Mystical Union and Contemplation, Part 1: Some Basic Principles
Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP June 9, 2010
Blessed Sacrament Parish, Seattle, Washington
Last summer, I spent two months in Mexico studying Spanish. One day, another Dominican friar and I visited the beautiful colonial city of Guanajuato. While we were walking along marveling at the colorful old architecture in the heart of the city, someone suddenly but gently grabbed my hand. Now muggers do not usually assault Dominican friars in habit on a crowded Mexican street in broad daylight, so I was not worried. I turned around and found myself looking at an adorable little white-haired man with a long beard. He gazed up at me, pointed at my confrere and said, “Son mysticos!” “You’re mystics!” I said, “Maybe, but actually, we’re just Dominican friars.” Today, many people who encounter a Catholic or Buddhist monk in public automatically think: “Wow, he lives in a monastery and prays all day. He probably knows deep secrets about the universe.”
Mysticism is a gift. You do not acquire it by putting on a monastic habit. So the reason I am giving this talk is not that I have had extraordinary visions, but rather because I am writing my dissertation on 13th century Dominican mystical theology. I have been immersing myself in the writings of the mystics for most of the last two years. For two millennia, countless Christian men and women have sought to communicate the marvel of their most intimate encounters with God. The saints who write about mysticism attempt to say what they can never express perfectly, namely, what God does in the soul when he comes to us in a new, more intense way. That is our topic this evening: the most extraordinary, wonderful thing that God can do in us this side of heaven.
1. Some Basic Terms
First, I want to define some terms. In classical Christian spiritual texts, the word mystical means hidden. Union is a relational term that refers to the soul being joined more intensely to God. Thus, mystical union means a coming together of God and the soul that is partly (or fully) hidden to the individual’s consciousness. Contemplation literally means to look at or to gaze. In the history of the West, the word was first employed in ancient Greek description of spectators at the Olympic games, to describe the crowd watching the athletes. In the Christian tradition, contemplation refers to gazing upon God, an act that occurs especially during prayer, but also in study. Our main topic this evening is mystical union, though we will also touch a bit upon contemplation. Next Wednesday, we will focus our attention on contemplation. I want to deal with union first, because my study of mystical theology has convinced me that we can only understand contemplation through a healthy theology of hidden or mystical union. We first need to patiently ponder the goal of contemplation, which is union. Once we know where we are going, we can figure out how to get there.
2. Three Key Sources
I have employed three major sources for today’s and next week’s presentation. After the Bible, which is always the primary source in Christian spirituality, the first source is the ancient desert fathers, more specifically, the 4th century hermits Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian. Evagrius is one of the great pillars of Eastern Orthodox mystical theology. Cassian was a disciple of Evagrius and influenced virtually all of western mystical theology, starting with St. Benedict. The desert fathers constitute a common root for Western and Eastern Orthodox Christians. My second major source is the 13th century Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas. When I mention Aquinas, many people are surprised that he has a place in the study of mysticism. Half of my dissertation treats union with God according to Aquinas because I am convinced that he has much to teach us in this area. Aquinas synthesized Greek and Latin mystical traditions. He also developed a very holistic vision of the human being. He corrected certain quasi-dualistic tendencies in some of the ancient Church Fathers and medieval thinkers, of those who did not always adequately value the body’s place in the spiritual life. Aquinas also enjoyed extraordinary experiences of union with God towards the end of his life. My third major source is the great 16th century Carmelite foundress, St. Theresa of Avila. Teresa’s writings on mysticism especially reflect her personal experiences. She en-fleshed multiple ancient and medieval traditions of mystical theology in daily life. Teresa’s books on union with God have a very practical approach. Teresa also adds a woman’s voice to the conversation. She was a strong personality who knew how to discern between helpful, wise priests or spiritual advisors and other priests whom she was not afraid to call “half-educated” (The Interior Castle, 5.1).
