Christ is present in all the pain and suffering of the world, not safely separated from it but immersed in it to the hilt. “In all our affliction, he was afflicted” (Is. 63:9).
One of my favorite saints is Dostoevsky’s whore, Sonia. In response to Raskolnikov’s cynical question:
“And what does God do for you?” Sonia replies: “He does everything.”
She can only imagine what he does in the mountains, woods, lakes,
oceans and deserts, but she knows what he does through the hopeless and
incomprehensible tragedy of human destiny. She sees God in all and all
Karl Jaspers gives it a philosophical twist: “God’s infinity does
not face finiteness as other — for then it would be finite also. God is
the complete infinity which includes everything finite instead of
confronting it” (Philosophical Faith and Revelation, Collins, 1967, p.
That’s why I don’t understand the bewilderment of my philosophical
friends when I say matter-of-factly, “God is the bear.” The more earthy
stuff we uncover, the more heavenly glory we discover. The more
distinctively and robustly human we become, the more divinely endowed
With a soul-friend I passed through the pits of the purgative way,
the lustral, lacerating sightings of the illuminative way and the
bracing breakthroughs, that take forever, of the unitive way.
I saw the mysterious manifold presence of God in every light and
dark aspect of that labyrinthine way. What might have seemed like a
terrifying moment of divine absence was my own blindness in the face of
Fire. Few make it to the unitive way, that is, to realized union with
It is with anxious misgiving that I mention “ways” — degrees of
union — because if we concentrate on the ways, or become preoccupied
with where we are along the passionate pilgrimage into the Absolute, we
are bound to become priggishly or worrisomely self-conscious and so
inevitably lose the Way — lose him: the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The main reason so few of us make much progress toward the
perfection of charity is that we secretly know and are pathologically
afraid of all the fierce and fiery refining required to Christen our
deified hearts and minds. As I mentioned above, the final breakthrough
takes forever. The other disconcerting thing is: the closer we come to
Reality, the more obscure it is.
Clarity comes with metanoia — a radical change of heart and mind, a
change so radical that our dominantly human mode of conception on the
surface of things gives way to a dominantly divine mode of reception —
wise passivity — at the heart of things. Then comes the pure and simple
intuition of Reality — of God — born of love. This is contemplation. In
the real world it’s “where the action is.”
No compulsions, fixations, addictions. No clichés, slogans,
platitudes, disguised eroticism, narcissism or idolatry. Sheer action!
Only the contemplative knows how stifi pure action and how active pure
stillness is. After all, what is there to do or say when you suffer
mindfully and joyfully the Divine Onslaught of Love!
Who is more involved and engaged, though leisurely and detached,
than such a person? And who is more socially and politically relevant
than such a person, silent and solitary presence at the Center, in
communion with the Ultimate, committed to one thing, Christ, and frill
of compassion for everything, interceding for all?
Apostolic hermits, the members of our community, are my favorite and
most compelling examples of this kind of world-saving, joyful suffering
and upbeat intercession based on coinherence enjoyed by all the members
of the Mystical Body of Christ — a reference to the Church which is
still, I think, unbeatable: especially when you think of what nonsense
modem ministerial “mouths” have made of “the people of God” and brought
to practical life by a carefree carrying the cross with such wild,
wonderful gladness that it might seem to the dreary, driven crowd like
a quixotic form of madness.
Don’t misinterpret. Thérèse wasn’t into real estate but into the state of being real. Von Balthasar says
of her: “it is not happiness which draws her. She longs not for
happiness but for love. Eternal love, not eternal happiness, is the
center of her being in God, and the laws of love are infinitely richer
and deeper than the laws of happiness and repose” (St. Thérèse: The
Story of a Mission).
By William McNamara | August 4, 2009
“Mysticism is awe and wonder at the sacredness of life and being
and of the invisible, transcendent and infinite abundant source of
The mystic is not a special kind of person, but everyone is, or
ought to be, a special kind of mystic. Mysticism is nothing esoteric.
It is not the privilege of a few but an experience every one of us
should know first hand.
Mysticism is infinitely too subjective to teach. It is more readily
caught than taught. The supreme purpose of all contemplative
communities is to foster the spirit of mystical contemplation in
contemporary culture so that our social, political, economic and
domestic existence is inspired by it. And yet we wouldn’t dare try to teach mysticism. All we can do is set the stage as humanly as possible for the mystical experience.
