In our faith there are many different ways of learning about God. While we may be aware of the academic approach, there is generally less knowledge of the spiritual approach. This is formally known as Catholic mysticism.
What is mysticism?
In general, mysticism is the belief that union with the divine may be attained through contemplation, prayer and self-surrender. While in other religions the term ‘deity‘ may be replaced with other words like ‘the absolute‘, there is an almost universal belief that the spiritual side of the world is perceivable. This is to say that through certain spiritual exercises we can gain a deep understanding of, and relationship with, the divine.
In this way, we come to know God in a much more tangible way than just study alone.
How does this manifest in Catholicism?
In Catholicism, these practices focus on the preparing for, sustaining of, and unpacking of a direct and transforming period in the presence of God.
We believe that God is calling us constantly to a deeper experience of his presence. Therefore, at the core of these practices is the endeavour to make ourselves more receptive to God and his call. To achieve this, we use a variety of prayers and practices that are normally very diverse and person-specific. This is because, just like in any relationship, different people require different activities to remain most engaged.
A great example of this is the difference in Franciscan and Cistercian contemplative prayer. Franciscan style emphasises using the senses, particularly in nature, as a tool for contemplation. By contrast, the Cistercians emphasises complete stillness and silence for the same end.
Neither of these two methods are better than the other. When you begin on a spiritual journey, it is advised that you follow the guidance of St Jerome. His guidance is to start by “pray[ing] the way you can, not the way you can’t”.
We do this because, just like how our body requires specific physical exercises to build up different areas of our body, our soul requires different spiritual exercises to grow or overcome certain challenges – like the temptations of habitual sin. Daily recitation of the rosary is a great example of a prayer form specifically designed to help us in this way.
While prayer can be done in many ways, prayer with the Eucharist, particularly in the Mass and Eucharistic adoration, is the most beneficial form of prayer, particularly in mysticism. This is because rather than just being spiritual, in the Eucharist, God becomes physical to us and this can create an even greater communion, especially when we consume the said host.
What is the point of it?
A mystical experience of God always results in personal transformation. This is because when we are confronted with, to varying degrees, the raw, all-loving, knowing and powerful being that is God, our preconceptions are shaken. The experience is deeply personal and allows varying degrees of clarity into God’s love for you, those around you and the nature of your life.
This experience should result in you reacting to it in some way that is beneficial to both you, yourself and those you spend time with. It is for this reason that the theologian Bernard McGinn states that “This is why the only test that Christianity has known for determining the authenticity of a mystic and her or his message has been that of personal transformation, both on the mystic’s part and – especially – on the part of those whom the mystic has affected.”
Ultimately, as Catholics we believe that the meaning of life is to learn to love selflessly and thereby become united with God. The point of Catholic mysticism is to this end and no other.