Mysticism is perhaps the thing we least understand within all of religion. We are mystically tone-deaf. We no longer believe much in anything that we cannot rationally explain.
Robert Bellah tells the story of how one of his researchers, while talking to an expert at the Environmental Protection Agency on the trade-offs that must be made between economic development and environmental protection, said: “Some people believe that human life is priceless.”
The scientific expert replies (in all seriousness): “We have no data on that.”
Most of us who smile or are horrified by that statement are, in fact, just as insensitive and as empirically shackled when it comes to our belief in what constitutes the body of Christ and how this communion of saints works. We believe in what we have rational, left-brained, data on.
However, how, in Christ, we constitute one body and how this body works is not something we have data on (in the contemporary sense of that expression). Hence so much of what is precious and important in the spirituality of the body of Christ is getting lost.
There is serious spiritual danger in this.
Stripped of its mysticism, the body of Christ is also robbed of its power and stands in danger of contacting AIDS.
AIDS in the body of Christ? What is meant by such a curious expression?
Part of our Christian faith, as canonized in our creed, is the belief that our unity and community with each other in Christ is so real, so deep, so physical, and so mutually interdependent that we constitute not an aggregate or a corporation but an organism, a living body. And, just as in any physical body there are visible assets that can be observed with the naked eye and other, more invisible, aspects that go on under the surface and escape simple observation, so too within the body of Christ.
Most of what is happening vis-a-vis health or disease within the body, is, long before it shows up externally, not observable to the unaided eye. Enzymes, bacteria, viruses, and antibodies do their work for health or disease invisibly. By the time we see external symptoms, they have al ready been working for a long time.
This is also true within the body.
Thus, Christ taught, and the saints believed, that the most private spiritual and moral battles in one’s heart had an effect for good or for bad on the whole body of Christ—and, indeed, on all of humanity. They believed too that private prayer and praying for others made a profound difference—beyond what “we have data on!”
Therese of Lisieux, for example, based her entire spirituality on this—and her life and death, eventually, gave us “data” that validated her belief in this.
As a lively 15 year-old, she fasted and prayed that a condemned criminal might become a Christian before being executed. He did. As a dying 24 year-old, she offered her sufferings so that others might be healed and boldly stated that, upon her death, she would deliver a shower of roses upon this earth. Everything that has happened around her name and to the little city of Lisieux ever since provides considerable data that she did deliver as promised.
This idea can be, and has been at times, badly understood. At its worst, it was understood as a kind of Divine Credit Union into which the good paid and the bad withdrew—the saintly mother (or the Crucified Christ) paid in, the wayward child took out! Some of these divine savings bonds could even be sold as indulgences.
But that is not our major danger today. An age which is besotted by the empirical and which deemphasizes private morality, tends to forget that any healthy body needs a strong immunal system, healthy antibodies. Otherwise it becomes HIV positive.
What are the antibodies that create the immunal system within the body of Christ? If we can believe those who have been physicians within the body of Christ, we create antibodies when we, silently, suffer for each other, pray for each other, live out lives of quiet martyrdom, and when we emerge victorious in our little battles with the petty within our lives.
The small sins—the grudge, the masturbation, the little lie, the petty jealousy—do make huge difference after all. Mystics have secrets worth knowing!