By: Christopher West
For nearly two years I’ve been reflecting on something I read in an article by Father Raniero Cantalamessa. I can’t get it out of my head. The article was provocatively titled “The ‘Atheism’ of Mother Theresa” (National Catholic Register Sep 9-15, 2007). Read the article in it’s entirety here. It explored the meaning of Mother Theresa’s extended “dark night” (a period of intense spiritual loneliness and separation from God’s consolation) of union with Christ in his cry of abandonment from the cross.
Cantalamessa wrote of a modern phenomenon he called “atheists in good faith” — people who feel abandoned by God. Perhaps they would believe if they encountered God, but they encounter only “the silence of God.” And he observed that the mystics, like Mother Theresa, “exist above all for them; they are their travel and table companions. Like Jesus, they ‘sat down at the table of sinners and ate with them’ (see Luke 15:2).” In other words, Mother Theresa lived in solidarity with those who don’t believe. All the while believing, she “felt” in her own heart what the atheists feel — abandonment by God.
Christianity Must Be Mystical
As Cantalamessa says, “This explains the passion in which certain atheists, once converted, pore over the writings of the mystics…There they find again the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun….Because of this the mystics are the ideal evangelizers in the post-modern world….They remind the honest atheists that they are not ‘far from the Kingdom of God’; that it would be enough for them to jump to find themselves on the side of the mystics, passing from nothingness to the All.”
All of this I find utterly fascinating. But I still haven’t gotten to the line I’ve been pondering for two years now. Here it is: “Karl Rahner was right to say: ‘Christianity of the future will either be mystical or it will not be at all.’” What does this mean? Are all Christians called to be mystics? We tend to think of mystics as those “far-out” saints who levitate or bleed with the wounds of Christ. Certainly we are not all called to that. But we are all called to an “every day” kind of mysticism. As the Catechism puts it: “Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called ‘mystical’ because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments … and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all” (CCC 2014).
Mystics are not dreamy believers out of touch with reality; they, in fact, are the ones potently in touch with Reality. They are men and women madly in love with God and burning to know him ever more deeply. They are men and women who have heard the divine love song (the Song of Songs!) and learned, through many purifying trials and tribulations, to sing back and harmonize with the Trinity. And, precisely because of their deep union with God, they feel a deep unity with and love for all of humanity. They are ready and willing to suffer for and with others, drawing them through such love into Love itself — or, rather, Love Himself.
Closer to Christ than Expected?
Without such love there is no future for Christianity. This, I believe, is what Rahner’s statement means. This also, I believe, shines a light on the importance of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body at this historical moment. John Paul II’s catechesis on the body is mysticism for the modern world. It brings John of the Cross’s “spousal mysticism” to the whole Church, proposing it in some sense as the “normal” Christian life, the normal way for Christians to view reality.
Could it be that, just like the “good atheists,” there are those who have been swept away by our sex-obsessed culture who are not “far from the Kingdom of God”? Could it be that they only need to “jump” as Cantalamessa says, to find themselves on the side of the mystics? Afer all, it’s the mystics who saw the union of man and woman as the key for understanding divine love. Who knows, maybe one day those now caught up in society’s sex obsession may “pore” over John Paul II’s TOB, finding “the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun.” Oh, let it be, Lord! Let it be!