What is Christian Mysticism? Article by William Mcnamara

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What is Christian Mysticism?
BY WILLIAM MCNAMARA | AUGUST 4, 2009

“Mysticism is awe and wonder at the sacredness of life and being and of the invisible, transcendent and infinite abundant source of being.”
The mystic is not a special kind of person, but everyone is, or ought to be, a special kind of mystic. Mysticism is nothing esoteric. It is not the privilege of a few but an experience every one of us should know first hand.
Mysticism is infinitely too subjective to teach. It is more readily caught than taught. The supreme purpose of all contemplative communities is to foster the spirit of mystical contemplation in contemporary culture so that our social, political, economic and domestic existence is inspired by it. And yet we wouldn’t dare try to teach mysticism. All we can do is set the stage as humanly as possible for the mystical experience.
In my earliest writings I used the term contemplation rather than mysticism. Now I prefer to use “mysticism,” although contemplation and mysticism are essentially the same. It is crucial, however, to eliminate many of the misunderstandings that surround the meaning of both these words. Though we cannot teach mysticism, explain it adequately, or superficially decide to achieve it, we must know as much about it as we can theoretically and do as much as we can practically, in order to become mystical. We especially need to know what mysticism is not.

What Mysticism Is Not

Mysticism is not a pain-killer. It provides no escape from the world but puts us in touch with the world. Mystics are not rigid, unbending, or unworldly. Because they are in love with God and with life, they are supple, tolerant and flexible. Mysticism is not a way out of anguish, conflict and doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the mystical experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart, like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.
Mystics often suffer more than anyone else because they are so sympathetic and compassionate. They may harbor the gravest doubts because their childish, puerile, and spurious faith explodes before them. A veritable bonfire burns to ashes their old, worn-out words, clichés and slogans. Even their most holy concepts and sacred ideas of God are consumed in the fire of this great holocaust.
Mystics discover through contemplation, a personal encounter with the living God, that they know nothing about God. They know not what but only that God is. They learn that God is no thing (nothing, nada), no what, but pure Who. God is the Thou before whom the mystics’ inmost “I” springs into awareness. God is the “I am” before whom the mystics echo their own “I am.” They stand defenselessly, helplessly, and humbled before God’s holy scrutiny.
Mysticism is not what drug enthusiasts call “tripping out” but more like “standing in,” alert and alive, with the highest possible focus of human attention on the present moment. It is standing willfully and deliberately in awe and wonder before the unveiled mystery of reality. Mysticism is not trance, an ecstasy or an enthusiasm. It is not the wild frenzy of religious exultation or the imagination of lights or the hearing of unutterable words. These do not emanate from the deep self but from the somatic unconscious and may happen in conjunction with religious experience but do not constitute mysticism.
Mysticism is not the affair of a quiet and passive temperament which naturally loves to sit and do nothing. Mystics are not spooky introverts or isolated thinkers who simply love to ruminate, prowling around in the sanctuary of their own psychs. Most of the mystics I know are strong, robust and vibrant, obsessed with a Zorba-like, or better, Christ-like madness.
True mystics do not merely explore their own consciousness but savor the Real. They are not aloof from flesh and blood, the turmoil, chaos and pleasures of the world. Some of the most mystical people are deeply and profoundly immersed in the world, thoroughly engaged in political and social life, rearing dozens of children. They are mystical simply because they are basically and essentially great lovers of God and his whole creation. Some of my favorite mystics are prophets like John the Baptist and Elijah, saintly women like Joan of Arc and Elizabeth of Hungary, disciplined wild men like Zorba the Greek and Holden Caulfield. These mystics are not indifferent but deeply in love with the world. Their love of the world does not diminish but enhances their dynamic, irresistible and burning love of God. It is possible to become totally detached in everything and unattached to God. But then we become stuffed shirts, not mystics. We are not all aglow with the Spirit, consumed with the fire of God’s love, but simply “into” spirituality.
Mysticism is not inward torpor but a magnetic, mobilizing peace characterized by the wise passiveness of St. John of the Cross: “I abandoned and forgot myself. . . leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.” Mysticism is the highest form of action. But the mystics don’t always need to take a pole when they go fishing because they have no need to justify doing nothing. Being may compel them to do nothing. When God speaks, the mystics simply listen; when God appears, they simply behold; when God gives, they simply receive. Responding to God’s initiative this way distinguishes genuinely positive and gracious quiet from the error of quietism, the limp passivity of the sluggard often confused with the alert stillness of the spiritual athlete. English mystic and theologian Walter Hilton describes the paradoxical activity of such peace: “This restful travail is far from fleshly idleness and from blind security. It is full of ghostly work, but it is called rest… a holy idleness and a rest most busy.”

