A glimpse at mystics and saints

Published June 1, 2006

James Harpur has written a good historical overview of Christian mystics from the beginning of the church to the present, defining mysticism as “an intense awareness of God’s presence accompanied by extraordinary knowledge and love.” It should be noted that he is writing about Christian mystics, as opposed to mysticism in general. All the mystics covered in Love Burning in the Soul agree on the centrality of Jesus Christ and the distinction between Creator and creation. (Only 13th century heretic Meister Eckhart got into trouble here.) The subject is surely timely. As he notes, there is hardly a mall that does not have a shop selling candles, crystals, incense, or yoga instruction. Yet church pews in the West are empty. Is it the case that mainline churches are not challenging us with the call to experience God at a deeper level? On the other hand, the author emphasizes that the Christian mystical tradition is a hard road. It does not offer us such spiritual placebos as “God accepts us as we are” or “I feel affirmed in my humanity.” Christian mysticism is an invitation to open ourselves up to a deep transformation by God; such transformation invariably begins with a radical purging of our passions and desires, continually involves the disciplines of prayer and ascetic practices and, while giving us an intense awareness of God, is not necessarily a “feel good” experience. [pullquote]Mr. Harpur gives us a good representation of mystics from across the Christian tradition. All of the people outlined saw themselves as faithful servants of the church, though not always treated kindly by its officials. For the most part, trances and visions were regarded as rather vulgar. The true mystic has a deep concentration on God, and the fruit of such an encounter is humility, love, and action in the word. This is a good introductory study, maddeningly brief, but reminding us of a powerful devotional tradition we ignore at our peril.Mr. Higgins is a Roman Catholic, a professor of English and religious studies and has written extensively on the subject of saints. As he confesses in Stalking the Holy, The Pursuit of Saint Making, he has given into their “irresistible power.” Some Protestants are nervous about saints, but, if we believe that Christ mediates His grace through created beings, there should be no problem with acknowledging that Christ can shine through some individuals in remarkable ways. The subtitle of the book is, however, about saint making, and the non-Roman reader may be surprised to learn that it is quite a complex and political process. Ever since the 11th century, the Vatican has seen to it that saints were chosen who represented the “right causes.” Popular devotion is but one factor in the making of saints; there are other vested interest groups to be appeased. Married people, particularly women, need not apply. There is often no lack of controversy in the process, and Mr. Higgins gives some fascinating examples. There is a chapter on Mother Teresa and on Pope John Paul II, who will probably be fast-tracked to sainthood, and a chapter on Pope Pius XII, who will probably not be elevated, at least for some centuries. While sympathetic to the making of saints, Mr. Higgins is not averse to a more relaxed stance, whereby saints are seen, not as miracle workers, or intercessors with special access to God, but as fellow companions on the Christian path who have struck a chord with us. I think most Anglicans would prefer this interpretation. Again, as in the case of mystics, in a time when many churches are content to promote an easy, user-friendly spirituality, Mr. Higgins’ book is a reminder that all Christians are called to a holy life. In Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, the alcoholic hero-priest dies confessing that to be a saint is all that matters. It is a timely challenge.

Rev. Mark McDermott is rector of Grace Anglican Church, Milton, Ont.


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