The Idea of Mysticism

Update:  I have expanded the introduction in a way that I hope will be helpful to understand why I am writing this series.  The addition is between the red brackets.

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With this post I am beginning a series on the notion of mysticism in its true and false senses and the practical implications that flow from both.  The word “mysticism” and its cognates are bandied about a lot without a proportionate amount of understanding, and for that reason we get ourselves into a great deal of trouble.

There are underlying issues around the discussion of mysticism regarding the more general question of the relation of nature and grace that this discussion will help us to think about more clearly.  For example, I believe that the clarifications given here may help us to restore a sense of the sacred while avoid confusing the merely natural with the action of God.  It might also help us clarify the relative value of theological opinions vis a vis the magisterial authority of the Church, as well as discern between true movements of the Holy Spirit and those which are merely human, or even demonic. Continue reading

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This is the Christmas Story…

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This is the Christmas story in a nutshell: The Infinite One has wed himself to our finite humanity. This is what we’re preparing ourselves for during Advent. And this is why Advent is a time of desire: The bride is longing to be filled with the eternal life of her bridegroom. And so she cries in union with the Spirit of God: “O come, O come, Emmanuel!”

Christopher West

Interesting that he never mentions anything relative to the infancy of Christ, or to the nature of filiation in the context of Christmas.  Not that there is any contradiction between the nuptial and filial mysteries in Christianity.  I just thought the primary idea is that the Son of God became the Son of Mary and that our baptism into Christ before anything else was a rebirth.

Did you know that . . .

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Did you know that the Jordan River Valley is actually the deepest valley on earth? In Christ’s Baptism, creation opens at her depths to receive her Creator; the heavenly Bridegroom “espouses” the earth to himself, filling (“impregnating”) her waters with the power to “bring forth sons to a new and immortal life.”

Christopher West pornifies the Baptism of Our Lord.

God help us.

From a Cor Thoughts email via The Cor Project.

A Modest Proposal

I would like to suggest the reason why I believe there may be a discrepancy between the way saints in previous times enforced the norms of modesty, and why the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not seem to promote those standards, at least not explicitly.  This is a follow-up on my previous post, and especially on the comments which were pretty heated.

The catechism states “the forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another.”  By extension, I would say also that these forms can also vary with time.  Even the solutions provided by the saints vary, though clearly they are all very strict, at least the ones presented in the comments from my last post on this subject.  But if St. Pio required eight inches below the knee for skirts, this is more than twice as strict, so to speak, as what was indicated by Pius XII.  This tells me that the solutions are pastoral.  In effect they are contingent applications of an unchanging principle.  Such contingent applications do, in fact, depend on many things, not excluding the person doing the enforcing.  What St. Pio might successfully accomplish by his strictness in an area of Southern Italy prior to or preserved from the sexual revolution, is different from what I might successfully accomplish now in secular England. Continue reading

Marian Modesty

We are not called to be mimics of the Blessed Mother, dressing as would be appropriate for a first-century Palestinian peasant woman (e.g., long veils, skirts to the floor, sandals). We are called to imitate the Blessed Mother in her virtues. In terms of modesty, that might mean dressing in a way that is appropriate to one’s culture and circumstances, not drawing undue attention to oneself either in one’s dress or undress, remaining circumspect about one’s own choices, and not denouncing the reasonable choices of others.

Overall, I agree with this article of Michelle Arnold.  However, what tends to happen in discussions about modesty is that those on one side of the debate tend to present a caricature of the other side or generalize too much about the habits of the other side.  In particular, I disagree with her remark about Fatima.  I believe it is pretty clear what fashions Our Lady was referring to: the ones that lead many souls to hell.  Enough said.

But I believe she is spot on with the last sentence in the quote.  Modesty is both objective and subjective: it has to do both with the manner of dress and behavior of the one who is looked at, and the internal dispositions of the one who looks (or doesn’t look). Continue reading

In Honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Virtue of Purity

Matt McGuiness has posted his second installment of “A Second Look at Porn.”  He was criticized a great deal for part one, by Dawn Eden, Kevin Obrien, Kevin Tierney, and yours truly.  Dawn Eden has already posted her comments on the new piece on her blog at Patheos:  “Confession is Not a Waste of Time.”  An excellent contribution.

