10 May 2007

why the mystics matter now

Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, who teaches theology at Loyola College in Maryland, has a wonderful little book entitled Why the Mystics Matter Now (Sorin Books 2003). I'd been re-reading it recently and finding it well worth a second time through.

Now, I know a lot of folks are a bit put off by the notion of "mysticism" and all that is sometimes taken to imply. But Bauerschmidt does a good job in his introduction of cutting through the sometimes untenable things that are said about mysticism (e.g., all religions share the same mystical core) and trying to arrive at a good working sense of what it's all about from within the resources of the Christian tradition and rooted in holy Scripture.

In particular, he notes how the notion of "mystery" - both in the coming of Christ as the goal of revelation and in the celebration of the Christan sacraments - are contexts in which the early church began to speak of "mysticism."

Thus, the "mystical" interpretation of Scripture referred to how Christian readers would look "beyond the veil the of the surface meaning of a text" to find Jesus Christ typologically hidden within the narrative of the Hebrew scriptures (14). Similarly, it is the believer's "mystical" union with Christ that is celebrated, deepened, and worked out in the Christian sacraments.

Mysticism in this sense does not refer to something that's ethereal or less real, but rather more true and real than one might think. When the early church referred to baptism as a "mystical washing," it meant that it involved the "most real washing possible," the washing of our sins through the blood of Christ, the ultimate cleansing to which all lesser washings point (15). This deeper significance, however, is one that is only accessible to the eyes of faith and the prayer of the church.

Bauerschmidt's strategy in the book is to take a number of classic mystical authors and their texts and to approach them through contemporary questions and concerns. In many respects we still live in the "disenchanted" world of modernity, which would seem to put us at a great distance from our more mystical forbears in the Faith. Yet, Bauerschmidt is deftly able to find entres into these texts through questions and struggles of the mystics that resonate with our own contemporary issues.

Therese of Lisieux's trial of faith, her "night of nothingness" in which God seemed totally absent, provides an engagement with a modernity that seems to live without God, so that God's seeming absence becomes an event in which he can be found.

Meister Eckhart's stance against the idolatries of attachment to created things leads to a discuss of a proper detachment that, far from turning away from creation in a gnostic gesture, allows us to more deeply move beyond idolatry further into our createdness in order to receive the God who shines in all things.

Hildegard of Bingen's meditation upon "veriditas" enables to recognize the serious issues of environmental ethics that press upon us today without thereby falling into pantheism, even while recognizing that in beautifying creation, we beautify ourselves by participating in the beauty of God himself.

Other mystics whose messages Bauerschmidt unfolds include Ignatius of Loyola, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton. The author's unusual and engaging approach to these profound spiritual figures provides a wonderful opportunity for a contemporary audience to appreciate their riches.