Fr. Louis Bouyer, the great French scholar of Christian spirituality, suggests that the only true object of Christian mysticism is the Christian mystery. The mystery is “God’s eternal design of saving all things in Christ just as he was to create all things in him.”Louis Bouyer, The Christian Mystery: From Pagan Myth to Christian Mysticism. Illtyd Trethowan, trans. (Petersham, MA: Saint Bede’s Publication, 1990), 15. The mystery is Christ himself, revealed fully in the cross, the ultimate revelation of God’s love for us.
Unlike later Western conceptions that view mysticism as the study of various highly extraordinary experiential states of individuals, early Christian writers typically spoke about mysticism in the context of either biblical interpretation or liturgical explanation.
Writers such as Origen applied the term mystery in reference to the hidden depths of meaning in the scriptures, for which Christ is the interpretive key. Later writers understood the mystery of Christ being fulfilled in the faithful through participation in Christian worship. The spiritual significance of these practices was then expanded upon (liturgical exposition) and became a source for a deeper awareness of God. As a result, what may be described as “mystical” experience, a deep awareness of God’s redemptive presence, was made available, primarily, by means of meditation on scripture and reflection on the symbolism of Christian worship.
01. Symbolism of the Word
The first selection is from Origen’s Homily 27 on Numbers,Numbers 33. The translation used is from a translation by Thomas Scheck to be published in the Intervarsity Press forthcoming series Ancient Christian Texts Series. a classic of Western spirituality. In this homily, Origen, on the basis of the Hebrew names, interprets the forty-two stopping places of Israel’s journey from Egypt as stages of spiritual growth. Origen begins by arguing that all scripture is useful, even passages that are hard to understand and seem unnecessary to read—like Numbers 23:
But we cannot say of the Holy Spirit’s writings (Scriptures) that there is anything useless or superfluous in them, even if they seem obscure to some. But what we need to do instead is to turn the eyes of our mind toward him who ordered this to be written and to ask him for an understanding of these things. . . . So it is up to us to ask this of God their meaning.
Why did the Lord want these things to be written down? Was it so that this passage in Scripture about the stages the sons of Israel made might benefit us in some way, or that it would bring us no benefit? Who would dare to say that what is written “by the Word of God” is of no use and makes no contribution to salvation, but merely narrates an event that happened, and which, to be sure, passed on by back then, but now it pertains in no way to us when it is related? This opinion is impious and foreign to the Catholic faith. . . . So let us attempt, in a summary fashion to investigate what a faithful interpretation should understand from these stages.
Origen introduces the first stage:
And let this be the first stage for us who wish to go out of Egypt. In it we abandoned the cult of idols and the worship of demons—not gods—and believed that Christ was born of the Virgin and the Holy Spirit, and that the Word made flesh came into this world. After this, let us now strive to go forward and to ascend one by one each of the steps of faith and the virtues. If we dwell in them for such a long time until we come to perfection, we will be said to have made a stage at each of the steps of the virtues until, when we reach the height of our instruction and the summit of our progress, the promised inheritance is fulfilled.
After explaining the spiritual meaning of each stage, he comes to the conclusion of the journey:
The last stage is east of Moab by the Jordan. For the whole journey takes place, the whole course is run for the purpose of arriving at the river of God, so that we may make neighbors of the flowing Wisdom and may be watered by the waves of divine knowledge, and so that we may be made worthy to enter the promised land.
The soul’s passage is a journey of ascent. Origen employs a dual interpretation. First, at each stage, the soul progresses from virtue to virtue, receiving its training from God. As the soul progresses, it is freed from the desires of the flesh; that is, it dies to a life focused on satisfying the self. The second direction of interpretation highlights the illumination the soul receives along the journey. Gradually the soul moves from ignorance to illumination and “grows accustomed to the true light himself.”Origen, An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Works. Colm Luibheid and Normal Russell, trans. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, Press, 1982), 252. These two interpretive paths along the journey, illumined by the Spirit, lead the soul to a deeper awareness of God, its “promised inheritance.”
02. Symbolism of Christian Worship
Maximus the Confessor (580–662) is one of the few great theologians and spiritual writers recognized equally in the Eastern and the Western Christian traditions. Maximus was most likely born into a Byzantine family of nobility. Later in life he embarked on the ascetic life, living in a monastery across the Bosporus from Constantinople. In 626, under the threat of Persian invasion, Maximus left the monastery and eventually made his way to Carthage in North Africa. It was here that he became embroiled in a Christological controversy. His position was seen by those in power as a threat to the unity of the Byzantine Empire. As a result, in 653 Maximus was arrested, tried, and sent into exile. But Maximus refused to be silent, continuing to argue his position, and as a result he was ordered to return to Constantinople. Again, he was condemned, but this time his punishment included disfigurement: his tongue was cut out, and his right hand was cut off. He later died in exile. Not long after his death, he received the title “Confessor.”
