Mystagogy: the Heart of Spiritual Formation

Catechesis as a Template for the Contemplative Life

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults — the Catholic process by which adults enter the Church — suggests that there are four stages or steps in the process of Christian initiation. These steps — evangelization, catechesis, initiation, and mystagogy — not only define the journey of general formation in the life of Christ (in other words, “becoming a Christian”) but they also give us insight into the process by which followers of Christ are called “deeper” into the contemplative or mystical life.

Mystagogy: The contemplative equivalent of the caterpillar-to-butterfly process

Mystagogy: The contemplative equivalent of the caterpillar-to-butterfly process.

Okay, so words like evangelization, catechesis, initiation, and mystagogy are a mouthful. Let’s take a look at each one of these “steps” to an adult faith. And while I’m using specifically Catholic language of Christian initiation, I believe this way of understanding Christian formation would apply to other Christian traditions as well.

  1. Evangelization means simply “hearing the good news.” To be evangelized means to discover, for yourself, the possibilities of joy, wisdom, compassion, and inner transformation that await the person who chooses to follow Jesus Christ. Especially in our time, when so many misconceptions about Christianity abound in our culture, evangelization means unlearning some of the erroneous ideas about life in Christ (for example, that to be a Christian implies being judgmental or hostile to others) even as we embrace the joyful and promising message of unconditional Divine Love and its availability to us.
  2. Catechesis follows our first encounter with Divine Love: this is where we say “I want to learn more.” The emphasis here is on education: the student (“catechumen”) is given information and new insights to open his or her mind and heart to the splendor and promise of faith, of repentance (accepting the “higher mind” of Christ into our lives), of integration into the community of fellow Christians, and of service to the world at large. Catechesis is when we “learn the ropes,” so to speak. We are apprentices on this life-long journey of being formed as members of the Body of Christ.
  3. Initiation is the decisive moment, the point of no return, when we embrace the transformation that is offered to us in Christ. It is not a solitary act! Initiation into Christ, for adults, typically involves three sacramental rites, given to us by the church we are joining: Baptism, where we formally receive God’s cleansing us of our sin; Confirmation, where we say “Yes” to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and Communion, where we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Notice the Trinitarian nature of initiation. The sacraments link us to God — and to one another — in the dazzling beauty of love.
  4. Mystagogy means, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “further up and further in.” We have received the good news, we’ve learned the ropes, we’ve been initiated into the new life. But our formation is never complete, not on this side of eternity. So the journey of ever-more-deeply giving ourselves to Christ continues. However, whereas Catechesis involved learning new ideas, new insights, new ways of seeing and thinking in response to the love of God, Mystagogy leads us to embrace the mystery of God — so it is more “heart” than “head,” more embodied, more experiential (in the humblest sense of the word), more reliant on allowing the indwelling Spirit to take the lead in our lives, encouraging and empowering us to love as Christ loves, to be Christ, to be Love, to be one with God (I Corinthians 6:17, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 1:27, II Peter 1:4).

It’s a wonderful process. Unfortunately, though, it seems that mystagogy often gets overlooked.

When I went through RCIA, we were basically turned loose after the Easter Vigil (the Rite of Initiation). The “mystagogy” step was more or less left for each person to figure out on his or her own. I recently discussed this with a friend who oversees the RCIA program in his parish, and he admitted that, in his church, about all they did for the new initiates was to encourage them to get involved in parish life, so they could “experience” it for themselves!

It’s not my purpose here to criticize catechists, who often put in many hours of dedicated service to help newcomers feel welcome and integrated into their church communities. I think mystagogy gets short shrift because of overall weaknesses in western Christian culture: we’re good at book-learning (that’s the “Catechesis” part), but we fumble when it comes to a more embodied way of formation: of discovering the inner process of being formed in Christ.

RCIA: from Evangelization to Mystagogy

RCIA: from Evangelization to Mystagogy

It seems to me that the season of “Mystagogy” would be a natural time for introducing new Christians to the regular practice of prayer (in all its many forms, but especially the Divine Office and silent prayer), lectio divina (the meditative reading of scripture), spiritual direction, Ignatian spirituality, the daily examen, making an annual retreat — and then engaging in the practice of reflection and discernment, to integrate all these spiritual practices into the more active side of Christian life, such as outreach ministries or parish work.

I understand that many churches simply don’t have the resources to provide this kind of intensive, almost one-on-one mentoring to their new members. Which is too bad, really. Priests and religious educators have admitted to me that far too many people who complete RCIA sooner or later drop out of active involvement with the church. Perhaps an effective process of mystagogy would help more of the new initiates to persevere in their ever-deepening relationship with (and formation in) Christ.

Mystagogy and Spiritual Formation

But my purpose in writing this blog post is not just to lament the imperfections of the RCIA process in Catholicism — but also to suggest that this fourfold process of formation applies not only to people joining the church for the first time but also to people who discern a call to become contemplative.

We are evangelized in contemplation when we first recognize in our heart a call for something deeper, a yearning for “more God” than words or ideas can satisfy. This stirring for something-more might come in response to a book we read, a conversation we have or an insight we receive in response to someone already on the contemplative path. Or the call may simply come from deep within us.

We are catechized in contemplation when we make the effort to learn more: we read books on contemplative prayer and related practices, we attend one or more retreats at a monastery or Jesuit center, we begin working with a spiritual director, we make the effort to begin praying the Divine Office. We’re beginners, in a time of apprenticeship marked by joy as we learn ways to respond to our call.