In my earliest writings I used the term contemplation rather than
mysticism. Now I prefer to use “mysticism,” although contemplation and
mysticism are essentially the same. It is crucial, however, to
eliminate many of the misunderstandings that surround the meaning of
both these words. Though we cannot teach mysticism, explain it
adequately, or superficially decide to achieve it, we must know as much
about it as we can theoretically and do as much as we can practically,
in order to become mystical. We especially need to know what mysticism
What Mysticism Is Not
Mysticism is not a pain-killer. It provides no escape from the world
but puts us in touch with the world. Mystics are not rigid, unbending,
or unworldly. Because they are in love with God and with life, they are
supple, tolerant and flexible. Mysticism is not a way out of anguish,
conflict and doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude
of the mystical experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many
questions in the depths of the heart, like wounds that cannot stop
Mystics often suffer more than anyone else because they are so
sympathetic and compassionate. They may harbor the gravest doubts
because their childish, puerile, and spurious faith explodes before
them. A veritable bonfire burns to ashes their old, worn-out words,
clichés and slogans. Even their most holy concepts and sacred ideas of
God are consumed in the fire of this great holocaust.
Mystics discover through contemplation, a personal encounter with the
living God, that they know nothing about God. They know not what but
only that God is. They learn that God is no thing (nothing, nada),
no what, but pure Who. God is the Thou before whom the mystics’ inmost
“I” springs into awareness. God is the “I am” before whom the mystics
echo their own “I am.” They stand defenselessly, helplessly, and
humbled before God’s holy scrutiny.
Mysticism is not what drug enthusiasts call “tripping out” but more
like “standing in,” alert and alive, with the highest possible focus of
human attention on the present moment. It is standing willfully and
deliberately in awe and wonder before the unveiled mystery of reality.
Mysticism is not trance, an ecstasy or an enthusiasm. It is not the
wild frenzy of religious exultation or the imagination of lights or the
hearing of unutterable words. These do not emanate from the deep self
but from the somatic unconscious and may happen in conjunction with
religious experience but do not constitute mysticism.
Mysticism is not the affair of a quiet and passive temperament which
naturally loves to sit and do nothing. Mystics are not spooky
introverts or isolated thinkers who simply love to ruminate, prowling
around in the sanctuary of their own psychs. Most of the mystics I know
are strong, robust and vibrant, obsessed with a Zorba-like, or better,
True mystics do not merely explore their own consciousness but savor
the Real. They are not aloof from flesh and blood, the turmoil, chaos
and pleasures of the world. Some of the most mystical people are deeply
and profoundly immersed in the world, thoroughly engaged in political
and social life, rearing dozens of children. They are mystical simply
because they are basically and essentially great lovers of God and his
whole creation. Some of my favorite mystics are prophets like John the
Baptist and Elijah, saintly women like Joan of Arc and Elizabeth of
Hungary, disciplined wild men like Zorba the Greek and Holden
Caulfield. These mystics are not indifferent but deeply in love with
the world. Their love of the world does not diminish but enhances their
dynamic, irresistible and burning love of God. It is possible to become
totally detached in everything and unattached to God. But then we
become stuffed shirts, not mystics. We are not all aglow with the
Spirit, consumed with the fire of God’s love, but simply “into”
Mysticism is not inward torpor but a magnetic, mobilizing peace
characterized by the wise passiveness of St. John of the Cross: “I
abandoned and forgot myself. . . leaving my cares forgotten among the
lilies.” Mysticism is the highest form of action. But the mystics don’t
always need to take a pole when they go fishing because they have no
need to justify doing nothing. Being may compel them to do nothing.
When God speaks, the mystics simply listen; when God appears, they
simply behold; when God gives, they simply receive. Responding to God’s
initiative this way distinguishes genuinely positive and gracious quiet
from the error of quietism, the limp passivity of the sluggard often
confused with the alert stillness of the spiritual athlete. English
mystic and theologian Walter Hilton describes the paradoxical activity
of such peace: “This restful travail is far from fleshly idleness and
from blind security. It is full of ghostly work, but it is called rest…
a holy idleness and a rest most busy.”
What Is Mysticism?
Having cleared away some of the outstanding debris, we are in a
better position to say something more positive about mysticism.
