|The Secret Path: A Catholic
Response to the New Age
"Even so truly a ‘church of the people’ as the Catholic Church does not abolish genuine esotericism. The secret path of the saints is never denied to one who is really willing to follow it. But who in the crowd troubles himself over such a path?"- Hans Urs von Balthasar
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.- 1 Corinthians 1:22-4
Almost more than secularization, the New Age movement is seen by many as the greatest threat to Christian identity in the modern world. Often identified with ouija boards, astrology and crystals, reincarnation and messages from another world, it is also capable of drawing imaginatively on the latest discoveries and speculations of science. There are two very different tendencies within the movement, however, and a discernment between these is not always possible on the basis of outward appearances. There are "New Agers" who are seeking power, on the one hand, and there are many others who are seeking truth, goodness and beauty, on the other. It is very important not to lose sight of this second group, in forging a Catholic response to the New Age.
At a 1999 Chesterton Institute conference at the University of St Thomas in Houston devoted to the New Age movement, Philip Zaleski spoke of a fictional character called Sophie, representing those who are drawn away from their Christian tradition into the alternative spiritualities of the New Age. Noting the enormous success of the "new ecclesial movements" favoured by the Pope (such as Focolare, the Neo-Catechumenal Way and Communion and Liberation) in communicating the perennial freshness of the Christian experience in our times, he concluded: "We need to create a new lay movement addressed specifically to the New Age; a movement that will emphasize those aspects of the Church’s heritage – contemplative prayer, lectio divina, Gregorian chant, the rosary, Marian devotion, teachings on divinization and on the communion of saints – that will awaken Sophie’s heart." This must be done, he added, "intelligently, tactfully, and courteously. Like Saint Paul at the Areopagus in Athens, we must show Sophie, through means that correspond to her knowledge and desires, that what she seeks can be found most fully in the Church."
Let me connect Philip Zaleski’s idea with some further reflections. During the first part of the last century, the researches of the liturgical movement and the needs of the missionaries led to a rediscovery of the adult catechumenate. Since the Second Vatican Council, as we know, the introduction of the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) has generally proved both popular and successful. With this, with the publication of the Catechism and the various programmes based upon it, and with an explosion of good apologetic writing in recent years, resources for catechesis are in relatively good shape. However, after taking a person into the Church, RCIA and parish-based catechesis all too often leaves him stranded there. Just at the point where the convert is ready for something more, he is left to sink or swim. Something similar applies to young people after Confirmation. An adolescent reaches the point of familiarity with the externals of Catholicism, but too often at that point a gap opens up in the person’s emotional life and inner experience. Right then something more than Bible stories and apologetics is needed, something deeper, to prevent him losing interest altogether and drifting off. Considerations like these have led some to call for the further development of a "post-baptismal catechesis" that would also function as a re-initiation in the faith for those who are now ready to discover more of the depths of their own tradition. Let us identify this as the need for not just a post-baptismal but a "post-sacramental" catechumenate - perhaps one might call it "secondary initiation".
There are, of course, many ways of answering this need already in place. There are prayer groups and groups devoted to social action, there are base communities and retreats, there is lectio divina and there are shelves of books about Christian spirituality. All of these have mushroomed in recent years. Then there are the new ecclesial movements themselves, which in so many ways represent the hope of the future - and we should add to this category the family and homeschooling movements which are experiencing explosive growth, particularly in the United States. The question is whether, in addition to all this, we need something else. What I am proposing is an extension of the final stage of Catholic initiation which is traditionally known as mystagogy, or "education in the mysteries".
This is where the new movement suggested by Philip Zaleski might find a role for itself and begin to take shape: a movement partly designed for converts, especially those who have had experience of the New Age. Such a movement would offer a well thought-out programme of studies taking account not only of doctrinal instruction but of imagination, of poetry and art, of symbolism, of the levels and types of prayer, of the experiences of the mystics, of the importance of metaphysics. It would not seek merely to inculcate certain ideas or procedures. It would involve the convert in a two-way process of discovery and discernment. After all, the Church needs to learn from the surrounding culture, and from the questions that converts and potential converts bring with them. She needs in the process to take back her "lost treasures". An extended mystagogy would awaken those who are searching - and those who are already blessed with the gift of faith - to unexpected horizons and extraordinary adventures.
Let us try to get a better "fix" on what the concerns of such a process or movement might be, by reflecting on the primary concerns of the New Age Movement. In such circles, the question is often asked: Where is esoteric Christianity? The term "esoteric" is used here to imply a separation of the ordinary run of believers from a more serious minority, an elite group who are let in on secret teachings, or who are qualified by special insight to understand what others cannot. This elite aspires to a transformation of life and consciousness. When the idea is applied to Christianity, we are reminded that Jesus Christ himself speaks to those who "have ears to hear", and appears to reserve special instructions for a small inner circle of disciples. The exponents of esoteric Christianity would argue that not all of those instructions were necessarily recorded in the Gospels. As with Plato, a body of "unwritten teachings" may have existed, teachings which perhaps by their very nature could not be written down. It is suggested that these teachings might have been transmitted down through time to our own day by qualified individuals - a special order of monks, perhaps, sworn to secrecy or hidden for centuries in a remote desert.
