31 July 2010

Memorial of St Mary Magdalen (Delayed Post)

Reflection: Memorial of St Mary Magdelen
Redwoods Monastery(Cistercian)
Whitethorn, CA
July 22, 2010


Today's Memorial of St Mary Magdalen is one that makes me wonder. Not least I wonder about why "the Church" has kept it in the calendar. Afterall, it so threatens the clerical and patriarchal status quo! And then I realize once again that I am Church, that many of the women I know are Church, that this monastery of nuns where I am making retreat is Church in the most authentic sense possible, that the Holy Spirit inspires her Church to recognize the sainthood of women like Mary Magdalen, inspires her to call the Magdalen "Apostle to the Apostles." It is actually a bit embarrassing to wonder about such things. It is embarrassing to still have deeply entrenched somewhere in my mind --- and despite my theological education and some of my experience --- the sense that the term "the Church" refers to a patriarchal hierarchy and to strongly suspect that if they only could, they would wipe this challenging and prophetic memorial off the face of the church calendar. And of course, part of the reason it is embarrassing is because this felt sense is also true in many ways. (Even now, for instance, you may wonder why this is only a Memorial and not an outright Feast -- or even a Solemnity. After all, this is the person that first realized and witnessed to the resurrection of the Christ --- the Apostle to the Apostles!) I know I wonder!

But this is a moving and challenging Gospel story and one of the strongest images in it is that of the stone having been rolled away and Mary initially not really quite knowing or having "caught up" to what has happened and the new reality signaled by that open tomb. This few moments in her life mirrors what is true in each of us, and in the Church as a whole more often than not. My own tendency to think of "the church" as the hierarchy, despite official church teaching to the contrary, is a small piece of this in my own life. Never mind that the hierarchy of the church often gives every indication that they believe this is how things are and should be! Apparently the hierarchy also has failed to recognize completely what it means that the tomb is open and the stone has been rolled away! All of us are learning to live with and from this new truth in our lives, I think --- learning, that is, to move and act in the ever more expansive space and freedom of people of the resurrection.

A few months ago I read a story about a man who regularly took walks along a specific walking path. Each time he ran into a man who was walking his dogs. The dog walker let all three of the dogs off the leash and two of them bounded off into the adjacent fields to run free and play together. The third also ran into the field and enjoyed the opportunity, but instead of running free he ran around in a small circle, constricted and cramped by an unseen boundary. The owner explained: "this dog was raised in a very small kennel and was never allowed out. When he ran it was within the confines of the kennel and he became accustomed to moving in this tight, constrained space. Even now, though he is free to run where he will, he continues to run as though he is a prisoner within this kennel." I am sure that I have areas of such unfreedom, areas where I think I am acting with some kind of expansiveness, realms where I think I understand something, or am acting as is natural and authentically human, but yet, which are really signs of my bondage to unChristian perspectives and narrowness of life. These are the places in my life which have not quite realized or "caught up to" the reality and meaning of the open tomb and the fact that the stone really has been rolled away for all time.


The second powerful moment for me today in this Gospel is when Jesus says, "Do not cling to me" and then commissions Mary to go out and tell the world (and especially the other disciples who are cowering in the house in fear) that Jesus is risen and will soon be ascended to his Father. In other words, Go and tell my Brothers and Sisters that death has been vanquished and cannot hold any of us again! Now, I always found this instruction, "Do not cling to me" puzzling, but today I saw in it two bits of important wisdom. The first came from my own meditation where I heard Jesus saying to me: "I am with you always and everywhere. Do not worry and do not cling merely to past understandings or stereotypes of your vocation. You are a hermit wherever you are, and I send you forth to be an eremitical presence in the world." Yes, of course I have to be faithful to my solitary contemplative discipline ---- or I shall be nothing and have nothing to give the world --- but it is a part of the diocesan hermit's charism/mission that she be sent to proclaim the Gospel to her brothers and sisters in her parish, diocese, etc --- even if that is carried out in complete silence.

A related bit of wisdom which echoed all of this came from our homilist at this morning's Mass when he reminded us that "Mary was called to let go of the old and embrace the new life of the resurrection." She could not cling to the old Jesus, the Jesus she knew before his passion and resurrection, for instance, but instead had to orient her life around the Risen Christ who was returning from his pilgrimage among us (and the sin and death that often defines us) to a place in the very heart of God. In other words, she had to come to allow the resurrection to define who she was today, to allow the risen Christ to be the Lord of her life. In short, she had to accept a new life in which nothing at all was really the same any longer. And she had to accept a commission to proclaim this newness to men and women whose old values, perspectives, and ways of living had been God-given under the old covenant! The call to be "Apostle to the Apostles." Hardly a small task!

