The community at Holy Resurrection Monastery, Saint Nazianz, WI, in June, 2013: Fr. Basil, Fr. Maximos, Abbot Nicholas, Fr. Moses, Br. Ambrose and visitor, Deacon Patrick Firman (Photo: Holy Resurrection Monastery website)
God exists, He must be felt. If He is Love, it must be experienced and
become the fact of one's inmost life. Without spiritual enlightenment,
all is an idle talk, like a bubble which vanishes under the least
pressure. Without the awakening of the religious sense or faculty, God
is a shadow, the soul a ghost, and life a dream.” Soyen Shaku, Zen For Americans
“Put out into deep water, and lower your nets for a catch.” Luke 5:4
first two topics of this article are not often associated with the
third. Many people think of Christian mysticism and monasticism as
strictly “in-house” matters, too remote and esoteric to have any bearing
on the Church’s re-evangelization of the post-Christian West.
Catholics generally respect the contemplative vocation, they may see it
as peripheral to supposedly more urgent concerns, such as improving
catechesis and the liturgy, or bearing witness to faith and morality in
Those concerns are critical. But we believe the New
Evangelization of historically Christian countries also requires a
rediscovery of Christian mysticism, and a revival of the monastic
setting which is its natural home.
The Church has a new task in
our time: to re-evangelize regions that are falling away from the faith.
Most inhabitants of this post-Christendom are not atheists: many of
them are open to “spirituality,” though skeptical toward “religion.”
public hunger for spirituality reflects a legitimate need. Christians
must rediscover the mystical core of the Gospel, and present it to the
world through the witness of monasticism.
We have written this
article to outline the urgency of both tasks, and their inseparability
from one another. To re-evangelize the West, the Church must recover its
mystical heritage but this task requires contact with the living
monastic tradition. Monasteries are thus essential to the New
Sympathizing with the “Spiritually Independent”
their cultural prominence is new, and their identifying label of recent
vintage, the “spiritual but not religious” are no new phenomenon. Great
heresies, and even some major world religions, have sprung from the
minds of those who sought mystical experience without structure and
Ultimately, we need both mysticism and structure. The
spiritual life is not just about connecting with God, but also involves
public worship and communion with others. With no doctrinal and dogmatic
center, it is hard to tell true experiences of God from delusions and
hard, too, to discern God’s will among the morass of human opinions.
For these reasons, and many more, “spirituality” needs “religion.”
of spiritual individualism will not solve the problem, however. Moved
by charity, the Church must respond to whatever is legitimate in the
desires of the “spiritual but not religious.” In a misguided way, many
of them are seeking something essential: a transcendent, transformative
experience of God.
The Christian faith, in its diverse Eastern and
Western forms, is the definitive answer to man’s search for
transcendence and meaning. Yet the swelling ranks of the “spiritually
independent” many of them originally baptized into the Church
indicate a vast public ignorance of Christian mysticism.
still, many Christians share this ignorance. They neglect their own
mystical tradition, often due to misconceptions about what it actually
is. Unschooled in their own rich spiritual heritage, they cannot
evangelize those for whom “spirituality” and “religion” are at odds.
ignorance of mysticism must cease, especially if we care about the New
Evangelization of historically Christian nations, which are now the
breeding-ground for “spirituality without religion.”
has always been a privileged vehicle for the transmission and spread of
mystical spirituality, especially among Eastern Christians. Our
tradition exists to foster the same intimacy with God that the first
hermits sought in the Egyptian deserts. The same is true of traditional
Western monasticism, especially in the Benedictine lineage which drew so
much from the Desert Fathers.
We hope that the Western Church
will rediscover its own great monastic tradition, and the practical
mysticism at its core. Nothing else will suffice for the evangelization
of those who seek “spirituality” but mistrust “religion.” Indeed,
nothing else will satisfy the needs of the human soul.
What is Christian Mysticism?
is often misunderstood, and thus treated as off-limits to the average
person. So before speaking of what it is, we must make a clarification.
