06 July 2010

Followup to Mystical Experience and One's Place in the World

I received a couple of emails, one from the original questioner, another with someone with additional questions, and one from Peter Smith with both some questions and a reference to his blog where he responded to my earlier post about Mystical Experience and our Place in the World. At this point I want to respond to Peter's blog article, and, when I have a chance, to the questions from his and the other emails. The idea is to continue a dialogue. So please check out his blog. (I can't seem to get the links to show up, so check out thegoodcatholicmystic.blogspot.com) Peter writes:

[[I can't comment directly to sr. laurel's blog (it isn't set up this way), but i wanted to comment on her post regarding the mystical state. First of lall, I should ask for clarification, because i wonder if we dealing in semantics. She seems to relegate 'mystical' experiences to 'mountain-top' experiences only, or as sort of ER help from the divine for the spiritually weak or immature. At least, that's what it sounded like she said. Um. Not my idea of what mysticism is about. Mysticism is a vocation; a way of life, an every minute, every day experience. Certainly it is not the normal province for the spiritually immature--isn't it usually the mark of the spiritually advanced? At least, some of the most spiritually 'powerful' saints in our canon were marked by a constant mystical life.]]

Yes, to some degree this is a matter of semantics, though not wholly so I think. The simplest answer re relegating the term "mystical experiences" to peak experiences is that for most of us the more everyday mysticism is called contemplative life (or something similar) and "mystical experiences" (ecstasy, trance, visions, locutions, etc) is the language of specific kinds of rarer events. In part that is done to rescue "contemplative life/prayer" from a sense of being for specialists only or from being associated only with special experiences --- especially those which separate from others or mark one out as unusual in some way. Some of the other reasons I noted in my earlier blog piece, and others relate to elements in the history of mysticism in Catholicism --- especially in the late medieval period which were problematical then and remain so even now for those who read without a sense of history and context. Clearly though, knowledgeable and reputable people write books (and blogs!!) about "everyday mysticism" or "practical mysticism," etc, so it can be done appropriately. When Peter speaks of "the mystical life" I think he is referring to a life lived in light of a pervasive sense of the mystery or ground of reality. If so, then I would agree completely that it is an everyday reality. But my own solution with this and other terms is to use contemplative instead (not least because it does not need to be qualified by the terms "everyday" or "practical") and to reserve "mystical experience" for the rarer and peak experiences. Similarly I would refer to a person with a contemplative life as a contemplative, even though at the heart of that is an awareness of (or resting in) the mystery which grounds all reality.

Also, Peter and other readers should be aware that the question I was responding to posed things in terms of 1) a wholly artificial and inappropriate division between a putative TCW (Temporal Catholic World) and MCW (Mystical Catholic World), --- especially in terms of the mystic being divided (alienated) from the temporal world --- and 2) mystical experiences per se which were specified as ecstasy, trance, and the like. The sections of the question which were not included, and which may have been marked by ellipses, referred to a specific situation which defines a prayer life in terms of extraordinary and alienating experiences and which can be seriously destructive in a parish environment. This situation is not mine to make public, but it underscores my own tendency to use contemplative in place of mystical, as well as to relegate mystical experiences to moments of significant breakthrough or union which enhance rather than detract from one's relation with this world. It may very well be that the notion of an everyday or "practical" mysticism would provide a way of countering the unfortunate elements in the situation referred to, but at this point I am not convinced.

One reason for this hesitancy is because the terms mystic or mysticism seem to set one up to expect as natural the more dramatic experiences we count as mystical: ecstasies, trances, visions, locutions, and the like. If one then finds they do not happen, or happen very infrequently, one can come to believe that there is something seriously wrong with one's prayer. But all prayer is God's work within us and those really peak experiences of union are complete gifts given according to God's will and wisdom. It becomes especially tricky if one has come to identify such experiences with advanced prayer ---- and spiritually dangerous as well, I think. We have better ways of measuring the quality of advancement in a prayer life: does one's prayer lead to greater compassion, joy, peace, creativity, hope, deeper and more authentic humanity? Does it allow one to suffer with equanimity and courage in a way which relativizes suffering so it, real as it is, does not define one's being? Does it sustain one even in the times when God seems absent, when life disappoints cruelly, and one feels out of step with the world? Does it lead one not to a sense of being different than others, but to a sense that one is really, in profound ways, the same as everyone else? That is, does it lead one to a sense of deep communion with God, and solidarity with his creation --- all that and those he regards as precious? Again, ecstatic or rapturous experiences of union with God do happen to those with little or no really developed prayer lives, so the experiences as such may or may not indicate advancement in prayer. They must be accompanied by these other more authentic signs of spiritual growth. I think that some of my concern in this regard --- the notion that we will come to measure the quality of our prayer by the presence or absence of peak mystical experiences --- is given at least a slight basis in Peter's blog entry on my original post.

He writes: [[ Frankly, in my 26 years of an intentional spiritual life, we experience, usually, what we EXPECT to experience. And there is no contradiction here. If we expect for 'mountaintop' experiences to happen only once per (fill in the blank) then that is what we shall have. If we anticipate that god will intersect with us daily, strangely, physically (so it seems), then he does. This is no mere 'wish fulfillment'; in my view it is a very fundamental and profound and sublime truth. If we wish the spiritual life to be difficult, to be dry, to be 'i-thou', to be usually 'reaching out', then it shall be.

To each his own. But as for me, a different path has chosen me. As sister said so eloquently when she expressed her feeling of the inexpressible joy of the Jesu during one of her own mystical experiences, 'where have you been, I'm so glad you are here'---does this not intimate that the Jesu expects us to be with him always, in every moment, and in that same sublime and inexpressible and mystical way? Why could it not mean that? I don't doubt that sister experiences god in a intimate and even in an ever-present way---but why must a 'mystical' union with god play so infrequent a role?]]

Let me be clear. In my prayer I am as open as I can be to God being present in whatever way (he) desires to be, but I (thank God!) do not usually get what I expect --- and so I practice not expecting any particular thing and again, simply being open. This is a reflection of my recognition that I am God's to do with as he will --- and my commitment to become that more and more. God is always a God of surprises, and we are always those who forget or underestimate (or perhaps --- and rightly so --- cannot hang onto) his awesomeness. Nor, in saying that I use the term mystical experiences for some peak or touchstone experiences, am I implying that my prayer otherwise is merely dry, difficult, or anything similar. Of course it also has these moments, and yet, even at these times it is rich, and alive with God's presence. In a very real sense, union with God is a daily reality I know (unless I opt out of that) --- even when I don't sense or feel it clearly, and I act and live in light of that deep knowledge --- and more importantly, in light of the deep knowledge that my prayer is a significant event (or experience) for God no matter what I personally experience.

However, wonderful as this ongoing sense of presence is, it is at least not as intense as those peak experiences I identify as "mystical experiences." As for what Jesus or God in Christ wishes for me, I have no doubt that one day "mystical union" in the sense Peter means, will simply be the whole of my reality, however I also have the sense that that time is not now. I still experience a union I call contemplative, and I am open to "more" whenever God deigns to give himself to me in this way; there is also no doubt, though, that were this to become a regular or frequent thing it would change my life and ministry dramatically, and, at this point, I have a strong sense that this is indeed where God wills me to be. Indeed, the last 40+ years have prepared for this place and time in my life and I know that God is as joyfiled over this as he was during that first 40 minute prayer experience 25 years ago.

So, I am not saying that "mystical union" cannot happen (my faith is clear that it can, does, and will), or that God does not wish it in my life (he has and does) ---- and certainly it is true that He wills it ultimately for every person. But in my theology it is also true that both human beings and God continue to experience estrangement from, as well as union with one another, and this estrangement and alienation witnesses to the imperfection and to the ongoing work still needed to bring all things to fulfillment in Christ. My experience is that God is infinitely patient and works constantly to reconcile, that is, to bring everything to union with himself. He gives us Scriptures, Sacraments, a Savior, prophets, mystics, and occasional mystical experiences as well to remind us of (and achieve) the goal of both his own and our lives, but it makes sense to me that we cannot dwell on the mountaintop at all times. Like Moses, and Jesus himself, we must come down to lead, witness to, heal, and inspire --- and of course, we must come down so that we ourselves may grow through our encounters with those who lead, witness to, heal, and inspire us as well. That is simply the normal way the Spirit of God works in our world.

Gifts must be used, spent, given away or otherwise shared rather than grasped at and that means coming down from the mountain to dwell where most others are most of the time. With Christ, we are reminded that he did not count equality with God something to be grasped at, but rather emptied himself. Did he experience a contemplative union with God during his life? Yes, except during the passion, it seems. Does he return to the Father in a way akin to mystical union in the Ascension (and perhaps during those times he went off to pray alone)? Yes, but descent was necessary so that the whole of creation could ultimately ascend to God as well. It is an image which reminds me of the rhythms of my own life and prayer, and one (among others) which helps me understand why those experiences I call "mystical experiences" happen relatively infrequently in the lives of most serious "pray-ers".

I am tempted to ask myself, "In all of this which has been of most significance to you, Laurel, the peak experiences like the one described, or the more everyday ongoing sense of dialogue and union with a God that constitutes part of your very being?" And I cannot say either is more important or more true. One worked like a jolt of electricity searing my mind and heart and changing forever the way I see myself and what I know as both my present and future. The other is like a well-banked and slow-burning fire which provides constant warmth, light, comfort and challenge. But both are with me always, just as both are of God and are the will of God.

N.B pictures are of "Transfiguration" by Lewis Bowman and are available in stretched Giclee canvas, matted and framed version, and simple print from fineartamerica.com.