The Appearance of the Holy Spirit before St. Teresa of Avila
Most Christians find the mystics mystifying. Their language often makes it hard to identify with them, their lifestyle seems out of sync with modernity, and their message simply doesn't seem relevant to life as most of us know and live it. It's easy, therefore, to think of mysticism as a hobby for people on the fringe of life—spiritual gurus or others seeking esoteric spiritual experiences. But this easy dismissal would be unfortunate because the mystics are surprisingly relevant to modern life and their message is much more practical than usually realized. This is the reason Karl Rahner, perhaps the most influential Roman Catholic theologian of the 20th century, argued that "the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or not exist at all."
However, before we attempt to learn from this rich Christian tradition let me take a moment to clear some common misconceptions. Despite what you might have heard, Christian mysticism is not about seeing visions or receiving special messages from God. Nor is it the pursuit of enlightenment or esoteric spiritual or religious experiences. In fact, its goal is not experience at all—or, at least, it should not be. The goal is simply knowing—deep personal knowing of God. The mystical or contemplative journey is, therefore, deeply relational. At its core is a longing for an intimate knowing of God in love. There is nothing that mystics desire more deeply than this.
What the mystics offer us isn't primarily techniques or theories but wisdom—wisdom that is deeply congruent with biblical teaching but which emphasizes the interior dimensions of the transformational encounter with God that authentic knowing of God involves. Although it is immensely practical and includes practices, this wisdom can't be reduced to those practices. For like any wisdom teaching, it starts at a place much deeper than what we believe or what we do. It starts with ontology—with our being—and moves out from there.
Being and Becoming
The starting point of the Christian contemplative journey is the paradoxical realization that there really is nothing to achieve and no where to go. This is because God is already present and we already exist in God and God exists in us. All that is lacking is awareness of this most fundamental reality of our existence. But, even that awareness is not something we need to achieve. It is a gift from God and is not something we can manufacture. But it is a gift that we can unwrap and this is where the wisdom of the mystics is so helpful.
Within contemplative spirituality there is a tension between being and becoming. In terms of being, we are always, already, one with God, immersed in God's presence and deeply enmeshed with God's very being. Becoming is returning to this eternal state of being. It is being aware of what is most deeply the truth of my being and allowing this to become equally true of my identity. Consequently, even the metaphor of the journey is somewhat misleading. Of course, life is a journey and our spirituality is deeply part of that journey. But, it is not a journey of finding God because God is already present in Christ in my depths. If it is a journey of anything it is a journey of knowing—of knowing the truth of my being and knowing the transformational power of the life and love of God flowing through us.
So how is this practical? It is, in fact, immensely practical. It reminds us to relax and let go of our striving to know God—or our striving to achieve anything of spiritual significance. It tells us that the initiative in this relationship has been and always will be all God's. Everything that God asks of us, God gives us. And everything that we most deeply seek is already ours in the God who resides at the center of our being. God having taken that initiative and being now fully present to me, my job is simply to open myself in trust to the God whose abiding presence is the very foundation of my existence. Because, if the eternal I AM were not present to me, I would not be.
Inner Space and Hospitality
The second important thing the mystics have to teach us is how to open ourselves in trust to the knowing of God's loving presence that we seek. The answer is that we do this by making space for God. Christian mysticism is less about attaining unity with God and more about creating the inner emptiness where you can offer God hospitality. It is, therefore, more a matter of subtraction than addition.