celebrating the wisdom of the mystical...

Sometime in the 90's I discovered a word for the way I experienced, understood and loved the Lord our God: mystic. Growing up, my desire for the holy, my experience with the sacred and my understanding of divinity was different from than the doctrines articulated by my rational mentors. Not better, of course, but never worse. In time I learned that I was created to explore the wisdom of the heart rather than only the realm of intellectual reason. But my tradition, New England Congregationalism, had long lost touch with its roots in the ecstatic encounters of the early Puritans. 

Some of my spiritual ancestors had found a home in an evolving transcendentalism as heirs of Emerson. Others remained steadfast in the supremacy of a Reformed intellect and its canon of principled dogma. So I stayed silent in worship most days - treasuring the touch of the host during Holy Communion, weeping during a variety of hymns and day dreaming of a deeper intimacy with God - even as I sat in the old, plain white Sanctuary that was simultaneously beautiful and sobering. Like many of my tribe, I quit attending worship after high school but read voraciously. From the New Testament to Herman Hesse - as well as Kerouac, Ginsberg, Merton and Bonhoeffer - my spiritual journey took a decidedly cerebral course. 

My understanding of mysticism was shaped by this typical dictionary definition: Mystic - of or relating to mysteries or esoteric rites and the occult; obscure, enigmatic, inducing feelings of awe and wonder, having magical properties. (Merriam-Webster) Never was a mystic spoken of like this competing description: a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect. Once, as a young adult on a church retreat where we were talking about our deepest longings, I blurted out, "I want to see God face to face." Silence and anxiety were the only response. I learned early on to keep my yearning to myself.

Somewhere in the 70's, however, I was turned on to both Fr. Ed Hays of the Shantivanam
Retreat House in rural Kansas (check it out: http://www.americancatholic. org/Messenger /Jun1996/feature2.asp) and also Fr. Matthew Fox and his writing about Hildegard of Bingen. His emerging creation spirituality and articulation of a spirituality called compassion also spoke to my soul. (see http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com /books/reviews/view/2115) From these pilgrims it was just a hop, skip and a jump for me to find Henri Nouwen and then Richard Rohr, Dorothee Soelle, Kathleen Norris and Harvey Cox.  Later still, the pioneers of the mytho-poetic men's movement - Robert Bly, Sam Keen, Marion Woodman and James Hillman - offered new connections between my hunger and thirst for the sacred and the mystical path.

Last night, after reading Robert Alter's commentary on the Hebrew Psalms, I returned to Nouwen's primer on spiritual formation. Both helped me own my hunch that the Psalmists were mystics, too. Nouwen writes:

Both theological reflection and spiritual formation require an articulate not-knowingness and a receptive emptiness through which God can be revealed. Just as theology asks us to empty our cup so that we can open our mind to the incomprehensible things of God, spirituality asks us to empty our mind so we can open our heart to receive life as a gift to be lived. Even more than our mind, it is our heart that needs to become empty enough for the Spirit to enter and fill it. The process of self-emptying and spirit-filling is called spiritual formation - the gradual development of the heart of God in the life of a human being. 

Nouwen then goes on to say that the whole point of practicing contemplative prayer is to learn how to see - specifically, to see and "make visible that which is hidden from ordinary sight." 

The practice of contemplative prayer reveals to us the true nature of things; it unmasks the illusion of control, the possessiveness of possessions, and the pretense of the false self. For those who practice contemplative prayer, the world no longer is opaque and dark but has become new and transparent - the new earth shining with its inherent character. To live spiritually in the world is to unmask the illusion, dispel the darkness and walk in the light... And the Spirit of God shows us how to move continuously from opaqueness to transparency in three central relationships: our relationship with nature,with time and with people.

Clearly that is what St. Paul is doing in Romans 1 where he attempts to articulate his mystical wisdom within the confines of words:

What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world God's eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made. So they are without excuse.

Such is the confession of the Psalmist in this Sunday's responsive Psalm 104. Alter notes that the very first words are: O my whole being, bless the Lord... for God has donned the grandeur and glory of creation, wrapped in light...stretching out heavens...making chariots of the clouds...inhabiting the thunder and mountains... causing streams to flow in the desert... even giving the wild ass complete freedom to romp in safety.

As we walked in the leaves yesterday, it was ecstatic. It was a body prayer. A holy time. A moment of intimacy with the Creator. Nouwen writes:

When we contemplate nature rather than manipulating it, we are able to see nature as a gift of God to be cherished and cared for... the plants and animals with whom we live teach us about birth, growth, maturation and death, about the need for gentle care, and especially about the importance of patience and hope. This is the sacramental basis of any healthy ecology... and in it all becomes transparent when nature discloses itself to those with eyes to see the loving face of God.

Tomorrow - after formal worship - we will use our bodies to pray again as we walk in the CROP Walk to raise funds and awareness of hunger throughout the world. There will be no words, no doctrines, no reason taking place in this prayer, just our bodies in union with compassion and awakened to the cold, the leaves and the beauty of the day.

credits: Dianne De Mott

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