Mysticism and Controversy

It is a wonderful sign that the study of serious mystical theology is gaining momentum in Catholic circles. We have much cause for joy in the revival of the deep, fortifying works of spiritual masters such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Abbot Columba Marmion, and many other mystical writers whose life work was “to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1) in the realm of orthodox and fruitful Catholic spirituality.

One subject that all of the sound authors in this area touch upon — and something generally accepted today — is what is called the “universal call to holiness.” This is the doctrine which asserts that all of Christ’s faithful, by virtue of their common baptism, are called not merely to escape hell, but to achieve the heights of sanctity, to become saints, even to possess on earth that state properly known as the mystical life. Sanctity, many authors continually and rightly remind us, is not something reserved for a special caste in the Church — not the religious, not the priest, not the bishop — although these contract, by vow or orders, certain additional obligations in regard to sanctity. No one group in the Mystical Body was meant to have a monopoly on the precious pearl of the interior life lived to an excellent degree.

While many authors are reminding us of this truth, I think it not unwarranted to make my own humble contribution to the effort, with some specific points of emphasis — and a correction. Summarily, I would like to focus upon a common doctrine of Catholic mystical writers, which is that the spiritual life known as the “three ways” is something accessible to all. The correction is of a common error many modern writers and popular preachers fall into when they assert that, in the days before Vatican II, sanctity was generally considered the vocation of an elite, not the common call of Christians. This is a disservice and an injustice to our Catholic forefathers. If the reader has never heard claims of this kind, he should read this article , which makes some uncommonly hubristic assertions. (St. Thomas, whom the author of this piece seems to have read only superficially, deserves a heartfelt apology!) True, there were always bad thinkers among clergy and faithful; there was always clericalism among some clergy; and there has always existed a tendency to mediocrity and a half-measured living of the Gospel among many of the faithful; but these particular effects of original sin do not justify impugning the generality of our ancestors for adhering to a two-track system in which the lay person was regarded as second class, while the true spiritual adepts — the pros, as it were — dwelt in convents, monasteries, or rectories.

I propose to kill two birds with one stone, that is, to summarize the authentic doctrine while showing that it was not an innovation of Vatican II. The “stone” I will use consists of references to pre-Vatican II authors who elucidated the “universal call” — and generally, I might add, far better than most contemporary writers on the subject.

Beginning with the End

Many scriptural commentators take notice of the fact that the Sermon on the Mount, wherein Our Lord introduces the Gospel, presents a description of the apex of sanctity. This is accomplished in the eight beatitudes, which St. Thomas Aquinas explains to be the most perfect acts of the theological virtues operating under the influence of the gifts of the Holy Ghost. The beatitudes pertain not only to the life of Heaven (our final end), but to the life of perfection here on earth (our proximate preparation for that end). Here are St. Thomas’ simple and consoling words on the matter: “[T]hose things which are set down as merits in the beatitudes, are a kind of preparation for, or disposition to happiness, either perfect or inchoate: while those that are assigned as rewards, may be either perfect happiness, so as to refer to the future life, or some beginning of happiness, such as is found in those who have attained perfection, in which case they refer to the present life. Because when a man begins to make progress in the acts of the virtues and gifts, it is to be hoped that he will arrive at perfection, both as a wayfarer, and as a citizen of the heavenly kingdom.”

At the beginning of His public life, Our Lord showed us the goal, just as the builder sets to work with a blueprint of what the edifice is supposed to look like when completed. God directs us, as He did Moses concerning the Tabernacle: “Look and make it according to the pattern, that was shewn thee in the mount” (Ex. 25:40). The Mount of Beatitudes, where Christ gave the New Law, rises higher than Mount Sinai, whence came the law of types and figures.

If the blessings of the beatitudes apply also to this life as a prelude to the life of Heaven, then those who have them now (“those who have attained perfection”) are ready for their final end. For these all-too-rare souls, death will be little more than the opening of the veils separating them from the Beatific Vision. For the rest of us who die in the state of grace, there is Purgatory — God’s summer school for the ill prepared.

Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange

The Dominican Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877-1964), masterfully explained the theology of the spiritual life in his two-volume The Three Ages of the Interior Life . He is most insistent that the perfection required for this immediate entry into Heaven is the full plenitude of the theological virtue of Charity, elevated in its operation by the highest of the gifts of the Holy Ghost: Wisdom. Here, the learned Dominican was loyally following St. Thomas. But the Angelic Doctor was not breaking new ground; it was St. Paul who called Charity the “bond of perfection” (Col. 3:14).

