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Faith Alive

Catholic News Service


  • Image Credit: Nancy Wiechec


    IN A NUTSHELL

    Pope Francis defines a mystic as one who "experiences the intimate connection between God and all beings."

    The Catholic tradition boasts great saints who were mystics, including St. Joan of Arc, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Hildegard of Bingen.

    How do we reconcile mystical experiences today in an age of skepticism?

    If God is in all things, and intimately involved in our lives, then perhaps we are all called to be mystics on some level.

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    MIDST

    How do we understand mysticism today?

    By Effie Caldarola

    Catholic News Service

    In the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome stands what art critics believe to be one of the great masterpieces of the Baroque era: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

    The 17th-century statue, in stunning white marble, is also perhaps the most powerful artistic depiction of the mystical experience.

    In Bernini's classic sculpture, the great mystic St. Teresa of Avila lies back, her eyes closed, her mouth gaping open, as an angel of the Lord pierces her with a golden spear.

    The rendering follows almost exactly the words of St. Teresa as she wrote of this powerful union with God: "So surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God."

    The sculpture portrays a total merger of body and soul into the divine -- a classic definition of mysticism at its most complete.

    Having seen The Ecstasy, one can be forgiven for asking what relevance mysticism might have to our own spiritual experience. It's hardly the stuff of our everyday prayer.

    What is mysticism? Present in almost all religious traditions, Merriam-Webster defines it as the experience of "direct communion with ultimate reality." Again, this might be a bit intimidating to the average "pray-er."

    Yet as Catholics, we believe in a personal God, who speaks to each of us and is actively present in our lives. Are we called to be mystics?

    The Catholic tradition boasts great saints who were mystics, including St. Joan of Arc, who believed God told her to lead the French forces in battle against England in the 15th century.

    Then there's Julian of Norwich, who wrote of her experiences encountering God in "Revelations of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings," and more recently St. Therese of Lisieux who claimed to have experienced mystical union with Christ at her first Communion at age 11.

    St. Hildegard of Bingen, whom Pope Benedict XVI declared a doctor of the church, claimed divine visions since early childhood.

    Although there are certainly male mystics (the 16th century St. John of the Cross comes to mind), and there have been mystics in all generations, the Middle Ages saw a flourishing of mysticism among females.

    Why would this be? Is there something about female receptivity that made them more open to mystical experience?

    We can only guess, but one possible explanation is that women -- assuming they went into the convent -- had more time for contemplation. Unlike today, religious women were not involved in active ministry -- that was men's work.

    Women were sequestered in convents that had libraries and some learned to read. Not burdened with typical women's work, and not subjected to numerous pregnancies and the deadly hazards of childbirth, they often lived longer than other women.

    Julian of Norwich died in her 70th decade in 1416, and St. Hildegard of Bingen lived until her 80s in the 12th century, remarkable ages for woman of their eras. Perhaps these women had more time for the experience of God.

    And the Middle Ages were a time and a milieu open to divine revelation in a dramatic way.

    Today, we live in an age saturated with rational, scientific explanations for everything. We better understand mental illness, and if someone claims they hear voices today, our first and reasonable thought is to question their mental health.

    Although the language of the Mass reminds us that we believe in "things visible and invisible," we moderns often adhere to what we can see and prove with our own eyes. Unlike earlier eras, we can be skeptical of miracles.

    On the other hand, the last 100 years have seen an explosion of claims of apparitions by Catholics. But the church is very cautious with these, and few are ever validated. Two young visionaries of Fatima were recently canonized, and Our Lady of Guadalupe and Lourdes are examples of approved apparitions.

    But these, and the mystical experiences of the saints, are considered "private revelations," and are not something a Catholic is obliged to believe. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains how private revelations can be helpful, but are not considered part of the "deposit of faith" (No. 67).

    So what of us? How do we reconcile mystical experiences with our own humble prayer life in an age of skepticism?

    We believe in a God who intervened in human history by sending Jesus among us. In each generation, God communicates with people in their own language, through their experiences, in their culture.

    We search for God in all things, and as Catholics we believe God is not remote, but intimately involved in our lives.

    So if mysticism is how we relate to this mystery, perhaps we are all called to be mystics on some level. God is present to us and desires us.

    In seeking to hear God's will in our lives, it's always prudent to have someone in whom we confide about our spiritual lives. All the great mystics did, and that's good advice for the 16th century or the 21st.

    (Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.)

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    STORIES

    Embracing (if not understanding) what mystics share with us

    By Mike Nelson

    Catholic News Service

    To the side of the altar at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, not far from the Termini train station, is one of the High Baroque era's most famous sculptures: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

    Completed by Roman master Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1652 (only 70 years after Teresa's death and 30 after her canonization), the white marble sculpture depicts a vision of the 16th-century saint from Avila -- the reformer of the Discalced Carmelites -- in which she is pierced by an angel's golden spear, a moment she said left her "all on fire with a great love of God."

    "The pain was so great, that it made me moan," she wrote in "The Life of Teresa of Jesus," her autobiography. "And yet, so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God."

    I read this account before visiting Santa Maria della Vittoria with my wife last year. I found it amazing, startling, and just a little hard to accept.

    The "sweetness" of excessive pain? Ecstasy? How, I asked myself, as I gazed on Teresa's face.

    Such is the mystery and (for many) the appeal of the mystic, one chosen by God to receive particular gifts and graces. And perhaps it is presumptuous for us to believe that we can ever fully understand "mysticism"; if we fully understood, would we call them "mystics"?

    But we can appreciate and even gain something from a mystical presence. In the case of Teresa of Avila, her inspirational writings offer us a great deal, perhaps best exemplified by "The Way of Perfection."