My own prayer today in light of all this is that both personally and in the Church as a whole, in whatever way we may find ourselves running in cramped or constrained circles with our lives unused to, and perhaps unprepared for, the freedom of Christians, we truly accept the dignity and expansiveness of our Baptisms. I pray especially that I may work to allow those still-imprisoned bits (and habituated hunks) of myself to truly realize the stone has been rolled away and that --- to whatever extent it is still true --- I will no longer settle for living in a tomb. Too, I pray that those within the Church who have built a secure and powerful life for themselves in this all-too-human darkness and narrowness of power and prestige may not only realize they have been called to run freely outside, but that they have been given a risky and costly commission to call the world to such expansive freedom and life --- a commission which cannot be carried out from within this place of narrowness, human constriction, and death. May all of us as Church truly proclaim the gospel of Christ with and for the whole of our lives ---- may we each be an Apostle to the Apostles!!

Note to myself: 32 years ago today I made perpetual vows. These were not eremitical vows (they were made in community), but, except for some slight revisions, they were essentially the same vows I used for perpetual eremitical profession just three years ago on Sept 2, 2007. It has been an amazing journey and I look forward to many more years of the same with Mary Magdalen as a model.

30 July 2010

Redwoods Monastery


I said I would write about retreat, but that will take some time, not only to process personally, but also to determine how it should best be done. Let me say at this point only that it was a very special week, a week at a Trappistine monastery (abbey) where silence, solitude and community, all under the Rule of Benedict was the order of the day, 24/7 (well, 6.5; Sunday is a bit different). I will also say that I have never felt more at home anywhere, and that the unexpected bond forged with this community of women religious and monastics I consider one of the greatest gifts of and from God I could have received. And lest any of you wonder if I am going to run off and "join the Trappistines," the answer is no. Precisely because this place felt so like home to me I am clearer than ever that I am called to be a diocesan hermit, and an urban hermit at that. However, in one way and another, Redwoods will also be an important part of living that with integrity, I suspect. Time and prayer will tell.


Located in or near what is called "The Lost Coast" in Northern California, Redwoods is a small monastery (actually now an Abbey), one of five women's Cistercian monasteries in the US. The drive once one turns off the freeway or main highway nearest the monastery is about 45 minutes. Redwoods has, counting the Trappist chaplain who ministers to the community, 11 members. One Sister is newly solemnly professed, one will make solemn profession in mid August, and one is a novice. The sisters grow most of their own food (the diet is vegetarian as in many monastic houses), and support themselves from the sale of flavored creamed honey and the reception of guests from May through late October or early November. Guest quarters (which are about 1/8 - 1/4 of a mile or so from the monastery proper) are simple (even rustic) but comfortable, food (usually taken in a guest dining room with a small library, refrigerator, etc) is nourishing, plentiful and excellent. Guests may join the sisters in all liturgical services (Divine Office, Eucharist, daily meditation sessions). They may also assist in work around the monastery if they arrange that with the guestsister. The grounds (300 acres) are simply magnificent, forest and grassland along with a river running through. (Some of this is cloistered and posted so, but there is plenty of common area otherwise.) Wildlife is ubiquitous --- especially deer (all the does had fauns, and all were comfortable and grazed right up to the buildings --- one doe bedded down next to the wall in the shade of one of the guesthouses after dinner (lunch) one day; she looked up as I passed but never moved otherwise).

A retreat may not be feasible for some readers (one may stay for shorter periods), but consider purchasing honey or otherwise supporting this monastery. It is "the real deal" --- a gift to both Church and world, and deserves whatever support people can give. To purchase honey online, google Redwoods Monastery and click at the top of the website on honey. Also available are watercolor cards, bookmarks, and pen and ink cards done by the Sisters (mainly Sister Victoria, I think). Finally, the Sisters have their library in an original (and, in places, somewhat ramshackle) building and need a new library which would allow them to house the really fine monastic collections now living in boxes or endangered by weather, etc. This would be accessible to guests part of the time, and would be part of the cloistered area the rest. If any readers could seriously consider contributing to this project, I hope they will do so. It is an investment in a significant instance of genuine, living Cistercian Tradition.

Note: I will put up some of my own photos as I have time. These three (chapel, honey and Sisters working in the honey house) are taken from the Monastery's own website.

