A while back I came across this very excellent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Ross Douthat entitled "Mass Market Epiphany" on the way in which Americans have taken mysticism, which is the most interior and personal element of religious experience, and turned it into a mass market phenomenon. With clarity that is unusual in the mainstream media, this columnist states quite plainly that what currently passes for mysticism in America is no substitute for true, radical mysticism; true mysticism is intense and transcendent, while ours tends to be "a pleasant hobby rather than a transformative vocation." Perhaps I am giving this columnist too much credit for his insightfullness; after all, he is basically repeating what Luke Timothy Johnson said in "Commonweal" in a February 2010 article called "Dry Bones" on the struggle between the exoteric and esoteric religious traditions in Christianity, Islam and Judaism (here). At any rate, it was refreshing to see somebody outside of the Catholic circle make this observation.
Both Douthat and Johnson accurately state that mysticism is engaged in a "war" with what could be termed the more exoteric (or, activist) elements of religion - those elements that are centered on the world, this life and charitable deeds; what traditional Catholics have described as the "horizontal" approach to the Faith. It is undeniable that this has been the trend in Christianity for the past several decades - even longer in the Protestant traditions. Johnson says, "Bit by bit Christianity has succumbed to the worldview of modernity, which rejects and even ridicules the notion that a life of renunciation can be a pilgrimage toward God. With the collapse of a miracle-saturated world comes the loss of a robust sense of future life counterbalancing our present “Vale of Tears.” In the eyes of modernity, the very concept of self-renunciation appears as a form of psychopathology."
This is interesting because, despite this obvious movement away from true mysticism in Christianity (and in religion in general), polls consistently reflect that Americans consider themselves far more spiritual today than ever before. While only 22 percent of Americans reporting having a "religious or mystical experience" in 1962, that number has jumped to 50% today. Even as numbers for church attendance drop across the spectrum, more and more Americans, many of them ex-Catholics, are describing themselves as "spiritual but not religious." How are we to understand the apparent contradiction of less and less of a connection with traditional religious piety while more and more people are describing themselves as spiritual?
The answer must be that people are fooling around with spirituality outside of the traditional religious channels - they are pursuing the experiential element of religion without reference or context to the great traditions of the Church and the Christian mystics.
But this begs the following question: If people are seeking mystical experience apart from the traditional forms of piety, how can they have the sought after experience since the traditions of the Faith provide the framework and the necessary ascesis for how to become a mystic? Obviously, they can't - you can't become a Christian mystic without the framework of Christianity standing behind the experiential. To the degree that people do pursue mysticism apart from traditional dogma, the result is a shallow, flighty esoteric that also perverts the exoteric. Johnson says:
"In Christianity, the “new Gnosticism” espoused by devotees of labyrinths and self-realization workshops eschews the dogmas of Christianity as “underevolved.” Such deracinated forms of mysticism remain oddly superficial precisely because they draw no nourishment from the great exoteric traditions...Christian mysticism that finds no center in the Eucharist or the Passion of Christ drifts into a form of self-grooming. In a paradoxical fashion, it was the exoteric frame that enabled the esoteric to dig into deep soil rather than float off into vaporous fantasy."
So the exoteric and the esoteric stand in need of each other; the latter needs the former to keep from drifting into "vaporous fantasy" while the former needs the latter to ensure that it does not become an empty formalism, a simple "plan for organizing society" with purely worldly ends.
Unfortunately, Americans have tended to do to mysticism what they have done with everything else: "democratized it, diversified it, and taken it to mass market" says Douthat in his New York Times piece. If you walk into any Barnes & Noble, you can go to the religious section and find books that give practical guidance on how to develop your "spirituality" and become a mystic, as if becoming a mystic was a matter of reading a book in your spare time and adopting a few surface changes to your routine rather than a life-changing effort that requires God's grace and the wisdom and experience that can only come from years of struggle and insight, and often suffering. The mystics of the Christian tradition attained their stature by cultivating an extraordinarily rich interior life of contemplation, something that could never be taught in a single book let alone mass marketed to the general populace; even the mystical books of our saints like Interior Castle or the Ascent of Mount Carmel do not claim to be some one-size-fits-all program for those desiring to be mystics; they are rather reflective interior journals of the trials and experiences of individual souls. If general rules can be drawn from them, well and good, but the saints would have been horrified at the thought of someone using their life and experiences the way we use a Julia Child cookbook.The few books that do claim to be a general programme for the spiritual life, such as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, require a level of commitment and discernment that one cannot cultivate without a deep grounding in prayer and Christian orthodoxy.
Besides, as any saint would tell you, the greatest sign that one is not worthy or fit to be a mystic is a strong evidence of the desire to be one. None of the saints wanted to have "mystical experiences"; they wanted to love God, and the experiences followed as unsought after, but welcome, consolations. Furthermore, because their faith was not about having these experiences, they did not suffer loss of faith when the experiences dried up. Rather, the removal of tangible consolations often served to refine and deepen their faith. Compare this to a modern yuppie, bourgeoisie "mystic", who will most likely quit any spiritual endeavor after a brief period if they don't "get anything" out of it.
Modern Christian mysticism (and by this I mean mysticism divorced from tradition and discipline) is wimpy and completely divorced from its complement: asceticism. No Christian saint has attained mysticism without asceticism, yet this is precisely what modern Americans are trying to do: have a mystical experience without any ascesis. Douthat says in his piece, "The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappucinos or meat for lunch in Lent...by making mysticism more democratic, we've also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, more dilettantish."
I have said it before - what we desperately need today is radical renunciation. In the 13th century St. Francis, appalled by the worldliness and greed of his environment, decided that what was needed to truly reform society and return souls to God was a very radical sort of poverty that had not been practiced in the West before the rise of the Mendicant orders. Francis believed that a radical, extreme example was needed to shock 13th century Assisi out of its mercantile, bourgeois slumber. And his formula proved effective,;effective enough to revivify the Church in Italy and across Europe and usher in the greatest period of Catholic history in Christendom.
Here is my recipe for renewal today: We need men who are willing to renounce everything and go into the wilderness, like the hermits of old. Faithful, orthodox men who, without joining a religious order or attaching themselves to a certain diocese, renounce all their possessions, wear their beards long and their hands dirty, and go out into the wilderness, eking out a penitential life of bare subsistence on isolated hillsides, in wooded freeway medians and other out of the way places. These men need to be radical in their commitment to God and to renunciation - absolutely devoted to prayer and the interior life, making a living only by begging and scavenging - a new breed of mendicants inspired by the zeal of the Desert Fathers. Their habits will be filthy, their hair disheveled, their eyes wild and the love of God burning in their hearts. They need to be living rebukes to the materialism and activism of this age, even the activism of some of the established religious orders. When one encounters them we ought to feel like we are running into something from the Middle Ages. I say we need hundreds, if not thousands, of men to take up this kind of life. We need radical examples to remind us of what true renunciation is - it is essential for all of us to have these examples - even our ordinary belief must in some way depend on the presence of extraordinary exemplars.
Without examples of radical renunciation, Douthat says, "faith can become just another form of worldliness, therapeutic rather than transcendent, and shorn of any claim to stand in judgment over our everyday choices and concerns." If we get back a spirit of true renunciation we will find a return to true Christian mysticism - only then will the exoteric and the esoteric, the contemplative and the active, be harmoniously joined again for the building up of the whole Church.