… on (a) who you ask; and (b) what you mean by “mystic.”

“Mystic” has always been one of those words I’ve been suspicious of. It sounds New Age-y to me, or it reminds me of those desert monks who used to sit on top of a pole for years. I wasn’t quite certain what it meant, but it sure wasn’t anything that had to do with my day-to-day existence. And it just didn’t seem like a very Lutheran thing to want to do. Sola scriptura, you know. Better to stay home and read the bible (if not necessarily the Book of Concord).

But as I’ve been working with a spiritual director, I’ve been reevaluating that.

Especially when Franciscan friar and best-selling author Richard Rohr speaks of a “strain of mysticism characterized by an overarching wonder at the mystery of the Incarnation, which is grounded in nature, animals, the poor, the outsider, contemplation, joyfulness, and a cosmic sense of Christ.”

And when Rohr, director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, spoke to the Rocky Mountain ELCA Synod in May and Lutheran Bishop James Gonia said Rohr’s wisdom “is transforming our understanding of the Christian life by moving us out of our heads into our hearts, into our whole beings, for the life of the world.”

Time for a reset, I’m thinking. Maybe mysticism isn’t so un-Lutheran after all. After all, the biographies suggest Luther was influenced by some of the German mystics of his day. And maybe mysticism isn’t what I thought it was.

Rohr clarifies it, at least to my satisfaction, in an interview with Mark Lombard, managing editor of St. Anthony’s Messenger, the Franciscan magazine, who asked him to define the term. “When most people hear the word mystical,” Rohr replied, “they think it means impossible for most of us, or distant, or only capable to those who are ascetical for 25 years or something like that. Actually, in my judgment, it simply means experiential knowledge of God, instead of merely mental or cognitive knowledge of God.”

Let’s let that sink in a minute. Experience, not cognition. Rohr was asked, on followup, whether mystical knowledge comes from the heart or the head.

“It is not something accessed by the left brain, but by the whole brain — right and left —and the heart, body, and soul,” he replied. “It is an intuitive grasp of the whole. … God is the heart of everything. When you say you love God, you, in fact, are saying you love everything.”

There was more to the interview. A lot more. For one thing, Rohr clarified some of my issues with organized religion in a way I’m going to have to go back to:

Organized religion is an example of incarnation. … You have to start with the particular to go to the universal. You have to start with the concrete. And, in fact, you need a holding tank, a container to hold you in one spot long enough to learn what the real questions are, and to struggle with the real questions. And that’s what organized religion does for you. Some form of it is almost necessary for the first half of life to carry on the tradition, to give you at least the right words to tell you that mystical experience is possible.

The trouble is it usually tells you that it’s possible, but just don’t expect it. It’s only for special people. It ends up making real conversion something very special, elitist, and distant, if you will. …

Which is just about where I’m at in this stage of my life’s journey. Trying to get from my head to my heart, and not at all sure I’m going to be able to do it.

In the meantime, what about Luther? After all, he was an Augustinian friar and he once threw an ink bottle at the devil, an act that would imply an experiential knowledge of religion. Rohr addresses him too.

In an anniversary article on the CAC website, written on the 500th anniversary of the day Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg and kicked off the Reformation, Rohr suggests both the Lutherans and the Catholic church of the Counter-Reformation got away from the heart religion of the Middle Ages. The abuses that Luther inveighed against cried out for correction, Rohr says, but both parties took a wrong turn and got into a head trip in the 1500s that is just now itself being corrected:

Now, by the grace of God, we are all beneficiaries of a Holy Reconciling by a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, formally agreed to by the highest theological authorities of the Vatican and the Lutheran Church in 1999. The declaration affirms that Luther was largely right, but both churches split into our own forms of dualistic thinking and remained in our dueling camps for 500 years. One side made an idol out of the Bible (Sola Scriptura!) and the other made an idol out of tradition (placing all confidence in leadership), but they were much the same in their human idolatry of something other than God. We are still learning the dangers of the dualistic concept of “only”!

Another Catholic author who is taking a new look at Luther is auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the archdiocese of Los Angeles, who is also director of a global media ministry called Word on Fire. Barron comes right out and says Luther was a mystic. A “mystic of grace,” to be exact.

Before he was appointed to his administrative post in Los Angeles, Barron taught at Mundelein Seminary in suburban Chicago, and he got fascinated with Luther when he taught a grad course in 16th-century theology:

Cantankerous, pious, very funny, shockingly anti-Semitic, deeply insightful, and utterly exasperating, Luther was one of the most beguiling personalities of his time. And say what you want about his writings (I disagree with lots and lots of his ideas), they crackle with life and intensity, even in Latin! 

