06 August 2014

On Spiritual Direction and Mystical Experiences

[[ Dear Sister. Are spiritual directors familiar with mystical experiences today? Is it possible that a directee would have experiences that were really from God but that the director doubts? ]]

If a client has experiences s/he calls mystical and is sure are of God I may or may not agree. If I have doubts about these experiences being of God I am apt to kind of bracket them off in my mind, hold them in prayer, and wait for the fruits of such experiences to become evident. (I will also do some personal work to be sure there are no personal reasons which bias my perceptions in this matter.) Occasionally I will tell a person the reasons I doubt these experiences are of God or indicate what they remind me more of, but usually I will not do this. In either case I will temporize and try to assist the person to attend to what changes in them along with the shifting way they view the world and God as a result of these experiences.

The focus cannot remain on the experiences themselves in any case; it must shift to God and to what God reveals of himself in these ways. The person experiencing whatever it is must move from this original focus to wisdom. They must integrate whatever they have been given and grow in "grace and stature" as persons in Christ --- as the saying goes. Nor does this happen all at once. Again, if an experience is of God then it will be given for a reason and one will judge matters according to the fruits of the experience, both immediate and more mediate. Can I be mistaken? Of course. Similarly there are probably people doing direction today who are ignorant of such things or even closed to them. Still, if we continue to focus on the fruits of experiences and work hard to stay out of the Spirit's way in our work with a client, our own initially mistaken opinion will not make a lot of difference.

However, I don't personally know any working directors who are not regular pray-ers; this means they have ordinarily had occasional mystical or peak experiences themselves. Beyond this most have had some advanced education in spirituality or theology and many in psychology or pastoral counseling as well. All the directors I know have also worked with people who have had genuine mystical experiences --- though these tend not to be particularly unusual or frequent. They ARE personally striking and ALWAYS life changing however! Most of us have heard God speak to us from time to time and may have experienced ecstasy. Occasionally there might be something we identify as a vision. Many of us have moments of profound intellectual insight which may be tied to some kind of imagery. What tends to be true of all of these experiences is that the person will return to them again and again to continue to allow it to nourish them and become a source of real wisdom. Each experience is a doorway to the infinite, a way of being taken hold of by mystery. Each experience allows us to enter this realm again and again. Thus, this is another reason they are not usually frequent and certainly not predictable.

Are Directors More Secular and Skeptical of Mystical Experiences Today?

[[Since you do direction today would you say that SD's are more secularized or less open to mystical experiences today?]]

Now this is a great question! It is true that directors do not believe in the frequency or prevalence of such experiences which was once the case. Not least we know that religious ideation, etc, can be and even often is a function of psychological dysfunction and mental illness. Our minds are incredibly powerful tools and they can respond to personal needs and desires in amazing ways --- not all of them helpful and many of them contrary to God. We are, for better and worse people steeped in history and science in a way which does not allow us to see the world as our ancestors did. Even so, unless we are scientific naturalists we believe in ultimate Mystery; we know that reality is grounded not in death but in Life and that the intelligibility of the world points unmistakably to God who grounds and is the source of meaning and so too, intelligibility. We experience the hope of those who are called into and drawn by an absolute future; we are not those who believe that everything randomly came from nothing and will simply sink back into nothingness at some point in time.

Because we believe as we do, because we are scientists and theologians, parents and pastors, philosophers and physicians, directors and psychologists, Sisters and Brothers in Christ, etc, we have met the truly new (kainotes) time and again. We have been taken hold of by Mystery but we no longer can mistake that for mysteries --- problems which must be solved. We no longer believe in a God of the gaps who is pushed out of reality by new scientific discoveries, for instance. Instead we meet Mystery in the everyday events and activities of ordinary life. With every new scientific discovery, every new insight in whatever field, every glimpse of the ordinary, we also can and often become aware of a pervasive dimension of depth, meaningfulness, intelligibility, futurity, and genuine newness we call God or Mystery. Mystery breaks in on us in the ordinariness of life and spiritual directors know this VERY well. The secularity we embrace is that of the Incarnation, a secularity which is eschatological and sacred. My own sense therefore says we are believers who attend to the truly credible (and the truly awesome) without falling into naive credulity.

The bottom line here is that it is true that spiritual directors today do not accept as authentic (or at least are skeptical about) some phenomenon that were once automatically seen as Divine. But this does not mean a rejection of the truly mystical or even the miraculous. Mystery and miracles are real. Miracles reveal the deepest order of the cosmos as does Mystery. We expect this deep dimension of reality to be experienced by every person who opens herself to it and, of course, we are open to such experiences ourselves. Still, to reiterate one last time, the authenticity of any experience can only be measured by its fruits: do these experiences build community, do they increase a person's capacity to love in real and concrete terms; is one made more generous, self-sacrificing, hopeful, whole, and happy through them? If so, then we are dealing with something that is truly of God; otherwise judgment must be withheld until the fruits (including the bad fruits of division, selfishness, isolation, etc) become clear.