A friend of mine wrote me this note:
I struggle at times to see the point of non-mystic relationships with our Abba. I don’t want to judge but it feels as if mystics connect with God and all else is religion. Even as I prepare to go to a contemporary church service where many enjoy the worship and talking, I would rather just be somewhere quiet with my Source and Lover of my soul.
You’ve written somewhere on your website about the connection between mystics / contemplatives and INFP’s. Do we all connect with God in different ways and only a few of us are wired to be contemplative or are non-contemplatives living Martha lives busy doing for God instead of sitting at His feet?
Is it wrong to encourage others to this life because they are wired differently than me?
Here’s my reply:
My first thought is that I think we need to keep as broad a definition of “mysticism” as possible. My own spiritual director (a Trappist monk) has a very strong bias toward apophatic prayer, and I’m continually teasing/reminding him that the kataphatic path can be just as blessed by God. Based on what you’re saying, it sounds like you share my director’s natural affinity for the apophatic path. Alleluia. What is tricky, of course, is learning to accept those whose path is different from our own, especially when they seem to be hostile/critical in their assessment of our path.
As for your Mary/Martha question, I think the answer is “It depends.” Discernment is essential here. I do believe that even the most Martha person is occasionally called to Mary moments, and vice versa. If you come to the edge of a river and someone is drowning and there’s a rowboat with a life preserver there, “praying about it” is the wrong response. Those of us who are naturally apophatic/contemplative are continually being taught that loving service/work is a form of prayer — just as the natural activists have to learn that quiet contemplation is a form of action. I know this may sound like I believe ultimately we’re all called to some sort of uniform integration, but I don’t think that’s the case. The “Mary’s” of the world will always be more Mary than Martha, and vice versa. Incidentally, I believe that when Jesus tells Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part” it is NOT meant that contemplation is somehow “higher” than action — no matter what the Cloud of Unknowing says. Rather, I believe Our Lord is praising Mary for her presence and serenity — Mary could have been sitting there feeling guilty for letting Martha do all the work. Likewise, if Martha had been centered in joy as she served the guests, she too would have had “the better part.” Of course, I’m guilty of eisegesis here, and who knows, maybe Mary was a habitual slacker.
Back to you. I think the most telling statement in your letter is confessing your struggle to see “the point” of non-mystical religion. That’s worth investigating. I think several lines could be followed:
- Isn’t it possible that many people are what Thomas Merton called “masked contemplatives” — they engage in a contemplative practice without realizing it, or naming it as such? The Anglican theologian Martin Thornton wrote admiringly of the woman who got closer to God cutting up lettuce for a salad than did the monk busy with his Psalms and Rosaries (now there’s an inversion of the Mary/Martha story).
- Another thought is more evolutionary: today’s churchgoers are, at least potentially, tomorrow’s contemplatives. We don’t begrudge a seven-year old because they haven’t figured out calculus. Now, the problem with this analogy is that many churches try to inhibit the onset of contemplative consciousness, but that’s an obstacle to be overcome, not an ontology that can’t be avoided. And perhaps it’s up to us contemplatives to evangelize those who are only potential contemplatives?
- Finally, to quote my friend Bob Hughes, in his wonderful book Beloved Dust: “Indeed, because love of God cannot be seen reliably, the only visible measure we have for someone’s progress in the spiritual life is an increase of effective love for the neighbor.” In other words, God gives us people to love so that we can grow in both love of God & love of neighbor, and sooner or later this means learning to love those we see as hard to love or unlovable. For contemplatives, those who are frenetic and activist in their religious observance are often trying and tiring. But those are precisely the people God has made our neighbors. We have our marching orders…
As for your final question: no, I don’t think it’s wrong to speak of contemplation with others; as I say, maybe we are called to evangelize those who have not yet tasted refreshing waters found at the well of contemplation. But just as ordinary evangelists can backfire if they come on too strong, I think discretion is essential here. Maybe rather than encouraging others, we simply should be in the business of inviting them when we feel led to do so. And then leave the “encouraging” to the Holy Spirit. Also, I do think that learning to love non-contemplatives just as they are is a necessary pre-requisite to effectively sharing contemplative spirituality with them. If people get an intuitive sense that we’re trying to “fix” them or somehow make them more like us, they will naturally (and probably justifiably) defy our efforts, no matter how well-intentioned. As always, humility is a strong ally here.
I hope these thoughts are helpful in some small way. Stay in touch!