Perhaps reading this post is a bit like sitting down with a chocolate cake – or if you prefer savouries like me, a whole tube of salt and vinegar Pringles. Actually, I would more likely choose to indulge in a large Costa cappacino while lounging in their best sofa, or when at home in the evening, a nicely chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in front of the fire with my favourite seashell chocolates – mmmmm, white wine and chocolates! 😉
However, none of these treats are essential food – just delicious and satisfying to fill up on. The comfort food I really want to eat is for the good of my soul – words to meditate on that bring lasting well-being. In feeding on them I may even get spiritually ‘fat’ – as in ‘hearken unto Me and eat that which is good – and let your soul delight itself in fatness’ (Isaiah 55v2 – I learned it in the old version many years ago!). How delightful to be fat like that! It is as David says in Psalm 63: ‘My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness’ (v5) or the idea portrayed in Isaiah 10v27 ‘the yoke will be broken because you have grown so fat’.
The word of God is the bread we need – nourishment, sustenance and satisfaction. Here I want to reproduce some life-giving words that have brought that kind of comfort to my soul this week – a series of Richard Rohr’s meditations on ‘mysticism’ which the dictionary defines as ‘the belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender’. This discipline has been practised by the saints through the ages, from the Desert Fathers onwards – a long tradition of simplicity and spirituality. It does us good to return to such roots in our supernatural journey – so thank you, Father Rohr, and here are the titbits I have been feeding on: enjoy!
“Another word to describe mystical moments is emancipation. If it isn’t an experience of newfound freedom, I don’t think it is an authentic God experience. God is always bigger than we imagined, expected, or even hoped. When you see people going to church and becoming smaller instead of larger, you have every reason to question whether the practices, sermons, sacraments, or liturgies are opening them to an authentic God experience.
The words enlargement, connection or union, and emancipation all describe the mystical experience. You may not use the same words, but on a practical level mysticism is experienced as a new capacity and a new desire to love. And you wonder where it comes from: why do I have this new desire, this new capacity to love some new people, to love the old people better, maybe to enter into some kind of new love for the world? I even find my thoughts are more immediately loving.
Clearly, you are participating in a love that’s being given to you. You are not creating this. You are not generating this. It is being generated through you and in you and for you. You are participating in something larger than yourself, and you are just allowing it and trusting it for the pure gift that it is.
After the first levels of enlargement, connection or union, and some degree of emancipation, mystical experiences lead to a kind of foundational optimism or hope. It catches you by surprise, especially in the middle of all these terrible things that are happening in the world. Hope is not logical, but a participation in the very life of God (just like faith and love).
Mystical experiences also lead to a sense of safety. Anybody who has ever loved you well or has felt loved by you always feels safe. If you can’t feel safe with a person, you can’t feel loved by them. You can’t trust their love. If, in the presence of God, you don’t feel safe, then I don’t think it’s God—it’s something else. It’s the god that is not God. It’s probably what Meister Eckhart is referring to when he says, “I pray God to free me from God.” He means that the God we all begin with is necessarily a partial God, an imitation God, a word for God, a “try on” God. But as you go deeper into the journey, I promise you, it will always be safer and more spacious. If you still feel a finger wagging at you, you’re not going deeper. You’re going backwards.
The final experience of mysticism, after the optimistic explosion that we usually call hope, and the ensuing sense of safety, is of deep rest. It’s the verb I’m told that is most used by the mystics: “resting in God.” All this striving and this need to perform, climb, and achieve becomes, on some very real level, unnecessary. It’s already here, now. I can stop all this overproduction and over-proving of myself. That’s Western and American culture. It’s not the Gospel at all.
We’ve all imbibed the culture of unrest so deeply. We just cannot believe that we could be respected or admired or received or loved without some level of performance. We are all performers and overachievers, and we think “when we do that” we will finally be lovable. Once you ride on the performance principle, you don’t even allow yourself to achieve it. Even when you “achieve” a good day of “performing,” it will never be enough, because it is inherently self-advancing and therefore self-defeating. You might call it “spiritual capitalism.”
God always entices us through love. Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change. If the mystics say that one way, they say it a thousand ways. But because most of our common religion has not been at the mystical level, we’ve been given an inferior message—that God loves me when I change (moralism). What that does is put it back on you. You’re back to “navel-gazing,” and you never succeed at that level. You are never holy enough, pure enough, refined enough, or loving enough. Whereas, when you fall into God’s mercy, when you fall into God’s great generosity, you find, seemingly from nowhere, this capacity to change. No one is more surprised than you are. You know it is a gift.
If you keep listening to the love, if you keep receiving the love, trusting the love—even with all your limitations, unworthiness, limited intellect, or whatever you feel holds you back—you start to experience within yourself a sense of possibility. Whatever life is inviting you into, you have this sense that it’s okay and, even better, that you can do it! That is the joy of the saints. Now you don’t have to do it by the world’s criteria of success or performance. As Mother Teresa loved to say, “The only real success is faithfulness.” To be faithful to this inner love is in itself the greatest success. It is of itself the possibility. No outer successes are necessary to be happy.
This is what makes the mystics sort of dangerous. It’s not just possibility they experience—but permission. It’s permission to color outside the lines and to be who you really are. It’s not just gay people who have to come out of their closets. We’re all in our closets. They’ve just given us a good metaphor for what we all have to do. We’re all afraid to come out of our various closets. It’s not the need to be outrageous or rebellious. It’s so much better than that. It’s just permission to be that image and likeness of God that you really are.You are unlike any other image or likeness. It is as if God is saying, “I’m expecting you to return to me simply and totally as you really are!”
Freedom, hope, safety, rest, the capacity to change, joy, faithfulness, possibility and permission to be myself as I ‘fall into the love of God’ If that is not a comfort, I don’t know what is!
All excerpts taken from Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate … Seeing God in All Things (CD, DVD, MP3) by Father Richard Rohr