Liturgy as Mystagogy: Towards a Pagan Religious Education, Above and Beyond Learning

Liturgy as Mystagogy: Towards a Pagan Religious Education, Above and Beyond Learning December 31, 2011

Previous entries — (1) Introduction; (2)  Saved by Beauty, a Testimony

“He said to me ‘Son of man, feed your stomach and fill your body with this scroll which I am giving to you.’ Then I ate it, and it was sweet as honey in my mouth.”

-Ezekiel 3:3

(In the previous post, I focused on the autobiographical roots of my aesthetic sense of liturgy. In this post, I will outline my ontological sense of mystagogy.)

Along with an existential, aesthetic sense of what liturgy is—liturgy as the art of living and dying—this series is rooted in an ontological (being-centered) sense of what education is. From this ontological sense of education grows what I mean by “religious education” and, by extension, mystagogy.

It has become standard nowadays to think of education as learning, nothing more than the acquisition of knowledge. Education, to most philosophers, theologians, and catechists, is an exclusively epistemological and psychological issue. It’s a heady affair, all about knowledge and learning. After all: it’s the information age, baby.

This view of education is deficient on many levels, especially with regard to the fundamentally religious nature of education. Again, by “religious education” I am not describing the isolated events that happen in classrooms, schools, or even in churches. Religious education—mystagogy, for the baptized—describes what happens during liturgy, and, again: liturgy is ubiquitous, the artistic water we all swim in.

The life of the human person is fundamentally liturgical: it moves and sways and grows to the ebb and flow of the liturgical tides. It is primal, mystical, and mythic. It marks all of our moments, those remembered and forgotten, from birth to death—and beyond. In this way, the liturgy is deeply pagan.

Allow me to share a story that justifies my use of the term ‘pagan’ and show what the term refers to.

One of my greatest teachers at Franciscan University of Steubenville was Fr. Conrad Harkins, OFM. He taught in and out of class and at several crucial points he shocked me out some of my misguided pretensions. A true Franciscan, and a great scholar of medieval history, he emphasized the worldliness of Catholicism.

On the first day of my honors seminar, he told us to read the New York Times and secular literature. He said to read everything, be afraid of nothing, check out popular, “pagan” books from the library. He poked fun at the stuck-up, holier-than-thou Catholics at Steubenville. He was magnificent. He railed against the puritanical, cloistered attitude to worldly things that I was used to.

I read the Da Vinci Code because of him, and laughed at how such a cheap bit of second-rate fiction could create so much hulabaloo. He loosened the already failing fears and defensive attitudes I had about “the world.” One can go too far with this, and I surely did, but it was an important lesson. A lesson I am still trying to perfect and pass along to my own students.

Another lesson I took from him followed directly from his Franciscan love of the world and transformed my vision of Catholicism. During my senior year I stopped into his office and, at some point, our discussion took us to the forthcoming Mel Gibson film, Apocalypto.

I mentioned how conflicted I felt about the historical subject-matter of the film. I was disgusted by the ugly, genocidal aspects of the Conquista and, at the same time, I was equally appalled at the barbaric pagan practices of the Aztec Empire. His response was sharp and quick, as usual. He said something to the effect of, “Any religion that doesn’t engage in human sacrifice is not serious. We are cannibals too, you know?” He went on to explain that what makes Christianity so radical is that it goes beyond the mere pagan anthropocentric sacrifice and sacrifices an incarnate God, an embodied theocentric sacrifice.

This is what scared the Jewish followers of Christ and what offends Protestants today.

The pagan core of Christianity shows how the Church, rather than sterilizing the primal religious spirit, unleashes a deeper, wilder magic where man is no longer the sacrifice offered to the gods: God becomes the sacrifice for man. The liturgical sacrifice, then, is not a sterile, civilized ritual; it is not prim and proper; it does not pull us away from the vulgar flux of the world. No. It draws us deeper into mystery, into the night, into the undomesticated, terrible, enchanted world of mysticism and myth.

The art of liturgy is communicated in the, equally artistic, pagan language of mythopoesis: in story, poem, epic verse, fable, parable, song, dance, mystic vision, and myth.* (This is the Catholic, pagan literary genius of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings.)

The mythopoetic language of liturgy is also the way we become educated, truly educated. We imitate, mimic, and emulate what we sense and experience. More importantly, we become the things we imitate, mimic, and emulate. This is what education first and foremost is: being and becoming. Knowledge and learning are merely instrumental in the process of being and becoming.

Again: education is not, primarily, a matter of learning information or acquiring knowledge. And, insofar as education is ontological, it is religious. And, as we have seen, any serious religion must be pagan. Religious education, then, is about the constitution of the human person. It is about life and death, gift and sacrifice. It is about who we were, who we are, and who we might become.

Anyone who understands the rich, morbid aesthetic of Catholicism surely recognizes this pagan sensibility. This is why I think that Protestants who call Catholics pagans are exactly right. Spot on. We should be proud of our paganism, it makes us serious in a way those running away from paganism are not.