To understand the appeal of all this (which admittedly appears bizarre to most practising Catholics) it is necessary only to step back and look at Christianity as it appears all too often from the outside: a history of hypocrisy and savagery, of arrogance and sentimentality. What difference does it make to most Christians that God walked on earth as a man? That the meaning of the universe has been revealed by the One who made it? That we know our purpose - which is to repent of our sins and become perfect, so as to see God and live for ever? The killing, the lying, the buying and selling, continue as they have always done. It is reflections such as these which prompt the thought that there must be some lost or forgotten method or technique by which the teachings we profess to believe can become active in our lives, and transform us into real Christians.
Professor Jacob Needleman wrote a book based around this question, which will serve to sum up a major theme in the more serious kind of New Age writing. The answer he gives is not in terms of a fifth Gospel. We are not in need of more and different words. What we need, he argues, is a new quality of attention. We must reverse the dispersal of the soul, to develop something "more subtle than the experience of God: the experience of myself; more easily twisted than the knowledge of God: the knowledge of myself; more needful to me than the power of God: the power of listening from myself."
Another, rather different approach is represented by the so-called Perennialists: René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon and Ananda Coomaraswamy. To these writers and their followers, the "esoterism" within Christianity or any other religion is primarily a path of metaphysical discernment, based on intellectual intuition and leading to fully-realized unity with God. "Metaphysical Truth is both expressible and inexpressible," writes Schuon: "inexpressible, it is not however unknowable, for the Intellect opens onto the Divine Order and therefore encompasses all that is; and expressible, it becomes crystallized in formulations which are all they ought to be, since they communicate all that is necessary or useful to our mind. Forms are the doors to the essences, in thought and in language as well as in all other symbolisms."
Schuon, like Guénon, was a brilliant metaphysician, but his doctrine is essentialistic and ultimately tends to monism. Perhaps not surprisingly, both men were converts to Islam. Lacking a fully adequate doctrine of the Trinity or the hypostatic union, neither writer seems able to grasp Christianity in its full uniqueness. Nevertheless, the Perennialists are capable of acting as a bridge for many serious seekers back from the wilder fringes of the New Age to mainstream religion. They emphasize that unity with God may not be attained by the exercise of discursive thought alone, not by self-indulgence, but only by operative participation in one of the great Revelations from heaven - Christianity, Islam, Judaism and so forth being the obvious examples. Nothing less than a religious tradition, with its doctrines, its rituals and its whole way of life, is capable of integrating every element of the human personality with the truth it seeks.
The academic study of "esoterism", as well as the attempt to pursue these studies within the Catholic tradition, seems to be further advanced in France than elsewhere. Antoine Faivre is a leading figure in the field, being the holder of a chair at the Sorbonne dedicated to Modern Western Esoteric Currents - a new discipline within Religious Studies. With the two books of Faivre translated into English, we have a survey of some profundity showing the richness of Romantic, Catholic, Theosophical and Hermetic writings. Less of an "academic", and more of a spiritual and metaphysical guide in his own right, Jean Borella - retired Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at the University of Nancy II - was greatly influenced by such figures as Guénon and Schuon, but has distanced himself from them in recent years with some extremely perceptive criticism. It seems to me that these two writers (together with others who will be mentioned below) provide many of the resources we need for developing an effective contemporary mystagogy.
These influences I have been mentioning have led many people to take the Christian tradition seriously who would not otherwise have done so. But what the searcher tends to discover, at the end of what may turn out to be a very long investigation, is that Christianity after all is not in the business of hiding things; it is in the business of revealing them. What it reveals is a folly wiser than the wisdom of men; a weakness stronger than their strength (1 Cor. 1:17-25). As such a searcher myself, I can testify that when at last I found what I was looking for, I found it not in the desert sands, but much closer to home: in the Cross, in the sacraments, in the Church.
I found it especially in the figure of a woman, the Mother of God, and in her Magnificat: "He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away" (Luke 151-3). These are the words of Our Lady, the Seat of Wisdom, expounding the Gospel of her to-be-crucified and resurrected Son, a wisdom which turns the world on its head: the elite are excluded, the ordinary people are initiated. Those who are rich, not just in worldly wealth but even in the possession of spiritual insights, find themselves at a disadvantage; it is the "poor in spirit" (Matt. 5:3) who inherit the Kingdom, and who learn from the Spirit of God "what has been hidden since the foundation of the world" (Matt. 13:35, 1 Cor. 2:6-13). This foolish wisdom of the Gospel is deeper, truer and more satisfying than any exotic ritual, breathing exercise or sacred dance that one might have been tempted to invent, in order to make Christianity appear a bit more like Hinduism or Buddhism.
Is There a Christian Gnosis?
