Posts Tagged 'Saint Paul'

Pauline Mysticism

"Saint Paul Writing His Epistles" by Valentin de Boulogne

“Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” by Valentin de Boulogne

Pauline Mysticism

It was on icy January day in South Carolina, that the sacrament of Holy Orders was celebrated in which I was ordained.  It was the feast day of the conversion of St. Paul.  So, as this anniversary fast approaches, my thoughts turn once more to St. Paul.

Conversion of Paul

Paul’s is the earliest Christian voice we hear.  His earliest surviving letters date to about 20 years after Jesus was crucified, to about the year 50.  Paul is thought to have continued writing until the year 67 or so, when he was martyred in Rome.  During this brief span of 15 years or so, Paul traveled throughout the eastern Roman empire, spreading his understanding of the Christ.

The surviving undisputed letters of Paul account for some 25% of the Christian New Testament.  If one includes letters written in Paul’s name ―but almost certainly not by Paul himself― we can say Paul directly or indirectly influenced nearly half of the New Testament!

But Paul initially persecuted followers of Jesus.  Indeed, Paul was engaged in a mission of persecution right up to the moment of his conversion, when he was struck by a vision so powerful, that it changed his life forever!

Thus, Paul became a Christian instantly, directly as the result of a profound mystical experience.  And if we take Paul at his word, he continued to have visions and mystical encounters throughout his life.

This is why I believe it is accurate to call St. Paul a Christian mystic.

Emotional or Sense-Based Mysticism

Many of us associate mysticism with highly emotional, or sense-based experiences.  One of the better known works of Western Christian mysticism is “The Cloud of Unknowing” written in the 14th century by an unknown author.  This author encourages feeling, especially love, when seeking an ecstatic state which they understand to be a means of drawing nearer what we may of the Divine.

But Paul did not speak well of this kind of mysticism, despite reporting that he had such experiences.  Perhaps the best example of this is found in 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, when Paul speaks in the third person of having been “caught up to the third heaven … caught up into Paradise and [having] heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”

But he doesn’t mention this experience in order to suggest others should seek similar experiences.  Rather he uses it as a cautionary tale, as an example of what one should *not* seek.

Among Paul’s concerns with feeling- or sense-based mysticism, is that it may lead to boasting of one’s accomplishment in having had the experience.  This in turn may lead to a sense of self-centeredness, or as we might say today, our falling prey to an inflated ego.

More to the point, it draws attention inward to ourselves, and may lead one to believe that observing the Christian tradition ends with ourselves.  What Paul fears I suspect, is that we may pay too high of a price in that we may neglect our service to those in our community.

Ekklesia-Based Mysticism

Paul was very concerned with the ekklesia he was establishing.  Ekklesia is the Greek word which we often translate as church.  But it may mean many different kinds of gatherings or assemblies of persons.

  •      The sense which I mean to convey with the phrase Ekklesia-based mysticism, is a form of mysticism that is based in concern for one’s community.

For Paul, in our dealings with one another ―in community― love is always of central importance.  Paul said this most famously in the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians, “…faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).  But he also spoke of the critical importance of love ―and specifically of love working in our community― in one of his earliest letters, to the Galatians:

     “…through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Gal. 5:13-14).

 

     “For in Christ Jesus … the only thing that counts is faith working [or: made effective] through love” (Gal. 5:6).

Living in the Mystery of the Christ

Paul’s mysticism does have a personal component.  We each are to individually seek the Christ, and anticipate encountering a very real experience of the Christ in our lives.  I believe this is certainly part of what Paul was trying to relate when writing to the Galatians:

    “…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

And this remained an important theme for Paul, as we read in the 2nd chapter of Philippians:

     “Let the same mind be in you that was [or: that you have] in Christ Jesus”

Seeking the Mystery of the Christ in You through Theosis

I speak of theosis with some frequency.  Theosis is what I believe Paul is encouraging us to seek when he says we should put on the mind of Christ, or live is such a way as to have the Christ live in us―through us.

One aspect of this is captured in the popular question, what would Jesus do?  Psychologically, this is a re-frame.  We prompt ourselves to step out of the human animal-driven moment, and ask what a person who lives within a higher spiritual frame of reference might do?

Jesus also spoke of this when asked what were the most important laws of the Torah.  Jesus basically answered that one must love God, and love one’s neighbors (there are more subtle points, as well, but I am simply paraphrasing).  As we read, Paul said the same thing (Gal. 5:14, “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'”).  This is not surprising, as it is a long-held ideal in Jewish thought.

One of the main points of theosis is to strive to become a living embodiment of Christ Jesus.  Another main point of theosis is to strive to help others become a living embodiment of Christ Jesus.  And on a practical level, the point in doing so is transformation of our own consciousness, and to transform our community into a living example of God’s kingdom, right here on earth, during our own life time.

And what is the key to seeking the mystery of the Christ in you?

Love.

I believe this is the most important message Paul delivers.  If you get nothing else out of reading and studying Paul, understand that love is at the center of all that we do, when we are striving toward our highest standards.

Do you want to put on the mind of Christ?

Do you want to live in such a way as to uphold the Word (what I would argue is the Christian apprehension of the Torah)?

Do you wish to see Christ Jesus living within you more strongly each day?

If so, then take Paul’s words to heart, and live them to your utmost:

    …the greatest [virtue] is love.
…through love become slaves to one another.
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

 

May you be blessed
Erik+

References:

“The Cloud of Unknowing” (unknown author)

“The Mystery of Christ in You: The Mystical Vision of Saint Paul” by George Maloney

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