This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

6.2. The Way of Mystery

The errors of the certain esoterists

Since Guenon, a typical approach to the Christian religion has been to reproach it as ‘metaphysically incomplete’ and therefore, by the standard of Guenon and his derived terminology, secondary in its significance when compared to other Revelations.

It is clear, then, that something in the Revelation evades the Guenonian mentality, and we think that the key to understanding this problem and to restoring a proper appreciation of Christianity is undergo a re-orientation similar to the one he insists upon for studying the Hindu doctrines. By doing this, we are able to escape certain misconceptions.

Primary esoterism and secondary esoterism

Christianity does not present us with any formal esoterism in the primary sense of being related to its central mysteries, namely Christ or even the Virgin Mary. What is presented is what it is, and is esoteric for esoterists and exoteric for exoterists. The same goes for the sacraments, which we could say are initiatic for esoterists and salvific for exoterists.

Some have argued to the contrary, pointing usually to the development of Alchemy in the Middle Ages, and the tradition of Hermeticism in general. Likewise, it goes without saying that liturgical calendar could not have been developed without a scientific knowledge of the significance of the seasons, months, days, of the year, and this would correspond to a kind of esoteric science like the others mentioned, something similar in many respects to astrology properly understood and practiced (which is to say, not involving divination).

There is an important distinction, however, between these two orders of esoterism, so much so that we can term the second type (alchemy, astrology, etc.) as secondary sciences. Acknowledging them as such we can fully admit that they do constitute formal esoterisms within the Christian world, with their own formulations and intricate systems of symbolism and practical methods.

This distinction is further justified by the fact that anyone with a certain rational aptitude can become competent in one of these secondary sciences, provided they have access to the keys of proper instruction. Here we can speak of an ‘initiation’ in the sense of a secret knowledge being conveyed by teaching only to those who have business practicing the art. But the central mysteries of the faith—those relating to Christ—there is nothing of the kind, since the ‘esoterism’ in question here does not depend in the least on erudition or the rational powers of the scientist, even if the science is a sacred one, like that of astrology. What the ‘estoeric knowledge of Christ’ requires is a spiritual adeptness, and this may occur in one who is relatively simple-minded, in the sense meant by Christ when he says that only those who become children may enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

So again, we are dealing with the essential or primary esoterism of the Christian faith, which is accessible to anyone and is implicit in the doctrines openly proclaimed to all, but which is realized only in the few, and here we say that Christianity contains no formal esoterism; and then we find a number of secondary esoterisms, succeptible to exclusive transmission and sometimes developed in relative secrecy, and dependent more on a mental qualification than a spiritual one properly speaking, even though it must of course be granted that the object is always spiritual knowledge in all cases.

It was necessary to dwell on this point so that we can situate alchemy and astrology in their properly places within the hierarchy of spiritual truth contained in the Christian revelation: we wish to admit their validity and their value, without attributing to them a kind of preeminence as if obscurity were the criteria of doctrinal value.

Christianity the mystery religion

Christianity is the mystery religion par excellence.

Christianity is not a ‘religion’ nor a confession in the way the last three hundred years would have understood the word: a system of more or less dogmatically certain truths to be accepted and confessed, and of moral commands to be observed or at least accorded recognition. Both elements belong, of course, to Christianity, intellectual structure and moral laws but neither exhausts its essence. [Nor is Christianity] a matter of religious sentiment, a more or less emotionally toned attitude…St. Paul thinks of Christianity, the good news, as ‘a mystery’. But not merely in the sense of a hidden, mysterious teaching about things of God…[For St. Paul] ‘mysterium’ means first of all a deed of God’s, the execution of an everlasting plan of His through an act which proceeds from His eternity, realized in time and the world, and returning once more to Him its goal in eternity.[1]

This mystery is Christ, to be certain, but it is not enough to simply state this. In fact we would say that it is difficult to appreciate Christ without regaining an understanding of the full significance of the term mystery in the Biblical context, since we should not assume that it was chosen lightly and can say emphatically that it did not have the same superficial meaning that it has today—merely that of something strange and the meaning of which no one knows, like an unsolved murder that will ‘always remain a mystery.’

