Seven “Ingredients” for Cultivating a Truly Mystical Life

Speaking at the Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, GA, 9/21/17. “The Christian of the Future will be a Mystic.”
Speaking at the Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, GA, 9/21/17. “The Christian of the Future will be a Mystic.”

Last night I gave a talk at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip, here in Atlanta, on one of my favorite topics: “The Christian of the Future Will Be a Mystic.”

It was this year’s installment of an annual lecture series, and the organizers told me last night’s audience was the largest this lecture series had ever seen. Approximately 175 people attended.

I assured the organizers that the topic, not the speaker, was responsible for the turnout!

I do believe that interest in recovering and restoring the mystical heart of Christianity is greater than ever. Last night I talked a lot about Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton, two twentieth-century authors whose pioneering work on the recovery of contemplative spirituality is bearing fruit in our time.

Of course, I also shared the famous quote from Karl Rahner, which inspired the talk’s title: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or… will not exist.” I pointed out that the “will not exist” part is already coming true, as evidenced by the number of churches that have declining membership. The institutional dimension of Christianity is indeed in crisis.

(American Catholics, incidentally, are often blind to the crisis in Christianity. But it’s a false complacency. The Catholic Church maintains its numbers primarily through immigration. Take away immigration and Catholicism suddenly has declining numbers similar to most Protestant Churches.)

Still, I think Christians have a lot to be hopeful about and that’s primarily because of the burgeoning interest in contemplative and mystical spirituality. So my talked ended on a fairly upbeat note, encouraging everyone in the audience to pray for his or her unique path into intimacy with God — which, after all, is the heart of mysticism.

During the Q&A segment, a woman asked me if I could recommend any “best practices” for those who want to enter into a more truly mystical spirituality. What a great question!

Here’s the gist of what I said in reply:

There’s really not a “one size fits all” program for cultivating the mystical heart of Christianity. We can look at specific practices like centering prayer, or the Jesus prayer, or Ignatian spirituality, and in truth each of these (and other) methods will work for some people and not for others. Mystics come in all shapes and sizes, and so we need to resist the urge to try to set up a “program” for becoming a mystic. Ultimately mysticism is about falling ever more deeply in love with God. And that is as personal as you get. Union with the Love of God will look different for every one of us.

So instead of recommending best practices, I’d like to point out seven dimensions of spirituality that I think anyone interested in the mystical life needs to make part of their lives. But how each one of does this will be unique to ourselves. Some of these concepts may be more important to one person than another. That’s okay. But I think all seven need to be “part of the mix” for everyone.

So here, then, are the ingredients I believe needed for a truly mystical life: —

  1. Silence — silence is the foundation of mysticism. We need meaningful amounts of attentive silence, each and every day. This probably ought to include both attentive forms of silence (like Christian meditation or centering prayer) and non-attentive silence (such as doing daily chores with no TV, internet or music on). External silence reveals to us just how noisy our internal lives are. But that’s a necessary first step to finding to limitless silence that expands beyond the “noise” of our thoughts, imaginations and feelings.
  2. Liturgy — we need a structured form of daily prayer. Liturgies like the Divine Office with its round of morning, noon, evening and night prayers can be essential for developing a prayerful way of living. But not everyone needs a daily liturgy as complex as what you’ll find in a monastery. There are other ways to become established in regular prayer. What’s important is that we pray, and that we pray every day. And a daily liturgy, of some form, is an essential tool for keeping such daily prayer alive and real, especially over the long haul.
  3. Embodiment — Prayer and silence can sometimes leave us stuck in our heads. The mystical life is a full-bodied life, which pays attention to labor, to rest, to health and even to appropriate ways in which we discipline ourselves (for example, exercising regularly or going on a diet). Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is God-with-us, which shows that God does not reject or physical, material nature. Therefore, our spirituality needs to have a material as well as a psychological component.
  4. Community — Christianity is not a do-it-yourself spirituality; neither is Christian mysticism. We need each other. We need to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and we even need to work on loving our enemies. Mysticism often appeals to introverts (I’m one!), and so this is sometimes the hardest part of the spiritual life for us. But Jesus is clear: he said where two or three (or more) are gathered, he is present. Of course he is present with us individually, too. But his point is that we should not neglect intimacy with God found through community.
  5. Justice — Again, Jesus is clear. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Feed my sheep.” “Feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, set the prisoners free.” Christianity is clear in its commitment not only to heaven-after-death, but to working for the reign of God (which is to say, the heart of love) here in the present. A commitment to silence and to prayer does not let us off the hook when it comes to acting justly (Micah 6:8); in fact, authentic prayer tends to make us hungrier than ever for living a life grounded in God’s justice.
  6. Interspirituality — not everyone is called to do interfaith dialogue or interspiritual work in a formal way. But we are all called to be  hospitable toward others, and especially in this day and age, “others” includes those who do not share our faith. I’m not advocating for a bland “melting pot” spirituality where we mix it all together. Christians, dive deep into your Christian faith. But then relate with kindness, compassion, and hospitality toward others. Who knows? We might even learn a thing or two. And of course, some of us are called to more actively engaged forms of interspiritual engagement. If you find your heart tugging you in that direction, be not afraid.
  7. Humility — Finally, mysticism can be a great big trap for the ego. “I experience the love of God: aren’t I special?” Well, no you’re not (and just because you’ve had a nifty experience doesn’t mean a thing). Authentic mystical experience tends to increase humility rather than pride: the “experiencer” is often left with a profound sense of unworthiness after having encountered such vast love. Many of us, meanwhile, are called to be mystics of unknowing, where our is faith shaped not by extraordinary experience but by deep faith and lively trust. No matter what our relationship with God may look like, we are all called to walk humbly with God. Remember what C. S. Lewis said: humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. It’s down to earth. It has a sense of humor. It’s no big deal. May all of our spiritual lives be that way!

I hope this list is helpful. Can you think of another essential ingredient to fostering a truly mystical life? If so, please leave a comment and let me know what you think!


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