The Mystical Pivot: On Harmonizing the Relationship between Prayer and Action

By Michael Centore


I wish to carry on the conversation begun here by Caleb Strom (“Do Christian Mystics Offer Guidance for Living Off Planet?”, July 13, 2023) and Russell Arben Fox (“Can Socialism Be Mystical?”, July 20, 2023). Both writers raise compelling points on the relationship between mysticism and socialism, or political action more generally, and the fact that the titles of both essays are framed as questions seems to invite further response. (Like Strom and Fox, I will focus here on the Christian tradition, though trusting in the image of mystical experience across religions as being like pathways up a mountain: the closer they approach the summit, the greater their points of convergence.)

In his book Entering the Twofold Mystery, Erik Varden, the Trappist monk and bishop of Trondheim in Norway, writes the following: 

Within the mystery of the Church, we dare to believe that a Christian life truly given may, by God’s providence, be an effective balm on the wounds of the poor of our world, who are given us to carry and nurture. Such oblative living does not substitute for practical assistance; but without this personal, engaged, even mystical dimension, no amount of sandwiches and soup will ever have a truly transformative effect.

This may sound, at first, to some ears rather harsh. After all, we might ask, what does it matter if the act of improving someone’s material conditions (“sandwiches and soup”) results in some nebulously defined “transformative effect”? Put more plainly, how does the language of mysticism or a “mystical dimension” even contribute to the material well-being of others without diminishing or distracting from it? Both questions are valid, yet they presuppose a false choice that has plagued the Christian conscience for centuries: namely, that there is some kind of divide between the interior life and what is broadly understood as “the world,” and that we must attend to one at the expense of the other. Fox aptly expresses this dilemma of “mystical praxis”: “To feel called by some spiritual impulse to connect oneself mystically with a higher, greater power normally seems to involve separating oneself from the rest of the world, turning away from civic concerns and toward divine ones, and generally putting one’s emphasis on the inward self, not the self that extends outward into society” [emphasis mine]. It is as if the ethical pledge of the Russian religious philosopher Vladimir Soloviev—“Instead of aggravating the evil around me, I shall diminish it by my gentleness and kindness”—cannot hold, so severed is the relationship between self and others.

The reality is much more complex, and depends on a more capacious understanding of mystical prayer, both what it is and what it does. Theologian Louis Bouyer’s words are helpful here: “A truly mystical prayer is one in which the vision, even though obscure, of the transcendent personality of God and of its intrinsic value, sweeps away the vision of all the individual goods that man could ask of God.” Those “individual goods” need not be tangible objects; they may be things like reputation, security, or even the fruits of the prayer themselves—in short, anything that clings to us, that prevents the radiant simplicity of a life handed over to God. The poet Dunstan Thompson, picking up where Soloviev leaves off, relays this idea with pungent precision: “By kindness, wrote the mystics, here is meant the daily going up of self in smoke.”

All of this would be fine counsel were it not so abstract. This is what seems to be the main difficulty in approaching mystical prayer from a political or activist perspective: that I somehow must “lose myself” in the process, that my prayer is only successful if it leads to a kind of quietism that removes me from the social sphere. This misperception is based on the idea that I can somehow will myself apart from others, out of the network of relationships that both forms me and that I have a role in forming. As Strom shows us in his discussions of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Leonardo Boff, and Ernesto Cardenal, the circle of these relationships is potentially limitless, extending beyond humanity to encompass the entire universe. The paradox is that the deeper I go into the practice of prayer, the more intimately do I feel myself bound in solidarity with what Strom describes as “[my] cosmic siblings on the same journey towards consciousness and love.” 

In his 1968 book Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger—then professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen, later Pope Benedict XVI—would hint at this experience of existential solidarity when he wrote, “Man [sic] is the more himself the more he is with ‘the other.’ He only comes to himself by moving away from himself.” It is in this “moving away,” this vacating of the self to make space for “the other,” that the mystical impulse finds its first iteration. Thus, Gustavo Gutiérrez, who as a founder of liberation theology knows about the relationship between prayer and social action, can define contemplation as “not a state of paralysis but of radical self-giving.” In turning self into self-gift, I find my true face in Christ; I move from saying prayers to becoming prayer or, put more finely, to acceding to Saint Philaret of Moscow’s daily petition to God: “Pray thou thyself in me.”

How this changes my bearing in the world is manifold. For one, the long-held duality of prayer and action is obviated—not all at once, but gradually, the deeper I come into contact with my own vocational calling and the wellspring of prayer that is its hidden source. Prayer overtakes me: it both generates and articulates my movements, which grow ever simpler the less they are centered on myself. “Keep gazing at Him and out for Him and you will find yourself infinitely more quiet, your words will be fewer and more efficient, and while you do less, you will bear more fruit.” So goes a gem of spiritual direction attributed to Alban Goodier, the former Archbishop of Bombay; a devotional poem attributed to his fellow Jesuit, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, likewise connects the subtle promptings of the prayerful heart with the structures of daily activity: “Fall in Love, / stay in love, / and it will decide everything.”

Who I am as a person capable of loving and being loved takes precedence over what I do—and yet, in that realization, in finding that harmony between being and doing so aptly expressed by Goodier and Arrupe, I discover I am able to do more because I am doing it for others, and for others in God. This extends to my social and political commitments, where I am less tempted to see people as a problem to be solved and instead as individuals bearing the image and likeness of their Creator. Fox’s close reading of The Cloud of Unknowing as sympathetic to a kind of socialist outlook is instructive here. The mystic practitioner, he writes, “[is] able to see the whole world, and the social order within it, the way God sees it: as a gift, always available in its fullness to everyone.” He quotes from the anonymous author of Cloud:

All are considered friends, no one an enemy—so much so that the contemplative even reckons to describe as real and special friends those who may hurt and injure him. He is stirred in love to wish for them as much good as he would wish for his dearest friend.

This is not to downplay the need for pragmatic solutions for social ills—only that those solutions, such as they are, and in the way articulated by Varden in the quotation above, will not sustain us without a kind of double turning: first, a turning away from my overweening self to God in prayer; and then, following from this movement by a certain spiritual necessity, a turning toward the other in the recognition, and realization, of God’s fundamental relationality. These two turnings happen as on a single mystical pivot: to turn to God is to turn to my neighbor, who reveals me to myself by virtue of my own self-offering. We get a sense of the mechanics of this moment in a simple formulation of Saint Catherine of Siena: “To attain charity, you must dwell constantly in the cell of self-knowledge.” It is that cell that Varden’s Trappist brother Thomas Merton knew so well, and of which he was undoubtedly thinking when he defined the link between prayer and giftedness with an even greater precision: “There is no true mysticism without charity, and there is no charity without incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ, for charity is the life of that Mystical Body.”

Michael Centore is the editor of Today’s American Catholic. His essays on Rosemary Radford Ruether and the Russian Orthodox tradition of peace have appeared previously in Religious Socialism. For some further writing from him on prayer and action, see his review of Eternity is Made of Days and Gregory Fox’s discussion of the thought of Guilleermo Rovirosa, for whom the beatification process is still open.

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