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If a report is true that Benedict XVI decided to leave the papacy after a mystical experience -- a big "if," considering a lack of documentation to that effect, thus far -- it would be remarkable indeed.

To recap:

According to a venerable Catholic news service, Zenit, in Rome, a visitor who met with the Pope Emeritus several weeks ago [this written August 23, 2013] "reported that Benedict spoke of his motivations for resigning.  'God had told me,' he said, clarifying that it was not any kind of apparition or phenomenon of that kind, but rather a 'mystical experience' in which the Lord had developed in his heart an 'absolute desire' to remain alone with Him, withdrawn in prayer [our italics]. Ratzinger, the anonymous source revealed, declared that this 'mystical experience' has lasted all these months, increasing more and more the longing for a unique and direct relationship with the Lord. In addition, the Pope Emeritus reflected that the more he observes the 'charisma' of Pope Francis, the more he understands that his choice was 'the will of God.'"

It was an extraordinary comment -- by a former Pope known to be unusually mundane. ("Ex-Pope: God told me to resign," declared the secular headlines).

Was it what it seemed?  Those with less than a full affinity for the mystical were already out with their qualifiers and explanations. "Benedict gave a different explanation when he announced his resignation in February," noted a competing Catholic news agency yesterday. "At the time he said: 'After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.'" Added a priest in the Catholic Herald, "If ever there was a non-story, this it is. Mystical experience? Of course not. Neither for that matter was there anything mystical about the way Charles I consulted the sortes virgilianae. God does speak to people, Popes included, but he does so in rather a different way. Essentially what happened to Pope Benedict is that he became convinced in prayer that it was the will of God that he should lay down the burden of office. He must have been thinking about this matter, and he prayed about it, and the conviction came, through long hours of prayer, that this was the right thing to do."

So it goes. Controversy is the currency of our time. So is presumption. If Benedict did say what he is quoted as stating, it is as newsworthy as it is ironic: few Popes have been as rationalistic, science-oriented, and intellect-driven as the Bavarian professor of theology named Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, who as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees apparitions and the like, took a very strict (and largely prudent) stance toward reported phenomena. It is also ironic because if indeed he felt "told" to quit in favor of the new Pontiff, it causes one to wonder about Benedict's elevation to the papacy to begin with: Could it be that this man who served so long and diligently as a top Vatican official under John Paul II became Pope to take the "bullet" for the abuse crisis, which some say he was largely charged with handling before he became Pontiff -- and that having made that sacrifice, and straightened out a few liturgical matters, it was time for him to move on?

This is the institutional side of it. There are deeper matters. "Mystical union" is a term Benedict was certainly more than aware of -- and is indeed a high form of mysticism.

What it means, in essence, is direct "infusion" of thought, which some mystical theologians believe transcends locutions, visions, apparitions, and similar revelations. It is nonverbal. Said Pére Augustin Francois Poulain, a famous French theologian, "There is a spiritual hearing. For the saints and the blessed speak to one another. It is true that for this they have no need to utter sounds, to employ definite language; it is sufficient that they should desire to communicate their thoughts. But this communication may be called speech on the part of the transmitter, and hearing on the part of the receiver. In the same way God has often spoken intellectually to the prophets and to other saintly souls."

That certainly seems in line with what Pope Benedict was relating.

Added Poulain in The Graces of Interior Prayer, "We must then recognize that in mystic contemplation there is an intellectual knowledge of God, generally regarded as distinct from the beatific vision, not only in degree, but in kind; and on the other hand, no less distinct from all abstract knowledge." How to tell? Noted Saint Teresa of Avila about what could also be called the Prayer of Quiet: "The soul perceives a certain fragrance as we may call it, as if within its inmost depth were a brazier sprinkled with sweet perfumes." "God manifests Himself to the soul by an image that represents Him very perfectly," wrote a Jesuit named Father Alvarez de Paz. "It is an infusion made to the mind... thus furnished and strengthened by the highest help, the mind sees God... not by denying... or affirming something of Him, but by regarding the Divine greatness without an admixture of anything else, in the tranquility of a calm day. Certainly, O reader, when you see the light with the bodily eyes... you see light." Paul VI once described such a light. Added Poulain, "In the same way the soul, in this degree of contemplation, sees God."

Is this why Benedict has seemed so serene?

He does not seem so ill as to be on the verge of death, as some speculated (at least not as far as the latest reports), but rather resigned to resigning.

In his book God and the World, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as a Vatican bureaucrat, spoke of the trouble he had finishing a Rosary (because his mind raced with all the official tasks before him).

He seems now to have found the deepest prayerfulness.

This is beautiful.

"After the prayer of quiet, or incomplete union, comes, as I have already said, the full union, or semi-ecstasy, which Saint Teresa calls the 'prayer of union' or 'third water' or 'fifth mansion' of the interior castle," wrote Poulain. "The fundamental difference is that the soul is plunged more deeply in God."

"The soul delights to be alone, waiting lovingly on God, without any particular considerations, in interior peace, quiet, and repose," wrote Saint John of the Cross -- and indeed it is what Benedict has sought since his abdication.

God has told me.

An intellectual, it does seem (if not misquoted), has turned into a mystic.

Of course, Christ was a mystic.

It is a startling message to a world (and too often a Church) that, at least in the public domain, is mostly anti-mystical.

"We must take care not to torment our heads, or over-excite our hearts," said another named Jacques-Bénignet Bossuet, "but to take whatever offers itself to the soul's sight with humility and simplicity, without those violent efforts which are rather imaginary than real and well-grounded; allowing ourselves to be drawn gently to God, abandoning ourselves to the promptings of our own spirit."

"In the prayer of silence we must listen to God," noted Poulain. "Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth."

[resources: The Spirit Around Us (back in print)]

[see also: Report: 'mystical experience' caused Benedict to believe God told him to resign and Church officials 'dubious']

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