Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Col. 3:1–2).
C.S. Lewis once said that those who are the most heavenly minded often accomplish the most good on earth. It may seem paradoxical that those men and women whose lives are shaped by solitude, prayer, and contemplation are those who are often the most effective agents of reform. Yet this is precisely what we see when we study the Christian mystics. This group of committed believers drew away from the world in order that they might bring God’s renewal to the world. For this reason, we cannot overlook them in our search for mentors and models in our ministries today.
The Christian mystics realized that to remain in Christ is to bear much fruit, and apart from Christ there is no lasting fruit (John 15: 5). The focus and intensity of their spiritual discipline brought renewal first to their own lives, which ultimately prepared and thrust them into social engagement on behalf of God’s purposes for their world. Christian mystics were powerful agents of renewal because they themselves had been so deeply renewed by Christ. Their very permeation in God was the means through which they became detached and freed from the grip of lesser gods, that they might offer a prophetic and authentic voice for Christ in the world. Their holiness gave them a moral authority others immediately recognized, respected, and followed.
One such Christian mystic whose nearness to Christ changed the world was Catherine of Siena (1347–1380). Like many mystics, Catherine emerged at a very bleak moment in history, when God’s reforming power was desperately needed. The world into which Catherine was born was one of unparalleled corruption, and, as a result, life was miserable! Violence, disease, and political wickedness of extraordinary proportions were rampant. Catherine’s world was not unlike ours today. Leaders, even those in the church, misused their authority and “lorded it over others.”
Few imagined they might make a difference in a world as corrupt as Catherine’s. And though Catherine preferred a life of prayer and solitude to public service, it was during prayer that she understood God was calling her to publicly confront abusive leaders. While she feared her gender might be an impediment, God assured Catherine that God had created both man and woman and pours out favor according to God’s purposes. If God gives us a mission, regardless of our gender, it is God who gives us the ability and power for action. Because God promised to never leave her and to equip her for service at the right moment, Catherine had the confidence to serve courageously.
From that moment onward, Catherine found herself condemning the greed, abuse of authority, and spiritual poverty of local church leaders. Ultimately, though, her call for holiness went to the top — to the pope. To Gregory XI, Catherine demanded that leaders in the church live holy lives. She said, “Since God had given him authority and he had assumed it, he should use his virtue and powers; and if he were not willing to use them, it would be better for him to resign what he had assumed; more honor to God and health to his soul it would be.” She offered the same moral challenge to Pope Urban VI who then turned to his cardinals and said, “Behold my brethren, how contemptible we are before God…This poor woman puts us to shame…It is she who now encourages us.”
As God had promised, Catherine’s reforming work was successful. Her moral authority was shaped by her life of prayer and intimacy with Christ. Soon, a devoted circle of disciples — comprised not only of other women, but also of priests, friars, and young nobles — followed Catherine, referring to her as their “holy mother.”
Just as the church was challenged by the holiness and prophetic voice of Catherine, the church today is renewed by the prophetic voices of those whose lives are shaped by prayer and close communion with Christ. Because the work of God is nearly always embodied by you and me, we represent Christ best in action when we feed on him often in prayer and solitude, immersing ourselves in Jesus. And, by resisting lesser things, we become effective vessels for God’s reforming work in the world. Infused with Christ’s joy, vision, and strength we are more credible and compelling witnesses of God’s reforming work in our world. This is the path great reformers like Catherine walked. It seems a wise path for us today.