A reader named William Law (I wonder if he’s related to the author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life?) has not been shy about attacking the basic premise of this blog. Here are a few quotes from recent comments of his (all made to one recent post):
The discussion of mysticism and writing about mysticism as an “object” is specious and misses the point.
How words just multiply like rabbits. There comes a point where explaining is too much like a hamster on his wheel. There is real power in silence – that is the ultimate solitude in the dark light of God.
We spend all too much time talking about “mysticism” and “being mystics” in this generation as if it is a prize to capture.
I think the discussion of “Mysticism” probably should have stopped as a category with Evelyn Underhill since it seems that talking about it has taken on a larger importance than simply living.
Getting caught up in the importance of being published as an expert about “it,” instead of simply applying ourselves to the love and service of God is as far from “mysticism” as one can get. I suspect all this talk about mysticism and categories of mysticism (whether Christian, Buddhist, ermetical, conventual, visionary or not) is an insidious form of spiritual materialism that leds us away from the purity of heart God desires for us to discover in Him. In fact, the more one talks about mysticism, the more likely one is to never be a mystic, whatever that is.
Well, there you go, folks. I can now safely rest in the comfort of knowing that I am in all likelihood not a mystic, simply for the fact that I choose to write about mysticism. I’m glad we’ve got that sorted. I guess William McNamara must be wrong (he said “A mystic is not a special kind of person; every person is a special kind of mystic”), since only those who mostly or entirely refrain from talking about mysticism are likely to be in the club.
Okay, I’m being a bit snarky there, and we all know that is one of my flaws. But in defense of the author of the above comments, I do think he’s on to something. As one of my first meditation teachers used to say, “Reading a book on prayer is one of our favorite ways to avoid praying.” And if reading about prayer is such a distraction, heaven only knows how much writing can take us off course.
But the mystical life is not some sort of club that only the worthy get to join. If it were, only Christ and Mary would be in. The scandalous truth of the gospel is that prostitutes, tax collectors, pornographers, socialists, libertarians, lawyers, corporate headhunters, environmentalists, plastic manufacturers, community organizers, Tea Party activists, and even — gasp — writers about mysticism are all invited to the banquet. Every last one of us. And no fair saying that we are all invited only if, and to the extent that, we repent of whatever it is that makes us unworthy. Because that’s just another subtle way of trying to create insiders and outsiders, of us human beings trying to tell God what God’s boundaries should be. And guess what? We can “repent” all we want, but then — oops! — we all screw up, again and again and again. And those of us who think we’ve got it all figured out usually end up looking, sounding, and smelling like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son.
So yes, William Law is right: writing about mysticism really is an adventure in missing the point. But meanwhile, here I am, and guess what? I like to write about mysticism. So I keep making the mistake. Some people will decide this means I’m not a member of the club that has no membership requirements anyway; well, so be it (others figured I was out of the club as soon as they saw how snarky I could be!). Meanwhile, I take some small solace in the fact that as much as it is a mistake to write about mysticism, paradoxically it may well be just as much of a mistake for me not to write about it — for if I made any effort to avoid doing what I love (i.e., writing about mysticism) in order to live up to some other person’s expectation about what is the right or wrong way to live my faith (because, at the end of the day, that’s all that writing about mysticism is, at least for me: it’s my way of expressing my faith), then I have become even more enmeshed in the tar-baby of self-absorption than I was to begin with.
This is not to say that the day may not come when I stop writing about mysticism. Or stop writing about my faith in general. Or the day may come when I stop writing about anything at all, simply because I become more devoted to the Daily Office and contemplation (remember Thomas Aquinas, who eventually realized that all his brilliant writing was nothing more than “straw”). I remain haunted by my monastic friend who insists I need to be spending two hours a day in silence. I’ve had two advisors whom I trust recently suggest to me that I need to make sure I am not “typecast” as a writer about mysticism. Meanwhile, I’m working on a talk I’ll give on Evelyn Underhill in February, and one of the topics I’ll be exploring is how she, one of the foremost authorities on mysticism in her generation, wrote less and less about mysticism as she became more and more immersed in the rich spiritual life of the Anglican Church. No matter how we approach it, writing about mysticism is, on a fundamental level, as much of a distraction as it is an invitation. It’s trying to eff the ineffable. It’s words echoing in the silence, silence that would be better served without the words. Probably the only thing as bad as writing about mysticism is reading about it. In fact, you should stop reading this blog right now and go pray.
And to all my American readers: Happy Thanksgiving!