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.
Before I get back to Ross, it’s worth taking a short detour through Luke Timothy Johnson’s essay, which argues that religion without mysticism is dead. He writes that yes, there is a grand battle today between the forces of religion and anti-religion. But:
More significant even than that struggle, though, is the clash occurring within religious traditions. The battle within each of the three great monotheistic religions is between the exoteric and esoteric versions of each. In my view, the contest is already so far advanced as virtually to be decided. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
As the name suggests, the exoteric focuses on external expressions of religion. Its concern is for the observance of divine commandments, the performance of public ritual, and the celebration of great festivals. In its desire for a common creed and practice, its tropism is toward religious law, and it seeks to shape a visible and moral society molded by such law. To form a visible community publicly obedient to divine command requires an explicit social vision, and exoteric religion is overtly political. The goal, after all, is the realization of the kingdom of God as an empirical reality; the point is religion in its public dimension.
The esoteric, in contrast, finds the point of religion less in external performance than in the inner experience and devotion of the heart; less in the public liturgy than in the individual’s search for God. The esoteric dimension of religion privileges the transforming effect of asceticism and prayer. It seeks an experience of the divine more intense, more personal, and more immediate than any made available by law or formal ritual. The esoteric element in religion finds expression above all in mysticism. Mystics pursue the inner reality of the relationship between humans and God: they long for true knowledge of what alone is ultimately real, and desire absolute love for what is alone infinitely desirable.
Johnson argues that healthy religion balances the mystical (esoteric) with the active (exoteric) dimensions … but that the mystical was suppressed for so long that it now re-emerges as a form of pop spirituality. But, he continues, the esoteric unanchored in an exoteric tradition (Christian, Jewish, Islamic) amounts to the spirituality of flibbertigibbets. (Or, as I would put it, a woo-woo gloss on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). As Ross points out, though, just because true mysticism has been marginalized within formal religion doesn’t mean the hunger for contact with the numinous has disappeared. Pop mysticism is everywhere in our culture. The craving for it is real, and we are wrong to dismiss it or mock it outright. But we seem to content ourselves with satisfying that legitimate hunger with junk food. Here’s Ross:
By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.
Boy, does this ever speak to me. (Read on past the jump for more)…
I’ve always been mystically inclined in my spirituality, but also lazy and impatient. When I’ve hungered for a numinous experience of the divine, I’ve tended to see it as a matter of reading the right book to discover the secret. There is, of course, no secret wisdom that will help you plug in to the divine without much effort. Anything that promises you that is a false mysticism, is a lie. From my own experience, I’ve only been able to have truly transformative numinous experiences after submitting to a prayer discipline of some time. It’s like that with my body, too: in the past, whenever I’d be sick of my slack belly, I’d look for some fad diet that promised to help me shed pounds quickly and easily. It’s all a lie: the only way to lose weight in a healthy way is to both diet and exercise. Similarly, absent a rare road to Damascus moment, you’re not going to experience God mystically unless you seek Him earnestly through regular prayer, fasting and ascesis.
The Orthodox Christian way is the way of ascesis and mysticism. I hadn’t understood this from the outside, but once you enter Orthodoxy and take it seriously, it is not so much a set of rules to be obeyed as it is teaching to bring you to spiritual health. I was reading around in a book over the weekend in which an Orthodox bishop taught that there are no good people and bad people, there are only those who are suffering in various degrees from sickness, and those who are healed (the saints). Orthodoxy is to be seen as the authentic way of healing the soul. From an Orthodox point of view, you cannot really know God unless you know him mystically, through prayer. The word Orthodox theologians use to describe this way of knowing God is “noetic,” meaning, “related to the nous.” This is a good short introduction to the Orthodox mindset, and this from OrthodoxWiki explains what “nous” means in Orthodox spirituality.
In Orthodoxy, we can only be healed (= sanctified) through constant purification of the nous, through prayer, fasting and other forms of asceticism. Ascesis is not considered optional, or something only for monks, nuns and other spiritual athletes. It is, in Orthodox teaching, the normal way of Christian spirituality (though certainly the severe acts of ascesis practiced by monastics, especially on Mount Athos, are extraordinary). Mind you, many, many Orthodox Christians don’t know about this, or don’t care. But to be a normal Orthodox Christian is to be mystically inclined, and mysticism of the soul cannot be separated from “orthopraxis,” or right practice. The exoteric and the esoteric must live in balance. The thing I’ve observed from living and practicing Orthodox Christianity for nearly four years is how absolutely central mysticism is to the life and thought of the Church. You may live as a Protestant or a Catholic and never deal directly with the mystical dimension of the Christian faith, which includes ascesis. But I don’t know how you can do that as an Orthodox Christian.
The book, by the way, for curious laymen to read on this is “The Mountain of Silence” by Kyriacos Markides. It’s a fantastic introduction to Orthodox spirituality, very engaging and approachable.