I am in agreement with most of what McGuiness says.  However, in the interests of making an argument for something important, he does what apologists too often do, which is to minimize those things which are not the thing he wants to emphasize.  McGuiness wants to emphasize the education of desire and an appreciation for what he calls “elementary experience.”  In the process, however, he caricatures elements of the ascetical life like prayer, penance and the sacraments.

If the multinational corporations have a “wonderful plan” for our lives (and they do), sometimes church people offer us “solutions” that alienate us from ourselves no less than the spinning wheel of production and consumption. Some within the Church will tell us to ignore the infinite need that makes our hearts restless and just plunge into Catholic practices and pious devotions. Never mind the meaning, “Just do it.” Here’s a sample checklist: start going to daily Mass, pray the rosary, make a holy hour, try this novena, frequent confession more often, do some twelve step program, go to a Catholic conference, be virtuous. You get the picture.

Continue reading

Deliverance from Pornography

Here we go on to the next phase of the “redemption of desire” pop-spirituality ride.  Matt McGuiness urges us to take “a second look at porn,” so that we can get in touch with the fact that illicit sexual desire is really a misguided attempt at finding happiness.  Did I miss something?  Isn’t that what Catholics have always believed?  Isn’t all sin the choice of an apparent but false good over what is truly good in an attempt to be happy?

Of course, what separates the search for real happiness from that of its counterfeit is a lie.  In his opening, McGuiness treats the lie of sodomy rather glibly with a raunchy pop-reference.  Unfortunately, those things that St. Paul says must not even be named among you (Eph 5:3) are now part of the cultural fabric, so they have to be dealt with. But if it is true that a lie told over and over again gains plausibility just by the retelling, then our casual familiarity with depravity gives the perverse and diabolical an air of normality.  The devil must be given his due:  now we give porn a second look because it teaches us how happy we want to be.  The problem with pornography according to McGuiness: it does not go far enough.  I think McGuiness has taken the bait.

Continue reading

Holy Staring

Christopher West has quoted me in his new book, At the Heart of the Gospel:  Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization.

Here is West’s own description of the book which he relates to the debate that has rippled across the internet and to which this blog has contributed:

In the midst of these conversations, my work as a popularizer of John Paul II’s teaching has been the subject of some rather harsh critiques.  During an extended sabbatical in 2010, I reflected prayerfully on the various challenges my work has received, seeking to glean as much as possible from what various authors were saying.  This book is the fruit of those reflections (2).

Kevin O’Brien of the Theater of the Word Incorporated has posted on the subject of West’s critique of my statements.  The source of those statements was a guest post I wrote for Dawn Eden.  West does not cite his source, so his readers have no ability to assess my statements in their context or to familiarize themselves with my overall line of thought.

I have commented on Kevin O’Brien’s post, so you will find there the substance of my response.  Below the images of West’s book in this post I will summarize.

I will summarize first by stating what I think West and both agree on:

  1. The body and sex are good and holy as God intended them from the beginning.
  2. Modesty is not simply a matter of hiding the body of the desirable, but also of the interior transformation of the one who desires.
  3. Sexual desire and pleasure in and of themselves are very good.
  4. Concupiscence in respect to sexual desire and pleasure is never entirely absent.
  5. An exalted view of the body and sexuality is helpful to developing a life of chastity.
  6. Repression, prudery and body hatred are counterproductive to living a life of chastity.
  7. Lustful desires are always sinful.

Before I state the points on which we disagree I need to make a clarification about what I understand to be West’s position.  When he discusses issues of modesty there are two things happening.  Even if he is only at that moment suggesting a course of action appropriate to a man’s dealing with incidental exposure to a woman’s values, beyond this West believes that sexual values in and of themselves are the appropriate objects of spiritual fascination.  It is not simply a matter of dealing with potential temptations in the most appropriate and spiritually developed way.  It is a matter of subduing concupiscence and concentrating on sexual values for their theological significance.  This has tremendous import to West’s position.

