I’ve been thinking about how so many self-help books begin with “How to…” Consider these examples:
- How to Win Friends and Influence People
- How to Raise the Perfect Dog
- How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
- How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
- How to Lie with Statistics
… and there are many, many more. But to the best of my knowledge, no one has written a book on How to Become a Christian Mystic. I wonder if such a book would be useful to people.
One of the pleasures of blogging about mysticism is that from time to time I hear from people who confidently proclaim that they are mystics.
Part of me is curious, when I hear from such a person, as to how they got to be a mystic. And another part of me really doesn’t want to know.
In the Neopagan world, among so-called traditionalist witches it is considered bad form to call yourself a witch if you have not been duly initiated by another witch, which usually only will happen after a period of study. Likewise, a person who goes around saying that he or she is a shaman often will find little or no respect from those who have spent years studying with indigenous healers and spiritual guides. Meanwhile, in the Catholic Church one does not declare oneself to be a saint — sainthood is only conferred to those who have been canonized by the Pope.
The common theme, here, is that there seems to be a difference between using a word to describe oneself, and then actually doing the hard work and the inner transformation that such a word points to. Talk is cheap. I can call myself a witch or a shaman or a druid or a saint, and people will laugh at me behind my back. Or, I can live the life of sanctity or wisdom or spiritual transformation and not spend too much time worrying about what you call it.
I think mysticism works the same way. So this question: “how do I become a mystic?” is, paradoxically, best answered in a zen-like way: “Forget about it!”
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be a mystic. In fact, I would feel far better if someone wrote to me and said “I would like to be a mystic” rather than simply tell me that they already are one. I think there’s something natural about learning of the extraordinary lives of great contemplatives and visionaries like Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila and thinking, “Gee, I would like my life to follow a similar course.” After all, one of the reasons why saints are saints is because their lives are worthy of imitation. I think the same holds true for the great mystics.
So while the initial motivation for asking “How do I become a mystic?” is, I believe, both understandable and laudable, almost as soon as the question is asked we are faced with the paradox I mentioned above: that the last thing you want to do is say you already are one. Throwing the word around doesn’t make it so. Deciding you want to go to medical school does not make you a doctor. Feeling an inner call to the life of holiness and contemplation is a beautiful thing. But especially at first, it is a fragile and vulnerable thing, and we need to protect it and nurture it and provide it with shelter and nutrients so that the calling can find its strength. If as soon as we discern the call to a contemplative life we begin to buffet it with the gale-force winds of empty words and ego-driven need for status and specialness, we will likely kill the vocation, like uprooting a seedling before it has a chance to set down firm roots.
So how does someone like you or me nurture a call to become a mystic? If we feel like we want to be mystics, what is the first thing we should do? My sense is that, instead of using the words “mystic” and “mysticism,” we should begin by making sure we understand them. When I think of mysticism, what am I thinking of? Holiness? Sanctity? God-intoxication? Profound silence and solitude? Charismatic or miraculous experiences? Visions and voices? A commitment to daily practices such as contemplative prayer, the Daily Office, and lectio divina? Or just a warm, fuzzy sense that God is present in my life and loves me?
What is the relationship between being a Christian mystic and being the member of a community of faith, such as a church, or house church, or centering prayer group, or prayer & praise meeting, or monastic oblate association? I personally think that you can’t be a mystic without being embedded in community — even the great mystic hermits and solitaries, like the desert fathers and mothers, or Julian of Norwich, or the mature Thomas Merton, lived out their vocation of solitude with ties to community or church in some form. But maybe you have a different notion. After all, our culture is one that mistrusts community, lionizing the individual over the group. So many people might think a mystic is some sort of Christian individualist, with a cool connection with God that is unencumbered by the messy demands of other people. I personally think that such a notion is way off-base, reflecting the values of the world rather than the values of heaven. But my point here is that you need to know exactly what it is you are trying to be with your spiritual life.
So once we have figured out what we understand mysticism to be, then comes the question of how do we make it real in our own lives? There is no “mystic school” in the sense that there is medical school or law school. Traditionally, people went to monasteries to pursue the contemplative life, and perhaps that is your call. In fact, if you are single and the member of a church with monasteries, I would commend to you the process of discerning whether the consecrated life might be for you. But for many of us, monastic life is not an option. So what do we do?
If you want to pray, then pray. If you want to be holy, then begin to make virtue a priority in your life. If you want to meditate, then meditate. If you want to grow in love of neighbor, then immerse yourself in community. If you want to experience God, then perhaps you need to do all of the above!
And so this is the real kicker: the most reliable path to becoming a mystic is, simply, the path of following Christ. Like Evangelicals, we need to accept Christ as our Lord and Savior. Like Catholics, we need to make Communion a priority. Like Lutherans, we need to nurture our faith. Like the Orthodox, we need to make sure the name of Jesus is always on our lips. We need to read the Gospels and make the stories of this wild carpenter-turned-rabbi part of our daily lives. We need to go and do what he said. We need to make his mind our mind, and open our hearts to his heart. We need to be so focussed on Christ (instead of ourselves) that we stop worrying about whether we are mystics or not.
And once that happens, we will have begun the journey.
Oh, one final word: I really don’t mean to slam people who call themselves mystics. Ours is a culture of flash and show, and so I think it is normal to want to claim something special for our identity. But I do think it would be more useful — and more rewarding in the long run — to let the words go and simply focus on being who we believe God wants us to be. And then others can decide what to call us.