The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.’
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 a very cerebral way 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 towards union with God has compelled seekers in every generation towards the church and equally has driven many seekers away from it. The later perhaps particularly so in the protestant church where the interior journey towards this union is rarely featured.
Often such seekers, frustrated by the lack of non dual, spiritual teaching in the church, will search other spiritualities in search of something that will relieve the itch which they have never quite been able to articulate. They may look in the eastern religions, or the new age or even various psycho-therapeutic schools – Jungian being of particular note, but rarely will that itch be scratched there either if their foundational contemplative calling is to the Christian tradition. This yearning and seeking for something that can not be articulated 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 turn inwards to discover the hidden treasures that were there all along.
Christian mystics/contemplatives (I am using these terms interchangeably), 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 Dr’s of the church. Yet even today it’s as if the church still doesn’t quite know what to do with its mystics. But there is nothing special or different about this group other than this.
Simply put the contemplative is growing into an intense, non dual awareness of that interior presence of God that is the very ground of our being. When we shift the emphasis from the cerebral/thinking faculties (which is how we usually approach God) to the non dual then that awareness becomes accessible to anyone who commits to the path over time. When we switch from learning about God (as important as that is) and balance that with 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 meets.
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 both would be right, but in my experience we have to discover it within us in order to know it among us.
That word Kingdom is a bit tricky too for our modern ears, try substituting it 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 hidden treasure requires some deep digging.
For the Christian 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 fusion the fullness of life that God intended for us is realised. The mystic fusion is not merely as a hope for the world to come but a living reality in the here and now.
I realise that this all sounds a bit like navel gazing but for all those who are engaged in this contemplative path it is entirely seen as one side of the 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. Space created for the interior life lived in sweet fusion with God from which compassion flows to the world. Monasteries were the first hospitals, they provided education, developed agriculture, offered hospitality to the poor whoever they were, and are today, and remain a safe place in a hostile world.
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, succeeded Thomas Aquinas as Chair of Theology at University of Paris, writer, prophet, feminist, activist and defender of the poor.
‘All works are surely dead if anything from the outside compels you to work.
Even if it was God himself compelling you to work from the outside, your works would be dead. If your works are to live, then God must move you from the inside, from the innermost region of the soul-then they will really live. There is your life and there alone you live and your works live.’ ~ Meister Eckhart
Quote from Meditations with Meister Eckhart by Matthew Fox © 1983. Bear and Company, Vermont