To anticipate what we’ll say elsewhere, it is enough to say that the ‘mystery religions’ of the ancient world existed for the sole purpose of initiated their adherents into an esoteric knowledge of the highest order, and although we imagine that they are called ‘mysterious’ because we know nothing about them, they were called this even at the time and by those who knew everything about them, and because the term mystery meant something far more than the vaguely indiscernible: it referred rather to a sacred reality, or to a knowledge of the hidden acts of God.

It is sometimes debated whether or not Christianity is initiatic, but in this light it is more initiatic than any initiatic organization that has ever been, because initiation is all that it is.

It is precisely the key to the Christian Revelation that Guenon misses or which, we might say, is incompatible with his intellectual makeup, and this is the explanation for everything else he says about it.

[1] The Mystery of Christian Worship, (New York: Crossroad/Herder & Herder, 1997), p. 9.

The significance of the title of ‘Christian’

It is legitimate to envision our relation to Christ as between disciple and loving teacher, and this is the emphasis of much of contemporary Christianity with its talk about ‘personal relationship with Christ’. The danger, however, is in reducing our status as Christians to this personal aspect alone, and that we have in fact succumbed to this danger is attested by a second common slogan, that Christianity is ‘a relationship, not a religion.’

We seem to imagine that the name Christian signifies for Christians something like what the term Wesleyans signifies for that group: “those who follow John Wesley.” We imagine that Christian denotes those who follow Jesus Christ. But Christ was not Jesus’ surname. It was an office denoting a cosmic function. Our personal relation with Christ is not the only, nor the most significant, aspect of our status as Christians, and what is most essential is connected to his title which refers to an office. Viewed in this light, what then can we say of the title?

According to Act 11:26, the designation ‘Christians’ was given to the disciples first at Antioch. We can surmise that the title may have been given by the Romans, since the disciples merely refereed to one another as saints or disciples and the Jews called them ‘Nazarenes.’

Obviously the name Christian comes from the name Jesus Christ, but we should also remember that ‘Christ’ is not a Hebrew term. If we trace the etymology a bit, we begin with Christianos which derives from Christos, with Christos being a term by which the Hebrew mashiach was translated by the Hellenized Jews in the Septuagint. It is from this term (mashiach) that we derive the Greco-Latin messias, or in English, ‘messiah.’ Thus, Jesus is the Christ (Christos), or the Messiah (mashiach, messias).

The term mashiach signifies, literally, ‘anointed,’ and more specifically: ‘one who has been consecrated by unction to exercise a sacred function.’ Thus, David is ‘the anointed of the Lord,’ which is to say, the messiah of the Lord.

This is why we insist on pointing out (although it will certainly be obvious to most readers already) that Christ or Messiah is not a name but a sacred office, originally connected with kingship in David and which, after the Babylonian exile, was transferred with Aaron to the priesthood (Exodus 29:7).

Taking all of this into account, and observing that in these precursors the anointing brings about ritually an identification of being with function, we can see that in the person of Jesus the office of Christ was realized to perfection.

The anointed—Christians as Christs

Because we are, by title, not identified with Jesus, in which case our faith would be a ‘Jesusism,’ we recall what was said earlier: that we do not simply keep the commandments taught by Christ, to love one another, etc., but that we are ‘anointed’ and thereby sacramentally identified with Christ’s office and the function that is inseparable from that office.

If one really absorbs what was just said, the reality of our affiliation is profoundly more than personal. It is a matter of direct participation in a divine office via unction, and if we were so inclined we could, with some precision, translate ‘christianity’ as ‘unctionism,’ and while we are not actually suggesting such a revision we point it out because of the emphasis it reveals, insofar as what is essential in Christianity.

