Ordinary Mysticism in the Unnameable Present

Much ink has been shed over Karl Rahner’s famous adage that “the devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.”[1] Rahner’s point was rather simple: If, in years past, Christian identity was conveyed from parent to child as part of the ready-made package of a cultural heritage—I am Irish, so of course I am Catholic—the time approached, even as Rahner wrote in the early 1970’s, when this would not be so. The exterior markers of religious belonging as a concomitant element of social life would rapidly disappear, and, in their absence, something else would be needed, some interior touch or sense or summons, to bring one into the Church and to keep her there.

In that sense, I suppose, there were other terms he might have used. Perhaps the devout Christian of the future will have to be an “ascetic.” Or, a “revert.” Or, in the spirit of St. John Henry Newman, she will have to give “real, and not notional, assent.” All of these terms would signal a kind of necessary intention, a self-conscious interior commitment. But Rahner chose this term, “mystic,” and the apposite clause tells us what he means. The Christian of the future will have to experience “something,” or she will cease to be anything at all. Looking back over the nearly 50 years since Rahner uttered his prophetic pericope, the predicted dissolution of identity seems to have taken place; time will tell if his prescription rings true, too.

In a recent essay Chase Padusniak explored the limitations of this quest for “experience.” If Rahner may have been circumspect about the “something” of our experience, Rahnerians have not. “Those citing Rahner want us to be able to rediscover God in the everyday, to feel him as a presence both transcendent and imminent. The modern world feels empty of meaning; thus, we must search it out, look for it in the tedium of every day’s cup of coffee and drive to work.” Such pressure! If we find ourselves unable to feel God in the bumper-to-bumper of everyday life, then our capacity to be Christian at all is in doubt! Padusniak rightly reminds us that most Christian mystical literature, from John Scotus Eriugena to Jean Gerson to John of the Cross, either make no reference to personal “experience” at all (Eriugena), or issue rather significant cautions about “religious experience” as any sort of indicator of spiritual progress. When I teach Teresa of Avila, students are continually amazed, first by her claims to have paranormal experience—levitations or angels and flaming arrows—but then even more by her sense that these experiences can sometimes be distractions to prayer and must finally be left behind.

In place of this post-Rahnerian hunger for “experience,” then, Padusniak suggests an alternative tradition:

If we find some new mysticism in these dark days, it will not be a mysticism of the mundane, a discerning the Spirit in every little thing. Rather, I suspect, it will be a mysticism of our modern destitution, an escape from our anxious tedium, as it was for St. Teresa and John of the Cross, for Meister Eckhart and Simone Weil, into the transcendent, back into the world to re-enchant it . . . This will be the modern mystic: he or she who, removed from this world, will be a light unto others to believe.

I applaud Padusniak’s chastening words, insofar as they may shake us out of a kind of sentimental romance of mystical feeling.Yet, I wonder if the proffered alternative is really that at all. Any “escape from the mundane” must, after all, be some kind of experience, if it can be spoken of, if it can be named as “mine.” And what could be more romantic than a great escape from the mundane? Meister Eckhart may be mistaken for a kind of spiritual Springsteen, taking my hand, “riding out to case the promised land.” Instead of blithe bathers in the divine light of the everyday, we instead may substitute the solitary heroic pilgrim of the absolute. And the pressure remains.

Padusniak takes the great work of Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable,[2] as his point of departure for this new and different vision of the mystical. For Certeau, the modern mystic is one who has been pushed to the margins, whose encounter with divine life happens in extremis, away from the university lecture hall and the chancery office, where mystic speech is shut out of the discourse of the book and the rule and finds expression in the language bodily sensation, in ecstasy. Certeau is quick to point out that his description is historical—capturing a particular time and place and the mystical speech that suited that place.

He describes a world that was still “Christendom,” an age of Christian European hegemony, where the alliance and even fusion of spiritual and temporal power had colonized public and private lives in the Golden Age of 16th century Spain and the Sun King’s glories in 17th century France. And yet, he says, it was a “humiliated” hegemony.[3] “A tradition was fading away, transforming itself into a past.”[4] One detects in Certeau his sense that this transformation was as gradual as it was inevitable, that his own world of 20th century France is just waking from the spell of that great fusion’s past splendor. Certeau himself was a Jesuit who in his younger years looked upon Henri de Lubac, the great ressourcement theologian of the Christian tradition, as a spiritual father.

Only in the fires of 1968 did Certeau begin to awaken from the dream of Christendom. Only then did he begin to look to the mad and the ecstatic, to the rough edges of modern Christendom, for insight and guidance. Freed from the carapace of a dying hegemonic Christendom, Certeau sought a “white ecstasy” of constant departing, of walking away from settled pieties and sureties into an undifferentiated white haze, and he finds kindred spirits in these early modern mystics.[5] This, I think frames the “topography” of Certeau’s Mystic Fable; the map that extends into his own life and early death in 1986.