We are initiated into contemplation when we realize that we have made a non-negotiable commitment to the life of prayer, and that it is impacting how we relate to others. We pray daily, and encourage others to do so too. Perhaps we seek to become monastic oblates (or even to enter into religious life), or we discern a call to become a spiritual director. Each “initiation” is unique, but it marks us as contemplatives for life.

We embrace a contemplative mystagogy when we surrender to the recognition that growth in contemplation is a life-long journey (and beyond). We are always beginners, we are always apprentices. There is no limit to the depth of love into which we have been called. Union with God is not an idea to which we assent, but a way of living, being, knowing, to which we continually give ourselves. Life has become an ever-blossoming flower, a love affair with God that continually unfolds ever-new ways of receiving and sharing joy, wisdom, compassion, healing, and life. Further up and further in!

So where are you on your contemplative journey? Remembering that the map is not the territory (in other words, your unique adventure of responding to the love of God might look different), does this “four-movement” model speak to you? Is there something I’m missing? If you have any thoughts to share, please post them below.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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9 thoughts on “Mystagogy: the Heart of Spiritual Formation

  1. Thank you Carl; You so clearly describe my own journey into a Christian contemplative life. With each stage you describe I can pinpoint what my experience was.
    Being an RCIA instructor myself, you raise some good questions – and possibilities about including an ongoing path for spiritual formation in the process.
    Thank you for reassuring me on my own path…


  2. Thank you for writing this blog, Carl. I felt as if the first part was written for me. I was received into the Catholic Church at Easter after several months of RCIA. Since then I’ve been feeling flat and as if my decision to join the church was a mistake. Even attending mass has become a chore. I’ve made an effort to become involved with parish events but I’m basically quite a shy person and don’t find it easy in large groups where I know few people. At the social gathering which followed mine and the other person’s confirmation I overheard the priest saying, in a humorous way, that, now we had been received into the church he didn’t need to make the same effort with us. And whilst it was said in a lighthearted manner, it really does seem that we are now left to our own devices. I’ve thought about this a lot and I’m fully aware that I have to take responsibility for the way I feel but your article really struck a chord with me.

    However, on a much more positive note, I have signed up for a 5 day silent retreat at the end of July and this morning I had an inspiring and encouraging conversation with the organizer. Neither of these things would have happened if I hadn’t joined the church.

    • I am so sorry you had to overhear that comment, which (assuming good intentions) I imagine was, as you say, just a silly attempt at humor. But I am so happy to hear of your impending retreat. That sounds like it could be a true blessing for you.

      I went through RCIA in 2004-2005, and my journey as a Catholic has had many peaks and valleys ever since. My relationship with the church is generally at its best when I remember that I’m there as a response to the love of God, and not to earn anything or measure up to anything. That may just be me and my quirks! Nevertheless, I wish you much grace as your adventure of responding to God’s love continues.

  3. For some of us it was a stumbling into something bigger and deeper than we had ever imagined being possible….and the church, it’s people, or the church’s teachings had little to do with it. God saw the heart, and he knew it panted for the rivers of water, for him who giveth liberally to those who are willing to receive what he offers. But as I look back, it flows much as you have written it. And our hearts are filled to overflowing. Praises!

  4. I enjoyed this post. I do not attend Church anymore nor am I involved with a local community. I have enjoyed a wide range of worship experiences throughout my Christian discipleship but always return to the Catholic church. That is ironic, because of all the groups I have been a part of , I feel least welcomed by the Catholic church. Yet God sees my heart and my love and so God continually opens doors and guides me along the path of Christian growth. It is really pretty amazing when I think about it. I feel your post is a tall order for the church but if the church could just be welcoming… And maybe emphasize in the bullitan every week things like lectio divina and the Hours, with suggestions about resources , people could be grown up in the Lord thru the work and nudges of the Holy Spirit in their individual circumstances.

    • It always breaks my heart when I hear about people who don’t feel welcome at their local church. But it sounds like you recognize that God always welcomes you, even when churchgoers fail to be welcoming. I love your idea for the church bulletin — let’s hope some churches try this!

  5. neophytes, catechumens and candidates of our RCIA program at my parish. In the Give Us this Day daily prayer book Kathleen Norris had a reflection on the 5/26 gospel Mark 10:46-52 about Jesus and his very contemplative questions to Bartemaeus that I am using as part of it. Thank you.

    I just emailed our RCIA team this blog. Hope it stirs some conversation. Will let you know.

  6. Hi Carl, thank you for this post. I have found myself in any of these stages at different times since going through the RCIA programme about two and a half years ago. Certainly i feel a call to the contemplative life although what form this takes is still uncertain. Maybe i’m still in a discernment stage as far as direction is concerned.I do know that meditation is important to me and i do attempt to say the Office daily, or at least some prayer. I do like the idea, as suggested in one of the letters, of a retreat based on the mystagogy stage, so perhaps will have a look around for one. Thanks, Anne

  7. Oh! Thankyou for this post. It is an answer to a prayer. I am struggling right now with contemplative prayer. I have ‘been away’ from Christianity for over a year but God is calling me back. And not just to the way I was but to something deep, almost mystical in a way. I’ve read books but this post really explains the process I have been going through!
    And the explanation when one goes through RCIA is brilliant. If only back then I had a mentor at the end…