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Growing into God
A Beginner's Guide to Christian Mysticism
By John R. Mabry
Theosophical Publishing House Copyright © 2012 John R. Mabry
All rights reserved.
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In the passage on the facing page from the Gospel of John, Jesus issues a call to his future disciples Philip and Nathanael. He calls them to follow him and he gets Nathanael's attention with a very minor miracle: he knew what Nathanael was doing when Nathanael was alone. But he promises that if he comes with him, Nathanael will see much greater things.
Nathanael is not unique—this is something that happens to a lot of people; perhaps it has even happened to you. It seems to be the way God works: he shows us just a little bit, enough to turn us from our intended course, and promises that if we will come with him, he will show us much, much more.
This is the essence of Awakening. It is a minor miracle—sometimes dramatic, sometimes subtle, but usually it is just enough to make us go, "Whoa! What was that?" and start us searching in a direction we might not have gone otherwise.
It is, in a sense, an experience of conversion, but not in the way we normally think about that word. For it is not a conversion to a set of doctrines or beliefs, but a conversion—a transformation, if you will—of one's very perception of Reality.
"YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN"
When we are born the first time, it is into a world that revolves around ourselves. When we have an Awakening experience, we are born again, but this time into a world in which the locus of importance is elsewhere—in fact, everywhere. Awakening is a momentary flash of insight when we are granted a glimpse of the universe as God sees it.
In college, I struggled mightily with the fundamentalist teachings I had grown up with; I was terrified that God would reject me. I was reading a lot of Anglican poets, theologians, and mystics, so when a friend said, "Let's go see what those Anglicans mean by 'church,'" I was primed for the experience.
Primed maybe, but not ready. The church of my childhood harbored a deep distrust of art or beauty, especially in worship spaces, so my jaw dropped when I encountered the gothic sanctuary covered with tapestries, icons, and statuary, as well as the enormous, gory crucifix staring down at me in all its agony—mesmerizing and deeply moving.
But what really shook me was when the priest gave the call for communion. I cannot say why, but I raced for the communion rail and knelt, certain that I had found what I had been searching for all of my life.
And that's when it happened. I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to me. As the priest placed that wafer on my tongue, I felt a presence wash over me like an ocean wave and I heard an audible voice: "This is my mercy for you. You can feel it. You can taste it. It is real." Not only had I not been rejected by God, I had been chosen. I had been called. And I glimpsed something of God that completely reoriented my life. I was awakened.
Awakening takes different forms for everyone. For some it may be a half hour in which everything seems to glow with transcendent import. Or perhaps it is a moment in which you seem to see right into people's souls and feel such profound compassion for them your heart feels likely to burst. Perhaps it is an inrushing of energy that leaves you dazed and tingling. Perhaps, like me, you are actually in church and the voice of the Spirit whispers to you audibly in a way you cannot ignore or deny. Or perhaps a walk in the woods turns into a more sacred experience than any church service you've ever been to, as in this account from Quaker mystic Rufus Jones:
I was walking alone in a forest, trying to map out my plan of life and confronted with issues which seemed too complex and difficult for my mind to solve. Suddenly I felt the walls between the visible and the invisible grow thin and the Eternal seemed to break through into the world where I was. I saw no flood of light, I heard no voice, but I felt as though I were face to face with a higher order of reality than that of the trees or mountains. I went down on my knees there in the woods with that same feeling of awe which compelled men in earlier times to take off their shoes from their feet. A sense of mission broke in on me and I felt that I was being called to a well-defined task of like to which I then and there dedicated myself.
Such an experience can utterly undo a person. It can be disorienting, frightening, inspiring, and dangerous. In spiritual direction, we call it a Spiritual Emergence, or even a Spiritual Emergency—and indeed people often flee to the emergency room, fearing that they are going crazy or are physically ill.
Some people are glad when the experience passes. "Thank God that's over," they say as they go back to life as usual. And for some people it's not so dramatic. But whether the experience is subtle or intense, there are many who do not go back to business-as-usual; for these people it is the beginning of the end—in a good way. Because in that glimpse they realize that the way they have been living has little meaning in the grand scheme of things, that they are not who they thought they were; they've had a little taste of God, and they want more. They are hooked.
If you want to grow spiritually, if you want to walk the mystic's path, be careful and beware what you ask for. You may be singing with REM, "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine," and, indeed, you may be so drunk on divine ecstasy that you're lighting the flame-thrower yourself, but your world will end. And worlds do not end without tears.
When Philip and Nathanael followed Jesus, they left everything and everyone they knew behind. They left their jobs, their homes, their families, their lives. What God may be calling you to may not be so extreme—but then again, it might be. That's a risk you take on this journey. Just how far down does the rabbit hole go?
But here is the comfort—the only things coming to an end are unreal things—nothing real is ending, only illusions of security, or competence, or grandeur. Everything that you thought you were, but that you are not, in fact, is called into question by this experience, and it can be both liberating and scary as hell.
