Not False, But Not What We’re After

My annual “Quotes Month” (July) has extended a third of the way into August now. It is time that I get to say something of my own, and I want to address an issue that (I think) concerns most of us Christians in this gradually globalized world: There are certain kinds of “mysticism,” of “meditation,” and of “contemplation” which, while not false, are not what we are after as Christians.

I, for one, do not consider Buddhist techniques of meditation, the contemplation associated with a Chinese garden, or the mystical acts of various Sufi orders to be “false” in the sense of made up, psychologically projected, or the result of an evil angelic influence. There are, to be sure, temptations involved in these great human achievements, if we treat them as ends which usurp the divine commands and divine pedagogy revealed in the Scriptures (and particularly in the Gospel). But all created goods come to us with such temptations. That is no reason to call them false.

In these non-Christian mystical and contemplative systems, with their outlooks and their solutions to the great human questions, there is something of the very much human. There is some potential of human nature drawn out of the historical situation in which people have found themselves, cared for, tended, and allowed to manifest itself clearly.

But, in the main, in the non-Christian mystical and contemplatives systems, one finds something inherent in human nature rather than something supernatural and gained for us on the Cross.

In fact, there are two main lines of approach to mysticism or contemplation.

One is the receptiveness of love, charity, agape. It is the child in the hands of the Father. It is the one filled with a Spirit whom he or she cannot control (passing even beyond any human control of the virtues). It is the one whose wisdom is not acquired by any learning or technique but rather given from the scandalous Cross and finding glimpses of the Crucified One in all those here-below. A human being suffers, in the fullest modern and etymological senses, divine things. God gives. We suffer it, and we suffer. This is the quintessentially Christian contemplation. It is a contemplation in suffering and of changing sadness into joy. It is without technique. It is found in quiet and in the city. It is demanded of Christians. It is morally required of us to, at least, tend towards such divine contemplation, towards such love.

The other mysticisms and contemplatons are (in general) techniques. They attain to something by human doing. For humans to thus attain to it, it must be locked within created nature and accessible to human beings in their very structure as human beings. It is not supernatural. It does not come from the Cross. It is not, in that sense, quintessentially Christian, nor is it demanded by God of any Christian. It is not an experience of salvation. It is, like all the marvels of created nature, there to explore — but only within the bounds of a life oriented to the God who revealed himself. (If one is interested by it, one must not sin in attaining it.)

These other mysticisms are thus not “false.” They are not made up, imaginary, the product of psychological delusions, or the creation of the maliciousness of the devil. They are true, and they are mysticisms — but only in a limited and analogical way. They may attain some incommunicable experience, like a yogi attains after much psychologico-rational purification or a Zen Buddhist after a particularly shocking experience that bars logical analysis. They may touch on something absolute, but the absolute is not the Absoluteness of a God who imparts his very self, his charity, into our hearts and adopts us as children.

The “absoluteness” here is relative, like the absoluteness of one’s own being. There is nothing conceptualizable or thinkable beyond one’s own being or existence, within oneself. When the yogi, the Sufi, or the Buddhist gets to the point where rational thought stops and something great is attained, not piecemeal, but in a great brilliance that absorbs and flattens all, they have “seen” something real. But it is not God, for God gives himself and is not attained by creatures. It is simply a relative absolute, a created absolute, great and unleashed from within human nature, by a kind of backward path into the interior depths as they exist in humankind. It is an achievement, not a gift or a grace. It is not a saving grace, only a temporal (but seemingly atemporal) good.

This is why Thomas Merton (in his middle period) distinguished a mysticism which “seeks to penetrate the ontological ground of being” from a mysticism which is “religion of [supernatural] divine gift.” They are not identical. To treat them as identical is to have already lost the greater of the two. That which is revealed and of the Cross is not the same as that which can be reached by our own effort.

Of course, even within these non-Christian mysticisms, there are the pleas for divine help. It is not all one’s own effort. (Islam, Pure Land Buddhism in China and Japan, and bhakti yoga in India are clear examples, either realized or in potentia, of this.) One may say to God, “Please.” And there, even in the midst of a life oriented towards the attainable and the things of created nature, one may find an openness to the God who “exists and rewards those who seek him” (cf. Heb 11:6). For with even the slightest belief in that supernatural gift and aid, then there is space for God to implant the eternal life and mysticism essential to Christianity within the tree of temporal life and mysticism.