It may be fruitful to consider that Certeau’s Mystic Fable is the end of a story that precedes it. It is the story of a loss, and we might inquire what, exactly, was lost, and when. Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s master work, The Mystical Element of Religion, may provide something between a prequel and a prescriptive remedy for the early modern condition described by Certeau. Von Hügel argued that the “mystical element” of religion is one element of three. In a healthy religious community, the institutional, the intellectual, and the mystical elements dwelt in kind of tensive equilibrium, with each keeping the others in check.

The institutional provides stability and governance; the intellectual provides challenge and rigor; and the mystical roots religious life deep in the encounter of heart and will of the believer. For von Hügel, each of these elements can, at times, overwhelm one or both of the others, where “the three great constituents of religion should, each in its own way, tend continually to tempt the soul to retain only it, and hence to an impoverishing simplification.”[6] The temptation of the Institutional element, if left to itself, is to imagine:

Religion . . . as a thing fixed in itself, as given once for all, and to be defended against all change and interpretation, against all novelty and discrimination . . . Religion will here be conceived as a thing to be kept literally and materially identical with itself, and hence as requiring to be defended against any kind of modification.[7]

But, in turn, the Mystical element is tempted to withdraw from the Institutional altogether, to think its own intimate experience to be sufficient. The Intellectual, on its own, “with its keen edge and endless mobility, to be the born implacable foe of the dull, dead givenness of the Institutional, and of the equal givenness of any one Emotional mood.”[8] Von Hügel further describes ways in which two elements may conspire at times to suppress or minimize a third. He even imagines that two elements may ally against the third. He imagines, for example that the Institutional and the Mystical might align against the Intellectual, that the very givenness of the Institutional may be bolstered by a kind of sentimental personal piety, such that the roving intellect seems to be only a threat.

With this in mind, we may conceive Certeau’s early modern mysticism, in exile from the religious center, as the victim of an alliance between the Institutional and the Intellectual. The wild growth of the spiritual renewal of the 12th century issued forth in “orthodox” movements of popular piety like the Franciscans, but also in the oft-noted “birth of popular heresy” and in rather ambivalent movements such as the Beguines and the Waldensians. This algae bloom of spiritual life was matched at every step by the centralization of institutional power in the “imperial papacy” of Innocent III and his successors, and the University of Paris was recruited into the latter’s efforts.

Later, the disruption of the Reformation loosened the sure bonds of the Institutional element, and, if Brad Gregory is right, the Intellectual element becomes entangled in its own internal squabbles, becoming content simply to provide the intellectual labor for the Institution’s governance. And the Institutional dimension is underscored and reaffirmed with a kind of desperation, a hunger for coherence and unanimity and the order of institutional form.

The reforming movements of Teresa and Ignatius seem to seek an alliance between the Institutional and the Mystical, but the Inquisitors’ suspicion that Ignatius and Teresa were alumbrados, antinomian mystical freelancers, suggests that any such alliance was uneasy at best. In similar fashion, the triumph of Bossuet over Fenelon in the court of the French king Louis XIV branded the mystical as antinomian “quietism,” completing the early-modern triumph of the Institutional. In such circumstances, the mystical is pushed from the center to the periphery and becomes a locus of perpetual departing.

But where are we now? Rahner’s famous dictum foretells a time of Institutional weakening, and this certainly seems to be so. In our secular age, the Church no longer stands at the center of institution and culture. But, even more, for Catholics, the Church leadership’s continual self-inflicted wounds around the clerical abuse crisis has shattered any moral authority the Church had retained in the public square, and church attendance, already moribund throughout much of Europe, has fallen off precipitously in the United States as well.

At the same time, the Intellectual element seems to suffer from the same infectious polarization as the nation. University posts in Christian theology are few, and the Catholicism of our scholarly institutions seems to fall prey to two opposing forces: either the tradition is given up in all but name, or, in a few select cases, the institution doubles down on identity in a way that quenches the spark of inquiry and reduces theology to apologetics, smothering the vibrant life of the mind in the meantime. But our present topography is marked by more than the decentering of religion. We are not even convincingly “secular,” but instead live in what Roberto Calasso calls “the Unnamable Present.” Perhaps for the first time, at least for American Catholics, Rahner’s warning that the “devout Christian of the future” will “cease to be anything at all” sounds not at all hyperbolic—the unnamable subject in the unnamable present. This invests his alternative, the “mystic” who “experiences something,” with a vital importance. It is a matter of life or death.

So let us commit to reviving or re-presenting the mystical element of religion to our fellow Christians. But perhaps the first step will need to be to distinguish the “role” that the mystical may play in the push and the pull of the life of the Church, which may change from era to era, from the heart of the practice of the mystical life itself, which shows a remarkable consistency over time. Bernard McGinn’s already-classic definition of “mysticism” acknowledges that the word itself is a relatively recent neologism, but with von Hügel, he argues that it names an element present in the tradition from its origins.

