The Mysticism of Real Change

By Kathryn Jean Lopez Published on February 22, 2023

“Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”

That’s a quote from Charles Péguy, a French poet, who died in World War I. Reflecting on his thinking, author Robert Royal recently explained on his website The Catholic Thing: “What he meant is that every powerful movement begins as a spiritual force, and then is ‘incarnated’ in concrete action.”

Royal additionally pointed out that the context of the mysticism-politics quote is not as well known: “The interest, the question, the essential is that in each order, in each system, the mysticism not be devoured by the politics to which it gave birth.”

Royal reflects:

Many politicians privately mock this sort of idealism — either regarding it as impractical or using it for personal or partisan purposes. But, says Péguy, it’s the mystique that provides whatever real life there may be in public affairs. And it’s the mystique that’s really practical, that gets something done.

The Question Before Us

Péguy’s words seem especially relevant as we watch the passing political scene in the contemporary United States. New non-Trump presidential candidates are slowly stepping up on the Republican side. It remains a mystery what Democrats will do. But the more important question is: what will we do, each and every one of us?

You are probably reading this around Ash Wednesday. For many Christians, it is a day of fasting and abstaining from meat. It begins a 40-day commitment to penance and renewed generosity — of remembering what it means to follow Jesus Christ — the Sermon on the Mount and all.

Post-COVID, post-Trump, post-Roe v. Wade, the season of Lent this year brings with it added challenges. How are each of us going to better reflect Christianity in our civic lives?

Post-COVID, post-Trump, post-Roe v. Wade, the season of Lent this year brings with it added challenges. How are each of us going to better reflect Christianity in our civic lives?

Speaking of Roe and the Supreme Court decision that overturned it in June: Politics is the absolute worst place to talk about abortion, in so many ways. So much of the debate falls upon women’s lives like salt into open wounds.

Women are so much more resilient and amazing than abortion gives them credit for. When Rihanna unveiled her special guest at the Super Bowl halftime show this year — her unborn child — she made a cultural contribution that many a pro-lifer couldn’t help but cheer. I have no doubt that Rihanna and I disagree on much, but not about motherhood. She has talked about its life-changing power. There’s a mysticism about that.

Our Journey in Relationship to God

In the Catholic tradition, the Catechism describes mysticism as the journey to an “ever more intimate union with Christ.” The Christian is called to continuing “spiritual progress.” That’s why we need an Ash Wednesday and a Lent every year, to reconsider who we are and where we are on that journey, in relationship to God.

Politics today cannot claim to manifest any kind of maturity, spiritual or otherwise. Politics has a bipartisan way of using and abusing religion to manipulate people. What if we didn’t think about who we are going to support in the next presidential election and who we consider our political enemies for 40 days this year, whatever we believe about God?

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None of us created ourselves, whatever we might do to change or reinvent ourselves. All of us have people who got us where we are, for good or for ill. What are we grateful for? What have we learned? How can we make a more fruitful contribution to the people and community around us? How can we grow in virtue? That’s what we really need, a revolution of virtue. And it’s not going to take a national leader to do that, but decisions we make individually in our lives today, tomorrow and the day after that, for as long as we have on Earth. That’s not a political platform. But it is life-giving and capable of bringing about revolutionary changes.

In New York City right now, a dozen Catholic schools recently announced that they are closing at the end of the current school year. I have deeply personal ties to two of them. What more can we do to make sure that children are nourished in the fundamentals? Sex-abuse lawsuits, people moving out of the city and men and women raised Catholic not going to church anymore all play a role. But I know I could have done more to support my grade school, which is one of the institutions closing.

What do we cherish? Taking time to reflect on this will help us grow in mysticism and change the world we are so obsessively reading about on our screens.


Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review magazine and author of the new book A Year With the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living. She is also chair of Cardinal Dolan’s pro-life commission in New York, and is on the board of the University of Mary. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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