Today we are taking a look at the role of mystics in this second of a two-part series on the exploration of prayer.
Many of you may know of the writings of Matthew Fox, a modern-day Christian mystic whose work focuses on what he calls creation spirituality, envisioning a holy relationship between all living things. He is a former Dominican friar, who was first silenced and then expelled from the order in 1993 for disobedience. Instead of original sin, he taught original blessing. He refused to condemn homosexuality, called God “mother” as well as “father” and worked closely with Native American spiritual practices. Like many the mystics of old, he raised a lot of eyebrows as he explored and celebrated where God led him.
Last year Fox gave a talk in which he related a dream he’d had. He said that this dream was one of the most important dreams he’d ever had. He heard a voice, clearly speaking to him, that said: “there is nothing wrong with the human species today except for one thing – you have forgotten the sense of the sacred.”
Mystics Are the Ones Who Remind Us That All Is Sacred
Today I want to talk about the sacred, the mysterious — the numinous. I want to talk about the mystics, because they are the ones who remind us that all is sacred, that we are sacred, that we come into balance with our cosmos and each other only when we live in that truth. Let’s look at the world from the perspective of men and women who live in a state of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement.”
You might be able to tell that I love the mystics. They teach us that life can be a celebration of the wonderful, even if our outward circumstances look otherwise. I believe the example of the mystics can inspire us to show up in our world in a more loving, authentic, and indeed, courageous way.
Another aspect I love about the mystics is that they are so interspiritual. Thomas Merton studied and took wisdom from Buddhism, Sufiism, Jainism, Taoism, and Hinduism. When he died he was speaking at an interfaith conference in Bangkok.
Mirabai Starr speaks of interspirituality as “an experience of the presence of the sacred anywhere and everywhere we can find it.”
I think if earlier mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, and many more, had had the access to other paths the later ones have enjoyed, we would have seen much more interspiritual influence in their writings as well.
What Is A Mystic?
The word itself has a long history. The root of the word mystic, and mystery, is the Greek “mueo”, which means to shut or to close, as in shutting our eyes or closing our mouth. It originally comes from the pagan mystery religions, and spoke about an initiate – one who had received the secret knowledge or power to be initiated into a particular rite. So the quality of mueo implied keeping secret certain rituals or knowledge.
Christian writers adapted this language of mystery. Actually, to this day what the Western church calls sacraments are referred to as mysteries in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Gradually, as Christianity grew and became legitimized, what initially had been regarded as secret changed to what was hidden. In chapter 45, verse 15, the book of Isaiah says, “. . . truly, you are a God who hides himself.” The Christian scriptures are full of references to a God who cannot be known, and whose essence remains hidden from us. The writers of the New Testament wrote that in Jesus, and also in us, this hidden God has made himself manifest.
Today’s Mystics Are Not So Different
We may talk about it differently, but this idea of “hidden mystery” sounds pretty familiar. We believe that are all sacred expressions of God and the energy of creation is manifest in all of us.
Author Carl McColman1 teaches that “mystery” in the Christian mystical context involves the “hidden things of God made manifest, or revealed, in the hearts and minds and spirituality of those who love God. . . .” Christian mystics have been those who live this spirituality, manifesting the presence, love and power of God in their own lives.
Theologian Karl Rahner wrote that mysticism is “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our experience.” It’s not theology, which is information. It’s not morality, which is rules. It is the lived embodiment of a powerful experience. The mystics teach us that we, too, can be transformed.
Are You a Mystic?
Many people think they could never be mystics, thinking that mystics are only those who see visions and hear voices. We’ve been watching too many movies. Too many people equate a direct experience of the Divine with what they think of as paranormal experience. That may be the way some experience God, but not all of us. Not all the mystics we read about, or meet, have such experiences; however, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have that aha moment when Spirit poured into them and lit them up.
How do they reach such moments? There’s no one way. It can be an overwhelming and unexpected moment of clarity and understanding. Or, it may come after a time of listening, contemplating, and waiting, much as we have learned from the Eastern religions, or Native American practices. But always, the mystics remain open to the wonder of creation.