What Is Mysticism?

Having cleared away some of the outstanding debris, we are in a better position to say something more positive about mysticism. Mystical contemplation is the experiential grasp of reality as subjective. Not mine—that would pertain to the external, superficial self—but as myself in existential mystery. Mysticism does not meet reality through a process of deduction but through an intuitive awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive in its own existential depths which open out into the mystery of God. If we can discover ourselves in depth, we discover God and simultaneously discover Christ. We can almost say there is an identity between self and the real Christ.
If I am a mystic, I have come into ownership of myself. I achieve through asceticism and discipline and the controlled wildness of love, mastery of my own human instrument. Only when I achieve ownership of myself may I give myself to the world and share the contemplation I enjoy, which is the only valid definition of apostolic outreach. If my apostolate is not simply a sharing of my mystical contemplation, my own experiential awareness of God, then it is phony, noisy, and absurd.
We cannot proclaim the contemplation of Christ in an effective and lasting way unless we ourselves participate in it. How can we proclaim or act, however zealously, what we do not know ourselves personally and experientially?
“The most important thing to do is to be,” said Lao-Tzu. Apostles are not self-appointed but sent by God, after he has touched and transformed them. Such people are rare. When they show up, they always seem to be men and women of prayer; silent and solitary, God-filled and God-intoxicated, not saying or doing much, but keeping God’s love alive and his presence felt in a half-hearted, talkative, busy society where people live frightened, fragmented “lives of quiet desperation.”
To engage in the natural art of contemplation is to look long and steadily, leisurely and lovingly at any thing—a tree, a child, a pear, a kitten, a hippopotamus—and really “see” the whole of it; not to steal an idea of it, but to know it by experience, a pure intuition born of love. This is not an aggressive act but gratuitous. Being discloses its hidden secrets as we look, wait, wonder, and stand in awe, not inquisitively but receptively. Mystics and contemplatives are never utilitarian, greedily trying to get something out of everything. They simply stand before being, before the universe, before another human being, a plant, an animal. They enjoy it and leave themselves wide open to its revelation, to its disclosures of mystery, truth, and love.
Mystical contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract truths about God, more than meditation on what we believe. Mysticism is an awakening enlightenment, an intuition born of love which leaves us sure of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our concrete daily life. The mystics do not simply find a clear idea of God and confine him within the limits of that idea and hold him prisoner there. The mystics are carried away by God into the divine realm of mystery and freedom. Mysticism is pure and virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able by its very poverty and purity to follow the Word wherever it may lead.
Mysticism is a long, loving look at the Real to which we are united by love. It is the highest expression of our intellectual and spiritual life. Its activity is its own end. Mysticism has no utilitarian purpose but is simply looking, loving, being utterly, magnificently, wildly useless. It is life itself fully awake and active and aware that it is alive. Mysticism is awe and wonder at the sacredness of life and being and of the invisible, transcendent and infinite abundant source of being. It knows the source obscurely, but with a certitude beyond reason. It is a veritable vision of the Godhead in the human, earthy context. This act by which we see who we are, not in isolation but against the background of eternity, and so simultaneously and experientially see who God is—this is genuine mysticism.
Mystical life is both the most normal and the highest expression of the spiritual life. It involves the highest levels of participation in the intimate, trinitarian lovelife of the Godhead. This loving Being issues in our divinization. God is the primary source and active agent of this divine transformation. We are the recipients of divine disclosures and become mystics by being drawn by grace into Ineffable Mystery.
Transparent and Opaque
Whether mystical union is experienced depends partly our environment, particularly our beliefs, but preeminently on our psychophysical constitution. This accounts for the fact, otherwise inexplicable, that mystical experience, like artistic creation or scientific intelligence, is often shared by members of the same family: for example, St. John of the Cross and his brother.
Not everyone is mystical to the same degree. Some individuals are more easily recognizable as mystics.
psychological factor identifies and distinguishes them from other spiritual individuals who are not usually considered mystical. The felicity and frequency with which mystics consciously experience divine union depends upon their particular temperaments.
E. I. Watkin, my favorite religious philosopher who died in 1981, has explained this in terms of the transparent or opaque personality. The opaque personality sees the same comedy as the transparent but never laughs; hears the same music but never moves a muscle; suffers the same embarrassment but never turns red. The inner experiences of the transparent personality, however, always register on his countenance or external behavior. What happens in the spiritual depths, at the center of the soul, rises easily to the conscious surface. What occurs in the deep recesses of the opaque personality will seldom, if ever, become apparent. Transparent personalities are much more likely to translate inner experience into a painting, a song, or a poem.