If this seems like an exaggeration of the reality, we can cite in agreement the third century Doctor of the Church, St. Cyril of Jerusalem: “As ‘partakers of Christ’, therefore, you are rightly called ‘Christs’, i.e., ‘anointed ones’: it was of you that God said: ‘Touch not my Christs’ (Ps. 104:15)”, to which he also adds that, “Once privileged to receive the holy Chrisma, you are called Christians.”

Augustine, as if in agreement:

“Let us rejoice, then, and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do ye understand, brethren, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ.”[1]

We recall, on this point, that chrisma is in the Church the holy oil (Sactum Chrisma) by which we are anointed at various stages beginning in Baptism. This is summarized in the Catechism:

Anointing with oil has all these meanings in the sacramental life. The pre-baptismal anointing with the oil of catechumens signifies cleansing and strengthening; the anointing of the sick expresses healing and comfort. The post-baptismal anointing with sacred chrism in Confirmation and ordination is the sign of consecration. By Confirmation Christians, that is, those who are anointed, share more completely in the mission of Jesus Christ and the fullness of the HOLY Spirit with which he is filled, so that their lives may give off ‘the aroma of Christ.’[2]

[1] Tracts on John, XXI, 8.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1294.

Sacramentalism

By becoming Christian, that is to say one of the anointed through participation in the Christic unction, we are introduced into a sacramental state. This means that Christianity could, from yet another perspective, be rightly called ‘sacramentalism.’ Sacramentality is rituality, and proceeds by the ‘rite.’ The ‘rite’ has been aptly defined as ‘the fixation of a deed.’ The sacrifice of Christ at the crucifixion can be seen as the rite which fixed in perpetuity His cosmic work as both priest and victim and accomplishment of the cosmic sacrificial act with all of its consequences.

To be Christian, then, denotes a sacramental state and this is something entirely different than simple membership in a group of people who accept a collection of spiritual teachings attributed to a certain teacher, which is in fact what most Protestant, and in particular most Evangelical, churches amount to, denying almost entirely the sacramental essence of their religion.

Sacramental character

In order to understand the sacramental nature of Christianity, we need understand the nature of the sacraments. What is in quite here are rites which bring about a real participation in Christ’s priesthood, what St. Peter called the ‘royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9).

In fact, all of the rites of Christianity are derived from Christ’s status as priest par excellence, and when a person receives a sacrament (namely baptism, conformation, and holy orders) they receive a ‘seal’ or what is in theology called the ‘sacramental character,’ which indelibly marks them and is not identifiable with grace but enables it. It is important to note this distinction between grace and sacramental character because the character itself, like the unction, is irrevocable. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, so the saying goes. Neither moral debasement nor even heresy can remove this seal once it is received. Moral issues serve only as obstacle that impede grace, so that if the sacramental character were imagined as a channel for grace, sin is a kind of refuse that clogs this channel. But even clogged and in disrepair, the channel remains present.

To this point, even the excommunicated person does not, according to Catholic doctrine, cease to be Christian, but is merely barred from participation in certain rites and liturgical functions.

The Eucharist is the Mystery

Here we would like to cite Jean Borella, whose work on this subject is indispensable:

[J]ust as the whole Christic deed, all the acts accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth on this earth, is summarized and founded in the ultimate act of his redemptive Passion, so all rites and all sacraments, by which the permanent actuality of the Christic deed is assured until the end of the world, are summarized and founded in the ultimate rite of the sacrificial Memorial of the Passion. In short, this signifies that Christianity is identified with the ritual action of the Divine Liturgy. From this point of view, that of its formal specificity, it is perfectly just to say, with Dom Casel, that Christianity is a mystery religion by essence, since Mystery can be defined as That which, in the Divine Work (the Mystery of salvation) comes to inform and configure human action so that it becomes a sacramental anamnesis, forming in this way an initiatic community separated from the world of profane action. And, in fact, the participation of the faithful in this ritual configuration in act truly and very really initiates them into the very Life of God and sacramentally unites them with his redemptive action. This is why the mention of ‘Mysterium fidei’, inserted by the Church at a very early date into the scriptural formula of Eucharistic consecration, should be understood only in the sense of the miracle of transubstantiation to which faith alone enables us to gain access.

