I couldn’t tell you when I first heard about the Christian mystics, but I probably thought they were all at least a little crazy and at most a bunch of heretics. So went my conservative Christian upbringing where we routinely left out most of our heritage between about 100AD and the Protestant Reformation.
I first studied the mystics in grad school on the way to earning a master’s degree in Historical Theology. I was wooed by the Desert Mothers and Fathers. I was captivated by strange characters like Simeon the Stylite and Anthony the Hermit.
Who lives on top of a fifty-foot pole? (No, I’m not making that up…Google it.)
Tracing the monastic lineage across Europe and diving into the worlds of Saint Francis, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart was a revelation. What’s this about a Dark Night of the Soul, Saint John of the Cross? What of this Castle, Saint Teresa of Avila, and why is it Interior? These people saw things differently than I did, for sure. But that didn’t make it wrong.
In fact, I was pretty sure they had something to say to me.
While monasticism was always present in the Western Church, it was the Philokalia (written by the Eastern Orthodox) that I remember being most captivated by. Originally written for monks between the fourth and fifteenth centuries, the Philokalia morphed into the paramount spiritual writing for all of the Eastern Church.
As I read it, I knew I didn’t understand it all. It was beautiful nonetheless. I gobbled it up.
When I completed grad school, my relationship to the mystics remained peripheral at most. I was raising kids and working hard and setting about all the first half of life tasks that often keep us treading water on the surface of our lives.
I’m sure I sensed greater depths, but I didn’t explore them much. Maybe I sensed it was too risky. Maybe I was just too busy. I don’t know. But I didn’t read much of the Philokalia or say the prayers of Saint Francis in those days.
But God is patient.
For the past three years, I have been on a path toward a greater understanding of myself and God. I rediscovered Saint Francis’ earnest prayer, “Who are you, Lord my God, and who am I?”
Nothing has aided this search quite as much as re-introducing myself to the mystics and monks of church history, who have in turn reminded me of spiritual practices like contemplation, simplicity, silence, and meditation. In my tradition, we might lump all this together and call them “devotions” or “quiet time.” To be sure, they mystics aren’t doing exactly what I was trained to do at church camp in junior high. But it’s not altogether dissimilar, either.
This new expression of an old thing has been meaningful to me.
I have also discovered some additional, marvelous authors and teachers both historic and contemporary. Therese of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, James Finley, Howard Thurman, Wendall Berry, and others have equipped me with the language I needed to pour a new foundation for living. What I was before was not bad.
It just wasn’t whole.
So I am attempting to build a life of mysticism, contemplation, and intimacy with God. This is difficult to do in a noisy, busy, complicated world. I don’t live on a pole in the wilderness, I live on a cul de sac in the suburbs. I have a wife and two kids and a beagle that brays at odd hours. It’s messy to try and build a life of quiet contemplation in such a context.
But it is really not a building at all. It is more of an un-building. A surrender. The slowness it requires and the stillness that fosters it can be hard to come by. Yet here on the cul de sac, it is being present in each moment that is the trick. Awareness is a grossly underestimated spiritual discipline. Presence is all there is. If we really believe God is everywhere, that God holds all things together, and that God’s Spirit is in all things, then this awareness of presence should never cease — and it brings us together with God, others, and nature in meaningful ways. This is true in the woods or on a cul de sac or mid-commute down a busy freeway.
“I am not God,” German priest Romano Guardini says, “but I am not other than God, either.” James Finley extends the logic. “I am not you, but I am not other than you. I am not nature, but I am not other than nature.”
This kind of unitive consciousness is not something that is realized or understood, but practiced and experienced. In being patient with that reality, there is a deepening that occurs. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, join the club. It doesn’t me, either.
But like I said about the mystics, just because it doesn’t all make sense doesn’t mean it’s not true.
And if it’s true for the hermit in the desert, it’s true for the dad in the suburbs.