Father Garrigou-Lagrange follows the three-fold distinction of spiritual progress that is common to most Catholic schools of spirituality: the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. He challenges his readers with the abundantly proven doctrine that the unitive way is in the “normal way of sanctity,” that is, far from being an extraordinary phenomenon like speaking in tongues, prophecy, and suchlike, mysticism properly so-called is the normal flowering of the life of grace in the fervent Christian. (It is important to note here that “normal” does not mean “common.” Many abnormalities are common.) Beginning with St. Thomas’ teaching that “grace is nothing else than a beginning of glory in us,” he illustrates how this seed of divine life is to grow in our souls to full bloom.

After citing St. Thomas, St. John of the Cross, and St. Francis de Sales in support of his assertions, he concludes: “We have thus found a confirmation of what we believe to be the truth about the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith, which seems to us more and more to be in the normal way of sanctity and to be morally necessary to the full perfection of Christian life. … In this sense, we maintain and we explain what seems to us the traditional teaching, which is more and more accepted today: namely, that the normal prelude of the vision of heaven, the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith, is, by docility to the Holy Ghost, prayer, and the cross, accessible to all fervent interior souls .”

Far from merely postulating a general call to holiness, Father Garrigou-Lagrange explains holiness as close union with God, a union whose normal development leads to the mystical state, i.e., the state of contemplation, or the unitive way.

This Dominican theologian was an arch-anti-modernist, a doctrinaire son of St. Dominic if ever there was one. His “Where is the New Theology Leading Us?” was a critique of authors like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac, who, in the name of resourcement , were jeopardizing the sacred deposit. I mention this not merely to excoriate these authors (who rightly deserve it), but also to make it plain that it was Garrigou-Lagrange’s dedication to tradition and orthodoxy that guided his approach to the mystical life. All the more reason to hold in contempt the idea that the universal call to sanctity is a forty-year-old phenomenon.

Dom Prosper Guéranger

We have cited the authority of a Dominican who worked in the twentieth century. Let us go back earlier, to a man who died about two years before Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange was born: Abbot Guéranger, O.S.B. He was a product — nay, an inspiration — of that “reactionary,” anti-revolutionary, nineteenth-century movement known as ultramontanism (see his robust Papal Monarchy , which has only recently been Englished). A powerfully motivating force behind Blessed Pio Nono’s two infallible definitions, he also revived Gregorian Chant (the “Solesmes Method” goes back to him), Benedictine monasticism, and the Roman liturgy in France, where it had been replaced by the inferior neo-Gallican rites. In his magisterial fifteen-volume work, The Liturgical Year , we find a relevant passage among his meditations for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The abbot is commenting on the Epistle (Ephesians 3:13-21 ), whose central passage has St. Paul praying, “That Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts; that being rooted and founded in charity, you may be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth: to know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge, that you may be filled unto all the fulness of God.” The commentary ought to be savored, not merely read:

“But, if holiness is requisite in order to obtain the full development of the divine life spoken of by the apostle, let us also take notice how the desire and the prayer of St. Paul are for all men; and how, therefore, no one is excluded from that divine vocation . Indeed, as St. John Chrysostom observes, the Christians, to whom he sends his Epistle, are people living in the world, married, having children and servants , for he gives them rules of conduct with regard to each point. The saints of Ephesus, as of all other places, are no others than the faithful of Christ Jesus, that is to say, they are those who faithfully follow the divine precepts, in the condition of life proper to each. Now, it depends on us to follow God’s grace; nothing else but our own resistance prevents the Holy Ghost from making saints of us . Those sublime heights, to which the progressive movement of the sacred liturgy has, since Pentecost, been leading the Church, are open to all of us . If the new order of ideas introduced by this movement strike us, at times, as being beyond our practical attainment, the probable reason of such cowardice is — and a short examination of conscience will bear witness against us — that we have neglected, ever since Advent and Christmas, to profit, as we should have done, by the teachings and graces of every kind, which were given us as means for advancing in light and in Christian virtue.” (The Liturgical Year , Vol. 11, p. 359-360.)

In order to make sense out of Dom Guéranger’s last two sentences, we must be aware that, like many other authors (e.g., Blessed Abbot Marmion, O.S.B , and Father Gabriel of Saint Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.), the good Abbot of Solesmes sees the cycle of the Church’s liturgical year divided into three parts corresponding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways.

