Will the Christian of the future be a mystic?

Picture of cross from St Mark’s Abbey Camperdown

(This is actually a post I wrote in 2004…)

Reading today a sermon by Dom Michael King OSB, Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery at Camperdown, I was struck by two things he wrote about.

Here’s some of what Dom Michael said (I’d encourage you to read the whole sermon, though):

Eminent theologian Karl Rahner produced volumes and volumes of commentary on God, redemption, the life of grace. Scattered throughout the tomes of long and often convoluted sentences are short and clear statements recognized as seminal insights which continue to be much quoted. One of those statements bears a relationship to what the Christian must be today. “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all” (Theol. Invent. XX, 149). By mysticism, Rahner explains, he does not mean some esoteric phenomenon but “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.” He goes on to comment that the source of spiritual conviction comes not from theology but from the personal experience of God. This statement, made late in Rahner’s career, is similar to the comment reported of Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life about his volumes of theology being so much straw.

If monasticism is to mean anything and be of any value in the coming age, it will be within this context of the living experience of God. I think we could paraphrase Rahner to say “Monastics will be rooted in contemplative prayer or they will not exist at all.” A deep experience of God, constantly renewed, will be necessary to offset the threats to faith from a defiantly secular and even atheistic culture. What is already true today will continue to be the norm in the future: only monastics committed to an intense personal prayer life beyond the communal structures will find the joy and transformation that this life offers.

Monasticism sinks its roots into the real world of God by seeking an ever deeper union with God in prayer; this vocation is a ministry of prayer by which a community makes itself available to God as a channel of grace for Christ’s saving mission in this world.

I have been profoundly affected by a statement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a sermon preached in Washington National Cathedral in 1984. He thanked Christians around the world for the help that had come to South Africa through their prayer. But he was not making the usual connection about prayers for a particular intention: he was not thanking us for including his suffering people in our prayer intentions. He was making a deeper connection: “Sometimes you may not feel like praying because your prayers are insipid. There is a dryness, and God seems miles and miles away. But because you are faithful, you say to God, `I want to pray, and I offer you these thirty minutes, God, even if its means fighting these awkward distractions,’ and because you are so faithful, someone in South Africa suddenly receives an excess of grace; inexplicably it appears.”

Archbishop Tutu was not thanking us for remembering his people in prayer, but just for praying; for God in unseen ways uses the availability of our hearts to heal other hearts and other situations around the world.

This is an insight from the ancient Christian tradition of prayer which understands the deeper connections beyond request and response. Though not all prayer is petitionary, because of the mystery of the Incarnation all prayer is intercessory; the divine pattern is for human beings to be channels of grace to one another.

Monasticism focuses and concretizes this insight for the Church. Our call is to become channels of blessing for the world by making ourselves more and more available for God’s action in and through us. Through the humility of deep prayer we are able to penetrate beyond the false self to our true centre, where God is always waiting. We prostrate ourselves interiorly, offering ourselves to God for the world. And God distributes gifts in our name, without our ever knowing where or how. Thomas Merton wrote: “In the economy of God’s grace you may be sharing his gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.”

Even when my prayer and meditation seems hopeless and pointless, I am where God wants me to be, and beginning to be who God has made me to be.


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