Maximus’ work, The Church’s Mystagogy, is an introduction into the mystery of salvation through the order of worship. As with Origen’s spiritual reading, which explored the deeper content of the history of salvation because the events of history revealed the mystery of God’s salvation in Christ, the worship was to be read spiritually in order to “explain” the substance and way of salvation.
In order to grasp Maximus’ explanation of the various elements, it is important that we understand his conception of the Christian life. Maximus is concerned with the quality of love that is expressed in the life of the faithful. The quality of our love is hampered by our overriding concern for ourselves (self-love). This inordinate love for self is the root of the passions—greed, envy, resentment, vanity—that keep us from loving God and our neighbor well. As a result, it is important that the faithful learn how to live like Christ. How does one learn how to live? The patristic answer: through studying the scriptures. Maximus writes,
Q. What do the divine readings symbolize?
They reveal the divine and blessed desires and intentions of God most holy. Through them each one of us receives in proportion to the capacity which is in him the counsels by which he should act, and we learn the laws of the divine and blessed struggles in which by consistent fighting we will be judged worthy of the victorious crowns of Christ’s kingdom. (Chapter 10)Maximus Confessor, Selected Writings. Translation and notes by George C. Berthold. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 199.
Next, he explains what the divine chants symbolize:
The spiritual enjoyment of the divine hymns signified the vivid delights of the divine blessings by moving souls toward the clear and blessed love of God and by arousing them further to the hatred of sin. (Chapter 11)
Maximus is convinced that freedom from the passions and the acquisition of virtue are not enough. The faithful must also cultivate a love for God that is much stronger than their love for the things of the world.See Chapters on Love 3.67. A deep love and desire for God produces in the soul a disinterest in sinful indulgence. In his first two chapters, we see his vision of the Christian life emerging: vice is replaced by virtue as the believer takes on the characteristics of Christ, and this internal change is sustainable only if it is undergirded with a deep love (agape) for God.
Maximus then explains the ancient Christian practice of the dismissing of the unbaptized before Communion:
Q. What does the dismissal of the catechumens symbolize?
It signifies and figures by itself the truth, of which it is an image and figure, as if proclaiming thereby that after having preached, as is written, “the Gospel of the kingdom in the whole world as a witness to all the Gentiles,” the end will then appear in the second coming of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ from the heavens in glory. “For the Lord himself . . . will come down from heaven at the archangel’s voice and the Lord’s trumpet,” says the divine Apostle . . . and through the holy angels will separate the faithful from the unfaithful, the just from the unjust, the saints from the accursed and, in short, those who have walked uprightly in the Spirit of God from those who follow after the flesh; and for infinite and endless ages, as the truth of God’s declarations affirms, he will render to each one the just reward of the life he has led. (Chapter 14)Maximus Confessor, 201.
Judgment has been handed over to the Son, and the Son says, “Do not judge lest you be judged.”Matthew 7:1 In this life, the faithful are called to lament their sins, forgive their enemies, repay injustice with kindness, and trust that God will administer justice at his return.
Next, the reciting of the creed and praying the Lord’s Prayer:
Q. What is symbolized by reciting the creed?
The profession by all of the divine symbol of faith (creed) signifies the mystical thanksgiving to continue through all eternity for the marvelous principles and modes by which we were saved by God’s all-wise Providence on our behalf. Through it those who are worthy are confirmed as grateful for the divine favors, for otherwise they would have no other way of returning anything at all for the numberless divine blessings toward them. (Chapter 18)Maximus Confessor, 202.
Q. Of what is the holy prayer “Our Father” a symbol?
The most holy and venerable invocation of our great and blessed God the Father is a symbol of the personal and real adoption to be bestowed through the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit. In accordance with it, once every human particularity is overcome and disclosed by the coming of grace, all the saints will be and be called sons of God to the extent that from that moment they will have radiantly and gloriously brightened themselves through the virtues with the divine beauty of goodness. (Chapter 20)Maximus Confessor, 203.
At the heart of Christian worship is a faithful recalling of the redemptive acts of God in thanksgiving, particularly the real and personal adoption as children of God. Finally,
Q. What is signified by the conclusion of the mystical service?
The profession “One is Holy” and what follows, which is voiced by all the people at the end of the mystical service, represents the gathering and union beyond reason and understanding which will take place between those who have been mystically and wisely initiated by God and the mysterious oneness of the divine simplicity in the incorruptible age of the spiritual world. There they behold the light of the invisible and ineffable glory and become themselves together with the angels on high open to the blessed purity. After this, as the climax of everything, comes the distribution of the sacrament, which transforms into itself and renders similar to the causal good by grace and participation those who worthily share in it. To them is there lacking nothing of this good that is possible and attainable for men, so that they also can be and be called gods by adoption through grace because all of God entirely fills them and leaves no part of them empty of his presence. (Chapter 21)Maximus Confessor, 203.
