07 July 2010

Desiring Mystical Experiences: "Is it Proper"?


One of the questions I received in response to the original post on Mystical Experience and One's Place in the World, was the following: [[Is it proper to desire mystical experiences? . . .My goal is quite simply to be completely absorbed in the Lord, in prayer. . .I have been a woman of serious prayer and meditation for many years and am desirous of being a true contemplative. But I realise that such are pure gifts from God. But, oh how I desire them! Am I wrong?]]

The short and unnuanced answer is, no, there is nothing wrong with simply desiring what you have had a taste of (mystical union), and what you are in fact made for. Often when we come to prayer we have a sense of deep peace, of various experiences of being addressed, comforted, healed, held, listened to, and we may also sense that those are partial or mitigated experiences of a communion we are ultimately made for. Sometimes the obstacles to more intense and pervasive experiences are those we carry within us, sometimes they are simply part of God's own hugeness or a sort of "withholding" of God's Self in these ways. But what remains true is that we are ultimately made for mystical union with God and so, longing for this in our prayer is completely understandable. So long as we remain aware, as you do, that specific experiences are gifts of God at the same time, and that, with or without such experiences, prayer is God's constant work within us, I think such desire CAN be virtuous and a way of remaining open to God's presence.

The longer answer though is that at the same time there MAY be something wrong with desiring these experiences; it depends on what we are desiring and why. One problem with these kinds of experiences is that they ordinarily put the focus on us and our experience rather than on God and his constant activity within us. Similarly, we often find these experiences are seductive. I remember for a week after the experience I described, I would go to prayer looking for this amazing ecstasy (this standing outside my normal reality in this way) to occur again --- I wanted so much to be taken up again in this way, to dance with Christ again, to experience the radiance of God's joy at being with me. And yet, it did not happen. I, rather sheepishly, related to my director what my prayer had been like that week and she laughed (gently, but with real understanding), and said, "It's a little like being a kid in a candy store, isn't it? You just want back in there for more!" And of course, she was right.

Fortunately, the experience I had focused my attention on God's own "experience" -- not on my own. It was primarily an experience of God's own delight and joy, not my own. Even so, what I really needed to learn to do was to tap back into (or draw from the living memory of) the original experience from time to time, but also, to appreciate better the everyday omnipresence and grace of God which this experience signaled and in which it was grounded. To continue my director's analogy, I needed to learn to love fruits (and vegetables) and all the naturally sweet "foods" of Divine grace and presence that were around (and within!) me everyday at every moment. If mystical experiences do not lead us to an openness to God in all the ways God is present to us --- most of which are not marked by extraordinary experiences or even any "experience" --- then their seductiveness is probably not edifying, either to us or to others.

Another problem, especially when we come to see these experiences as a sign of advancement in prayer, or when they become regular (which tends to make me think they are more of us and less of God), is what happens when they cease. In the first instance we may cease to look for the real and infallible signs of spiritual growth and maturity: peace, love, compassion, patience, courage, the ability to suffer with equanimity, joy, and the like. We may begin to see our prayer as incomplete or inadequate. But ecstatic experiences, as you, I, and others note, are pure gifts and there is nothing we can do beyond normal faithfulness to prayer to prepare for or cause them. We absolutely cannot expect them. If we begin to think of ourselves as mystics because of a few significant experiences which were SOLELY due to God's power and grace, we may well have put the accent in the wrong place --- namely on ourselves and on what is merely a quantitatively small part of our spiritual lives which need not necessarily reflect the maturity of our spirituality or the authenticity of our humanity. (Note well, I am not referring to Peter Smith's identification of himself as a mystic here, for instance, --- that is completely valid I think --- but I do have a sense that this was true in the original situation that prompted the question I answered in Mystical Experiences and our Place in the World.)