Philip Zaleski’s "Sophie" and her friends want to unfold mysteries, to discover secrets, to transform themselves by the knowledge of esoteric truths. Many writers have therefore compared the New Age Movement to the ancient rival to Christianity known as Gnosticism - a spirituality (or perhaps better a range of spiritualities) that tried to do precisely this, but in so doing by-passed the Incarnation. In his book of selections from Saint Irenaeus called The Scandal of the Incarnation, the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar describes the "Gnostic image of God" as "the first great temptation which Christian thought had to overcome. Pagan polytheism was relatively easy to deal with. But there was an enticing system claiming to incorporate Christianity into its ‘synthesis’. Creation - the greatest intellectual scandal of all - was simply explained away by means of its doctrine of emanation. And its romantic mythology had a special magic." Gnosticism - and here we see the resemblance to many strands of New Age thought - "wants to get to know all of God’s mysteries by its own powers. However surprising it may seem, it does appeal to the Scriptures, and so it is forced to posit a secret tradition, coming down from Jesus and the apostles, alongside the official proclamation of God for the simple. However, the attempt to take hold of God by force inevitably falls into the ‘void’ (the supreme God is, of course, mere ‘silence’ beyond the Word of revelation), and so the struggle of the ‘eternal quest’ is prized more highly that the bliss of discovery."
If Gnosticism is similar to the New Age Movement, as Balthasar and others suggest, then perhaps what the Church needs in order to respond to this temptation today is a revived form of what the early Church Fathers offered to Christians in the first three centuries. Several of the Fathers referred to Gnosticism as a "false Gnosis", implying that it was opposed to the "true" Gnosis, meaning that interior saving knowledge which is simply the inner dimension of the Christian faith. For them, faith (pistis) is not the blind and boring thing it has become for so many people today, but the gateway to a form of perception, or personal knowledge. This means that there can be such a thing as Christian Gnosis, quite distinct from any so-called Gnostic heresy. St John, St Paul and the Alexandrians (Origen and Clement especially) are the earliest exponents of this Christian Gnosis. "Receive Christ, receive sight," says Clement in the Protreptikos (IV), "receive your light ‘in order to know well God and man’."
This distinction between Gnosticism as a heresy and Gnosis as simply the inner or personal knowledge of the divine mysteries (which was and remains perfectly orthodox) has been extensively explored by Jean Borella. Hans Urs von Balthasar himself wrote a seven-volume series named The Glory of the Lord that can be seen as an extended attempt to vindicate Christian Gnosis. This is not "knowledge" in any idealist or rationalist sense. Nor is it "mystical experience" per se. It is simply a sharing through the act of faith and the receptivity of the Church in the beauty (wisdom, glory) of God the Father, which the Son reveals. Balthasar writes moreover that this integration of the act of perception back into our understanding of faith "is not only of theological and theoretical interest; it is a vital question for Christianity today, which can only commend itself to the surrounding world if it first regards itself as being worthy of belief. And it will only do this if faith, for Christians, does not first and last mean ‘holding certain propositions to be true’ which are incomprehensible to human reason and must be accepted only out of obedience to authority."
In the introductory volume Balthasar distinguishes authentic Gnosis from the false Gnosticism of the heretics by the fact that:
It seems that many people are no longer prepared to accept the truths of faith on the authority of tradition or of the Church. There has to be an act of seeing into the words of Scripture and the events of history, which reveals not merely the logical consistency of a Creed, not merely the merits of a moral code, but the beauty which unites logic with life, truth with goodness. Balthasar might have added that it is essential for another reason too: that only on this basis can Christianity enter into meaningful dialogue with other religions about the nature of the reality revealed in religious experience.
All of this may serve as the necessary background to any discussion of how we might develop an effective programme of mystagogy, which will serve the dual purpose of revealing the existence of a living mystical and contemplative tradition to those outside, and of leading Christians themselves more deeply into that tradition. What I have been saying so far is that there is an authentic Christian Gnosis, which belongs to orthodox faith. It is a form of knowledge that transcends (without contradicting) human reason. Though not rationalistic, it is an intellectual, or rather spiritual, form of knowledge. It integrates and makes use of the senses, the memory and the imagination as its supports. God himself must act within us to bring it about.
This Gnosis, and the mystagogy associated with it, inevitably possesses a Marian character. Devotion to the Mother of God has always been the most secure defence within Christianity against the heretical tendency to "vaporize" the reality and significance of the Incarnation. But there is another reason for the "Marian character" of mystagogy. Our Lady is the first of all Christian Gnostics. Her response to the Angel in faith made possible the conception of the Word. Furthermore her Son has told us that the "pure in heart" shall see God (Matt. 5:8), and Mary is the purest of the pure. She is not merely pure in the sense of sinless; she is in her own proper person "the Immaculate Conception", as she announced to St Bernadette and as the Church had already recognized. That is to say, she is purity incarnate. Symbolically, she represents for us the ground of the soul: that interior mirror where the divine radiance is received. The Gospel describes her during her earthly life puzzled by the first manifestations of her Son’s mission, yet "treasuring these things in her heart". That was no mere sentimental pondering, of the kind any mother might do with the memory of the child she loves. The Catholic tradition has seen in that "treasuring" the model of lectio divina, of mystical contemplation of the Word made flesh, and even of the anamnesis within which the liturgy is to be enacted. If her conscious mind at the time was puzzled by what she could see, the purity of her contemplation was such that it could blossom in God’s time into the very Beatific Vision itself, which is the ultimate bliss of the redeemed.