Here we see the final progression of the spirituality of Maximus corresponding to the culmination of the service. In this life, the faithful are adopted as children of God. In the Eucharistic celebration the faithful anticipate the further transformation (deification) by God, in which God fills them entirely with the Divine presence.
03. Transcending the Visible
Dionysius the Areopagite,Referred to in modern literature as Pseudo-Dionysius. an unknown author, lived in the sixth century, possibly in Syria, and wrote in Greek. He adopted the persona of the Areopagite, the Athenian convert mentioned in Acts 17:34. In the Eastern tradition, he was regarded as the first bishop of Athens, and in the West as a martyred bishop of Paris.
Much of the previous discourse of Maximus is a development of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius. For Dionysius, the symbolic life of the church—scripture meditation and liturgy—was intended first of all for teaching. God teaches the faithful through the visible. Yet symbols ultimately fall short in the presence of the One who is beyond our intellectual grasp. Dionysius writes,
If God cannot be grasped by mind or sense-perception, how do we know him? This is something we must inquire into. It might be more accurate to say that we cannot know God in his nature, since this is unknowable and is beyond the reach of mind or of reason. But we know him from the arrangement of everything, because everything is, in a sense, projected out from him, and this order possesses certain images and semblances of his divine paradigms. We therefore approach that which is beyond all as far as our capacities allow us and we pass by way of the denial and the transcendence of all things and by way of the cause of all things. God is therefore known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and through unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything. This is the sort of language we must use about God, for he is praised from all things according to their proportion to him as their Cause. But again, the most divine knowledge of God, that which comes through unknowing,This particular passage was cited in The Cloud of Unknowing, chap. 70. is achieved in a union far beyond mind, when mind turns away from all things, even from itself, and when it is made one with the dazzling rays, being then and there enlightened by the inscrutable depth of Wisdom. (Divine Names VII.3)Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works. Colm Luibheid and Normal Russell, trans. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, Press, 1987), 108–9.
In the above selection from Dionysius’ treatise The Divine Names, Dionysius offers positive statements on God, yet he continually reminds the reader that none of these thoughts can reach him who is unknowable. What we can say about God is genuine, that God is really known, because God reveals himself in the world. But God remains unknowable because he is not an object of knowledge. Therefore, the one seeking God must, at the same time, offer positive statements about God and deny those statements, not as false, but as inadequate to the nature of God. For Dionysius, the unknowing of denial is more fundamental; it is the path to a deeper awareness of God.
Figures and symbols—such as the names of God—are never completely left behind, and without them the community would have no sensitivity to the divine. Yet [God] is made manifest only to those . . . who pass beyond the summit of every holy ascent, who leave behind them every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, and who plunge into the darkness where, as scripture proclaims, there dwells the One who is beyond all things. . . . The holiest and highest of the things perceived with the eye of the body or the mind are but the rationale which presupposes all that lies below the Transcendent One. Through them, however, his unimaginable presence is shown, walking the heights of those holy places to which the mind at least can rise. But then he breaks free of them, away from what sees and is seen, and he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing. Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing. (The Mystical Theology 1.3)Pseudo-Dionysius, 136–7.
In the concluding sentence, Dionysius speaks of ecstasy, the soul “going out” of itself and uniting to God. This is an ecstasy of love, a passive forgetfulness of self in the presence of God. Dionysius does not offer the example of his own experience, unlike later writers; he offers figures such as Paul. He writes, “The great Paul, swept by his yearning for God and seized of its ecstatic power, had this inspired word to say: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’Galatians 2:20. Paul was truly a lover and, as he says, he was beside himself for God, possessing not his own life but the life of the One for whom he yearned, as exceptionally beloved.”Divine Names 4.13, 82.
Pseudo-Dionysius put into circulation what we may call the vocabulary of mysticism. His works would be established once and for all by Maximus the Confessor. Dionysius, when invoking the language of the mystical, grounds his description either in biblical interpretation or liturgical explanation, and often both at the same time. The union achieved in unknowing is not a unification of subjects, which would be fusion, but a communion of love.
About the Author
Michael Glerup, Ph.D., serves as the Research and Acquisitions editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight volume patristic commentary on Scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity Press, is an ecumenical project promoting a vital link of communication between the varied Christian traditions of today and their common ancient ancestors in the faith. www.ancientchristian.com