Mysticism For All: Democratizing Spirituality

Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI

Originally Published on the Oblate School of Theology Blog

Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI

In the past years, I have become increasingly intrigued as to how and why our devotional life can become an entry into everyday mysticism. Devotions are a regular practice of learned prayers and ways of praying handed down over centuries of spiritual practices and mystical experiences. Many Catholics draw daily from the spiritual wellspring of this rich tradition.

I am speaking here of the rosary, the Adoration of the Holy Sacrament, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the blessed Heart of Mary, the invocation of the Holy Spirit and of course the powerful intercessory prayers to the “cloud of witnesses” of our Saints. We have the spiritual ability to invoke a saint for almost any occasion, person, or profession. For example, there is a patron saint for hairdressers (St. Martin de Porres), two for lawyers (St. Ives and St. Thomas More), widows (St. Paula), orphans (St. Jerome Emiliani), lepers (St. Damien of Molokai), artillerymen (St. Barbara) and even the internet (St. Isidore of Seville)! St. Eugene de Mazenod, the founder of the Missionary Oblates, is the patron saint of dysfunctional families. He is considered a very modern saint for his willingness to intercede for all who have experienced the particular challenges and great pain of complicated family life.

These devotional practices affirm our life. They connect the reality of our humanness with the truth of God. They speak of how God continues to reach us in the marrow of our daily existence. However, there is a byproduct to these devotional practices. When we hold the saints in high regard, we can distort a more wholesome and accessible view of holiness. It is risky to equate being genuinely spiritual with practicing virtues heroically and living faith in an extraordinary manner.

Thomas Merton said that we needed to appreciate ordinary holiness so that living faith or responding to the baptismal call to its full potential is accessible to all. We do not need to burn at the stake, be boiled in oil, be shot by the death squad of an oppressive regime or isolate in mountains and monasteries for 50 to 60 years in a hermetical life to become holy. I call this democratizing the spiritual life by truly believing that intense and profound forms of connection with God, with Jesus and with the whole of creation is accessible to all. This is clearly expressed in the following quote by Ursula King:

“The Christian mystic is not primarily seen as a privileged individual or a member of an intellectual elite, as among the Platonists or Gnostics, but rather as a living cell of the Body of Christ. Thus, the mystical life represents the full flowering of Christian baptism, which is the rite in incorporation, the foundational sacrament, for membership of the Church. Because of this, mystical experience is in principle open to all. It is for everybody, not just the elect.”(Christian Mystics, chapter 1)

The most powerful consequence of our openness to mystical living is that it breaks down the false duality between action and contemplation, social justice and mysticism, theology and spirituality. In the next three parts of this article, I would like to illustrate this further with two different ways of understanding spirituality and conclude with a striking contemporary example of how a specific devotion can lead to a deeper mystical appreciation and experience of the Christian faith.

Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI is a priest, religious and itinerant preacher with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate of the US province. Mentored by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI he ministers from the campus of the Oblate School of Theology (OST) in San Antonio, Texas. Fr. Renaud has degrees and training in drama education, theology, pastoral ministry, psychodrama and spiritual direction. He has preached retreats to priests, men and women religious, deacons and wives and lay people on desire and mysticism, 12 steps recovery, Ignatian spirituality and Jungian shadow work, ecological conversion, the Beatitudes and human development and grief and life transitions. Fr. Renaud is a member of Spiritual Director International (SDI). His areas of interest are resilience, finding one’s mission and purpose in life, spiritual healing of traumatic relationships and everyday mysticism.