23 June 2010

Mystical Experiences and One's Place in the World

[[Dear Sister, I know you don't like the division between the TCW and the MCW [Temporal Catholic World and Mystical Catholic World], but as a contemplative do you ever feel as though you don't belong to the temporal [or embodied] world? Have you ever had mystical experiences . . . which contribute or tempt to this?. . . Do you know any mystics? Do they experience this division?]]

One note on my dislike for the division you mention. Terms like these are not helpful, and are simply seriously misleading theologically and spiritually if they are played off against each other as mutually exclusive. In the passages I have commented on before this was what was true. Hermits were said, for instance, to need to make a choice between the TCW and the MCW. This was what I objected to.

But regarding your questions. No, as a contemplative I feel that I belong to God, and while that includes very very rare mystical experiences which minimize (or completely obviate) awareness of my body, involve what I presumptuously describe as union with God, etc, I really never feel that I do not belong to the temporal world of space and time or to the world of embodied reality. In fact, contemplative prayer, whether involving experiences sometimes called mystical or not, always seems to root me more firmly in God's good creation despite any experience of being caught up in God's presence and love. It does so in terms of mission or eremitical charism. I come away from prayer renewed in my sense of self, my sense of being called in unique and significant ways, and too, of being sent to serve and contribute to the salvation of a world God has called good and loved with an everlasting love. (Please note the various meanings of the term "world" in various posts, including this one. Here I am speaking about God's good creation, not "world" in the sense a hermit or monastic uses when referring to "contemptus mundi" or "fuga mundi.")

Further, I believe I come to these BECAUSE my union with God is something which has, to whatever degree, become more intense and pervasive. The closer I am to God and to union with God, the closer I am to all which he holds as precious, all that is grounded in him. Most especially, I experience myself as more capable of loving others as they need to be loved, more open to hearing how this is from them, and more eager and generous in responding appropriately and adequately. There is a related need to spend time in solitude processing and celebrating what happened in prayer, but these two dimensions of contemplative life complement one another; even --- maybe even especially --- when we are speaking of mystical experiences involving ecstasy, trances and the like, they absolutely do not need to (and probably should not) ultimately conflict.

Remember that whether we are celebrating Xt's Nativity, his participation in and victory over sin and death marked by crucifixion and by his bodily resurrection on Easter, or the continuing incarnational presence of Christ due to his Ascension, we are celebrating a God who dwells with us and who even takes incarnate reality into himself (Christ remains the embodied Logos even at the Ascension). In all of these cases we are dealing with the mystery of incarnation and it is incarnation which reveals and glorifies God most fully in each of these great moments of salvation history. Experiences which minimize incarnation or stress the eternal at the expense of our temporal and embodied existence (as though they are ever completely separable or wholly in conflict) are, at best, suspect to me. This might be good Platonism, but it is bad "Christianity". In an older terminology, these kinds of approaches to spirituality and prayer are disedifying: they do not build up.

Regarding your questions relating to mysticism: yes, I have had mystical experiences. They are profound experiences which, as already noted, occur relatively infrequently (for about 30 min to 1 hour or so at a time), are usually marked by relatively dramatic physiological changes (sometimes including cessation of breathing, slowing of all functions, with complete attentiveness to the inner experience of God in prayer), and often, imagery of God in Christ who interacts with me in various ways. The initial and overarching experience in these periods was a sense of God's tremendous joy that here I was! In the first experience, for instance, I simply "heard" God say in some way, "I am SO glad you are here. I have been waiting for SUCH a long time for this."