    Directed to the sisters of her order, Teresa wrote "The Way" during a tumultuous time among Catholics -- the spread of the Reformation throughout Europe. Considering that the church is almost always under critique, if not attack, from some quarter of society, "The Way" is entirely appropriate for modern audiences.

    And while hardly a quick or easy read, "The Way" gives us much on which to ponder, beginning with a humility that I find appealing and inviting. "I shall speak of nothing," she says in her prologue, "of which I have no experience, either in my own life or in observation of others, or which the Lord has not taught me in prayer."

    Within her engrossing reflection on the Lord's Prayer, I found particular meaning in Chapter 42 ("Deliver Us From Evil"):

    "How differently shall we then incline our wills toward the will of God!" Teresa observes. "His will is for us to desire truth, whereas we desire falsehood; his will is for us to desire the eternal, whereas we prefer that which passes away; his will is for us to desire great and sublime things, whereas we desire the base things of earth; he would have us desire only what is certain, whereas here on earth we love what is doubtful."

    How often in my life have I desired objects and relationships, plaudits and praise, that are both shallow and fleeting? What about the desire to be one with God, in mind and being, body and soul?

    Judging by her expression in Bernini's sculpture, in this vision that might horrify the rest of us, Teresa is, well, ecstatic at the prospect of true unity with God. There is no fear, no panic -- only a joyfully willing acceptance.

    The denial of earthly desires: Could denial of life itself be one of them? Is that why Teresa felt ecstasy? Did she, in fact, see the angel piercing her heart as a means to eternal life with God?

    In my desire to "understand," I do not wish to overanalyze or overspeculate on what this remarkable mystic is trying to share with us through her vision. I only know that she has opened a new way to explore what God wants of and for all of us in our lives.

    (Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.)

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    BIBLE

    Experiencing an intimate connection with God

    By David Gibson

    Catholic News Service

    Are you a mystic? It is an odd-sounding question, isn't it?

    We contemporary Christians -- heirs of an elevated, rarified notion of Christian mysticism -- tend to retreat from the whole idea.

    Recently, however, Pope Francis struck a different tone in describing mystics. The mystic simply is someone who "experiences the intimate connection between God and all beings," said his 2015 encyclical on the environment, "Laudato Si'."

    Notice how he accents the possibility of experiencing God. Mystics are confident that God interacts with them and others.

    Many believers report that they experience God's presence. The range of possible ways to experience God is broad. There might be a sense that God quieted one's anxiety. Or perhaps the awareness develops that Christ is present in someone else, whose words are inspiring or whose needs are great.

    In biblical times, believers surely were less shy about mentioning God's presence in their lives than we are today. Had they heard Pope Francis' description of a mystic, some might have said, "I guess I am a mystic."

    Wouldn't someone profoundly shaped by Scripture be far less likely to imagine that God is absent than to believe that God is working quietly and actively within human lives?

    Psalm 139 asks God, "From your presence, where can I flee?"

    The answer to heartfelt prayer, then as now, was evidence that God could be experienced. "On the day I cried out, you answered; you strengthened my Spirit," Psalm 138 proclaims.

    I doubt it was surprising in biblical times to hear in the Gospel of Matthew that God entered St. Joseph's dreams in order to guide the Holy Family to safety in the face of King Herod's threat to newborn boys. "The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, 'Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you'" (Mt 2:13).

    Was this a mystical experience? The Gospel's assurance is that Joseph experienced an intimate connection between his family and God.

    Pope Francis said in a 2017 homily about Joseph that "when we dream great things, beautiful things, we draw close to ' the things that God dreams for us."

    One great challenge for Christians who experience God is to enable others, humbly and in welcome ways, to experience God too.

    Today, the experience of God may be hampered by the difficulty of recognizing the sacred in the ordinary. Holy Cross Father Tom Hosinski, theologian and professor emeritus at the University of Portland in Oregon, commented on this in a 2017 edition of Portland magazine.

    "It is because we take our ordinary daily lives for granted that we so often fail to remember how sacred our ordinary daily lives are, how filled with the divine," he said.

    In "Laudato Si'" Pope Francis encouraged believers to search out the "mystical meaning" to be found "in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person's face."

    The ideal, he advised, is "to discover God in all things."

    (Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.)

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    FOOD FOR THOUGHT

    Christian mysticism is not limited to the Middle Ages. The 19th and 20th century produced the mystics St. Gemma Galgani and St. Pio of Pietrelcina, more commonly known as Padre Pio.

    -- St. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903)

    Gemma lost both her parents by age 19, and poor health prevented her from joining the Passionist Sisters in her native Tuscany. Following an apparition, she appeared to be cured of tuberculosis of the spine, but the disease killed her.

    For a time Gemma's body had borne the stigmata and wounds like scourging, though some observers thought her hysterical or possessed by the devil. However, 230 extant letters to her spiritual director and confessor reveal a pious, humble soul, willing to suffer for Christ. Her feast day is April 11.

    -- St. Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968)

    Born in an Italian farming village, Francesco Forgione gained worldwide fame as Capuchin friar Padre Pio, who bore the stigmata, or wounds of Christ, invisibly from the time of his ordination in 1910 and visibly from 1918. As his renown as a confessor grew, the Vatican investigated the genuineness of his stigmata and ministry of prayer and healing.

    At San Giovanni Rotondo, he built a hospital to treat patients using prayer and science, as well as a pilgrimage and study complex. Shortly before his death, the stigmata disappeared. He was canonized in 2002. His feast day is Sept. 23.

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About Faith Alive
Faith Alive is a service from Catholic News Service (CNS). CNS, the oldest and largest religious news service in the world, is a leading source of news for Catholic print and electronic media across the globe. With bureaus in Washington and Rome, as well as a global correspondent network, CNS since 1920 has set the standard in Catholic journalism.

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