Mystical contemplation is the experiential grasp of reality as
subjective. Not mine—that would pertain to the external, superficial
self—but as myself in existential mystery. Mysticism does not meet
reality through a process of deduction but through an intuitive
awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive in
its own existential depths which open out into the mystery of God. If
we can discover ourselves in depth, we discover God and simultaneously
discover Christ. We can almost say there is an identity between self
and the real Christ.
If I am a mystic, I have come into ownership of myself. I achieve
through asceticism and discipline and the controlled wildness of love,
mastery of my own human instrument. Only when I achieve ownership of
myself may I give myself to the world and share the contemplation I
enjoy, which is the only valid definition of apostolic outreach. If my
apostolate is not simply a sharing of my mystical contemplation, my own
experiential awareness of God, then it is phony, noisy, and absurd.
We cannot proclaim the contemplation of Christ in an effective and
lasting way unless we ourselves participate in it. How can we proclaim
or act, however zealously, what we do not know ourselves personally and
“The most important thing to do is to be,” said Lao-Tzu. Apostles
are not self-appointed but sent by God, after he has touched and
transformed them. Such people are rare. When they show up, they always
seem to be men and women of prayer; silent and solitary, God-filled and
God-intoxicated, not saying or doing much, but keeping God’s love alive
and his presence felt in a half-hearted, talkative, busy society where
people live frightened, fragmented “lives of quiet desperation.”
engage in the natural art of contemplation is to look long and
steadily, leisurely and lovingly at any thing—a tree, a child, a pear,
a kitten, a hippopotamus—and really “see” the whole of it; not to steal
an idea of it, but to know it by experience, a pure intuition born of
love. This is not an aggressive act but gratuitous. Being discloses its
hidden secrets as we look, wait, wonder, and stand in awe, not
inquisitively but receptively. Mystics and contemplatives are never
utilitarian, greedily trying to get something out of everything. They
simply stand before being, before the universe, before another human
being, a plant, an animal. They enjoy it and leave themselves wide open
to its revelation, to its disclosures of mystery, truth, and love.
Mystical contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract
truths about God, more than meditation on what we believe. Mysticism is
an awakening enlightenment, an intuition born of love which leaves us
sure of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our concrete daily
life. The mystics do not simply find a clear idea of God and confine
him within the limits of that idea and hold him prisoner there. The
mystics are carried away by God into the divine realm of mystery and
freedom. Mysticism is pure and virginal knowledge, poor in concepts,
poorer still in reasoning, but able by its very poverty and purity to
follow the Word wherever it may lead.
Mysticism is a long, loving look at the Real to which we are united
by love. It is the highest expression of our intellectual and spiritual
life. Its activity is its own end. Mysticism has no utilitarian purpose
but is simply looking, loving, being utterly, magnificently, wildly
useless. It is life itself fully awake and active and aware that it is
alive. Mysticism is awe and wonder at the sacredness of life and being
and of the invisible, transcendent and infinite abundant source of
being. It knows the source obscurely, but with a certitude beyond
reason. It is a veritable vision of the Godhead in the human, earthy
context. This act by which we see who we are, not in isolation but
against the background of eternity, and so simultaneously and
experientially see who God is—this is genuine mysticism.
Mystical life is both the most normal and the highest expression of
the spiritual life. It involves the highest levels of participation in
the intimate, trinitarian lovelife of the Godhead. This loving Being
issues in our divinization. God is the primary source and active agent
of this divine transformation. We are the recipients of divine
disclosures and become mystics by being drawn by grace into Ineffable
Transparent and Opaque
Whether mystical union is experienced depends partly our
environment, particularly our beliefs, but preeminently on our
psychophysical constitution. This accounts for the fact, otherwise
inexplicable, that mystical experience, like artistic creation or
scientific intelligence, is often shared by members of the same family:
for example, St. John of the Cross and his brother.
Not everyone is mystical to the same degree. Some individuals are more easily recognizable as mystics.
psychological factor identifies and distinguishes them from other
spiritual individuals who are not usually considered mystical. The
felicity and frequency with which mystics consciously experience divine
union depends upon their particular temperaments.
E. I. Watkin, my favorite religious philosopher who died in 1981,
has explained this in terms of the transparent or opaque personality.
The opaque personality sees the same comedy as the transparent but
never laughs; hears the same music but never moves a muscle; suffers
the same embarrassment but never turns red. The inner experiences of
the transparent personality, however, always register on his
countenance or external behavior. What happens in the spiritual depths,
at the center of the soul, rises easily to the conscious surface. What
occurs in the deep recesses of the opaque personality will seldom, if
ever, become apparent. Transparent personalities are much more likely
to translate inner experience into a painting, a song, or a poem.