It may seem that this monastic author proposes something out of the norm, a standard beyond reach of most of the laity (and most clergy and religious, for that matter). On the contrary, what the master of Solesmes proposed is nothing more than the common, traditional teaching. Writing in the July/August 1997 Envoy Magazine , Norbertine Father Hugh Barbour, O. Praem., speaks of an error that crept up in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries concerning the “ordinary way” that laity were to follow as distinguished from the way of great sanctity to be pursued by religious. Father Barbour shows that this error was not left unanswered:

“Right away, though, the saints themselves began to react to this error. St. Alphonsus taught his missionary preachers how to teach the faithful to make a meditation. St. Francis de Sales’ teaching [that] encouraged holiness through contemplation among the laity was promoted. Finally, in this and the last century, the Church encouraged a revival of the study of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Dominicans and Carmelites, who had always followed St. Thomas very closely, started proving from his writings, from Scripture and from the Fathers, that the mystical life of prayer in its full development was the normal, organic result of the life of grace for all the members of the Mystical Body of Christ. St. Teresa’s Interior Castle is for everyone, not just nuns. The mystical ‘dark nights’ can be undergone by any Christian, if he does not give up the battle for spiritual progress in union with God. The great teachers in these things were the Dominicans Arintero and Garrigou-Lagrange, the Carmelite Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, the Benedictine Abbot Marmion and the Trappist Dom Chautard.”

He concludes by pointing out the availability of the works of these men, even in English.

So it is not a case of “pre-Vatican II” and “post-Vatican II” thinking about sanctity for the laity. It is, rather, a question of what constitutes authentic Catholic tradition going back to that most exacting command of the Man-God: “Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). The contemporary Norbertine writer we have just cited names some of the most beloved and widely read spiritual writers of the “pre-Vatican II” Church; yet many of these are among the same authors experiencing a wonderful revival in our day, thanks, in large measure, to the zealous efforts of their religious orders, as well as lay-run, traditionalist publishing houses.

Beginner, Proficient, Perfect

Those who tread the three ways we call beginners (purgative way), proficients (illuminative way), and perfect (unitive way). Abbot Guéranger, whose focus in The Liturgical Year is to draw all his doctrine and devotion from the Church’s liturgy, explains the annual cycle in terms of the three ways:

“We have shown elsewhere how the time of Advent belongs to that period of the spiritual life which is called, in Mystic Theology, the Purgative Life , during which the soul cleanses herself from sin and the occasions of sin, by the fear of God’s judgements, and by combating against every evil concupiscence. We are taking it for granted that every faithful soul has journeyed through these rugged paths, which must be gone through before she could be admitted to the Feast to which the Church invites all mankind, saying to them, on the Saturday of the Second Week of Advent, these words of the Prophet Isaias: Lo! This is our God: we have waited for him, and he will save us. We have patiently waited for him, and we shall rejoice and be joyful in his Salvation! (Isa. XXV 9) As in the house of our heavenly Father there are many mansions, so likewise, on the grand Solemnity of Christmas, when those words of Isaias are realized, the Church sees, amongst the countless throng who receive the Bread of Life, a great variety of sentiments and dispositions. Some were dead, and the graces given during the holy Season of Advent have restored them to life: others, whose spiritual life had long been healthy, have so spent their Advent that its holy exercises have redoubled their love of their Lord, and their entrance into Bethlehem has been to them a renewal of their soul’s life.

“Now every soul that has been admitted to Bethlehem, that is to say, into the House of Bread , and has been united with him who is the Light of the World — that soul no longer walks in darkness. The mystery of Christmas is one of Illumination; and the grace it produces in the soul that corresponds with it, places her in the Illuminative Life . Henceforward, then, we need no longer weary ourselves watching for our Savior’s arrival; he has come, he has shone upon us, and we are resolved to keep up the light, nay, to cherish its growth within us, in proportion as the Liturgical Year unfolds its successive seasons of mysteries and graces. God grant that we may reflect in our souls the Church’s progressive development of this divine Light; and be led by its brightness to that Union which crowns both the year of the Church and the faithful soul which has spent the year under the Church’s guidance.” (The Liturgical Year , Vol. 2, p. 20-21.)

Pentecost, as explained elsewhere in the abbot’s magnum opus , is the season of the unitive way. The season dedicated to the Holy Ghost in the liturgical year corresponds to that highest plane of the interior life, wherein the gifts of the Holy Ghost are most operative and their effects most sustained.

The Church’s Doctor of Mystical Theology, St. John of the Cross, tells us that what distinguishes these three phases are the so-called “passive purifications.” The passive purification of the senses brings the soul from the purgative to the illuminative way. The passive purification of the spirit is the difficult bridge from the illuminative to the unitive way. The old Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes the Spanish Carmelite succinctly in the matter of purifications:

“What mystical writers describe as the active and passive purifications of the spiritual life may be brought under, and arranged according to, their three states of perfection, though not confined to any one of them. The active purification consists of all the holy efforts, mortifications, labors, and sufferings by which the soul, aided by the grace of God, endeavors to reform the mind, heart, and the sensitive appetite. This is the characteristic work of the purgative way. The passive purifications are the means which God employs to purify the soul from its stains and vices, and to prepare it for the exceptional graces of the supernatural life. In the works of St. John of the Cross these purifications are called nights, and he divides them into two classes, the night of the senses and the night of the spirit.”

