Bernard McGinn says that mysticism is “a consciousness of the presence of God that by definition exceeds description and . . . deeply transforms the subject who has experienced it.” If it does not deeply change the lifestyle of the person—their worldview, their economics, their politics, their ability to form community—you have no reason to believe it is genuine mystical experience. It is often just people with an addiction to religion itself, which is not that uncommon.
Mysticism is not just a change in some religious ideas or affirmations, but it is an encounter of such immensity that everything else shifts in position. Mystics have no need to exclude or eliminate others precisely because they have experienced radical inclusivity of themselves into something much bigger. They do not need to define themselves as enlightened or superior, whereas a mere transfer of religious assertions often makes people even more elitist and more exclusionary.
True mystics are glad to be common, ordinary, servants of all, and “just like everybody else,” because any need for specialness has been met once and for all.
Historically, mysticism was often seen as the opposite of prophecy. There was the prophetic strain, which was working for social justice, making a difference, solving problems, fixing the world, and bringing about the Kingdom of God. Then there were these other “mystified” people who locked themselves in hermitages and didn’t care about the suffering of the world. Now we know that was a radical misunderstanding of both sides.
When we read the prophets, we see that without exception they talk about an intimate relationship with God that, itself, led to radical social critique. Jeremiah talks about a love that “seduces him and that lets him be seduced” (Jeremiah 20:7). The normal language of the prophets Amos and Hosea is an intimate language of divine encounter that always overspills into social concerns. It seems to blast their previous understanding of Judaism and temple worship, and puts them in competition and tension with the priestly class.
In the Jewish Scriptures, the priests are invariably competing with the prophets and the prophets are critiquing the priests, and this tells me it must be a necessary and creative tension. Maybe both sides get refined because of it. Today, in our church, we have mostly priestly concerns—or as Jeremiah put it, “the sanctuary, the sanctuary, the sanctuary” (Jeremiah 7:4)—and little concern for immigrants, health care for the poor, the acceptance of the marginalized, or even minimal peacemaking. The patterns never seem to change, since the “priests” control the home front and the “prophets” work at the edges.
Ordinary Christianity has emphasized that we should love God. This makes sense, but do we really know how to do it? What I find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved us! That’s what comes through all of their writings, and I do mean all—that God is forever the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces me in my unworthiness. It’s all about God’s initiative! Then the mystics try desperately to give back, to offer their lives back to the world and thus back to God.
Mystics are not trying to earn God’s love by doing good things or going to church services. That question is already and profoundly resolved. The mystics’ overwhelming experience is this full body blow of divine embrace, a radical acceptance by God even in their state of fragmentation and poverty. That’s what makes it “amazing” and “grace” (see Romans 11:6).
Evelyn Underhill defines mysticism as “an overwhelming consciousness of God and an overwhelming consciousness of one’s own soul at the same time.” In my experience, that is exactly what I see happening. There’s this wonderful sense of my own value, my own significance, my own validation from above, from on high. “I was once blind, but now I see.” I was once nobody and now I’m everybody—and this change in self-image is simultaneous with a discovery of a true and all-accepting image of God. No wonder so many people cry, or sing in tongues, when this happens. Their boundaries are blown away.
Mystical experience is the best possible cure for low self-esteem. You know you were chosen by the One who does the choosing! You know you are intimately loved by the One who does all the loving! When the “Unmoved Mover” says you are good; you would do well to accept His or Her version of reality, and let go of your petty carping and complaining about yourself.
We are told that St. Francis used to spend whole nights praying the same prayer: “Who are you, God? And who am I?” Evelyn Underhill claims it’s almost the perfect prayer. The abyss of your own soul and the abyss of the nature of God have opened up, and you are falling into both of them simultaneously. Now you are in a new realm of Mystery and grace, where everything good happens!
Notice how the prayer of Francis is not stating anything but just asking open-ended questions. It is the humble, seeking, endless horizon prayer of the mystic that is offered out of complete trust. You know that such a prayer will be answered, because there has already been a previous answering, a previous epiphany, a previous moment where the ground opened up and you knew you were in touch with infinite mystery and you knew you were yourself infinite mystery. You only ask such grace-filled questions, or any question for that matter, when they have already begun to be answered.
The German Jesuit, Karl Rahner, said something like this (although his German is hard to translate): “The infinite mystery that you are to yourself and the infinite mystery that God is in God’s self proceed forward together as one.” In simple English, as you uncover God’s loving truth, you uncover your own, and as you uncover your own truth, you fall deeper into God’s mercy and love. I’ve certainly seen this in my own little journey. When I come to a breakthrough in my own shadow work, my own sinfulness, my own self-knowledge, or in wonder at my own soul, it invariably feeds and invites the other side, and I want to go deeper with God.
In the same way, when my heart opens up in a new recognition of the nature of God, it always invites me into deeper and daring honesty, deeper self-surrender, deeper shadow work with my own illusions and my own pretensions. The two will always feed one another, and that’s why people who go deeper with God invariably have a very honest evaluation of themselves. They are never proud people. They can’t be, because the closer you get to the Light, the more you see your own darkness. And the closer you get to your own ordinariness (which sometimes includes darkness), the more you know you need the Light.
A very little bit of God goes an awfully long way. When another’s experience of God isn’t exactly the way I would describe it, it doesn’t mean that they haven’t had an experience of God or that their experience is completely wrong. We have to remain with Francis’ prayer: “Who are you, God, and who am I?” Isn’t there at least ten percent of that person’s experience of God that I can agree with? Can’t I at least say, “I wish I could experience God in that way”?
What characterizes anyone who has had just a little bit of God is that they always want more of that experience! Could it not be that this Hindu, this Sufi, this charismatic, this Jewish woman has, in fact, touched upon the same eternal Mystery that I am seeking? Can’t we at least give one another the benefit of the doubt? I can be somewhat patient with people who think they have the truth. The problem for me is when they think they have the whole truth.
The mystic probably represents the old shibboleth, “Those who really know don’t speak too quickly. Those who speak too quickly don’t really know.” Maybe that is a good reflection on this feast of the angels (“messengers” of God), but with a few exceptions, like Gabriel (Luke 1:28-38), they hardly ever speak.
Prayer: “Who are you, God, and who am I?”