The Demise of Mystical Theology

causality
Love and Happiness

It has always been believed that happiness depends on love more than on anything else. The greater the love, the greater the happiness. Yet for some unaccountable reason it does not always occur to us that, like everything else that is worth achieving, loving must be learnt. Far from being an exception to the rule, learning to love is more difficult than anything else because human beings are insatiably selfish and learning to love means learning to be selfless. Mystical Theology is the study of how we learn to practise being so selfless, that we are not only able to love others as never before but also to yearn for and to experience the source of all love that resides in God.

The Ancient Roman Empire was so astounded at the quality of love that animated the first Christians that in little more than three centuries it was converted into a Christian Empire. Nobody could see the love that was the wellspring that energised and excited them because it was generated by the Holy Spirit working unseen, deep within them. That is why it was called ‘mystical’, from the Greek word that simply means hidden or secret. But this love could be seen as it rose up from deep within them to overflow into everything they said and did, making so many great saints and martyrs. They bore witness to the fact that Jesus whom they loved and worshipped was not dead but alive. Mystical Theology is the name given to that branch of theology that teaches us how to receive this God-given love. The Church is always alive and well when inspired from within by those we call mystics who try daily to do all in their power to receive this love.

The Council of Trent and Love

For one hundred years after the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), the teaching of mystical theology was so widespread and so practised in the Catholic Church that it was the dominant force to both implement and sustain its reforms. Perhaps the greatest Catholics intellectual genius of the last century, Monsignor Ronald Knox put it this way in his life’s work, the remarkable book Enthusiasm:-

“The seventeenth century was a century of mystics. The doctrine of the interior life was far better publicised, developed in far greater detail than it had ever been in late-medieval Germany or late-medieval England. Bremond, in his Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, has traced unforgettably the progress of that movement in France. But Spain too, the country of St Teresa and St John of the Cross had her mystics. Italy also had her mystics who flourished under the aegis of the Vatican. Even the exiled Church in England produced in Father Baker’s Sancta Sophia a classic of the interior life” (Chapter XI).

No Moral Theology without Mystical Theology

As long as the teaching and practise of Mystical Theology reigned supreme, all would be well with the Church. For her sublime moral teaching, based on the teaching of Jesus can only be lived by those who are inspired by the same mystical love that inspired and animated Jesus himself. For one hundred years after the Council of Trent, all went well until a terrible calamity took place that would all but destroy the inner spiritual life of the Church down to the present day.

It was a heresy called Quietism that promoted far and wide a pernicious perversion of the mystical teaching that had for so long been the lifeblood of the Church. The father founder of this heresy was a Spanish priest called Molino who lived in Rome, but his teaching had tentacles that reached out all over Europe. He had obviously been influenced by the reformers, because he insisted that in prayer everything so depends on God and on him alone that we can do nothing at all, but sit like lumps of dough waiting to be soaked in syrup. Further to this, as we can do nothing without God, we cannot do anything about temptations either, but give in to them, until God decides to rid us of them. As this included sexual temptations it led to gross indecency by Molino himself and by his followers. This did not just include sins committed in the imagination and in the mind, but with the body and with one another too. This led to Molino being convicted, not just of heresy but of gross sexual indecency many times over, and for giving the green light to others to follow his example while deceiving themselves that they were on the mystic way.

Monastic Imprisonment for Life

The whole of Catholic Europe was so shocked and scandalised by his condemnation to monastic imprisonment for life in 1687, and the evil is done by his false mysticism, that Catholic vigilantes rose up everywhere. They inaugurated witch hunts to hunt down and harass his followers throughout the Catholic world.

These vigilantes were unable to distinguish between good traditional mystical theology and its counterfeit, so the baby was thrown out with the bath water. All forms of prayer that had the slightest whiff of Quietism about them were crushed and the Gospel of good works alone was promoted together with a harsh Catholic Calvinism otherwise known as Jansenism. Inevitably the profound mystical prayer that taught people how to love in such a way that they came to know and experience the love of God, simply fell into abeyance. Sadly for the Jansenists, the love that inspired the Gospels had been ‘lost in translation’.

Where Saints are Made Out of Sinners

Mystical theology is that branch of theology that teaches how the love of sincere Christian searchers is gradually prepared for union with Christ. It teaches how this union is brought about through a profound inner purification so that we can finally become one with him, not just with his person, but with his personal action: In other words in his mystical contemplation of the Father.

Take yeast, salt and sugar out of bread and what is left but an unwholesome indigestible lump of dough. Take the purification that leads to selflessness out of love and what is left but an unwholesome self-centred nobody who is going nowhere. This purification takes place in the mystic way where saints are made out of sinners and where great spiritual leaders are formed to lead us back to the contemplation that dispels darkness and bathes us in the light of God’s love. Without the inner mystical contemplation that was called into question after the condemnation of Quietism, we will be going nowhere. In his monumental History of the Church Monsignor Philip Hughes put it this way:

The most mischievous feature of Quietism was the suspicion that it threw on the contemplative life as a whole. At the moment when, more than at any other, the Church needed the strength that only the life of contemplation can give, it was the tragedy of history that this life shrank to very small proportions and religion, even for holy souls, too often took on the appearance of being no more than a divinely aided effort towards moral perfection.

The Mystical Theology that was previously taught side by side with Moral Theology was taught no more in novitiates, seminaries and houses of religious education. When Bishop Patrick Joseph Casey asked me to run his diocesan retreat and conference centre in North London,  I made a survey of all the priests and religious who came there for over ten years. It struck me to the core, for I found that thanks to the ongoing effects of Quietism none of them had any training in personal prayer never mind mystical theology. One young Franciscan said that in seven years of training he was given no training at all in personal prayer and if mystical theology was ever mentioned it was seen as a joke. If anyone tried to take it seriously they were warned that ‘Mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism’ – a slogan coined by our friends the vigilantes many years ago. When I continued the same survey when I lectured in Rome in the late nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties I found the same ignorance of Mystical theology from priests and religious from all over the world.

Cataclysmic Sexual Scandals

If celibate priests and religious are deprived of the teaching that enables them to come to know and experience the love of God, then the disasters that we have seen everywhere in the Church in recent years were bound to happen. St Thomas Aquinas said that if a person does not come to know and experience the love of God then they will seek illicit love elsewhere. If you think that the cataclysmic sexual scandals that are hitting the headlines at present are the fake news perpetrated by the secular media, then listen to the Catholic media, watch  EWTN news each evening and you will hear the truth.

I have been writing these columns for months to detail traditional Catholic spirituality and mystical theology. I have avoided referring to the current sexual scandals in the Church so far to avoid giving scandal in the vain hope that with a return to traditional spirituality they can be undermined. I see now that this was indeed a vain hope, so in future, I will not shrink from mentioning what everybody knows anyway, as part of my call – ‘back to the future’. Then, armed with the profound mystical spirituality that animated Jesus, the first and greatest mystic of all, and those who followed him, everything will become possible. For with love all things are possible, even converting a pagan world into a Christian world in such a short time.

Only closed and hardened hearts can prevent him from doing today through us what was done before through his first followers. That is why St Catherine of Siena said, “The problem with the world is me.” When we all begin to say the same, and then begin to open our hearts to Love as she did, then the world we all want to live in will have begun to rise from the ashes of selfishness and self-seeking that has all but destroyed it.

These themes can be found in David Torkington’s recently published book. Wisdom from the Christian Mystics – How to Pray the Christian Way

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22 thoughts on “The Demise of Mystical Theology”

  1. In 2004 I attended a week-end Carmelite retreat with an old-time Carmelite Priest. (One who wasn’t into “social justice”, nor delighted that both branches of the Carmelite Order were UN NGOs, & which he saw as a danger to their charism)
    It was a given that everyone there was familiar with the works of St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila, even if we did not have a profound understanding of them.
    At the end of the retreat, this Carmelite Father said, —“After this weekend, I regret to tell you that if you paid attention, you now know more about Mystical Theology than most of the Bishops in the United States. I have given you more on Mystical Theology than young priests are taught about it in seminary.”
    Fortunately, I took notes on his retreat, all sessions, and have referred to them profitably over the years, turning over in my mind the relationships he made between Lectio Divina, private devotional & liturgical prayer, and the challenges we meet in daily life according to our character faults, our vocation & ministry.
    This priest enabled me to see how prayer builds faith, the faith that moves mountains; and that with deepening faith comes greater capacity for sacrifice and the (painful but empowering) death of the ego. I am a long way from living up to the grand plan for holiness through prayer that he outlined, but fortunately I have this “road-map” and it was the most useful retreat of my life.

    1. R Wenner,
      I am moved by your story as it demonstrates how essential it is that prayer is taught. Most moving of all is how you have applied that teaching in your daily faithfulness to live that life of prayer.
      God bless you always.

  2. Study the Mystical City of God by Maria Agreda. One reading is not enough. It should suffice for learning how to walk in the supernatural, mystical realm. God is not fooled and the entrance into the mystical is a constant striving for humility, love, and sacrifice. But Mary will lead you.

  3. David, thank you for this piece. It seems many of us younger people are sort of coming round to this perspective, partly due to the aid of the internet, which is also responsible for much filth, but also due to the attempted revival of the Latin Mass, which points so clearly to heavenly worship as described in the Apocalypse, etc. One of my concerns with the way our classic Catholic mystical theology is discussed and presented is such an emphasis on prayer, asceticism, active and passive purifications often seems to leave out the effect of the Sacraments, in particular Penance and Holy Communion (and perhaps others too). As if the Sacraments are leftover parts…as if anyone, even a protestant or a disciplined pagan, if they effected the Catholic prayer life and asceticism and little else, would be just as Saint John of the Cross himself. Can you recommend any sources which place the Sacraments in their proper context in the deep, mystical inner life of the Catholic soul?

    1. John the Sacraments are integral. The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. There can be no better Authentic teaching than to read The Catechism of the Catholic Church which explains how each sacrament draws us into the life of Christ. In another answer to you I explain, quoting the Catholic Catechism how through Baptism ….we become
      “A priestly, prophetic, and royal people
      783 Jesus Christ is the one whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and established as priest, prophet, and king. The whole People of God participates in these three offices of Christ and bears the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them..208

      784 On entering the People of God through faith and Baptism, one receives a share in this people’s unique, priestly vocation: “Christ the Lord, high priest taken from among men, has made this new people ‘a kingdom of priests to God, his Father.’ The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood.”209

      This does not imply as you believed, that I am advocating a change in Catholic Teaching and tradition to admit women to the priesthood. I am referring to every Catholic’s participation in the priesthood of Christ, through our baptism. This is explained in the Catechism.

  4. A deep prayer life should be natural and normal. Catholic lay people discover the interior life by meditating on the mysteries of Christ’s life ( e.g. devotion to the Rosary and the Way of the of the Cross ( and by reading the writings of the Saints (Sr. Faustina’s Diary, The Autobiography of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisioux). Priests are indoctrinated in the Seminary to despise these practices. I don’t think most priests believe in a supernatural life anymore. And their lives reflect this.

  5. As someone who began having mystical experiences as an older man, the priests’ lack of knowledge about mystical theology was quite a stumbling block in understanding what I was experiencing.

    Nonetheless, I eventually found answers by tracking down and reading the old books that described the spiritual changes a soul undergoes on the mystical path.
    • The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology 2 Revised by Adolphe Tanquerey
    • Mystical Evolution in the Development and Vitality of the Church: Volume 2 Rev. Fr. John G. Arintero, O.P.
    • The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Rev Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange
    • The Interior Castle or The Mansions by St. Teresa of Avila
    • Way of Perfection: St. Teresa of Avila

    I began to understand that a soul’s genuine pursuit of wanting to do the divine will of God would be met by God’s action on the other side of the veil that conceals the spiritual world from human perception. God guides the soul on the path to union with Christ.

    After a while, I understood that God is calling everyone to an understanding and actual experience of mystical theology (union with Christ) because ‘apocalypse’ means unveiling: the unveiling of the spiritual world. Human perception of the spiritual world has been veiled. The spiritual world hidden and many think a spiritual world doesn’t exist. However, Christ lives in the spiritual world and the souls of those in the church (the bride of Christ) will be wed to Christ when the spiritual world is unveiled. This is the ‘wedding supper of the lamb’.

    Soon, like the curtain in the temple that was rent in two at Christ’s death, the spiritual world will be ‘unveiled’ for all to behold.

    Satan knows the unveiling is approaching and almost certainly stimulated and spread ‘Quietism’ ,among other problems, to discredit mystical theology and to reduce human knowledge of the mystical realities. Satan has succeeded because if you speak of perceiving the spiritual world you will be treated like Christ: you will be struck, vilified, and shunned. You will be treated this way by many in the clergy. That is what it means to follow in Christ’s bloodstained footprints. Secular psychology is the only current framework used to judge spiritual experiences and most such experiences are not considered to be credible. Most psychologists do not practice any religious faith.

    I can assure you from my own experiences, that if lay people and clergy could see the reality of the spiritual entities prompting much of today’s popular culture and current spiritual trends in the Catholic church, they would clearly see the demonic hand at work as well as the hand of God desperately trying to save souls.

    Once seeing these realities, people would no longer be deceived by the ‘glamour of evil’. With their spiritual eyes opened, they would cooperate with Christ, repent, turn away from evil, amend their lives, and live a life devoted to holiness in a very quiet and humble way; Regardless of the cost to self, just like the early Christians and martyrs.

    This response is exactly what Christ is seeking to promote in souls and exactly what Satan is working to prevent.

    Also, note, this mystical path is very hard as their are many trials, which are clearly explained in the texts listed above. Everyone walking on a spiritual path to union with Christ will have much pain to endure. I have experienced the same pain described in the texts. I can attest that these texts are true and spot on describe what a soul experiences.

    All souls truly seeking spiritual growth on a mystical path should read these texts and live them courageously. It is the way of the cross, and you will fall many, many times; nonetheless, you must get up and carry on because by your efforts and example, you are helping to save souls.

    Given the shortage of priests knowledgeable about mystical theology, you will be on your own, just like Christ carrying the cross. But no worries. Your guardian angel, the Blessed Mother, and Christ will guide you. So you can progress very far even without a spiritual director just by reading the texts, praying, going to Eucharistic adoration, etc…

    But remember, persevere and be humble because there are many impurities needing to be wrung out of our souls and growing spiritually is both joyful and very, very painful. You must persevere like Christ did until he could go no further, only then you will receive a ‘Simon the Cyrene’ to help you carry the cross till the end.

    God be with you.

    1. Steve you are not alone. The sources you discovered in ‘old’ books are the same as I too devoured in libraries to make sense of this spiritual journey. I was however blessed to meet a priest who taught me to meditate on scripture and encouraged me on my journey in prayer, despite the fact that he admitted having no knowledge or teaching on the subject.
      God bless you.

  6. Dear Mr. Torkington, I thank you for this article. About 30 years ago I went to 3 different priests and said I don’t know how to love? The first one said “sure you do, your a very loving person” it left me feeling lost. The second told me to write my life history, which I did and he did nothing about it, and then left the priesthood. The 3 said ” of coarse you don’t” and proceeded to talk phycology to me, like it was about striating out my mind. I guess my mind needed some striating, but he taught me nothing about love. So I learned by searching, that to love is a decision and there for an act of the will, and prayer is conversation with God, and not knowing anything about mystical theology, I find God still teach us the way, IF we want it. Thank you again for trying to get us all on the same track. sincerely, Edith

    1. Edith, You tell a story many have experienced. There will always be a dearth of spiritual directors if priests and religious are not taught or given time for mystical prayer, as they will simply not understand the journey.

    2. In a couple of cases in my life, I had a priest in the confessional that lambasted me for my sins, completely not understanding that I was confessing to receive the grace not to commit those sins.

  7. Cameron Henderson

    Very nice, Mr. Torkington. I studied at the Carmelitanum, and had the pleasure of studying under Fr. Jesus Castellano and others. How embarrassing the story you tell of rejecting Mystical Theology in seminary! I was in a community dedicated to Mystical Theology as its apex, which it is the queen of all theological sciences, hands down so I was spared that drivel. We need to start a chain of proper pockets of mystical theology on the parish level. It would have way more effect than the typical apologetic/biblical model even by the best parishes. God wants us to imitate his lovers, and suffer things divine, first and foremost. Mystical theology also keeps one sane and orthodox, the opposite of the saying you quoted. Schism and heresy are born when love and truth are shorn!!

    1. Cameron Henderson,
      Mystical Theology must be the apex otherwise, as you so wisely say, “Schism and heresy are born” in loveless communities. What a hopeful response you give. Thank you.

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  9. This is a very important essay. In our much simpler, less educated way, my dear friends and I have been saying something very similar: if our priests had a deep prayer life, this could never happen. Learning the background through your essay, David, is so eye opening! It seems the Church has been trying to breathe with one lung! How foolish! Thank you and please keep writing on this subject. Your words are prophetic; they are revealing truth we have not previously understood.

  10. Catholic Mysticism, the true way to reveal him who is love and life itself. The amazing think of mystical theology is the many different ways this theology revealed itself to those who feel and cooperate with the working of the Holy Spirit. The proof is in the amazing differences of of the great many saints in the Church. The pursue of being “perfect” as our Heavenly Father is perfect brings within us the divine illumination of him who is perfect love. That illumination that is called the “light of the world”. It will be and is the only way that will transform the terrible darkness afflicting our world.
    Thank you for pointing out that we are in great need of spiritual theology training in the priesthood and laity.

    1. I had another thought about this fine article: it is interesting that the evil entered the Church through the Quietists, but the lasting damage was done by the Vigilantes and their reaction. We could be in the same spot today, or rather the full flower of this weed, with the evil of sexual abuse. Could the lasting danger be from the modern vigilantes who come against the pope, the bishops, our hierarchy and cause doubt and even schism? Rogue Inquisitors and Crusaders did terrible lasting damage to our Church, too. In all, personal holiness and deep prayer life are the answer. St. Catherine, pray for us!

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