Mysticism, says McGinn, is “that part, or element, of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of what the mystics themselves have described as a direct and transformative presence of God.”[9] McGinn avoids the philosophical and psychological thicket of “experience”-talk in favor of “consciousness,” because the former inevitably draws our focus to “a particular form of feeling or sensible perception easily separable from the higher mental activities of understanding, judging, willing, and loving that form the full range of the conscious life of subjects as subjects, that is, creatures defined by their ability to know and love.”[10]

And even more importantly, mysticism is about more than the end. As McGinn shows in great detail, “mysticism—or, better, the mystical life—is essentially a process, an itinerary or journey to God, not just a moment or brief state of what is often called mystical union”[11] If this is right, then we can see in greater detail that the Rahnerian dilemma expects too much—we are to “experience God” in every moment, but the mystical life does not center around any single experience at all. It is instead a practice, an intention, a movement into God that may or may not “feel” like anything at all, whether the “presence in a cup of coffee” that Padusniak warns of, or the “mysticism of modern destitution” he recommends.

So, what then? How do we navigate this unnamable present, no longer even “secular”? What does the “mystical life” look like in our own time? In his 2012 address to the Synod of Catholic Bishops in Rome, Rowan Williams reminded the assembly that,

Contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art, and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom—freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.[12]

He continues, “To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.”[13] For us, the very chaotic unnamability of the present age urges us all the more to move from the storm-tossed surface to the still and silent depths of the contemplative heart.

But, for all that, contemplation is not at all the cultivation of a role or charism or special gift, and so the mystical life that takes shape around contemplation is neither this nor that feeling or experience or technique or secret knowledge. We need not look for a new “mysticism of absence” to speak to our age. As Martin Laird teaches us, the mystical life is opened up in two fundamental practices: the practice of stillness and interior silence and the practice of watchfulness or awareness.[14] That is really it. We learn to rest in the stillness beneath our agitated minds, and we learn to recognize the afflictive thoughts that churn up out of our dark insecurities. That’s all.

But the wisdom of the desert, and the wisdom of the mystical tradition up through John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and Jean Pierre de Caussade, reveal that these practices are the way—perhaps the only way, before death itself—of unpicking the lock of the oaken doors of anxiety about the future and self-protective narrations of the past, the only way of dwelling, then, simply, in the present moment, and in the “ocean of light,” that suffuses it.

Beneath and within both the warm consolations of the everyday and the wrenching anguish of our secular destitution, beneath and within the various cultural constellations of human life and work and love and struggle, God is simply there. “By the grace of creation and redemption, there is a grounding union between God and the human person. In the depths of this ground, the between cannot be perceived, for it is completely porous to Divine Presence.”[15] Through stillness and awareness, we do nothing more (but what more could be done?) than let our lives be touched and transformed by that abiding Presence.

In this, the heart of contemplation will not be more or less available in our secular age or our nameless present than it has ever been. It will not be in shallow consolations embraced or in heroic escapes from tedium. The “something” that Rahner has invited us to experience has no protean face to match the age. It will be what it has always been:

the consciousness of myself in you,

of you in me; the emerging

from the adolescence of nature

into the adult geometry

of the mind.[16]

[1] Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” Theological Investigations VII (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), 15.

[2] Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, vol. 1 (Chicago: Chicago, 1992.

[3] Ibid., 21-25.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Cf. Michel de Certeau, “White Ecstasy,” in The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader, ed. Graham Ward (London: Blackwell, 1998), 155-58.

[6] Friedrich Von Hügel, The Mystical Element of Religion, as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 70.

[7] Ibid., 71.

[8] Ibid., 76. Von Hügel shifts, unhelpfully, I think, between the “mystical” and the “emotional” as descriptors of the third element. The Mystical may be characterized by a personal intimacy that is affective, but it cannot be reduced to “emotion.”

[9] Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticsim (New York: Modern Library, 2006), xiv. This is the most current form of the definition, which McGinn has continued to develop since he began his first volume of the history of Western Christian mysticism.

[10] Ibid., xvi.

[11] Ibid., xiv.

[12] Rowan Williams, Intervention at the Synod of Bishops, para. 8.

[13] Williams, para. 8.

[14] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Oxford: OUP, 2006), 4. Laird avoids the use of the term “mystical” and its many variants, perhaps due to just the sort of misperceptions that Padusniak points out.

[15] Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, Contemplation (Oxord: OUP, 2011), 2.

[16] R.S. Thomas, “Emerging,” in The Laboratories of the Spirit (London: Macmillan, 1975).

Van Gogh, A Pair of Boots, 1887; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100./


Kevin Hughes

Kevin L. Hughes is Professor of Historical Theology and Director of the Patristic, Medieval, & Renaissance Studies Conference (PMR) at Villanova University. He is the author of Constructing Antichrist: Paul, Biblical Commentary, and the Development of Doctrine in the Early Middle Ages and Church History: Faith Handed On.

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