If the proud are "scattered in the imagination of their hearts", then the humble person, and pre-eminently Our Lady, is brought in the imagination of her heart to a knowledge of the "one thing needful", knowledge of the one who unites heaven and earth within himself. Just as her physical senses were filled with the light of faith that enabled them to see and touch the divinity of the child she had borne, so her memory and the images that filled her imagination were pure enough to transmit the light of paradise.
The Christian Imagination
I have suggested that mystagogy must appeal to the imagination. At this point it is important, therefore, to make a further distinction. The Christian tradition has tended to emphasize the dangers of the imaginative faculty. The purgative way of the mystics requires us to detach ourselves radically from the world of the senses, and the battle to achieve this detachment is fought very largely in the imagination. The imagination may provide us with much harmless amusement; while, more positively, it may be the source of great creative achievements in science and art. However, it is not likely to be encouraged by saints of the desert whose whole struggle is to live in the unadorned present and in a state of constant prayer. On the other hand, the mind’s faculty of making images is also at times a medium for the perception of truth. We see this visionary imagination at work in the prophetic books of the Bible, and in the traditions of sacred art and iconography.
The distinction between visionary perception and mere imaginative fantasy is surely clear to us from our own experience. The dreams that come to us in the night are not always less real than the world we wake up to in the morning, and that difference may seem almost tangible on occasion. And when children gaze in awe at the Christmas tree they have just helped to clothe in sparkling symbols of divine grace it is obvious that they are not looking merely at some dead branches draped in tinsel. They are seeing with pure hearts the world’s axis, the ladder that connects heaven with earth, and the angels descending and ascending upon the Son of Man.
We find the more positive approach to imagination in the Romantic tradition, culminating in such figures as Blake, Goethe and Coleridge. This was, in part, a reaction against the various forms of modernism. It expresses itself in many ways: in England, for example, the Pre-Raphaelites were "Romantics", and so were the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc.), the Hippies and the Greens in the twentieth century. As this list reveals, however, Romanticism is by no means generally allied with orthodox Christianity. The danger in Romanticism lies in its tendency to project imaginative or mythopoeic ways of thought into the realm of philosophy or doctrine. The writings of Jacob Boehme are a case in point; while Tolkien is a good counter-example, proving that an orthodox Christian Romanticism nevertheless remains possible.
The great Jesuit scholar Henri de Lubac would also encourage us not to give up on the Romantic imagination: as he puts it, we must try to recover the "symbolic or exemplarist element" which was ejected from theology at the time of Descartes, and left increasingly to the occultists and magicians during the modern period. A Jesuit contemporary of de Lubac’s puts the case more strongly: "It is partly because contemporary Christianity has failed to recognize the value, both immanent and transcendent, of the great symbols which are so prolific in its tradition and ritual that the human psyche is today possessed by so many demons and tempted to look elsewhere for symbols which can nourish it. It is not betrayal of the affirmations of the faith for the theologian to explore this dimension of religious symbolism, which has been too much neglected hitherto, and to accept in this matter the assistance of mythologists and psychologists."
Christian philosophers have often spoken of the "natural moral law" that is written on our hearts (C.S. Lewis even borrowed the Chinese word Tao to describe it in his book The Abolition of Man), but much less attention has been given to the "language" of the heart which is a language of symbols. It is a language that we need to relearn if we are ever to speak of this natural law, let alone speak of Christ to men and women of a technological society for whom the Gospels have become an alien landscape.
The building blocks of this universal language are the elements and primal experiences of nature - and in paying renewed attention to these, the poets are our allies. After describing the vocabulary of natural symbols - the four points of the compass, water, fire, cloud, thunder, lightning and so on - the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore continues:
Much of this store, of course, has been depleted in recent years by those for whom this language has indeed become a foreign tongue. The barbaric over-simplification of the Roman liturgy in the wake of the Second Vatican Council is a case in point. The Council’s intention was laid out in the document entitled Sacrosanctum Concilium. The spirit of the ensuing liturgical reform was somewhat different. Misinterpreting phrases such as "noble simplicity" and "active participation", the reformers endeavoured to reduce the ritual enactment of the sacraments to a bare minimum, and the prayers to a vernacular paraphrase of the Latin texts. The liturgy, which traditionally functioned as a school for the Christian visionary imagination, lost much of its poetic and cosmic splendour. It began to be associated with soft carpets and comfortable chairs, arranged in circles around a priest-performer whose job was less to offer the supreme sacrifice than to whip up a sentimental sense of community among the congregation.
