Mike Aquilina

Fathers in the Myst

Sunday September 17th 2006, 3:05 am

Some years ago, Scott Hahn and I put together a guided anthology of the Church Fathers titled Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians. We culled 50 meditations from the works of eight Fathers — six of those Fathers were also Doctors of the Church — and all of our selections had something in common.

What was that something? (Take a deep breath now.) They were mystagogical.

That’s a big word, and it’s unfamiliar to many modern Catholics. But both the word and the thing it represents were an integral part of the life of the early Christians.

The early Church had a clear process by which seekers found a teacher, and the teacher guided them gradually through stages of inquiry, purification, and illumination. The process could take several years, and it culminated in a final phase called mystagogy (pronounced MIST-uh-go-gee), which literaly means the “revelation of the mysteries.” What are the “mysteries” revealed in mystagogy? The mysteries are the sacraments, which are themselves revelations of God’s eternal mystery that surpasses all understanding (see Eph 3:19). Everything in the earthly life of Jesus was a sign of that mystery (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 515); and now, in the age of the Church, the mysteries of Christ’s life have passed over into the sacramental mysteries.

In the process of initiation, the goal was divinization through the sacraments, but doctrine was an indispensable means to that end. St. Basil defined out goal this way: “as far as humanly possible, to be made like God. Without knowledge, though, we cannot be made like Him; and knowledge cannot be achieved without lessons.”

As the last phase of initiation, mystagogy came only after the seeker was no longer a seeker, but a Christian — newborn to divine life in baptism and made one with Christ in Holy Communion. Indeed, all the previous stages served as needed preparation for the last. Only a purified mind and body could be worthy vessels of the mysteries. Only an enlightened soul could “see” the invisible reality that is present in every sacrament.

Yet it was the promise of this end that drew the seekers onward through the long and sometimes grueling course of learning and purification. The mystery of God, after all, is ultimately what attracted them to the faith, though it had been only glimpsed — as through a glass, darkly — in the rites and prayers of the Church.

Even today, what draws many people to the faith is the very stuff of mystagogy: the Church’s rituals, its ancient tradition, its mystical life, its rich interpretation of the Bible, and the bold promise of communion with God. Mystagogy, then, is the fulfillment of all the teaching that has gone before, and is the only suitable conclusion to that teaching.

Yet mystagogy is also the work of a lifetime, and the words of the Church Fathers are always timely witnesses to the Christian meaning of current events, of the sacraments, and of our own inner lives.

In the mystagogical homilies of the great doctors of the early Church — Basil, Ambrose, Cyril, Chrysostom, and Augustine — we recognize the sacramental rites of our own times. There is little difference between the prayers explicated by St. Ambrose, for example, and the prayer we today call the Roman Canon.

And these Father-Doctors preached with the grace to stir our souls, even after more than a millennium and a half. In the fourth century, a pilgrim from Spain witnessed the mystagogy in St. Cyril’s church, and she wrote down what she saw for her friends at home: “While the bishop discusses and sets forth each point, the voices of those who applaud are so loud that they can be heard outside the church. And truly the mysteries are so unfolded that there is no one unmoved at the things that he hears to be so explained.”

Read St. Cyril today, and see if you can hold back the applause. Then move on to Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine …

It’s all conveniently packaged for you in Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians.