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Foundations & Fundamentals, Part II The Mystery & The Knowledge

There is a book of Catholic theology by Karl Rahner with the title, Foundations of Christian Faith. One section of the treatise is entitled, Man in the Presence of Absolute Mystery. Very dense reading, and perhaps we would want to change “man” into “human being,” but otherwise truly marvelous. This sense of the Presence of Absolute Mystery is the essential and necessary foundation for all spiritualities and all mysticisms. Without this sense religion becomes glib, another sales pitch, full of pieties that tickle our ego self and allow it to look “spiritual.” Without this sense we succumb to the moralisms of “do’s” and “don’ts” that make us feel superior or at least different from others. Without this sense, we are simply “members of a club,” albeit a club with a lofty message and maybe beautiful rituals, but still only a club. Without this sense we may yet have an image of God as “our friend,” a “personal relationship” with Jesus, a comfort in praying to Mary or one of the saints for intercession, but we will have missed our deepest calling. The same Karl Rahner also wrote: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he/she will not be at all.” This is what is at stake.


In the very early morning of December 6, 1273, Thomas Aquinas, Master of Theology, celebrated the Mass for the feast of Saint Nicholas. Something happened during this Mass because after it he was not even close to being the same person. Aquinas had written a lot, a real lot. He was not yet 50, but he had written about 100 works: commentaries on Scripture, commentaries on the Fathers, commentaries on Aristotle and Proclus, philosophical treatises, etc. He was in the middle of composing his definitive work, the Summa Theologiae. That day he stopped writing. And he never wrote again until he died about a year later. He stopped totally and abruptly–never finishing the Summa. All he did in the last months of his life was read and meditate on the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. Some people say that he suffered a stroke; others that he experienced a nervous breakdown due to exhaustion at his enormous workload. But his own secretary and friend relates that the only thing Aquinas told him was: “Everything that I have written seems like straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.” And the word “straw” here is a medieval euphemism for human excrement, which would not have been fitting to put on the lips of a holy saint. Now some modern and liberal theologians have taken this statement to mean that Aquinas was repudiating what he had taught and written. And they simply want to replace his words with their words. However, the truth is quite other. It was more a case of this brilliant mind having a disclosure of The Reality that is so far beyond any words that the only result/effect can be either silence or ecstasy. It was Thomas standing in the Presence of Absolute Mystery.


Now it is not the case that Aquinas had glib ideas about God. Even as he wrote voluminously and with great precision and care about the things of God and the human person, he also gave many indications that he understood the “beyondness” of this reality we call God. He shows a deep intellectual awareness of the mystery of God and that knowledge of God is not like any other kind of knowledge that we can have. Aquinas understands quite well that the mystery of God is not like any other mystery we encounter, which may or may not prove to be “solveable.” In the end, Aquinas is quite capable of speaking almost like a zen master in mystifying paradoxes. Note: “At the end of all our knowing we know God as something unknown: we are united with him as with something wholly unknown.” And this was all before his experience of December 6th. With that, he encountered in an existential way that which is truly Beyond, and so his words, no matter how profound, fell totally apart.


Problem #1: Words. “God” as a word. We use this word an awful lot–especially if we are in one of the theistic religious communities. That is inevitable. However, in our loquaciousness about this reality (“God this” and “God that”) we tend to get the wrong impression that we really know what or who we are talking about. The sense of the Absolute Mystery begins to recede to an uneasy background that is not comfortable. Those of us in the Catholic tradition are even more prone to this because of our penchant for definitions, doctrines, dogmas, our focus on authority and certainty, on the notion of infallibility. None of this is wrong if deeply understood and properly nuanced. However, our Church is inclined to stress authority and certainty and clarity in a very human way that pushes the notion of mystery to the sidelines. The whole effort in pedagogy and catechesis tends to emphasize simple adherence to doctrinal formulations and moral behavior and, oh yes, perhaps, a “personal relationship” with Jesus. So the average Catholic(and this would be true of most other Christians) will utter words about God with hardly any sense of the great mystery behind those words. Words like: “Jesus is God.” “There are three persons in God.” The Trinitarian statement is especially so vulnerable—each word in that statement is in a very real sense problematic and beyond definition in its use in that affirmation. Words like that are uttered very glibly as if they were a statement of some fact within this very finite world–like: “the earth is round.” While each such statement can be said to be “true” in a very real sense, nevertheless each such statement’s meaning needs to be unpacked within an awareness of the Absolute Mystery one is dealing with. And just one sign of that is the presence of paradox as we unfold the meaning. The Absolute Mystery that God is does not fit into our limited categories. Everything in our world and our experience must be one thing or another, but God is both nothing and everything from the standpoint of our experience. God is both near and far, both transcendent and immanent, absent and present, both this and not this.


Problem #2: Images–both internal and external. Go into a medieval cathedral or a Russian Orthodox church or one of the great old Hindu temples in India, and you will be surrounded with remarkable religious art. In fact, the very architecture of the place, the layout itself, is symbolic and pedagogical–as is the case with the mosque which otherwise does not allow images of any kind. All of this is good and healthy and truly beautiful. It is meant to lead the person to somekind of religious experience, to a sense of the numinous presence of the Divine, to an encounter with the Ultimate Mystery. (Here we won’t even consider the more prevalent kitschy religious art that more people are burdened with and which distorts their spirituality in myriad ways.) But even with solid and profound religious images a problem can arise of being “fixed” by them and “fixated” by them. The devotee seems never to be able to go beyond what the image suggests. This is almost always related to interior images, ideas and concepts about God which the devotee hangs onto for dear life—because it is scary to let go. Here a person’s prayer life might become fixed in “saying prayers”–and such a person in sincerely following the only path they know may indeed have an unthematic sense of the Presence without at all being able to put into words what it is they are experiencing. But it is as Abhishiktananda put it, imagine someone being invited to a rich banquet, and then they are handed a crust of bread and some lemonade. The Church does not do its job of leading each person to that mystical awareness of the Ultimate Mystery which is each person’s gift. As Jesus put it in one of his parables: “Friend, come up higher.” Sadly this was true even for monks until recent years with a kind of rediscovery in the Christian West of the contemplative nature of the monk and in fact of the human person. Here is Abhishiktananda writing in the 1950s as he was just beginning his vocation in India:


“More than anything else indeed the Christian sannyasi ought to be contemplative. Contemplative life does not in the first place mean piety…or the endless recitation of prayers, even liturgical ones. In this respect, though the Benedictine Rule may usefully provide for the organization and development of the life of Christian ashrams, it is further towards the contemplative ideal of the Desert Fathers that the Christian sannyasi ought to tend, as it is embodied in the life and precepts of St. Antony, Arsenius, John Climacus.… The sannyasi is one who has been fascinated by the mystery of God…and remains simply gazing at it.”


So the health and depth of our spiritual life depends on our navigating around these kinds of problems and being open to the Absolute Mystery which is at the center of our being and surrounds us on all sides. The awesome nature of this Reality has been addressed in different languages in different times and in different traditions. In the Old Testament and in the Desert Fathers, for example, the term “fear” appears a lot, or usually it is in the phrase, “fear of God.” As in, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” For the Desert Fathers this seems to have been a very important notion, almost summing up the whole spiritual life, but for us moderns the term may be problematical if we read it in a superficial way. The fact is that this “fear” is an abiding sense of that Absolute Mystery. When St. Benedict and the New Testament talk about “perfect love casting out fear,” that points us in the direction of mystical union or advaita if you will and then “perfect love” and that “fear” become one reality–or you realize that you ARE that one reality–you discover that the Absolute Mystery is now closer to you than you are to yourself(to borrow from Augustine). Furthermore, in the Old Testament it was common to hold that the Name of this Absolute Mystery was unspeakable, unnameable–one simply did not pronounce it. And it was also said that to “see God” would be death. So this language of “fear” and all such other language is supremely pointing to the absolute nature of this mystery regardless of our unease with such words. In fact, language not unlike that and troublesome in their own way can be found in modern mystics like Abhishiktananda. For example, he speaks of “being torn open,” “being torn assunder,” “being scorched,” of “being shattered,” of “explosions,” of “lightning bolts smashing into one’s consciousness,” of “annihilation,” and so on, and so on. Clearly this Mystery is not some little puzzle that we can play with or think our way through.


Given all that, what is now even more incredible, if that be possible, is that we are meant to “know” this Mystery and that this Mystery manifests itself in everything and everyone within and without. This is in fact getting very close to the very heart and center of all theistic spirituality and mysticism. And as we have been saying all along, this knowledge is not one of ideas or concepts or doctrines or rituals–it has to do with an unspeakable experience in the depths of one’s heart. This knowledge is more like something symbolized in the sexual union of husband and wife (why Aquinas loved to read the Song of Songs at the end of his life)—which by the way manifests the Absolute Mystery just as fully as any hermit sitting in his cave. In the company of mystics it is perhaps the Sufis who speak most eloquently of this Reality and our “knowledge” of it, which is both at the same time Absolute Transcendent Mystery and Unspeakable Closeness and Intimacy. Consider now this quote from St. Gregory Palamas, the great hesychast teacher:


“The supra-essential nature of God is not a subject for speech or thought or even contemplation, for it is far removed from all that exists and more than unknowable is incomprehensible and ineffable to all forever. There is no name whereby it can be named neither in this age nor in the age to come, nor word found in the soul and uttered by the tongue, nor contact whether sensible or intellectual, nor yet any image which may afford any knowledge of its subject, if this be not that perfect incomprehensibility which one acknowledges in denying all that can be named.”


 But Gregory is also the great mystical theologian of human divinization and our participation in the very life of God— so how can that be:

 “It is right for all theology which wishes to respect piety to affirm sometimes one and sometimes the other when both affirmations are true…. The Divine nature must be called at the same time incommunicable and, in a sense, communicable; we attain participation in the nature of God, and yet he remains totally inaccessible. We must affirm both things and must preserve the antimony as the criterion of piety.”

And this last sentence is the key for evaluating all spiritualities, all pieties, all mysticisms, especially within the Christian koinonia. St. Gregory writes further: “He is being and not being. He is everywhere and nowhere; He has many names and cannot be named; He is both in perpetual movement and immovable; He is absolutely everything and nothing of that which is.”

 Abhishiktananda’s advaitic mysticism would perhaps put it even more radically, if you can imagine that, but we will leave that for another posting. This topic is so important that we shall be returning to it many times.

 Let us conclude by giving the last words to one of the greatest and earliest mystical theologians, Pseudo-Dionysius (or in the Eastern Church, simply St. Dionysius or sometimes known as St. Denys the Areopagite):


“Trinity!! Higher than any being,

any divinity, any goodness!

Guide of Christians

in the wisdom of heaven.

Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,

up to the farthest, highest peak

of mystic scripture,

where the mysteries of God’s Word

lie simple, absolute and unchangeable

in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.

Amid the deepest shadow

they pour overwhelming light

on what is most manifest.

Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen

they completely fill our sightless minds

with treasures beyond all beauty.

For this I pray; and, Timothy, my friend, my advice to you as you look for a sight of the mysterious things, is to leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge. By an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be uplifted to the ray of the divine shadow which is above everything that is.”