Both the transparent and the opaque person are in union with God, but only the transparent one becomes conscious of it. Both are drawn by God into the deepest dimensions of the human adventure, the mystical depths of the spiritual life, but only the transparent personality exhibits mystical experiences. Opaque personalities, though raised by God into mystical existence, do not show it or even know it. Despite this, they may be as holy as their transparent counterparts. Theologically speaking, both types are mystics; but phenomenally speaking, only the transparent are, because they experience God’s active presence within them and are obviously and recognizably mystical.
Unfortunately, because of our “monkey business,” phony mysticism abounds. Like monkeys, people copy the outer behavior of genuine mystics without understanding their inner Godward dispositions. It’s what’s inside that counts. I remember Alan Watts comparing a mystic to a musical genius. Strictly speaking, a composer like Mozart is inspired when melody emerges from the depths of his mind. To convey that melody to others he writes it down on paper, employing a technical knowledge which enables him to name the notes he heard in his mind.
This fact is important: his technical knowledge does not create the tune in his mind; it simply provides him with a complicated alphabet and is no more the source of music than the literary alphabet and the rules of grammar are the source of our ideas. What music teachers call “rules” of harmony are simply observations on the harmonies most usually used by such people as Mozart. Mozart did not use them because they were the rules but because he liked their sound. A composer needs to study harmony in order to identify the chords which he hears in his mind, but he does not use his knowledge to construct chords unless he is a mere imitator of other people. In the same way, language is used not to create thoughts but to express them, and mastery of prose does not make a great thinker.
The mystics are spiritual geniuses who work the same way as musical geniuses. They have a wider scope because their technique of expression, their alphabet, is every possible human activity. In all mystics, some more than others, the presence of God is felt. The mystic expresses this feeling two ways: first, by living a certain kind of life; and secondly, by translating this feeling into thoughts and words.
People who have not had this feeling observe the actions and words and from them formulate the “rules” of religious morality and theology. There are bound to be distortions. It is strange how foreign any unique religious feeling is to the average human being, even to the professional religious personality. The essential quality in the mystics is their feeling, not their ideas and actions, for these are only reflections of the feeling, and a reflection existing without light is a sham. Therefore just as great technical proficiency will not make a creative genius in music, so morality, theology, and discipline will not make a genius in religion, for these are the result of religious experience, not the cause, and by themselves can no more produce it than the tail can be made to wag the dog.
When we speak of feeling, we imply an element of rational appreciation of what we feel. Affectivity and rationality are not opposed. Genuine affective responses are rational. Genuine feeling is partly cognitive, but it is also much more than that. According to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “We only believe those thoughts which have been conceived not in the brain but in the whole body.” A merely intellectual response to reality is not enough because it is restricted and doesn’t engage the total self. Genuine feeling refers to a total response, actuating what we are as persons.
According to Aldous Huxley’s Grey Eminence: “The mystics are channels through which a little knowledge of reality filters down into our human universe of ignorance and illusion. A totally unmystical world would be a world totally blind and insane. From the beginnings of the eighteenth century onward, the sources of all mystical knowledge have been steadily diminishing in number, all over the planet. We are dangerously far advanced into the darkness.” A civilization that denies the place of mysticism or shuts out the possibility of it sets us inevitably on the road toward a philosophy that is not so much a “love of wisdom” as a hatred of wisdom.
We will never enjoy mystical union as long as we refuse to stop, take time, enter into holy leisure and contemplate. We will miss God in the busy hustle and bustle of our loquacious liturgies. We will miss God in our hurried, routinized, self- centered prayer. We will miss him in our frenzied activities. We will miss him above all in our education, whose goal is supposed to be contemplation, according to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, the Fathers of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, and any ancient or modern educator worthy of our attention. Without mystical vision, our education is a farce, our civilization a sham, religion an opium, liturgy a corpse, theology a fad, and apostolic outreach the most popular and pietistic escape from the God who said, “Be still and see that I am God” (Ps 46:11).
This article has been published in various forms in other publications. It is being reprinted here with the permission of the author. If it speaks to you, please share it with others by clicking on the “Share It” symbol and sending it to others via email or your favorite social networking sites.

