Excerpt from “The Mystical Theology of Karl Rahner” by Harvey D. Egan

The Mysticism of Everyday Life

Rahner holds the position that everyone—even the agnostic or atheist— who lives moderately, selflessly, honestly, courageously and in silent service to others, lives what he calls the ‘mysticism of everyday life’.11 He stresses not only the intrinsic unity between the love of God and neighbour12 but also Jesus’ teaching that love for the least of his brethren is love for him—even in the case of those who do not know him.13 Thus, the most profound form of the mysticism of everyday life, in Rahner’s view, is the unreserved love for another.

When anyone—Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, Muslim, agnostic or atheist—courageously and totally accepts life and him- or herself, even when everything tangible seems to be collapsing, then that person experiences, at least implicitly, the holy Mystery that fills the emptiness both of oneself and of life. Accepting the depths of one’s humanity, the depths of life and thus Mystery itself—fostered either with or without explicit Christian faith, hope and charity—is the salient feature in Rahner’s mysticism of everyday life.

This view has profound theological and pastoral significance. I know of no theologian who so emphasizes the idea that we weave the fabric of our eternal lives out of our humdrum daily lives.14 A genuine Christian must have the bold, but often hidden, confidence that ordinary daily life is the stuff of authentic life and real Christianity.15 For this reason, the words ‘ordinary’, ‘banal’, ‘humdrum’, ‘routine’ and the like, appear frequently in Rahner’s writings. For him, ‘grace has its history in the person’s day-to-day existence with its splendors and failures and is actually experienced there’.16

The everydayness of Jesus’ life grounds Rahner’s appreciation of daily life:

  • That which is amazing and even confusing in the life of Jesus is that it remains completely within the framework of everyday living; we could even say that in him concrete human existence is found in its most basic and radical form. The first thing that we should learn from Jesus is to be fully human!17

In Christ, God has assumed the everyday. Because of Christ, the mysticism of daily life is one of joy in the world and an Easter faith that loves the earth.18 Participation in the death of Christ, although often anonymous, enables a person to die to self and to the world in order to surrender to the Mystery that permeates daily life. To experience that such dying is not in vain is to participate in Christ’s resurrection. This is the christological foundation for a mysticism of everyday life.

Rahner offers common human experiences to help us ‘dig … out from under the rubbish of everyday experience’ 19 real life occurrences of grace, such as accepting with hope the experience of utter loneliness; forgiving with no expectation of the other’s gratitude or even of feeling good about one’s selflessness; being utterly faithful to the depths of one’s conscience, even when taken as a fool; praying, even when it feels useless; maintaining faith, hope and love, even when there are no apparent reasons for so doing; experiencing bitterly the great gulf between what we desire from life and what it actually gives us; and silently hoping in the face of death.20 God is experienced, in Rahner’s view, most clearly and intensely,

  • … where the graspable contours of our everyday realities break and dissolve; where failures of such realities are experienced; when lights which illuminate the tiny islands of our everyday life go out.21

And Rahner prefers negative experiences to joyful ones because:

  • … wherever space is really left by parting, by death, by renunciation, by apparent emptiness, provided the emptiness that cannot remain such is not filled by the world, or activity, or chatter, or the deadly grief of the world—there God is.22

One of Rahner’s short pieces gives poignant examples of individual mystics of everyday life, whom he also calls ‘unknown saints’. He writes:

  • I still see around me living in many of my [Jesuit] companions a readiness for disinterested service carried out in silence, a readiness for prayer, for abandonment to the incomprehensibility of God, for the calm acceptance of death in whatever form it may come, for total dedication to the following of Christ crucified.23

He mentions, among others, his friend Alfred Delp, who signed his final vows with chained hands and then went to his death in Berlin for anti-Nazi activity; and another friend, a prison chaplain appreciated more for the cigarettes he brings to the inmates than for the gospel he preaches. The mystic of everyday life, Rahner’s unknown saint, is ‘one who with difficulty and without any clear evidence of success plods away at the task of awakening in just a few men and women a small spark of faith, of hope and of charity’.24

Rahner’s understanding of the mysticism of everyday life also results in a different theology of sanctity. He distinguishes the canonized saints from the unknown—not by different degrees of holiness, but rather by the ‘explicit, conscious self-discovery in the official, public sphere, achieved by the Church through the canonisation of these saints’.25 The canonization process illustrates the truth that the Church has not only a ‘development of dogma’ but also a ‘development of holiness’. Canonized saints,

  • … are the initiators and the creative models of the holiness which happens to be right for, and is the task of, their particular age ….They show experimentally that one can be a Christian even in ‘this’ way.26

However, in his view, one should ponder more deeply the mystery of the anonymous saint, the saint of everyday life.


