I attended seminary at Duke Divinity School, in the early ’90s. At that time, there was a small Episcopal monastery located near the campus. Members of the community were welcome to attend the daily, 7:00 am Eucharist with the monks – and, I did, often. It was my first exposure to the Episcopal style of worship, and to monasticism. And, I loved both!
(On a side note: the monks lived in a grand, old, colonial-style house. They converted the dining room into a chapel. It was only large enough for about twenty people, at most. On “high holy” days, when incense was used, that tiny chapel got pretty smokey! The monks also had several pet Siamese cats – the fattest cats I’ve ever seen! Often, during services, the cats wandered through the chapel, or plopped down under the altar. Though cats aren’t my favorite, fat Siamese cats still seem particularly spiritual to me.)
Over time, I developed friendships with the brothers. One of the brothers – Father Brian – became my spiritual director. Father Brian was the stereotypical monk – quirky, as round as tall, and deeply spiritual. He had a particular fondness for “high” church, cats, hot tea, and bonbons.
The first time we met for spiritual direction, Father Brian told me to read and pray, daily, with John 15:1-17, for the next month. I assured him I could complete the assignment in a day, or so. After all, I was a busy seminary student, and was constantly finishing one project while starting another! But, Father Brian insisted – the same passage, every day, for one month. This was not a class assignment. This was an invitation to pray. I was dutifully obedient, though I didn’t initially see the point of reading the same passage for 31 days in a row!
In John 15, Jesus says…
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:1-8, NRSV)
Slowly, day by day, the image of a fruitful grapevine developed in my heart and mind. I could see it – though I’d never actually been to a vineyard. I imagined the vine growing up from the ground, and the roots descending deep below. I imagined the juncture of the branch and the vine. Where did one end, and the other begin? I could see the branches and leaves, and wondered about the pruning Jesus described. I could visualize – and maybe even taste – the sweet fruit: the intended result of the branch’s connection to the vine. I imagined life-giving water and nutrients flowing from the ground, into the roots, through the vine, into the branches, and ultimately producing the tasty fruit.
And, then, the word “abide.” Abide means “to live.” “Abide/live in me as I abide/live in you.” (John 15:4). A spiritual invitation. Jesus abiding in me. Me abiding in Jesus.
This wasn’t an image of a distant God. This wasn’t an absent God. This wasn’t a vague, nondescript spiritual force. This was a person, Jesus – abiding, existing, living within me, and me in him? Of course, I’d heard the evangelical invitation to “ask Jesus into my heart.” But, what does that mean, really? It always sounded more like taking an idea, or a spiritual conviction, “to heart.” But, not a literal spiritual presence. God, in my limited understanding, was still “out there,” in some far-off heaven.
This was my first exposure to Christian mysticism, though I don’t recall if we actually used the term.
Mysticism is a form of spirituality, found on the edges of nearly every religion. And, as different as religions can be in their official beliefs and outward practices, many of those differences fade into irrelevance in mysticism.
Mysticism is often associated with particular spiritual practises: yoga (potentially), silence, solitude, meditation, contemplation, fasting, prayer. Sometimes, some mystics experience visions, and some seem especially attuned to hearing God’s voice. Mystics often have a deep love for the natural world, and an awareness of God in all things.
Mysticism is more about spiritual connection and relationship, and less about doctrine or formal ritual. Mysticism is more personal, and less institutional. Mystics are aware of God’s pervasive presence in all things, and that God is not confined to Church buildings or the Church’s traditions. Mysticism is more about the inner experience, and less about the outer religious performance – though, mystics often remain deeply loyal to the institution and its practices.
To the mystic, God is found within the “Interior Castle” of the mystic’s heart (to borrow Teresa of Avila’s spiritual metaphor for God’s dwelling place) AND God is also far beyond our ability to grasp or contain. God is as close as the air in our lungs, AND God dwells behind a dark, mysterious “Cloud of Unknowing” (borrowing another mystic’s metaphor). God is BOTH intimately personal AND utterly unfathomable. As the mystic journeys ever-internally toward God’s intimate presence within, the mystic is inevitably drawn ever-outward toward others and an even greater awareness of God’s transcendence. It’s both. It’s always both.
God is mystery. God is inscrutable. God is ineffable. And, God lives within.
And, embracing mystery is not a lack of care or knowledge, or a lazily passive excuse for avoiding difficult spiritual concepts. Mystery is the simultaneous longing and seeking for deeper knowledge, and the humble awareness that God is always beyond comprehension. As Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) Mystery is the mystic’s invitation to keep on seeking, knowing every new spiritual insight only opens to broader vistas of spiritual experience and greater wonder.
A classic definition of a mystic is one who does not know where God ends, and the mystic begins, and vice-versa. Or, in the words of Meister Eckhart, “Where God is there is the soul, and where the soul is there is God.” Because the mystic is one with God, and God is one with all things, the mystic is also one with all things. Thus, mystics find God within and without.
Mysticism uniquely embodies the both/and, inclusive understanding of God that I’m seeking to describe in this series of blogs on developing an “opposable theology.” Richard Rohr writes, in What the Mystics Know: Seven Paths to Your Deeper Self,“Persist at the deeper place in yourself where the ‘both-and’ is located. This is the place of the soul, the place of wisdom, toward which we have to move.” Rohr is also known for saying, “If it’s true, it is true all the time and everywhere, and sincere lovers of truth will take it from wherever it comes.”
Though many mystics are deeply loyal to their particular religious tradition (I’m thinking of Mother Teresa’s loyalty to Roman Catholic authority, her deep devotion to Mary, and traditional Christian practices) – they also honor the same wisdom and experience found in other religions (I’m thinking of Thomas Merton’s exploration of Eastern religious practices, before his death. I’m thinking of the unique friendship between the late Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, and the Tibetan monk and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama).
And, because mysticism is ultimately about spiritual connection and intimacy, mystics seem to more deeply grasp the personal love, tenderness, gentleness, and kindness of God.
Mysticism is about knowing, and being known. But, this is not doctrinal knowledge. This is relational knowledge. This is personal knowing. This is knowing and comprehending the heart of God as a fount of Truth and wisdom, rather than merely accepting the narrow doctrinal teachings of a particular religious tradition. The mystics know more – while fully knowing how little they know – because they know God.
Returning to the original purpose of this series, and the notion of developing an “opposable theological” approach to understanding God, I think the mystics are good examples and teachers for us. If an “opposable theology” is holding two, seemingly-different, perhaps even contradictory ideas in dynamic tension, holding both until a newer, deeper theological insight emerges, the mystic has much to teach us. But, rather than developing an “opposable theology” merely as a cognitive endeavor, mystics demonstrate a less intellectual approach. The mystics demonstrate a path that begins and ends with seeking God – God, not information about God – and accept the complexities, paradoxes, and inscrutable qualities of God merely as a mystery worthy of continuing pursuit.
If you haven’t already, reading posts 1 through 3 of this series might be helpful to understand what I am proposing as an “opposable theology.” If you enjoy these posts, and want to receive a notice when part 5 is posted, sign up below. I’d also love to hear your thoughts and reactions. So leave a comment!