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The Call of the Mysteries
Life is filled with mystery.
Probably the biggest mystery of all is the simple fact that we exist. Why should there be something instead of nothing? Why are there mountains and waterfalls and forests and beaches? Why do the heavens exist, filled with planets and stars and galaxies? The sheer reality of nature, of the cosmos, is basically a mind blower.
If you haven't already had the privilege, someday may you be present at a birth. Even the birth of animals is wondrous. But the birth of a human being? Wow! Sure, we have plenty of science that can help us understand the processes of reproduction, of cell division and growth, of the development of an embryo to a fetus to the world shattering moment when the baby emerges from its mother. But the science just helps us to understand the processes; it cannot explain the mystery— the joy, the wonder, the beauty—of a new life, emerging with eyes dancing full of light and a smile (or a cry) to greet the world. Like nature itself, birth is a profound mystery.
Fast forward to the other end of life. For death, too, is a mystery. There's the obvious enigma that none of us has a very clear sense of what to expect when our time comes. Sages and saints from around the world have offered up various ideas about what happens— from reincarnation to resurrection to never-ending rest. And some researchers have collated stories of unusual occurrences during lifethreatening trauma or illness, leading to popular books about neardeath experiences—traveling through a tunnel to a Being of Pure Light, and so forth. But all these teachings and speculations cannot erase the profound silence of someone who simply stops breathing. Like birth, death is something that, when encountered, can usher us into a powerful sense of wonder.
Death can be a harrowing, terrifying mystery, for we mourn those we've lost and we fear the loss of others (and of ourselves). Another painful mystery is the mystery of suffering. From the raw jagged edge of grief or a broken heart, to the agony of unrelenting back pain or fibromyalgia, to the slow undoing of dementia or the murky despair that characterizes a deep clinical depression—there seems to be no end to the ways in which suffering can constrict a life or vanquish joy. Even when torment is relieved, it can leave physical or psychological scars. Why do we suffer? Why must those we love feel such pain? What can we do, when it seems that there is nothing that can be done? These questions defy easy answers, if they can be answered at all. And when we resort to the canned comforts of religion ("God has a purpose in this"; "Your faith will see you through"), we run the risk of sounding glib and out of touch. Yet even in its darkest forms, suffering can be a threshold to a most profound place of wonder and awe.
Before the mysteries of death and suffering tempt us into cynicism or despair, consider also one of the most blithesome of mysteries—the mystery of love. That the person who causes my heart to skip a beat can feel the same way about me—words simply cannot describe the joy, the excitement, the reverie, and the hope that love brings into our souls. Love fills a drab world with color and brings a song to the most cacophonous of settings. It is a force for healing by which our hearts are refreshed and renewed. Best of all, love takes many forms, each filled with its own grammar of delight. Beyond the love of sexual and romantic union, there is the love of parents and children, the love of family and friends, of pets, of homeland and nation. We love people, places, and things, and our loves form who we are.
And yet, who can explain love? Why do two people fall in love, while another two simply cannot hit it off? What inspires passion? Or sustains it? Or repairs it when it is wounded? We cannot force ourselves to love any more than we can compel ourselves to be happy, and yet to love is at the heart of being human.
Another mystery that takes many forms is the mystery of creation (creativity). This is related to the foundational mystery of existence, for all things seem to have some sort of beginning. On a strictly human level, however, creation defines who we are as beings engaged with our environment. Obviously, there is artistic creation, from making music to writing to painting to dancing (among many others). But the mystery of creation is not limited to the fine arts. Creation is all about impermanence and change, and each of us changes the world we live in, in small or large ways, pretty much every day we breathe. A businessman creates new opportunities through his deals and sales; a scientist creates out of her research and theories. Even soldiers can have the opportunity to create peace out of the conflict into which they have been sent. While plenty of life's changes are for the worse (leading to suffering), creative changes appear to generate light, life, and joy where nothing of the sort existed before. How? Why? We marvel and we wonder at such a mystery.
Finally, let me touch on the mysteries of right and wrong, and of mercy. A child doesn't have to be very old before he or she can figure out the difference between what is fair and what is unfair. Nobody likes to get the smallest piece of the cake—and everyone, if we admit it, harbors a capacity for sneaking the big piece of the cake when no one else is watching. We recognize basic qualities like fairness, decency, kindness, and honor, but we almost always fall far short of our own standards of what is right or good. Why is this? How do we unravel both the capacity for goodness and the capacity for cheating?
Closely related to the mystery of right and wrong is perhaps the even more puzzling question of mercy. If we think someone gets mercy they do not deserve, we become indignant—but if the tables are turned and we are the ones in judgment, we beg for mercy, even knowing how unfair it would be. Mercy is a breach of fairness, and yet it is something we honor and respect, and (when necessary for ourselves) something we desire.