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A Pilgrim Of Love

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” There is an old story from the Desert Fathers about an old monk showing a younger man around the monastery. They passed by one cell where a monk lived alone, and there were many demons brooding and flying in and out the windows. And in the next cell where several monks lived the demons were lying around and sleeping. The young man remarked to the Abba, ”The monk in that first cell must be very evil.” ” No,” the Abba replied, ”he is very pure. In that second house the monks are very lazy and lecherous and so the demons don’t need to bother with them.” In some way we should be worried if we are not doing the inner battle, because as I read the stories of our monastic ancestors, including Saint Romuald, I hear, I hear all the time about them struggling with demons, as we struggle with our own compulsions and addictions, petty and great, with our disproportionate recurring reactions, our selfishness. The inner struggle might be a harder struggle than fighting in the battlefield, because in the struggle against the self, we have to constantly battle enemies that are hosted inside our own mind and heart, from which there is no escape. As a matter of fact the solitude and silence of the cell are meant to take away any possibility of escape from this battle (unless you have wireless internet, that is).”    – Fr. Cyprian OSB Cam from his October 31, 2014 Homily on ”the inner and the outer struggle”

There is a great deal of relief felt inwardly as I read these words again after having re discovered them after a time filed away under the ‘’ must go back to ‘’ pile of papers that has adorned my desk these last months. These words also so beautifully echo a very recent conversation that I had with my spiritual director recently, around the nature of faith and trust amidst times in the great abyss of the wild and barren ”inner desert”, and how we hold on to this life and trust and faith while experiencing these great trials we endure. It certainly also challenge’s the trap that one can at times fall in to; those ruminations and thoughts we may have that somehow if I was really connected to my deepest spiritual self, then I would not suffer;  I would not feel pain; struggle with my own addictions and compulsions; nor feel the urge to escape from this suffering and pain;  This being in essence, a life of all permeating peace and light and love and bliss! Yes, certainly one aspect and symptom of living the inner life during such moments of grace! and certainly in the midst of great suffering peace is there to be found. Yet, often in all reality – especially when one struggles with symptoms of mental illness (and here I only speak from my own personal  experience) -more often than not the inner passage is often lived through our hard and arduous pilgrimage within a deep and treacherous desert landscape, with its ever present parched desert seasons. In fact I feel the spiritual practice is the journey through all these seasons we face. Both in shades of ebony and nuances of white. All become soul food for our inner practice.

Today, a good friend was reading through a spiritual text, and a question was posed as to the reason for our life here on Earth. The text replied ‘’ the whole reason for our existence is to become a pilgrim of love’’… This moved me profoundly, as I contemplated the horror that is alive within this world and that is echoed within my own self also so often. yet within it all we are challenged and we are called to love. We are challenged when we are called to love, because more often than not it is a hard task as we are faced with the darkness that is residing within us. This love can feel far and lost in the midst of our own anguish.

Certainly from the perspective of our own humanity, my own humanity this can seem a seemingly impossible task and a gaping chasm  that one must cross to find the truth of these words and the wholeness of the true self; the spiritual pilgrim questing always inward toward God. Yet we also hold the divine spark for we are but shimmers of the divine and eternally held and beheld in love. God calls to us over and over into this love. This suffering which dwells in love.

So many stories abound of the mystics, as they often walked within their own seasons of pain and joy – both pain of the physical and the suffering of the mental. Suffering and pain somehow seem almost a prerequisite in just so many ways to those living the deeply mystical life. I, as with the many mystics who have gone before- and through years of my own anguish – have come to believe that difficulties are not obstacles on the path, for they are indeed,’’ the path’’, and in every season of suffering our task is to cultivate mercy toward ourselves and to stay there as long as possible, even in the midst of seemingly unbearable times of great suffering. This is the challenge I hold before my own times of pain. And this is the journey of love God calls me into. Can I welcome this as my path? Can I hold this experience without wanting to fix it, or avoid it, and can I remain with it and allow it to speak to my heart? Often I feel my ego shrinks from this awesome responsibility, and again and again I fall into times of un compassion repeating patterns that no longer have their place within the great heart of love; but yet somehow with gentle nudging I am returned once again onto the path of love – upon his heart of love – and s/he places me once again along the rocky road to grow and become a true pilgrim of love. Until I face and become intimate with my own fear, it will always limit my ability to love, so God calls me to pay attention, for everything is my teacher.