Father Garrigou-Lagrange follows St. Thomas in likening the three ways to the ages of corporeal life: childhood, adolescence, and maturity. He goes further than the Angelic Doctor: By synthesizing this spiritual analogy with the doctrine of St. John of the Cross, the French Thomist compares the passive purifications to certain crises of physical growth and maturation. Thus, the crisis of puberty corresponds to the dark night of the senses. As the former brings the child into adolescence, the latter brings the beginner to illumination. The passive purification of the spirit, more harrowing and arduous, is like the often perilous age of liberty that bridges adolescence and adulthood.

The author of The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life is careful to note that while St. John of the Cross addresses contemplative religious in his works (he was writing for his own), the active life of both the non-monastic religious, and the lay person in the world are compatible with these purifications. It is true that active souls will experience the passive purifications quite differently than contemplatives, but the purifications are necessary for progress, as much for the Carthusian as for the saintly auto mechanic or housewife.

(A very useful chart of the three ways, showing the place of prayer, the gifts, the virtues, and the purifications, is online here .)

Ascetical and Mystical

Those who have read a modicum of spiritual theology have doubtless run into the terms “ascetical” and “mystical.” While the terms are used differently by authors, for the Dominican and Carmelite writers, ascetical (coming from the same Greek word giving us “athlete”) corresponds to the purgative way, while mystical corresponds to the two higher ways. Very important for the theology of Father Garrigou-Lagrange is the fact that the ascetical life is ordered to the mystical life.

What does it mean to say that asceticism is ordained to mysticism? A brief explanation should help: Asceticism consists in “the active purification of the external and internal senses, of the passions, of the intellect and the will, by mortification, meditation, and prayer” (Father Garrigou-Lagrange) — all under the influence of actual grace. The soul’s powers are very active, while the gifts of the Holy Ghost are more or less latent. The mystical life involves the more frequent, intense, and direct activity of the Holy Ghost. Because the ascetical life is a necessary foundation for the mystical life — and the latter is the natural development of the former — we say that the asceticism is ordered to mysticism.

An Eighteenth-Century Innovation

The question ought to be asked: Is there anything to justify the claim that the “bad old days” before Vatican II were dominated by this downplaying of the vocation of all Christians to the life of perfection? For the sake of complete disclosure, I should say that there is a basis, although the position was by no means the common teaching. A Jesuit by the name of John Baptist Scaramelli (1687-1752) made too sharp a distinction between ascetical and mystical theology. The way of asceticism, he proposed, was the way of the normal Christian. The mystical life was reserved for a precious few, and by mystical he meant not only what we have called mysticism but also extraordinary phenomena (charismatic graces). This latter error mistakes the essential for the accidental, for extraordinary graces like prophesy, tongues, and such are not for the sanctification of the one who has them, but for the sanctification of others.

This two-fold division is not merely a different way to approach the subject matter. It is an essential difference in spiritual doctrine inasmuch as the ascetical life, for Scaramelli, is not ordained to the mystical life. As Father Barbour explains this erroneous system, “The ‘ordinary’ holiness [of asceticism] would consist of vocal prayer and reception of the sacraments, with instruction in the faith and the practice of the virtues needed for one’s state in life. The ‘extraordinary’ degree [of mysticism] would be for those who dedicate their lives more or less exclusively to the things of God (religious and contemplatives), who would then practice mental prayer and the ways of contemplation.”

Against Scaramelli’s artificial bifurcation of asceticism and mysticism rose up a host of spiritual writers, including his brother Jesuits, who insisted on both the traditional three-fold distinction and its application to all the faithful. (Father Garrigou-Lagrange gives many names from this host.) Scaramelli’s ideas were never censured by the Church, but they did not gain the ascendancy among theologians.

Ending with the End

A great deal more can be said on our subject. Thankfully, this has been done by the great masters I have named, and many others besides. I pray that the giants upon whose shoulders I am feebly attempting to stand will become further appreciated and their rich works more deeply savored. More than that, I hope that the fuller life of grace will be lived in great abundance in the Church of our day, for Our Lord did say, “I am come that they may have life and may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). As Dom Chautard establishes with rigorous argumentation in The Soul of the Apostolate , a fruitful apostolic life is not possible without a deep spiritual life. More than that, there is something of a tragedy in missing out on the highest sanctity that can be ours. It is the stuff of sad songs: unrequited love.

Further Resources

Besides works and authors named in this article, I would like to recommend the following: