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Can mystics matter?


Osama bin Laden may still be in Afghanistan’s caves. Americans by the millions avoid airline flights. Every major accident is probed for terrorist connections, and Frederick Bauerschmidt is writing a book called Why the Mystics Matter (Sorin/Ave Marie Press).

One wonders why, at a time like this, mystics might matter.

“The first thing that comes to mind,” said Loyola College, Baltimore, Md., theologian Bauerschmidt, “is Julian of Norwich’s line: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

“Julian lived in the second half of the 14th century, a low-point marked by plague and war,” said Bauerschmidt, currently directing Loyola’s study abroad program at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Louvain, Belgium). “Yet she retained a deep faith that all that happens is, often in a way that is hidden from us, grounded in God’s love for us.”

The mystic was no Pollyanna, said Bauerschmidt, 40. “She knew, apparently from hard experience, that the circumstances of life often push us to the breaking point. But they never push us beyond the reach of God’s power, God’s wisdom, and God’s love. Julian writes, ‘God did not say: You shall not be storm-tossed, you shall not be travailed, you shall not be afflicted; but God said: You shall not be overcome.’ There is in this a marvelous combination of realism and hope that I find comforting.”

Equally important, Bauerschmidt said, is what the mystics do not say: They do not counsel a retreat into the inner life “in a quest for safe haven from life’s vicissitudes.” The Maryland-born, South Carolina-raised scholar -- also a combination housemaster-cum-Mary Poppins to Loyola and Belgian students at Loyola’s international house -- said, “If we look at Bernard of Clairvaux, Catherine of Siena, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, we see people very engaged in the issues and controversies of their times. But we also see a certain detachment that comes from placing events in a larger context. Contemplative practices cultivate what we might call a broader horizon in which we can situate events.

“The mystics can give us examples of how to practice the detachment that allows us to withstand the heated rhetoric that troubled times seem to produce -- while at the same time remaining unflagging in our engagement with and concern for those who suffer.”

Bauerschmidt, the latest interview -- and the first by e-mail -- in NCR’s series on young scholars, majored in religion at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. There he became a Catholic at age 20.

His conversion, he said, was “very literary. I was reading books by Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, but I knew virtually no Catholics -- once very easy in the South.”

Watching people pray

His family were not regular churchgoers (though his brother is now an Episcopal priest). “When I started going to Mass, the general tawdriness of Catholicism startled me a bit. I was expecting something austerely beautiful but found Madonnas draped in Christmas lights instead.” Yet he was “profoundly moved by the deeper beauty of the devotion of those around me at early morning weekday Masses. I think of these people -- whose names I never knew -- as my sponsors, since watching them pray was the beginning of my formation as a Catholic.”

At college, Bauerschmidt -- generally known as Fritz rather than Frederick -- thought he might be a writer, until he took the required Introduction to Religion course and “found that I liked writing about theological and religious questions, and that I seemed to be good at it.”

After college he spent three years with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Texas, earned his master’s in religion from Yale Divinity and his doctorate in theology and ethics from Duke.

The biggest challenge to his faith “was reading Nietzsche. I’m convinced Nietzsche remains the most profound critic of Christianity. What strikes me is the way Nietzsche doesn’t attack the truth of Christianity, but rather the very notion of truth itself.”

Nietzsche, he said, is someone who “asks us to stare unflinchingly into the abyss of a world without God -- with no consolation from liberal humanism, which he sees as simply the rotting corpse of Christianity.” (In his book, Bauerschmidt has a chapter on “How To Live in a World Without God.”)

Bauerschmidt’s solution to his crisis of faith, he said, “was to simply continue going to church and wait out the storm. I never came up with anything like a refutation of Nietzsche’s criticisms. Rather I handled my intellectual difficulties in a piecemeal fashion. I think I learned from this the importance of practices to Christianity.

“Had I ceased practicing during that time I would not be a Christian today,” he said. “Thinking my way through my doubts, I would likely have concluded that Nietzsche was right. But Christianity is not simply a theory about the world, but a way of being in the world. If it is reduced to a theory, then I think it can well fall under Nietzsche’s critique.”

The Loyola theologian, a visiting professor on Louvain’s theology faculty, said of his student flock: “In my more acerbic moments I think of Caesarius of Arles, the 5th-century Gallican bishop who presided over a flock that was Christian by virtue of their baptism but almost entirely pagan in their practice. His sermons contain wonderful exhortations to his listeners not to bring their swords to church and not to go worship at the sacred oak next Wednesday.

“I think our times are not too different,” Bauerschmidt said, “except cell phones not swords are our weapon of choice and the stock market is the sacred oak.

