Catholic Mysticism

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Catholic Mysticism


In Christianity, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Christian mysticism is an attempt to fathom and reciprocate that love through the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the emotion of human desire.

Trinitarian faith affirms that God is a single being or essence subsisting in three persons— an eternal community of love. Classical the-ology uses the language of ‘coinherence’ to describe these relationships: the Father abides in the Son, the Son in the Father, and the Holy Spirit in both. In the influential thought of Augustine (d. 430 CE), the Holy Spirit is the mutual love of Father and Son, personified and extended to believers. To be filled with the Holy Spirit is thus to enter into this divine communion. One strand of Christian piety focuses intensely on acquiring the Spirit and its gifts, such as prophecy, revelations, miraculous healing, and speaking in tongues. But all these gifts, according to Paul, “will pass away” except for love, which alone is eternal (1 Corinthians 13:8–10). “Acquire the Spirit of peace,” remarked Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833), “and a thousand souls will be saved around you.”

The mysticism of ‘indwelling’ extends be-yond the Holy Spirit to the mystical body of Christ, of which all Christians are members, and the whole Trinity. In some formulations, God and the soul abide in one another in reciprocal love, just as the three divine persons do. Mystical theologies of this type employ metaphors of maternity and pregnancy. The Christian bears Christ (or the Trinity) in her heart just as Mary did in her womb, giving birth to God in acts of love and virtue. The “eternal birth of the Word in the soul” is central to the mysticism of Meister Eckhart (d. 1327). Conversely, Christ or God is represented as a loving mother who carries, bears, and nurtures both the believer’s soul and all creation. This idea, intimated by St. Anselm (d. 1109), is most fully developed in the theology of Julian of Norwich (d. ca. 1416).

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Divine love not only abides in the beloved, but also calls the beloved into being, since love’s nature is to proceed out of itself into the other. Dionysius (or Denis) the Areopagite, a sixth-century Syrian monk, was the first to characterize God as eros, ekstatikos, or ecstatic love, accommodating Christianity to Neo platonic thought. Mystics in the Dionysian tradition have understood creation as a flowing-out or emanation from divine being and salvation as a return to it, both motivated by love. In this vein the Flemish holy woman Hadewijch (thirteenth century) interpreted the twofold rhythm of Christian life as an ...

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