This week, the lectionary invites us to be weird for a bit, and imagine that God is not a Thesis to prove, an Idea to explain, a Deity to impress, a Lawgiver to obey, a King to worship,
but a Lover to know.
This week, the lectionary invites us to play with mysticism.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.”
– Song of Songs
Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention:
Forget your people and your father’s house.
Let the king be enthralled by your beauty.
– Psalm 45
Our Old Testament lectionary texts today are both love poems. The skeptical scholar would insist that they were written for actual weddings, and we shouldn’t pluck them out of their context. But even though our skeptical, well meaning scholar is technically correct – yes, these are wedding poems – he’s missing the thread of sensual mysticism that winds its way through the Old Testament, the Gospels, Paul’s Epistles, the Christian monastics, and the Islamic and Jewish poets – the same gold thread that runs from Hafiz (c. 1300) to Teresa of Avila (c. 1500) to Thomas Merton (c. 1960).
Mysticism plunders Scripture and history and language for metaphors for the experience of God. The mystics use words from eating and marriage and sex and music to try and put language on what can experienced but can’t be explained.
Mystics tell us that it’s not enough to know more about God.
They want to taste and see that the Lord is good, not hear about God’s goodness from second-hand sources, or read about what a burning bush looks like as it reflects off the walls of a cave.
There are guides who can show you the way.
Use them. But they will not satisfy your longing.
Our Gospel text for tomorrow is Mark 7, and putting it next to Song of Songs and Psalm 45 can show us one way of interpreting this difficult Gospel text.
So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
– Mark 7:5-6
This strange lectionary placement – Jewish case law bumped up against Hebrew love poems – gives context to Jesus’ harsh critique.
Our traditions are a path on the way to God.
Our traditions are not an end in themselves.
When we lose sight of where we’re going and tend the path as if it’s an end in itself, we trade an experience of God for words about God.
And words are good, friends. Theology, rules, rituals, liturgy, and traditions are all vital to the life of a religious community. There is power in ancient patterns to help us understand where we’ve been and where we’re going. This path has been tread by saints and prophets of the past, and becoming familiar with it is a gift and grace. Most mystics have been deeply embedded in their religious traditions. We can sneer at the Pharisees for their religious “legalism” (and fall prey to casual anti-Semitism), but the Psalms are a treasure trove of mystical language for the Divine, and arise from the same religious tradition. This path of tradition and liturgy and law is valuable, and it is necessary.
But it is heartbreaking when we imagine that our religion is about the path, not where the path leads.
It is a tremendous loss when we trade knowing God for knowing about God.
It’s a tragedy to name our soul’s longing “childish faith” and put it behind us, instead of of following our longing to the heart of God.
A mystic is a person whose life is ruled by thirst.
– Brennan Manning
The ancient writer of the mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing tells us that we can’t find God by knowing – only by loving. There is nothing we can bring but a “naked intent,” a raw desire to come into the presence of the Divine, no matter what it costs us. And that desire is enough.
When we’re brave enough to leave our cynicism behind and listen to our thirst, no matter how vulnerable that makes us feel, we open ourselves up to an experience of the Love of God that is so much wilder, weirder, and more delightfully unexpected than we could have ever imagined in those early days tending a well-groomed path.
Because at its root, mysticism is the affirmation of the love of God.
It is a confidence that when God calls us, it is to tell us that our name is Beloved.
It is the certainty that at the end of the path, there isn’t judgment, but a celebration.
It is the ruthless trust that God is always on the porch, always watching and waiting for the Prodigals to take the path all the way home.
Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes!
leaping across the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, come with me!
See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
“Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.”