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The Postmodern Catholic

Unit II Christian Mysticism
College Recommendations Guidelines
Sacred Paths
Homeworks and Outline: Sacred Paths
Reading Guide Questions Taoism 211-218
Reading Guide Questions Taoism
Homeworks: and Outline: Introduction to Catholicism
Unit IV Moses Reluctant Hero
Unit III God's Imperfect Instruments
Unit III God's Chosen Ones
The Mass, Vestements, and Sacred Vessels
Unit III The Sacraments
Iona Prep Interfaith Society
Islam Notes

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Christian Mystical Tradition

l      Has its origins in the earliest Christian communities

l      Jesus of Nazareth is the first and greatest of the Christian mystics

l      Mysticism is at the core of Christian spirituality

l      The Christian mystical tradition can be a valuable source of renewal of the faith

The Mystical Experience

l      Is a direct experience of God that goes beyond an intellectual understanding

l      It is not a matter of belief but a matter of love and joy in one’s everyday life

l      It is to experience the Kingdom of God in the present

l      Jesus proclaimed “I and the Father are One” (Jn 10:30)

l      Christian mysticism is simply to experience a similar sense of union with Christ and God

l      The goal is ultimately to become Christ, while, paradoxically, remaining one’s self

l      During Communion Saint Augustine was fond of saying “Come and receive what you are!” 

Why the Christian Mystics?

l      This authentic, yet largely forgotten tradition can be a pathway to meet the religious Other (the Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu)

l      The mystical tradition has certain characteristics (particularly its images of God) that parallel many eastern conceptions of God and his relationship to humanity

The Demise of Religion in the West

l      Western society tends to be scientific, rationalistic, and dualistic

l      Dualism: the separation of all things into an either/or relationship:

Heaven/Hell                              -Life/Death

            -Spirit/Matter                           -Being/Non-Being


*Collectively, these Western traits have had a profoundly negative impact on Western Christians spirituality

l      We tend to view God and Christ as separate and apart from us

l      Result: assumption by many that to be holy, or close to God, one must escape this world; one must deny the flesh and all its pleasures

Growth in the Role of Doctrine and Correct Belief

l      Since the modern Age, the Church has emphasized the rational acceptance of doctrine and the use of precise, formula-like prayers as the best way to achieve salvation

l      One is reminded of Paul, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming”. (Paul, Ephesians, 4:12-15)


Crisis of Meaning

l      Father and Zen Roshi Robert Kennedy states that “Many gifted Catholics sadly walk away from the church because they have not found a vision of Catholicism that they can integrate into their mature experiences of life” (Kennedy, 1995, 14).

l      Christians often forget that the Gospel was written by mystics

l      Non-Dualistic images of God are scattered throughout the Bible, particularly in John and Paul

l      Paul’s Galatians 2:20 ““I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”.

l      For Paul, Christ was the deepest core of his being.

l      Like Paul and the later mystics, the highest point of Christian mysticism is not experienced in a dualistic, I/Thou, sense but in the experience that one’s own being shared the Being of God (Kennedy, 1995, 36).

l      This mystical union is expressed in the Eucharist where we ritualistically and communally express our union with Christ

l      This union allows us to become one with him: we become our true selves in Christ

Problem of Religious Language

l      Christianity has always struggled to find appropriate language that maintains a creative balance between knowing and unknowing

l      Gnostics (Those claiming to know the will and nature of God) and Agnostics (those claiming that nothing can be known about God) have both been unacceptable ways of speaking about God 

l      To focus on only one way while ignoring the other is to slip into heresy

Knowing and Unknowing God

l      The mystical tradition has tended to emphasized the mystery and unknowability of God

l      Traditional Roman Catholic teaching has emphasized the equally important theological precept that God can be known: specifically, can be known through Holy Scripture, church tradition, and, most fully, in the person of Jesus Christ.

l      Neither approach can be detached from the other. 

l      Negation (Unknowing) must always be a way of affirmation (Knowing)

l      Affirmation (what can be said about God) needs to always be open to limited forms of negation (what cannot be said about God) (LaCugna, 158).

l      With regards to interreligious dialogue, it is always wise to remember that the final word has not been said; in fact, can never be said

Catherine LaCugna

l      “By emptying ourselves of concepts and images of God, or of expectations about what God is or should be or should be doing, we become free to know and love the real loving God instead of the God of our projections.  This emptying leads us not into absence but into the presence of the God who far exceeds our thoughts and words and even our desires” (LaCugna, 157).