For all of his polemics, Barron adds, Luther felt deeply — and loved deeply — the relationships underlying his doctrine of justification by faith through grace. “One of the standard matrices for understanding religion is the distinction between the mystical and the prophetic, or between the experiential and the rational,” he says. “On the standard reading, Luther would fall clearly on the latter side of this divide.” But there is more to Luther’s experience of justification than a formula later to be enshrined in the Book of Concord. Says Barron:

At bottom, Luther was a mystic of grace, someone who had fallen completely in love—which helps enormously to explain what makes his theological ideas both so fascinating and so frustrating. People in love do and say extravagant things. So overwhelmed are they by the experience of the beloved that they are given to words such as “only” and “never” and “forever.” If you doubt me, read any of the great romantic poets, or for that matter, listen to a teenager speak about his first crush. After a lifetime of scrupulosity and interior struggle, Luther sensed the breakthrough of the divine grace through the mediation of the Bible. Hence, are we surprised that he would express his ecstasy in exaggerated, over the top language: “By grace alone! By faith alone! By the Scriptures alone!”

I’m not sure I know enough about Luther to offer a reasoned critique of it, and I’m not sure I want to anyway — I hear a little voice crying heart, not head, Pete — but there’s plenty here to think about. And an attitude I think is worth cultivating.

Footnote. Purely by coincidence, Barron very recently visited Washington, D.C., where he gave the opening prayer in a daily session of the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as a lecture to members of Congress and legislative staffers at the Library of Congress. I hadn’t heard of the guy yet, but I was vaguely aware that a priest reminded House members of their their duty to work for social justice. It barely made a ripple in the news, though, and I forgot all about it until I read Barron’s comments on Luther and looked around online for more information on him.

And I found his prayer in a Catholic News Service wire story:

O God, Source of all justice, You have summoned everyone who works in this chamber to walk the path of righteousness, to foster life and liberty, to care especially for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. … Free these servants of yours O Lord, of all those attachments to wealth or power or privilege or fame that would prevent them from following the course You have set out for them. Make them mindful of the time when they first heard your voice and followed it with idealism and enthusiasm. 

Barron also posted a video to Word on Fire’s YouTube channel. It has nothing to do with Luther, and little — at least not directly — to do with mysticism, but it’s worth watching:

Called by God: Bishop Barron in Washington, DC | Bishop Robert Barron

References

Robert Barron, “Looking at Luther With Fresh Eyes,” Word on Fire, June 13, 2017 https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/looking-at-luther-with-fresh-eyes/5491/.

Matt Hadro. “Bishop Barron goes to Washington,” Catholic News Agency, Oct. 30, 2019 https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/bishop-barron-goes-to-washington-88283

Mark Lombard, “Richard Rohr on Praying like Saint Francis” [interview], FranciscanMedia.org, n.d. https://www.franciscanmedia.org/richard-rohr-on-praying-like-saint-francis/.

Richard Rohr. “Reformation 500th Anniversary,” Center for Action and Contemplation, Oct. 31, 2017 https://cac.org/reformation-500th-anniversary/.

3 thoughts on “Was Luther a mystic? It all depends …

  1. I think that “mystical experiences” got mixed up with drug induced experiences in the 60’s! Regular ones for me are akin to moments of pure grace when Creation and God and everything suddenly just knock us for an instant into pure awe. We can’t make them happen(unlike dropping acid) they just happen.

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    1. Thought-provoking! (As always. I enjoy mulling over your comments, which is one reason I don’t reply right away.) I think you’re right about the 60s, but I also think there’s a typically Calvinist attitude that religion is a cerebral thing and emotions, esthetics, etc., aren’t to be trusted. Privileging word over sacrament (imho), and I think it’s kind of pervasive at least in America.

      I remember when I’d visit my mother’s family, my staunch Presbyterian grandfather would take us to the downtown church in Grand Rapids, Mich. As soon as the sermon was over, he’d get up and walk out with the rest of us trailing behind him like ducklings. I never asked him about it — I was pretty young, and he wasn’t much given to discussing issues with the grandkids — but I guess he figured he was there to be edified by the sermon; he got what he came for, and there was no use staying for the benediction and closing hymn.

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      1. I am glad that you think about my responses. I was afraid I was oversharing. I had little experience with the Calvinist attitude, but certainly encountered it once I moved to New England. All sermon centered. Fear of emotion. My mystical experiences preceded my conversion and I needed a container big enough to contain them. It took many years before I wandered into Catholicism with its combination of emotion and intellect.

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