We will develop this thought when we come to the section dedicated to the divine liturgy.

The term mysterion

Having claimed for Christianity a status as mystery religion, and having proceeded further to claim that it is in possession of the archetypal Mystery in the Passion of Christ, through which the anointed participate (sacramentally) and which is itself ritually perpetuated via the Eucharist, we must now justify these claims further by elaborating on the nature of the Mystery in question, beginning with the term itself.

The word we are dealing with historically is mysterion. Its etymology is somewhat obscure but it is enough for us here to discern what meaning it would have had for a listener in the apostolic period. The first thing to be said is that we need to set aside the modern meaning of the term, at least as we use it in common speech, where to call something a mystery is to admit that it is something about which we have no knowledge and can only guess at. For a Hellenized Jew the term would have had connotations more along the lines of what we have called esoteric doctrine, usually of a cosmological nature, and it was out of this material that the Christian meaning was wrought, by which a new aspect was added that would signify its essence: mysterion in the Christian context refers not to esoterism generally speaking but to a ‘sacred reality’.

Moreover, we can say that those who possess the doctrine of the mysteries possess the means to communicate them and, even if they are ultimately ineffable, they can nonetheless be ‘received’ in some sense via special initiation.

Thus, we read in the Gospel of Mark: “he said to them: to you it is given to know the mysterion of the kingdom of God: but to them that are without, all things are done in parables.”[1]

Mystery pertains to the Christ as Way, Truth, and Life. As used in the Christian context, the concept goes through several phases of development: first referring to doctrinal knowledge, which is the sense we find in Scripture (mystery-truth), then as a designation for the sacraments and the liturgy (mystery-life), and finally as an adjective mystiko or ‘mystical’, used to refer to supernatural knowledge sought through the life of prayer.

[1] Mark 4:11.

St. Paul and the mysterion

St. Paul took it as his commission that he was to reveal the mysterion of Christ to the gentiles, and we can see that he was here using a language that would have been somewhat familiar to ‘the pagans.’

I am made a minister according to the dispensation of God, which is given me towards you, that I may fulfill the word of God: the mysterion which hath been hidden from ages and generations, but now is manifested to his saints, to whom God would make known the riches of the glory of this mysterion among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.[1]

He mentions over twenty times ‘the mystery made known to me by revelation’[2]:

According to revelation, the mystery has been made known to me, as I have written above in a few words: As you reading, may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit: That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs and of the same body: and copartners of his promise in Christ Jesus, by the gospel of which I am made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God, which is given to me according to the operation of his power. To me, the least of all the saints, is given this grace, to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ: and to enlighten all men, that they may see what is the dispensation of the mystery which hath been hidden from eternity in God who created all things.[3]

We can see here that mysterion refers to a sacred reality, and not to something that remains veiled or hidden or secret, although it can be all of those things depending on one’s comprehension: but because St. Paul is fairly clear in that the mystery has been revealed to him, resulting in a real knowledge of it, that it is not something entirely incomprehensible but is essential to the Christian revelation.

Again:

Howbeit we speak wisdom among the perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, neither of the princes of this world that come to nought. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew. For if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written: That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard: neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him. But to us God hath revealed them by his Spirit. For the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.[4]

The sacred reality—the mysterion—has been made known: and this knowledge forms the core of St. Paul’s message.

[1] Col. 1:25-27.

[2] Eph. 3:3.

[3] Eph. 3:3-9.

[4] 1 Cor. 2:6-10.