The term “mysticism” does not refer to the extraordinary gifts sometimes
found in the lives of saints: visions, private revelations,
supernatural abilities, and the like.
These things are not
essential to the mystical life, and the saints themselves tell us to not
seek them out. We cannot understand the mystical dimension of faith, if
we imagine it filled with apparitions, ecstasies, and unusual
charismatic gifts. The essence of Christian mysticism is more profound,
and more subtle.
Mysticism means relating to God on the deepest
level of our being. It means knowing and loving him in a transcendent
way, in keeping with his infinite and unfathomable nature. This profound
communion with the Triune God is the reason for our existence, the true
meaning of our lives.
Christian mysticism is rooted in the soul’s
encounter with the Risen Christ, and our reception of the divine life
that is his gift. The grace that Christ gives is not merely a created
substance, but the indwelling personal presence of the Holy Spirit. The
“Spirit of Sonship” conforms us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29)
allowing us to share, by grace, in Jesus’ own relationship of oneness
with God the Father.
Mysticism thus revolves around a central
paradox a central mystery. That paradox is the closeness of the
transcendent God, which makes it possible for us, finite creatures
though we are, to be united to him.
We humble ourselves before
God’s infinitude; but in this very act of worship, we find he is, as St.
Augustine said, “closer to us than we are to ourselves.” We cannot
reach God by our own power, yet by his grace, we are re-united with him
as the very ground of our own being.
The mystical relationship
with the Trinity goes beyond human thoughts and words, although thoughts
and words can help us enter into it. Mysticism is also deeper than
emotions and desires though they, too, can help us reach the depths of
spiritual life. The mystical life is neither mindless nor emotionless,
but it puts the intellect and the emotions at the service of something
The word “mysticism” is related to the idea of “mystery.”
From a mystical perspective, the paradoxes of faith are not
intellectual puzzles to solve, but sacred realities to approach with
awe. God reveals himself, yet remains infinitely mysterious always
more unknown than known.
There are different schools of Christian
mysticism, with different vocabularies and methods. But they are all
responses to the same truth: the absolutely transcendent God has drawn
near to us in Jesus Christ. The wholly Other has become one of us,
sharing in our death and rising again to give us his everlasting Life.
The Lord Jesus wants to give us his Spirit, and make us sons of his
These are revealed truths, the factual basis of our faith.
But they are also mysteries that we can never fully comprehend. To be a
mystic is to found one’s life on the truth of the Incarnation, while
striving to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ and the
life of the Trinity.
Christian mysticism is not for a select few. Christ tells us that this union with God is for all: “Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make a home in him” (John 14:23, NJB).
The Dangers of Discarding Christian Mysticism
in this sense, mysticism is not optional. If we strip the Gospel of
mystery and mysticism, we cut out its heart. For the Church is Christ’s
Mystical Body, united to the Lord in the Paschal Mystery.
there is a temptation to substitute other things for that direct
encounter between the soul and the Lord. We often shy away from that
transforming union with God, replacing it with something else: something
we can comprehend or control, which takes less discipline and
This temptation is pernicious, because most of our
substitutes for mysticism are good and necessary in themselves: doctrine
and theology; moral virtue and good works; sacred music and art; social
action and reform. All of these things can support a transcendent
relationship with God but none of them can take its place. They cannot
substitute for our spiritual union with God in Christ.
lesser goods occupy the place of the mystical life, we become
spiritually blind. Doctrinal orthodoxy, moral uprightness, and the
externals of Church life become substitutes for God’s very presence.
Surrounded by the paraphernalia of holiness, we believe we are close to
God, when in fact our hearts and souls are far from him.