3. Mystical Union in the Bible
The theme of union with God in this life has firm biblical foundations, as is evident in the Letters of St. Paul, the Gospel of John and the Song of Songs. Paul offers several analogies to explain how believers are supernaturally joined to God. Thus, in 2 Corinthians (3:17-18), Paul tells us: “We, with unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the glory of the Lord, all grow brighter as we are turned into the image we reflect. This is the work of the Lord.” The phrase reflecting like mirrors the glory of the Lord is often interpreted to mean that we gaze upon Jesus’ human face, especially in liturgical worship. We begin to reflect the divine glory that shines forth from Christ’s divinized body (McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism, 71). This theme is close to Eastern Orthodox theologies of the Transfiguration of Christ as a model of union. Paul’s letters explicitly teach but more often assume that the union with Christ attained by faith and baptism intensifies through daily discipleship. In the Last Supper Discourse of John’s Gospel, Jesus promises that he and the Father will dwell in the hearts of those who obey Jesus (14:23). Finally, since the 2nd century, both Jews and Christians have interpreted the Song of Songs or wedding poem of the Old Testament as an allegory for God and his people, or an allegory of God and the individual soul. The various images of spousal, sexual love come to symbolize the exchange of spiritual love between God and the soul. For example, the lovers’ caresses become God’s invisible yet perceptible touches of the soul, etc. Such spousal imagery has been a favorite among female mystics. One could consider many other biblical images of union with God.
Let us draw five quick lessons from biblical mysticism. First, St. Paul and St. John teach that union is a present reality enjoyed by all who believe the Gospel and live according to it, by those who have supernatural faith and charity. The union with God that believers already enjoy is the foundation for growth in union. Whether non-Christians can have access to this union in this life is a question which the human biblical authors generally did not pose. Second, union with God is his free gift, the fruit of the gratuitous outpouring of divine love. Third, as we grow into deeper union, the supernatural presence of God in us can be truly experienced. In John 14:21, Jesus promises that he will dwell within and manifest himself to those who love him. Union with Christ brings the possibility of an interior perception of his indwelling. Fourth, the Bible uses multiple images of union with God. No single image suffices to explain this mystery. The model of spousal love shows that the human being is called to a passionate encounter with God. The Johannine image of the Trinity dwelling in us shows God is already within, an element that the spousal imagery does not clearly bring out, since the bride of the Song of Songs spends much of her time looking for the absent bridegroom, at least absent to the bride’s or the soul’s perception. Fifth, notice that these models of union are not simply based on individuals describing their interior experiences or projecting an idea onto God. Rather, the Bible transmits images of union that God himself has chosen by inspiring the human authors of Scripture. Even though mystical union is a hidden event that we cannot adequately describe, the Bible gives us analogies or images to talk about this wonderful gift. Therefore, our efforts to understand and describe union with God need not be vain speculation or mere opinion. The Bible transmits a Revelation which reveals a mystery. The Bible passes on the manifestation of an objective-but-unseen reality that is hidden to our strictly natural, rational abilities to know reality.
4. The Universal Call to Hidden Union
According to Sacred Scripture, everyone who has entered into a relationship of faith and love with God already enjoys a certain form of union with him. When we speak of mystical union, we refer to the blossoming of this basic union with God. Mystical union involves an intensification of our relationship with God. The normal fulfillment of the Christian life is mystical union. It’s for everyone. The holiness that the saints manifest turns out to be a different term for deep union with God. Since all are called to be saints, all are called to union. Saints are mystics, period. Furthermore, union with God is not just something we enjoy when we become saints, but a reality already implanted in us in seed form at baptism, a gift that should gradually grow as we progress in holiness. Contemplation is a path whereby we can both open ourselves more fully to deeper union and attain a fuller awareness of God’s intensifying presence in us.
Baptism imparts the gifts of faith and charity, or in the case of adult converts, baptism intensifies these two theological virtues. The Trinity dwells in us precisely as we cling to God through supernatural faith and love or charity. Because union is the intensification of our relationship with God that begins in baptism, the virtues of faith and charity are essential to understand the nature of union. I do not intend to exclude all non-Christians from the possibility of union with God in this life. The Trinity can bless those who do not have access to the Gospel and the sacraments for various reasons. However, as Christians, we first understand union through our basic teachings rooted in Scripture and Tradition, and then think of how “outsiders” might have access to God’s grace. Good Buddhist monks like the Dalai Lama do the same with their tradition. The Dalai Lama refers back to Buddhist doctrines to explain what Christians can attain through contemplation (see my “The Salvation of Non-Christians” talk).
