Thanks to everyone who left such thoughtful comments on my Matthew 13:11 post from a few days back.
I had never seen that verse as relating to contemplation. Rather, it seems to me to refer to basic Christian truths. My Vine’s Dictionary says “In the ordinary sense a mystery implies knowledge withheld; its Scriptural significance is truth revealed”.
I think Vine’s is nailing it on the head. This is how Christian mysticism differs from pagan mysticism: the pagan mystery cults were all about the secrets one received through ritual initiation; in Christianity, the “initiator” is Christ, who makes the mysteries of God fully known and manifest to all (or, at least, to all who bother to pay attention, or who bother to receive the mystery).
I do believe all are called to contemplation, although that may, and indeed probably should, take different forms. Contrary to what some of my critics may think, I don’t believe everyone needs to be practicing centering prayer! I do believe that a mature Christian life will have a significant measure of contemplative silence and solitude, but how we reach that point, or nurture/sustain it, is ultimately a very personal matter, between the Holy Spirit and each individual Christian (and, presumably, their spiritual companion). As Simon says, “the highest levels of contemplation are simply a continuation of a normal Christian life – they are not something weird and wonderful and accessible to some sort of elite.”
Now, as for the “not to them” question. Again, Simon:
Finally, (and I will put this as a question) does the quote you have chosen mean that those to whom Jesus has not revealed the mysteries are excluded from true mysticism and contemplation?
I think Matthew 11:25 sheds some light here. In that verse, Jesus says: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” I think we can safely assume Jesus is speaking metaphorically; he’s not saying that college professors are out but 6-year-olds are in! Rather, he seems to be drawing a distinction between those who rely on their own elite knowledge and those whose hunger or thirst for God is characterized by innocence, simplicity, and childlike trust. This is why he speaks in parables rather than in learned philosophical discourse; his parables reveal the mysteries to the childlike, even while it obscures the mysteries from those who insist on erudition (or, perhaps, gnosis). I think the real line of demarcation here is between pride and humility: the mysteries are hidden from those whose pride render them blind, while they are crystal clear to those humble enough to acknowledge their own intellectual poverty — no matter how far their schooling has taken them!
Tana beautifully articulates how authentic mysticism, far from being elitist, is about as non-elitist as you can get:
I have a difficult time with this supposition that mystics view mysticism as only for the elite. I have a hard time believing that mystics view it that way themselves simply because of the mystics I’ve met and known, none would ever suggest it… This mindset, in my very limited experience, therefore comes from the outside of the tradition – those who want to dismiss mysticism as evil or false or dangerous or unimportant.
Exactly. It is those who have not (yet) drunk from the refreshing waters of contemplation who insist that these waters are only for the chosen few. I believe that one of the signs of authentic contemplation is growth in hospitality and humility, which generally means a tendency to ignore or humorously dismiss one’s own “mystical attainment,” while paradoxically insisting that mysticism is freely offered to all. Mysticism is characterized by love, and, like love, it is shot through with God’s economics: the more you give it away, the more you have.
I know that I struggled for the longest time with the central paradox of Christian eschatology: that a God of such supreme, self-giving love would engineer a cosmos where so many of his creatures wind up in hell. What is that all about? I don’t think universalism is the answer, because that implies a stripping away of our freedom as autonomous creatures: “you’re going to heaven whether you want to — or not.” I find the resolution of this paradox in the idea that we are all, in eternity, immersed in the irresistible love of God. For some of us, this is simply what Merton calls “the beatitude of heaven.” Others, however, resist the love, and in this resistance experience it as a burning flame. Perhaps others will initially resist, but even as they resist they will also relent and allow the love to purify them (yes, I’m Catholic, and am comfortable with the concept of purgatory — only I believe purgatory is not a room in hell, but a room in heaven!) Of course, this is all heavily metaphorical language, and perhaps is filled with a heretical notion or three. But to me, the mystery (paradox) of God’s justice and grace is resolved in that we all are called to be immersed in Divine Love for all eternity; only some of us will accept it (and be “in heaven”) while others will resist it (and be “in hell”).
Perhaps the challenge of Matthew 13:11 is similar. Everyone is given the parable: everyone is shown the mystery. Not everyone receives the mystery, however. I don’t think this is a matter of cognitive ability, or even moral worthiness (ain’t none of us “worthy”). It’s all about grace, and choosing to accept what is freely offered with the open heart and mind that we see in the children we love. How do we cultivate such an open heart and mind? I think our faith offers plenty of good advice here: love God, as best we can. Love one another (as we love ourselves). Practice living without fear. Cultivate qualities such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Pray, without ceasing. Rejoice in all things. Take time off to be silent and to be alone. And when in doubt, repeat all the above (especially the love part).
Part of the mystery of being human is that we are all different, and some of us naturally “get” the spiritual teachings of the Christian faith tradition better than others. But that does not mean there is any such thing as a “Christian elite” (or a contemplative elite, or mystical elite)! On the contrary, the more fully someone grasps the message of Christ, the less elitist they become. It’s yet another one of the delicious paradoxes of the faith.