Through all of this the Mass, nevertheless, remains valid as a sacrament and retains sufficient symbolic properties to serve as the support for prayer. Contemplative participation in liturgy, together with adoration of Jesus Christ really present in the Blessed Sacrament, is capable of integrating all the senses in the act of worship. Through the worshipper, and through the gifts that are brought physically or mystically to the altar, all of creation becomes a participant in prayer, and finds in this its true purpose. Without the imaginative faculty - continually stimulated, disciplined, integrated and expanded by the words and actions of the liturgy - we would lose this sense of cosmic resonance. If our imagination is actively engaged, we enter into the meaning of what we are enacting together, and mechanical prayer becomes living prayer, capable of being carried by the breath of the Holy Spirit to the very altar of heaven. Thus the liturgy correctly understood is a work of divine-human art, uniting the divine and human imagination as the divine and human natures are united in the God-man who performs the sacrifice.
Theosis: Becoming God?
"God became man so that man might become God." This common teaching of the Church Fathers encapsulates the deepest mystery of the liturgy and of the Incarnation itself, a mystery like the squaring of the circle which so dazzled Dante’s inner eye in the last Canto of the Divine Comedy. It is perhaps the greatest secret that the Church can offer to the sincere seeker. With it we touch upon the very core of Christian "esoterism" - the ultimate truth revealed in the light of orthodox Christian Gnosis.
We often speak of having been saved by Christ, and of being saved "from sin and death". But we reflect less often on what we have been saved for. According to the Christian tradition, we are saved in order to be united with God; and according to the Western tradition at least, this ultimate beatitude comes about through the vision of God’s essence. One key Scriptural text that alludes to this is well known: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3: 1-3). Here the Gospel writer seems to imply that our final state "does not yet appear", and that it has something to do with knowledge. To see God "as he is" will make us more "like him" than anything we can achieve in mortal life. "For now we see in a mirror, obscurely; but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Cor. 13: 12). Then - it seems - my knowledge of God will be the same as God’s knowledge of me.
St Thomas Aquinas made sense of these statements, and others like them, as follows: "Now, it is impossible to see the substance of God unless the divine essence itself is the form whereby the intellect understands.... Therefore, it is not possible for a created substance to attain this vision, except through divine action.... For such a noble vision, the created intellect must be elevated by means of an influx of divine goodness" (SCG 3.52.3, 3.53.1). This mysterious influx of goodness he calls the "light of glory". For Aquinas, then, the final union between God and man takes place in the intellect, where the human act of knowing at its very highest point becomes identical with the divine knowledge, so that we "know" with the divine essence itself: we know as we are known. Of course, this does not mean that we comprehend the divine essence, since as creatures we cannot ever know God as perfectly as he knows himself. What we know is what God knows in us rather than in another. The Face of God is always viewed by us as from a particular "angle".
Christian mystics often speak of a union that takes place not in the understanding but in the will, where my own freedom becomes identified with God’s will. This is a necessary condition of the intellectual union, since God is love, and cannot be known except by one who loves. Aquinas tells us that the degree of our charity will define our capacity for beatitude in eternal life (ST 126.96.36.199). It is only after the creature has yielded up its own will freely to God in love that God can elevate (or "divinize") the creature’s understanding through the lumen gloriae without committing violence against it. This union with God in the will can take place sporadically and cumulatively during earthly life, but not finally and completely. Only at death do we exit time, and at that point our will is fixed in relation to eternity. That is why the beatific vision is only possible for one who has passed through death. During life, in so far as our will is still undetermined or in flux, we can attain only glimpses of it. These glimpses constitute our contemplative life, and they may be more or less sustained, more or less integrated with the rest of our conscious existence, in a variety of ways. They are intimately connected with our progress in virtue.
It is important to try to understand the implications here, if only for the sake of dialogue with other religious traditions, which are often portrayed (perhaps inaccurately) as aspiring to the dissolution of the personal self. According to Christianity, in the beatific vision, the light of glory unites the created intellect with God in the act of understanding. It does not unite them in the act of being (SCG 3.54.9). The medieval mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, for example, knows very well the experience of losing oneself in the Beloved, but knows also that forgetfulness of self is not the same as actual non-existence (union with God in the act of existence). To desire non-existence, he says in Chapter 44, would be "devil’s madness, and contempt for God". Rather, he writes, the contemplative Christian "wants very much to go on in existence, and he gives God heartfelt thanks for this precious gift", though "he continues longing to be free of its awareness". According to the author of The Cloud, then, we must in the end forget ourselves in the love of the Beloved; but this is very different from ceasing to exist altogether. Our existence does not depend on our awareness of it: it is God who creates us, and God continues to maintain us in being. The Christian answer to the perennial question, "Who am I?" is simply: "I am whoever God knows me to be."