After all West speaks about the language of the body precisely in terms of sexual values.  Those values, sexual desire, sexual pleasure and the conjugal act itself point beyond themselves to desire for unity with God, the bliss of heaven and the mutual self-giving of God and the soul.  So when West suggests that we should have a holy fascination with the body and sex, as he does, for example in Heaven’s Song (notice the bed floating on the clouds), there is no question that West is advocating a holy rejoicing in the sexual values of the body, sexual desire and pleasure, and the conjugal act itself precisely  in the incidence of a man’s exposure to a woman’s nakedness (not one’s spouse).

So here is where I disagree with West;  I will express it in terms of my own position:

  1. The Theology of the Body offers no magic bullet.  Consider that the sexual values of the body, sexual desire and pleasure and the very conjugal act are in fact good and holy.  In view of this it is impossible to deny that a true and religious appreciation for such values, particularly in the presence of visual stimuli, is supposed to arouse sexual desire and pleasure.  But the tendency to indulge such things in reference to a woman who is not one’s spouse is a function of concupiscence and is disordered.  Specialized knowledge, namely, TOB, changes none of this.
  2. A holy appreciation for the sexual values of the body, sexual desire and pleasure and the conjugal act itself excited in conjunction with stimuli, provided by a woman not one’s wife, goes well beyond the theological, philosophical, and artistic expressions of John Paul II. This is the doctrine of West, not Blessed John Paul II.
  3. West & Co. are living in a dream world if they want to tell us on the one hand that our pure and holy fascination is precisely with sexual values insofar as they are the object of sexual desire and pleasure, and yet as we rejoice in such desire and pleasure we experience none ourselves.  What exactly is a holy fascination with sexual values of real persons who are not one’s spouse, precisely because those values excite desire and pleasure, and which do not function under the influence of concupiscence and tend toward lust?  This is not true mysticism.  It is mystagogery—old fashioned, pagan sex mysticism.
  4. Stating plainly that there is an objective component to modesty is consistent with both Catholic doctrine and common sense. The sensory exposure to sexual values has an objective and per se normal and in se wholesome effect of the arousal of sexual desire and pleasure, and therefore, in reference to the body of someone not one’s spouse, is inappropriate insofar as the body of someone not one’s spouse becomes the object of sexual desire and pleasure. The realtime resolution of actual instances is a function of prudence.  Sexual values are always present, whether or not there is a real infraction of objective modesty.  The language of the body speaks eloquently fully clothed.  I am not arguing for a modesty police, but I do advocate for solutions in which the man takes as much responsibility for his own reactions to what he considers immodesty as he would like a woman to take for the way she dresses.  In the end no amount of modesty regulation will solve a man’s problem with lust.
  5. To suggest that there is an objective component to modesty does not put the blame on the woman.  Some men, I am sure, think that it does.  That is not, nor has it ever been my position. Assigning blame solves nothing, and it most often is unjust and uncharitable.  However, if there were potentially blame to assign, say by some god-like knowledge, the inference would not be freudian.  To suggest that there might be sexual motives behind the revelation of sexual values need not be based on the premise that everyone always acts for sexual motives.  This is a non-sequitur.

The Catechesis on Human Love

CNA has published an extraordinary interview with Bishop Jean Laffitte, secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family on “The Theology of the Body,” or what he prefers to call, more accurately, “The Catechesis on Human Love.”  A large part of his interview is spent discussing the ongoing debate occurring in “English speaking countries.”

On What Words Mean

On his preference of terminology Bishop Laffitte states:

“Theology of the Body” is not a wrong expression on the condition of respecting the intention of John Paul II, that he was talking about human love and not only a partial focus on the body and on sexuality, being a bodily expression of love. . . .

Personally, I don’t agree with contemplation of the sexual phenomenon without providing the entire context of the mystery of creation, the mystery of God’s calling to experience and to live human love.