29 July 2010

Feast of St Martha


Today's Gospel is powerful and something we can all empathize with. The challenge of so many of the stories we have heard over the last two weeks has been to recognize and claim what is right in front of us. We have heard Jesus remind his disciples and others that what they have here and now is greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon, greater than the Temple even. In other words, it is greater than Judaism itself --- gift of God though that is. And we have heard parables that affirm there is a treasure hidden right in front of us in the midst of ordinary life --- a treasure we could stumble over while walking through a field, a pearl of inestimable value we have only to look to find in the middle of the market and surrounded by lesser pearls. In so many ways we have been encouraged to find the Kingdom of heaven (God himself) right in front of us and incarnate in Christ. Today the Gospel also suggests why this is so important.

The story is composed of a series of exchanges between Martha and Jesus. Martha's brother and Jesus' good friend Lazarus has died while Jesus was several days away, and Martha struggles to come to terms both with his death and with the revelation of God's love that is right in front of her. Equally importantly, this is the story of Jesus' struggle to get Martha to see and find true comfort and hope in this --- in Jesus himself and all he represents. As Jesus and his disciples approach, Martha --- irrepressible and the epitome of action, as always it seems --- runs to meet him, a rather respectful rebuke ready: "If only you had been here, my brother would not have died!" She follows this with a somewhat obscure affirmation, "But even now I know that whatever you ask of God he will do for you." What she hopes for here is unclear --- probably she doesn't know herself, but she does recognize Jesus as a special man of God and wonderworker --- affirmations which all fall easily within the religion and culture she knows so well. It does seem though, that she is not anticipating the resuscitation of her brother. Jesus counters with a statement of certain hope: "Your brother will rise," and before he even finishes it seems Martha breaks in with a recitation of Jewish future hope: "Yes, of course --- the resurrection on the last day." But she has not really heard what Jesus is saying right here and now.

Throughout these exchanges Martha does what we all do in times of threat and grief as we struggle to come to terms with what is happening and to grow in faith in God and his Christ. At first she turns to what might have been: "If only. . ." she remonstrates. We have all done it: "If only I had gone to a different school"; "if only I had married "Tommy" when I had the chance"; "if only I had left the house 10 minutes earlier, I would have never been in that accident." "If only I had become a nun I would never have missed my REAL vocation!" etc. We do it with God too: "If only he had heard (or answered) my prayer! "If only he had intervened and saved her" etc etc. It is a normal response to grief and loss, but it avoids living fully the present moment and it falls far short of faith in the present and risen Christ.

Next Martha turns to the future looking for comfort and hope. Again as we all do, she takes refuge in traditional beliefs, in this case a future resurrection of all of creation. Unfortunately this does not seem all that comforting for her, perhaps because, as is often true for so many of us, it is not anchored in present reality or certainty. It is something Martha has been told to believe (or told is reasonable to believe), and perhaps, it may not yet be completely convincing. (How true is something similar for us as we profess the articles of our Creeds, for instance? We believe these things as best we can; we may "translate them" for ourselves as we profess them and suppress doubt or questions in the process; we may derive some comfort from these beliefs, but to what extent do we really hope in them because we know their inbreaking here in front of us?) Martha, in completely recognizable fashion has turned to nostalgia for what might have been and to wishfulness for what might one day be, but both seem to fall short of genuine hope, and because of this neither are ultimately comforting in her grief and loss. How well we know her predicament!

But Jesus wants to comfort Martha. He is seeking to give her real hope which, as more than mere wishfulness, is rooted in certainty and anchored in present reality --- whether or not Lazarus is resuscitated. And so, gently he brings her attention back to what is certain and standing right in front of her: "Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. . ." Greater than any wonder worker, greater than Solomon or his Temple, born from Judaism and greater than anything Judaism itself can offer: "Martha, 'I am the resurrection and the life. . .'" right here, right now. And then he asks the critical question, "Martha, can you trust that? Can you entrust yourself to me and to all I am? 'Do you believe' --- today, right now, Martha?" And Martha responds, "Yes, Lord, I have come to believe (have faith) that you are the Christ (or, I have come to trust in you who are the Christ), the Son of God, the One who is coming into the world, " --- the fullest expression of faith thus far in the Gospel of John.

The challenge to us is the same as it was for Martha and the same as the readings have affirmed throughout the last weeks: to look to the Lord who is present right in front of us, who dwells with us in the midst of everyday life and accompanies us in all of life's moments and moods --- to find and claim the pearl of great price, the embodiment of the Kingdom of God who comforts, nourishes, and challenges us in Word and Sacrament; the one who brings life out of death and meaning out of absurdity every moment of our lives, who consoles and empowers with his Spirit and grounds authentic hope in certainty. Can we entrust ourselves to him? Can we build our lives around and on a relationship with him? Today. Right now. Will we?

