The Sun at Midnight: Monastic Experience of the Christian Mystery (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2012)

While I am not wild about the word “experience” in the subtitle, there is much to love about this book by a former Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The Sun at Midnight is a brief but eloquent statement about how important mystical spirituality is to a living, healthy faith. Dom Bernardo clearly understands that the heart of mysticism is mystery, and that for Christians the supreme doorway into the mystery of God is the life of Christ. As a monk, he also recognizes, and beautifully affirms, how the essential elements of the monastic charism — work and prayer, the daily office, the sense of solitude and compunction that shapes the cloistered life — all invite the monk deeper in the mystery of Christ. Those of us who are not monks can still find much inspiration in these pages, for a lively mysticism is necessary not only for a healthy monasticism, but indeed for a healthy faith community at large.

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2 thoughts on “The Sun at Midnight: Monastic Experience of the Christian Mystery

    • I chafe against how “experience” is often used as a type of self-conscious authority in popular spirituality, especially in America. We want an experience of God — but what does that mean? Does it mean feeling God’s presence? Feeling united with God? It seems very self-conscious, whereas mysticism and contemplation are all about self-forgetting. Contemplative or mystical prayer, therefore, is non-experiential, since it takes us to a silent place deeper than all our feelings and thoughts about God, spirituality, etc., leaving us in the naked vulnerability of our own unknowing and mystery. I suppose you could call that an “experience,” too, but it is the opposite of a kind of experience that tends to leave people feeling certain that God has come to them in a special or powerful way. A friend on Facebook left this comment, which I found very helpful:

      “Perhaps something is lost in the translation the Spanish la experiencia can mean experience, skill, know-how, experiment.”

      When ancient contemplative writers like Richard of St. Victor or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing talk about experience, they tend to use the term in this kind of “experimental” sense — it’s not about achieving an emotional experience or a sense of certainty of God’s presence, but just the opposite: an initiation into profound uncertainty, unknowing, ambiguity, paradox, mystery. Knowing that Dom Bernardo wrote in Spanish, my hunch is that he was using “experience” in just this unknowing sense.

      If you want to learn more about the contemplative critique of “experience,” I’d encourage you to check out Maggie Ross’s important book Silence: A User’s Guide, pages 78-80. Ross is iconoclastic and some of her views are controversial, but she is spot on with her criticism of “experience.”