Our Mystics — Part II


          (www.deaconden.org)  This is a follow-up to the prior article on mystics and contemplative prayer that appeared in deaconden in early June, 2016.  That article introduced the subject of contemplative prayer and pointed to possible signs of the appearance of this kind of prayer in one’s prayer life and described its development according to Saint Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. As that article grew longer and longer it seemed better to break it into these two parts. Here we will give a brief overview of contemplative prayer in the heritage of the Catholic Church. I will mention authors, and especially the writings of saints, that some may find helpful from the various eras. Mostly recent authors were given in the first article.


Knowing something of our long and rich Catholic tradition of contemplative prayer will provide models whose situations may seem similar to yours and be people you might be drawn to praying with and finding more about to enrich your own prayer life. It should quickly dispel any ideas that we have no deep spiritual tradition or that it is only for cloistered folks with no interest in ministry or serving and saving souls. Much of this tradition is not widely known because, like the diaconate itself, there have been some recent periods when it was not widely practiced or highly regarded.  There has been a growing interest in authentic and orthodox Christian mysticism from the beginning of the twentieth century; and, since the Second Vatican Council an even greater interest and regard.

To begin, the foundation of this prayer of deep union with God has to be the life and prayer of Jesus, particularly His time in the desert after hearing the Father call Him ”My beloved son.” Spending time in retreat, in the desert, He was discerning in His humanness the depths of these words and this call to a deepest of intimacies, union with the divine Father, in the Spirit.  Jesus left the desert, returned to Galilee, and began His active ministry. And amid his active life for others He spent time listening to the Father in prayer.

The earliest monks and nuns in the desert developed a spirituality after the model of  Jesus’ desert time. St Anthony of the Desert, who left some letters, was a pioneer in solitary, desert living — the hermit life.  Hermits living near each other and then in monasteries with an abbot and rule followed from this.  Evagrius of Pontus and Cassian developed a monastic mysticism for this developing movement.

In the third century Clement of Alexandria and Origen (also in the cultural center of Alexandria) wrote to guide souls in the city into God’s intimate presence.  The Church Fathers, notably Gregory of Nyssa in the East, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the West began to shape our mysticism in the fourth and fifth centuries. A focus on God’s call and His drawing us to Himself, the use of the Biblical Song of Songs as a mystical guide, and the abiding of the Trinity in the soul come from this period. Augustine was especially formative of our Western heritage. In his Confessions he describes his ascents and touches by God. The last three chapters of the Confessions are especially mystical.  In his sermons on the Psalms he also describes these touches and analyzes various kinds of visionary experiences.

In the sixth century Gregory the Great, the first monastic pope, organized mystical teaching under the themes of compunction and contemplation and recommended a contemplative side to the spirituality of the active clergy. And the very influential Dionysius the Areopagite or Pseudo-Dionysius sketched a program of ascent to God and also a “negative theology” that strips all positive attributes and names from God as a way to find God in the darkness of “unknowing,” like Moses on Mt. Sinai.

By the twelfth century Bernard of Clairvaux gave a summation of monastic mysticism using the Song of Songs as a guide. He placed an emphasis on personal experience coordinated with the revelation of scripture. And Hugh and Richard of St. Victor dealt with mysticism in terms of Scholastic theology, systematizing traditional teachings on prayer, contemplation and ecstatic experience.

After 1200 something new was afoot. New forms of religious life of a non-monastic type arose. Franciscans, Dominicans and others developed innovative ways to speak of encounters with God and a new mysticism of the late Middle Ages arose. No longer so completely a flight from the world, as in desert and cloistered monasticism; it was a mysticism potentially available to all Christians. Many woman mystics arose then: in Germany, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Helfta in Saxony, and a bit later many Dominican nuns; in Italy, of course, is Clair of Assisi, Angela of Foligno and Catherine of Siena; and in England, Julian of Norwich was writing her Showings, describing her encounters with God.

No less fruitful were male mystics between 1200 and 1500 in writing of their prayerful encounters: Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure (in Italy), the controversial Meister Eckhart with his followers Henry Suso and John Tauler (in Germany), and in Belgium, my personal favorite,  Jan van Ruusbroec.  To go on, in England, there were Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Here during these fruitful centuries a major problem arose over the question of the relationship between the mystic and the normal, orthodox teaching and structure of the Church as institution, as well as its relationship to other forms of prayer — what is true and what is false mysticism. While these always remain issues to be faced they are not unsolvable. They arise and need to be faced in every era.

In the sixteenth century there was the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation. Both produced mystics — the Protestants more reluctantly than we Catholics. For the Protestants there was John Arndt, Jacob Boehme, and a bit later the Pietist movement, and the tracts and poetry of George Herbert and Thomas Traherne, as well that of the Puritans.

For the home team, Italy produced Catherine of Genoa, Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi.  While in Spain, St. Ignatius of Loyola, himself a powerful mystic, developed the teaching of simul in contemplatione activus ( at the same time contemplative and active), despite what later Jesuit leadership may have made of it.  And, of course, the greatest of the Spanish mystics at this time were St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Her Life and The Interior Castle are mystical classics. His poetry and his four-volume commentary on it are a comprehensive treatment of the journey to union with the Blessed Trinity.

The seventeenth century was dominated by French authors and the on-going dispute over true and false mysticism. While it was a golden age for true mysticism: St. Francis de Sales, Pierre Cardinal Bérulle, and Marie de l’Incarnation, who emigrated to Canada, are authors to remember. The Quietist movement also flourished. Miguel Molinos and Madame Guyon were accused of this heresy, which proposed a passivity so extreme that good or evil works were no longer of concern to the soul. This fear of quieism at this time, as well as the ongoing need for caution in these matters, resulted in a general downplaying of contemplative prayer           — from that time until the early twentieth century.