Gnosis proceeds from revelation

To return to the mental climate in which St. Paul would have assumed, we can refer to Philo, a Jewish philosopher living in Alexandria, born 25 BC. He speaks of the higher intellect and we should note that he speaks of it as ‘purified,’ and what brings about this purification is revelation, namely the direct revelation received by Moses from God:

There exists a more perfect and better purified intellect, an intellect initiated into the greater mysteries, which is not confined to acquiring knowledge of the Cause from created things, like on discovers a permanent substance from its shadow, but which, beyond the created, perceives a very clear image of the Uncreated, in such a way that, thanks to the latter, it perceives the Uncreated and its shadow at the same time, that is the Logos and the sensible world together as a whole.[1]

St. Clement illuminating power of revelation to illuminate the intellect:

O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches, and I survey the heavens and God; I become holy whilst I am initiated. The Lord is the hierophant, and seals while illuminating him who is initiated.[2]

[1] Allegories on the Laws, book III, ch. 33, n. 100.

[2] Exhortation to the Heathen, XII, 120.

The gnosis of the apostles transmitted orally

Here we need to return to the concept of gnosis, which is quite separate from any doctrines associated with the gnostic heresy, and which is a term used not only in the Gospels themselves and by St. Paul, but is used frequently in the Doctors of the Church. It refer specifically to spiritual knowledge, although of the highest order, such that it constitutes a kind of spiritual state or a degree of ‘spiritual realization.’

This knowledge was, according to St. Clement, imparted first and foremost to only four apostles: “The Lord after his resurrection imparted gnosis to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles,”[1] and he elsewhere admits St. Paul into this list, by his special illumination on the road to Damascus.

What is this gnosis?

It is a true knowledge which consists in the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient systema of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved…a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures.[2]

We pause to point out here that this teaching is clearly oral, as it is claimed to be ‘in harmony with the Scriptures’ and therefore distinct from mere interpretation of Scripture itself or derived exclusively from them, especially since that this time the New Testament was not even readily available.

St. Clement frequently speaks of this gnosis, this Christic teaching given to the four apostles, received from them orally, and restricted to those able to receive them:

These teachers, preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy aposltes, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds.[3]

The Lord…allowed us to communicate of those divine mysteries, and of that holy light, to ‘those who are able to receive them’ (Matt. 19:11). He did not certainly disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom He knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving and being moulded according to them. But ineffable things are entrusted to speech, not to writing, as is the case with God. But the mysteries are delivered mystically, so that what is in the mouth of the initiator may be in the mouth of the initiated; rather not in his voice, but in his mind.[4]

Various elements of this teaching are important, but we would emphasis the nature of the mysteries and the insistence that they be transmitted orally and not by writing, which is in line with the whole Catholic tradition and the hermeneutic office of the Church.

The gnosis in question is not given to all, and this does not contradict the mission given to preach the Gospel:

True, the Lord has told us: ‘What ye hear in the ear, proclaim upon the houses’; bidding them receive the secret traditions of true gnosis, and expound them aloft and conspicuously; and as we have heard in the ear, so to deliver them to whom it is requisite; but not enjoining us to communicate to all without distinction, what is said to them in parables.[5]

We could summarize by saying that the existence of this gnosis is therefore undeniable, and that it is for all but only given to those endowed with the requisite spiritual comprehension.

[1] Fragment 13: Church History, II, 1, 4.

[2] Against the Heresies, IV, 33, 7-8.

[3] I Strom. c. 1, 11, 3.

[4]  Strom. c. 1, 13, 2.

[5] 1 Strom., c. XII, 56, 2.

