What is Mystical Theology? What is Mystical Theology, Mystical Theology, Catholic Mystical Theology, Comparative Mystical Theology, Ascetical Theology, Mysticism According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912
St. Francis of Assisi in the Arms of an Angel Buring One of Many Out-of-Body Experiences - WHAT IS MYSTICAL THEOLOGY
Mystical theology is the science which treats of acts and experiences or states of the soul which cannot be produced by human effort or industry even with the ordinary aid of Divine graces. It comprises among its subjects all extraordinary forms of prayer, the higher forms of contemplation in all their varieties or gradations, private revelations, visions, and the union growing out of these between God and the soul, known as the mystical union. As the science of all that is extraordinary in the relations between the Divinity and the human spirit, mystical theology is the complement of ascetical, which treats of Christian perfection and of its acquisition by the practice of virtue, particularly by the observance of the counsels. The contents of mystical theology are doctrinal as well as experimental, as it not only records the experiences of souls mystically favoured, but also lays down rules for their guidance, which are based on the authority of the Scriptures, on the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, and on the explanations of theologians, many of them eminent as mystics. Its rules and precepts are usually framed for the special use of those who have occasion to direct souls in the ways of mysticism, so as to preserve them from error while facilitating their advancement. It must therefore take note of the erroneous systems of prayer, like Quietism or Semiquietism, and of the self-illusion or deception of souls that mistake the powers of darkness for those of light or the promptings of their own self-seeking for Divine communications. It is this part of the science that necessitates inquiry into various phases of occultism, diabolism, etc., into which writers like Görres have gone so extensively. Mystical theology has a nomenclature all its own, seeking to express acts or states that are for the most part purely spiritual in terms denoting analogous experiences in the material order. Usually it does not form part of the ordinary class-room studies, but is imparted by spiritual masters in their personal direction of souls, or inculcated, as in seminaries and novitiates, by special conferences and courses of spiritual reading. Preliminary to the study of mystical theology is a knowledge of the four ordinary forms of prayer: vocal, mental, affective, and the prayer of simplicity (see PRAYER). The last two, notably the prayer of simplicity, border on the mystical. Prayer is often called active or acquired contemplation to distinguish it from passive or higher contemplation, in which mystical union really consists.
Mystical theology begins by reviewing the various descriptions of extraordinary contemplation, contained in the works of mystics and of writers on mystical subjects, and the divisions which help to describe its various phases, indicating chiefly whether it consists of an enlargement or elevation of knowledge, or of absorption in the Divine vision, or, again, whether the cherubic, i.e., intellectual, or seraphic, i.e., affective, element predominates. The objects of contemplation are set forth: God, His Attributes, the Incarnation, and all the Sacred Mysteries of the Life of Christ; His presence in the Eucharist; the supernatural order; every creature of God in the natural order, animate or inanimate, particularly the Blessed Virgin, the angels, the saints, Providence, the Church. In analyzing the causes of contemplation, what may be called its psychology next comes up for consideration, in so far as it necessitates the ordinary or exceptional use of any human faculty, of the senses of the body, or of the powers of the soul. On God's part, grace must be considered as a principle, or cause, of contemplation, the special or unusual graces (gratis datoe) as well as ordinary graces, the virtues, theological as well as moral, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The closing chapter in this part of the science dwells on the fruits of contemplation, especially the elevation of spirit, joy, charity, zeal; on the influences that may contribute to its duration, interruption, or cessation. Here some theologians treat in detail of the preliminary or preparatory dispositions for contemplation, of natural or moral aptitude, solitude, prayer, mortification or self-denial, corporal and spiritual, as a means of soul-purification; these topics, however, belong more properly to the domain of ascetical theology.
What strictly comes within the province of mystical theology is the study of the processes of active and passive purification through which a soul must pass to reach the mystical union. Although the active processes are also treated to some extent in ascetical theology, they require special study inasmuch as they lead to contemplation. They comprise: purity of conscience, or aversion even to the slightest sin; purity of heart, the heart being taken as the symbol of the affections, which to be pure must be free of attachments to anything that does not lead to God; purity of the spirit, i.e. of the imagination and memory; and purity of action. It is to these processes that the well-known term "night" is applied by St. John of the Cross, since they imply three things which are as night to the soul in so far as they are beyond or contrary to its own lights, viz., the privation of pleasure, faith as substituted for human knowledge, and God as incomprehensible, or darkness, to the unaided soul. Passive purifications are the trials encountered by souls in preparation for contemplation, known as desolation, or dryness, and weariness. As they proceed sometimes from God and sometimes may be produced by the Evil Spirit, rules for the discernment of spirits are set down to enable directors to determine their source and to apply proper means of relief, especially should it happen that the action of the Evil One tends to possession or obsession.
These passive purifications affect the soul when every other object of contemplation is withdrawn from it, except its own sins, defects, frailties, which are revealed to it in all their enormity. They put the soul in the "obscure night", as St. John of the Cross calls it, or in the "great desolation", to use the phrase of Father Baker. In this state the soul experiences many trials and temptations, even to infidelity and despair, all of which are expressed in the peculiar terminology of writers on mystical theology, as well as the fruits derived from resisting them. Chief among these fruits is the purification of love, until the soul is so inflamed with love of God that it feels as if wounded and languishes with the desire to love Him still more intensely. The first difficulty mystical writers encounter in their treatises on contemplation is the proper terminology for its degrees, or the classification of the experiences of the soul as it advances in the mystical union with God effected by this extraordinary form of prayer. Ribet in "La Mystique Divine" has a chapter (x) on this subject, and the present writer treats it in chapter xxix of his "Grace of Interior Prayer" (tr. of the sixth edition). Scaramelli follows this order: the prayer of recollection; the prayer of spiritual silence; the prayer of quiet; the inebriation of love; the spiritual sleep; the anguish of love; the mystical union of love, and its degrees from simple to perfect union and spiritual marriage. In this union the soul experiences various spiritual impressions, which mystical writers try to describe in the terminology used to describe sense impressions, as if the soul could see, hear, touch, or enjoy the savour or odour of the Divinity. Ecstatic union with God is a further degree of prayer. This and the state of rapture require careful observation to be sure that the Evil One has no share in them. Here again mystical writers treat at length the deceits, snares, and other arts practised by the Evil One to lead souls astray in the quest for the mystical union. Finally, contemplation leads to a union so intimate and so strong that it can be expressed only by the terms "spiritual marriage". The article on contemplation describes the characteristics of the mystical union effected by contemplation. No treatise of mystical theology is complete without chapters on miracles, prophecies, revelations, visions, all of which have been treated under their respective headings.
As for the history or development of mysticism, it is as difficult to record as a history of the experiences of the human soul. The most that can be done is to follow its literature, mindful that the most extraordinary mystical experiences defy expression in human speech, and that God, the Author of mystical states, acts upon souls when and as He wills, so that there can be no question of what we could consider a logical or chronological development of mysticism as a science. Still, it is possible to review what mystical writers have said at certain periods, and especially what St. Teresa did to treat for the first time mystical phenomena as a science. Before her, mystics were concerned principally with ecstasies, visions, and revelations; she was the first to attempt a scientific analysis of the process of mystical union brought about by contemplation.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, A. Poulain, [New York: Robert Appleton Company 1912]
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