“In my less acerbic moments, I think of my wonderful students who really want to live the faith they profess to have, and students of no faith who think that theology raises questions that deserve serious thought.

“Their questions I have the most difficulty answering are not about the Trinity or Christology, but, ‘I am about to become the godmother of my sister’s new baby. What am I supposed to do for her?’ or ‘What exactly am I supposed to do after I receive Communion and go back to my pew?’ ”

Bauerschmidt said the four people currently teaching him about God are his wife, Maureen Sweeney (an immigration lawyer with Catholic Charities in Baltimore until the family’s move to Belgium in 2000), and their three children, Thomas, 9, Sophia, 6, and Denis, 4.

Fragmented theology

Theology currently is incredibly fragmented, he said, “with Catholics who think that liberation theology in its myriad forms (Mestizo, Asian, African, feminist, womanist and so on) is still the way forward. Others, especially some younger theologians, prefer what might broadly be called ressourcement [a term meaning a “return to the sources,” originally associated with such theologians from the 1950s and ’60s such as Jean Danielou and Henri de Lubac]. Radical Orthodoxy, one variety of ressourcement, is distinctive in the directness with which it engages with postmodern, post-Nietzschean thought. I suppose this is more or less where I fit.”

Bauerschmidt said many ressourcement theologians believe that only a profound immersion in the sources of the Christian tradition -- especially scripture and the theological tradition up to and including Aquinas -- can provide the answers to the questions facing the church today. Often these theologians show a great enthusiasm for both the person and the philosophy of Pope John Paul II and see themselves as part of his call for a “new evangelization,” he said.

At the same time, he said, “I worry that too many theologians my age and younger who are interested in a return to the sources are facilely dismissive of the theology of liberation, whose pioneers drank deeply from the waters of the original ressourcement that led to Vatican II.”

Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, Bauerschmidt said, “has indicated his profound indebtedness to de Lubac’s writings on nature and grace. And I think the theology of liberation at its best can serve as a constant reminder that a return to the sources is always a radical movement and not a way to shore up the status quo.”

Forced to generalize, Bauerschmidt said he’d say Catholics are developing a sense of their countercultural identity, but in a very fragmented way: “Liberationists are often very countercultural on issues like economics and the death penalty and war, but on abortion and other so-called ‘social issues’ often total sellouts to modern notions of personal autonomy.”

By contrast, he said, “Ressourcement types are countercultural on questions of abortion and in their general critique of American culture, but they tend to be uncritical of the economic forces that foster the very culture they despise. Also, they tend to approach the structures and institutions of the nation, and of the church, as if they could do no wrong.

“I worry,” he said, “that in the ressourcement revival there’s a tendency to dismiss the efforts of theologians following the council, or to see any and all modern developments as inimical to Christianity. Some see any criticism of the church or the tradition as disloyalty. If, for example, you say that the church has a poor track record regarding women or Jews, some think that you are engaged in a wholesale sell-out to pagan modernity. This is, of course, silly since part of the tradition of the church is its tradition of self-criticism.”

Bauerschmidt said he hopes “a consistently and constructively critical theological voice will emerge.” But he said that is possible “only if you have some vantage point from which to be critical,” which he sees as the great strength of the ressourcement.

Traditions make comeback

“Of course the problem with this,” he said, “is that it can turn into an exercise in nostalgia. I think Gregorian chant and the rosary are wonderful parts of the Catholic tradition and I’m happy they’re making something of a comeback. I also don’t think that they are sufficient as practices for sustaining a critical worldview. What are the key practices? I have no clear idea. But that is perhaps the most crucial theological question for the church today.”

Bauerschmidt finds “nothing clears the head like reading a couple of articles from the Summa Theologica.” But his main interest is in the intersection of Christianity and modernity, “particularly in the way in which modernity has changed the shape of everyday life.”

“I am increasingly troubled by the way in which modern patterns of living turn us into rootless units of consumption rather than creatures of a loving God,” he said. “I want to be a theologian who serves the church -- in the sense of helping pastors and the people in the pews to live more deeply the Catholic tradition.

“I think that if I really had the courage of my convictions,” he said, “I would seek out some sort of living situation in an intentional community that sought to model the kind of patterns of everyday life in which Christian faith can flourish.

“I suppose what scares me is that life in such a community might well be incompatible with being a college professor,” Bauerschmidt said. “But then Jesus called us to be disciples, not professionals.”

And that least assertive of mystics, Thérèse of Lisieux, counsels the most countercultural approach of all. As Bauerschmidt notes, Thérèse recommends: “Let us love our littleness.”

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002