Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Reluctant Mystic

Mysticism is making a come-back.

There are scores of new books describing this ancient but often negelected phenomenon, and most of them are urging us to be open to it in our spiritual lives.

Theologian Karl Rahner is often quoted: "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all."

By mysticism, Rahner meant "a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence."

Having read the stories of mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, and more, I am intrigued by their experience but also frightened by the possible consequences if it should happen to me.

Mystical experiences are personal encounters with God. They render a person vulnerable. They are life-changing. And there's the rub for me. I am afraid of the potential change. I cannot predict what God will ask nor whether I will want to respond.

Yet I believe mystical experiences are real, that they are necessary for spiritual growth. I urge congregations to be open to them. I preach of them often. I have come to believe that openness to a mystical experience is the second step in everyone's spiritual life.

The first step (a relatively safe one) is accepting the rules and rituals of religion. As a child I knew the catechism answers, I attended Mass, I prayed the rosary, I gave up candy during Lent. I understood that these made me a practicing Catholic. And for most of my adult life I stayed firmly on that first step.

Now, however, I recognize that there is more --more to one's spiritual life, more to religion, more to being Catholic. The second step is to turn my religion into relationship.

I am to move from method (the many practices of my religion) to mysticism (openness to a personal experience of God).

There is no one definition of mysticism; it can only be described. I think the common denominator in most descriptions is "experience." Chief Leon Shenandoah, chief of the Onondaga nation, who died in 1996, once explained, "Everything is laid out for you. Your path is straight ahead of you. Sometimes it's invisible but it's there. You may not know where it's going, but you have to follow that path. It's the path to the Creator; it's the only path there is."

(Christians do not have a monopoly on mysticism. It is clearly present in the religions and cultures of Native Americans, of Hindus, of Buddhists, of ancient peoples as well.)

Like Chief Leon, St. Paul found the path for his life through a mystical experience on the road to Damascus. And it is reasonable to conclude that this incident was not his only one. He wrote, "I know someone in Christ who, fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows), was caught up to the third heaven...and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter" (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2,4).

Some people out of curiosity, pride, or simply a spirit of adventure want a mystical experience, but these motivations lead to a pseudo-mysticism. Genuine mysticism is motivated by a desire for truth. I think that's why Simone Weil could say, "If I had to make a choice between Jesus and truth, I'd choose truth -for before he was Jesus he was truth."

Part of my fear of mysticism may stem from my awareness that a mystical experience is primarily a right-brain phenomenon. As I understand it, the left lobe accomplishes analytical, judgmental and verbal tasks, while the right lobe processes the sensual, creative and emotional experinces. In a mystical moment the mystic is less in control, less able to analyze, and less able to find the words. I fear being drunk in the Lord.

In addition mystics are often misunderstood. Mystical insights challenge the non-mystical person, and mystical language may be deemed paradoxical or nonsensical. Meister Eckhart was charged with heresy in the 14th century; Thomas Merton has been suspect in our time. (Critics of mysticism like to say, "It begins with mist and ends in schism.")

Now, at this stage of my life, I am once more caught in the trap all preachers face --having to practice what I preach.

Even as I take cautious, fearful baby-steps into being open to mysticism (that is, a personal experience of God), I am convinced it is what God wants for all of us.

It is not enough to know about God; we must come to know him --personally.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure I've always tended toward mysticism more than the "requirements" of religious practice. This could be because I am poetically inclined, and have always felt God in a much more real way when experiencing through the senses. I find this kind of experience of God more natural than falling in line with Church precepts, rules, regulations. After all, ours is a sacramental Church, in which God can be encountered through our senses.This to me, is THE starting point for deep from the heart experience of God.
    I do have the same hesitation as you do, though, when it comes to opening up enough to allow God to enter so deeply as to end up in a full blown mystic experience, not only for the experience in and of itself but for what God might ask or call me to. I wonder if we shut out possibilities because of this fear. By that I mean the possiblity of experiencing God as mystics before us have. Some teachers of the faith tell us we should put passion aside to follow Christ; that love is a decision not a feeling. I say what is following Christ if we are not filled with passionate love for Him, for the mission and for others? For mysticism, passion is an essential ingredient.