The one human person in whom this mystery of deification has already been accomplished is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is our hope, because she is our model of theosis. Full of grace from the moment of her conception, God’s perfect "work of art", she is united as closely to God as it is possible to be - by grace, and even (in her case) by nature, since God has taken flesh from her. At the end of her life she is "taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of Lords and conqueror of sin and death" (cf. Lumen Gentium 59). Her Coronation is pictured for us in the final glorious mystery of the Rosary. In this image of the "final mystery", we see not the dissolution of a human person in the Supreme Identity, but her perfection.
The Seat of Wisdom
The traditions I have been describing are sometimes called the "sapiential" or Wisdom traditions of Christianity. The figure of Wisdom or Sophia has always exerted a remarkable fascination upon Christian mystics. "For wisdom is more moving than any motion: she passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness. For she is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her. For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness" (Wis. 7:24-6). The heretical Gnostics also revered the figure of Wisdom, and their cosmologies identified seven levels of spiritual being, on each of which Sophia manifests as the feminine complement for a masculine spirit. The writers of Nag Hammadi contrasted the Sophia who remains at God’s side and the Sophia who is at our side, separated from God and wandering in the world. This was the starting point for a spirituality that sought to reunite the two aspects. For Philo of Alexandria, she is the bride of the God of Israel. The Kabbalists identified her with the Shekhinah or Presence of God.
Most of the Church Fathers identify the figure of Wisdom, despite its feminine gender, with the Logos, the second Person of the Trinity, or else (following Irenaeus) with the Holy Spirit, the third Person. Scriptural passages about Wisdom have been applied in the liturgy both to Christ and to his Mother. Elsewhere Wisdom has taken an apparently allegorical form, as the mother of the seven liberal arts, and so forth. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev claimed to have encountered Sophia in the reading room of the British Museum, and again later in Egypt. Influenced by him, Sergii Bulgakov has given us a more developed Sophiology. He regards her as hypostasized in all three divine Persons. Describing her as a "heavenly humanity" filled with the ever-flowing life of the Trinity, "the real unity of the world in the Logos, the coinherence of all with all, the world of divine ideas.... Plato baptized by the Hellenic genius of Byzantium", he makes her the link between God and the creation that makes possible the Incarnation of the Son. She is the "essence" of creation, made from nothing in the free "necessity" of God’s tri-hypostatic love. If Holy Scripture tells us that she was with the Father before the beginning of all things (Prov. 8:22), according to Bulgakov this is because she is the perfect Idea of his creation - the "Angel" of creation. And indeed the Slavic Orthodox tradition, which dedicated churches to Sophia, depicts her in numerous icons as a woman with outstretched wings seated on a throne, which might seem to give at least some justification for this interpretation.
There is, of course, no question here of a "fourth hypostasis", for God is by nature a Trinity of Persons, not a Quaternity. Yet it is hard not to conceive of the divinized creation as a "person" in some secondary or analogous sense. After all, the ultimate purpose of Christ’s union with humanity is to present his people to the Father, so that the Father will love them as he loves himself. In the end the Son returns to the Father "in glory", clothed not only in a human body but in the cosmic vestments of a purified humanity, bringing with him the whole restored and beautified creation to the marriage of the Lamb. We may conceive of Sophia as a personification of that "glory" given to the Father by the Son. She is the creation redeemed and perfected in Christ, offered to the Father by the Son in the form of his own body, as an eternal Eucharist: the human nature he has joined to himself. Appearing on earth first in the Virgin Mary ("Bride" of the Holy Spirit), she is extended to all through the Holy Church ("Bride" of the Son), and is finally to be offered up by Christ in the heavenly Liturgy (as "Bride" of the Father).
Sophia is thus an image of the final perfection of creation, of holiness and beauty. "Wisdom is the beauty of holiness." It is in human holiness that we glimpse the true and final order of the cosmos, and thus the beauty and the purpose of creation. What else of value does the New Age itself seek than this? But important implications follow from this interpretation. We are not speaking of beauty as a superficial pleasantness, or a mere external appearance, even an appearance of moral goodness. It is the fiery, transcendental Beauty that is the "unspotted mirror" of God’s majesty and goodness, into which no defiled thing can ever fall without being consumed. This Beauty is the radiance or self-gift of being which "allows truth to be true and goodness to be good". Furthermore Beauty in this sense, so closely identifiable with the Wisdom and Glory of God, may be witnessed and known only by those who are in some way akin to her. In the words of the Russian Sophiologist Pavel Florensky: "Purity of heart, virginity, chaste immaculateness is the necessary condition for seeing Sophia-Wisdom, for acquiring sonhood in Heavenly Jerusalem - ‘the mother of us all’ (Gal. 4:26). It is clear why this is so. The heart is the organ for the perception of the heavenly world."
In the West, the virtues we normally think of as foundational for the Christian Way are the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. What emerges from the texts I have been quoting is the importance of a virtue we have tended to neglect. Chastity, or purity, or spiritual virginity, turns out to be the very key to the knowledge of God. In a certain way, it integrates the other seven virtues, as white light includes within itself the colours of the rainbow.
