The Church needs mystics
Suffering far more from the maladministration of its canonical leaders just now than from the heaviest blows of its worst enemies, our church is in such dark times that it can often seem unlikely that any really Good News could emanate from it. Seemingly more bent upon instilling fear and despondency in the church community than on embodying the confident and trusting spirituality of Vatican II, the magisterium invites incredulity and derision when it invites us to embark upon a ‘New Evangelisation’. Who could conscientiously invite any stranger into our church just now without the most solemn of spiritual health warnings?
All the more reason to welcome, then, a most timely small book from someone whose track record for evangelical encouragement and spiritual wisdom is already well established in Ireland. Richard Rohr OFM has followed up a recent work outlining a spirituality for the ‘second half of life’ (‘Falling Upward’) with a complementary piece – ‘Immortal Diamond: the Search for Our True Self’*.
The book’s central theme owes much to Thomas Merton, who first named a major problem of the spiritual life – that of the ‘false self’. This is our ego-driven tendency to hide behind outward personae designed almost unconsciously to impress others – the typical intent of the first part of our life’s journey. For Merton, as for Rohr, it is our vulnerable and often hidden real self that is the object of God’s love – and ‘success’ as the world understands it can be an obstacle to its recovery. An experience of deep suffering may nevertheless reveal this real self to us – forcing this ‘immortal diamond’ directly into consciousness. This is very much part of the paradoxical mystery and mercy of God.
Where Falling Upward focused on the discovery of this second half of life, Immortal Diamond develops further our understanding of our inherent and original identity – that part of us that houses our soul. I have not yet encountered a clearer introduction to key understandings of some of the greatest Christian mystics, or a better account of what could be meant by the teaching that each of us is created in the image of God.
“The place which God takes in our soul he will never vacate, for in us is his home of homes, and it is the greatest delight for him to dwell there . . . . The soul who contemplates this is made like the one who is contemplated.” This quote from Dame Julian of Norwich helps to buttress Rohr’s central contention that far from being something separate from and far inferior to God, we can be raised through the divine indwelling into actual communion with the mystery. The Orthodox belief in ‘theosis’ – that we are in an important sense ‘of God’ – is something we in the West also need to embrace. Our ‘human dignity’ cannot be defended simply by magisterial assertion and weight-throwing: it needs to be realised through real, personal, spiritual experience.
Often under attack from narrow Catholic conservatives for defending beliefs in other traditions that echo his themes, Rohr sometimes feels obliged to insist upon his Catholic orthodoxy – for example his belief in the facticity of the Resurrection. For him it is not only true that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead but that this Resurrection is a promise and metaphor for our own necessary resurrection from despondency about our deepest selves. Resisting any theory of atonement that rests upon the Father’s supposed need to be placated, Rohr insists: ‘Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity but to change the mind of humanity about God.’ The incarnation would have happened anyway, he believes, even if there had been no ‘original sin’ – because of God’s intent from the beginning to dwell within the hearts of humankind
Far, then, from being the necessary discharger of a debt caused by sin “The Crucified One is God’s standing in solidarity with the suffering, the tragedy, and the disaster of all time, and God’s promise that it will not have the final word…. The Risen One is God’s final word about the universe and what God plans to do with all suffering.”
All-in-all this small book is a far more convincing and uplifting defence of the creeds than the magisterial church’s current cold and unjust theological policing regime. The notion that the loving truth can be captured and conveyed in rigid theological formulae tends to make policemen rather than pastors of bishops – as is well conveyed in Rohr’s account of what one bishop said to him about the church’s mystical tradition: “I don’t have time for the mystics; we are running a church here.” Surely if we had far more mystics in the Catholic episcopacy, and far fewer emotionally undeveloped canon lawyers and theologians, the church’s superstructure and internal relationships would not be in such a parlous and disedifying state.
Overall this book helps to validate Karl Rahner’s conclusion that “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” It also serves to demystify mysticism itself and to reduce the likelihood that Rohr’s readers will make the mistake of placing even him on a pedestal. To get behind the defences built by his students’ sense of inferiority, Rohr tells us that he often has to reveal his own ‘struggles, failures, sin, neediness and weaknesses’. This honesty strengthens the book’s appeal.
All who are sincerely interested in a ‘new evangelisation’ could benefit from this small work. It is an object lesson on how that project may yet be accomplished, without any assistance whatsoever from a magisterial reign of terror. The current structure and governing culture of the church is the greatest possible contradiction to the ‘Good News’, but this small work is convincing evidence that the latter can and will get through anyway.
* Richard Rohr’s book is called Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self. (Hardback now available from the Centre for Action and Contemplation: please visit their website for details. Paperback version due in February 2013.)