Friday, January 11, 2008

Two Kinds of Catholic Mysticism, Part Deux, and St. Dominic

I want to comment briefly on my blog post from a few days ago in which I quoted Taylor Marshall's comments on Steven Ozment’s book The Age of Reform 1250-1550 – An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe.

In discussing Ozment, Taylor rightfully contrasts various forms of mystical spirituality as lived out in the spiritual traditions of the Franciscans, Carmelites, and the ubiquitous Dominicans. He contrasts a mystical spirituality that is incarnational to one that, as he says, seeks union with God through an apophatic method – the via negativa. The latter need not be opposed to the Incarnation of Christ, though adherents can at times be off the deep end somewhere -- (I know one Eastern Orthodox christian who seemed to be at the brink of denying the reality and the necessity of the Incarnation itself!) The writings of medieval German Dominicans such as Eckhart, Tauler, and Heinrich Seuse have contributed a great deal to this spiritual tradition in the West.

I confess that I have not done all of my homework on the subject, but if I could comment briefly on the Dominican contribution - what I appreciate about Dominican spirituality is that it is, at its core, incarnational -- and it needed to be if it was to combat the heresy of Catharism, which saw the physical world as evil and as something that stood between man and God. Commenting upon this, fr. Isidore Clarke, O.P. writes:
In reaction to the heresy that the physical world is an evil barrier between us and God, Dominican preaching focuses on the wonder of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us. Our mission is to proclaim the glory of this physical world in which we live, and of which we are a part. God has created it, and seen that it was good. Now the whole of creation groans, awaiting its redemption, when everything in heaven and earth will be reconciled in Christ.
This focus on the wonder of the Word becoming flesh also underlies why Dominicans are so fond of Our Lady as Theotokos -- how could they not be? Clarke continues:
Because Dominic preached the goodness of our physical humanity and Christ's, he had a deep devotion to the Bl. Virgin Mary. She guaranteed Christ's humanity. But more than this, she above all was the one who heard the word of God and kept it. Our contemplation is summed up in Mary's pondering God's word in her heart. As she gave birth to the Word of God, and at Cana urged the stewards to do whatever her Son told them, Mary summed up the mission of the preacher - to work with God to make his Word come alive in the world today. Paul expresses this when he speaks of his begetting the Galatians in the Gospel. It's not surprising that Mary should be the patron of the Dominican Order, and that Dominicans should have popularised the Rosary as a way of praying and understanding the wonder of God becoming man.
That is all I have to contribute... :)
Birth Control and Osteoporosis

On her blog, my wife discusses the link between the usage of oral contraceptives and osteoporosis as documented by two studies published by Purdue University in 2001 and 2005 of women ages 18-30 as well as by a study published by Loyola Marymount University in 2007 of women ages 18-25 (published in the journal Osteoporosis International).

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Two Kinds of Catholic Mysticism

Some thoughts by Taylor Marshall on Steven Ozment’s book The Age of Reform 1250-1550 – An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe:
Chapter Three contrasts two general forms of Catholic mysticism. Ozment identifies these two “schools” as Christocentric mysticism and Theocentric mysticism. I prefer the terms Incarnational mysticism and Ontological mysticism, respectively.

Christocentric or Incarnational mysticism focuses on the humanity of Christ and by extension the role of the Blessed Mother. Christ is particularly experienced in the “glory of his humility”. It embraces suffering, humility, poverty, and sacrifice. It should come at no surprise that this Incarnational mysticism rejoices in the infancy of Christ and his crucifixion. The Franciscans are the first to come to mind: St Francis, St Bonaventure, St Antony, and more recently St Pio. St. Bernard of Clairvaux is another ideal exemplar of this incarnational mysticism. The holy Rosary and the Stations of the Cross are devotional examples of this incarnational piety.

The other kind of mysticism is the Theocentric or Ontological mysticism. This is the sort of mysticism that seeks union with God through an apophatic method – the via negativa. The writings of Pseudo-Dionysius and the late medieval German mystics come to mind. This method is found in the writings of the Carmelites, many Dominicans, and the Eastern Fathers. In the East, it transformed into the hesychast method and necessitated a distinction between the divine essence and divine energies (a distinction thoroughly rejected in the West). While the Incarnational mysticism is volitional, the Ontological is intellectualist with a strong desire to experience the beatific vision. While certainly not opposed to the Incarnation of Christ, this Ontological mysticism has had a tendency to spin out of control (e.g. Meister Eckhart). The spiritual goal is to transcend all created realities and find mystical union with God. The Dionysian “three ways” of purification, illumination, and contemplation are common, as are the concepts of nada and the “dark night of the soul”. St. John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, stand out as examples.

It should go without saying that these two distinctions are somewhat artificial because they are typically combined by all the great mystics. It would be a grave mistake to conclude that St. John of the Cross was anti-incarnational or that St Bernard was not concerned with the Beatific Vision (after all, Dante imagines St. Bernard as his guide to the Beatific Vision).


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