Both the transparent and the opaque person are in union with God,
but only the transparent one becomes conscious of it. Both are drawn by
God into the deepest dimensions of the human adventure, the mystical
depths of the spiritual life, but only the transparent personality
exhibits mystical experiences. Opaque personalities, though raised by
God into mystical existence, do not show it or even know it. Despite
this, they may be as holy as their transparent counterparts.
Theologically speaking, both types are mystics; but phenomenally
speaking, only the transparent are, because they experience God’s
active presence within them and are obviously and recognizably mystical.
Unfortunately, because of our “monkey business,” phony mysticism
abounds. Like monkeys, people copy the outer behavior of genuine
mystics without understanding their inner Godward dispositions. It’s
what’s inside that counts. I remember Alan Watts comparing a mystic to
a musical genius. Strictly speaking, a composer like Mozart is inspired
when melody emerges from the depths of his mind. To convey that melody
to others he writes it down on paper, employing a technical knowledge
which enables him to name the notes he heard in his mind.
This fact is important: his technical knowledge does not create the
tune in his mind; it simply provides him with a complicated alphabet
and is no more the source of music than the literary alphabet and the
rules of grammar are the source of our ideas. What music teachers call
“rules” of harmony are simply observations on the harmonies most
usually used by such people as Mozart. Mozart did not use them because
they were the rules but because he liked their sound. A composer needs
to study harmony in order to identify the chords which he hears in his
mind, but he does not use his knowledge to construct chords unless he
is a mere imitator of other people. In the same way, language is used
not to create thoughts but to express them, and mastery of prose does
not make a great thinker.
The mystics are spiritual geniuses who work the same way as musical
geniuses. They have a wider scope because their technique of
expression, their alphabet, is every possible human activity. In all
mystics, some more than others, the presence of God is felt. The mystic
expresses this feeling two ways: first, by living a certain kind of
life; and secondly, by translating this feeling into thoughts and words.
People who have not had this feeling observe the actions and words
and from them formulate the “rules” of religious morality and theology.
There are bound to be distortions. It is strange how foreign any unique
religious feeling is to the average human being, even to the
professional religious personality. The essential quality in the
mystics is their feeling, not their ideas and actions, for these are
only reflections of the feeling, and a reflection existing without
light is a sham. Therefore just as great technical proficiency will not
make a creative genius in music, so morality, theology, and discipline
will not make a genius in religion, for these are the result of
religious experience, not the cause, and by themselves can no more
produce it than the tail can be made to wag the dog.
When we speak of feeling, we imply an element of rational
appreciation of what we feel. Affectivity and rationality are not
opposed. Genuine affective responses are rational. Genuine feeling is
partly cognitive, but it is also much more than that. According to the
Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “We only believe those thoughts which
have been conceived not in the brain but in the whole body.” A merely
intellectual response to reality is not enough because it is restricted
and doesn’t engage the total self. Genuine feeling refers to a total
response, actuating what we are as persons.
According to Aldous Huxley’s Grey Eminence: “The mystics
are channels through which a little knowledge of reality filters down
into our human universe of ignorance and illusion. A totally unmystical
world would be a world totally blind and insane. From the beginnings of
the eighteenth century onward, the sources of all mystical knowledge
have been steadily diminishing in number, all over the planet. We are
dangerously far advanced into the darkness.” A civilization that denies
the place of mysticism or shuts out the possibility of it sets us
inevitably on the road toward a philosophy that is not so much a “love
of wisdom” as a hatred of wisdom.
We will never enjoy mystical union as long as we refuse to stop,
take time, enter into holy leisure and contemplate. We will miss God in
the busy hustle and bustle of our loquacious liturgies. We will miss
God in our hurried, routinized, self- centered prayer. We will miss him
in our frenzied activities. We will miss him above all in our
education, whose goal is supposed to be contemplation, according to
Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, the Fathers of the Church, Thomas Aquinas,
and any ancient or modern educator worthy of our attention. Without
mystical vision, our education is a farce, our civilization a sham,
religion an opium, liturgy a corpse, theology a fad, and apostolic
outreach the most popular and pietistic escape from the God who said,
“Be still and see that I am God” (Ps 46:11).
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