Paying for the perfume: What a mystic looks like

Twentieth-century spiritual leader Thomas Merton wrote, “God is everywhere, His truth and his love pervade all things as the light and the heat of the sun pervade our atmosphere. We are called to be mystics, each and every one of us.”
What does it look like to be a mystic? Here’s my list of some characteristics.

The mystic celebrates relationality.
Scientists, striving mightily to find the basic building blocks of matter, discovered the subatomic particles called quarks. Yet to their dismay they found that quarks to not exist as independent units but rather come in pairs. They exist only in relationship. At the very heart of matter is a mutual dependency, a woven-together web. We humans exist in the midst of a complex web, as well.

So the mystic sees, for example, making love as a mutual and often sacred experience. The mystic knows the necessity of friendship, of the acceptance of brokenness and loss, of maintaining an intimacy with the natural world. The mystic trusts that since life is indeed a complex web of interconnections, nothing is ever really lost. Ultimately every difficulty is an opportunity. These are some ways to live relationally.

The mystic is tough and soft at the same time.

Tough in the sense that she does not deny pain, suffering and death, never seeks refuge in sentimentality, magic or hooey. The mystic holds a faith in life itself, one that can exist beyond despair. The mystic is soft when she nourishes a tender compassion toward all things and continues to love the silences, the dirt under her fingernails after working in the garden, the tangy bite of a fresh apple, homely pasture roses, the sweet tiredness of the body after hard work, the bony shoulders of the poorest people, the smell of cabbage and carrots simmering on a stove. The mystic probably goes to some trouble to free the trapped moth in the window, yet is not overly concerned about her own comfort and convenience. The mystic lives imaginatively in the tension that exists between opposites.

The mystic cultivates his or her inner life and knows that the interior life is not for his or her own sake but for the well-being of the whole human community, for the whole planet.

“What have you ever traveled toward more than your own safety?” asks Lucille Clifton. The mystic locates those fires inside that burn in outrage at the injustices in the world. The mystic spends time with those passions within that lust and thirst for beauty, equality and wholeness restored to a fragmented world. The mystic notices her dreams, her phobias, her enthusiasms and distastes.

The mystic does more than just navel gaze. She is active.

She writes her congress people. She registers voters. She volunteers at soup kitchens. She organizes her neighborhood to buy from local farmers. She tutors high school kids, who have learning difficulties. In short, she makes connections between her inner stirrings and shiftings and the work that so urgently needs to be done outside, in her neighborhood, community, or bioregion. Her life is a wondrous braid between action and contemplation.

The mystic believes deep down that it is, after all, okay to be human, to take delight in that humanity and in the good things of the world.

We humans sin. We are often afflicted with stupidity and the most appalling shortsightedness. We are indeed capable of monstrous personal and societal evils. We are in constant need of redemption and renewal.

Yet at the same time it is through and by means of the sufferings, deficiencies and limitations of being human that compassion is attained. Being human means playing an ongoing game of chutes and ladders. We are capable of miraculous self-sacrifice. We can love one another deeply. We create wonderful beauty and poetry, dance and music. The facility to hope and dream is ours, by which we sustain ourselves in the cold and dark. Who knows but in the end we shall be wise enough to live someday in the goodness of which we are capable. After all, we’re the wingless ones who learn to fly, high as birds, in the golden balloon of our aspirations.

The mystic sees saints everywhere.

She doesn’t need a pantheon of church-approved holiness models to find God. She sees heroic – and holy -- achievements everywhere – as parents raise their kids and provide for them not only materially but morally and spiritually, as husbands and wives honor their vows and strive mightily to live as equal partners who reach out to each other and to others generously, as young adults work out how to honor both their burgeoning sexuality and respect for the other, as the miracle of compassion is renewed every day in the most unlikely places.

The mystic is enchanted by the world.

Fr. Thomas Berry was once asked about the most important quality of the spiritual life. He answered right back: “Enchantment!” The mystic becomes enthralled by common things: the taste of fresh ginger on the tongue, the textures of leaves, the shapes of clouds, the sound of soft raindrops on a roof, the aroma of freshly baked bread, the peaceful and holy darkness of night. The mystic can be ensorcelled by life’s generous bounty: the voluptuous sadness of Mozart’s slow movements, the huge, bloody but miraculous mess of childbirth, the passionate orchestra of summer’s evening insects, the poetry of Pablo Neruda, the moods of late autumn, morning light tingeing treetops with soft gold, and on and on, world without end.

The mystic is thankful.

A sense of gratefulness goes hand in hand with making connections. We are thankful for that long litany of enchantments that cast their spell over us every day. Meister Eckhart, a 13th-century Catholic mystic, said: “If the only prayer you ever say is just a simple thank you, that would be enough.”

The mystic, the one whose life weaves and braids the sacredness of the world into itself, tries to notice, understand and call attention to the underlying connections that exist between disparate, separate things in our world.

For example, the mystic notices that our culture’s avoidance of looking squarely at death in a forthright and honest way might contribute greatly to our simultaneous fear of life and perhaps to our continuation of a war machine that deals out death in a variety of ways to others. Or, that our refusal to value democratic principles in our homes and workplaces might contribute to the dwindling of democracy on a national level. Or, that human rights violations are closely connected to environmental degradation, as in countries like Nigeria where the military rulers sacrifice whole villages to accommodate multinational oil companies’ money.

Karl Rahner, the 20th century’s foremost theologian, said that the mystic finds God in all things and all things in God. Rahner himself has been labeled “the mystic of everyday life.” He took delight in the things of the senses. He loved ice cream and carnivals. In fact, a New York department store once demanded that he pay for all the bottles of perfume on a display counter that he had opened just to sniff the heady fragrances within.

That’s what a mystic looks like. Feel free to add your own portraits of what a mystic looks like in the comments section.