What do mystics do? The following list can be a way to begin answering this question. I’m not suggesting that every mystic does everything on this list (for starters, this list is particularly aimed at Christian mystics), or that a person has to do all of these things to be considered a mystic. I’m trying to make the list general, so that it’s not just about persons who live in a cloister (monks and nuns) or who have ordained ministries of some sort. Think of this list as a glimpse into the variety of activities that persons we have come to know as mystics often engage in. Of course, the invitation is clear: even if you do not think of yourself as a mystic, and even if you have no desire to wear that label, perhaps if you are drawn to a deeper spiritual life you will find this list of activities inspiring.
- Mystics pray. Christian spirituality is all about fostering a connection with God, and the single most effective way to do this is to pray. This includes many forms of prayer: communal or liturgical prayer, repetitive prayer like the Rosary of the Jesus Prayer, written prayers like the Psalms or the Daily Office, spontaneous prayer and charismatic prayer. Mystics take seriously Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17). Indeed, all the other items on this list, in the hands of a mystic, are simply other forms of prayer.
- Mystics write. No, not every mystic does this. But many do. We wouldn’t have the mystical wisdom of John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, John Ruusbroec, Meister Eckhart — or, for that matter, Thomas Merton, Cynthia Bourgeault, and Richard Rohr — is these great visionaries and contemplatives did not commit their thoughts and teachings to the page. This doesn’t mean that every aspiring contemplative needs to get published! Rather, for most spiritual seekers, the take-away is humble, but powerful: keep a journal. Journaling is a meaningful and rich spiritual discipline all its own — and yes, it can be a form of prayer.
- Mystics meditate. Imagination is a wonderful thing — and using it to reflect on the great mysteries of the faith, the stories of the Bible, or the many ways in which we seek and find God’s presence, is a rich and nurturing from of what old-timers called “mental prayer,” and what remains a rich form of seeking communion with God for us today.
- Mystics contemplate. Deeper than meditation, contemplation brings the seeker to a place where words fall away — and (paradoxically) in the words of Meister Eckhart, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” This is not something we decide to do, like deciding to go to the grocery store. Rather, contemplation is a gift — a grace from God. What we can do is to dispose ourselves to receive this gift, by cultivating inner serenity and silence, as a part of our overall discipline of prayer and seeking after God’s will in our lives.
- Mystics read. This one takes two forms. First and most important is lectio divina — the process of reading sacred scripture meditatively, which in turn leads to meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Also important is study: not only the Bible, but the writings of all the great saints and mystics who have gone before us. One way to grow in intimacy with the Word of God is to avail ourselves of the rich tradition of writings from throughout the ages.
- Mystics relate. Love is the heart of Christianity: love of God, and love of neighbor. It may not seem very “mystical” to devote one’s energy to feeding those who hunger, or spending time enjoying one’s family, or contributing to the life of a church or faith community. But one of the meanings of “mystical” is “hidden.” Hidden in the most ordinary activities of life is the unseen but real presence of God. There’s an old joke that says “Christians pray, but Christian mystics mean it.” We could adapt that as “Christians love their neighbors as themselves, but Christian mystics mean it.” To be a mystic is to see Christ in all people, and most especially those who hunger, or who have been oppressed or marginalized.
- Mystics sacrifice. It’s not a popular word in our society, but mysticism is timeless, not swayed by the fashions of the moment. Mystics give many things up: the quest for ego gratification, the hunger for material wealth, the jockeying for status in their social circle. Mysticism is all about simplicity and surrender: letting go of what is not necessary. The point behind calling all this “sacrifice” is that a true mystic practices self-denial not because he dislikes himself, but for a far richer reason: because his love and thirst for God is so great, that he wants to let go of anything that distracts him along the way.
- Mystics give. If sacrifice (as I used it above) implies a surrendering for the purpose of simplification and focus on Divine Love, then giving represents a corollary function: sacrifice for the benefit of others. This can be small or large, an act of kindness or a major gift to a church or a non-profit. We give of our resources, but also of our time and our talents. Obviously there is a question of healthy boundaries — it is possible to give to one’s own detriment — but a healthy contemplative will make the effort to find the right balance between appropriate self-care and heart-felt giving to others.
- Mystics sanctify. Holiness is another word that has fallen out of fashion; it basically means “set aside” for God. Relationship-building and giving reveal a social, communal side to mysticism, and at least in Christian terms, this is important. But there is also an essential solitary, hidden aspect to mysticism as well. “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Mystics withdraw to nourish both inner and outer silence. Mystics go on retreat. Mystics cultivate inner peace and serenity. Mystics seek to live a holy life. Not a withered, prudish, pleasure-hating life: that’s Puritanism, not holiness. True holiness knows how to laugh, to love, to enjoy, to delight and take delight. But all is in appropriate and due measure. True holiness also knows how to be quiet, to avoid (or resolve) conflict, to listen, to ponder, to reflect, to watch, to act simply. It’s a balance we can all benefit from.
- Mystics see. Finally, let’s expand on this idea that a holy person, or a mystic, knows how to listen and to watch. The New Testament has a very simple message: “Wake up!” Watch the signs of the times. Be alert for the coming of the Christ. This message is as important today as ever. Great mystics have often been visionaries, capable of seeing extraordinary or supernatural things, either through dreams, or meditation, or mystical visions. Not all of us are called to such lofty heights, but I do believe we are all called to wake up, to pay attention, to be mindful, to learn to discern the subtle and nuanced stirrings of the Spirit in our lives. Richard Rohr’s latest book, The Naked Now, is subtitled “learning to see as the mystics see.” He writes at length about mystical consciousness as unifying, non-oppositional, non-dual. Mysticism is about cultivating this higher, more unitive way of being. It’s a way of seeing, it’s a mode of awareness, it’s learning to live in the felt presence of the God who is always present, always loving, whether we know it or not. Mystics choose to know it. And that’s what makes all the difference.
(This post originally appeared on the Anamchara blog, October 15, 2020)