The meaning of the prohibition against casting pearls before swine

When we come to Origen we see an undeniable struggle as to what it is appropriate to teach and when:

For the sake of the worthy, I want to speak so as not to be guilty of defrauding of the Word those able to hear it. Because of the unworthy I hesitate to speak…so as not to throw holy things to the dogs and cast pearls before swine. It was for Jesus alone to know how to distinguish among his hearers between those without and those within…I hesitate to put off speaking, and when I do speak I change my mind again. What is it I really want? To treat the matter in a way that heals the souls of my hearers.[1]

This inner turmoil reinforces a twofold thesis:

First, that the Church Fathers knew that the Christian gnosis could not be conveyed openly to all, and yet knew at the same time that their mission—the Church’s mission—was to teach all that they could to as many as they could; and secondly that this mission would work itself through the development of the liturgy, dogma, and sacramental discipline over a period of centuries, not changing the content of the teaching or its meaning, but crystalizing it into a comprehensive means of grace, a true ‘traditional form’ that relieved the future leaders of the Church from having to wonder how to bring all of the Baptized into direct participation in the Christian mysteries.

Origen first recalls the true meaning of the prohibition against casting pearls before swine, a prohibition which has in mind the well-being of the swine as much as care for the pearls themselves. A truth misunderstood is a falsehood, and in this way, ‘the same foods that nourish the good choke the bad; what is life for pious souls is death for impious ones.’[2] For this reason, ‘the mysteries of God are ever hidden under some veils for the sake of listeners who are still children.’[3]

Again:

But if we say that some know that which is beyond what is written, we do not mean that these things can be known to the majority…[4]

You see, therefore, how this most learned priest [Paul] when he is within, among the perfect ones as in the ‘holy of holies,’ uses one robe of doctrine, but when he ‘goes out’ to those who are not capable he changes the robe of the word and teacher lesser things.[5]

[1] Dialogue with Heraclides, 15.

[2] Hom. In Jud., v. 6.

[3] Hom. in Ezech., I, 3.

[4] Com. on John, XIII, 33.

[5] Hom. in Lev., IV, 6.

Mystery and mysticism

We explained elsewhere that the term mysterion is used in three ways in the Christian tradition: first to describe the knowledge or doctrine maintained by the Church—it’s mystery-truth; second to describe the sacramental life maintained and performed—its mystery-life; finally we must clarify the third use of the term, equally valid but relating to the inner question of spiritual development and the personal experience of the Christian union with Christ: the mystery-way. This last usage is what we should understand when certain saints are termed ‘mystics’ and when we encounter the term ‘mystical,’ or mystery as an adjective.

Here again, just as with the title ‘Christian,’ it is really more a matter of recovering the true meaning of a word that has been rendered meaningless over the centuries, such that what was once profound and precise is now vague and superficial.

We can begin with the Greek mystikos, which means simply, ‘relating to the mysteries’ and is itself derived from the verb mueo, meaning ‘to initiate into the mysteries.’

To be more precise and to connect this with the Christian context, that which is qualified by the adjective mystical is a thing pertaining to initiation into the mystery of Christ, and the mystic should be understood as one who has achieved a very advanced knowledge of this mystery or, to put it another way, as one who has experienced union with Him.

If we grant this, then could we not say without much exaggeration that mysticism = esoterism?

The difficulty of the great mystics

The tradition of the mystical as developed in Origen (as a kind of mode of knowledge) and carried on through the history of the Church in the language used to describe the liturgy itself, took a strange turn in the 16th century, notably in the persons of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. What changed was not so much the use of the term within the liturgy and elsewhere, but rather the associations it carried. St. Teresa for her part was undeniably spiritually sensitive to an incredible degree, but place the text of The Interior Castle next to the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, or even the relatively late Cloud of Unknowing, and the change is obvious. What is being described is subjective to an extreme, which is to say the exposition deals with things on the psychological and emotional level.

We should stress here that we are not trying to deny the authenticity of St. Teresa’s experiences, nor the value of her writings for those who benefit from them: however, her way of speaking emphasizes psychology almost exclusively, and this is why she spends most of her time describing her own personal experiences, both physical and emotional. This is undoubtedly a style that spoke to people and therefore met a need in the people she reached and still reaches, but it also gave a false impression of Christian mysticism by eclipsing every other possible mode of expressing the mystical way.