The English translation of Blessed John Paul II’s doctrinal teaching as “Theology of the Body”, while not incorrect in a strict sense, does not typify the entirety of his Catecheses on human love. The Catecheses were originally what the Blessed Pope himself chose in 1985 to be the first critical publication made by the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome . . .

So, “Theology of the Body” is not wrong.  However, if people have no formation on creation, on God’s design, on the anthropology of man and woman, or on the differentiation of the sexes, they then have no ability to defend against the gender ideologies rampant in our secular world today.

He makes a simple and very important point.  The whole way the “Catechesis on Human Love” has been cast in English speaking countries has swung the emphasis to body talk.  Never mind that “Theology of the Body” sounds both esoteric and erotic, how about synthesizing the catechesis under the title “Naked without Shame.”  His advice to swing back to the middle by identifying the pope’s work as accurately as possible will change the terms of the discussion.

On “Mystagogery”

Bishop Laffitte also addresses the question of sexual mysticism.  He stresses the fact that every human body belongs to a person and that sexuality is the ordaining of the union of one person with another in a bodily manner through the sacrament of marriage:

When Pope John Paul II talks about the body, it is crucial to understand that we are talking about an animated body, which is the body of a person.  He stresses the concrete fact that “[t]he desire here is to be united not with just any person, but with this person in particular: This is my wife, this is my husband.”  Thus, the experience of “Theology of the Body” as the language of the body in marriage is ordered to a single person to which one is joined in holy matrimony.  If there is a kind of “mysticism” associated with the language of the body, this is where it is experienced:

If we develop a mysticism of sexuality, in a reduced meaning of the word, then we could make the argument of an interchangeable sexuality.

And why not? If sexuality were wonderful only in this aspect – mere intercourse between a man and a woman – then why should it not be the same for this man and another woman, and another, and another?

No – it’s not like that at all. It’s a personal event. Such union is between two persons, one made for the other in God’s Providence . . . .

Personally, I don’t agree with contemplation of the sexual phenomenon without providing the entire context of the mystery of creation, the mystery of God’s calling to experience and to live human love.

On Vulgarity

Bishop Laffitte concentrates on the manner in which we discuss Blessed John Paul II’s “Catechesis on Human Love”: 1) he is refutes the idea that it is fitting to lift the veil off sexuality in order to communicate the beauty of married love to the modern world; 2) he is suggests that the nature of the pope’s catechesis defies being dumbed down to a purely “vulgate” presentation.  To do so is to falsify it.

First, on the tendency to unveil sexual values:

There is a danger of vulgarizing here a crucial truth of our Faith that needs rather to be contemplated.   It requires a silence. Sometimes in reading Blessed John Paul II’s Catecheses, you read only half of a page and then have to stop … you cannot continue … because it provokes within you a kind of loving meditation of what God has made. You enter into the mystery. . . .

The beauty of the body reflects the presence of the spirit, which is a mystery. And yet, we still have to contend with the reality of sin.

Man and woman have sinned, and in our bodies we bear the consequences of this wound in our nature.

That’s why it’s unrealistic – even a kind of angelism – to imagine that we can discuss or express our sexuality in an indifferent manner.

Secondly, on the tendency to “over-popularize” the “Catechesis on Human Love”:

Personally, I am against any notion that we should reduce all difficult thought, or any difficult articulation of ideas, assuming in advance that people are unintelligent.

Perhaps at times we may encounter people who are not cultivated, who may not enjoy the habit of dealing with philosophical and anthropological topics on a regular basis.

However, a person of good faith always is able to be sensitive to mystery, because a person lives and experiences without necessarily knowing how to describe it.

Even when a person cannot read and write, when he falls in love with someone he enters into an extraordinary mystery — exactly the same mystery experienced by someone who might be able to describe it with more finesse.

The problem involves not the formulation, but rather the respect for the mystery with which we are dealing.

It is essential to present these teachings with reverence, with meditation, with silence. We’re dealing here with an endeavor in genuine education, not merely a strict transmission of knowledge.

