By Joseph Polizzotto
"Superficiality is the curse of our age," Richard Foster once wrote. Although these words were addressed to Christians (chiefly Protestant) almost 40 years ago, couldn't we also apply them to the state of the American Catholic Church in our own era? One could cite any number of troubling contemporary trends (e.g., voting habits among Catholics) to make this case, but no area of our Catholic life reveals a greater superficiality than our common (mis)understanding of classic Christian spirituality. There are at least three aspects of Christian spirituality that we fail to appreciate, which shows our superficiality: mysticism, monasticism and martyrdom, or "the Three M's," as I like to call them. To the extent that we don't appreciate any one of the three M's, we risk creating a sham spirituality.
Many Christians believe that mysticism refers to the unique religious experiences (e.g., ecstatic visions) of only a select group of Christians and that not all Christians are called to be mystics. The word mysticism, however, originally referred to the common religious experience that all Christians should enjoy by virtue of their baptism in Christ. Saint Paul summarizes this original meaning best in Colossians 1:27 when he refers to the mystery, "which is Christ in you, the hope of Glory." For the Early Church, to be a mystic was to understand that we are a "new creation" in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and that it is possible to join St. Paul in saying that "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). We must reclaim this original meaning or else we fail to grasp what our life with God is expected to be. If we think that our life with God does not necessarily involve a radical transformation of "Christ in us," then we can easily disregard the wisdom of our fellow Christians who have walked more closely with Our Lord than we. And this is in fact what we see today.
With our common misunderstanding of mysticism, it is no wonder that we also witness an abysmal ignorance surrounding the beauty of the monastic vocation. When was the last time we heard a monk preach at our local parish or heard a call for monastic vocations? I'm afraid the value of the "religious life" is so foreign to many of us that we would hardly notice its disappearance, were it ever to take place! May God forbid! But monasticism is as essential to Christianity as mysticism, for if our life with God necessarily involves our transformation in Christ, it is only common sense that some of us would set out a systematic way of arriving at that common destiny.
Perhaps our lack of appreciation derives from our perception that to be a monk means to "flee from the world" (monos = to be alone), but we would wish to "save the world." But how unfortunate! It is a false dichotomy that any "flight from the world" for Christ's sake necessarily entails that we do not also wish to "save the world." In this case as before, a simple reading of the New Testament could disabuse us of our shallowness. We will recall that Our Lord spent much time in solitude (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:15–16) and that St. Paul withdrew to Arabia (Gal. 1:17) after his conversion. And we forget the many plain injunctions to despise the world (e.g., 1 John 2:15), which constantly stands athwart God's ways opening us out to the wide path that leads to destruction.
The fact is that monks have already anticipated what we must all one day perform, which is the decisive choice of God's will over our own. Their wisdom and the timeless practices they have cultivated are a great treasure in the Church, for it is by their flight from the world that they can now more adequately set about saving it. And this begins with us! In the Early Church, Christian communities often grew around the great monasteries, and monks were relied upon for giving us spiritual instruction in the ways of God. We would do well to heed their voices today!
What is the upshot of these misunderstandings? Having lost sight of our high calling (mysticism) and of our brothers and sisters who have charted the way (monks), we will inevitably fail to heed Jesus' call for us to be "witnesses [martyrs] ... to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). While Christians decry our current political situation or our cultural trends, we must remember that we are called to be martyrs, a people who "witness" the transforming life in Christ to the (sometimes) bloody end.
So what to do? Let's return to the sources of our faith and have a singleness of heart and purpose. After all — pop psychology be damned! — the "all-or-nothing" attitude is not a vice but a virtue!