Ezra Bayda in this vein writes poignantly: ‘’suffering is often the most effective vehicle for awakening the heart’’. Amma Syncletica one of the early desert Mothers also writes: ‘’ Great endeavors and hard struggles await those who are converted, but afterwards inexpressible joy. If you want to light a fire you are troubled at first by the smoke, and your eyes pour water. But in the end you achieve your aim. Now it is written: ‘our God is a consuming fire .’ So we must light the divine fire within us with tears and struggle’’.

Allowing in Obedience

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Reading Dom Jean Leclercqs’ ‘Alone with God’, with words that permeate my sufferings at this time. On obedience to the eternal God of my soul. Dom Leclercq writes speaking of Jesus:

‘’Through obedience He accepted hunger, sleep, vigils, weariness, and all the miseries that are common to men. Besides that, he accepted extreme poverty, exile. And subjection to the crowds that pursued him that it is recorded in St Johns Gospel that he had not enough time to eat his bread. He did not refuse to bear the hatred of the chief priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees, as well as temptations from the devil and from man. He bore the suffering of being taken a prisoner, being bound, insulted, hit, tortured, whipped, crowned with thorns, judged, condemned and crucified. He heard reproach and blasphemy yet all through it all he simply said these words: ‘’father not my will, but Thine, be done.’’

How easy, in this time of pain, to become lost and adrift living life inside the afflictions of my own mind. How easy to lose myself within myself. As I forget, moving along shades of dark; losing the ground, the life of my soul that speaks to me of ‘obedience’, of my own stability of heart.
Hearing the call from the depths to come back to my soul…. Allow this night, allow this pain, and allow it to become your prayer of selfless love. Give of yourself suffering the lamentations of grief, of mis-understanding, of barren aloneness as He. Make a holy space to tend to the tender places within,for God lives within all these if you ’allow’ ; unfurling constricting edges of pain unlovingly bound.

In obedience to God I ask the searching question: am I being attentive and listening to Gods will? Or am I diverging along tangents of my own human longing? but again and yet again I tend myself back toward His sacred heart of love. May I be always obedient to the call of grace within my own heart?

A Desert Journey

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This afternoon it was really interesting to watch a you-tube video of Father Peter Owens’s journey into Egypt to quite literally follow in the footsteps of St Anthony, that first desert hermit and ascetic. The story followed him, as he journeyed over the desert landscape with a number of Bedouins, to the worlds oldest monastery that St Anthony himself established. To further then, spend 3 weeks living as a hermit overseen by the hermit Father Lazarus.
I was struck by the deep inner journey he explored in his own battle with the questions and experiences that plagued him the further he went into his own hermit experience. This being; feeling an initial apprehension, fear and anxiety, to a profound and deep existential wrestle with his own inner experiences that became heightened through the silence and solitude that was enveloping him high in the desert caves.
Toward the end of his time spent there he eventually came to touch a very real sense of quietude that surrounded him reflecting the peace he had made with his own inner agitation over the full 21 days living in the cave. As he later reflected on this time and his own inner struggle, I was particularly struck by his words – to not engage with this struggle ” means that we fall asleep. We become numb “, and that even though to go through it is exquisitely painful, it is like we ” are being born.”

I have been pondering somewhat on his words, and in this I particularly think about life with mental illness and in particular the extreme dis-quiet that symptoms of this illness can present as a ” raging dis-quiet ” in ones own interior landscape and reality.