In the second instance, when these experiences cease (or become infrequent), we may be tempted to think God has ceased to grace us at all, or that we have sinned seriously, or that we have reached some even "more advanced dark night" experience --- none of which are particularly likely or which really understand the gratuitousness of occasional or rare experiences of ecstasy or rapture and the like. This is especially difficult when we have come to define ourselves in terms of these experiences, or when others have come to see us in these terms and accept us as "spiritual" (or, in some cases, as less eccentric or unstable than they thought!) because of them. Is our prayer and our spirituality recognizably more than these experiences? Are we ourselves more than these --- no matter how important and genuine they are? Are we still mystics (or contemplatives, or charismatics, or whatever the label) when these experiences cease?  And finally, do we recognize that these experiences do not make us more profoundly loved by God than someone who never has such experiences? Do we realize that our everyday faithfulness to prayer and God's continuous faithfulness to us is far more important than these extraordinary experiences? These seem to me to be the important questions to which we (and those who know us) should be able to answer yes.

As many genuine mystics remind us, prayer (on our side of the equation) is an act of will. (I prefer to define prayer as God's activity within us, but on our side of things prayer is an act of will.) One author, in writing about Julian of Norwich commented: [[God is much more pleased, according to Julian, when our prayer is unrewarding to us but is centered on God, rather than on our self-oriented personal "experience." "Praying," [Julian] declares, "is a true, gracious, lasting intention of the soul one-ed and made fast to the will of our Lord by the sweet, secret working of the Holy Spirit" ---a simple act of faithful and trust-filled willing.]] He goes on to note: [[Julian delivers us from the guilt of not feeling prayerful. In a direct analogy one may often not feel like going home to one's spouse, but one goes home out of faithfulness, and thereby demonstrates a love that transcends the myth of romance and the sentimentality of emotions. Julian knows that both loving and praying are done with the will, not the emotions.]] (The Complete Julian of Norwich, Fr John-Julian, OJN, p 12)

The point here is not that feelings, emotions, or mystical experiences are bad or should not be desired (nor that they are not part of loving) but motives for prayer may be ambivalent at best when these, especially mystical or highly emotionally charged experiences, are involved. As I noted above, in the experience I described, what was overwhelming to me was what an experience of joy this was FOR GOD! I am sure I must have personally experienced joy (the imagery involved surely reflected it), but it was realizing that my prayer, my slightest gesture of acting/willing to be there and for and with God, opening to him, was a joyful experience for God that changed my life and prayer. Ironically, this mystical experience in many ways did away with the need or desire for others (i.e., other similar experiences)!  I have not ceased to do "lectio" with it even 35 years later. It remains striking to me that the feelings I can name clearly were God's own --- those communicated to me as 'his" joy and delight --- not my own.

One issue you raise is that of becoming a "true contemplative" and you linked that in your question (in the section I did not copy) with praying without distraction, including not being bothered by ambient sound and the noises of neighbors, etc. If you don't mind my opinion on that, I have found that if one can learn to pray WITH distractions --- that is, bring the neighbors, traffic (harried travelers, an overly mobile world, etc.) into one's prayer in some way, one may be closer to becoming a true contemplative than the image in your email allows. I would bet that if you try this these sources of distraction will surely look and sound differently to you thereafter. What is sometimes called "Infused contemplation" is a gift of God and not everyone may experience this at any given period, but I sincerely believe that all of us are called to contemplative prayer more generally, and this is no less truly contemplative than what is called "infused". We are surely called to be absorbed in God in our prayer (and to allow him to be "absorbed with" us in ways we might usually resist), but another reason for prayer is to bring all of creation to God, and this is one of the ways to help do that.

By the way, thanks to you and others for your suggestions on topics re diocesan eremitical life you would like to hear more about. They are good. Meanwhile, I hope this helps a bit with the questions you raised. Get back to me if it is unclear or raises more questions. Given the complexity and importance of the topic it is likely I will only cover one "side" of things at a time --- something that can cause a sense that that is the "only" side I appreciate.