Brief History of Christian Mysticism

l      Gregory of Nyssa

l      One of the Cappadocian Fathers who helped formulate the Doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicea

l      the Cappadocians stressed the infinite and therefore incomprehensible nature of God 

l      From this would develop an understanding of mysticism as an endless pursuit of an infinite God (McGinn, 141). 

Early Mystics

l      A key theme for the mystic was eros: the divine longing for God.

l      The ancient mystics stressed that mystical consciousness was to be grounded in dedicated reading of the Bible.

l      Christians were called to immerse themselves in the words and images of scripture not to simply memorize and accept them, but to enter into the deeper moral and spiritual messages found there 

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C. E.)

l      Augustine grounds the chance for all Christian’s to experience a deep and transforming awareness of God

l      This experience was found not in some individual mystical journey towards a questionable and suspect “union” with God, but through full participation within the community of the Church

l      Augustine was aware of the profound limits language had in describing ultimate reality.

l      For Augustine, the incomprehensibility of God is a basic principle that guides all interpretation of Scripture and all language about God. 

l      He warns that one cannot talk about God since he is, in the end, mystery and unknowable

l      Following his spiritual mentor Paul, Augustine claims that the cosmic Christ is found in the depths of the human person and is quite beyond any words, even words of doctrine.

l      Still, as bishop, he realized that you had to talk about God in meaningful ways that the average person could relate to

Dionysius the Areopagite (5th Century Syrian monk)

l      Dionysius saw all of reality as proceeding from and returning to their origin (God)

l      His most common metaphors used to express one’s journey back to the Divine Source was that of darkness, cloud, and, in the end, silence (McGinn, 184). 

l      This language and method helped reinforce the mystical ideal that God can be attained only through unknowing (McGinn, 185).

The Cloud of Unknowing (12th century France)

l      God is not in one’s being: God is your being.

l      Regular contemplative practice (silent prayer) is thought to lead to a new awareness of one’s relationship to God and to others

l      Regular contemplative practice centers one’s whole life around the fact that God is at the center of all that one does.

l      The Author is suspicious of attempts to conform oneself to an external code, or pattern, of holiness or mysticism, claiming that such ape-like imitation can never produce an authentic contemplative experience (Tugwell, xx).

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

l      Along with Augustine, Aquinas had perhaps the greatest impact on the Roman Catholic tradition

l      Although not commonly recognized, Aquinas was profoundly influenced by the mystical tradition,

l      “Now we cannot know what God is, but only what God is not: therefore, let us consider the ways in which God does Not exist” (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1.3,

l      Aquinas is the first Western philosopher to view knowledge metaphysically; meaning that “knowing” was simply a form of “being”. 

l      Aquinas asserts in the Summa that all things in the universe are interconnected because all participate in “to be”.

l      God is viewed as the Ground of all Being

l      Parallels to Hindi conceptions of Brahma: Buddhist conception of Buddha-Nature: Taoist concept of The Tao

Thomas Merton

l      In Merton we can see elements of both the apophatic mystical contemplative tradition as well as the key characteristics of a Roman Catholic Zen practitioner. 

l      For Merton, keeping the faith was a matter of balancing faithfulness to tradition with openness to the signs of the times

l      Merton considered himself to be neither conservative nor progressive. 

l      Like Pope John XXIII Merton saw himself as a progressive with a deep respect and love for tradition who wanted to preserve a clear continuity with the past (Bochen, 150).

Merton’s 3 Elements of Being a Christian

l      1) the reality of God’s presence in one’s life

l      2) love and openness towards others through dialogue and committed social justice

l      3) the basic unity that lies at the heart of the human community (Bochen, 32).