Church exists to unite us with God, as partakers of the Divine Life, and
every other aspect of our religion serves this ultimate purpose. We
must never forget this, in our practice and proclamation of the faith.
neglect of Christian mysticism has severe consequences. If they are
given doctrine and morality with no clear path to union with God,
Christians are tempted to seek the very inverse: spirituality without
objective truth, mysticism with no moral or intellectual guide rails.
the Church does not offer instruction in the spiritual life, believers
will not give up their desire for it. Often they will seek it in a
non-Christian setting, looking to New Age teachers or Far Eastern
The modern “spiritual marketplace” is a challenge for
all Christians: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. But it is a
particular challenge for Western Christians, whose mystical and
contemplative traditions have (since at least the 16th century) been
less prominent, and less accessible to the lay faithful, than those
schools of mysticism native to the Christian East.
our Eastern tradition, Western Christians can reconnect with their own
mystical and monastic roots as they must, in order to evangelize the
spiritual seekers in their midst.
Practical Mysticism: The Prayer of the Heart
mystical life, then, is essential to the Christian faith. The gift of
union with God, in Christ, belongs to all the baptized, who comprise “a
royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9,
This means, too, that mysticism is inseparable from the
liturgy and the sacraments since worship is the central, definitive act
of God’s people; and it is through the sacraments that we first become
partakers of Christ’s life.
Within these guidelines, there are
various approaches to mysticism. It would be dangerous, however, to
attempt a reconstruction of Christian mysticism “from scratch” as
though the centuries of Church history, and the lives of the saints, had
Nor is it prudent to approach the mystical
tradition alone, simply by studying texts without personal guidance. It
is best to make contact with the tradition through its living recipients
For Eastern Christians, this means looking
to monasteries the traditional setting for the transmission and spread
of practical mysticism.
This was also the case in the Western
Church for most of its history. Thus, we suggest that Western Christians
should also look to monasticism, as much as possible, as a point of
entry into the living mystical tradition.
We hope, too, that
monasteries in the West may regain their historical status as cultural
centers, places of pilgrimage and spiritual direction. Eastern
Christians are well equipped to help the West recover its heritage in
Western Christians have no need to “Easternize”
themselves, however. The Christian West should look Eastward, not for
externals to adopt, but to gain a deeper understanding of itself.
was the approach taken by the renowned Trappist monk Thomas Merton, in
several of his works. A helpful example of Roman Catholic engagement
with the Christian East is found in his book The Climate of Monastic Prayer (also published with the title Contemplative Prayer).
interest in the Christian East arose partly from his desire to
recapture the spirituality of the early Desert Fathers, from which his
own Cistercian-Benedictine tradition descended. St. Benedict had drawn
from Greek and Egyptian traditions, through the writings of St. Basil
and St. John Cassian, in establishing the Benedictine Rule.
Merton, the “strict observance” of that Rule was not enough: one also
had to return to the wellspring of Patristic teaching and practice,
which meant looking to Eastern monasticism.
In doing so, Merton
hoped to remind Roman Catholics of a heritage which belonged to them
just as much as to the Eastern churches. He understood the universal
value of certain Eastern Christian practices above all, what is called
the “Prayer of the Heart,” or the “Jesus Prayer.”
some presentations, this practice is not a “technique,” physical or
otherwise. There is also no single, mandatory set of words that one must
use. The words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” are widely used; but other formulas longer, shorter, or completely different are legitimate.
the 19th century Russian bishop St. Theophan taught: “The words
pronounced are merely a help, and are not essential. The principal thing
is to stand before the Lord with the mind in the heart. This, and not
the words, is inner spiritual prayer.”
Thomas Merton was an avid
reader of St. Theophan, and of earlier monastic fathers like St. John
Climacus and St. Diadochus of Photike. Through his study of these
Eastern sources, Merton understood the Prayer of the Heart as something
simple and universal.
In The Climate of Monastic Prayer,
he summarizes the Prayer of the Heart, as a practice consisting in
“interior recollection, the abandonment of distracting thoughts and the
humble invocation of the Lord Jesus with words from the Bible in a
spirit of intense faith.”
