The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Let’s get mystical…

…because, judging from this assessment, we need it:

Mysticism is dying, and taking true religion with it. Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea. The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappuccinos, or (in my own not-quite-Francis-of-Assisi case) meat for lunch for Lent.

This, at least, is the stern message of Luke Timothy Johnson, writing in the latest issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. As society has become steadily more materialistic, Johnson declares, our churches have followed suit, giving up on the ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion and emphasizing only the more worldly expressions of faith. Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.


Yet by some measures, mysticism’s place in contemporary religious life looks more secure than ever. Our opinion polls suggest that we’re encountering the divine all over the place. In 1962, after a decade-long boom in church attendance and public religiosity, Gallup found that just 22 percent of Americans reported having what they termed “a religious or mystical experience.” Flash forward to 2009, in a supposedly more secular United States, and that number had climbed to nearly 50 percent.

In a sense, Americans seem to have done with mysticism what we’ve done with every other kind of human experience: We’ve democratized it, diversified it, and taken it mass market. No previous society has offered seekers so many different ways to chase after nirvana, so many different paths to unity with God or Gaia or Whomever. A would-be mystic can attend a Pentecostal healing service one day and a class on Buddhism the next, dabble in Kabbalah in February and experiment with crystals in March, practice yoga every morning and spend weekends at an Eastern Orthodox retreat center. Sufi prayer techniques, Eucharistic adoration, peyote, tantric sex — name your preferred path to spiritual epiphany, and it’s probably on the table.

Check out the rest right here.

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Deacon John M. Bresnahan

posted March 8, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Thanks for passing along this column. It is very interesting.
Wasn’t Johnson at onetime a monk? And so that means he fled the contemplative life.
One problem with modern mysticism is that people interested in religion seem to consider all “mysticisms” as being very much the same at their center or core–a sort of soft syncretism. Yet most genuine mystics walk the “straight and narrow” of their own religious Faith including a belief in the exclusivity of their faith’s way. I am sure the great Catholic mystic St.Padre Pio wouldn’t consider the path he was following as just one among many arriving at the same place as a Sufi or Kabbalist or zen Buddhist.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 2:39 am

But Thomas Merton would.

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Deacon John M. Bresnahan

posted March 10, 2010 at 3:23 pm

I have read a number of Merton biographies and books he has written. And I wouldn’t trust his judgement in this area even though he is very popular and considered a modern mystic by some. His passion seemed to be academic research and cultivating a modern (syncretistic???) view of spirituality.
The truly great Catholic mystics seemed to have one passion and one passion only: God in Trinity as revealed by Jesus Christ–then letting the chips fall where they may as they wrote or theologized. In otherwords, compared to most mystics, too often Merton seemed to have a divided heart in many ways.

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