The point that I am driving at is simple. The search for Wisdom, which is the concern of those who are searching for a deeper Christianity, is actually a search for the "beauty of holiness", exemplified in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Unbeknownst to many who set out upon the first stages of that way - seeking perhaps a "higher consciousness" - this is a path for the whole person to tread, not the mind alone. It is a path which involves the transformation of life and relationships by the virtues. Furthermore, although it concerns the "interior life", it is not a path that leads us deeper into ourselves. In fact you could say it leads us away from ourselves. The teaching of Christ is very explicit concerning the intimate relationship between love of God and love of neighbour. This fact, too, is often neglected by those more attracted to metaphysics than to the steep path that alone makes possible the full personal assimilation of such knowledge. In Christ God has become our neighbour. The interior life must now be lived inside out, if the fact of the Incarnation is to be taken seriously.
This is, in the end, the main reason why "Christian esoterism" is so hard to detect or distinguish. It is morally demanding. It has hidden itself in the exterior, in the practice of virtues and the service of justice, the visiting of prisoners and the care of the dying, faithfulness in marriage, the resistance of oppression and the offering of friendship to all those whom God places on our path. It is too easy to speak of theology and mysticism (as I am doing here), and at the same time to neglect these things, which are objectively more important. The mysteries of Christianity reveal themselves to the pure in heart, to the poor in spirit, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... not necessarily to those who read the Philokalia.
The Way of the Christian "Warrior"
"Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." "Love one another as I have loved you." These commandments of Christ, seemingly impossible to fulfil, are not merely ethical demands placed upon us by a religious teacher. They are a call to holiness, to spiritual beauty. They correspond to the pattern of our nature, and so, instead of being imposed from without, well up from within. The moral teaching of Christ begins with his own Person, in whom (as the Vatican Council tells us in Gaudium et Spes 22) the mystery of our own identity and calling is made clear. The "self-portrait" of Christ is given in the Beatitudes, which reinterpret the Decalogue from the point of view of Christian faith. Thus in a mystagogy of the moral life, we find the starting point for Catholic social teaching and the basis for a culture of life in the Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments.
The Church’s teaching on social questions, reflected in a series of papal encyclicals between 1891 (Rerum Novarum) and 1991 (Centesimus Annus), has generated interest well beyond the boundaries of the Catholic communion. All too often, however, it seems to become detached from matters that are perceived as more narrowly "confessional" in nature, or more remote from the "real world" of politics and economics - such as theology and mysticism. Christians need to be able to overcome this separation. There is a close and intrinsic relationship between contemplation and action, between Church and world, between prayer and social justice. A Christian esoterism must embrace and integrate both.
The great spiritual writers of the Christian tradition have often described the path of virtue as a form of "spiritual warfare". Precisely at this point, therefore, we are able to rediscover a key element in the European imagination, a concept that we might do well to revive for the sake of bringing about this needed integration between contemplation and action: the idea of spiritual knighthood, or chivalry. Despite the failure and passing of medieval Christendom, the underlying idea remains valid, as Balthasar explains in a commentary upon the work of Reinhold Schneider which he dedicated to the Secular Institutes:
The Scriptural symbol par excellence of spiritual chivalry is surely the husband of Our Lady. Joseph of Nazareth is the true "Universal Knight", the paragon of courtesy in everyday life. In him the ideal of the Middle Ages appears fully fledged, in all its spiritual glory, long before it is partially and imperfectly rediscovered by the soldiers of the West: justice combined with tenderness, strength and decisiveness with flexibility and openness to the will of God. Joseph is an adventurer, too, like the "questing knights" of later legend. For, as Charles Péguy writes in Clio 1:
There is a sense in which Joseph is more hidden, more silent and more obscure even than Our Lady. No Father of the Church ever preached a homily on St Joseph, and apart from seventh-century Egypt there was no feast dedicated to him throughout the first Christian millennium. Treatises on him only begin to appear from around 1500. Thereafter, devotion becomes more common (with St Teresa of Avila in particular). But by that time a divergence had developed between Eastern and Western Christendom. Apocryphal writings such as the Protoevangelium presented Joseph as an old man, a widower, as the time of his marriage to Mary. The Eastern writers tended to follow this tradition, which made it easier to explain Mary’s perpetual virginity. As a result, they tended to view Joseph as a "guardian" rather than a "husband". St Jerome and St Augustine regarded Joseph himself as a virgin, and Augustine in addition developed a strong argument in defence of the reality of his marriage to Mary, which becomes the basis for the Western tradition on St Joseph, and is cited approvingly by Pope John Paul II in his important Letter, Redemptoris Custos.
St Joseph therefore remains surrounded by mystery, and most of what is written about him is sheer speculation, informed by a greater or lesser amount of mystical insight. The traditions are generally based less on real knowledge than on the need to emphasize the fact that Jesus had no biological father, and that his Mother remained a virgin. A reductionist view of tradition might see the gradual development of the devotion to Joseph (culminating in his insertion by Pope John XXIII into the canon of the Mass) as merely an imaginative elaboration upon Scripture driven by psychological need. There is, however, another possible view, and this connects with our theme. The very obscurity of St Joseph may be a necessary concomitant of his role as the guardian of the esoteric heart of Christianity.