As Rabbi Heschel said: “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”
We are all open to this wonder. Perhaps the most important thought to take away is that we are all mystics. As William McNamara put it, “the mystic is not a special kind of person. Each person is a special kind of mystic.” Each of us can have a direct and powerful experience of God, each in our own way. Learning about the mystics teaches us and inspires us that such experience is not only possible but close.
Early Mystics and the Language Of Love
In the early church, these mystics were nearly always monks or nuns. Some are well known, including Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, or Julian of Norwich. Others are less well-known now but were equally influential in their times, including Beatrice of Nazareth, Bernard of Clairvaux, or Mechthild of Magdeburg.
Some of early Christian mystics may have been canonized as saints, like Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross, but a saint is not the same as a mystic. Carl McColman gives us this way to think about the distinction: saints are those recognized by the church for extraordinary levels of goodness, while mystics, on the other hand, encountered and embodied the presence of God in life-altering ways. He wrote: “. . . a saint is someone who is good and holy, while a mystic is someone who knows God, who embodies the presence of God, and whose life has been transformed by this divine presence.” Saints embody goodness, while mystics embody transformational love. There is obviously some overlap, but this is a useful way to think about what makes a mystic different. I think I’d rather be a mystic.
In the writings they left behind, these men and women tell us of their direct experiences of God, describing moments of connection that are powerful, intimate, and often ecstatic. They are not what we think of when we imagine dignified luminaries of the church, and some of the language they use did not sit well with the less spiritually inclined in the church hierarchy.
For instance, have you read the Song of Solomon? Many of us upon first reading may have had trouble placing it with the rest of the book.
At night on my bed I longed for my only love.
I sought him, but did not find him.
I must rise and go about the city,
The narrow streets and squares,
‘til I find my only love.
I sought him everywhere
but I could not find him.
While poems like these are read metaphorically, they tell us that these early writers felt such a strong union with God, the only way many could celebrate it was using the imagery of romantic love because that connection is so strong and so overwhelming. In love we are besotted, obsessed, entirely captured by our beloved. That is the passionate energy so many of the mystics felt about their lived experience of the divine.
Others simply wrote of overwhelming love and oneness. You may have heard of Mechtild of Magdeburg, a 13th century mystic born in Germany. She had a defining ecstatic experience at the age of twelve, where she saw “all things in God and God in all things.” Sound familiar?
Look at other traditions. Here is Rumi’s reflection on living the love of the divine:
Those who don’t feel this Love
pulling them like a river,
those who don’t drink dawn
like a cup of spring water
or take in sunset like supper,
those who don’t want to change,
let them sleep.
This Love is beyond the study of theology,
that old trickery and hypocrisy.
I you want to improve your mind that way,
I’ve given up on my brain.
I’ve torn the cloth to shreds
and thrown it away.
If you’re not completely naked,
wrap your beautiful robe of words
Don’t focus on the theology or the words; we must live it – or we are simply asleep.
Mystics Translate Experiences Into Action
It is this same energy that compelled so many that we call mystics, especially the more modern mystics living out in the world, to translate their experiences into action. When we realize that we live in the midst of sacred creation, that we are one with it, we lose our choice to disregard the pain of others, to look away from suffering. Our comfort zone collapses and we know we have to step out. At the same time, we are ready, we are strong enough, to step into the role we have been handed.
I think of Pedro Arrupe, the Jesuit priest who became a missionary in Japan in 1938. After Pearl Harbor he was imprisoned by the Japanese and lived with the certainty that his execution was imminent. Amazingly, he was at peace.
On August 6, 1945, Arrupe was living in a suburb of Hiroshima when he heard the sirens wailing as a lone B-29 bomber flew overhead. Expecting to hear the all clear, he instead heard an enormous explosion and the doors and windows of the residence blew in. Within minutes the city was reduced to a lake of fire. He and others in his church cared for over 150 of the injured.
Later, when he became Superior General of the Jesuits, Arrupe led the order to a new mission directed to help the poor and powerless, to save others from “poverty and hunger, from the unjust distribution of wealth and resources and from the consequences of racial, social, and political discrimination.”2 It was not enough to espouse theology and impose rules – the love of the creator required that he get up and be an expression of that love towards others.
