Having provided a definition of “mysticism” in my first post, I now continue with a description of the characteristics of true mysticism. We can identify three primary qualities of any authentic Catholic mysticism, broadly, strictly or narrowly defined. Any mysticism that deserves the name Catholic must be 1) Eucharistic, 2) Marian and 3) Ecclesial.
This does not simply mean that true mysticism is everywhere in the Catholic Church where people who go to Mass, spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and pray the Rosary. These are all foundational aspects of Catholic mysticism, but by themselves they do not guarantee its authenticity. These external acts must be real signs of full communion with the Church, an active effort to conform oneself to the life of Christ, and to do so by allowing the Immaculate Virgin to form Jesus within us. True mysticism does not support fundamental and willful inconsistencies in these matters.
It is necessary here to see the analogous relationship between the different definitions of mysticism so that we can accurately discern between the true and the false. In this post we will focus on the Eucharistic aspect. (Again, here is the link to the page with the various definitions of mysticism.)
The tendency toward deep communion with God (broad definition of “mysticism”) is objectively fulfilled through the sacramental life of the Church. This begins with Baptism in which we first receive the divine life and is directed toward reception of Our Lord Himself in the Eucharist. Even though the power of the sacraments is wholly supernatural, receiving them involves our ascetical effort to be detached from sin and prepared by true devotion. In this way we strive to receive the maximum benefit of the sacraments. We seek the Eucharist because of our desire for deep communion with God and we actively dispose ourselves to be free from all that might present an obstacle to that end. If, on the other hand, we receive the Eucharist without the state of grace, that is, with unconfessed mortal sins on our soul, not only are we not brought into deeper communion with God, but rather we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves (see 1 Cor 11:29).
The Eucharist in a particular way shows forth the infinite and miraculous power of God, which is able to transform and perfect His creation and draw men into deep communion with Him. The gifts of bread and wine are wholly and miraculously transformed into the Body and Blood of the Savior. Ordinarily our reception of the Holy Communion is not a mystical act (according to the strict sense) because ordinarily the actual benefit we receive from the sacrament depends in part on our active dispositions. But in approaching the Eucharist we desire deep communion and the purpose of Holy Communion is ultimately to bring this about. Hopefully, little by little, we are being transformed by our reception of the transformed gifts on the altar, so that our active effort to be virtuous is brought to perfection by the Holy Spirit.
In the Roman Canon, there are two invocations of the Holy Spirit, two epicleses in which we pray that the Spirit transform the gifts. Before the consecration we pray that the bread and wine be made an offering in spirit and in truth, and so become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Then after the consecration we again invoke the Holy Spirit and ask that as God’s angel presents the sacrifice at the altar in heaven we might receive from the altar on earth every grace and heavenly blessing. What happens on the altar before us is supposed to happen also in us through the gifts we receive from the altar, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the lives of the saints and those in the unitive way, the reception of Holy Communion often does become a mystical act (in the strict sense) because their desire for the Eucharist and the intensity of their charity opens them up more fully to the direct action of God in their souls. Their sacramental unity with Christ in Holy Communion becomes transformative in a way above and beyond the active life of virtue. In rare circumstances, God even shows forth this truth by means of extraordinary Eucharistic signs, as when, for example, the physical life of St. Catherine of Sienna was sustained for many years with no other nutrition than Holy Communion (“mystical” in the narrow sense).
Mystogogia is a Greek word that means “leading to mystery,” and it is applied to the early Christian catechesis given to neophytes after their baptism at the Easter Vigil. Prior to their full incorporation into the Church, beyond being restricted from receiving Holy Communion, the catechumens had not even seen or heard of the Eucharistic presence. So the mystagogia contained that content of doctrine and its explanation that was too precious and mysterious to be given those who were not fully committed members of the Church.
The Jerusalem Catechesis, for example, of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 350) was a systematic preparation for baptism as well as a post-baptismal introduction into the deeper mysteries of the faith. In the Liturgy of the Hours, we begin reading from the Catechesis during the Octave of Easter. In one place, St. Cyril entreats:
May purity of conscience remove the veil from the face of your soul so that by contemplating the glory of the Lord, as in a mirror, you may be transformed from glory to glory in Christ Jesus our Lord. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
The true meaning of the Eucharist was kept hidden from the unbaptized by what was called “the discipline of the secret” because the pagans could too easily misunderstand reception of Holy Communion as a form of cannibalism. Even Our Lord’s own people drew this erroneous conclusion the moment He began to speak about the Bread of Life. They murmured: How can this man give us his flesh to eat (Jn 6:52)?