Joseph is dedicated utterly to the protection of the Woman and the Child, in a chaste love that is prepared to defend the honour of his Lady to the bloody end of martyrdom. He protects her not only from Herod, but from the wagging tongues of gossip by sheltering her as his wife. (Here, St Ambrose suggests somewhere, he is imaging the heavenly Father, for in his own supreme courtesy God would rather men doubted his own Fatherhood in relation to Jesus than the chastity of Mary.) In our own days, the figure of Joseph is of also particular help in clarifying the nature and purpose of masculinity, when such things have become confused.
Hans Urs von Balthasar explains that "the collapse of the old form" - that of the ancien regime with its armies and its fortresses, its kings and barons and serfs - "has reduced chivalry to that spirit from which all form and culture are continually generated anew". It has been reduced, we might say, to the spirit of St Joseph, which transcends any worldly distinction of class or wealth or earthly strength, and is the spirit of obedience to God above all, the spirit of service. This is the true nobility, the nobility that culminates in the kingship of the carpenter’s son which stoops to wash the feet of the disciples, and which refuses to let a sword be drawn in its own defence though it could summon twelve legions of angels. It is what in this world is utterly opposed to the "bourgeois spirit" of counting the cost and judging by appearances. This kind of nobility of spirit will never die, for it is this nobility that is manifest in the dedication and integrity of priests and religious, of workers and parents, in the religious vows and in the spirit of the vows that we call simply "the Christian life".
These remarks give just a glimpse of the architectonic of Christian morality, and its roots in a universal calling to perfection. St Joseph is a model of this life of perfection, expressed not in a formalized monastic setting but in the hurly-burly of family life. The same type of holiness may be described as a life of what the Jesuit spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade terms "abandonment to divine Providence". For while God speaks "to all men in general by the great events in history", he speaks "to each of us individually through what happens to us moment by moment". It is not necessary to possess a theological analysis of virtue in order to be holy: in fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case. "In the same way as our thoughts and words are transmitted by air, so are God’s conveyed by all we are given to do and suffer." Nothing could be simpler, or more appropriate for the relationship of God and man. Simply living each moment in the service of God and Our Lady, as St Joseph must have done, is the essence of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Through an appropriate mystagogy, some of the apparent tensions between "institutional Christianity" and Christian spirituality or "esoterism", which keep so many from recognizing the Church for what she truly is, would be helped to disappear. For God has joined himself to human nature in its entirety, at every level: not just the individual but also the social. The entity we call "Church" has a sociological as well as a personal dimension: it would not be human if it did not. The sins of its members are many, but these do not touch its immaculate heart.
But how is one to help awaken that mystical vision of the true nature of the Church, and the organic structure of the Christian mysteries sheltered by adamantine tenderness in creed and dogma? This is the question I have been trying to face: the question of how to develop an appropriate mystagogy for our time. Gnostics have always been attracted by the beauty and fascination of an elaborate mythology of cosmic spheres and powers, of "secret teachings" and "hidden transmissions". While the Catholic Church should not try to compete with Gnosticism at this level, it is worth noting that the arguments of Irenaeus against the heresies are based not only on the inconsistencies and crudities of the Gnostic myth, but on the superior attractive power of the Christian revelation once correctly understood. I have given in the preceding pages a few indications of where I would begin to look for an orthodox Christian Gnosis capable of rekindling the interest and enthusiasm of a new generation. The Centre for Faith & Culture in America and Britain hopes one day to be able to offer courses along these lines. Three possible approaches suggest themselves immediately.
The first is based upon the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This popular and ancient devotion is a system of prayer arranged around a series of fifteen Mysteries, summarizing the entire content of Christian faith - it provides a Marian perspective on the life of Christ. There could be no better foundation for a mystagogic programme capable of integrating prayer and study. Another approach would be based around a suitable textbook. Olivier Clément’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism, supplemented by a range of longer readings from the tradition, would be one such text. Jean Borella’s The Secret of the Christian Way (mentioned earlier) would serve those of a more metaphysical disposition - and again, a variety of supplementary readings could be provided.
However it is to be accomplished, the task is urgent. We can no longer afford to ignore the richness of our own tradition, or scoff at Beauty or at Wisdom, lest we cease altogether to be able to pray and to love - as Balthasar suggests in this famous passage from the introduction to The Glory of the Lord:
I still hope that one day the Church will be more hospitable to those who are seeking Ecclesia without knowing it: seeking not the "photocopying Church", not the "church of men", but the Church as Seat of Wisdom. For such people, to whom the language of orthodox Gnosis, of beauty, of wisdom, of deification, of contemplation and of mystery holds more appeal than the language of the ecclesial conference or committee, we have something to offer. We have the mystery of the Word made flesh, and the true face of the Church made visible in the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This article is based on a paper given at Marquette University in February 2001 at a conference called "The Center That Holds: The Church as Seat of Wisdom".