Our Mystics

www.deacoden.org …by Deacon Walter Sweeney

…”Are you a Contemplative? Do deacons have time to be contemplative? Are we holy enough, worthy enough; is it our thing at all?”

Are you a Contemplative? Do deacons have time to be contemplative? Are we holy enough, worthy enough; is it our thing at all? Well, Archbishop Aquila has stated in the past , “Deacon widowers should be the mystics of the Church.” And perhaps there are others among us (and those we serve as well) who fit this description. It’s worth some consideration don’t you think?

Mystics lead a contemplative life, continuing on the in the normal, Christian prayer life toward a living unity with the Trinity, though not yet the beatific vision. It is a grace some are blessed with. Is it possible some who are receiving these graces are ignoring or misinterpreting them — at great loss to the Church and specifically to those for whom they are intended to be of benefit?  To explore this it might be helpful if we each asked ourselves, where do I stand before the Lord.  Am I listening carefully, deeply, and in an authentic silence?

In order to be comfortable with this topic we might need some information about how to recognize the appearance of this grace in our own life and how it usually develops in a prayerful soul. To put us further at ease it might also be helpful to become aware of the long and orthodox Christian and especially Catholic tradition of mysticism. Many people who run off to Buddhism, Hinduism or nonreligious forms of meditation might be surprised to know of our own deep mystical foundations. So I will attempt in this article and in a follow-up article to (1) give some ways to recognize the onset of contemplative prayer and its stages, and (2) then give a brief outline of our tradition and mystical writers you might find helpful, from throughout our long and fruitful history.


A high point of our tradition and a comfortable point of entry into contemplative prayer are the writings of St. Theresa of Avila. She set out the typical stages of a life of prayer, so here we can see the usual point of entry into contemplation and begin our overview both of its development and of our Catholic tradition.

In The Interior Castle St. Theresa describes seven stages of spiritual life and growth. Looking into them will give us some idea of where we might be, what God is doing within us, and what He may be calling us to next. At a certain point in Theresa’s Castle our life of grace and our prayer begins to be called “contemplative.”

In the Institute of Carmelite Studies edition of St. Theresa’s collected works there are introductions done by Carmelite experts that explain exactly what is going on, even for the least theologically trained of us. I have found these introductions a clear and quick way to get a handle on the book before reading the rich words of the saint herself.  The introduction to The Interior Castle explains the seven stages and I will use it here hoping that you will read perhaps both the introduction and the words themselves to get the full impact of Theresa’s teaching.

Theresa states clearly when contemplative activity usually begins, making it easier to spot. It is in the fourth dwelling place, with the call to a prayer of quiet. It is when we feel a deep need for quiet in our prayer and to let God lead us — and for some solitude. A brief survey of her stages may help us situate ourselves and see where we have been and then how the contemplative life develops.

According to Theresa, we enter the mystery of God, the Castle, by prayer.

The first dwelling place is far from the royal dwelling — and its great light at the center of the castle, the seventh dwelling place — but a beginning has been made. “Too many things entice and distract souls here and thus prevent them from taking the time to search for the true light.” (Collected Works of St. Theresa of Avila, Vol.2, p. 270) They are in need of self-knowledge and humility; they are still too absorbed in possessions, honor, and worldly affairs.  But they are praying.

In the second dwelling place the soul is more receptive to the “promptings and invitations of Christ’s grace” from “books, sermons, good friendships, and through trials.” (p. 271)

Those in the third dwelling place begin to long not to offend His Majesty, they guard against venial sin, are fond of     both ascetical practices and periods of recollection, seek to use their time well,       practice charity toward their neighbor, and maintain balance in their use of speech and dress and in the management of their household.  They are good Christians, and the Lord will not deny these souls entrance into the final dwelling place if they   so desire.” (p. 271)

Sounds good, but there is a huge caution here because the next dwelling place is the beginning of contemplation and so few seem to move on into it.

Like the young man in the Gospel, however, they could turn away upon hearing the requirements for becoming perfect.  Any threat to wealth or honor will quickly uncover their attachments to these; and they are excessively discrete about their  health — to the point of fearing everything. In addition…they have a tendency to be shocked by the faults of others and quickly distraught by a little dryness. Though these persons find more consolation in the spiritual life than they do in material comforts and distractions, they seldom receive the deeper, more delectable   peace and quiet of contemplation except occasionally as an invitation to prepare better for what lies ahead.  They need someone who is free of the world’s illusions with whom they might speak. (p. 271)

In the fourth dwelling place is the beginning of mystical, contemplative prayer. It is infused prayer. Contemplative prayer is prayer that begins in God and overflows to our human nature. St. Theresa calls it “spiritual delight” that is received passively, and not through human effort. The first degree of this infused prayer characterizes this fourth stage of our journey. It is “not to think much, but to love much.”  It “begins with a passive experience of recollection, a gentle drawing of the faculties inward; it is different from recollection achieved at the cost of human effort.” (p. 273) It is a “prayer of quiet,” where the will finds rest in the peace of God’s presence. Theresa uses an analogy to show the difference between infused contemplation and the consolation we acquire with effort — an aqueduct constructed with great human ingenuity and effort, and a spring that bubbles at the very spot the water is needed.

The fifth dwelling place is a deeper “prayer of union.”  The human faculties become completely silent, suspended, during prayer and there is a certitude that the soul “was in God and God was in it.” (p. 273) This union is no longer partial, as in the previous stage, hence the certitude. The picture she uses to try to explain this dwelling place is the silkworm. The worm dies wrapped in a cocoon as the soul dies to self, wrapped in God Himself. And once dead to itself and its attachments, “it breaks forth from the cocoon transformed as does a small white butterfly.” (p. 273) Through death, in the prayer of union, we experience more fully out new life in Christ.

