Anabaptist spiritual guidance, part 3: Ritual and Mystagogy

Mystagogy (mist-uh-go-jee) is one of my favorite words, not just because it is so delicious to say but also because it is a part of the early church practice that I think deserves reclaiming. Stick with me as I explain.

In the 3rd and 4th century church (and perhaps earlier), the process for becoming a Christian was a lengthy one, and it included instruction and discernment all along the way. Progressively more of the things of the faith were entrusted to the seekers as they traveled that path.

Before baptism, the seedling Christians were taught creeds, hymns and prayers. Only after baptism did newly planted (“neophyte”) Christians participate in the experience of communion.

Teaching about the rituals of baptism and communion happened after the experience of those rituals, and it was called “mystagogy,” meaning “teaching of the mysteries.”  Ambrose wrote this about it in the 4th century:

Now is the time to speak of the mysteries and to reflect systematically on the sacred ritual actions. We should not have considered it helpful to those not yet initiated, but rather a betrayal of them, if we had decided to give such a detailed explanation before baptism. Indeed, it is better for the light of the mysteries themselves to have inundated you as a surprise than it would have been for us to have given an explanation beforehand.

(quoted in Clarahan’s article, “Mystagogy and Mystery”)

Here’s why I think this has something to say to us and a possibility to offer to an Anabaptist vision of spiritual guidance…

Most churches do one of two things around rituals. Some churches explain the rituals before hand, drawing out the theology and symbolism. This approach risks flattening the rituals to one or two meanings and prescribing those meanings for a congregation.

Other churches never explain or explore the rituals, desiring them to stand on their own and be revelatory of God without words. This approach also risks flattening the rituals, through of a lack of intentionality regarding theology and practice.

Mystagogy offers a third option. The experience is allowed to stand on its own, full of mystery and inspiring seemingly infinite layers of meaning. Yet the exploring of those layers of meaning has a place to find expression, in words and in community.

The Anabaptist tradition is very ritually rich. As Christians formed by a steady rhythm of Love Feasts, our theology concerning Kingdom finds a most life-giving context in the washing of feet. As a tradition formed by a regular practice of anointing and service (often experienced as worship), our theology of reconciliation and justice finds a most full-breathing context in the caring touch of hands.

Part of why we like rituals in our antiauthoritarian tradition is because they are both communal and individual. Their meanings are not prescribed and yet we participate together; in ritual we have opportunity to build something together that is larger than the sum of our individual meaning-making.

And yet I am convinced that we do ourselves a disservice and risk losing the centrality of our rituals altogether if we do not find ways of exploring these mysteries communally. In thinking about how to draw more communal connection from the rituals we undertake, mystagogy is a promising option.

Here’s an imagining of what a practice of mystagogy could look like in the church:

In the Church of the Brethren, young people are often baptized on the Sunday before a midweek Love Feast, so that this central ritual can be one of their first communal experiences as a baptized Christian. After this first Love Feast, a group of people could gather together to recognize, affirm, and explore the meanings, individual and collective, that arose from that ritual.

The hope in this kind of group would be that it would flow out of existing relationship and into continuing relationship. Although the group would especially hold the new person and their experience, the giving and receiving would be shared.

The group might include a range of ages, backgrounds, and experience levels with the ritual. The group could be conducted similar to a “Listening Hearts” model of group discernment, or it could be a kind of clearness committee. In both of these models, a primary emphasis is on listening for the Spirit in the midst of the group and the individual, and working together to name and claim the movement of the Spirit.

Something like this could be extended to small groups that did not particularly focus around a person’s first experience but rather fostered a general sensitivity to layers of meaning found in ritual. It could also extend to experiences like anointing.

Although Anabaptists as ordinance Christians do not want to go too far into saying that our rituals have any saving power in and of themselves, we do often find our hearts stirred and our lives shaped by these rituals. A forum to acknowledge and build on those stirrings and shapings feels crucial to communal faith development.

After my baptism, at which an elder in the church told me I looked like a new bride, and after my first Love Feast, at which another beloved elder 60 years older than me washed my feet, I was brimming with meaning and questions and inspirations. Those things found a container, eventually, in the life of the church and in my own life of discipleship and faith. But I find myself wondering if the richness of that – and of what is present in each member of the body – could have been brought more fully to bloom within the community had there been a space dedicated to those explorations of meaning.

This kind of small-group mystagogy practice could provide a container for fluid and overflowing meaning, inspired by ritual, that provides a way for the Spirit’s movement to be named and celebrated. And all of this is put forward with the faith that naming and celebrating the movement of the Spirit is one of the ways we attune our hearts to continually notice and move with the Spirit in all of life, and in all our actions.

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