Sometimes, in my day dreams I overhear Joseph Smith and Francis of Assisi talking in a grove of trees. Francis has become something of a Patron Saint in my journey into Contemplative Christianity but Joseph still haunts many of my theological instincts. Certainly the two men do not share much in terms of theology, but there are some interesting parallels between these two spiritual leaders, separated by nearly 600 years. Both men founded massively successful religious movements. Francis’s reforms sought to bring Christianity back to the Gospel life and the example of Jesus, while Joseph sought to restore the primitive Christian Church structure of Apostles and Prophets. Francis’s spiritual energy was fueled by the violence and corruption of the beginnings of mercantile capitalism in Italy, while Joseph’s Mormonism was born out of the social supernova of the American frontier and the blossoming industrial revolution.
In addition, both men claimed direct experience of God. Joseph’s quest for answers led to a massive outpouring of revelatory energy that produced thousands of pages of Mormon scripture. Francis, who toward the end of his life began spending more and more time in solitude, became so enraptured with the suffering of Christ that he became the first Stigmatic in Christian history. Two years before his death in 1226 he developed the five wounds of Christ on his own body.
Most if not all religious movements begin with some kind of Theophany or revelatory experience. For Francis it was the Icon of Christ in the Chapel of San Damiano which spoke to him and told him to repair the Church. For Joseph it was a series of revelations from the Angel named Moroni and the personages of God the Father and Jesus Christ. It is often left to later followers to catalogue and dogmatize these revelations and turn them into a spiritual-religious program. Paul to Jesus, the early Franciscans to Francis, Brigham to Joseph, the Caliphs to Muhammad, or even Stalin to Lenin, all took on this role. Even in his lifetime, Francis’s Friars quickly discarded much of his insistence of absolute poverty and a prohibition on becoming Priests from the Order’s Rule. And while Brigham certainly attempted to implement Joseph’s vision for a communal Christian society, subsequent leaders were forced to abandon communalist polygamy.
But what seems clear in my reading of religious history about what keeps a spiritual tradition alive, is not necessarily the ability of successive generations to codify and systematize a founders revelations, but the contemplatives and mystics who keep the emphasis on cultivating authentic experience of the Divine. Contemplative practices foster this kind of direct experience of God through meditation, prayer, silence and solitude. Throughout its nearly 2,000 year history, Christianity has had its share of legalistic dogmatists, yet through it all, a strong mystical and contemplative underbelly has waxed and waned, kept alive in the vast spiritual ecology of Religious Orders that express the entire spectrum of prayer style, devotional practice, and contemplative method.
Mormonism, a relative newcomer to the Abrahamic Faiths, and despite schisms over Apostolic succession and doctrine, has not yet developed a discernible mystical tradition. Some would even say that it has no interest in doing so (see the entry on “Mysticism” in the LDS Topical Guide).
Yet, as I drink from the well of contemplative teachings, I cannot help but compare ideas and teachers with the Mormonism of my roots. One theme that comes up often in mystical literature is Union with God. The goal of Christian spirituality is Holiness, to become Holy as God is Holy, Sainthood. This process is not accomplished on our own, through our merit, but is slowly realized through spiritual practices such as charity, aestheticism, silent prayer, meditation, and stillness, all made possible through the grace of Jesus Christ.
In my understanding, the major difference between and Catholic-Christian approach to Union and a Mormon-Christian approach would be that whereas Catholic mystics see Union with God as ontological; Mormons, if they talk about it at all, would feel more comfortable speaking of this Union as institutional. Let me explain.
I would characterize an ontological approach to Union as wanting to become part of what God is. And while some mystics might seek the total annihilation of the self, there is certainly room for some semblance of our individuality within an ontological unity with God. An Orthodox priest I know made the analogy of a sword being held into a fire which glows with the heat of God’s love. The sword does not disappear, it simply participates more and more deeply in what God is, pure love.
This focus on love has often brought mystics east and west to use the language of the erotic. Saint Bernard wrote over 80 sermons on the Song of Songs, the erotic poetry of the Hebrew Bible. Saint John of the Cross also riffed on Song of Songs in his poetry of searching for the Beloved. Again and again, the mystics return to the language of erotic love to describe the relationship between the soul and God. This is in part because Jesus described himself as the Bridegroom of the entire Church. It is also because ecstatic and mystical states are difficult to describe outside of some analogy.
Mormons I know feel uncomfortable with this kind of language and have often dismissed the Song of Songs as not serious Scripture. The Mormon love for deity is almost always described in kinship rather than romantic language. Mormons see themselves as actual spirit children of God as Father, with Jesus as their spiritual brother.
While not explicitly using the language of Union with God, Mormon soteriology does strive for Holiness through what they call Exaltation, achieving the highest degree of Godhood or Glory enjoyed by God Him/Herself. But rather than framing it in ontological terms, where the devotee becomes one with God’s nature, Mormon theology seeks to someday be one with the nature of Godhood. In other words, Union with God is more accurately viewed as institutional (or familial). Mormons strive to be the same kind of being as God, who they see as their literal Father.
While Joseph Smith and his followers have been persecuted by mainline Christianity for this theology, the notion of Theosis, or Divinization is not novel to Mormonism. Church Father Athanasius once wrote that “God became Man so that Man could become God.” Irenaeus, a second century church father said that Christ “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.” And, Clement of Alexandria wrote, “The Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god.” These quotes are remarkably similar to the famous quote by LDS Prophet Lorenzo Snow who said that “As Man now is, God once was, as God is man may become.” While the language is very similar the theology is starkly distinct.
So, here are several questions for my Mormon friends and colleagues:
- Is Union with God something Mormons seek?
- If so how would you characterize it?
- Would it make any sense to talk about Union with God in the Present as many of the mystics do?
- How might current Mormon spiritual practices cultivate this sense of God’s immediate, rather than eminent presence?
- What role does silence and solitude play in Mormon scripture and tradition?