On Being a Mystic

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A breathtaking sunset over Arkansas’ Mount Nebo photographed byย Josh McCray.

Some Christians tend to be frightened by the word โ€œmysticism.โ€ The word “mystic” raises irrational fears based on a misunderstanding of mysticism as a part of the Christian’s spiritual experience. So what exactly is a mystic? A mystic is simply one who has moved from mere belief systems to an actual inner experience with God.

That brings us to the sticky concept of belief systems. Christians definitely have belief systems, sometimes rigid and judgmental belief systems. The reality is that there is never a shortage of persons spouting out their beliefs, beliefs that are often based on systems of fake religious piety.

A life lived in the spiritual realm of God is much, much more than a set of rigid beliefs. Spirituality is much more than what we think or what we say. Spirituality is who we are, our inner spirit, our soul that dances to the rhythms of the God who dwells within us.

Richard Rohr understands the inner spiritual experience.

Until people have had some mystical, inner spiritual experience, there is no point in asking them to follow the ethical ideals of Jesus or to really understand religious beliefs beyond the level of formula. At most, such moral ideals and doctrinal affirmations are only a source of deeper anxiety because we donโ€™t have the power to follow any of Jesusโ€™ major teachings about forgiveness, love of enemies, nonviolence, humble use of power, and so on, except in and through radical union with God. Further, doctrines like the Trinity, the Real Presence, and the significance of Incarnation itself have little active power. They are just โ€œbelievedโ€ at the rational level.

– Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Any of us can believe at the rational level. We can easily formulate a set of personal doctrines, doctrines that often hold us captive to self-righteousness and rigid relationships with others. To be truly free is to be open to the winds of the Spirit, to rest in the presence of God, to follow Christ into places of deep need, to give ourselves over to inner spiritual experiences.

When we live in the comforting place of the mysticism of spirituality, we will not find in ourselves a judgmental spirit that uses our beliefs to denigrate those whose beliefs differ from ours. We will not find in ourselves the need for the criticism and condemnation that results in divisions.

What we will find within ourselves is the ability to love as Christ loved, the longing to bury our souls in the gentle grace of God, the deepest desire to transform the world around us and thus create the โ€œbeloved community.โ€

So I, for one, want to be a mystic. I want to live in the very center Godโ€™s spiritual realm, to be moved by the Spirit, to scatter the love of Christ in all the places I walk.

May God make it so.

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In the Dark

 

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I was asked recently to write about faith and chronic illness. The request prompted me to recall the year I lived in the dark, the year that I was so seriously ill. It made me think about the losses I have experienced since the diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. It reminded me of the freedom I have lost because of the eight hours I spend on dialysis every day.

The truth is that, in 2014, I thought I was going to die. The greater truth is that I did not die. In fact, I slowly grew physically stronger. Spiritually and emotionally, I descended into grief and despair and somehow managed to emerge with fresh hope and deeper faith.

It was a grueling process learning to write again, practicing with the occupational therapistโ€™s endless pages of ABCs over and over until I began to form legible letters. It was hard learning to walk again, regaining the strength and balance I had lost. It was hard being unable to cook, to care for the house, to bathe myself, to browse the web, to do all the simple things I used to do so easily.

To be sure, it was a dark time of frightening uncertainty and doubt. I mourned for the life I once enjoyed. But in time, I discovered an unexpected grace: that spiritual transformation often happens in the dark. The writing of Richard Rohr offers a way to describe this time of my life. This is what he writes.

We seldom go willingly into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster . . . we usually will not go there on our own accord. Mature spirituality will always teach us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life, which is why we speak so much of โ€œfaithโ€ or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the darkโ€”in questions and doubts, seldom in the answers . . . Wise people tell us we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness in which we ask, โ€œWhat is it all for?โ€ย 

– Richard Rohr

It was indeed โ€œthe belly of the beastโ€ for me. And as Richard Rohr writes so eloquently, I needed to learn to โ€œstay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning.โ€

Here’s the outcome. Smack dab in the middle of the darkness I experienced, there was God. There was grace. There was transformation. And there was renewed life. Thanks be to God.

Raising Cain

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“The Resurrection of Lazarus.” Oil on canvas painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896ย 

As someone born and raised in the south, I know a lot about โ€œpiddlinโ€™ around.โ€ I do it all the time, and when the dayโ€™s light comes to an end, I always wonder if I have done anything at all worthwhile.

Don’t get me wrong. I heartily approve of some piddlinโ€™ around in life. Especially holy piddlinโ€™ like getting quiet and getting in touch with God. Holy piddlin’ like sitting in silent contemplation can bring God close to me. Praying can take me to a special place for sensing Godโ€™s touch. Listening to sacred music opens my soul to the whisper of God.

Piddlinโ€™ can be a very life-giving pastime.ย On the other hand, some of us God followers long to change the world, to face off against oppression, to do justice, to end wars . . . to do something of eternal meaning.