The Catecheses of which we speak are not a “gnosis” only understood by an elite, but rather they serve as  an extraordinary deepening of human understanding, in what every man and woman is called to experience.

Every single person within any culture can understand the questions: “What do you want in your life? What are your deepest desires?”

The transmission must be a holistic one – it means being conscious of the nature of the person. You wouldn’t speak to a 15 year-old in the way you would a 20 year-old, or a married couple or an elderly couple.  But all of them can understand the nature of the mystery.

This is what I was trying to say in my own poor way in the Inside the Vatican article, namely, that before “The Theology of the Body,” is a corpus of teaching, it is the language of the body, a symbolic language, that it is spoken because we are men and women and experience each in that way, without having to focus on body parts and sexual acts.  If we just live the faith, avoid the extremes and allow ourselves to be further enlightened according to our abilities in a reverent way, we will be catechized in the ways of authentic human love.

I am very grateful for the words of Bishop Laffitte.

Still Here

Absorbed in my thoughts on the occult/Harry Potter book, I have not even thought about posting here recently.  I did take a break a month ago to write an article for Inside the Vatican on the Theology of the Body.  It was published in the June-July issue under the title “The Pagan Temptation” (39-41).  I am grateful for the opportunity.

Here is a short excerpt that touches upon a topic which will be addressed at length in my book:

If the imagination is the place where illustrative analogies must be devised for the sake of apologetics and evangelization, and if it is also the place where the mythological and magical way of thinking reorganizes images for the purposes of mystical experience and psychic control over nature, then we should be careful not to confuse these two functions.  Avoiding such confusion might prove to be particularly difficult if the matter at hand involves erotic images, because the imagination is also the place where we are particularly vulnerable to the demonic.

I will not be writing much about the issue of chastity in the book.  However, the imagination and its role in both evangelization and its abuse through the occult will be a major theme.

Please pray that I can successfully bring this book to a conclusion.  Thanks.

I will leave you with another article I wrote recently for our international magazine.

Our Lady’s Presence in Blessed John Paul II

I too wish to begin my reflection on the role of Mary in the mystery of Christ and on her active and exemplary presence in the life of the Church.

–Blessed Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater

In this way the new blessed of the Church, Pope John Paul II, describes the subject of his great Marian Encyclical in its opening section.  Mary, he writes, has a role “in the mystery of Christ,” and She has a presence within the Church that is “active and exemplary.”  In stating this, he is echoing St. Paul in the Letter to the Galatians where the Apostle writes of the fullness of time in which God sent for the his Son, born of a woman, so that we might receive the adoption of sons (4:4-6).  In his own Life Blessed Pope John Paul II showed that what he wrote about the Blessed Mother’s presence in the Church he also experienced personally.

Marian Mediation and Presence

In Catholic tradition this relationship of Mary with the Church has been called Her universal mediation of graces, though today in many Catholic circles the use of this language had come to be considered unfashionable and “unecumenical.”  In reality, the terminology is entirely consistent with scripture, because God did send His son through the mediation of a woman, as St. Paul says.  Jesus became a member of our family through Mary, so that we might become members of His family through Mary.

St. Paul’s statement puts Mary between God and our adoptive sonship.  That is what we mean by Marian mediation.  In fact, in the encyclical letter, Blessed John Paul II expressly states: “She puts herself ‘in the middle,’ that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother” (21).

The great pope of this Marian age, not only made it fashionable to speak about Marian mediation again, he gave our understanding of this role of Our Lady his characteristic personalist touch.  He calls it Her “active and exemplary presence in the life of the Church.”  Just as he says “she puts herself ‘in the middle’ . . . in her position as mother,” so he indicates that this middle position is a kind of “active and exemplary presence.”  Our Mother is with us and She acts from within and with power.

Mary’s mediation of graces is described by some theologians as functioning in a physical way, which is simply to say that it produces its effect by means of a kind of power.  Blessed Pope John Paul does not contradict this, but rather emphasizes that this power does not simply pass through Our Lady as though She was a conduit of spiritual energy, as it were, but her mediation is a function of Her spiritual motherhood by which She deeply and personally helps to constitute, maintain and augment a filial relationship between us and God, our Father.  Grace is the life of God and Mary is mother in the order of grace.  She is present in our lives in an “active and exemplary” way.

