By David Fagerberg 

David W. Fagerberg is Professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He holds an M.Div. from Luther Northwestern Seminary; an M.A. from St. John’s University, Collegeville; an S.T.M. from Yale Divinity School; and the Ph.D. from Yale University. He is the author of Liturgical Mysticism.

Photo Credit: Nicolas Prieto

Baptism drops the Spirit of the Holy One into our veins, but there is no fire where there is not matter to burn; asceticism is the cost of making us combustible, and that fire is a mystical one. Liturgy is ecstasy: going out of one’s self to abide in God. But killing our selflove requires ascetical fortitude. Mysticism is not a character trait that only some people have, like blue eyes or a quick temper. Neither is mysticism a feat accomplished by our own abilities, like writing a novel or playing the trombone. Mysticism is caused by grace, and grace abides in the Church, which is communion in the Holy Spirit, by whose dominion one can develop a life that is spiritual, begun when baptism infuses the supernatural graces of faith, hope, and love.  

However, these gifts must be put to work in our hearts, and the sinner’s heart initially resists. The liturgical habitus infused by God through the sacramental water brings us face to face with the Paschal mystery in a regular and repetitive rhythm, if we are obedient disciples. We routinely step before God’s throne whence the river of liturgy flows. 

With this liturgical capacity, we can use the world to glorify God, but it comes at the cost of being able to handle the world. Alas! We do not do nature naturally anymore, we do not do the world liturgically anymore, because the Fall was the forfeiture of our liturgical career. A perversion has entered the garden where Adam and Eve were to have exercised their cosmic priesthood, and it led them to repudiate their core identity as homo adorans. Satan seduced us into his rebellion and corrupted our relationship with God, the world, and each other. The world is good, but fallen. The world is God’s gift, but we have “bent it,” as C. S. Lewis states in The Screwtape Letters. 

Christ’s bride will not take up residence in a house that is impure. She will not dwell there. Why not? Because the evil thoughts repel Mystery, each in their own way, and altogether. Let the eight logismoi ferment into passions, and self-love reigns, and the world is stripped of Mystery, a condition called “worldliness.” Worldliness is caused by haughty cleverness, closed empiricism, profaned secularism, private judgment, desecrated philosophy, coarsened nature, and shortsighted vision, which is why Gregory the Great calls a person wicked for succumbing to worldliness. 

An unsuccessful battle plan consists of the frequent but erroneous conclusion that we must abandon the world in order to find Mystery. This is false. Liturgical asceticism does not serve liturgical mysticism by calling upon us to forsake the world but by calling upon us to spiritualize it. Vladimir Solovyov affirms the point by saying, “[T]he purpose of Christian asceticism is not to weaken the flesh, but to strengthen the spirit for the transfiguration of the flesh.”  

Liturgical asceticism does not seek to free the spirit from the body, it seeks to use body and spirit together, freely, for liturgical purpose. Mysticism springs from liturgical asceticism because asceticism quickens the light of Mount Tabor bestowed at liturgy, by which a person sees the world anew, aright, mystically. The world takes on a sacramental hue in this light to reveal its sacrificial potential.  

In class, Aidan Kavanagh used to define liturgy as “doing the world the way the world was meant to be done,” and I shall add that it is seeing the world the way the world was meant to be seen. Without asceticism, God’s beautiful world will captivate the passions, arouse gluttony and anger and vainglory; with asceticism, God’s beautiful world can arouse doxology and oblation and worship. We do the world either idolatrously or Eucharistically. Liturgical mysticism requires that we resist the temptation to idolize the world. 

Asceticism is the fee the Old Adam must pay in order to enjoy communion with God. If it is not paid, then the presence of God will be experienced as hellish, whether now or in eternity. The fee is the mortification of the Old Adam. I include the common, modern definition of “mortify”: it is embarrassing, humiliating, it wounds one’s pride, it is self-inflicted privation. But mostly I mean it in its etymological sense: the Old Adam is killed dead. We cannot enjoy love of God so long as we trip over our own self-love, and we cannot lift up our hands in orans so long as they are weighed down by some temporal good we will not release. Gregory the Great made contrasts between outward and inward, below and above, now and then, and we could say asceticism is the cost of stabilizing each of those pairs. It restores equilibrium to our lives by balancing exterior superficialities with a permanent interior truth, balancing earthly preoccupations with the enduring heights of beauty, and balancing evanescing goods with a permanent and stable goodness. This is not a gnostic movement from corporeal to incorporeal, it is a spiritual adjudication between the impermanent and the abiding, the preparatory and the final, the pathway and the home. We only know how to do the world, liturgically, when the world does not control us, but we master the world.  

And if I need to say it one more time, this is not a battle with material things, it is a battle with Satan who conducts warfare against us with those material things. Asceticism sensitizes us more profoundly to truth, beauty, and goodness by putting us in contact with God, their source.  

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Some think that liturgy is formal, public, and for ordinary people, while mysticism is uncontrollable, private, and for extraordinary saints. Is there a connection between the two? In Liturgical Mysticism, David Fagerberg proposes that mysticism is the normal crowning of the Christian life, and the Christian life is liturgical.