Questions about the Spiritual Life

I received the following set of questions via email this morning; I’m posting them here with the permission of the author:

Hi Carl … I found centering prayer to be a draining experience. I was getting angry at God for not showing up. Should I keep doing it even if nothing ever happens? … I grew up Roman Catholic and all through my life I have felt guilty for not enjoying reading the spiritual “classics” that you mention on your blog. I come to those kind of books like a homework assignment. I like modern spiritual reading like Peter Rollins, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, and some of Merton’s stuff. But the language of the classics bores me and puts me to sleep. I feel like I can’t be a mystic if I don’t like reading that stuff. Because you like reading that stuff it makes you seem like you are closer to God. … Those works seem austere and “hard to do.” Don’t I love God if I don’t want to suffer and do penance? One more question: Richard Rohr seems to imply that all religions are the same at the unitive consciousness or the mystical sense. Do you think they are the same at the mystical level? Is it patronizing or arrogant to say that? Shouldn’t mysticism be informed by our tradition?

Here is my reply:

Thanks for these great questions.
I think that it’s perfectly normal to find the classic mystics as challenging to read. Not only did they write centuries ago, but they lived in different cultures with different world-views, spoke different languages than ours, etc. I’m a bit of a geek, I enjoy slogging through challenging writing. But I don’t think God is so mean as to require a person to be a “scholar” in order to be close to God.
Have you tried reading Evelyn Underhill or the Cloud of Unknowing? Many people find them more accessible than, say, Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross. I personally love Julian of Norwich, but she is very poetic and that is hard for some people to take. As always, trust your own uniqueness — God made you the way you are for a reason.
Frankly, I think Brian McLaren and Peter Rollins are perfectly wonderful spiritual writers. Why waste your time reading books that are no “fun” for you to read when you can read other writers more profitably? I say go with the ones you enjoy and leave it at that.
The fact that I am a “mystical geek” does not make me closer to God. I personlly believe my wife is much more faithful and holy than I am (and much more committed to contemplative prayer!) and she mostly reads fiction by writers like Jan Karon. So go figure.
The moral of the story: mysticism is about the love we cultivate in our hearts more than the facts we accumulate in our minds.
Now, as for your difficulties with centering prayer. First of all, remember that there is no “wrong” way to contemplate. It’s helpful to begin and end with a recognition that you are offering this time to God through Christ. But beyond that, if you feel bored, or angry, or just scattered, try to see this as offering aspects of your consciousness to God, just as they are, without trying to put your “best foot forward.” Spirituality is about healing, but just as you can never get physically healed if you don’t tell the doctor exactly what’s wrong with you, similarly spiritual healing requires being honest with God about all our “stuff,” even our anger and fear and distractions (incidentally, this is the same logic behind the sacrament of reconciliation, where we speak to God through the office of the priest). So contemplative prayer is a tool for learning how to be vulnerable before God – warts and all.
Can you gently investigate what is the source of your anger? Are you mad at yourself because you don’t think you’re “doing it right”? Are you mad at God because you think he should be giving you mystical experiences, rather than just silence? It may be helpful for you to understand exactly what the anger is all about. From there, two pieces of advice: 1) talk it over, as honestly as you can, with your spiritual director, and 2) take the time to forgive whoever it is you’re angry at: whether God, your self, or even someone else.
Finally, about the idea that mystical consciousness is the same throughout all religions: I’m not really an expert on scientific investigations into meditation, but I believe based on what little I’ve read, that meditation and the mental states it engenders is pretty much the same regardless of the practitioner’s beliefs or cultural background. So in that sense, I suppose mystical consciousness is pretty much a universal experience. But I do agree with you that context is always important. For me, I remain a Christian not because I believe non-Christians are going to hell (indeed, I don’t believe that), but because I find Christianity’s emphasis on love, grace and forgiveness to be, well, beautiiful — and, I believe, true and good. But of course, I’ve grown up in a Christian context, so naturally there’s also the appeal that Christianity feels like home to me. Of course, I try to be honest about Christianity’s many faults, but I also believe that all religions have their shadow side, so there’s no point in rejecting Christianity just because it’s imperfect; that’s a quality it shares with all faiths.
I’m the kind of Christian who tries to balance a deep and sincere devotion to Christ and the Christian tradition with an open-minded willingness to learn about, and learn from, other faiths. I think this is a very rewarding and spiritually wholesome way to approach faith. But I know that others feel like you should pick one faith and just stick with it. Well, that’s okay too. We each have to follow our conscience in this regard.

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  • John Allen

    My understanding is that the mystic cn gain a sense of knowledge and understanding in silent contemplation even in activity. This can be done walking alone or resting along the way. Taking a brief walk alone in a peaceful area can provide the necessary enviornment for enjoyable contemplation, if the mind can be cleared of emotions and ideas along the way. The words, “mindless” and “thoughtless” are indication of the state of mind necessary to attune to the experience sought by mystics. Letting the mind drift in the moment ,empty of thought , is all that is necessary to pick up the wordless knowing and awareness that spills into the mystic during such moments. I recently came across a website that was refreshing and informative to me. i would recommend it to Carl or anyone interested in the Mystic experience. The URL for the site is: http://www.mysticshaven.com.

  • http://www.thestumblingmystic.com/ ned

    In my experience, most beginners *will* find centering prayer and meditative practices draining at first. It’s too hard to keep one’s attention focused within as the mind is too active and resists the process too much. The trick is to start off slowly and build it up gradually.