Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, where she directs the Center for Religion, Culture, and Civil Society, and also serves as editor-at-large of National Review magazine. Her columns appear in publications across the country, and she is an in-demand speaker on issues of faith and public life.
Her most recent book is A Year with the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living (TAN Books, 2019). Filled with short, pithy, and meaningful reflections from men and women of the Church’s mystical tradition, the book is a beautiful companion for one’s daily prayer. Fundamentally, this series of excerpts from the great mystics helps drive home the point that every Christian is called to draw more profoundly from the heart of Christ in prayer.
Lopez recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the book, the mystics themselves, and how the mystics can enliven our meditation on the mysteries of our faith.
Paul Senz for Catholic World Report: How did the book come to be? Was this an idea you brought to the publisher, or did they approach you?
Kathryn Jean Lopez: A Year with the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living is actually part of a series. Over the years, I’ve done exactly what you’re doing now—interviewed authors of books in the series. After interviewing Paul Thigpen, I think, about A Year with the Saints, I suggested they do one on women mystics, because I was devouring some of the writings of Gertrude the Great and Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, and so many more. I wanted a tour guide to them. So, I was definitely recommending someone else do it! But St. Benedict’s Press encouraged me to do it—and include the men, too, which I’m so glad is what happened! I have been very taken with the message that Paul VI issued to women at the end of the Second Vatican Council about the world needing women impregnated with the Gospel to keep mankind from falling (I was [taken] in particular because Pope Benedict XVI handed me the same message again just before he resigned!). I was spending time with women who lived that life for community!
In the end, A Year with the Mystics took longer than it should have to come together, but it came on the scene just before this wild year that really is a call to deeper contemplation. I’m so grateful to have been a part of it, and I’m praying with it too. I really believe whatever is good of it, is the Holy Spirit. I take blame for anything off in it, but the only way it came together is many hours of many days sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament in many churches in the northeast!
CWR: Why a whole year with the mystics?
Lopez: Again, it’s part of a series—the whole formula already existed. And, oh my goodness, yes, there is really that much to learn from them and more! And when all was said and done, I made sure to include people who maybe you wouldn’t traditionally consider mystics. Sure, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross and the well-known masters of the spiritual life are in there, but so are people we associate with doing, building, like Mother Cabrini and Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Paul II and Mother Teresa and Mother Angelica. Everything they did was fueled by prayer, by their perseverance in prayer. We have to know this. It is so easy to think that we are too busy, get too distracted to be faithful to prayer. And that’s exactly how so much falls out of order. Look at the world today. Do you think people are tearing one another apart on social media and everywhere else because they are spending too much time in silence with our Lord?
CWR: What makes someone a mystic?
Lopez: Here’s what the Catechism says: “Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called ‘mystical’ because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments—‘the holy mysteries’—and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all.” The people included in the book lived that journey of the Christian life. We’re all meant to, too. It may look different in each soul, at different times, but it’s the same God and he’s speaking to us all, seeking to draw us deeper into his Heart.
CWR: Have you always been drawn to the mystics in a particular way?
Lopez: I had an early love for Catherine of Siena, probably for obvious reasons. (My name, and I always knew Dominicans of some sort, from my earliest days.) Maybe eight or so years ago, though, I really started to devour them in a more intense way. That’s why I suggested this book come into existence in the first place—I wanted more. I wanted a tour guide. Then I got to be one, so I had to read more. What joy! What a privilege. I pray people come to know the saints more intimately through the book. I pray they become so deeply in love and knowledge of the Holy Trinity.
CWR: What is it about the mystics that is so attractive, so appealing, so fascinating?
Lopez: The love! The true, honest, every-cell-of-the body love for God. They are Marian in their receptivity and God uses them in amazing and miraculous ways. He wants this for us all! We think of mysticism as levitation and all these kinds of exotic things. But it’s only the drama of love, of truly coming to know our Lord more and more every day. Give him more, he will take more and show you more! It’s transformative. It’s what we’re made for! And really imperfect human beings lived this way! They lived the Christian life. They were sinners and awkward and many things many if not all of us feel every day. But they gave him all, and he was their everything. And God makes use of that, even to this day, with the eternal lives of them and the present moment we give him.
CWR: Not all of the mystics featured in the book are canonized, or even beatified. Did you struggle with including them? In other words, at any point did you consider using only beatified or canonized mystics?
Lopez: I did, but some of them were too good not to include. Mother Angelica, because we know her, and I interviewed her! I couldn’t not include her, because people maybe don’t realize the mysticism that made it all possible. And my friend Father Donald Haggerty at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It helps sometimes to see a living human being who is trying to live this life. He’s a master at the spiritual life, and yet a man like us all. I also wanted to include a living priest or two, to remember what the priesthood is about, as an encouragement to priests and an encouragement to pray for priests. It’s critical for us to help one another in prayer.
CWR: Is there anything you learned or encountered while writing the book that was particularly moving, or that spoke to you? Anything you learned that was particularly interesting?
Lopez: The capacity for the human person to know God and ache to serve him. It will look absurd to the world, but it’s the greatest love, it’s that union with Love Himself. It’s the stuff of the blazing charity Catherine of Siena would urge people to. It leads to bolder prayers, with zealous confidence in the will of the Lord, and death to our own. It’s a daily journey. Let’s help one another more on it. I hope the book helps. It’s helped me! It still does.
This time in our Church and country and world seems such an obvious invitation from the Lord to be more contemplative, to beg him in prayer, to ask him to make us chalices to pour out his love to the world. I know I struggled like so many at the beginning of this all, and some of the struggle is realizing how much I need the sacraments and how much more I should be pouring myself in prayer and love. “Love is our mission” was the theme when Pope Francis came to the United States. It sure is, and we have miles to go. I’m thinking it’s not only me, anyway. Forgive me if I’m too presumptuous!
The mystics were about self-denial and penance. How much reparation should we be doing these days? Evil in the Church and the world and my life! All of ours, right? It all does damage to the whole Mystical Body of Christ and the whole world. Lord, have mercy on us and on the whole world. And let’s get to work, really and truly. Our lives are about the Beatitudes, and it’s only possible through prayer. The mystics can show us how it’s done—and intercede for us!