5. Union as a Gift
The perfection of the baptismal gifts is an essential model to help us understand mystical union. God’s grace or life that comes to us in baptism is a free gift. We did not earn it by the good things we did before being baptized. This sacrament imparts God’s gratuitous love that we accept as a gift. Consequently, deepening union with the Trinity is also a free gift. We can prepare and strive for union. We can also merit a deeper share in God’s life with every good work. But the infusion of God’s love still comes as his free blessing, when he decides that we are ready. A father might be wonderful with his children but egotistical at work. The vice of egoism or excessive self-love thus prevents him from receiving the blessings God wants to pour out in his life as a reward for the father’s goodness to his children. God wants to love us more, but we sometimes become unreceptive to that higher love.
Union is a gift that I cannot trigger by learning a better way to meditate or contemplate. I can only strive to open myself more to the gift of union. Contemplation is a very powerful way to allow God to enter our hearts in a new way, but it is not mechanism that causes union. Someone can acquire the capacity to meditate calmly on an icon or the beauty of God in a sunset, yet not achieve any union by such meditation. Union is a grace, therefore it is a gift.
A Christian understanding of mysticism presumes that God is really distinct from us. We are his creatures. We are called to be like God, but we never literally become God. That is why I cannot trigger an awareness of the divine within by meditating properly. God is three Persons that freely enter into friendship with me. Every Christian mystic in history teaches this. When Christian mystics mention finding the God within, they mean the God who has graciously come to dwell in his temple, not a divine self. You are the temple, but the God who lives in it is not you. We can miss this point amidst the obscure, symbolic language that many mystics employ as they describe what almost cannot be described.
6. Union Through Deeper Faith and Charity
Union heightens the two greatest gifts we receive at baptism, namely, faith and charity. Faith is when the mind freely clings to the Trinity as the source of all truth, even though we cannot see God in this life. Faith says, “I accept the teachings of Jesus as true, even though I cannot prove them.” Faith is an act of the intellect, an act of trust, a free “yes” to God and his Word. Charity is an act of the heart or the will. Charity is a choice whereby I cling to God as Father, Creator, and Lover. Charity says, “I want whatever God wants, because God is Love, He is Pure Goodness.” At baptism, God imparts the virtues of faith and charity (and hope) so that we can actively know and love him, and be confident that he will lead us to heaven as we follow him. Because union perfects the gifts we received at our baptism, it intensifies our capacity to know and love God. Union is about coming to know and “kiss” the Trinity more deeply, for in union, God manifests himself to the mind and touches the heart. Contemplation is a powerful means towards union because it essentially involves activating the gifts of faith and love. Faith thirsts to look upon God’s hidden face, and charity burns to touch God’s love. Contemplation essentially is a deliberate activation of that thirsting mind and burning heart.
Because union brings faith and charity to perfection, union is not a purely passive state where we simply stare at the divine mystery and do nothing. Teresa of Avila and many other saints emphasize that the path toward union sometimes takes us through dark valleys where our contemplation becomes predominantly passive and dry (i.e., not sensing God’s presence), but union itself is not completely passive. Nor does the Christian contemplative ever shut out all acts of faith and love from times of contemplation. In fact, from Evagrius and Cassian, to the medieval mystics to Teresa of Avila and beyond, the primarily passive state of the soul enjoying deep union with God is not the result of the contemplative’s choice to be passive and think of nothing. Rather, each of them attributes the most passive states of contemplation to a free act of the Trinity in us. God empties us of all thoughts in that he draws the mind and heart toward him. In this event of grace, we continue to believe in and love God, but those acts of faith and charity are now caught up in the divine light that floods the soul. This event of grace is notoriously difficult to describe, but is often akin to other peak experiences like the butterflies of being in love. By grace, mind and heart spontaneously soar to God, as they no longer require deliberate activation at every moment. (Evagrius, On Prayer, 7-10, especially as explained by Hausherr, Les leçons d’un contemplatif, 21-6; Cassian, Conferences, 9.18; Merton, Contemplative Prayer, 89-95). For example, Teresa of Avila speaks of heart and mind reposing in God in the fourth mansion, even while the imagination is distracted. The fourth mansion is a fairly advanced state in the spiritual life. Here, by the gift of infused prayer, heart and mind are at peace, incapable of doing anything but enjoying the presence of God. Heart and mind now spontaneously cling to God by faith and love as much as they can. In the first three mansions, where many of us probably find ourselves, Teresa counsels us to engage in deliberate, willed acts of faith and love during contemplation, i.e. meditating on the truth communicated by a sacred text or an image and speaking to God from the heart (Teresa, Interior Castle, 4.1, 4.3).
