25 June 2014

On Mystical States Occurring Routinely During Mass

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, if someone has a mystical experience will God force this on them? What I mean is is if they want to "get out" of the experience will God refuse to allow this? How about someone who has mystical experiences every day at Mass and wants to get out of the "state" because there is something offensive happening in the Mass? (I mean something dissenting or an abuse of rubrics or something.) Will God force the person to stay in the "state" or trance? Is it common to have such experiences every time one goes to Mass and at a specific part of the Mass?. . .

(. . .[The person I am asking about] writes and says the states begin when the readings begin and continue through the period after Communion. [This has been happening] for more than five years. She has begged the Lord to stop them because it separates her from others and makes going to Mass difficult. She was even injured when she stood during Mass in an attempt to stave off the state; her spiritual director asked her to try this and she fell and hurt her shoulder when "the state" struck anyway! Could she reserve Eucharist at her own home? She is a Catholic hermit so wouldn't this be a solution to her difficulties?]]

Compulsion is not the way of the God of Jesus Christ:

Your description of this phenom-enon is troubling for several reasons. Let me therefore speak to a handful of the theological, spiritual, and pastoral reasons grounding those concerns.  My comments have to do with the reasons the states described seem not to be of God --- what they actually are I do not know. Further, let me be very clear: I make and can make no judgment on the person experiencing these states. Nor should anyone else.

First, except for heresies condemned by the Council of Trent**, I have never read or heard that God compels a person against his or her will -- whether in states of prayer or anywhere else. In my own prayer experiences (including some which might be called mystical) coercion or force was and is NEVER a part of them. In fact they are marked by increasing, even limitless freedom to be oneself. While my own experience is certainly not extensive, much less exhaustive, it does correspond to simple, fundamental theology and the experience of other contemplatives. There is nothing surprising in this. God does not force his presence/love/will on any of us. To do so is a violation of our free will and Divine Love.

Of course God knocks again and again (both from without and from within our own hearts), he desires unqualified admittance to and intimacy with us and within our lives, but one of his greatest and most risky gifts is free will and those who answer his knock will find that transformed into authentic Freedom. Even experiences of infused contemplation are not coercive; the person may not wish to leave these states, but should they desire to --- or should someone call to them in the midst of such a state --- they can leave them. Further, such states do not occur without at least implicit permission. I think too we must consider that God is delighted when we give such permission and meet him in prayer; how can we speak of God being delighted in being coercive, depriving us of both the free will and the freedom that is God's greatest gift apart from life itself, while making us profoundly unhappy and unsuited for participation in community? To speak of God as one who forces his will upon us is to speak of a monster, not the God of Jesus Christ.

Personally I would thus have to say that if a person is seriously (much less wholeheartedly) asking God to "let them out" of such "states" or situations and claims that God is refusing to do so, then the states, etc are not of God in the first place. There is nothing edifying about being forced into some sort of altered state from which one cannot be released and claiming this is done by God's will. How is God glorified by such a claim? What kind of God would this reveal to us? (N.B., though Jesus desires to have the cup of suffering pass him by in his struggles in the Garden of Gethsemane, he NEVER gives us the sense that God is forcing this on him. He comes to affirm that he desires to do the will of God and sees clearly what this will entail. but it is also entirely clear that there is no coercion involved. (By the way, if a person was ambivalent about such experiences and was not wholeheartedly asking to be relieved of them it would be hard for me to understand how God would come upon them in such a way and in so doing add even greater confusion to the already difficult ambivalence.)

The God of Surprises: God is Faithful in Prayer but never Predictable!

As for the frequency of what I would, again, call pseudo-mystical states during Mass, I find both the invariability and the frequency you refer to makes the experiences at least dubious. There are several reasons: 1) mystical experiences when genuine tend not to be so frequent. There is simply no need for them to be so. Some find that one single experience is enough to nourish them for the rest of their lives and that the rest of their prayer, reflection, study, etc is an unfolding of the richness of that seminal experience. Juliann of Norwich reminds us of this. 2) More importantly however, they are not predictable. Mystical experiences are gratuitous experiences of the sovereign presence of God; they are also extraordinary (which does not necessarily mean bizarre). They are meant for the upbuilding of the Kingdom through the radical transformation of the person's heart and mind --- something that can only happen when it is God's own hand at work.

Our God, however, insofar as he is eternal and transcendent, is a God of newness and surprises. Because God transcends our own conceptions and imagination, whenever he  comes to us or is experienced in some way in prayer, it is a matter of incredible surprise. Yes God is entirely faithful but is God predictable? No. Not the God of Jesus Christ and not the God of true mystics! Thus, the experience of God showing up "on the spot" at the same time every Mass in what is supposed to be a "mystical experience" the person reportedly does not desire simply sounds to me to be more human than divine in origin.

