Mysticism Is a Social Priority

“A life of prayer is an absolutely universal human vocation,” said Cardinal Daniélou, which makes it a “political problem” as well.

A child prays during Mass at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto Township, June 23, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
A child prays during Mass at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto Township, June 23, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa. (photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

In his book Prayer as a Political Problem, the 20th-century French cardinal and theologian Jean Daniélou makes a poignant observation that needs to be repeated over and over for modern Christians: “Today, for most men, given the circumstances in which they find themselves, the realization of a life of prayer is practically impossible.”

Much is said today about other ways in which the world is unfriendly towards religion — in American politics and culture, anti-Christian ideologies run rampant. Religion is looked down upon in our schools and universities. In both the public and private sector, religious voices are marginalized and given no platform. 

This is all obvious, but it is outweighed in importance by the fact, less often given our attention, that the way of life forced upon us by the same world leaves very little room for a life of prayer.

Prayer is essential to the practice of any religion, and certainly Christianity. But prayer means much more than saying the right words, at the right time, every day — morning prayer, evening prayer, Rosary, rinse and repeat. More than this, prayer requires the cultivation of a deep interior life, a place of intense contemplative silence within the soul, and the capacity to see the divine and the sacred in all things.

Simone Weil once remarked that the essence of prayer is attention. In this sense, prayer is more than words: it is a disposition of the heart, a keen attentiveness to the divine presence that is always lurking in the fabric of reality.

But such a disposition requires a practice of silence and stillness that is hardly available to the inhabitants of our modern fast-paced culture, a culture that is created by the relentless, technological drive of capitalistic society toward the single, all-important aim of profit, profit, profit. Either as workers or as consumers, or as both, the masses are subjected to a regime of ruthless efficiency and maximum performance in their economic roles, reducing human life to one of production and consumption. If they do not perform optimally in these roles, they are subjected to the economic pressures of an intense market, which means they must suffer the anxiety of grasping for economic security without relent. Little time or psychic space is left for practicing the arts of silence, stillness and attentiveness — and thus little room is left for the cultivation of an authentic inner life of prayer.

There are yet other ways in which contemporary capitalism manipulates its subjects, bombarding them with temptations and seducing them into addiction to the life of a consumer. Technological innovation, which is certainly not an evil in itself, is deployed to ease the process of consumption itself. A whole world of surfing and shopping is available at the click of a button, and the ability to indulge one’s basest desires can be satisfied with greater ease than ever. A culture of convenience and instant gratification makes addiction possible, turning the spirit in upon itself and its selfish pleasures, foreclosing the open condition of the heart that is necessary for a life of true prayer.

Cardinal Daniélou rightly observed that it is of course possible for certain souls of strong character to withstand the constant barrage of temptations released upon them by a one-sidedly materialistic world. Yet he also points out that the lofty aspirations of the mystics, the sublime life of contemplation, is not a calling that is reserved only to a small heroic elite. Rather, it is the very heart and essence of the Christian vocation as such.

Christ came to call all men, not only a chosen few. His message is intended for the masses and the poor, indeed even the poor in spirit, as well as for the heroic few. In the words of Cardinal Daniélou, “We must react against any view that makes spiritual life the privilege of a small number of individuals; for such a view betrays the essential point of a message which is not only Christian but religious, that a life of prayer is an absolutely universal human vocation.” Presumably, this is the very same idea that motivated the Second Vatican Council’s insistence on the “universal vocation to holiness.”

With this reminder in mind, it would be wrong for any ordinary Christian to dismiss the suggestion that he is called to be a mystic, as though such a calling were surely not for him, but only for monks, nuns and great saints. This is a false humility, a kind of defeatism and despair — though to be fair, it is a despair for which such a Christian is not entirely to blame.

Such a despairing attitude is not surprising in a world that relentlessly suffocates and discourages the higher aspirations of the spirit. In a world so inhospitable to a deep interior life, it is little wonder that so many despair of such a life, and choose instead to remain complacent with a life on the surface. They go through the motions, they say their prayers, they act morally and uprightly — but they do not have the time or the attention span for the higher pursuits of mysticism.

Thus, Daniélou observed, the great majority of mankind requires the support of society at large, the material conditions of society, and even the state itself, in order to maintain a life of deep interiority. Heroic souls may not require such support so desperately, but ordinary people cannot be expected to transcend the limitations of their conditions all on their own. In particular, those who are chained to the constant pursuit of wealth, whether by genuine material insecurity or by the structurally-reinforced mentality of production and consumption, need adequate societal support, aided by the state itself, in order to be free to pursue a life of prayer. Such support would certainly entail greater material provision for all, as well as the establishment of structures that would not only steer society through obstacles to holiness placed by the capitalistic profit-motive, but also positively encourage a life of leisure and contemplation. 

This perspective should illuminate precisely what is the social vocation of the Church in the world. The task of the Church, and of all Christians who have not despaired of their sublime calling, is nothing other than to change the world, and to make it into a place habitable for contemplation. Indeed, the ideal of religious liberty requires this: if men are to practice their religion freely, and to the greatest extent of their calling, then society itself must be restructured around this end.

This is why, as Daniélou put it, “prayer is a political problem.” It belongs to politics to care for the common good — and if anything belongs to the common good, it is the free practice of religion, whose essence is nothing short of mystical contemplation. Mysticism is a social priority.