Active Presence

Mary’s active presence in the Church means precisely that She is more than a channel.  In the encyclical, Blessed John Paul really makes this very clear by using words in Latin to express the fact that Mary’s presence is deep and dynamic.  For example, “active” presence is designated by the word actuosa rather than activa, which indicates that the presence is not a matter so much of physical action, but of “a really deep, personal” kind of communion.  Incidentally, when today when the Church encourages “active participation” in the liturgy, the word used is actuosa (Ratzinger Report, 127), indicating that we should enter deeply and consciously into the mystery of the liturgical rite.  Mary enters deeply and personally into the lives of Her children.

Elsewhere in the encyclical, when Blessed John Paul writes about Our Lady’s presence he uses words that indicate a dynamic presence. For instance, seven times he uses a form of the phrase praesens adest (translated “is present”) in which the adest bears the nuance of “to be toward by way of action.”  He writes that Mary, “in a discreet yet direct and effective way” made the mystery of Christ present to humanity. This direct and efficacious mediation of Christ’s presence by Mary, the Holy Father tells us, continues to this day. “Through the mystery of Christ, she too is present within mankind”  (19).  He also writes that Mary is present “in the history of souls,” that is, through the interior pilgrimage of faith, which is both personal and immediate (25).

Exemplary Presence

Mary’s exemplary presence in the Church means that Mary is both the model and mother of the Church.  Blessed John Paul writes (again, using the verb praesens adhest) that Mary is a “permanent model” (perenne exemplar) or “figure” (typus) of the Church and that She, “present in the mystery of Christ, remains constantly present also in the mystery of the Church” (42).  Later on he says that to call Mary model and figure of the Church is not sufficient but instead relates Her role of model to Her motherhood of the Church (47).  And in a general audience of August 6, 1997, he clarified that by calling Mary type of the Church he was not referring to Her as an “imperfect prefiguration,” but as an “example of perfection to be followed and imitated” (3,4).  In other words, Mary is present to each of us as a living example who acts personally and deep within in us as a true mother.

We can say, then that the active and exemplary presence of Our Lady in the mystery of the Church, is a real, deep, immediate, personal and active involvement of Our Lady in the life of Our soul, where She imprints Her own thoughts, dispositions and virtues as Model and Mother and Mediatrix.

The Presence of Blessed John Paul II

In his homily for the beatification of John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI commented on the “theological vision” of the new blessed which he discovered as a young man and nurtured throughout his life.  Blessed John Paul contemplated Our Lady’s presence at the foot of the Cross next to Jesus.  This is what he meant to signify when he chose for his papal coat-of-arms, an “M” to the lower right of a cross, with the inscription, Totus Tuus, taken from the words of St. Louis Grignon de Montort, meaning “I belong entirely to you.”  In the homily Pope Benedict said:

Mary does not appear in the accounts of Christ’s resurrection, yet hers is, as it were, a continual, hidden presence: she is the Mother to whom Jesus entrusted each of his disciples and the entire community. In particular we can see how Saint John and Saint Luke record the powerful, maternal presence of Mary in the passages preceding those read in today’s Gospel and first reading. In the account of Jesus’ death, Mary appears at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25), and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles she is seen in the midst of the disciples gathered in prayer in the Upper Room (Acts 1:14) [emphasize mine].

In this great new hero of the Church, we are blessed with his celestial presence, as we miss his earthly one, and we pray that we might have his vision of Our Lady, so that we might truly know how deeply and actively She is present within the Church and within our own souls.  This great Marian pope, has taught us the full truth about Mary and has lived that teaching in an extraordinary way.  He acknowledged Her presence in his own mission and especially in his extraordinary suffering, and he invoked her presence on the Church and on each individual soul.  May our own deep and personal participation in the presence of Mary lead us along the same path is this great Marian apostle. Blessed Pope John Paul II, pray for us.