From Mysticism to Mischief-Making by Way of Misunderstanding

A report in the Italian-language edition of Zenit has set the media buzzing again about the reasons for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s resignation. The first problem, as always, is establishing what he actually said, to whom, and in what language. Not surprisingly, we have an unattributable story which has been quoted piecemeal,  without any understanding of the language of prayer and discernment.

According to Zenit, ‘a few weeks ago’ (i.e. before 19 August, when the story was published) Pope Benedict allegedly said to ‘someone’ in a private audience (i.e. an anonymous source in a private meeting, so not intended for formal reporting or publication), in reply to a question about the reason for his resignation, that ‘God told me to’, ‘immediately clarifying that it was not any kind of apparition or phenomenon of that kind, but rather “a mystical experience” in which the Lord gave rise in his heart to an “absolute desire” to remain alone with him in prayer.’

I think most people who pray will have no difficulty with this. Pope Benedict was merely saying that, after much prayer and discernment, he had come to the conclusion that it was time for him to step aside and devote himself to serving the Church by prayer. The reasons he gave publicly earlier in the year are no different from the ones he gave privately to that anonymous source except in their expression. Reported speech doesn’t convey the way in which words are spoken, nor do those who are outside a religious tradition necessarily understand the way in which words are used. ‘God told me to’ is religious shorthand, if you like, for a long process of prayer and discernment. It doesn’t mean a private revelation with Hollywood-style special effects, it means long hours of  searching for God’s will, coming to a conclusion and then testing that conclusion by every means open to one. In Benedict XVI’s case, surely that meant weighing up his own health and the demands of the papacy, the problems faced by the Church and his ability to get on top of them, the ‘talent’ within the College of Cardinals and finally a humble acceptance that he might have done all that he could as pope. The fact that this was accompanied by an ‘absolute desire’ to be alone with God rings true. Every monk and nun has experienced that same desire growing in their heart — and ‘growing’ is the operative word. To one who prays perseveringly, the desire to be with God grows ever greater, no matter how hard or unrewarding the experience of prayer may seem to be.

For many, of course, it is that reference to ‘mystical experience’ which is troublesome; so let us be clear, mystical experience is not what most people think it is. It does not involve apparitions, lights, voices, sweet smells, levitations, extraordinary revelations or anything of the kind, except incidentally and only in the early stages. Any writer on prayer will tell you that such things should be disregarded and are often delusions of the devil. No, mystical experience is beyond all that. It can be dark, painful, searing. It has to do with the will rather than the affections. A better word for it might be contemplative prayer. And as with all prayer, its authenticity must be tested by its fruits, what scripture calls, ‘testing the spirits to see if they come from God’. Is the desire/resolution formed in prayer good or bad, is it consistent with the Church’s doctrine, does it lead to greater charity, and so on.

I don’t think anyone who has read Benedict XVI’s writings can be in any doubt that they proceed from an intense interior life of prayer. By resigning the papacy he has demonstrated that he believes prayer to be the most important service he can offer the Church at this stage of his life. Prayer has no limitations, no boundaries; like love, it can never hurt anyone and achieves victories far greater than many realise. It is at the intersection between time and eternity. The media may want to make a little mischief by misunderstanding what the pope emeritus allegedly said, but all the mischief-making in the world cannot alter the facts. We are blessed to have in Benedict XVI someone who prays for the Church and the world with unremitting zeal and fidelity; and I, for one, am glad of that.