I suppose these experiences qualify as "ecstasy" in the technical sense (a standing out of one's ordinary way of being), but in the more common sense of the term (i.e., incredible joy) these were experiences of God's own ecstasy. I can conclude I myself was overjoyed, but what was compelling, even overwhelming, was the sense of God's great joy simply in being with me like this. For this reason, even this single experience changed my life completely --- my way of seeing myself, my way of seeing others, my way of being in the world, and especially my prayer. The shift marked with regard to prayer was from a kind of self-centeredness to attitudes and approaches which were specifically God-centered. That was true in prayer because I became mainly concerned with it as a way of being there FOR God. I began to approach it as a matter of giving God time with and in me --- no matter whether I was aware of him, felt healed, fed, loved, consoled, challenged, or anything similar. (On another level I KNEW God was effecting all these things in me, but the subjective or affective experience (or its absence) was simply unimportant. In light of this experience, what was critical about praying was that God be allowed access to me (and thus to my world) as much as I could allow through his grace.) This remains one of the most important insights I have had into the nature of prayer and is at the heart of my (or any truly Christian) theology of prayer, etc.

However, I am not a mystic nor do I know any. Most Sisters I know have had such experiences from time to time (we tend to call them touchstone or peak experiences, and sometimes use words like mystical or ecstatic in matter-of-fact, non dramatic ways), but, even if the experiences were frequent or regular, I doubt any of us would consider ourselves mystics. Perhaps, but not without real resistance and the exhaustion of our usual vocabularies! In part I think this hesitancy comes from a recognition that the entire mystical experience is a total gift and we have done nothing to prepare or ready ourselves for such occasions apart from ordinary faithfulness to prayer. Such experiences, by the way, can come even when a person has no real prayer life, or is only beginning to develop one, and are often seen more as God's gracious intervention meant to assist (or give a spiritual kick in the pants) at any moment than they are a sign of an "advanced" prayer life.

In part therefore, hesitancy about labeling ourselves mystics comes from a tendency for the term "mystic" to confuse identity with rare and unusual experiences which may have little to do with reflecting the nature or quality of a person's everyday prayer life and spirituality. I suppose that when I use terms like hermit, contemplative, pray-er, theologian, etc I am identifying goals as much as I am identifying central and defining realities in my life. But mystical experiences are neither of these for me. Significant as they can be, they certainly do not define the majority of my prayer, nor are they a goal. (Greater or complete union with God is a different matter, and is certainly both an immediate and ultimate goal.) Somehow, I can never see myself saying: I want to be a better mystic (what would that even mean???), but I can see myself saying I would like to be a better human being, hermit, pray-er, contemplative, Christian, etc. Hence, identifying oneself or another as a mystic is not something I would ordinarily do except as a way of pointing to one of the many ways God is active in one's life. Thus, if someone asked me about the character of someone's prayer life I MIGHT say, "She's a mystic," to give them a sense of things, but I would not refer to the person as a whole as a mystic.

Mysticism (or "Mystics") and the Temporal World

Again, though, even if I or other Sisters alluded to were mystics (meaning those who had been gifted with mystical prayer from time to time or even frequently) it would not mean we would cease to belong to the temporal or embodied world(s). In the experience I described, returning to a sense of my body, resuming breathing (getting my diaphragm to move again in response to another's urgings), figuring out what to do with my hands (which had been resting in that other's, and which remained suspended even after the other's hands were removed) took an effort, a focus I did not quite have immediately, and a period of "easing back" to something more normal. Evenso, at no time did I "leave" my body (a deep state of rest and attentiveness to God in complete dependence upon His care and sustenance is not the same as death --- which IS defined as the separation of body and soul!), nor was the imagery of the prayer experiences "unembodied". These experiences were, instead, experiences marking both Christ and myself as embodied and related in profound ways. (And remember, even glorified bodies, though not temporal --- that is, not subject to the exigencies of time, are instances of embodied existence.)

Significantly, neither did I ever completely cease to be aware of God's love for others. I knew that everyone was completely cared for even as I felt like I had God's complete and undivided attention and love. This paradox is what Augustine also once wrote about: "God loves each of us as though we were the only ones in the universe." The experiences were wonderful, awesome respites, reminders of the complete sufficiency of God alone and signals of what we are each meant for; they were experiences of the way God loves us each and every one of us at every moment, whether we are aware of it or not (and we are mostly not!), but they were also instances and examples of heaven's interpenetration of this world and so, of the eternal interpenetrating the temporal and bringing it to perfection. As such they empowered, transformed (converted and transfigured), and inspired in an ongoing or continuing way months and even years after they had occurred. Even now, 28 years later, I can touch into that first 40 minute experience and appreciate it in ways which continue to foster growth and sanctification. The experience itself has ceased, but God's continuing dynamic presence has not.

[[I also wanted to ask about today's Gospel. What is it that keeps a hermit, contemplative, or mystic from violating the requirements in today's Gospel? Jesus says you will know a good tree by its fruit, but what is the good fruit which comes from people who are shut away from others, or who are taken up with the "MCW"? I just don't see it!]]

Your last questions are really excellent (and their direction is a bit of a surprise after your first ones!). if you don't mind I will mainly answer from the perspective of contemplative and hermit. As I have written before, and as the Canon governing diocesan eremitical life states explicitly, this life is one lived "for the praise of God and the salvation of the world." Failure in either regard marks one's vocation either as inauthentic or failed. But how is it a life lived mainly in the silence of solitude can do either of these and not be hyper-individualistic, self-centered, or unproductive? What does it mean to bear good fruit in such a vocation?

First, praise of God: God is glorified when his life in us is revealed to (and this means not only making known to, but making real within) the world. Our lives praise God when they evidence essential wholeness, wellness (even if that is in the face of serious physical illness), the capacity for love and compassion, and a fundamental generosity, joy, and gratitude at being alive in and for God. We praise God when we live our most authentic humanity (and this means in all its limitations and fragility) well. For the hermit, the silence of solitude and all it comprises should spill over in these things, whether or not this happens in active ministry, hospitality, writing, occasional contacts with parishioners (including one's prayerful presence at liturgy), or in any other way.

I personally believe a hermit's life should draw people in in some way, encourage them to make some of the values embodied in that life their own --- not because the hermit is particularly different from the rest of the assembly or community, but because she is very much the same, with the same needs, weaknesses, gifts, etc. While the call to be a hermit is rare, it should still be a vocation which does not exclude people. As I have written before, even when I am not around my parish for liturgy, etc, people miss me and are aware of the hermitage in their midst. They KNOW that it serves as a place of prayer, a kind of place of rest and order in what can be a very hectic and godless community. That very fact witnesses to fundamental needs in every life, and calls them to make of their own homes something similar --- within the constraints of their own situations and vocations.

Secondly, the salvation of the world: Salvation has to do with making whole, and in the case of either individuals or the world as a whole, bringing to perfection --- not in some precious esoteric sense, but in the sense of bringing to fullness all the potentials we (or the world) possess(es) in God. It involves making true, purifying of distortions and all that demeans, and overcoming all that alienates in reconciliation and healing. God is the cause here and each of us is responsible for allowing God to be sovereign in our lives in ways which affects others similarly. Sometimes this is made manifest as described above. Spirituality is revealed then as an eminently practical reality --- not something for specialists, but an integral part of every genuinely human life. It is not about making us into angels, but about making us into authentically human beings who incarnate the loving, creative, Word of God in all we are and do. Prayer, in particular, is a form of relating which fosters the goal of all of reality, our own personal reality, DIVINE REALITY, and that of all of God's creation.

This is true whether we directly influence others to pray (in teaching or spiritual direction, for instance), or whether our own lives and prayer serves as a silent and hidden leaven in a world needing this. In other words, to use that old language again, authentic spirituality edifies, authentic prayer and prayer experiences build up and perfect. Prayer is most fully real in our lives when we allow the Holy Spirit to act within and through us not only for ourselves, but more primarily for God, for the whole of humanity, the creation we are called to steward, and indeed, the whole of the cosmos. Authentic hermits, contemplatives and mystics all must be aware of and committed to this attitude. When it is absent or when the fruits of prayer (love, compassion, peace, joy, and gratitude) are absent or superficial, then one can question the authenticity of the characterization (hermit, contemplative, mystic, etc).

I hope this is of some help. If it raises further questions or requires clarification, please get back to me. Please also check some of the other blog entries on eremitical life as one of love and service. These may do a better job of answering the questions you posed about eremitical life per se.