So thoroughly was the concept of the mysticism consolidated into the Carmelite method (and language) that it gave the impression, not only to Christians but to men like Guenon as well that this was in fact the precise and comprehensive meaning of the term. This does an injustice to the tradition of the mystical way in Christianity, since it had always constituted the primary way thereof, and susceptible to various modes of expression and development.

Yet because of this ‘narrowing of meaning,’ Guenon was led in his turn to do a great injustice to the Christian faith by assuming that the only path to spiritual realization Christianity had to offer was by means of this psychological-emotional sensitivity. This is patently not the case, but we cannot blame Guenon for arriving at this conclusion.

We would add here that centuries earlier a similar event took place in theology itself, when the Church decided that the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas would by and large be adopted as the official exposition of the Church. Again, we are not trying to devalue Thomism any more than we wish to devalue St. Teresa’s way, but it should be obvious that to reduce Catholic theology to Thomism exclusively has the effect of narrowing future possibilities and severing the Church’s connection with the variety of modes of exposition it possesses in its historical treasury. The effects of Thomism’s epistemology is a primary case of this, which is not harmful if taken as one way of describing one aspect of a reality, but when taken as exhaustive it is disastrous. We suspect that this, in fact, might be connected to the ‘psychologization of spirituality’ we have just pointed out.

The confusion of the psychic and the spiritual

Although some may not like it very much, we would suggest that St. Teresa of Avila spent most of her time describing the phenomenological concomitants of the spiritual journey. This is no small thing, but as we have already said, it runs the risk of fixating on the level of psychology. Again, this is not really a problem except when this ‘level’ or descriptive mode come to be seen as the essence of mysticism.

The result is that any kind of literature that adopts this style could be equally termed ‘mystical’, whether or not it is Christian and whether or not it has anything to do with mystery as ‘inner knowledge of a sacred reality.’

To understand what we mean, simply read the works of Teresa next to those of Sartre. The latter is profane, yet, but they are both clearly operating in the same descriptive mode, which produces similarities of style.

It is this same confusion—similar to what Guenon called the confusion of the psychic and the spiritual—that would allow Henri Bergson to be seen by so many, even within Christianity, as a kind of authority and spiritual guide for the mystical way. But ultimately he was a psychologist, working everything out in terms of joy, ecstasy, and motivation for action.

Once mysticism is understood in the sense of subjective experience only, believers rightly begin to ask themselves: what has the liturgy to do with the mystical way? And certain signs that were, in themselves, only the concomitants of the mystical experience, are taken to be the thing itself.

Mystery as a pointer to the Absolute

Christ is the center of Christianity, and although we find Him in the Old Testament and the New, veiled and unveiled, and even though He came before men in person and died on the cross, we call Him a mystery in order to acknowledge that the Divine always surpasses the forms in which it clothes itself and the words used to describe it, even if these are the words of Scripture. To disagree with this is to identify Scripture itself with God Himself, which would be a kind of ‘bibolatry’ or idolization of the letter.

Everything in the Scriptures, everything formulated in dogma, everything performed in the liturgy, is true, but not exhaustive, and the Reality that is really in question always remains in the invisible interior, and to embrace the mystical is to accept the call to journey beyond and inward to the ultimately Real.

Mysticism is Christian esoterism, and the essential Mystery of Christianity is Christ. Ergo, Christ embodies Christian esoterism. And this remains true whether or not he is acknowledged as such by believers, since the mysteries are always exoteric for exoterists.

The sensus mysticus should not be limited to certain of its expressions

Accepting, as we should, the contributions of the Carmelites, we can add that this late development was a kind of compartmentalization of a much broader mystical sense, which had been spoken of since Origen and Clement centuries prior, and which at that time was not only an exegetical procedure but an overall attitude to be cultivated by one who would understand the mysteries, that is to say, the spiritual meanings, laden throughout the Christian religion: scripture, liturgy, prayer.

