The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Chapter 1)

Olivier Clement’s classic book is a commentary on the mystical reflections of the most influential Christians in the first millennium of the Church. The work is divided into three major parts which consist of patristic meditations on the doctrine of God (part I), on spiritual exercises (part II), and on contemplation (part III). Such distinctions are useful only as a point of emphasis, for the reader will quickly perceive that the three parts have their own bond of trinitarian unity. 

This work is not meant to be read quickly. It is to be read slowly, then re-read more slowly in prayer and silent meditation. As Father McGuckin once remarked about his own collection of mystical authors: the book would serve better as a frisbee if one attempted to finish it in a few reading sessions. Perhaps we cannot finish the book. Better to read the first few pages prayerfully than the whole work quickly in the spirit of an impersonal critic. 

Clement prefaces his work with a word about the hiddenness of the gospel within tradition. This life of tradition is itself a spilling over of the life of God, for tradition is a “living force, a ‘passover,’ a passing over of the God-man to the God-humanity and to the universe.” Like a waterfall spilling over its cataracts, the living God in the resurrected Christ rushes headlong through the Church over and into the cosmos until all beings are made new. By praying and meditating with these early fathers of Christianity we hope for this cosmic resurrection to begin within our own souls.

In chapter one (“Quest, Encounter, Decision”), the fathers guide us into our first reflection. Fallen creation tends toward non-being. The perceptive sense this entropy. Through repentance (“metanoia”) we recognize that only God who is Beauty can save us from non-being. The ugliness of non-being drives us to the One whose Beauty and Being are identical and, hence, without limit. The cosmos itself arouses this source of wonder and beauty and holy fear.

So it is through both fear of our own nothingness and the wonder of cosmic beauty we sense God’s infinite transcendence, his unspeakable otherness while, paradoxically, his imminence, his closeness in the created order. The paradox: God’s infinite otherness makes possible his personal presence to each soul, to each atom. There is no competition between Creator and creature. He is more present to the creature than the creature is to itself. Augustine: interior intimo meo–more intimate to me than I am to myself. Therefore the power of silence and the Jesus Prayer.

Every desire has Him as its horizon. Nothing could be desired apart from Him. As the source of all being all beings seek Him in every movement made, whether that movement be external or internal. To be a creature is to desire God. In man those desires give rise to freedom aroused by His Beauty. These desires are only perfected in faith, hope, and love. 

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