This depth within the spirituality of the desert touches me profoundly and directly confronts to a certain degree my own patterns of ”running”: of ”falling asleep” to the divine currents that course within my own inner experiences, and in a sense this existential”birthing” that on one level has filled my own humanity with great fear, while at the same time a simultaneous longing; this divine birthing that tantalizingly lures my heart ever forward – ever deeper into those same eternal and loving arms that have always eternally enfolded about me no matter what shades of light and darkness I have at times not always willingly traversed through.
Like the outer, this inner desert, also is at times devoid of any perceivable contours and shapes and exquisitely raw in it’s arid colorlessness and seemingly unending echo of solitude and silence.
Yet, as Father Peter experienced for himself it is precisely within this time of silence, that a new creation comes to the fore; birthing forth from beneath layers of noise that ”silence” and ”still”, as we enter into the echo of our longing and within from within which we can then hear the nuances of our own ”true light” and come to embrace with compassion the vulnerability beneath all the layers of our own ”unquiet” mind.

Reflection on Lay Monasticism

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Thomas Merton once wrote… ” The Monastic life is in a certain sense scandalous. The monk is precisely a man who has no specific task. He is liberated from the routines and servitude’s of organized human activity in order to be free. Free for what? Free to see, free to praise, free to understand, free to love. This ideal is easy to describe, much more difficult to realize. Obviously, in reality, the life of a monastic community
has many tasks and even certain organised routines so that the monk, in his own little world, lives a social life like everybody else. This social life can be come complicated and overactive,and he suffers the same temptation to evasion, to meaninglessness, to bad faith, to restless agitation. But the purpose of the monastic life is to enable a man to face reality in all it’s naked, disconcerting, possibly drab and disappointing factuality, without excuses, without useless explanations, and without subterfuges. (CIWA 228)

Reflecting on the above quote, also, as a soul having been drawn to many aspects of the monastic life since adolescence; I see a path that stretches out before me, as one that has grown and transformed me profoundly through many seasons of desert and growth in an ever spiraling ” falling” and ” returning.” This seems very much the essence of the sacred pilgrimage – and indeed the monastic life as microcosm of the spiritual life – we all traverse along. I see the lay monastic journey as a deep passage of eternal awakening; a constant movement and growth of personality and soul; and in this, an unending shedding and letting go over and over again – shedding and more deeply ever surrendering our ourselves and out lives as we lean into and toward the God who calls to us; this being also very much a part of this path in life and the deep existential journey we all make, despite the very human struggles along the way. Thomas Merton sums this up when he writes: ’’a life like any other that can become complicated and overactive, subject to temptations, to evasion, bad faith, and restless agitation. ” I feel a monastic is one who – despite the very real presence of such discomfort – endeavors to remain receptive, through a spiritual rhythm and practice in a continuous turning inwards, unfurling toward the deepest heart of divine mystery, the life spark that sustains us all. In opening oneself to become as a receptive and spaciously porous vessel, we become filled with this‘’divine presence,’’ a
divine presence who births forth and sustains this life. Surrendering our heart and mind and body to the eternal and infinite out – flowing of divine mystery – opening to this breath of life within each and every holy moment and yielding to the divine spark within each experience of our lives, whether this be ” drab or disappointing,’’ or meaningless and full of temptations; yet as Thomas Merton says; ” without excuses. ”
Yes, I do also wonder if the person who embraces the monastic spirit within the world – as opposed to a life in a conventional community – is beset by more of the diversions and the challenges of cultivating this silence whilst living in the noisy and frenetic world of the temporal; I wonder too, is this just different while perhaps with a familiar essence? Yet, I do, feel there are most likely are particular and unique challenges
that a lay monastic faces while endeavouring to live this life, while in the midst of the hustle and bustle of secular society that maybe a cloistered monastic may not experience in the same way. Perhaps there is a deeper and greater need to discern the multi hued spirits or energies that abound about us more presently within the world of the secular state. Yet maybe this is a particular gift and calling for the lay monastic? And maybe one of these gifts, is in being able to ”breath in” and ”breathe out,” the treasure and depth of this spirit – and a measure of this same monastic goodness – right out into and amidst the frenzied marketplace of a supremely fractured and crazily compulsive world; a world that is deeply crying out for the harmonious beauty of silence, of soulfulness, of a personal divine longing and the quintessential presence of stillness within the dysfunctions of it’s own humanity. As we become the praying witness of compassion to the violence of unrest that exists within the psyche of society, we endeaver to manifest this same presence of simplicity and peaceful beauty within a world that has lost sight of this.

Renound spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy writes in one of his beautiful aphorisms: ” Simplicity is an advanced course”…. This I feel, also sums up the heart of our journey as aspiring lay monastics. We are also called to be this witness of simplicity, of silence, and of wholeness.
St Francis says so succinctly in his well known words: ” The world is my cloister, My body is my cell, and my soul is the hermit within.’ For the lay monastic the world becomes holy ground, the body; the vessel for the divine birthing; and the hermit, the solitude of silence; the quiet and gentle all seeing presence of stillness present and grounded within the cloister of the world.