“This simple practice,” Merton writes,
“is considered to be of crucial importance in the monastic prayer of the
Eastern Church, since the sacramental power of the Name of Jesus is
believed to bring the Holy Spirit into the heart of the praying monk.”
different prayer formulas may be used, we are warned against changing
the words often. In calm persistence, we repeat one simple prayer,
calling upon the Lord in a spirit of inner poverty. No discursive
thought, imaginative meditation, or emotional exertion is involved. This
is the Prayer of the Heart.
This prayer, as Merton notes, is not
merely one feature among many in monastic life. Ideally, it is the core
of all spirituality and asceticism:
“The practice of keeping the
name of Jesus ever present in the ground of one’s being was, for the
ancient monks, the secret of the ‘control of thoughts’ and of victory
over temptation. It accompanied all the other activities of the monastic
life imbuing them with prayer.”
We concur with Merton, that the
Prayer of the Heart is not a just an Eastern practice. It is, as he
says, “the essence of monastic meditation, a special form of that
practice of the presence of God which St. Benedict in turn made the
cornerstone of monastic life.” The Prayer of the Heart is for all
Christians, in every walk of life.
Merton also saw Eastern monasticism as preserving the connection between personal and liturgical prayer. Elsewhere in The Climate of Monastic Prayer,
he notes that “liturgy by its very nature tends to prolong itself in
individual contemplative prayer, and mental prayer in its turn disposes
us for and seeks fulfillment in liturgical worship.”
monasticism preserves this connection, through its strong emphasis on
both liturgical prayer and the Prayer of the Heart. At Holy Resurrection
Monastery, we have incorporated the silent practice of the Jesus Prayer
into the community’s liturgical life.
Merton’s research drew on
writings from the Christian East, and parallel aspects of Western
monasticism. But his exposure to our tradition was hampered by a sad
fact: in Merton’s day, there were practically no Eastern Catholic
monasteries observing the authentic Byzantine tradition in the western
world. For much of the 20th century, in fact, there were relatively few
traditional Eastern Catholic monasteries anywhere.
is slowly changing. Holy Resurrection Monastery hopes to make a
difference, by providing a setting in which all Catholics can
participate in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Christian
East. By encountering Byzantine monasticism, and discovering the Prayer
of the Heart, all Christians can grow in their appreciation of the
Gospel’s mystical dimension.
New Evangelization: Re-integrating “Religion” and “Spirituality”
first glance, the subjects we have taken up Christian mysticism,
monastic life, and the Prayer of the Heart may seem unrelated to the
work of evangelization. Yet this only goes to show how badly we have
neglected and marginalized the mystical heart of the Gospel.
Rahner famously said that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic,
or he will not exist at all.” This may be an overstatement, but it
points to an important aspect of the crisis of faith now sweeping many
of the Church’s historic heartlands.
Increasingly, we can expect
that those unaware of Christian mysticism will dismiss our faith as
shallow, or abandon it for something that seems more “spiritual.” Many
clergy and lay faithful, ignorant of the mystical tradition themselves,
are powerless to stop this trend.
The New Evangelization must
offer many things, including sound catechesis, moral guidance, social
action, and reverent worship. All of these things, however, must be put
into their proper context. They are ultimately not ends in themselves,
but aspects of the path to union with God.
transcendent dimension, our New Evangelization runs the risk of simply
creating new institutional structures, to offer doctrine and morality as
if they were ends in themselves.
The closeness of the
transcendent God is not a theoretical abstraction. It is a fact the
most important fact there is. The divine presence must become the basis
of the believer’s whole life, through that harmony of liturgical and
contemplative prayer which is the foundation of Christian mysticism.
cannot recreate the mystical tradition anew, nor can we learn it from
books alone. If the Church is to recover the primacy of the mystical
life, the living tradition of monasticism must lead the way.
those who doubt the value of monasticism for the New Evangelization, we
say: “Come and see!” (John 1:39). For the witness of our tradition
cannot be conveyed by words alone.
To those who doubt the need for
both “religion” and “spirituality,” we extend the same invitation: Come
and see! We hope you will see how monastic life, for all its discipline
and structure, exists for the sake of a supreme freedom “the glorious
liberty of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:21, RSV-CE)