In the work of St. Gregory of Nyssa alone we find many aspects of the faith acknowledged in their mystical aspect: he speaks of the sacraments as ‘mystical symbols,’ their practice as ‘the mystical practices’; baptism is a ‘mystical kiss’ and one example of the regenerative process of the ‘mystical economy.’

Most often, however, we are reminded that it is Christ who comprises the integral mystery, when mention is made of this ‘mystical table’ or, in the words of Eusebius when describing the eucharist, the ‘mystical liturgy.’

What must be fought against is any attempt to claim for a compartmental development of the mystical sense, however impressive it might be, and reduce the significance of the Christian sensus mysticus to that field alone.

It is just as unjust to claim for Teresa’s mysticism a status as ‘the true mysticism of the Church’ as it would be to claim the same exclusivity for Clement’s ‘mystical sense of Scripture’. The two do not exclude one another and both express the same mystical tact, even if we do not find that tact or sensitivity in the same way in the same people.

What we are working to restore is a comprehensive meaning to the notion of mysticism as that which relates to the true Reality that is at the end of the Christian path and which invites us to move from the exterior to the interior. Mysticism is the on-going, never-ending initiation undergone by the Pilgrim as he journeys inward and throws off, one by one, the layers of exteriority, whether we call them exegetical modes of interpreting scripture, or whether we have in mind the inward ‘mansions’ of the Interior Castle.

Mystical theology and the way of gnosis

We will summarize here by saying that over and above the ‘mystical experience’ as conveyed by the 16th century writers, there is a mystical theology, distinguished from general theology by being concerned with Ultimate Reality, the Unconditioned Absolute, which proceeds via intellection, normally apophatic. It is precisely the development of this ‘mystical intellect’ that we find in the Church Fathers from Clement and Origen on through Pseudo-Dionysius, whose work St. Aquinas himself cited more than on any other source outside of Holy Scripture.

We place ‘mystical theology’ in contrast to ‘mystical experience’ (even though the former necessarily includes aspects of the latter) primarily in order to distinguish the way of gnosis from the way of love, the latter finding expression through the popular works of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

The purpose of these remarks is to point out that one need not sacrifice the intellect (again, in the supra-rational sense of that power which contemplates the universal) in order to experience the mystical union so colorfully described in the more popular and modern works on the subject.

How to understand the Revelation

We will remind the reader again that each religion must be permitted to speak for itself. Only Christianity possess knowledge of itself and is capable of expressing itself in a language appropriate to that end. Thus, we will say yet again that as valid as it may be to develop a knowledge of ‘universal metaphysics’ it is not appropriate to judge a Revelation by terms imposed from without. It possesses its own hermeneutic site and without situating ourselves precisely at this site we will never quite understand what Christianity is trying to say.

The Church is One

To those who would point to the visible Church as its ‘exoteric’ form and to some hidden, initiatic form which is separate from this body and not acknowledged by it as its ‘esoteric’ form, we can reply that this is absurd and if it were the case, the tradition of apostolic succession would imply that this esoteric form, wherever it is and whatever hierarchy it does belong to, is not Christian.

We could not state the situation more clearly than Borella:

“To envisage the distinction between the interior and exterior only under an institutional form is basically to conceive of esoterism in an exoteric manner…when esoterism becomes a name, it very often ceases to be a reality. The more it is signified by marks, organizations, grades, and secret codes, the more it satisfies the outer man, flatters him, and makes access to true interiority problematic.”[1]

After which he cites an obscure text in agreement:

“There are not, then, two Assemblies: one exterior and the other interior. There is only one Assembly, whose exterior alone is known by many. And yet those who are of the interior do not have sacraments, Books, or secrets other than those who dwell on the exterior, but they live them and are transformed by them.”[2]

[1] Jean Borella, Christ: The Original Mystery, ibid.

[2] Ibid.