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Mysticism of Descent

Pentecost VI - July 4, 2021

Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.

St. Columba's Episcopal Church

Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 + Psalm 48 + 2 Cor. 12:2-10 + Mark 6:1-13

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.

Some 100 years before Christ there developed a strain of Jewish mysticism that came to be called Merkabah Mysticism. The root of the word "Merkabah" derives from the Hebrew word for “Chariot” as in the vision of the chariot that Ezekiel saw in his famous vision at the opening of his book of prophecies (Ez. 1:4-26).

In that vision, the chariot is composed of four living creatures that possess human form, but each of whom has four heads facing in all directions, appearing respectively as a man, an ox, a lion, and an eagle. Christianity would eventually adopt these images to represent the four evangelists: Matthew is represented by the Man, Mark by the Lion, Luke by the Calf, and John by the Eagle (as depicted on the cover of the bulletin this morning).

One can also find Merkabah allusions in the story of prophet Elijah’s final ascent into heaven in a chariot of fire as his mantle falls to Elisha in the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 2. Thus, Merkabah mysticism, symbolized by chariots ascending to heaven has come to epitomize a kind of mysticism in which one gradual ascends to divine union.

It seems that Paul is well aware of this kind of ascent mysticism in the scripture we heard today from his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

The “third heaven” was considered the highest realm of heaven – or paradise. And more often than not, the early church fathers assumed that Paul was here actually speaking of himself, but using a deferential third person to avoid boasting. Whether this interpretation is correct or not is never confirmed by Paul throughout his letter, but the widespread assumption allows the fathers to draw parallels between Paul and Elijah.

For example, the fourth-century bishop and theologian, Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–386), observed that Elijah ascended to heaven but never returned, while Paul ascended to heaven but then descended again to Earth. Cyril’s point is to demonstrate in Paul something akin to a Christian Bodhisattva – that is, one who chooses not to remain in heavenly paradise, but to “descend” again back to Earth for the love of humankind in the preaching of the gospel.

Recall that in Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is one who has attained enlightenment, and is thus able to reach Nirvana BUT out of compassion delays doing so in order to save other suffering beings. Indeed, we see this Bodhisattva-like ‘tension’ in Paul elsewhere in his writings as well, as for example in his Letter to the Philippians (1:21-25) where he observes:

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith...(Cf. 2 Cor. 5:8-9)

Central to this tension in Paul is that his own enlightenment comes not in an experience of being taken up to the Third Heaven in a mystical vision of ascent – of the Merkabah type. But is quite literally ‘grounded’ in his experience of the Risen Lord on the Road to Damascus. That is, in an experience of the resurrected Christ’s descent into the world – into Paul’s world.

And this descent of Christ, in which God comes to meet us in our own lives, in our own world, in our own bodies, becomes the definitive paradigm of the Christian spiritual life from which arises all of our compassion and service and being in the world. Which is why I think of Christian mysticism is a gritty mysticism, one that is spiritual precisely because it is material; in which we need not strive to ascend to the heavenly heights, but in which we encounter God who has descended to meet us, like Paul, along the road of our own lives.

And in this we see both the communal nature of Christian mysticism, and the way in which its fruits come to expression not in experiences of spiritual ecstasy, but in compassionate service to others. Compassionate communal service, not private mystical visions, becomes the primary measure of our encounter, union, and transformation in Christ.

And here we see a link to the reading from the gospel of Mark today whereby Jesus gives his disciples an apt description of what it means to be of compassionate service in the world. He teaches his disciples to walk lightly, “ bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” They are also to expect rejection precisely because their message is counter-cultural, and yet they are never to cease confronting evil, anointing those who are sick or in need of healing, and to cure those who suffer.

While this sounds like a call to active discipleship, I would like to suggest that it is, in fact, a description of the fruits of a mysticism of descent in which one descends Christ-like into the darkness of the world as a torchbearer of the Christ-light for all to see. Indeed, this mysticism of descent follows the pattern of Christ’s own Incarnation, or what has been referred to as his kenosis – his self-emptying into the world. Descending from the heights of his divinity to the depths of our humanity.

Moreover, this, I believe, is what St. Cyril was suggesting of Paul, and what Paul expresses about himself in Philippians: that he was not content to remain in the heights of mystical ecstasy but rather, having encountered the living Christ, descended again into the world to be that light of Christ for others. And yet it is within this same context that Paul speaks in the reading today of a “thorn in his flesh.” He writes: keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

The importance of this passage is not that we discern what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” refers to (indeed, far-flung speculations abound!). What is more germane is Paul’s experience of Grace in the midst of his torment: “My grace is enough for you, and power is made perfect in weakness.”

As we reflect on these texts, we begin to paint a picture in which Christian mysticism is in many ways the antithesis of what most of us have come to associate with mysticism: it is best modeled by a movement of descent not ascent (that is to say, not our ascent to heaven, but God’s descent to earth); it is this-worldly, not other-worldly; it is fully embodied, not merely spiritual; it is communally oriented not privately held (that is to say, its fruition is measured not in personal experiences of ecstasy, but in the interior transformation that only gradually perfects our capacity for compassionate service in the world).

And this is why Paul’s ‘thorn’ plays such an important role for all of us would-be Christian mystics. Because it reminds us that spiritual perfection does not happen to us, but happens through us. Indeed, spiritual perfection unfolds not despite our weaknesses (our “thorns in the flesh” as it were) but rather spiritual perfection, by the grace of God, unfolds through our very weaknesses:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

For the Christian, enlightenment is thus not an end in itself, but a means to an end. We come to faith in Christ not so that we, ourselves, might be ‘saved’ in some privatized experience. But so that we can bear the saving light of Christ to a world desperately in need of it. So, what if we began to measure our spiritual growth and maturity, not by whether our prayer is ecstatic or dry, full of visions or empty darkness, pure of heart or besieged by mental chatter.

What if we began to measure our spiritual growth and maturity by our capacity to see the thorns we bear in our own flesh, the failures of our own resolve, the contradictions in our very nature and the weaknesses of our character – and in the same moment realize what Grace is doing in us despite it all!

At the very least, this assessment would allow us to shift our focus away from ourselves and instead look toward the work of Christ-in-us. Like Paul, this shifts the emphasis from boasting about this or that experience of personal enlightenment to one in which we encounter the living God in our wounds, our shortcomings, our limitations: the very aspects of ourselves that God uses for the common good.

This is not to say we should relish in our weaknesses much less encourage them. Paul strove feverishly against the “thorn in his flesh.” But it is to say, rather, that God descends to us in the midst of weakness, in the midst of our struggles, not merely at the end of the journey only after we have perfected ourselves.

If you want to find Christ in your midst, don’t look upward, and don’t await a chariot to whisk you off to personal experience of heavenly ecstasy. Look, instead, deep within yourself, descend into your own heart with all its attending scars and wounds. And there you will encounter Christ, mending your ways and taking up those very aspects of yourself you have been taught to despise and reject and shun – so that by grace they may be transformed for God’s own good, God’s own purpose in the world.

You will know enlightenment the more self-judgment gives way to compassionate service, the more self-doubt gives way to Divine trust, the more self-centeredness gives way to communal intimacy. The call to union with God and service in the world are not then ultimately two different directions, as it would appear among the Bodhisattvas, but is rather one and the same movement: Christ’s descent into our hearts and then through us into the world at large.

We ascend by descending. We look inward in order that Christ in us may reach outward. And in this, Christ indeed is made strong in our weakness even as the God of heaven is indeed made present on earth. May each of us, then, come to know Christ descended within our hearts that we too may descend in union with him to those most in need of God’s mercy.

+ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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