Merton on Contemplation

l      Merton called his students to recognize through contemplation that this superficial “I” was not our real self

l      This superficial I was the thinking part of us that was aware of and lived in the world

l      It was not the hidden, internal, true self who faced God and had been united with God in Christ (Bochen, 60).

l      Merton called all Roman Catholics to become more aware of this Other within each of us. 

l      The more we were able to recognize this Stranger within, the more we would be able to recognize it in people of other faith traditions.

l      Another name for this mysterious Other could be Christ-Consciousness.

l      “Just as we have a superficial, external mask which we put together with words and actions that do not fully represent all that is in us, so even do believers deal with a God who is made up of words, feelings, reassuring slogans, and this is less the God of faith than the product of religious and social routine.  Such a “God” can become a substitute for the truth of the invisible God of faith, and though this comforting image may seem real to us, he is really a kind of idol.  His chief function is to protect us against a deep encounter with our true inner self and with the true God” (Burton, Stone & Hart, 1979, 38-43)[1].

l      “If I affirm myself as Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protest, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic and certainly no breadth of the Spirit with which to affirm it” (Merton, 1966, 128-29).
[1] From Christine Bochen (Ed.). Thomas Merton: Essential Writings. (2000). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, p.76.

The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man

l      John 3:1-15: Jesus the Mystic

l      Nichodemus questions Jesus about the Kingdom of God

l      Key to Jesus’ answer is his meaning of the Son Of Man

l       Jesus: “No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again in the Spirit

Scriptural Grounding: The Gospel of John

l      When speaking of the Kingdom of God Jesus claims he is speaking of earthly things, open to experience by those touched by the Spirit. 

l      Jesus continues that no one has ascended to heaven but he who has descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 

l      He then refers to Numbers 21:8, and says that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (Leong, 89).

l      In Luke, the Pharisees are portrayed asking Jesus whether or not he claims to be the Christ.  Jesus is evasive: ‘“If I tell, you will not believe; if I ask, you will not answer.  From now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God’.  And they said, ‘Are you the Son of God?’  And he said to them, ‘You say that I am’” (Luke 22:66, in Leong, 101). 

l      Leong notes while many Christian apologists have focused on defending the divinity of Christ, they seem to overlook the reality that Jesus openly denied any monopoly on the “Son of God” title (Leong, 100).  In John, Jesus asks why the Council would be so offended by such a response. He again quotes Hebrew Scripture: “I say, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you’.  Nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince’” (Psalms, 82:6-7, in Leong, 100).

l      Son of Man? A Hebrew term found in numerous parts of the Hebrew Bible

l      The term has two distinct, but not separate meanings

l      In one sense, the term refers to a prophetic figure thought to be marked by the “Spirit of Yahweh”

l      The term also seems to refer to anyone born of woman,

l      It therefore can be used to refer to anyone of the human race



l      Mystical Interpretation of Jesus statement in John: “I and the Father are one”

l      Goal of Christian Mystics?

l      Parallel traits/characteristics of Christian Mysticism with Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism?

l      Weaknesses of Dualistic thought?

l      Western Rationalism and its Spiritual effects?

l      Crisis of religious meaning in West

l      Non-Dualistic images of God/Christ in Scripture

l      How does the Eucharist represent a non-dualistic image of God?

l      How does praying and meditating on its significance help us become our true selves?

l      What is the central problem/challenge with all religious language?

l      How can freeing ourselves of familiar, comfortable images of God bring us closer to God?

l      Aquinas’ conception of Being (ours and God’s

l      Merton’s three themes of being a Christian

l      Merton’s concept of the Other/Stranger within and its importance to interreligious dialogue




l      Mystical Experience                  Kingdom of God

l      Jesus as Mystic             Jesus as Christ

l      Jesus as Son of Man                 Dualism

l      Christ-Consciousness               Non-Dualism

l      Apophatic                                Agnosticism

l      Cataphatic                                Gnosticism       

l      Negation                                  Affirmation

l      Paradox                                   Eros

l      Dark Faith                                The Trinity

l      Gregory of Nyssa                     Augustine

l      Dionysius                                  Thomas Aquinas                      

l      Cloud of Unknowing    

l      Thomas Merton


 Homeworks and Outline: Sacred Paths

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D. “The more I am able to affirm others, to say ‘yes” to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone” Thomas Merton