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Answering the Contemplative Call
First Steps on the Mystical Path
By Carl McColman
Book Excerpt: Three Tales of Awakening
Everyone is unique. We all have distinctive personalities, diverse gifts, different values, particular beliefs. Even among people who hold to the same religious or spiritual tradition, almost infinite variety exists—meaning that there are conceivably as many unique ways to be spiritual as there are human beings.
Because of this diversity, the contemplative call—the call to awakening, to inner transformation that opens us to the living mystery of God—will manifest in peoples' lives in an endless number of ways. This can be seen among the great mystics themselves, for, in the two thousand years of Christian history, the men and women who have lived consciously immersed in the love of God have done so in many different ways. Some have been philosophers, others farmers, and others soldiers; many have been priests, monks and nuns, housewives and poets, even politicians. Likewise, the circumstances that shape each individual's journey of love with God—how they come to recognize the call, how they undergo awakening, and how they respond to the promise and invitation of the mystical life—have always been unique and singular.
To begin to appreciate more fully this invitation to spiritual awakening—and how this call can transform our lives—here are three brief stories from the lives of some of the greatest of Western mystics—men and women who, by awakening to the mystery, were forever changed by it. Their lives span several centuries and different lands. As you will see, there is much that is similar in their tales, even while each one is necessarily unique. As each of these mystics awakens to a new spiritual consciousness, each undergoes an unbidden and life-transforming change.
As you read these stories, consider the role that recognition plays in each mystic's awakening. Consider how each of them sees something new or unusual that triggers his or her metanoia—a new dimension of awareness, a new unfolding of consciousness, a new approach to being in the world. At the same time, notice how the content of what they see differs among them.
On the sixth of December, in the year 1273, the famed philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas, a priest of the Dominican order renowned for his brilliant writing, celebrated the Mass for the feast of Saint Nicholas. As he prepared for worship, Aquinas probably saw this as just another late-autumn day, one more step in the season of Advent, or "waiting" for Christmas, signifying the coming of Christ (commemorating his birth at Bethlehem, but also prophetically anticipating his return at the end of time). This particular day proved to be radically different for the aging priest/philosopher, however. Sometime during that liturgy, something unexpected happened. He received some sort of mystical insight, or perhaps heard the voice of Christ, or entered into an ineffable ecstatic state.
We're not sure exactly what transpired, but after the ceremony was finished, Father Thomas returned to his chamber where his secretary, Father Reginald, awaited him, expecting to continue working on Aquinas's lengthy but unfinished masterwork, the Summa Theologica. But the philosopher dismissed Reginald, saying he could not continue with the book, for, after having encountered the mystery, "all that I have written seems like straw to me." Like straw! Remember, this is a man who, even today, is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of his age—if not of all time. What he dismissed as straw continues to be read by men and women who seek the wisdom of the greatest minds of our culture.
And this proved to be more than just some weird, momentary emotional high that would pass in a day or two. After his December 6 vision, Thomas Aquinas left the Summa unfinished, and died only a few months later. One of the greatest intellects of his (or any) age willingly fell silent after that single, life-changing engagement with the ultimate mystery.
Almost exactly a century later, in May 1373 (we're not sure of the exact date), an ordinary but pious Englishwoman from the market town of Norwich fell ill with a fever so serious that her priest was called in to administer Last Rites. She lingered for a few days, hovering between life and death. Then one night, still believing that she lay on her deathbed, she received a series of sixteen vivid "shewings" (showings, or visions) of Christ, Mary, God, heaven, and even the devil. This dramatic event—or series of events—marked the turning point in her illness, and she recuperated.
Later, this anonymous woman took refuge as a solitary living in the Church of Saint Julian, and so today she is known only by the name of her Church—as Julian of Norwich. Not long after receiving her showings, Julian wrote a short book recounting what had happened to her; she revised this work to create a longer manuscript some twenty years after the event. In our time, more than six centuries after it was written, Julian's book—colorful descriptions of her visions, along with her thoughtful, prayerful reflections on their meaning—has achieved renown as a masterpiece of mystical devotion. Her vivid, earthy, and even radical explorations of Divine love—the love at the heart of Christ and the triune God, and what this love means for us—remain revolutionary in their message, even today. Not only that, but Julian's book will forever be significant as the first book written in the English language by a woman. Unlike Thomas Aquinas, who felt compelled to lay down his pen after his life-changing encounter with the mystery, Julian of Norwich felt called to pick up a pen—and to find her voice.