The Snowmass Trip: Insights from Bernard McGinn

I wanted to put a few thoughts to screen, mainly to lay out questions and little nuggets that have hooked me–that I hope I have a chance to bounce off of my folks at Grace and in the diocese and wider community.

So, this is Bernard McGinn, PhD, from the University of Chicago.


I have never had the chance to hear him speak before, to learn from him, and these five lectures and conversations are phenomenal.  The focus of this entire conference is “Praying with the Masters Today,” and we’ve explored details on the following topics:

  • foundations of Christian mysticism
  • Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, and Gregory the Great
  • Lectio Divina and the teachings of Guigo the Carthusian, William of St. Thierry, Bernard of Clairvaux and others, specifically exploring the deep teachings of the Carthusians and the Cistercians
  • (tomorrow) Meister Eckhart and Julian or Norwhich, and Teresa of Avila

As I said, it’s a bit like drinking from a fire hose–I love it.

There are a few thoughts that I want to just list, with sincere hopes that something here sparks your imagination and might lead to a deeper conversation!

  • A quote from a 20th century French theologian, Henri Bremond: “It is not possible to ignore the mystics without disowning the self.”  In other words, what the mystics (not a special class of people, recognizing that the mystical or contemplative depth is the call of all Christians) invite us to explore is the very aspects of our deepest existence before God.
  • G. K. Chesterton: “Tradition is the democracy of the dead.” Fascinating quotation and image, as Chesterton points toward the reality in which–keeping in mind what we profess of the Communion of Saints–all the living and the dead are joined in the Body of Christ–and those who have died continue to live on through their teachings.
  • Baron Von Hugel: The mystical element of our lives, our existence, our religious practice are one of three critical components.  Institutional (symbolized by St. Peter), Intellectual (symbolized by St. Paul), and Mystical or Contemplative (symbolized by St. John).  All three are vital for the fullest embodiment of our practice and life of faith.
  • The mystical element is always ecclesiological, which is to say that the mystical or contemplative element is always embodied in and embedded within the community.  It nurtures it and gives life to it–depth–while the community is the locus of discernment.
  • McGinn’s definition of mysticism: “That part or element of the Christian tradition or practice that concerns the process and preparation for consciousness of the direct, immediate, and transforming presence of God.” There’s a great deal in there to reflect on…with a key “hook” for me being the explicit expectation of transformation.
  • There is, within the contemplative tradition, a fascinating tension or relationship between God’s presence and absence (we see this in the long-standing reflection on the kataphatic and apophatic elements so to speak).  Simone Weil described it this way: that, even when we experience God in terms of absence, when we delve deeper into the presence, the presence itself becomes more absent.  There’s a great deal in there to chew on.  That’s God’s absence is, in itself, in this contemplative awareness, so greater than even what we normally or typically experience as presence.
  • So, given this long-standing relationship between the kataphatic and apophatic elements, the ones using images and those rejecting images (to put it very simply), there is, McGinn describes, another element: the hyperphatic.  In the hyperphatic, we move into that space beyond the need or the tension, even, between the kataphatic and apophatic.  I think of Rumi’s field: beyond all sense of right and wrong, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there, etc.

I’ll close with this, a short reflection we used from Dionysius the Areopagite, in the Evening Prayers:

For it is in Silence that we learn the secrets of the Darkness that shines with the brightest light, [that] fills with a brightness more beautiful than beauty the mind that knows how to shut its eyes.

Just chew on that…

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll write down notes on Lectio Divina.  I’m going to chew on that more…





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