Personally, I often wondered if God meant to call me into a traditional monastery; yet in time, and more and more while discerning alongside significant and wise companions, I have come to realize that the world is a good place as any – with divine grace and in God’s own time – to work toward becoming the monastic presence s/he calls me to be. I do feel it takes a grounded and courageously determined personality – and grace from God – to keep on keeping on walking along the long, and at times, arduous monastic road that resonates deeply within the heart of each lay monastic. No matter where this roads takes one; into aridity or in to light, we hear St Benedict when he says,” Always, we return again”…. We may fall and we may also stumble, and sometimes we may even feel completely abandoned in the morass of our own interior and outer challenges; yet each time we get up and dust ourselves off, returning again and returning again to the one whose voice we hear beneath all the changing tides of our lives. Beneath all, we hear the deep silent echoes of longing that have been planted and seeded by the divine soul who gave birth to us; and in which, we, through our spiritual attentiveness, nurture and nourish as we relinquish our humanness upon the alter of our heart. For myself, this is the essence of lay monastic spirituality. This openness and unwavering love for a God who draws me along an internal unknown and wholly mysterious and transcendent quest – ever circling, ever returning inward toward the still centre of a silent and poignant holy communion. This silence and prayerful presence of the holy monk archetype within, holds our connectedness in the ground of our inner solitude; this oneness to the breath of all life is explained when Evagrius Ponticus’ writes in his famous dictum, ” The monk is separate from all and united with all.’

Divine Birthing Through Paradox

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From Peter- Damien Belisle”s wonderful book of essays – ” The Privilege of Love-Camaldolese Benedictine Spirituality” It reads: “The hermit does not pretend to have acquired any esoteric secret or any exalted technique by which he penetrates into the mystery of God. His only secret is the humility and poverty of Christ and the knowledge that God lifts up those who have fallen.” It is paradoxical that we find our ”true”self in selflessness, but solitude, like monasticism, is a place of paradox in the stream of life. ”The waters which rise from the monastic core pull us into a world of paradox: encounters within solitude; celebration of Word in silence; stability within a mobile world; marginality at life’s core; creativity within aridity.”
In essence this is also encompassed by Athony de mello , when he writes: ”when you are on the verge of going insane, you are about to become either a psychotic or a mystic. the mystic is opposite of what a lunatic is. One sign of awakening is when you begin to ask yourself the questions of ”am I going crazy”, ”is everyone crazy.”
This paradoxical tension between sanity and insanity, life and death – as within all internal questions of darkness and light – solitude and community, creativity and aridity becomes the very fire inherently present in the world that is created in a kind of divine paradox: A world that is constantly birthing  forth form from the womb of all darkness –  a Light that is breathed forth from the mysterious unknown out into and throughout all of creation.  There lies a very present paradoxical contradiction of tension, that gives life its subtle form and it’s erudite manifestation. To not have one without the other risks a state of complete lifelessness. This paradox – this tension – is what engenders movement; the dancing balance that is ”searched for” ad-mist the dichotomies of all experience – of all actualization. The self as it travels, softly begins to discern the silent strands of the souls voice ad-mist an ocean of ”longing”; of ever cycling human existential wondering. In this humanity we have jumped in to this embodied form, I believe, to go beyond that which we have known before. We journey ”inward”, coming in time, to move beyond duality. Or perhaps this may be more aptly be worded as an encompassed state of ” intentional enfolding” ; holding both, yet moving beyond at once. This becomes the duality that gives birth to the mystical- the interplay of dark and light birthing outwards and at one becomes the in and out breath of God’s manifestation. Moving beyond ”opposites” and experiencing the silence of the soul, in stillness – in a full and creative ”nothingness” that holds the fragility of both.
I speak of my own inner experience of this as I have questioned in my own human existence through years of repeating illness and wellness underpinned by the deepest spiritual longings of a self, that at times struggled to understand her own humanity.  Yet over time the paradox of this reality has led to profound and deep psychic ”conversion” within my soul; engendering a fire within for a God that enticed yet simultaneously stirred such pain in the longing for union with this same being who often felt so annialatingly afar.