Consequently, a totally quiet, passive state of meditation is incompatible with the centrality of the virtues of faith and love. We never stop actively clinging to God by our hearts and minds, nor do we ever exclude from times of contemplation the soul’s search for the hidden face and heart of God. By their nature, love and knowledge are not just passive. Think of human spousal love. When a husband and wife who seek to grow in their friendship look at one another and say nothing, they are not just passive in their hearts. It is not accident that the Bible invokes spousal love to teach us about union.
This key element of the Christian mysticism cannot be fully harmonized with Buddhist or so-called non-dualistic mystical philosophies. The Buddhist emphasis on silent contemplation and emptiness has powerful lessons for us, especially on how to overcome disordered self-love and attachments to finite realities, like human approval. Yet such Buddhist ideas cannot be fully integrated into a Christian understanding of human beings as immortal creatures called to communion with a personal God. Communion is not fully passive for the participants in a relationship of love. In Buddhist terms, Christian mystical union is at least somewhat dualistic. The insights of Thomas Merton and Buddhist scholars like Paul Williams are very helpful in this regard. Merton learned much from Buddhism on overcoming disordered self-love, which he called the false self, but the Trappist monk consistently explained mystical union above all through Christian categories (Merton, Contemplative Prayer, 67-71; The Merton Reader, 486-8).
7. Mystical Union, Visions and the Experience of God
You may have noticed that I have not at all mentioned a form of supernatural experience that we might think is automatically connected to mystical union: I am referring to mystical visions, interior voices and other extraordinary phenomena. Many people employ the term mystic in order to refer to a visionary. We think of Daniel the prophet as a mystic because he recounts having visions, or of Teresa of Avila who saw the Trinity. Teresa was a mystic, but not because she had visions. God blesses some saints with visions when they enter into deep union. However, many saints remind us that visions are not essential for union. The desert fathers and St. John of the Cross strongly counsel us to avoid visions, because we can easily misunderstand them, or not realize that they sometimes come from our imagination or from somewhere other than God. If you have visions or experience other strange phenomena, talk to a wise priest, nun or layman who knows theology. If you don’t have visions, you’re doing just fine.
The perennial human fascination with mystical phenomena can easily obscure a far more important element of mysticism. Union is an objective reality or supernatural event that God brings about at the depth of our souls, one that often escapes our awareness. The key to mysticism is not having apparitions but allowing God to work quietly within us in ways that escape our immediate consciousness. The key element of mysticism is not what you feel, but what God does regardless of our experience (Turner, The Darkness of God). Our feelings and interior sensations during contemplation are quite secondary. What matters is what God does within, especially when you cannot see or feel what he is doing.
However, that is not to say that mystical experience is irrelevant. The Bible and the saints teach that we can sometimes perceive the effects of God’s free gift of union within. The descriptions of these experiences vary, depending on which mystical tradition we consult. Perhaps the simplest explanation, one that would gain broad agreement among Christian mystics, is the following. Union manifests itself when we taste God’s sweetness or goodness in a way that is beyond words. St. Teresa of Avila describes finding deep peace in God, even if some distractions remain. Or again, union becomes apparent when I gain a deeper intuitive knowledge of who God is, without being able to fully describe or explain this knowledge (See St. Thomas Aquinas on the Spirit’s Seven Gifts). An example of this intuitive knowledge would be an ever-more frequent, spontaneous awareness of God’s presence in the beauty of creation when we encounter extraordinary natural beauty, even as we realize that God is distinct from creation, that he is so much bigger than the cosmos. You have probably already had many little mystical experiences without realizing it. “Son mysticos!”
Notice that all of these examples involve an intensification of faith and charity by a new gift of God’s grace. Teresa’s taste of God’s peace was the fruit of her heart finding repose in God’s heart, a deepening of charity. The spontaneous, intuitive sense of God’s presence in natural beauty involves a growth in faith. We no longer simply accept by faith the truth that God is present in creation, but actually come to a perception of his presence, yet without seeing God face-to-face. We come to a deeper knowledge of God, yet not an empirical knowledge, or the kind of direct knowledge of God we will attain in heaven where we will finally see the Trinity.
