Church teaching on the whereabouts of God has often presented us with a God who is separate from our sense of self, or a God who is taught in very cerebral ways so that we might learn about God but not how we might experience God directly.
For many this is all well and good, but for some there is a yearning for something beyond merely learning about God. It is felt as an inner longing, a flame that is ever burning just, though barely, below the surface of consciousness. It’s only desire is nothing less than the direct experience of God in the soul.
This is the mystic impulse, or the contemplative quest, and ever since Christ himself declared that ‘I and the Father are one’, or Paul declared ‘It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me’, that mystic impulse for the experience of union with God has impelled seekers in every generation towards the church and equally has driven many seekers away from it.
The latter particularly so in the Protestant church where the interior journey towards this union is really featured. Often such seekers, frustrated by the lack of spiritual fulfilment in the church, will go off to other spiritualities is in search of something that will relieve the inner longing, which they have never quite been able to articulate. They may look in the eastern religions, or the new age or even various psychotherapeutic schools, of particular note is the Jungian school, but rarely will that itch be scratched here either. This yearning and seeking for something that cannot be spoken of is most often a sign of someone who is awakening to the contemplative life. A mystic in the making! A discerning spiritual director will help such a seeker to turn inwards to discover the hidden treasures that were there all along.
Christian mystics, have always been a conundrum to the church and have variously been excommunicated, tried for heresy, burnt at the stake, celebrated, canonised and even posthumously made doctors of the church. Yet even today it’s as if the church still doesn’t know what to do with its mystics. But there is nothing special or different about this group other than this;
the mystic has grown into an intense awareness of that interior presence of God that is in every single soul. And when we shift the emphasis from the cerebral to the non-dual then that awareness becomes increasingly accessible to anyone over time. When we switch from learning about God (as important as that is) to seeking the direct experience of God, then we realise that the sense of separation was only ever an illusion.
Christian mystics all through the ages would tell us that there is, deep within us, a hidden place, untouched by this world, where God’s ground and our ground meet.
Luke 17:21 tells us that God’s kingdom is not a geographical location at all but that it is within us. In fact the Greek text is deliciously ambiguous and could easily translate as the kingdom of God is in all of us. Some translations will say that it is among us and in my experience we have to discover it within us in order to know it among us.
The word kingdom is a bit tricky too for our modern ears, try substituting for the word presence! The presence of God is all around us and within us, in full view yet hidden from sight! And no one is excluded from knowing its fullness but discovering the hidden treasures requires some deep digging
For the Christian mystic /contemplative the desire is to offer hospitality to this hidden, divine presence that it might blossom and grow and merge with the soul and in that sweet communion the fullness of life that God intended for us is realised. The mystic knows that this is not merely a hope for the world to come but an experience to be lived in the here and now.
I realise this all sounds a bit like navel gazing but for all those who are walking this contemplative path it is entirely seen as just one side of a coin the other of which is activism and there is a constant flow between the two.
The monastic movement was and remains the corporate expression of the two sides of this coin. It is a community setting whose rhythm supports its members to live a life of contemplation prayer from which compassion flows to the needs of the world. Monasteries were the first hospitals, they provided education, developed agriculture, offered hospitality to the poor whoever they were and these communities continue to live lives of deep prayer and fearless activism.
For the last word on this reflection on the contemplative life I turn to one of my own spiritual directors all be he a heavenly one! The great 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart, Dominican monk, theological academic heavyweight, writer, prophet, feminist, activist and defender of the poor. He says;
‘The most powerful prayer, one well-nigh omnipotent, and the worthiest work off all is the outcome of a quiet mind. The quieter it is the more powerful, the worthier, the deeper, the more telling and more perfect the prayer is. To the quiet mind all things are possible. What is a quiet mind? A quiet mind is one which nothing weighs on, nothing worries, which, free from ties and from all self-seeking, is wholly merged into the will of God and dead to it’s own. Meister Eckhart