Where, then, do right and wrong come from? Sure, many ethical principles are culturally relative, but others seem knit into the very DNA of humanity. The origin of justice is an enigma, and mercy seems just as inexplicable. Justice and mercy, like each of the other great mysteries of life, bring us to a place where knowledge yields to wonder, in the recognition that these essential components of the human experience can never be fully explained or understood.
All these mysteries shape what it means to be alive, to be human. We cannot explain our very existence, our births or our deaths, our capacities to suffer or love or create, our common recognition of the demands of justice, or the gift of mercy. Yet we cannot imagine life without these realities either. The mysteries of life represent the frontier where the sensibility of our lives shades off into areas we cannot control, cannot comprehend, and cannot manage or contain. Faced with the mysteries of life, we become vulnerable, undefended, open to the marvels that can fill us with the liberating uncertainty of wonder. And even though we live in a world that tries to manage or at least contain the mysteries—hiding birth and death away, medicating the suffering, putting creative folks on pedestals, and settling for a legal system that reduces ethics to a conflict between competing interests—despite all our efforts to control every aspect of our lives, the mysteries are never very far away. They crop up when we least expect them—when we meet someone new and fall in love, when an old friend dies suddenly, when a sudden flash of inspiration leads to the creation of an artistic masterpiece. We never know—literally from one moment to the next—when the mysteries will crack our safely constructed lives wide open. And we never know whether they will fill us with joy or with pain. But they always fill us with wonder.
To mystics, the mysteries of life are our teachers. It's no accident that mysticism and mysteries are such closely related words, both evolving from the same Greek root. What makes something a mystery is that it is hidden from the peering, penetrating efforts of the human mind to analyze, categorize, and understand everything. Mysteries defy any kind of mental classification. They point to an inscrutable reality that is beyond our mental or physical grasp.
Here's a comment that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk of the twelfth century and a renowned mystic, once made about nature—one I believe could just as easily be applied to any of life's mysteries. "Believe me as one who has experience," said Bernard, "you will find much more among the woods than ever you will among books. Woods and stones will teach you what you can never hear from any master." Strong words from a man known for his preaching and teaching skills! Consider this: Bernard is not rejecting the kind of wisdom or understanding that can be found in books or from a spiritual director. He just recognizes that nature—even the silence of "woods and stones"—is an even greater teacher. And, of course, it may be the silence of the woods that Bernard is praising (in the pages to come, we will look at silence in depth).
But I think it is just as likely that it is the mystery of nature that appealed to this medieval mystic. And all the mysteries—not just the beauty of the forest, but also the awe-inspiring realities of birth and death and suffering and love and all the rest—can teach us better than any book or master. For the mysteries open us up; that is to say, they evoke in us a sense of wonder. And wonder is a key to the contemplative call.
Discerning the Caller
Embodied within the wonder that the mysteries of life evoke in us is the possibility of discerning the source of all the mysteries. For the different mysteries of life open us up to what the Lakota Sioux called Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. Like Jews and Muslims, Christians recognize the Great Mystery as God.
Right away, we encounter one of the paradoxes of mystical spirituality: God is a mystery, the ultimate mystery, the Great Mystery. Yet God is not an abstract force or idea. We can encounter God in a direct and personal way. God relates to us personally. This is why we can talk about a contemplative call. If God were only a force (like something George Lucas dreamed up), it would make no sense to say, "God is calling." A call implies a caller. This is an important distinction to bear in mind, for contemplation—at least in its Christian form—concerns something far deeper than just having awesome spiritual experiences. It is a call to intimacy with God. Intimacy with God can mean many things, and that may include some amazing moments of insight, or ecstasy, or Divine union. Or it may not. God is what matters, and any experience of God is secondary.
If we take Ruth Burrows at her word, then we are faced with this idea that God is longing to give us the mystical life. But what does that mean? And how can I relate it to my own sense of spirituality?
I took Saint Bernard's idea that the woods and stones are our best teachers and expanded it to include all of life's mysteries for a simple reason. At the beginning, we may not have much of a sense of God in our lives, but chances are that we have had a sense of awe, of wonder, of marveling at the mysteries of life. When it comes to embarking on the spiritual journey, start where you are. From there, work backward to see where you've come from, and that may give you insight into where you're going.