8. Virtue as the Path to Union
When you read John Cassian or Teresa of Avila, you will notice an oddity: they often spend little time describing a method of contemplation or the nature of union. Rather, they often focus on the theme of virtues and vices. Most of their advice to the majority of their readers focuses on how to overcome sin, disordered attachments to self and the things around us, and how to love God and neighbor more authentically. For the Christian mystics, there is no spirituality without religion. They could at times offer strong critiques of corruption in the Church or the misuse of ecclesial institutions (e.g. St. Catherine of Siena), but they never imagined a spiritual path as an alternative to the daily practice of the Christian life. The Christian mystics never propose an alternative to liturgical prayer and fidelity to basic moral precepts. The connection between spiritual progress and fidelity to an ethical code is hardly exclusive to Christianity. One can easily find the same link in authentic Buddhism, but not the popular Westernized versions thereof.
This aspect of the mystical literature has important consequences for our understanding of the path of contemplation as we seek union. When we begin to set aside regular time for contemplation, whether by meditating on the Bible, going to Eucharistic Adoration or praying at home before a Christian symbol like an icon, many of us will have relatively few consoling experiences on a regular basis. Rather, many of us will find a host of distractions and a deepening awareness of our own weaknesses and failings, perhaps much more than experiences of God. Consequently, many people try to change the way they meditate, or they stop because it does not feel good. This is a huge mistake. Countless mystics insist that the beginning of the contemplative path is almost always painful. God cannot shine his light into the depths of our being until we clear out a good deal of the darkness that still dwells therein: various forms of egoism, excessive anger, a lack of trust in God, and so on. Once, when Teresa of Avila and another Carmelite nun were traveling by mule, the animal managed to throw Teresa off the saddle and into a muddy stream. Teresa’s traveling companion exclaimed, “So that’s how God treats his friends!” Teresa immediately shot back, “Maybe that’s why he has so few of them.” Friendship with God is not easy (just like marriage). On the other hand, God grants some persons tastes of his goodness early on so as to encourage them to pursue a path of contemplation, but then allows them to experience their own darkness for a long time before they finally stop clinging to their false sources of self and become truly receptive to his love. This is why the contemplative path must always be grounded on faith in the living God who wants to show us his wisdom and love, and not what we feel right now. If you need a companion on this difficult path, I highly recommend reading the sayings of the desert fathers (Evagrius or Cassian). Most of these sayings focus on our vices. They will often convict your conscience, but they will also show you the path to life.
From a Christian perspective, the path towards union will not always feel good. In fact, Buddhist monks and adherents of other traditions that teach various forms of contemplation would also describe their paths toward liberation as at times necessarily painful. The notion that mysticism and contemplation are consistently easy and pleasant is a Western bourgeois myth that some contemporary spiritual writers unfortunately promote.
Contemplation is thereof not about attaining wonderful interior experiences. Rather, it is all about seeking the hidden face of God who already dwells in our hearts. Some of the greatest contemplatives in the history of Christianity often felt little when they prayed, yet their lives were utterly transformed by God’s love, a love that occasionally burst forth and manifested itself to them in powerful ways. The saints understood that contemplation is all about pursuing union with God, about being with God, whether or not they could see him. Because God and our union with him are so much bigger than what we can feel.
Blankenhorn, Bernhard, “The Salvation of Non-Christians,” www.blessed-sacrament.org/formation.
Cassian, John, Conferences, conferences 9-10, translated by Boniface Ramsey (New York: Paulist Press, 1997).
Evagrius Ponticus, Ad Monachos, translated with notes by Jeremy Driscoll (New York: Paulist Press, 2003)
________. The Praktikos and the Chapters on Prayer (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1981).
Hausherr, Iréné, Les leçons d’un contemplatif : Le Traité de l’Oraison d’Evagre le Pontique (Paris: Beauchesne, 1960).
Howells, Edward, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila: Mystical Knowing and Selfhood (New York: Crossroad, 2002).
McGinn, Bernard, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century, in The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, vol. 1 (New York: Crossroad, 1991).
________. The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany, in The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, vol. 4 (New York: Crossroad, 2005).
Merton, Thomas, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Doubleday, 1996), reprint of The Climate of Monastic Prayer (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1971).
________. The Merton Reader, edited by Thomas McDonnell (Image Books, 1974).
Teresa of Avila, Collected Works, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1980).
Torrell, Jean-Pierre, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003).
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, questions 43, 93; II-II, questions 8, 45, 83, 180 (Christian Classics, 1981).
Tugwell, Simon, Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1988).
Turner, Denys, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Williams, Paul, The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism (New York: T&T Clark, 2002).