The sixth dwelling place, and the seventh, express so many mystical phenomena that I am going to just quote some passages from the Introduction to The Interior Castle for you to consider and let it take you where it will, realizing that what we have not experienced we may not be able to grasp, yet. And of course, you may have experienced more that you realize.

Theresa deals here (the sixth dwelling) with many extraordinary mystical phenomena.  Though the spiritual betrothal takes place in these rooms, the desires of the soul at a cost to itself must first increase.  Through both vehement desires for God and the sufferings these desires cause, the Lord enables the soul to have the courage to be joined with Him and take Him as Spouse…Theresa asserts   strongly: “I tell you there is need for more courage than you think.”  Without the courage, which must be given by God, such a union would be impossible. (p.         274) (I added the italics.)

Through these many favors and purification, the desires of love are   always increasing…These desires reach a point of extreme spiritual torment causing the soul a final purification of the spirit before entering the seventh dwelling place, “just as those who will enter heaven must be cleansed in purgatory.”…(T)he soul is aware    that this spiritual suffering is a precious favor. (p. 276)

          In the seventh dwelling place the soul understands more what this union is that it has been experiencing.

Entry into these last and most luminous dwelling places takes place through an amazing intellectual vision of the most Blessed Trinity…. a spiritual profundity previously unrevealed.  What seems awesome is that the habitual intellectual vision of the Trinity does not interfere with multiple and diverse daily duties  carried out as acts of service.

The grace of spiritual marriage, of perfect union, is bestowed also in this center dwelling place and occurs through an imaginative vision of the Lord’s most sacred humanity “so that the soul will not be ignorant of receiving this sovereign gift.”…It left Theresa “stupefied” for, as does the vision of the Trinity, this takes place in the most interior depth of the spirit…. (T)he term “marriage” designated the union and the degree of His Majesty’s love.  It is so great and reaches such a point that the spirit is made one with God “just as those who are married cannot be separated.”

At this point the little white butterfly dies with the greatest joy because its new life is Christ…(T)he purpose of all these splendid favors is that one must live like Christ and that the fruit of the spiritual marriage is good works…. (F)or Theresa the journey in prayer through the interior castle to the center room is nothing else than the magnificent work of God’s love. (p. 277–8) (Again, I added the italics.)

In Theresa we have a clear way to think about contemplative prayer that could fit into any prayerful person’s way of life. And as deacons it is necessary to know that even at the end of the journey into “mysticism” we are not impeded from a life of service and that Jesus is still our focus, model and our other self.


If your interest has been aroused or there are things that need further clarification, or you would like a more up-to-date, and short, treatment, try Louis Dupré. In two short books (less that 100 pages each), The Deeper Life and The Common Life he provides the content of fourteen conferences he gave to the monks at Gethsemani Abbey. They are based on the insights of a number of major figures in our Catholic tradition of mysticism. (I will go through the tradition in some detail in the follow-up article, OUR CATHOLIC TRADITION.)  Other overview books from the twentieth century that will interest some for different reasons are:

* Guardini’s The Art of Praying: The Principles and Methods of Christian Prayer. It is, again, short and compact and a good overview of the whole journey of prayer

* Ruth Burrows’s Guidelines for Mystical Prayer. From a small, rural monastery she uses her sisters to illustrate the contemplative way.

*Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. From early in the twentieth century, 1910, this very comprehensive and a bit old-fashioned book had a lot to do with a revival in interest in contemplative prayer. And so did,

*Baron von Hügel’s The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends. This not only dealt with St. Catherine’s life but the place of contemplative prayer in the Church and in theological study. And two books that give short bios and writings of traditional authors and their meaning for us today (for those who can’t wait for the next article on the tradition):

*Harvey Egan’s Soundings in the Christian Mystical Tradition and

*Louis Dupré and James Wiseman’s, O.S.B.’s Light from Light.

I hope something in here has been helpful and prompted you explore further how it may assist you personally or in your ministry. You will probably be the first one on your block to use the word “mysticism!” And pray for me as I pray for you, my brothers and sisters. St. Theresa also said that the best way for you to pray is the way you pray best. So, if none of this seems your way, follow the way the Lord is leading you in your relationship with Him.


Ruth Burrows. Guidelines For Mystical Prayer. Denville, N.J.: Dimension    Books, 1976.

Louis Dupré and John Wiseman, O.S.B., Eds. Light from Light: An Anthology of   Christian Mysticism. 2nd ed. Mahwah: Paulist Press,

Louis Dupré. The Common Life: The Origins of Trinitarian Mysticism and Its       Development by Jan Ruusbroec. New York: Crossroads Publishing            Co., 1984.

—————. The Deeper Life: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism. New York: Crossroads            Publishing Co., 1981.

Harvey D. Egan. Soundings in the Christian Mystical Tradition. Collegeville:            Liturgical Press, 2010.

Romano Guardini. The Art of Praying: The Principles and Methods of        Christian          Prayer. (Formerly Prayer in Practice.) Manchester: Sophia                      Press, 1994      (originally 1957).

Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez. The Collected Works of St. Theresa of Avila. Volume Two. Washington, D.C.: I.C.S., 1980.

Evelyn Underhill. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of     Man’s Spiritual             Consciousness. Markham, Canada: New American    Library, 1955.

Deacon Walter Sweeney

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