As I noted in my Introduction, I assume that, because you are choosing to read this book, you have some sense of this mysterious longing of your own. Perhaps you have enough of a sense of religious vocabulary that you can say: "I long for God." Or perhaps the word God scares you a bit, and you feel more comfortable saying, along with C. S. Lewis, that you long for Joy (with a capital J)—a longing that, in itself, is a way of recognizing the elusive presence of this Joy. For that seems to be the key to this mysterious longing—a longing we can't put into words: even the experience of longing itself somehow satisfies this desire. The Germans have a word for it: sehnsucht, a word that cannot be adequately translated into English but that has a meaning more or less of inconsolable longing. It is a precious longing, however. As C. S. Lewis puts it: "This sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it."
Now, here is the kicker. The longing we sense for God is a gift given to us by God, out of God's longing for us. God desires us and gives us sehnsucht as a way of calling to us. Our yearning for God is a mirror image of God's yearning for us. But we are the mirror—the yearning starts with God and arises within us as a response.
To put it in human terms, the mystical path is the path of love between you and God. But in the great party of life, God notices you first. You go about your life, having fun, doing your thing. And God longs for you; God loves you so much. But like any other would-be lover, God sets about trying to get your attention. Of course, being loving and kind, God will never force himself on you or anyone. God wants your free response to Divine love. So how does God "flirt" with you? Simply by giving you a taste of God's own longing.
It is my belief that all people have this longing, this sehnsucht, encoded within them. Some may go through life ignoring the hunger poised inside their souls. And for a variety of reasons, many others may refuse to interpret it as a longing for God. Some may call it lust for life or the urge to create, or may even misinterpret it as a hunger for sensual pleasure, which, if handled poorly, can lead to addiction rather than to liberation. But some of us are fortunate enough to recognize this delicious longing as an invitation from the Great Mystery, from the One who longs for us with an even greater longing. When we make this recognition, we take the first important step toward discerning— and responding to—the contemplative call.
Saint Teresa of Avila speaks about the soul being a mirror, based on a vision she received:
Once while I was reciting with all the Sisters the hours of the Divine Office, my soul suddenly became recollected; and it seemed to me to be like a brightly polished mirror, without any part on the back or sides or top or bottom that wasn't totally clear. In its center Christ, our Lord, was shown to me ... I saw him clearly in every part of my soul, as though in a mirror. And this mirror also—I don't know how to explain it—was completely engraved upon the Lord Himself by means of a very loving communication I wouldn't know how to describe.
What a fascinating vision. Teresa sees her soul as a mirror, but a mirror also inscribed on Christ, with "loving communication" flowing between them that she can't put into words. Perhaps it was this mutual longing that she saw. She goes on to say that, even if the mirror is clouded or blackened by sin, Christ remains present in her soul. Indeed, even when we cannot discern our own longing, this connection with the Divine mystery remains encoded in our hearts.
So if we are mirrors, our job is to offer as clean and clear a reflection as we possibly can. The light shines on us, and we are meant to offer it back. Part of this task of recognizing the caller is making sure the mirror is clean. The fourteenth-century German mystic John Tauler has some insight for us here:
If my eye is to receive an image, it must be free from all other images; for if it already has so much as one, it cannot see another, nor can the ear hear a sound if it be occupied with one already. Any power of receiving must first be empty before it can receive anything.
We have to create space within us to receive the caller. Put in spiritual terms, we need to open our hearts to receive the presence of God, shining in us, within us, and through us. We need to be like Mary of Nazareth, opening ourselves up so that our very bodies can offer hospitality to Christ. Like Mary and Martha of Bethany, like Zacchaeus the tax collector, like Simon the leper, we are invited to receive God— within us. This is not a mental game, as if we just have to think, "God is inside me," to make it so. After all, God is everywhere, so God is already inside you (and me, and everyone else) whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. Therefore the key is to learn how to recognize God's presence and, in recognizing that presence, choose to embrace it, respond to it, and love it. And the only reason to love God's presence is because we love God.
Excerpted from Answering the Contemplative Call by Carl McColman. Copyright © 2013 Carl McColman. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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Part 1 Recognizing the Call
The Call of the Mysteries 3
Discerning the Caller 9
Wake Up 15
Three Tales of Awakening 20
So Many Different Ways to Do It 36
The Space Between 34
Part 2 Preparing for the Journey
The Pathless Path 43
Do Your Research 48
Provisions for the journey 55
Protect Yourself 60
Find Your Companions 65
Learn the Language 70
Part 3 Embarking on the Adventure
The Mystical Path Begins with Christ 77
The Mystical Path Ends in Mystery 83
Befriend Silence 89
The Other Side of Worship 110
Of Word and Image-Christian Meditation 116
Praying the Silence 124
Into the Emptiness 134
Kenosis Makes a Difference 142
Where Does the Path Lead? 147
Posted May 23, 2014
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