However, Our Lord replied: It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (Jn 6:63). Many Protestants think these words of Our Lord are a repudiation of the Catholic belief in the Real Presence, but what the early Christians learned in the mystagogia is that the transformation of the gifts is not subject to the laws of the flesh but those of the Spirit.
This is why the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation accounts for the fact that Jesus is wholly present in every tabernacle of the world, on every altar, in every host and in every particle, without being divided. And it is also why in the Eucharist He is truly and fully present in His physical Body and Blood reality, together with His soul and divinity, even though we only have access to that presence under the appearances of bread and wine. Thus, when we consume the host we are not destroying His physical presence and assimilating it in an act of cannibalism.
The appearances of food and drink partake of the sacramental sign by which we know we are being fed spiritually by Christ Himself with His own Body and Blood. The sign is nourishment, but we are not thus cannibals. In fact, through the worthy and fruitful reception of Holy Communion we are being transformed into Jesus, not the food into us, in a manner analogous to the way the gifts transformed on the altar.
By means of this mystagogical catechesis the veil was removed from the face of the souls of the neophytes so that they could contemplate the glory of the Lord, so as to allow them to be truly transformed into Christ Himself. One might say that the Church practiced a holy modesty in reference to the mystery of the Eucharist, one that maintained an attitude of awe and reverence among the committed followers of Christ. The revelation of the mystery was placed within the context of a sacred place and time and allowed to flower in the context of prayer under the guidance of the Church.
Sacrament and Sacrifice
It is crucial, then, to see the connection between the transformation of the gifts on the altar and our transformation by way of Holy Communion. In addition, we need to understand that by our consuming of the sacred species, we do not consume Christ, but He consumes us. This is the mystery of the mystogogia, the secret of the Eucharist.
But there is another side to this mystery. Transubstantiation takes place by way of Sacrifice. The gifts are transformed only when the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is signified by the separate consecration of the bread and wine. Christ’s blood is sacramentally separated from His body by the words of institution. And thus Christ is made present only by way of sacrifice—a sacrifice which he offered bodily on the Cross and which He memorialized in a bloodless way in the Mass. And we truly participate in the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross, because the Mass is offered by the same High Priest, who is God, and who once and for all offered Himself on the Cross for our sins, and because the same Victim of Good Friday is thus offered and made present on our altar.
In the second epiclesis, over the people, mentioned above, we pray that we might partake of the altar, literally, that we might “participate in this altar” (ex hac altaris participatione). This means that each person at Mass participates in the sacrifice, especially when we receive Holy Communion. This is true, not just for the priest, who even does more than this because he acts in the person of Christ. It is true for all of us who assist at Holy Mass and especially those who communicate worthily and fruitfully. The consistent doctrine of the Church, pre- or post-conciliar, is that by virtue of our baptism we are called to offer the sacrifice of the Mass in union with Christ and His minister. (See, for example Miserentissimus Deus 9 and Lumen Gentium 10). Our ability to do this is part of the gift of the Eucharist. God gives us the power through our prayerful reception of Holy Communion to offer a sacrifice that is pleasing to him. This is what constitutes active participation in the liturgy.
It should not be hard to see, then, the connection between the transforming power of Eucharistic Communion and its sacrificial nature. Jesus makes himself present under the form of bread and wine by way of sacrifice. We are transformed in and through the Eucharist by way of sacrifice. Our sacrifice is first the sacrifice of Christ who prays and offers Himself through the ministerial priest, with whom we join ourselves. But in and through Christ we also offer ourselves as well. And in this we are transformed, drawn into deep communion with Him—a communion that has the power to enkindle in us the very charity of Christ.
Food for the Journey
Jesus feeds us with himself in order that we might have life. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53). But He desires that we do more than avoid starving to death. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10). He invites us to wisdom’s banquet and there prepares us for eternal life.
Our response to this invitation must be one that respects this sacrifice and sacrament. In the face of this great mystery we must humble ourselves in that modesty and submission we call adoration. Our religious cult is the true worship of God because it is the very sacrifice of the Son of God that the Church has been commanded by Christ Himself to offer. When, in the discourse on the Bread of Life, Our Lord says that the work of God, the opus dei, is to believe in Him whom God has sent, in practice this means that we must live the mystery of the Eucharist (see Jn 6:29).
The sacred time and space of the liturgy, celebrated according to the mind of the Church, provides us with the conditions and sacramental signs necessary to do this. And this adoration is the condition for the mystical union that we all desire.
To live the mystery of the Eucharist is to embrace authentic Catholic mysticism, so long as we understand that this devotion can only lift us up when it stands together with the two other pillars: the Marian and Ecclesial. These two aspects will help understand what it means to create the sacred time and space necessary for the true cult of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Real Presence. We will look at the Marian Aspect next time.