Yesterday a monk asked me, “What saints are you going to use in your book?”
I know he was just making conversation, but I bristled at the idea of “using” the saints. Once I got over my linguistic snobbery I appreciated that he was showing an interest in the project, so I replied, “Well, a lot of the mystics I love and will be writing about are not necessarily ‘saints’ in the canonical sense. There’s Julian of Norwich of course, and The Cloud of Unknowing, and Pseudo-DIonysius and Ruusbroec and Merton. Of course, there are some saints in the mix as well, like Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross.”
He said nothing in reply, so I added, “What saints would you recommend I write about?”
He thought for a moment and said, “What about Bernard?” Ah, the mellifluous doctor, the shining light of the first generation of Cistercians (for now we’ll ignore the fact that he was a major supporter of the crusades). I can see why this Trappist monk would consider him a mystic of the first order; still, I wrinkled my nose. “Too mental,” I replied. “I mean, On Loving God is a wonderful philosophical work, but is the ordinary person with a beginner’s interest in mysticism (i.e., my intended readers) really going to be able to relate to his work?”
He replied, “What about the sermons on the Song of Songs?” I admitted that I hadn’t yet read them (that’s one of the more humbling realities of daring to write a book on mysticism: the literature is so vast that I am continually reminded of how little of it I’ve actually read, let alone studied or prayed over). He suggested that it is in these sermons where I’ll find Bernard’s mystical genius. I made a mental note to add them to my “to read sooner rather than later” reading list.
Our conversation meandered on to another topic — an Episcopal priest told me a few months ago that he thought “mysticism” as a category of Christian experience was not particularly useful, and so I asked the monk what he thought of that (he disagreed). But as I sat in silent prayer this morning, that prickly phrase — using the saints — kept popping up in my mind. I think it makes me sneeze because it reminds me too much of the pop-magic world within Neopaganism, where people “use” different mythological gods and goddesses to achieve their thaumaturgical goals. That always bothered me, even before I returned to the church. I have such a personalist view of the spiritual world: the saints, as best I can tell, are both real and alive, and wouldn’t appreciate being “used” any more than you or I might like it. Like any other being, they are happy to help, but would rather be approached with good manners and appropriate humility.
This doesn’t mean I have to pray to Julian of Norwich to ask her permission to quote from her book. But it does mean that, spiritually speaking, I feel like I should quote from her, or any other mystical writer from down the ages, with a spirit of gratitude and respect — and that such an approach of humility and thankfulness will make a difference as I dare to write about their profound wisdom. We who explore the mysteries of contemplation today really do stand on the shoulders of the visionary and God-ecstatic men and women who trod the mystical path over the centuries, sometimes paying for it with their lives (Marguerite Porete) and/or their reputations (Meister Eckhart). I think it’s fascinating that the canon of Christian mystical writings seems to be composed of a mixture of works by saints — people recognized by the church universal as holy and exemplary — and scoundrels (those who have been forgotten, suppressed or marginalized because their work is regarded as heretical or dangerous). In the first camp we find Bernard, Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, Bonaventure, Augustine, Benedict, Thérèse of Lisieux, Ignatius of Loyola, and of course the two biggies, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. In the latter camp joining Meister Eckhart and Marguerite Porete are Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, Madam Guyon, Margery Kempe, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and, alas, even Thomas Merton. Hmmm… is mysticism the bridge between a narrow, restrictive, hyper-orthodox brand of Christianity, and a larger, more expansive, more “generous” (to use Brian McLaren’s wonderful term) orthodoxy? That’s a thought we could all ponder. Given the enmity that seems to be continually simmering in our day between “emergent” and “conservative” Protestants or between “progressive” and “traditionalist” Catholics, perhaps the mystics as a community of witnesses really do represent a place where the walls separating the liberals from the purists might be deconstructed?
But back to my personalist feelings: the bottom line is that the great tradition of mystics really does represent a “community.” G. K. Chesterton called the communion of the saints the democracy of the dead, suggesting that tradition simply means our ancestors continue to have a voice in shaping how we who are in the flesh today choose to think and believe and behave. So too is it with the mystical path. We do not merely stand on the shoulders of Julian or Teresa. We stand side by side with them, listening to their wisdom and hopefully applying it to their lives. We are fortunate to have such wonderful friends to walk beside us.