15 THE MYSTICAL HEART OF OUR FAITH
CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #15
THE MYSTICAL HEART OF OUR FAITH
OUR HUMAN AND CHRISTIAN VOCATION
"The human being is an animal who has received the vocation to become God." So wrote St Gregory Nazianzen in his eulogy for St Basil of Caesarea in 379. Gregory was actually quoting Basil himself and giving voice to one of the most profound truths of our faith.
The human vocation, in essence, is a call to communion – with the Transcendent (however we name that One), with ourselves, with other human beings and with creation. That life of communion will be facilitated and manifested by different people in a multitude of different ways. The Christian vocation is to realise the fullness of that human vocation – to become what we most deeply are, in Christ and through Christ. He is "the Way" (cf John 14:6). St Ireneus of Lyons (130-200) is concise and explicit: "The Son of God was made man so that man might become son of God." Through the loving action of God in Christ, we are set free to unfold in the fullness of our human potential. We are baptised into Christ (cf Romans 6:3) and enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God (cf Romans 8:21).
FAITH VERSUS IDEOLOGY
Our Christian faith is not an ideology, but a set of relationships – primarily and most specifically our relationship with God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. That primary relationship inevitably permeates and shapes our other relationships. The fulfilment of our faith is found in the fulfilment of those relationships. This is the life of love.
We could think of ideology as any more or less coherent system of ideas whose purpose is to shape the world of people, events and things in a particular way. Ideologies, by their very nature, tend to preempt reality. They operate on the basis of a pre-definition of the way things ought to be. In this sense ideologies are always idealizations.
Ideologies stand or fall on the strengths of their human resources and arguments and perhaps the accidents of history. Ideologies tend to be closed and self-centred. Too often ideologies give birth to violence, perhaps because they become the servants of human ego rather than reality. An ideologue, for example, would never be able to accept Gamaliel’s principle as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles ( Cf Acts 5:34-39). Ideologies tend to obscure the deepest hungers of the human heart and the signposts of what is real, because they (ie the ideologies) have "the answers". Ideologies do not believe in grace or gift since they believe the world is divided into two types – masters and victims, winners and losers. Ideologies imprison people.
Genuine faith is always available to be taken beyond the present limits and boundaries by going through the actual, concrete and definite reality of the here and now. Genuine faith sees life as sacramental, everything a signpost to what is real and therefore life-giving because God-bearing. Genuine faith feels the deepest hunger of the human heart for communion with the Transcendent and with all that is. Genuine faith knows that life is grace, pure gift. Genuine faith liberates because it is, in the end, a love affair with the Incarnate God living, loving and working in our midst.
Down through the ages, sadly, Christianity has frequently been reduced to an ideology and its preachers to ideologues. When this happens the essential Gospel vision is more or less diminished. Some of the unmistakable signs that it might be happening include excessive dependence on rational argument, legalism, exclusivity, sectarianism and violence perpetrated on God’s behalf.
THERE ARE NO STRANGERS
Another way of saying the above is to say that the Christian faith is essentially a call to be a mystic. We know ourselves to be one with the Father and, in that oneness, we also know an affinity and communion with ourselves, other people and the physical world. Thomas Merton describes this ordinary mystical experience well:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …. My solitude … is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them – and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone they are not "they" but my own self. There are no strangers! (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Doubleday, 1989, 156-158)
THE MYSTICAL GIVES BIRTH TO THE MORAL
Only when we are taking this mystical vocation seriously can we talk realistically about the moral vocation of the baptised. One of the most common ideologies to which Christian faith has been reduced down through the ages is moralism. Authentic morality begins and ends in relationships – primarily the covenant. Moralism begins and ends in ideas and rules. Moralism is an ideology. This ideology of moralism is sometimes passed off as if it were the teaching of Jesus and irreparable harm is done in the process. Too easily Jesus is reduced merely or primarily to a moral teacher and his teachings to a moral philosophy. Thus, for example, the parables may be simplistically interpreted as moral fables calling us to an obvious behavioural response.
Part of the seduction of moralism is its accessibility. It is much easier to grasp "things to do" than answer the call "to be". Our anxious need to feel in control is satisfied more easily with a clear cut set of moral rules and injunctions than it is by an invitation to a life of abandonment to the Mystery, a call to communion in and through Christ. To the anxious, life seems much more manageable when it is presented as a problem to be solved rather than a mystery to be lived.
What maintains the integrity of the moral vocation is the underlying communion with God in Christ. If, like St Paul, we are captured by the mystery of Christ (cf Philippians 3:13), we will be set in motion by that relationship and it will be our freedom. The energy and purpose for moral commitment will come not from our will-power but from grace. The moral behaviour will be free and grace-full. One of the distinguishing marks of moralism is its wilfulness. It lacks freedom and grace. Frequently it takes on either a hard, even harsh quality – one of the tell-tale signs of ego-centric behaviour – or a dour, humourless quality, or both. The "charity" of this moralism will always have strings attached, because it is – despite its protestations to the contrary – self-serving.
If we want to develop a liberating and grace-full moral life, we would do well to put our best efforts into growing in intimacy with God in Christ. There is the path of genuine self-fulfilment. And genuine self-fulfilment is self-transcending. And in the self-transcendence is our freedom. This life-giving transcendence will happen – and can only happen – in and through communion with the Other. Without the loving communion, we will be too anxious to let go.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
What do you make of the statements by St Gregory and St Ireneus?
Put in your own words what you think the human vocation is.
What is the relationship between the human vocation and the Christian vocation?
What difference does Jesus Christ make to your life?
What is your experience of mysticism?
In your experience have the mystical and moral been intimately linked?
How do you understand moralism? Give an example.
Do you think moralism will ever disappear? Exemplify from experience.
How do you understand self-fulfilment?
Use your own experience to describe what Merton was describing above.