Reading: The Theology of the Mystical Body
Mind Aflame


While this condensation of Mersch's Theology of the Mystical Body is in no way to suggest that we forego a direct reading of his book, it can perhaps serve as an introduction to it. Mersch was keenly aware that he was constrained to analyze the various dogmas, one after another, when what he was aiming at was a synthesis in which all of them radiated out from the truth of the whole Christ. "Inevitably," he writes in the Preface, when the reader "comes to the last page of the book, he will have lost sight of points made at the beginning; yet such truths will not receive their full illumination till the end." (1) Mersch diffidently suggests that the remedy might be to read the book again, and I hope that this chapter will serve as an orientation to that kind of intensive reading.


The first three chapters of The Theology of the Mystical Body are quite straightforward and can be summarized in three interconnected ideas: as Christians we should think boldly and lovingly about the divine mysteries; theology is a search for the unity of these mysteries, and this unity is to be found in the whole Christ, both head and members.


We will not find in Mersch any of the fearfulness and timidity that sometimes afflicts Christians when they face the prospect of truly thinking about their faith. Far from thinking being in opposition to faith, it demands it, and Mersch makes his own the statement of Augustine, "If faith is not charged with thought it is nothing." (2)

But neither will we find in him any trace of a theology pursued as if it were meant to be a display of human ingenuity decked out in the latest intellectual fashion. Rather, it is reason enlightened and guided by faith which is to make a wholehearted attempt to understand the divine mysteries, even "what is mysterious in the mysteries" (3) that faith has put it in contact with.

Mersch takes as his starting point in exploring the nature of theology the tersely worded summary of the 1st Vatican Council: "When reason, enlightened by faith, seeks earnestly, piously, and calmly, by God's gift it attains some understanding of mysteries, and indeed a most fruitful understanding: partly from analogy with truths it knows naturally, partly from the relations of the mysteries with one another and with man's last end." (4) And he reads this text with the intellectual exuberance of someone who feels himself free to throw himself without reserve into his quest for some understanding of the mysteries of faith that are at the center of his life. He exclaims again with Augustine, "Love understanding intensely!" (5)

Mersch's credo is, "Think! Think with all your power, with all your love, with all your loyalty." (6) To think with love is an essential part of letting our thought be illumined by faith. We cannot truly penetrate into these divine mysteries which, above all, are mysteries of love and union unless we love and let our thought be guided by that love. This is an understanding that comes from our union with Christ and rests on what he will later describe as the "being of union" that Christ's humanity possesses. (7)


In this chapter the guiding thought is provided by St. Thomas, "Everything is intelligible insofar as it is one." (8) The search for the deepest understanding in theology is at the same time a search for unity. Mersch is driven by his thirst to see the source from which all the divine mysteries flow, to search for the "unity intrinsic to revelation," "the ultimate principle of theology." (9) He will probe "the relations of the mysteries with one another" until he has arrived at the luminous center from which they all radiate.


"What is the unity of dogma? What is the center around which the whole is organized"'? (10) It is none other than Christ, both God and man, head and members, the whole Christ. And this unity is not just a simple unity of common beliefs and assent, but a mysterious ontological one, a "super-real" unity. (11) The unity of theology, and hence its deepest understanding, is to be found in Christ and in the deepest mysteries of his personality.


Until now it has been relatively easy to follow Mersch on his voyage of discovery. From the 70 pages or so of the first three chapters we have extracted three closely linked ideas: as Christians we should love to understand, and this means a search for the unity of theology which is to be found in the depths of the God-man Jesus.

But now our going becomes more difficult. In this chapter which existed in two chapters in the original manuscript, Mersch's leisurely pace is greatly accelerated. He has shown that the unity of theology is Christ, but now he refines this insight further. The center of this unity is "Christ consciousness, his human consciousness" (12) and it is as if in saying this his mind becomes inflamed.

Consciousness is an intrinsic dimension of being itself "a way of existing fully." (13) The more something is, the more it is present to itself. The very source and mystery of existence, who is God, must be completely conscious of himself and all else.

In contrast, we receive existence from God, and it is an existence very much bound up with the fact that our spirits are profoundly united to matter, and through matter with the whole material universe, and profoundly united to all other human spirits. Our consciousness follows upon this particular kind of human existence and strives to expand itself by understanding our relationship to all these other realities.

If the whole mystery of Christianity is to be found in the God-man, and if consciousness is an intrinsic aspect of spiritual being, then what will the human consciousness of Jesus be? It will be the very "first principle in the supernatural order" (14) and the very "doctrine taught by Christianity." (15) If we are to be Christians we must enter into this consciousness and share in it. On a supernatural plane this consciousness must become the very "consciousness of our consciousness." (16)

Mersch has gazed into the depths of the Christian mysteries and glimpsed how all of them are rooted in Christ, indeed, in the very consciousness of his humanity. The rest of the book will be devoted to exploring just what that means.

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