Mysticism Is a Life Transformed
I think of Rabbi Heschel, who as a child escaped from Poland only weeks before the Nazis invaded; his mother and three sisters did not, and died at the hands of the Germans. He ultimately made it to the United States and served for many years as professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He was also a passionate advocate of civil rights during a time in which he was derided for doing so. His colleagues told him not to worry about white racism toward African Americans, that he needed to focus his efforts on anti-Semitism. He knew, however, that hatred of one group affected all of us, that no one is safe simply because today no one is shouting your name.
Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.
So he marched with Dr. King. When you look at pictures of Dr. King in Selma, you will see Rabbi Heschel, looking like a Biblical prophet with this long white beard, standing with him. When he came back from the march, his 10 year old daughter asked him what it was like. He answered, “I felt that my legs were praying.”
That’s the reaction of a mystic. My legs pray, my hands pray. All of me is involved in loving others, being a point of compassion and healing in the world.
We Each Have a Part To Play — and We Must Play It
Am I saying that only religious mystics can live transformed lives? Of course not; people find different motivations to live lives of service. They may be humanists, atheists, agnostics; they may be Stoics. The mystic path is one path, and we are made richer by knowing it. Religious mystics are powered by their understanding of God’s encompassing love as the energy humming through all creation, binding us all to each other in unbreakable cords.
Even if we don’t use the same imagery or language, we all can still resonate with what they are saying. When Thomas Merton speaks of the love of Christ, we don’t close the book and put it down because we don’t view Christ as we think he did. What a missed opportunity. We take that idea of enveloping and sustaining love and put on it whatever name works for us.
Why does this matter? Because, now more than ever, we are reminded that we each have a part to play and we must play it. Matthew Fox teaches that humanity has so many immediate and critical problems now that our technology won’t solve them. We face problems of the heart – racism, hatred, inequality, war, environmental destruction due to nothing more than greed and ignorance.
We look at today’s headlines, and see that we cannot abdicate this power to our leaders, elected or otherwise, that there really is no “other” who will fix things while we attend to our own lives. If we do not step in as voices and hands of love in this world, we can’t fault others for making the same choices we did.
In every way, our loving action in the world can be strengthened by our lived experience of God. The mystics teach us that these experiences can power us to show up as the love of God here on earth, and indeed will leave us with no choice. Lives lived from a place of transformational love are different.
The Mystics Have So Much to Teach Us
Albert Einstein was asked toward the end of his life if he had any regrets, and he responded: “I wish I had read more of the mystics earlier in my life.”
We are so fortunate, as we can learn from the examples of both the early mystics as well as our own modern day mystics. Their way may not be our way, as we each are different. Their language and their imagery may not be ours, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are able to appreciate what they are trying to say about their own experiences. What they teach us is that we each can be a point of love and grace.
In her book Entering the Castle modern day mystic Caroline Myss writes:
The contemporary mystic more often than not does not reside in a monastery. The new mystic’s community is that of humanity itself . . . the contemporary mystic is called to represent an invisible power in the world through a personal spiritual practice, through the power of prayer, through living consciously and practicing compassion, and through becoming a channel for grace. . . . As a contemporary mystic, you are measured by the quality of attitude you bring to all your tasks, by your capacity to be a model of generosity, and by challenging the fear that there is not enough to go around in this world. . . . Mystical service means modeling calm in chaos, kindness amid anger, forgiveness at all times, personal integrity – to live, in other words, mindful that every second offers a choice either to channel grace or to withhold it.
Let us use the mystics’ example to remember that we live in the world of the sacred as well – all of us, all of this Earth, all of creation. We are caretakers of it, lovers of it and each other. Let’s look to the examples of these brave, inspired radicals who dared to embody the love of God in their lives every day. Aren’t we called to do the same?
Rev. Melanie Eyre
Spiritual Leader, One World Spiritual Center
1Carl McColman, Christian Mystics, p. xvi.
2”Our Mission Today: The Service Of Faith And The Promotion Of Justice”, Decree 4 of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus; December 2nd, 1974 – March 7th, 1975.