering of Christ is not just the perfect embodiment of his sacrificial life, but of the daily lives of those who join him too in giving all honour and glory to the Father of us all.