However, a treatment of contemplative prayer by Jean Pierre Caussade, S.J. in the seventeenth century, and newly translated and published, A Treatise on Prayer From the Heart, provides a comprehensive and easy to understand praise of contemplative prayer. And also, in Chapter 3, “Abuses and Errors to Fear from this Prayer,” it deals with the legitimate cautions to be observed.   But he advises, in light of the great advantages of this prayer, not to let any fear block our way to this prayerful intimacy with our Lord.

However, these controversies marginalized contemplative prayer in the Western Church throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Russia however there were still sign of its vibrant life. (I have not dealt with Eastern Orthodox mysticism, which is rich, because it is just too much for now.) And so it went until in the early twentieth century an interest in mysticism was revived particularly by Evelyn Underhill and Baron von Hügel, a Protestant and a Catholic, and then by an explosion of interest and writing after Vatican II.


I hope the way I approached this way of prayer stimulated interest in you according to where you are with the Lord and you own personality and needs. It certainly is a lot of material. I came to realize as I was writing it that there are so many other avenues that could be explored especially since each of you will be considering it in your own unique way. This means that I would need questions to know what else to discuss. So, if you have questions, I would be glad to answer them individually or in another article. Or I would be glad to speak with you about any of this.

Deacon Joseph did have some questions and I will try to deal with them now.

First, how is the deacon’s particular ministry and way of life, past and present, a factor in entrance into and participation in each of the possible castles?  I can only give any helpful response from my own experience. Each of us has our own prayer life and diaconal experience and we each need to use the general outline to reflect on what the Lord has done and is doing with us in our prayer and in our diaconal ministry.  From my experience, it would seem that most of us heard the call to diaconal ministry while busily trying to take the faith seriously and becoming involved in lay ministries and parish activities—probably in the third castle. If our faith life was at a low boil (the first castle) we were becoming more and more drawn into a life of prayer and service and moral life in work and family life, that is into the second castle. Graces was leading us deeper and in the third castle we found ourselves among the devout and prayerful, and active Catholics, probably in the parish. The call ever deeper for me, at least, lead to the discovery of a call to ordained ministry.  Most of these movements were the result of inner touches by the Lord in prayer. Once in active discipleship and ministry there arose, in the fourth castle, the issue of making the relationship with the Lord more permanent, not just occasional. And this had something to do, no doubt, with ordination to a permanent state of ministry in the Church. So we seek more and more to be holy and more completely Christ in our service and life (the fifth castle). The sixth castle reveals an even deeper need to give all, and that can be painful as we divest and detach from what we have done and been before. This pain, dying further to self, is the necessary prelude to the seventh castle, our life within the divine Trinity here as we await our final call home. That is just as much as I could figure out; each of you will have to look at the road and journey as you have, are, and will be living it. Perhaps you could share your journey with us, and not leave me out here on a limb all by lonely self!

And for our widowers who are finding themselves at a diaconal turning point, Deacon Joseph posits, “The fact that widowers have completely fulfilled their commitment to the Sacrament of Marriage should help them enter more fluidly into the mystery of being ‘betrothed’ to the Trinity.”  I guess he wants me to agree; but I have to say I do and also I don’t. I agree they now are potentially more free to spend uninterrupted periods in prayer, and less busy with family and household duties. But, I am not so sure they have “completely fulfilled their commitment” to their marriage. The last phase of married life is the care for and dying of a spouse, and that would include the period of mourning, which could take a few years. The time of mourning culminates in a new life, but a life that is usually resisted until it is realized. So, I do agree that potentially, and in the expectation and pastoral vision of our bishop, to whom we owe obedience and filial attention (listening as a son to his father) a contemplative life is appropriate for our widowers/deacons. Perhaps to seriously consider this possibility they might look to completing their grieving in an appropriate time, (perhaps seeking out grief counseling), and get on to considering how their new life without a spouse might be one of mystical prayer.  About two years would not be an inordinately long period. And be careful not to fill the time and energy now available only with new, more busy activities, or just diversions.

And finally, the Deacon Director asks, how does spending the time developing this relationship of contemplation with the Lord assist the faithful?  They profit from our more focused ministry, more according to the Lord’s and will less of our own; and, the Lord’s light and life radiating from us will wordlessly edify, encourage and stimulate those we serve to emulate the Lord as we are attempting to do.

Your feedback would be of great help to me. I do hope I have been of service to you and the deacon community.



Augustine. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. There are many modern translations and   editions.

Amonymous. The Cloud of Unknowing. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981.

Anthony. The Letters of Anthony the Great. Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1975.

Cassian, John. The Conferences. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997.

Caussade, Jean-Pierre de, SJ. The Sacrament of the Present Moment. New York, NY:        Harper Collins, 1989.

—————. A Treatise on Prayer from the Heart: A Christian Mystical Tradition Recovered    for All. St. Louis, MO: The Institute of Jesuit Studies, 1998.

Gilson, Etienne. The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian             Press, 1990.

Hügel, Friedrich von. The Mystical Element of Religion: As Studied in Saint Catherine of   Genoa and Her Friends. New York, NY: Crossroads Publishing, 1999.

John of the Cross. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Kieran Kavanaugh, and   Otilio Rodriguez, trans. Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991.

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY: St.          Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976.

Pseudo-Dionysius. The Complete Works. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987.

Ruusbroec, Jan van, The Spiritual Espousals. Collegeville, Minn: The Liturgical Press,       1995.

Waddell, Helen. The Desert Fathers. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1998.


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