A Christian is free to pursue techniques of prayer. Even more, a Christian is free to pursue “meditation” techniques which aim at certain mystical experiences. But they cannot be forced on others. And these “mystical” techniques must never be confused with real Christian prayer, which takes divine revelation as its measure. They may be permitted. They must never be enforced. And they are not what we, ultimately and in the final analysis, are after. For we aim, not only at a certain experience of things that God has created, but to union with God by the supernatural means he has given, and to love him forever.

To Pray Is…

Father VoillaumeTo pray is, at the least, to look towards God; to pray is to think of God, to speak to God, or to entreat God – whether it be with spoken words or with ideas or mental images or, more simply, with the infinitely deeper but obscure regard of contemplation. When there is none of this, one cannot say that prayer exists, in the proper sense of the word.
René Voillaume (1905–2003)

Means of Union

What are the means of union with God? I think they can be broken down into at least two groups: those which arise from a contemplative life-state and those which arise from an active life-state. By this I do not mean that we can pass up either one. Each of us has active and contemplative elements in our life. One type of life-state predominates, for sure. But both of them are present to our living.

Now, the contemplative means of union with God are obvious. We need silence. We need physical removal. We need to read and meditate on the Scriptures (especially the Gospels). We need, insofar as our time and abilities allow, to study theology.

But what of the active means of union or the means of union with God which arise from activity?

René Voillaume has a wonderful page about this. He tells us that our ordinary and daily actions and occupations

voillaume_4can choke little by little the spirit, can distance us from Christ, when they take the first place in our preoccupations, because then they do not take their place in him. But they can also, in contrast, nourish the purity of our charity and, by that very fact, dispose us more and more to prayer and indeed deliver us to the same.

But how can one attain to that?

I think that, nowadays, what is perhaps missing in religious life is the ability to go about, in the midst of daily activities of a very modern type, in such a manner that we can save and guard the possibility of the spiritual life. I mean that there is a certain number of religious brothers and religious sisters – and laypeople, too – who have not yet discovered the appropriate asceticism which allows for mastery of self and recollection.

What kind of asceticism could this be? I suppose that we might need to restrain ourselves from more things. We might need to purge our lives of unnecessary images, imbued as they are with values counter to our life and witness. But more importantly, there is the following:

I think that what would define this asceticism is the aptitude to maintain a psychological, nervous, and physical state which opens us to the presence of the present moment. I believe that this capacity to be in the present moment is a great secret of the spiritual life… If we cannot live in the present moment because we are carried out of it, because we are subject to passions, because we are not sufficiently detached, because we want to do three or four things at a time – then we have lost because we have lost control of ourselves.

To run about like chickens with our heads cut off gives us nothing. It advances nothing of the Kingdom. It is with a contemplative gaze, ascetic and cut off from the inessential, that things get done even in activity.

Advice for Transitions Between Meditation and Contemplation

When the man becomes conscious of the Lord’s Presence, he must let his work alone and worship Him. All his powers must be still, and there must be calm. Otherwise the works of man [in meditation] would be but a hindrance, and his good works also; for he must do nothing but submit himself to God. But when a man is again left to himself [and contemplation ceases] and he is no longer conscious that God is working in him in any way that he can clearly recognize, then he must begin again to work diligently [at meditative prayer], and to discipline himself in holiness. Thus the man will sometimes work [in meditation], and sometimes rest [in contemplation], as he is moved by God and entreated. Everyone must do as it seems best to him, either working or resting, so that he may be drawn to God.
Johannes Tauler OP (1300–1361)

If You Cannot Meditate on the Passion…

At Our Lady of Perpetual Help Minor Seminary in Sriracha,Thailand

If you cannot meditate on the Passion of Jesus, speak about it to him: “Lord so loving, what was within your heart in the garden? Such pain, such blood, such bitter agony! And all for me?” At times, it will seem you can neither meditate nor remain lovingly attentive before God. You are like a statue. Do not worry! Continue to pray. Stir up your faith in God’s presence and go into him, lamenting like Saint Augustine: “O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, I sought you outside and I had you within.” We have a treasure within.
Saint Paul of the Cross