Silence

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From the book :  ”The Privilege of Love- Camaldolese Benedictine Spirituality edited by Peter- Damien Belisle it reads: ”The Greek term hesychia means a state of silence, stillness, or tranquility, as a result of the cessation of external trouble and internal agitation.
Cassian’s ”purity of heart” contains the aspect of ”tranquility of mind” and thus, the idea of hesychia. The term also means solitude of retreat. ” Watch your thought like a good fisherman watching for fish. ” To attain interior hesychia and freedom from concern, the desert tradition offers two other ke concepts: vigilence (nepsis) and attention (prosoche). According to John Climacus, vigilance is the distinctive attitude of the friend of hesychia, which is ”always on the watch at the doors of the heart, killing or driving off invading notions.” ” The vigilant monk is a fisher of thoughts, and in the quiet of the night he can easily observe and catch them.”

Becoming the mindful watcher of all thought, all sensation, all experience – always awakening – opening- to the divisions of our wandering mind, and by cultivating an internal gentle rippling pond of silence, the experience of ”contrast” within our lives is heightened. The echo of this previously gently ruffling surface, becomes the mighty roar of an untamed river – a river violently tumbling over the craggy rocks of internal divisions, and obscuring self vision under it’s watery veil of subconscious reverberations and unconscious patterns of being.

The inner and monastic path embraces this, and I believe is also a path of a deep internal discerning and awakening, alongside a deeply vulnerable ”shedding”, of all the shadowy shadings that obscure this divine light from our sight – the divine nature of this truth yawns inside the heart of our receptive spirit painfully open to the paradox of this same celestial light and holy dark.  Within this hesychia, this silence – this stillness; one begins to hear the river of humanity inside of our self, that in times of dis-quiet gives rise to the obsessive attachment and compulsion to avoid that which seems unbearable – that which suppresses this inner tension – to squashing, and fleeing from that which is unclaimed within; and subsequently journey toward the wholeness of divine healing; where tensions are soothed and divisions within our fractured souls find a synthesis of wholeness within the silence of a paradoxical yet tangible mystery of an effervescent yet often seemingly absent  and shadowy God.

Reflection On A Recent Desert Experience

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Touched by the darkness of night I am forced to my knees as I cry out to God, where are you?…I cannot find you within the whirling storms of my broken mind. A mind desperately searching in patterns of the past – my heart warming, singing, whispering, come in to the new. Come ‘’ in to being, come into peace, be willing to shed, to be, to allow; to accept this night, this desert of the barren as my compassion. ‘’Be’’ compassion, be your gentle heart. Come in to the stillness of your softness. Put away the harms of years past. A broken sorrow crying tears of hollow chasms that ache for glimmers of the holy. A lifeless and hollow emptiness, a nothingness, a landscape devoid of contours – greying and stripped of all familiar shapes and form. There in the echoing silence, shimmers of a dawn mould about me. Being, surrendering, embracing; finally the glowing warmth of a tenderly held eternal love song.

 

Suffering Gracefully

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Today I came across a poignant reflection on a blog I visit from time to time.

The blog writer wrote: ” I wonder if suffering can be viewed and termed as grateful? I believe so. But to actually suffer gracefully is something I have not mastered. I pray for the graces to suffer gracefully”.

The honesty of these word’s written, struck me in the light that they shine into the depths of my own longing, and the very real and raw realizations that I have  experienced; particularly through the more recent journey in the ‘dark night’ of the last few years. This being.. that while traversing through this time of arid desert, my eye’s had opened to this very actuality. This being that I have not always suffered gracefully; that I have not always suffered with an honesty and integrity that my soul has called me to hold, and that through all the year’s living with chronic illness, I had not ever really learnt how to suffer gracefully. This is the very way the journey meanders along and the path I walk  in finding a unified healing of spirit – and this is the  road I must embrace to come to a life worth living with integrity, honesty and in alignment with my soul’s vision. I guess this is the very thing that the mystics show and mentor to me through and in their own lives of deepest pain and  light… From my broken humanity, I too, pray for the grace of God – to ‘open me’ – to ‘strip me’ of all the ‘contrasts’ that stifle the very light of life that brings forth new hope – a  new life, from the birthing of dark and light, allowing me to feel the growing pains of life gracefully. I acknowledge – I accept -I bless and I surrender to the flow of divine grace that floods my soul each and every day.