In particular what you are describing has more the sound of a self-induced psychological state which has become habitual. (It reminds me most of a form of self-induced hypnosis or similar state of trance which can be helpful for the control of pain, etc. Pain patients and others are often taught methods of self-induction to help them to deal with difficult life circumstances.) On a more mundane level our everyday absorption in a piece of music, a good book, a riveting drama, or even our quieting of ourselves in the beginning of a prayer period are understood by therapists to be akin to these helpful states. Still, similar as these are,  it is important that one who has been trained in such methods of auto-hypnotic induction not mistake the resulting states for a genuine prayer experience or even confuse them with the simple quiet disposition of self one practices in entering into prayer. Even if  this pattern of experiences was once preceded or even occasioned by a true mystical experience it now sounds like something that has become habitual and self-induced, not a prayer experience per se that is a gratuitous gift of the sovereign God who is predictable only in his essential faithfulness and love.

Mystical States are about Oneness and Belonging, Not Isolation and Elitism

It also seems very strange to me that these trance states actually cut the person off from central parts of the Mass and participation in that --- especially "unless there is supposedly something "dissenting" or abusive with regard to rubrics," etc. This is a very strangely selective "consciousness" which puts the person in this "state" in the role of a judge of orthodoxy for which they may not be qualified; this is especially so if the person speaking is not a competent theologian or liturgist. Such states, as you yourself observe, do not foster community; instead they call attention to the individual (or leave others concerned about them and their well-being) rather than to what is occurring at Mass itself; further, since they may even include an element of judgment (criticism) which pretends to be supernatural, they may be divisive of the parish community and detrimental to the legitimate authority of the pastor or other priests and church leaders.

Certainly it is hard to see anything edifying about such a situation. For that reason alone the states are dubious in their origin. In this case the situation reminds me of what happened in the Church of Corinth with what were supposed to be charisma of the Spirit in the earliest years of primitive Christianity. Were these states to occur unobtrusively after reception of Communion and  simply last through the rest of Mass --- during a significant portion of which everyone else is silently communing with the God who has drawn so near to them, and were the critical 'orthodoxy judging' element missing (not to mention a background in self-hypnotic induction), I might see them rather differently. Instead, however, they begin as soon as someone starts to proclaim the Word in the Scriptures when we are called to listen attentively together and they continue through all of those parts of the Mass which accomplish and enhance our unity and equality in Christ. Remember that the Mass is supposed to be the most egalitarian of celebrations our world knows; while that does not mean we all experience the same things, it definitely means we listen to the same Word, stand together to proclaim the same Creed, offer one another a sign of Christ's peace, pray the Lord's Prayer as adopted daughters and sons of One family in Christ, and share the same cup and loaf so that we may truly be ONE body.

Remember too that the very essence of authentic mystical experiences is a sense of oneness and of belonging to all --- not only to God but to everyone and everything whose existence is grounded in God. In mystical experiences we know ourselves as part of a great and transcendent unity. How can it be that as a matter of routine a supposed mystical experience cuts someone off from participation in the central events of the Mass, from the assembly, from the entire community? How can it be that such supposedly mystical states cast the one experiencing them in the state of judge of orthodoxy or the state of others' souls? How is God using this person in these states? Has anyone had a sense that they are edifying to the communities involved? In these cases as in any supposedly spiritual experience the basic rule of discernment is, "By their fruits you shall know them."

God Holds Us in the Hollow of (his) Hand Where we are Completely Safe

Finally, bearing this essential rule in mind, there is the problem of the injury --- the fall that occurred while the person you mention was standing. It is, I think, problematical enough to speak of God as one who coerces us and imposes his presence on us despite our not wanting this; it is even more problematical to couple this with the notion of a God who would actually act in a way which allows one to be injured or injures one in the process. (I am not speaking about God preventing others from stepping in and injuring one. People can and have acted in this way. I am speaking of God himself acting in a way which makes the person unsafe or directly subject to injury.) Again, I have never read of a genuine mystical or ecstatic state where God shows such disregard for the well-being of the person involved or, for that matter, for the sensibilities of those also present at this Mass.

Prayer is an act of trust where we give ourselves to the God of love who will cherish us in this giving. Nothing of what you describe witnesses to this God at all.  I personally suspect this person's spiritual director knew this full well when he asked her to stand during Mass. I would guess he trusted that if this continuing state was of God either the state would not happen (God would not cause something which in this case would lead to injury) or the person would be completely safe nonetheless (God would also maintain one's safety). Similarly since he was a director with a doctorate in the field he could well have known that anything untoward happening would serve in a kind of "diagnostic" way to establish clearly that what was happening --- whatever that was --- was NOT of God. (Injuries may "prove" the truth or non-malingering nature of apparent seizure states, for instance, but they do not do so with mystical states. Quite the contrary.)

Reservation of Eucharist for a Private Individual or Lay Hermit:

Regarding your last questions about Eucharist let me make a couple of points. First the person you are speaking of is a Catholic lay woman; because she is not a canonical hermit she is not therefore allowed to reserve the Eucharist in her own home. Canonical (Catholic) hermits are under the supervision of their Bishops, delegates, and pastors and this means that so too is their approach to Eucharistic reservation and Eucharistic theology. If something is "off" about this, then permission is withdrawn or suspended, at least temporarily. With this situation we begin to see the wisdom of canonical standing and the relationships canonical standing necessarily entail. Such checks and balances are not present in the situation you have referred to.

