A private correspondence about bridal mysticism has prompted me to compare and contrast some of its features, as I experienced them, with Orthodox spirituality, which is also mystical.
First, Orthodoxy recognizes and affirms some of bridal mysticism’s salient points, such as:
• That all our understandings of God and of ourselves are only partial; especially God’s goodness is beyond our comprehension.
• That God’s love and the call to love Him in return takes precedence over every other consideration
• That God can be encountered directly and immediately (= without “means”)
• That God in some sense is present in all things and in all people, even the most damaged.
In all these ways and probably more, bridal and Orthodox mysticism overlap or coincide. There are, however, differences in some underlying assumptions and in method that serve as correctives, so you reach the right goal. Without these correctives, one is apt to end up, as I did, in a far different place. In this post I will try to summarize these the different ways in which the goal is conceived. In two later posts, I’ll take up the issues of method and of underlying doctrine.
“Loving God” might seem obvious as our goal, but we need to be clearer than that. Gerald May, in The Dark Night of the Soul, describes the effect of the dark night on pages 99-100, using an explanation of Bernard of Clairvaux. One moves from love of self for one’s own sake to love of God for one’s own sake (which, we note, is still selfishness) to love of God for His own sake (good!) to love of self for God’s sake. Oops. See, the problem is that salvation is not about self-fulfillment. Orthodox Christianity points us to the truth that we do not need to love ourselves to be happy. Not that we should despise ourselves, whom God loves, but that love of God and others, by the brilliance of its joy, simply eclipses anything concerning ourselves. To love is to experience the true and greatest and only Joy, is to participate in God. As St. John writes, "he who lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4:16)
Furthermore, this kind of love is much more like the love of a very small child for everybody, the eager, joyful acceptance they show, than it is like newlywed love, which is exlusivistic, individualized, and sexualized. Divine love is something that is meant to pour out of us rather than something with which we are self-occupied, something of which we are consumers.
This very Bernard of Clairvaux, his century’s most prominent practitioner of bridal mysticism, consistently showed himself more of a consumer of love than a giver. You can see that in the two hymns of his I’ve discussed elsewhere. You can also see it in the fact that he spent the last 12 years of his life preaching Crusade. Here is a sample sermon to horrify you. Bernard’s friend, Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, a man of great compassion and love (who refused to have anything to do with preaching Crusade), once told Bernard, "You perform all the difficult religious duties; you fast, you watch, you suffer; but you will not endure the easy ones--you do not love."
I don't tell you this was Bernard's fault, necessarily; it was what he was taught. Instead I have to tell you that, taught the same thing, and following the same bridal mysticism, I didn’t end up in a loving place, either. Far from it! And that is no wonder; in fact it seems inevitable when we discover that bridal mysticism has a different goal.
A respected, if sometimes controversial, and sometimes sharp-toned, Orthodox scholar was Fr. John Romanides. In his book, The Ancestral Sin, he writes that the kind of philosophy upon which bridal mysticism is based
is not capable of transcending the idea of selfish eudaemonia (self-contentment) because ... that which is perfect is unmoved toward anything outside of itself. It if is thought to move toward something, then the unmoved either moves toward that which is part of itself (pantheism) or it is not truly perfect. The moral perfection of those things that derive from the One is acquired through their union with the most high One, and then every movement and desire is terminated. In other words, moral perfection consists in the fulfilling satisfaction of the selfish eudaemonia of man. It has nothing to do with the attainment of unselfish love but instead with the total and highest degree of fulfillment of the selfishness that rules man. According to these presuppositions, then, the fall consists of an inexplicable turning away of man’s selfish love from the highest good to secondary things. Consequently, the penalty for this irrational act consists mainly of the deprivation of the only thing capable of really satisfying man’s selfish inclination…the soul lacks only the correct object towards which it needs to be directed. For the West, therefore, it is not a matter of spiritual labor to attain the image and likeness of God in the full freedom of being perfected, as it is with Greek patristic theology, but merely a matter of losing or gaining the highest good.
That’s on pages 107-108. He adds, on pages 112-133:
Man was not made to be self-seeking and drawn by the supreme One so that, once he had been joined with it, man would cease to desire anything. If in fact the destiny of the soul is to incline toward the highest good and to find self-contentment in it, what kind of relationship can the soul have with secondary beings if it should ever achieve its goal? If the soul becomes totally satisfied by the union with the One, how can it also be inclined toward other beings like itself, or even lower beings, and maintain a relationship of love with them also?
And on page 106: “But man was not made for the purpose of finding satisfaction of the supposedly natural, self-centered longings within himself and, thus, of becoming unmoved and dispassionate. On the contrary, he was specifically made so he can love God and his fellow man with the same love that God has for the world.”
For the Orthodox, the battle is to acquire full, free, joyous acceptance and embrace of God and all His creation. Or in different words, to be conformed to the image of Christ. (Romans 8:29) Not to achieve the “Highest Good,” meaning the highest consumer good.
Nor is it to acquire knowledge and understanding, using love as the means to that end. No, love in its own right, for its own sake, is the end, for "God is love."
This is not to say we do not rejoice in God and find great comfort in His Presence. We do, and we tell Him so in endless praises. The point is, enjoyment and comfort and pleasure and inner "sweetness", in Christianity, are not meant to be the goal; conformity to Christ is. Union with His sufferings and His resurrection is. Becoming free of the needs for enjoyment, comfort, and pleasure, free simply to love as He loves, that is the goal.