It has long been my conviction that the main crisis facing the Church is not a crisis of faith, but a crisis of religious experience. It is not that people do not believe, but they do not see the point of faith. And they drift away. Despite the enormous commitment of the Catholic Church to the renewal of liturgy, there has not been a renewed Church. One may say that the liturgical renewal is patchy and at times very defective. But those of us old enough to remember the pre-Vatican II Mass can only be struck by the contrast today of participation by the congregation, even in the most unrenewed or backward church. In the Tridentine Mass there was no communal participation, except through presence and such movements as kneeling, sitting, standing, and making the sign of the Cross. But where has our renewal brought us? People are wandering off: some to other Churches, a fact that we Catholics do not often admit; some to cults; some to New Age manifestations; some to a cold secularity without any religious dimension.
Yet the sad thing about this modern crisis is that the very thing people are seeking elsewhere is already present in the age-old tradition of the Church. When people seek their deepest self, a power within, a transformation of awareness etc. in New Age offerings, we can answer that what they are looking for, and far more, is already at hand in the Church, but seldom preached and generally ignored, like a trunk containing family treasures reposing in an attic. Amongst the finest riches in the Catholic household are the lives and writings of the Carmelite mystics.
The Carmelite mystics form a group of major spiritual writers in the Church. But as a whole they are more spoken about than known; they are often misunderstood. If you mention St. John of the Cross, people may immediately think of him as hard and inhuman; St. Teresa of Avila’s visions and experiences will be thought of as far beyond the ordinary Christian; St. Thérèse of Lisieux, however; is felt to be nice, a bit sugary perhaps, but was she really a mystic? Yet these three are only the best known of a whole diverse category of spiritual authors, all of them different, yet still belonging to an identifiable family, the Carmelite Order.
This article attempts to place them briefly in their background and see some common features as well as some of the differences between them.
But first a word about the difficult term “mystic/mysticism.” In a very odd book Matthew Fox gives twenty-one definitions of mysticism, and more or less agrees with them all (The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance. San Francisco, 47-67); I would not. A surer guide is the Jesuit, Harvey Egan, who devotes the first chapter of his fine book Christian Mysticism: The Future of a Tradition (New York, 1984) to a discussion of the meaning of the word “mysticism.” He and all main-line scholars are agreed that mysticism is not primarily about peak experiences, or extraordinary graces such as visions, ecstasy or levitation. It is the Christianity lived to the full, pursued to its ultimate and all-satisfying fulfilment. Mysticism is a way of living, and not a set of transient or isolated experiences. Mysticism is the result of an unconditional response to unconditional love. The mystic wants and finds God alone, and in God finds and values everything else. What most characterizes mysticism therefore is love.
Christian love is not a simply acquired possession, even though its foundation in the habit of charity is given at baptism. Love is a journey, a search, a pilgrimage. It is also a struggle. Love is not a feeling, for feelings can be present or absent in genuine love. Love is primarily a decision, a commitment to another, in the case of the mystic to God, sought as the All Holy, the Totally Other, the Supreme Good. But total love does not come easy. We all know the three enemies of the world, the flesh and the devil. Powerful forces both inside ourselves and from outside tend to turn us away from the path of total love. So the mystical road is a road of purification. If we are to be united with the All Holy God, then everything that is of sin and selfishness must be surrendered and healed.
When we speak of mysticism, then, we are concerned with the consequences of people falling totally in love with God. Mysticism is a living contact with the living God. But it is a contact ultimately beyond our unaided efforts. The most we can hope to achieve by our own efforts assisted by grace is a well-ordered life in which sin is overcome and virtue seriously cultivated. This corresponds to St. Teresa’s Third Mansions and the active nights of St. John of the Cross. Beyond that we cannot go, unless God intervenes and carries us up to a state in which we can experience his deep presence in our lives and above all in our hearts. This experience of God’s working within us, of drawing us into himself as Father Creator, Redeeming Son and Abiding and Strengthening Spirit is in turn a still more profound healing of our selfishness which allows God to give still greater blessings.
The Carmelite Mystics
In a discussion at the Carmelite general chapter in 1989, someone asked if the Church would have been much the poorer if the Carmelite Order never existed. My immediate instinct was to feel that of course the Carmelite Order, small as it is,