Unlocking the mystery of mysticism

Mysticism has an aura of mystery around it, something that cannot be named or described. We hear the word and imagine ancient saints having visions and receiving revelations in far-off medieval monasteries hung with the scent of incense and the sound of chant.  

We think of John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, Hildegard of Bingen, and a string of other names that evoke an ethereal quality that seems far beyond anything we can hope to achieve in our lifetime. We often write off the mystics as too deep, too holy to be role models.  

So when someone says that we — me and you and everyone else following the path of Christ ­— are called to be modern-day mystics, it can seem a little unlikely at first. In this busy world, filled with over-packed schedules and a litany of high-tech bells and whistles that keep us tethered to the secular world, how can we open up a space and enter into a mystical world where we meet God not in visions in a monastic cell but in the minutia of our daily lives? 

Mystical realities 

“I don’t think we do any service to mystics by mystifying them, making them out of our reach. They were flesh and blood people with real problems and struggles and limitations, ranging through every walk of life,” said Thomas Neal, director of St. Joseph Educational Center in West Des Moines, Iowa. 

“What made them extraordinary was that the truths of our faith were radically alive to them, and they were willing to be radically changed by that faith. They prayed, ate and drank, laughed and lived, suffered and loved as if the God of Jesus Christ were absolutely, unabashedly real. That reality that is God, being revealed in Jesus as self-sacrificing love, radically challenges all of our egocentric and broken ways of being human. 

“Mystics embody what G.K. Chesterton said was the difference between a good man and a saint: a revolution. So modern mystics are simply people who ‘get’ it, who get God, and are willing to live like it in their day-to-day lives.” 

Neal, who did his doctoral dissertation on St. John of the Cross, told Our Sunday Visitor that mystical experiences will vary from person to person. Where St. Teresa of Ávila experienced a mysticism that was like “divine fireworks,” others like St. Thérèse of Lisieux had little to speak of in the way of “sensual” mystic experiences, he said, and yet she was no less a mystic.  

“Some of us may experience God during prayer, or in some other circumstance, in a very sensual way — an image, a whisper in the heart, a strong sense of consolation. Others may experience God’s hidden presence in a surge of inner strength that comes in the midst of trials, or in a quiet trust that emerges in the midst of fear, or an insight that opens to you the possibility to forgive where you thought forgiveness impossible, or in the face of your child whose innocent trust in you suddenly reveals to you the loving trust God wishes you to have toward him,” Neal explained.  

“Any time that your faith opens to you new possibilities, new strength, new insights that enable you to live the Gospel more radically, you have tasted of the mystic’s world.” 

‘Boundless mystery’ 

Jesuit Father John Surette, author of “The Divine Dynamic: Exploring the Relationship Between Humans, Earth and the Creative Power of the Universe” (Acta Publications, $14.95), refers to modern-day mystics as “mystics with a small m.” He told OSV that such a mystic is someone “who realizes that in prayer or meditation or contemplation it is Mystery that makes the first move.” 

“Mystery first reveals itself to us and then we respond to this revelation. We make the second move. To think that in prayer we make the first move, do all of the talking, and then we wait for the Divine to reply ... that is not the way it works. Proof of this is the common experience that we never hear the Divine reply, and over time we give up on praying,” Father Surette said, quoting Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, who defined mysticism as “orientation to boundless mystery.” 

“One can have this orientation without being a recluse or in a monastery or spending lots of time in the chapel,” Father Surette explained. “The modern-day mystic knows that the present moment that we are experiencing is a moment in the unfolding creative process of God’s universe, a process in which God is intimately involved. God is not a life-source from afar but a power for relationship within.”

Mystical in the ordinary 

So how do we take our day-to-day lives and begin to infuse them with that awareness? One word: prayer. We have to enter into deeper relationship with God through daily prayer in order to open our eyes to what God is placing before us, to the mystical in our midst.  

Order of Friars Minor Brother Daniel Horan, who teaches in the religion studies department at Siena College in Albany, N.Y., and writes about experiencing God in daily life on his blog Dating God (www.DatingGod.org), stressed that prayer life is “central to opening ourselves up to recognize the mystical experiences in life.” Drawing on his Franciscan tradition, Brother Horan said that prayer is more than what we say or do at set times of day. 

“Prayer must become for us a way of being in the world, a disposition that has more to do with relationship than it does with rote recitation. In this sense, I’m speaking about contemplation or the ongoing movement toward awareness of God, not just at this or that time, but at all times,” said Brother Horan, whose book, “Dating God: Franciscan Spirituality for the Next Generation” (St. Anthony Messenger Press) will be released next year.  

“This is what distinguishes someone like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Teresa of Ávila from most of us. The more they sought to focus their lives on God and the proximity of God to them in a world of grace, the more they came to recognize what we call the mystical in the ordinary.” 

Experiencing God 

What should we do to more likely experience the presence of God in the everyday? “Learn to see with the eyes of God, recognizing that God is present in and to all of creation, that God is already always there for and with us,” said Brother Horan. “It sounds easy enough, but it’s not so easy for those who live in a culture that is very individual-driven and focused on one’s self. Seeing God and experiencing God’s presence as a modern mystic means we must surrender the self-centeredness that blinds us to the other and to God.” 

Brother Horan remembered one of his own experiences with the mystical. When he was a novice, he spent several days in prayer at a hermitage away from distractions. While walking in the woods, he recalls feeling a closeness to creation and to the Creator.  

But we don’t have to retreat to a cabin in the woods to experience God in a mystical way. Brother Horan also recalled meeting his 8-week-old godson for the first time. 

“I was overwhelmed with the beauty of God’s love. I was swept up in the realization that God’s Spirit is present in the love of parents for one another, which resulted in the creation of new life in this child,” he said. “On one hand these are very ordinary events, but on the other hand they are made holy in the powerful awareness of God’s relationship to us, found in such experiences.”

Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York. Her newest book is “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass” (Alpha).