Category Archives: Poverty

What is Christian Mysticism? Article by William Mcnamara


What is Christian Mysticism?

“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.


Prayer of St. Teresa


Let nothing disturb you,

Let nothing frighten you,

All things are passing away:

God never changes.

Patience obtains all things

Whoever has God lacks nothing:

God alone suffices.

–    St. Teresa of Avila

A Pilgrim Of Love


” 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


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?

Reflection on Lay Monasticism


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.’


Abba Antony said to Abba Joseph, “How would you explain this saying?” and he replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: “I do not know.” —Antony the Great
This world, this reality, revealed by God speaking to us, is not the kind of world to which we are accustomed. It is not a neat and tidy world in which we are in control- there is mystery everywhere that takes considerable getting used to, and until we do, it scares us. —Eugene Peterson
The heart of the contemplative life is never about escaping the world, but plunging ourselves fully into the heart of messiness and mystery.
As we deepen on the contemplative journey, our aim is to release our attempts at controlling our lives and surrendering into a far greater Mystery than our egos can contain. There are no step-by-step plans, only daily practice and immersion in the messiness of life as it comes. We live into the questions, as the poet Rilke so wisely wrote, rather than trying to find the answers. We practice being uncomfortable. We move more deeply into unknowing.
We follow the trail of the desert mothers and fathers, who traveled out to the heart of wild places to discover their own edges, to be stripped of false idols, to release certainty and control, and to encounter the God who is far beyond their limited imagination. We are also called to step out into this wilderness by showing up to life fully and embracing the disorder to be found there as precisely the place where the holy dwells and shimmers.
When we reach for control and conformity, we effectively squelch the Spirit at work in the world. We recognize the health and vitality to be found in diversity, and the free exchange of ideas as keeping us awake to what we most deeply believe. Creativity arises in response to what life offers us. To be an artist means to create out of the materials given.
Why Dancing?
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. —Exodus 15:20
David danced before God with all his might. —2 Samuel 6:14
The Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance.
For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. . . Indeed we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance. —Thomas Merton
As the Buddhist teacher Reginald Ray writes in his book Touching Enlightenment, our bodies are the last unexplored wilderness. We live so far removed from the sensual and incarnational realities of embodied life which offer us a deep source of wisdom and place of encounter with God.
Like the early desert monks, we are called to stay in the midst of wilderness for the sake of deepening into the divine mystery. Not just to bide our time, waiting for a way out of the messiness, but to dance right in the midst of it, to connect to the rhythm of life and trust that love is the fundamental force sustaining us.

Christine Valters-Paintner

Desert Wisdom