[I am grateful to William Johnston, SJ for the inspiration for this blog post. I have read most all of his works over the years, but The Inner Eye of Love: Mysticism and Religion caught and held my imagination from the time I first read it in 1978. It was revised in 1997. The image used for this posting is the Helix Nebula taken by the Hubbel Telescope. It is also known colloquially as "God's Eye."]
We may tend to think of mysticism as being in the realm of monastic communities or the rare -- and rather eccentrically spiritual - individual. It would certainly not be a state of being normal to the regular, everyday individual...regardless of our passion for healthy spirituality or disposition toward being part of any religious body (here, specifically Christian). To set this straight, mysticism and the mystical path is not, a) foreign to anyone's capacity to experience; b) something to which one attains; and, c) a state that detaches one from current reality (i.e. not "out there" somewhere).
Let's take these in order. The capacity and capability to have mystical experiences is normative to any human being. In fact (borrowing from Thomas Aquinas), all creation can reflect the mystical element of reality. What is called "mysticism" is the direct intuition of the Holy (God). Carl Jung's typology is helpful here. The four spectra of human typology are Introvert/Extrovert; Sensate/Intuitive; Thinking/Feeling; Judging/Perceiving. Each of us are somewhere on the continuum of each of those four spectra. The complete set is called one's "Personality Type." For instance, I am an INFP (Introvert, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving). On the four scales, I am very introverted, very intuitive, moderately feeling and somewhat perceiving. How does this express itself?
For me (as an example), my natural state is to be inwardly directed, comfortable with ideas and abstractions, processing incoming data through emotional systems first and comfortable with rapid change and spontaneity. This is valuable information in knowing what is necessary to have a mystical experience -- or, more appropriately, what tools one uses in responding to the mystical "nudge."
Christian mysticism, specifically, begins and ends in the experience of being loved....loved by the Divine. It is an experience of intimacy. It is intuitive, as described above. Very important: The mystical is not something one attains or manufactures. It is strictly an invitation. It is God's call to us for intimacy and the resulting experience of that intimacy.
I used to think that one became a mystic by studying biblical literature, ritual and reading books and guides about prayer. Sure, all of that is helpful. In the end, however, I realized that folks like Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul and all such persons in our tradition were responding to some kind of invitation. Sometimes the invitation had to be rather abrupt (Paul's being struck blind on the road to Damascus is such a moment). One of the reasons Jesus compared us to sheep (which actually isn't a flattering metaphor) is that we are wilfull, hard headed and easily enough distracted to get regularly lost (thus, requiring us to be "fetched back").
The call of Samuel (1 Samuel 3), is a great story to get how the mystical moment happens. Samuel (as a boy) hears his name called in the night. He arises, goes to his mentor, Eli, and... thinking Eli has called him...says "Here I am." Eli (a mystic) doesn't get it and tells Samuel to go back to bed, because he did not call him. Finally, when Samuel hears the voice the third time, Eli gets it and tell's Samuel to answer the voice directly, should he hear it again. Samuel does and so begins his particular vocation as a prophet that will eventually raise up David as the unifying King of Israel.
Mysticism is not generally a world changing way of being. It is, however, a life changing experience, because responding to the invitation from God opens us to the deeper realization of who we really are and to the vocation that each of us has by nature. I used to think and function with the conviction that, to be fully human and a good priest, I had to be able to love others. I did everything possible to accomplish that and found myself always frustrated and exhausted. It was during my first truly mystical invitation that I cried out, "I am loving folks as hard as I can, and it isn't working!" The quiet voice that vibrated within said firmly, "that's the problem, you cannot simply love others....let go and let me love you and others through you..."
This was an astounding revelation to me. God was working from within me...not from "out there" somewhere. The secret of the fire and energy of every person I cited above as biblical examples was their experience and conviction of being loved by God. Another example of this is Thomas Aquinas.
We celebrated his feast in the Church yesterday (28 January). Aquinas is considered the greatest theologian in the history of the Western Church (perhaps Karl Rahner, who died just a few years ago, comes very close). Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles in the mid 1200s. There is much mystical expression in the theological works themselves. However, the real story is what happened just prior to his untimely death (at age 49).
Thomas -- a Dominican -- was celebrating Eucharist and entered a "frozen" state that lasted long enough for those gathered in community to have real concerns. Emerging from that experience, he became quite agitated and wanted to immediately have all his written works burned (this amounted to what is currenly more than 54 volumes). While his monks dissuaded him from such a hasty action, Thomas continued to insist that, "all this work amounts to nothing but dross..." (straw). He insisted that he had seen the glory and love of God in a way that changed everything about what he had previously experienced and expressed. Unfortunately, we will never know the contents of that mystical moment. He died a few days later rather suddenly.
The reason we read so much of mystical experiences from men and women in vocation is that prayer is at the center of our discipline. I know a number of lay persons who have similar experiences regularly...and are quite involved in their "day jobs" in secular society. In my work among the Lakota, I have found a number of folks for whom encounters and experiences of the Holy are daily occurances. Their work is as varied as that of archeologist, professor, psychotherapist, engineer, medical doctor and many other occupations.
There is no secret to this. It is about openness and being mindful of the deeper parts of our nature. There is something to be said for "taking time to smell the roses." To sit and experience the expanse of a prairie (here in the midwest) or a forest or quietly watching the antics of wildlife are a few ways. We surround ourselves with noise and electronic visualizations. We effectively block any opportunity to hear the invitation of the Holy to experience the awesome power of Divine Love. Do we fear what that will do to us or where it will lead us? Most often, the experience only deepens and nurtures our current circumstances and occupations. It both answers questions and raises new and important ones.
Jesus spoke what seemed rough words to Martha, who was consumed with self important doing of things (and was criticizing Mary for attending to what Jesus was saying and doing). Jesus, as the full expression of God's Love in the world, told Martha to take a break, for Mary had chosen the better part of human nature in that moment. [Note that, later, Mary would be somewhat angry with Jesus for not showing up in time to be a healing presence to her brother Lazarus, who was dead. None of us are always "in the moment."]
Next time, I will reflect more on this key element of human nature.
In Christ's Love,