Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mortal soul

Coming of age in the Catholic Church of the 1950s and early 1960s was like living in a haunted house, a place inhabited by supernatural powers and spirits of which one had only the vaguest perception. I have previously recounted here the things I was reading as a young man, such as Georges Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest or Leon Bloy's The Woman Who Was Poor, or watching, such as Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. One book from that time that is still on my bookshelves is an anthology edited by the Jesuit priest H. A. Reinhold, The Soul Afire: Revelations of the Mystics. For a while, under the influence of that book, I read deeply in he works of Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avilla, and many others of the Catholic mystical tradition.

I have long since put the supernaturalism behind me, but I still live in a haunted house of sorts -- a universe whose every particular evinces an unknown and perhaps unknowable animating force that is worthy of attention and celebration. What then of the mystics? They were people of their time, and we cannot expect of them a modern scientific sensitivity. Do they have anything useful to say to us?

From them I learned a few things that go beyond creed, culture or historical circumstance. An abiding awareness of mystery. An attachment to sacred history, art and music. A respect for liturgies grounded in the diurnal and annual solar cycles, and in earth, air, fire, water, bread, wine, incense, chrism and wax. The sacredness of the sensual. The journey of the soul through the dark night. All of this runs through Reinhold's anthology.

Over the next ten days, I will explore the relevance of traditional mysticism to the life of a 21st-century scientific agnostic. I will argue that the writings of the mystics give voice to universal human longings and intuitions that survive translation from the language of medieval theology into something more consistent with scientific agnosticism. You will not find in what follows any nod to supernaturalism or miracles. To the great questions of existence -- why is there something rather than nothing? what is the source of order in the universe? -- I answer with the agnostic's "I don't know." But even within the natural order there is ample stimulus for emotions of wonderment, awe and respectful silence that characterized the great Catholic mystics from Meister Eckhart to Teilhard de Chardin.

So bear with me. Much of what I will have to say will be familiar to long time readers of this blog; I will reprise and revise some of what I have written over the past few years in the hope of making clear that 21st-century naturalists can be "souls afire." For the titles of my posts, I will borrow section headings from Reinhold's book:

The eros of the intellect

Knowing in part, darkly

The heavens proclaim

The restless heart

The still small voice

The avid pursuer

The dark night

Words no man can utter

The great silence

The loving gaze