Secondly, everything I have written about reservation of the Eucharist by a Catholic (canonical) hermit requiring a strong and healthy Eucharistic theology must be borne in mind; it would apply in this or any other case where someone was seeking the right to reserve Eucharist at home. Cf Reservation of Eucharist by Hermits and Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Ecclesiality vs Individualistic Devotional Acts. Especially, permission for the reservation of the Eucharist would not be given when there is a question of this being a privatistic devotion which fosters greater isolation and remoteness from the believing community rather than genuine solitude within the very heart of the Church.

Solitude itself implies a very real communal dimension. In fact, in Christianity it is an expression of communal existence. The word often used to describe this dimension is koinonia. (Cf, "Koinonia: The Privilege of Love" by Dom Robert Hale, OSB Cam in The Privilege of Love or Peter Damian's Letter #11, Dominus Vobiscum) For this reason the Church is very careful about allowing the reservation of the Eucharist in cases of seemingly privatistic devotion and personal isolation (as opposed to eremitical solitude). To allow it for someone claiming to be a hermit in such circumstances can be harmful to the person herself, to the vocation of hermits, and seems moreover to be in conflict with the very nature of the Sacrament itself. What one does not want to do, of course, is foster greater isolation or encourage the exacerbation of an already difficult and apparently unhealthy situation in the name of supposedly providing access to the Sacrament of Unity and Communion.

Similarly, presuming a diocese was considering an exception to the rule requiring canonical standing as a hermit or religious, I suspect no Bishop would actually allow this if it there was even a slight chance that the desire to reserve Eucharist was an at least unconscious reason behind the continuing states, for instance. You see, if they are not of God then logically (not clinically)  speaking they are pathological (maladaptive or manipulative) in some sense --- even if that is wholly unconscious. It seems to me that the basis and nature of these states would need to be ascertained and determined to be of God before anyone would allow the reservation of the Eucharist as a solution to the problem of Mass attendance. Allowing the reservation of the Eucharist in such a case could at least implicitly indicate the Church's approval and possibly even their encouragement of states which are preventing (or affecting) attendance and full-participation at Mass. Thus the Church will be quite cautious in allowing reservation of the Eucharist in such circumstances --- even (and perhaps especially) if the person were a canonical or Catholic hermit. Instead, the Church has EEM's precisely so that those who cannot get to Mass easily may receive Eucharist regularly; it is actually a reasonably good solution for most people and good for the Church as a whole.

Use of EEM's as Important for Hermit and for the Parish Community:

You see one important dimension of this specific solution is that it provides the chance for community and for prayer together --- something which can be very healing when illness or other circumstances isolate the person and prevents active Mass participation. It is also healthy and edifying for the parish community as well for they are made more complete and whole when the isolated and/or ill are included in this and other ways. Both hermit and parish need each other to learn to love fully in Christ. This is true even in cases of greater eremitical reclusion --- perhaps especially so in such cases. In the situation you have described since this state ONLY occurs during Mass, and since the person has expressed concern that the states isolate her from others in the parish, perhaps this person could find other ways to share her life and gifts if a regular contact with EEMs and/or pastor is set up and this kind of access to Eucharist is provided.

The need for some concrete way to share can actually be especially urgent in the case of true contemplatives, mystics, and hermits while parishes need the presence and gifts of these persons in a way which is equally urgent but often less well recognized.  Though not ideal perhaps, access to Eucharist on a regular basis via the use of EEM's could be the beginning of a win-win situation for all involved. This could be especially true if this hermit's situation could serve to challenge and assist her local parish to improve their own ministry to the physically isolated and see themselves as part of an essentially missionary and evangelizing Church of those who are both called and sent; similarly she might well assist them in providing the sick, isolated, and isolated elderly a theology of genuine solitude in which their isolation is (or can be) transformed into this challenging and sustaining reality and they become an integral part of a healthy missionary community. As I noted not too long ago here, just as solitaries need community so healthy community needs those living solitude.
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** In anathematizing (condemning) these views, the Council of Trent declared that the free will of man, moved and excited by God, can by its consent co-operate with God, Who excites and invites its action; and that it can thereby dispose and prepare itself to obtain the grace [of justification]. The will can also resist grace if it chooses. It is not like a lifeless thing, which remains purely passive   (cf., Session VI, canons. iv and v).

A variation on the notion of passivity which holds the will cannot resist grace is also held in certain exaggerated and heretical forms of mysticism known as quietism and its variations, or in some forms of Jansenism, etc. The Church also rejects these and holds them to be heretical. While Catholic Theology asserts the sovereignty of Divine grace (that is, the sovereignty of the powerful and dynamic presence of God) it always does so while protecting the freedom of the human will to either accept or reject the love and will of God. This is an absolute bedrock position in Catholic theology.

In particular then, the Church and her theologians eschew any language of Divine coercion or force because of course, Love, especially the Love-in-Act revealed in the self-emptying of the Christ Event is never coercive. This is another place the mystery of God's providence leads us to speak in terms of paradox or embrace theological perspectives which celebrate Divine paradox. Cf: God as Master Storyteller: Picking up the Narrative Threads of an Unfinished and Broken World.