In 2006, I went on a pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy to immerse myself in the life and teachings of St Francis of Assisi. It was a magical three weeks. Every morning during my stay, a mist enshrouded the city, and I felt like each well-worn stone yearned to speak of the sacred events it had witnessed over the millennia. It’s no wonder they call Assisi “a particle of paradise.”
A few days into the pilgrimage, a friend introduced me to an 80-year old, Catholic priest named Father Arcadius. Arcadius looked like an Old Testament prophet. He was dressed in a frayed and dusty cassock with a rope belt and sandals with soles made from recycled car tires. His grey beard had grown down to the middle of his chest, an explosion of white hair crowned his head, and his eyes were an arresting blue.
For years, Arcadius had been a hermit living in the Apennine Mountains until God called him to a ministry of walking across Europe and the Middle East to hear the confessions of pilgrims who were visiting shrines.
Yes, I said walking.
He estimated that over his thirty years of ministry he had clocked tens of thousands of miles on foot, carrying no money or extra clothing but relying on the charity of others to survive.
I spent several amazing hours sitting on the steps leading up to the Church of San Damiano speaking with Arcadius about my life with Jesus. At the end of our time, I asked for his blessing and for any final wisdom he could give me about how to move deeper into the heart of God. Without pause, he grabbed my forearms, gazed piercingly into my eyes, and said, “Become a mystic!” Not quite what I expected.
Drop the phrase word ‘Christian mysticism’ into a conversation among a group of Jesus followers, especially among our more conservative brothers and sisters, and you will get a wide array of reactions. Some correlate it with New Age spirituality; others associate it with creepy psychic phenomena that have little to do with “normal” Christian life; others, however, will speak reverently about a transcendent experience of God that occurred in their past that made them wonder if for only one brief and beautiful moment they themselves were mystics.
So, what really makes someone a mystic? In the simplest sense, a mystic is someone who has a lived experience of Jesus in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. They have experienced Jesus, and through contemplative prayer and meditation, continue to encounter Jesus in such a way that they gain a new perceptive appreciation for the urgent immediacy of God in all things. (This is but one of several thousand definitions of this term. Trust me, I will hear about it’s shortcomings!)
Contrary to what many think, however, these God-encounters are not always seismic events, like those experienced by St Francis or St Teresa of Avila. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (a theologian we desperately need to revisit), would argue that these unmediated encounters with God are often so delicate and subtle that most people do not even know that what they have experienced is mystical in content.
So, let me take the “mist” out of the word mysticism; make it something less opaque and more accessible.
Have you ever found yourself inexplicably capable of forgiving someone who has deeply wounded you?
Have you ever been surprised by your ability to maintain a spirit of faith, hope and joy in the face of crushing circumstances or perhaps even in the face of unspeakable horror?
Have you ever spontaneously laughed out loud at the absurdity of life?
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the sense that everything in your life is a gift?
Have you ever been given the gift “seeing the inner splendor” of something in creation?
Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by the sound of wind moving through a stand of trees or by the sight of a markless snowfield illuminated by moonlight?
Have you ever received the Eucharist and felt tears of gratitude well up from your soul?
I do admit that some mystical encounters with God are more dramatic than others. Several years ago, a group of dear friends went on a hiking trip on a beautiful fall day with a friend who was in the early stages of dying from bone cancer. His gait was already becoming slow and unsteady, but he managed at one point to get ahead of us. As my friends emerged from a patch of undergrowth, they found our dying friend on his knees weeping, with hands raised in worship, before a single bush whose autumn leaves were aflame with breathtaking red and orange leaves. He had been graced with seeing that the “earth is crammed with God”, and these men who were witnesses to this moment were brought to silence.
Karl Rahner famously wrote that “the Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.” I would like to be part of a conversation about how post-evangelicals/emergents might begin to think about articulating our own mystical theology (a required course in many Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican seminaries.) Without one, I believe our ability to help people who yearn to make contact with their own transcendality will be impaired.
PS: If you can, come to the Big Tent Christianity Conference in Raleigh, NC, September 8-9. Its going to be a time filled with rich conversations, and perhaps we’ll all experience the “urgent immediacy of Jesus” together.
(I originally published portions of this post in an article for the 2009 Catalyst Conference. It has since been updated and expanded on.)