Our problem is that changing the world can be a heavy burden that we simply cannot carry around for long. The secret, I think, is a balance between pensive spiritual moments with God and those once-in-a-while moments of sparkling mission and calling, those moments when we rise courageously above ourselves and almost see miracles. Truth is, it is not a common happening for us to find ourselves raising anyone from the dead or healing someone who is suffering illness.

It seems that the best we can do is to say to God, โ€œI offer you, God, my silent devotion. And I offer you my willingness to follow your highest calling and your most extraordinary mission, wherever it leads and whatever the cost. Hereโ€™s my heart. Do with my life as you will.โ€

I very much enjoy the writing of Annie Dillard, and she has written eloquently on this very subject. Here’s what she writes.

There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end… But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous…more extravagant and bright. We are…raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

– Annie Dillard

I hope that you will find many of those sacred โ€œbe still, my soulโ€ moments with God. But I pray also that you will, along the way, have eyes wide open for those bright and extravagant miracle moments when it just might be possible to raise Cain or raise Lazarus.

Maps

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“I like to know where I am, not just where I’m going.”

That’s a statement made by my husband, who absolutely loves maps. In fact, he doesn’t like the GPS in the car to determine his route. Instead, he wants to see the map of the entire area so that he can determine his own route.

He gets this love of maps honestly from his father before him. And what’s more important is that he never, ever gets lost. He possesses a keen sense of direction that can take us through any city, on any highway, over any country road. He always finds the way back to familiar territory.

Knowing maps, reading maps is a gift, a gift I definitely do not have. But here is what I think is most important: to know where we are, not just where we are going. Knowing where we are is a part of knowing who we are, and that is a necessary part of a content life.

No doubt, many of us are not self-aware. We fail to spend time getting to know ourselves and getting comfortable in our own skin. There are no maps that can adequately chart our humanity. Maps do not show deep down emotions. Maps do not reveal the passion of our hearts. Maps cannot describe what lives inside a soul.

We must explore those things ourselves, in earnest and in prayer, discovering the person God wants us to be.

Transformation: The Spiritual Journey

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The labyrinth is a walking meditation, a path of prayer where psyche meets Spirit. It has only one path that leads from the outer edge in a circuitous way to the center. There are no dead ends. Unlike a maze where you can lose your way, the labyrinth is a spiritual tool that can help you find your way.

The life quest of drawing closer to God is best described as a spiritual journey. But it is a journey of our own choosing. We are not forced to take it. God does not coerce us to travel such a path. Each of us must choose it, and in a spirit of prayer embark on an unknown journey.

We cannot predict its path. We can only give ourselves to its gentle turns with confidence that, along the way, we will discover and learn and grow in our faith. It can be transformational. Wendell Berry describes this journey with the words arduous, humbling and joyful, an apt description. Most importantly he describes “arriving at the ground at our own feet” and there learning to be at home. Here’s what he writes:

The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.

– Wendell Berry

Taking the journey leads us home, a place of peace and comfort, a place where we are comfortable in our own skin, a place where our heart meets God’s heart. The journey can bring transformation within us.

The danger is that we can shrink in fear from transformation because we cannot control the process. Giving up control is always a challenge for humans, but refusing the spiritual journey means that we will wander aimlessly, always searching and never finding our deepest spiritual self.

Making It All the Way Home

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“Close your eyes and follow your breath to the still place that leads to the invisible path that leads you home.”

~ St. Teresa of Avila

With aging, I have experienced an emotional and spiritual “returning home.” The years have brought a sense of well-being in some very real ways. It happens to us all, I think, as we follow the usual life paths of grief, loss, fear, hopelessness, and yes, joy. The difficult paths are the important ones, in fact. Each assault, each time of suffering, makes us seek who we really are inside.

In a conversation last night, I made this comment:

The passing years are taking some of my intensity away. I now see my younger self as a very different person than who I am today, looking back on the years in which I was driven to save the world. But I’m happy that the frenetic drive has lessened for me over the years. If I had not settled down, I think I would have died. And the kidney disease year had a profound impact on the person I used to be. I miss myself sometimes, but mostly I’m very grateful to have relaxed.

The beginning of a brand new year brings a pensive season for me, a time when I want to know myself, my real self. My self-assessment, then and now, reveals how I eventually made it through life’s chaos to the serene present. So I am happy that I made it all the way home to this place, this still and holy place that nurtures my life.

Washing the Spirit Clean

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It is a worthy intention, to wash my spirit clean. How freeing it would be to move all the messy stuff from my soul and to feel cleansed. The Psalmist prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

How do I even begin? A good start would be prayer, contemplation, reading prayers in Scripture, walking in the forest, making some time for silence. For me, singing hymns cleanses my soul and nurtures my heart. The writing of John Muir also suggests a path to soul cleansing. John Muir, also known as “John of the Mountains”, was a Scottish-American naturalist, author, environmental philosopher and early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States. Millions of people have read his letters, essays, and books telling of his adventures in nature, especially in the Sierra Nevada of California. These are his words.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

Keep close to Nature’s heart . . . break clear away once in awhile..climb a mountain..spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

โ€• John Muir, The Mountains of California

It’s a continuous effort, washing the spirit clean. It’s a necessary spiritual discipline. It opens us up to a life renewed and refreshed.

