The 20th-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner said that if the church doesn't recover its mystical dimension then it has nothing to offer to the future. We are all called to be mystics. What does that look like? Here's my list of some characteristics:
1. The mystic celebrates relationality. The universe and planet from which we come are woven-together fabrics, made up of interconnections, mutual dependencies and relationships. We exist in the midst of a living web. The mystic know then the necessity of friendships, of the acceptance of brokenness and loss, of maintaining intimacy with the natural world that can teach important spiritual lessons. The mystic trusts that since life is indeed a complex web of interconnections, that nothing is ever really lost. Ultimately, every difficulty too is an opportunity.
2. 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, the tangy bite of a fresh apple, the homely wild roses in a pasture, the sweet tiredness of the body after hard work. The mystic probably goes to some trouble to free the trapped moth in a window, yet is not overly concerned about her own comfort and convenience. The mystic lives imaginatively in the tension that exists between opposites.
3. The mystic cultivates his or her inner life and knows that the interior life exists not for his or her own sake but for the sake of the whole human community, for the 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 inside that lust and thirst for beauty, equality and wholeness restored to a broken world. The mystic knows that spirituality is just a parlor game if it isn't translated into activism. She writes her congresspeople, volunteers at local soup kitchens. She organizes her neighborhood to buy from local farmers. She tutors high school kids who are having learning difficulties. In short, she makes connections between her inner stirrings and shiftings and the work that urgently needs doing, in her neighborhood, community and bioregion. Her life is a wondrous braid.
4. The mystic believes deep down that it is, after all, okay to be human. We humans sin. We're often afflicted with the most appalling shortsightedness. We are indeed capable of monstrous personal, systemic 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. We are capable of miraculous self-sacrifice. We can love one another deeply, passionately, joyfully. We are able to create the most wondrous beauty and poetry, dance and music. We're the wingless ones who can learn to fly, high as birds, in the golden balloon of our aspirations.
5. The mystic is enchanted by the world. Fr. Thomas Berry was once asked about the most important quality in the spiritual life, and he answered right back: "Enchantment!" The mystic is enthralled by common things: the taste of ginger, the texture of leaves, the shapes of clouds, the sound of soft rains, the aroma of freshly-baking bread, or the peaceful, holy darkness at 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 poetry of Pablo Neruda or e. e. cummings, the moods of late autumn afternoons, morning light lingering in treetops.
6. The mystic is thankful. A sense of gratefulness goes hand in hand with making connections, thankfulness for that long litany of enchantments and blessings that cast their spell over us day by day. Meister Eckhart, a 13th-century Catholic mystic, said that if the only prayer you ever say is just a simple "thank you," that would be enough.
7. The mystic, the one whose life weaves and braids the sacredness of our world into itself, tries to notice, understand and call attention to the underlying connections that exist between disparate, separated things in our world. For example, the mystic notices that our overemphasis on light and accompanying pervasive fear of the dark might underlie much of the racism that continues to plague us. Or, that our culture's avoidance of looking squarely at death in an honest and fortright way, contributes greatly to our simultaneous fear of life itself, and perhaps even to our continuation of a war machine that deals out death in a variety of ways. Or, that our refusal to value democratic principles as having a place in our homes and work places might contribute to the dwindling of democracy at the national level. Or, that human rights violations are closely connected to environmental degradation, as in countries like Nigeria where the military rulers sacrifice the health of whole villages to accomodate multinational oil companies and their money.
There is in us a deep need for the sacred, for the experience of the divine among us and grounded in our hearts, a hunger that cannot be satisfied by theological statements or doctrinal proclamations. "Faith," wrote Carl Jung, "is no adequate substitute for inner experience." Seeking actual inner experience of the divine at work in our midst is the job description of the mystic.
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