Second Thoughts: Retrackings

Toward the end of his career, St. Augustine wrote his Retractions, in which he corrected, revised, or further explained points that he had labored to make in writings throughout the course of his life. Much more modestly, I have outlined my own retrospective reflections about some theological shortcomings of my own, in my short theological autobiography, “Ecology, Justice, and Liturgy,” in Theologians in Their Own Words, ed. Derek R. Nelson, Joshua M. Moritz, and Ted Peters (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 217-32. Here I invent a slightly different task for myself, “Retrackings.” Here I want to give a voice of my own to the experience of many, if not all, authors, “If only I had known this earlier!” In this way, retrospectively, I would like to “re-track” my earlier discussions.

Case One: The Theology of Baptism. I discuss Baptism enthusiastically both in Ritualizing Nature (132-136) and in Before Nature (9-15). In the first work, I reflect about the cosmic meanings of Baptism. In the second, which is autobiographical in many ways, I talk about the development of a certain “Baptismal mysticism” in my own spiritual life over the years. In both places, as well as elsewhere in my writings, I allude to or even highlight the liturgical setting and meaning of Baptism.

When I was preparing those discussion, if I had known, I would have wanted to refer to the remarkable Baptismal theology and Baptismal praxis of Ambrose of Milan, a figure of great significance in the life of Augustine of Hippo. But Augustine rejected, or let slide, those liturgical riches in response to the challenges of his own ministry in North Africa. This is how Gary Wills describes those developments in his striking, short study, Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism (New York: Oxford, 2012), 137:

For a variety of reasons having to do with his African duties, Augustine’s approach to Baptism differed at a basic level from Ambrose’s. Ambrose had a mystical, poetic, and all-inclusive theology of Christian initiation. He saw Baptism as the culmination of the entire sacred history leading up to Jesus’ fulfillment of all the prophecies that pointed directly to Baptism. The whole meaning of the Trinity was enacted and revealed in the action at the font, which brought new Christians into the inner dialogue of the persons with each other in the Godhead. The reality of the church was embodied in the rebirth of humanity out of the saving waters.

Augustine, by contrast, had what has been called a “minimalistic” view of Baptism, legalistic, almost mechanical, with further steps often needed to reach the full Christian life, beginning with the relatively impoverished procedures of infant Baptism (in contrast to the rich indoctrination of Ambrose during Lent and the Easter octave).

I would now like to think of my own discussions of Baptism over the years as more Ambrosian than Augustinian. This historical reference, had I been able to underscore it, might have helped my own readers to better grasp what I was trying to say. Modern American readers, I suspect, will have mainly experienced Baptism in some Augustinian form, mediated by various (although not all) Protestant traditions, legalistic, almost mechanical – and, I should add, probably, sentimentalized. So: a Baptismal mysticism!? What is that?! How could I make compelling sense out of my own Baptismal mysticism, if many of my own hearers and readers were under the influence of Augustinian conceptions and practices of Baptism?

Case Two: The Lowest Level of Mystical Prayer – A Thought to be Treasured
In my book, Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality, I sought to explicate what I called a Baptismal spirituality. My description of that spirituality would have been helped, I now realize, had I referred to Thomas Merton’s essay, “Is Mysticism Normal?”

A Baptismal spirituality, for me, is a spirituality that’s “down to earth.” It’s a spirituality that’s available to all who are followers – or who are seeking to be followers – of the one who said, “I am the way…” (John 14:6) It’s a spirituality that claimed me from my earliest days, growing up, as I did, immersed in the mundane traditions bequeathed to the Church Catholic by the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. It’s a spirituality which is predicated on the faith of a struggling and spiritually broken monk who left the monastery – and got married! Call it an earthly spirituality. There are many other spiritualities available in the traditions of the Church Catholic, to be sure, as Merton forthrightly acknowledges. But this, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health, is the one that has claimed me, body and soul. It is a spirituality, I now have come to understand, which is rooted at the ground level, which Merton calls “the lowest level of mystical prayer.” This is a thought to be treasured, I believe. These are Merton’s words, spoken in his own Roman Catholic dialect.

What Christians need to realize is not so much that the highest level of mystical union is abstractly open to all, but that the lowest level of mystical prayer is really much more common than people imagine. By this lowest level of mystical prayer, I refer to a prayer which, though infused, at least according to the Thomist sense of the word, is not perceived or realized. It is that latent or “masked” contemplation which would seem to be offered to those who are barred, by temperament or vocation or other circumstances, from ever becoming fully mature contemplatives, and there are many such. Perhaps the majority of Christians will never in fact enjoy the graces of manifest infused contemplation on earth. But it would seem likely that no one who arrives at the degree of perfection in what we have described as the mystical life, will be deprived of the comfort and strength of this masked or latent contemplation. This is the grace given to so many saintly souls in the active life who, though their prayer is apparently very humdrum and prosaic, nevertheless find God in an obscure and subtle way in all the activities they perform in His service. There is an unaccountable strength and peace, a certain interior “lift” which takes hold on souls who know how to find God in His will, and which carries them through difficulties and through problems in a way that bears witness to God’s intimate presence with them and in them as they go about their duties for His love. They never realize, perhaps, how close He is to them. They know they are not pure contemplatives, and sometimes their relations with God in formal prayer are distressingly commonplace and dull, so that they are perhaps tempted to give up all hope of sanctity, falsely believing that to be saints they have to burn with a flame that they can really feel. And yet, God is with them in their work. They have a wonderful gift, which they themselves can barely appreciate, of finding Him in their daily tasks, in their common round, and in the people they deal with. It is something so diffuse and tenuous that they can never grasp it or explain it, and it does not help them much to try. If they rationalize the experience, they instantly lose hold on their tenuous possession of God and He slips out of their ken.

These are the “masked” contemplatives. They are mystics, but they do not know it. And generally, even if you tell them so, they will not be inclined to believe you. They will always fear that you are joking, and that a term so exalted as that could not possibly apply to them.

The truth is, they are the little ones who will perhaps turn out to be much higher in heaven, than many who seemed great by more manifest graces of prayer.
[Merton’s article first appeared in the November 14, 1949 issue of Commonweal; for access, see:]