26 July 2010

Whence the Name, Stillsong Hermitage??


Dear Sister O'Neal, the name of your hermitage sounds kind of new age or something. Why didn't your diocese pick something more religious and Catholic sounding?

Hi there!
Just to be clear, the name of my hermitage is something I decided on, not a decision of my diocese, so it is a personally significant name and one I (through the grace of God, I think) am wholly responsible for. Hermits generally name their hermitages. Perhaps it will help if I explain its origin and you can decide then if you think it is "new age" rather than profoundly Christian. I would ask you also read the heading at the top of this blog because it also helps explain the name.

In theology there is the notion that human beings are "word events" or "language events". This is a piece of understanding the communal nature of every human being, and especially of seeing the dialogical nature of our existence. We are not isolated monads, but instead are created and shaped by our interactions with every person we meet, with the larger world, and of course, with God. But most fundamentally we are shaped by the words addressed to us and by the ways in which the words we ourselves are are heard and received by others. In our earliest moment or before, we are given a Name which allows us to be called or addressed personally, and which gives us a place to stand in human society. We grow or fail to grow depending upon the ways we are addressed, and we grow in our capacity to respond to others' words (and to our own name) similarly. On the most profound level we are constituted by our dialogue with God. More, we are constituted AS a dialogue, not only with others, but with God whose very address constitutes an ongoing living reality within us. In other words, more and more as we mature, we become incarnate words, greater and greater articulations of that unique name God calls in the depths of our souls.

But of course, things do not always go as they should and sometimes life shapes us into something less articulate than this, something distorted and even defined by pain and woundedness --- something far less than the full expression of abundant life we are called to be. And in my own life there was a period where, when I reflected on who I was in terms of my identity as a language or word event I came to describe myself more as a cry or scream of anguish than anything really articulate. (Note that a scream neither communicates much nor is capable of responding to another's word of address; it is relatively inarticulate and unresponsive and, while effective in signalling great pain in the short term, in time it merely pushes people --- and genuine assistance --- away.) And then, through a lot of personal work, spiritual direction, and the grace of God --- part of which is a call to eremitical life --- I achieved a degree of healing which changed all that. In time I became (or came to see myself) not simply as an articulate language event (a word), but a song, a contemporary Magnificat or Te Deum --- if you will allow the metaphors.

When it became time to name the hermitage I chose to combine a word which signified peace, silence, solitude (and especially as these all come together in the hesychastic "silence of solitude") along with a word which reflected the joy, healing, and growth as language event this hermitage helped occasion and represented. I considered adding things like "of the cross" or "of the Incarnation," but in the end I chose simply Stillsong. It seems profoundly incarnational (and therefore also Marian) to me.

This last week on retreat I had an experience (or series of experiences) which reaffirmed the wisdom and deep appropriateness of this choice, an experience where it seemed my whole being was singing and which also may have represented the recovery of a part of myself which had, through trauma, been silenced. So, new age? No. Profoundly Christian? Absolutely.

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.

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.

04 July 2010

Happy Fourth of July!!




Happy Independence Day to everyone! It is indeed a day to celebrate. Several of us who attend our parish met for Mass this morning, and then split up as one Dominican Sister went to help prepare her community's 4th of July BBQ for the four convents on their "block", while the rest of us left for a parade in a small town not too far from here. We stopped for "In and Out" hamburgers (to go) on the way into the parade town, and once again for rootbeer floats on the way out. The parade was not as great as we had been led to expect, but there were lots of people there celebrating one another, and the sections filled with armed forces bands, Blue Star Mothers, Gold Star Mothers --- all carrying pictures of their sons and daughters was very moving. I did have the strange experience of having one soldier salute me, and I "saluted" back (differing uniforms or habits, differing kinds of mission and service, differing ways of giving our lives, but mutual respect). I wiped more than a few tears away.

So, the others are off to neighborhood dinners, BBQ's and fireworks, and I am back at the hermitage with time to reflect on what freedom really is all about, and how very grateful I am that I have come to know that myself --- to whatever extent it has been realized in my life. I have written before here that freedom is the counterpart of divine sovereignty, that is we are truly free when God is sovereign in our lives. Freedom in this sense is the power to be those we are called to be. But most of us know freedom also as the environment which allows us to pursue this very responsible and peace-filled goal, and for that today, I am very grateful!

My very best on this anniversary of United States' Independence!

A somehwat sunburned
Sister Laurel M O'Neal, Er Dio