9 Faith in a Wintry Season, 115.

10 This is a salient theme in Nicholas Lash’s book, Easter in Ordinary: Reflections on Human Experience and the Knowledge of God (Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame P, 1990).

11 See Egan, Karl Rahner: Mystic of Everyday Life. For concrete examples of the mysticism of everyday life, see Karl Rahner, ‘Experiencing the Spirit’, in The Practice of Faith, edited by Albert Raffelt and Karl Lehmann (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 81. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote of ‘persevering through the grayness of every day in faith, hope, and love’ (The Von Balthasar Reader, edited by Medard Kehl and Werner Löser [New York: Crossroad, 1982], 342). Thomas Merton wrote of ‘masked and hidden contemplatives’ who led ‘hectic’ lives of self-emptying service and were closer to God than they thought (Thomas Merton, ‘The Inner Experience: Kinds of Contemplation [IV]’, Cistercian Studies, 18/4 [1983], 294). St Francis de Sales emphasized an ‘ecstasy of work and life’ that embraces renunciation and selfdenial in true imitation of the crucified Christ (Treatise on the Love of God, translated by John K. Ryan [Rockford: Tan, 1975], volume 2, book 7, chapters 6–7, 30–33).

12 Karl Rahner, ‘Reflections on the Unity of the Love of Neighbor and the Love of God’, in Theological Investigations, volume 6, translated by Karl-Heinz and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1969), 231–249.

13 Karl Rahner, The Love of Jesus and the Love of Neighbor, translated by Robert Barr (New York: Crossroad, 1983).

14 Karl Rahner, ‘Eternity from Time’, in Theological Investigations, volume 19, translated by Edward Quinn (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 169–177. For an eloquent theology of work, sleeping, eating, drinking, laughing, seeing, sitting and getting about, see his ‘Everyday Things’, in Belief Today, translated by Ray and Rosaleen Ockenden (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967), 20–21. And see Philip Endean, Karl Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality (Oxford: OUP, 2001), and Declan Marmion, A Spirituality of Everyday Faith: A Theological Investigation of the Notion of Spirituality in Karl Rahner (Louvain: Peeters, 1998).

15 This is a constant theme in Karl Rahner, Biblical Homilies, translated by Desmond Forristal and Richard Strachan (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966).

16 Karl Rahner, ‘On the Theology of Worship’, in Theological Investigations, volume 19, 147 (emphasis added).

17 Rahner, ‘On the Theology of Worship’, 121.

18 Karl Rahner, ‘The Ignatian Mysticism of Joy in the World’, in Theological Investigations, volume 3, 277–293; ‘On the Spirituality of the Easter Faith’, in Theological Investigations, volume 17, 8–15.

19 Karl Rahner, ‘Experiencing the Spirit’, in The Practice of Faith (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 83.

20 Rahner, ‘Experiencing the Spirit’, 81.

21 Rahner, ‘Experiencing the Spirit’, 81. Also see Karl Rahner in Dialogue, 57, 83, 142, 183, 227, 245, and 293; ‘Reflections on the Experience of Grace’, in Theological Investigations, volume 3, 86–89. ‘Experience of the Holy Spirit’, in Theological Investigations, volume 18, translated by Edward Quinn (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 189–210.

22 Rahner, Biblical Homilies, 77.

23 Karl Rahner, ‘Why Become or Remain a Jesuit?’, Madonna [Jesuit publication, Melbourne, Australia] (April 1987), 11.

24 Rahner, ‘Why Become or Remain a Jesuit?’, 11.

25 Karl Rahner, ‘The Church of the Saints’, in Theological Investigations, volume 3, 103. See also Karl Rahner, ‘Why and How Can We Venerate the Saints?’, in Theological Investigations, volume 8, translated by David Bourke (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 3–23; ‘All Saints’, in Theological Investigations, volume 8, 24–32.