It’s So Quiet Here!

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It’s not unusual for us to comment, “It’s so quiet here!” Our lovely neighborhood is very serene, a great place to live. When we go outdoors, we can hear the hummingbirds. We don’t hear traffic, or dogs barking, or children playing. We don’t hear trains. Now and then, we may hear a clap of thunder or the falling of rain. We may hear planes flying overhead or the sound of lawn mowers.

But quiet can be disconcerting. We tend to immerse ourselves in activity, avoiding stillness, resisting silent moments of contemplation. Entering into quiet times can sometimes bring unwelcome thoughts and fears that are held at bay when we’re immersed in the noise of busyness. It happens for me at times. When I get quiet, my thoughts sometimes entertain those things that I most fear.

Still, quiet times can also be strengthening times. Quiet moments can bring peace and serenity. So, all in all, I am grateful for the quiet times in my life in these days of retirement. It’s a different experience that follows a career full of activity, overachievement and constant work.

We live a very quiet life. It’s quiet enough to hear the chirping birds and the buzzing bees. And it’s quiet enough to hear God’s voice. Maybe God has been waiting for my life to get quiet. Maybe It makes God happy to know that I can now hear the gentle prompting of the Spirit. Maybe I will hear things I have never heard before. Maybe God’s voice will be clearer to me than it ever has been.

Oh no! Mercury is in Retrograde!

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My friend, Martie, is always the first to sound the dire warning, “Oh no! Mercury is in retrograde.” She announces it with such emphasis that you believe her prediction and heed her advice. This phenomenon is one of the few that affects everyone in a fairly uniform way, and its effects are always obvious. Once you begin to pay attention to how events in your life change during these phases, you will soon see how important it is to take note of them.

I won’t go into detail about what Mercury is actually doing. You can look it up online if you’re interested. I’ll simply report that The Huffington Post confirms it: “The planetary cosmos has an evil plot to make your life go crazy from August 30 to September 22. Itโ€™s called Mercury Retrograde.”

The critical advice from all the best sources boils down to these ten points:

1. Donโ€™t Make Agreements. Itโ€™s a horrible time for negotiating contracts or making decisions.

2. Donโ€™t Accept or Start a Job. If you do, you may regret it.

3. Donโ€™t Try to Close the Sale. Closing a deal is often based on taking advantage of great timing. Unfortunately, youโ€™re timing couldnโ€™t be worse when Mercury is retrograde.

4. Donโ€™t Initiate New Projects.

5. Scheduling Meetings. Avoid (or minimize) scheduling meetings and events during Mercury retrograde, because youโ€™re more likely to experience confusion, mistakes and cancellations.

6. Avoid Traveling A Lot. If you canโ€™t put certain trips on hold, just be aware that you can expect an unusual amount of last-minute flight cancellations, meeting postponements and long transportation delays.

7. Donโ€™t Purchase Computers or Begin Installations. This is when youโ€™ll discover that you bought the โ€œcomputer from hell.โ€

8. Donโ€™t Repair Your Auto unless you absolutely have to.

9. Donโ€™t Buy Things.

10. Donโ€™t Select a Roommate or Move in With One.

So if you believe the planetary situation, you’ll basically lay low between August 30 and September 22. It may be a good time for recharging your batteries, taking care of your soul, contemplating all that is good in life, spending some time listening to God, otaking some deep breaths and gathering your strength.

That’s what I plan to do.

What I Miss

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There is still ministry in me. There are sermons still in me, and prayers yet unprayed. That is the most difficult part of being a retired minister. When colleagues laid their hands on me in ordination, that was a calling I took seriously. It was a lifelong calling, one that began with a still, small voice urging me to say “yes.”

I still live under that call to ministry, even though I am not actively serving. So I struggle to find my place. I long to once again be buried in acts of ministry. And I wonder what God has in mind for my retirement. Sometimes I even wonder if God remembers my call to ministry.

What does one do when the phone stops ringing? What does one do when invitations to preach or teach stop? These are questions I cannot adequately answer. But I do find solace in the truth that God is still present with me. I find comfort that God still places words in me and that I can share them in my writing.

Still, I envy my colleagues who are immersed in ministry positions. I miss them. I miss the work. I miss the way God worked within me to reach out to persons who needed to hear the Good News. I miss the hymns of praise and the prayers of confession. I miss the aroma of candlelit sanctuaries and the hum of a worshipping congregation.

And so my prayer for this day is “God, teach me how to be retired.”