Brief Book Review: The Mysticism of the Present Moment

The Mysticism of the Present Moment: Embodied Spirituality
By José Tolentino Mendonça

Who’s it for? Christians who are serious about deepening their sensitivity to the divine mystery, always and everywhere present; I have placed it on the required reading list for an upcoming MA course in Christian spirituality.

Why is this book useful? Cardinal Mendonça, Portuguese theologian and poet, Vatican archivist and member of the (former) Pontifical Council for Culture (now merged into the new Dicastery for Culture and Education) and very recently appointed to the Dicastery for Bishops, offers a much-needed contemporary take on the Rahnerian idea that present-day Christianity requires us to be “mystics”—a sensibility not only for a saintly few but something essential for any authentic, ordinary Christian. He brings a strong focus on embodiment and the senses as an antidote to the detachment of mind from body that has been the result of lives as persons in “an exhausted society,” excessive in its “emotions, information, expectations, and demands.” (pp. 6-7)

What intrigued me the most? Mendonça weaves together the wisdom of his own biblical training and poetic insight with an array of sources from literature, philosophy, and theology. In the first seven pages of the thirty-page introductory section, where he begins laying out his response to the classical interiorized notion of mysticism, Mendonça cites or quotes John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, Matthew, Genesis, Louis-Marie Chauvet, Friedrich Nietzsche, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Psalm 139, Karl Rahner, Etty Hillesum, Byung Chul Han (philosopher), and Fernando Pessoa (Portuguese poet). Okay, just one more page: add poet René Crevel, Michel de Certeau, and French novelist Marguerite Duras. What is somewhat breathtaking is how well they flow together, how naturally Mendonça associates them, as an expression of keen spiritual discernment emerging from his own mature appropriation of these authors and works. Never having read him before, I have become a fan of his writing.

What will most inspire you? Mendonça intensively contemplates what is most human as what is integral to spirituality. He quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Being Christian does not mean being religious in a certain way, making oneself into something or other (a sinner, penitent, or saint) according to some method or other. Instead, it means being human, but the human being Christ creates in us.” (p. 20, citing Letters and Papers from Prison). He displays this especially by concentrating on human corporeality in Part 2, “A Theology of the Senses,” dedicating a chapter to each of the five senses. I could choose any of them, but here is a sampling of the wisdom he provides while reflecting on the sense of hearing (listening):

  • Citing Gen 2:7, “we might say that the first thing that humans heard was the breath of God…. The dust received the breath of eternity. This is where our great adventure started.” (p. 105)
  • “Let’s be clear: everything we listen to, absolutely everything, should only be a preparation for listening to what remains silent.” (p. 106)
  • “By such listening [as that enjoined by God in the synoptic accounts of the Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!”], the Word that awakens and directs envelops us. We are led, we are healed. Listening places us not only in front of him, but also with him and in him. Without this listening, the Word remains in the distant past, his Passover is an event that does not enter the present moment. Listening gives us a taste for presence.” (pp. 108-109)
  • “The Acts of the Apostles demonstrates that the true protagonist in the history of the church is the Holy Spirit…. Opening up to listen to the Spirit is not about detecting rare and subtle signals; it means looking at how, in concrete terms, the gospel challenges my life.” (p. 111)
  • “To compensate for our exhausted lives, we seek distractions. The very word distract is revealing—it comes from the Latin distrahere, which means ‘to draw in various directions’…. The art of listening is an exercise in resistance. Listening establishes a break with illusory reality … a symbolic disengagement, a refusal, a stepping out of the whirlwind. One thing is certain: without it, our life is quickly invaded, colonized; it no longer belongs to us. Ironically, our communication society has a listening deficit.” (p. 114)

Kudos. Mendonça’s poetic sensibility permeates this work in a way that sheds light on our contemporary life. I found so insightful his extended metaphor toward the end of the chapter on hearing/listening. Where we once relied on the unidirectional strength of a compass, a cultural paradigm shift has driven us to use radar: we can “locate a particular object, but this quest is now more open, plural, moveable, and without predetermined orientations…. The paths of spiritual searching are no longer singular.” Even more cultural change has occurred: “not only are we engaged in locating signals, but we are guaranteed the possibility of receiving them. If in the past we used radar to locate a signal, today we receive data without having to seek it out…. Our challenge is not to find a meaningful message but to understand it.” (p.121)

Mendonça wrote in Part One, “What we are lacking today are not only teachers of ‘the interior life,’ but teachers of life as a whole…. We need guides and witnesses of the human heart, its infinite and arduous paths, but also … of daily life, where everything is not extraordinarily simple and yet, at the same time, it is.” (p. 20) Mendonça proves himself in these pages to be just such a teacher, guide, and witness.

Mendonça, José Tolentino, The Mysticism of the Present Moment: Embodied Spirituality. New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2021. 165 + x pages. ISBN: 9780809155323.

REVIEWER: David Stosur
David Stosur is Professor of Religious Studies and
Coordinator of the MA in Pastoral Ministry Program at Cardinal Stritch University.
He specializes in liturgical theology.

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