This is also why those who attempt to close the gap between mythopoetic and scientific worldviews are deeply misguided. This is why the tortured, evolving apologetics of creationism are so badly mistaken. It is not primarily an issue of bad science; it is bad religion. We cannot reject myth. To reject myth and poetry, or to attempt to domesticate them with modern science, would be to secularize and disenchant religion.

The pagan rituals, myths, and symbols of old may have been untrue in one sense. But the enchanting pagan sensibilities that made the person a fundamentally religious person, a part of Nature, imagus Dei, impart another, deeper truth. The deeper magic from before the dawn of time.** None more radical than the Incarnation (the God-man),  the sacrifice of flesh, and the consumption of that flesh.

We all know the saying, “You are what you eat.” It is absolutely true: the act of eating is fundamentally constituative, directed towards becoming. This is true in everyday dining and, especially, in the Eucharist. Religious education is also a culinary process. We consume through mimesis, we become what—indeed who—we consume.

This shows how liturgy is thoroughly mystogogical and how mystagogy must be rooted in a pagan, ontological conception and practice of religious education.

* I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my dear friend and mentor, Tim Leonard, who taught me the value and beauty of myth and introduced me to the concept of mythopoesis.
** As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.
"If I am only now scaring you, I need to bring my A game. :-)"

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  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Cue Respighi.

    • PPF,

      I am so unsophisticated and uncultured, I had to Google “Respighi,” look him up on Spotify, and listen to understand your comment. His compositions were beautiful. Thank you,


      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Feste Romanae!

  • Squirrel Turtle

    Do you combat those who say eating is a utilitarian thing? I have said that eating is for nourishment. And while vegetarianism may be good. It is more nourishing to eat a thick cut of well prepared veal than all the McDonald’s parfaits in the world. Real nourishment comes from real food fit to eat. I think it is always better to make your own meals and be a meat eating cannibal pagan, than go to fast food for french fries when you are hungry.

    The best nourishment is Divine Flesh.


  • This is wonderful! Thank you for expressing something that I’ve been feeling for a long time during my second stay in India: Hinduism has actually re-ignited my devotion to Catholicism, which is, just as you say, distinctly different from Protestant Christianity. Rene Girard would love what you have just written.

    Now, here’s a further challenge: do, in your writing, for Catholicism, what Tantrism does for Hinduism (although most of the staid, Victorian-colonized minds of the Indian upper middle-classes among whom I work would deny it): broach the subject of the erotic aspect of liturgy. You are obviously a brilliant, sensitive man. You can do it.

    • dingby,

      Thank you! I intuitively understand what you are saying, even I cannot relate to it directly.

      I giggled when I read your challenge. I write on the erotic nature of the person in my academic work. There is an article I wrote where I bring that to bear on education and philosophy. Here is a link to the abstract:

      I would be most happy to take your challenge, let’s see what happens!


  • Oh, and by the way, Apocalypto was about Mayans, not Aztecs.

    When the Jesuits met the Amerindians, they didn’t fulminate against their human sacrifice, like the less urbane and well-educated Dominicans and Franciscans did; they simply said, “Yes, gods DO die on your altars, and, yes, the notion of gods sacrificing themselves and demanding that you be self-sacrificial, to keep the universe running IS a noble concept, and, although WE say it was done once, and for all, let us show you how you can continue to participate in it, and still remain alive.”

    • Thanks for this. I deleted this from the post, but I never did get a round to watching the movie, although I did gather that much from the info and reviews. When I spoke to Fr. Conrad, I used the Aztecs as my example, because I was, and still am, more familiar with their practices. Thanks again,


      • Peter Paul Fuchs

        Well, I thought the movie was about an irate group of cruise tourists who lost their Carnaval Cruise Line bus in the jungle, and ended up at a Mayan Temple.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    I saw the movie as a cool action-chase film as well as a metaphor for how a civilization collapses from within before it is conquered from without.

  • “Knowledge and learning are merely instrumental in the process of being and becoming.”

    Oh yes, this sends shivers down my spine! And how easily it is to become trapped in the ‘pursuit of knowledge’ and never ‘become anyone’. Fantastic post.

  • I am excited and intrigued by the lessons you learned from Father Conrad Harkins and now I hunger to know more.

    I am coming out of a decade or more of being one of those “stuck-up, holier-than-thou Catholics” and I want to “let the light in.”

    Are there websites or books you can recommend?

    • Thanks Dymphna!

      I know of none and, to be fair, I am probably taking some liberties with what he taught me here. Much of my motivation to write this series is to try and get some of these ideas out there. There are many parallels I am sure, but they were scarce to me when I could have used them. My best recommendation would be to read the works of those who had similar sensibilities: Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien and alike.



  • Thanks, Sam. I just shared this quote on my FB page today:

    “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ~G. K. Chesterton

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