The Awakening experience is actually very common. Some people run from it as far and as fast as they can. But those who are truly mystics, who embrace the experience, set their feet upon a path that has no end. There will be more hardships, sure, more worlds to end, you can be sure of that, but also joy and the greatest gift God can bestow upon a human being: the knowledge of our true selves, our true nature, our true purpose.
The experience of Awakening is, in a way, an Invitation —not to a safe and warm and fuzzy spirituality, but to Judgment Day. For in this fleeting glimpse of capital R Reality, the true nature of our lives is revealed. In the few precious moments that the veil is drawn back, we see the ultimate worth of our lives and the relative meaninglessness with which we fill them.
A MYSTIC'S STORY: JULIAN OF NORWICH
Awakening often begins with a vision of the Real, and Julian of Norwich desperately wanted to have such a vision. As a young woman in the fourteenth century, she prayed for a threefold favor from God: First she wanted to behold the crucifixion, to be as one who stood at the foot of the cross so that she might better comprehend Jesus's suffering and share his compassion for the world. The second favor she asked was to be made deathly ill before she was thirty years old so that she might be purged of herself and be able to live more fully in the life of Christ. The third petition was that God grant her three wounds: the wound of compassion, the wound of contrition, and the wound of willful longing toward God.
We are conscious of the fact that prophecies are often self-fulfilling, so it is not too surprising that her request was granted. At the end of her twenty-ninth year she fell ill with an unspecified disease that brought her to the very brink of death. A priest was summoned; he suspended a crucifix above her head and gave her the last rites.
And as she lay there, staring at the face of the crucifix, shuddering with fever, the crucifix came to life and Julian was granted sixteen "shewings," or visions. We know about these visions because soon after she recovered, Julian wrote them down. Then, twenty years later, she wrote them down again, only this time with the benefit of many years' reflection. Thus we have a short manuscript and a longer manuscript from Julian. Both are valuable, but it is generally the longer version that is read popularly.
Pick up a copy. It is widely available and should be read by everyone on a spiritual path. Because she lived in the fourteenth century, Julian writes in Middle English, and along with Geoffrey Chaucer, she is one of early English's literary pioneers. In fact, hers is the first book written in English by a woman, and though she calls herself "unlettered," she is, in fact, a literary, political, and religious genius. Feminists (and I include myself here) have much to rejoice at—not only Julian's literary achievements but also her theological chutzpah.
Who was this amazing woman? Her real name is lost to us. We call her Julian only because of her association with the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England. Visions are a dime a dozen in the history of religions and the Church has always been suspicious of them. Yet Julian's visions were immediately recognized as being genuine, although it is true that not everyone appreciated what she had to say—some of which was shocking in her day as well as in ours.
It is difficult to pin down one main teaching, but several threads are discernible in Julian's work. One of the most amazing concerns God's wrath. She writes, "Seeing these things I thought it was necessary to see and know that we are sinners ... deserving pain and wrath. And yet, in spite of this, I saw that, in fact, our Lord was never angry and never will be. For he is God: Good, Life, Truth, Love, Peace ... God is the Goodness that cannot be angry."
What is she doing here? Julian is an obedient daughter of the Church. Her self-image is that she is wholly and completely orthodox, reluctant to err in any way or to contradict Church teaching. But she is in a quandary: her project is to relate what she saw of God in her visions, and the difficulty for her is that very often the things she saw did not agree with the teachings of the Church. As we saw above, Awakening experiences often have the effect of jolting us out of our comfortable religious paradigms, revealing to us things that the orthodox would consider ... well, unorthodox. Julian tries to be true to her vision and yet does not want to rock the boat, and she has to pedal pretty hard to have it both ways.
She writes, "I thought it was necessary to see and know that we are sinners ... deserving pain and wrath," but then she has to admit the truth that she did not behold any wrath in God when she had her vision. The God Julian beheld on her sickbed was a God filled only with goodness. That which separates us from God is not God's wrath or his offended honor or God's need for justice, but simply our own shame, which God pleads with us to let go of so that we can enjoy communion with him.
This is in marked contrast to the theologians of Julian's day (who placed the block to communion between God and humanity in God— God refuses communion with humans because of human sin). Julian says that God embraces us always; it is we who turn away from him. We do this not because God holds our sin against us, but because we live in shame of our sin and cannot let go of it. It is not that God will not forgive us; it is that we cannot forgive ourselves.
Julian says that there is a part of every person that does not consent to sin and never will, and that is our true soul, which is at one with God and ever shall be. Julian writes, "As long as we are in this life ... our Lord God touches us tenderly and calls to us blissfully, saying to our soul: 'Let be all your love, my dear and worthy child: turn to me—for I am enough for you—enjoy your Savior and your salvation.'"
Likewise, Julian tap dances deftly around the subject of hell. She says that, in her vision, "I wanted—as much as I dared—to see Hell and Purgatory. I did not intend to doubt anything belonging to the Faith, for I truly believe that Hell and Purgatory serve the purpose that Holy Church teaches they do. But I wanted to learn everything I could about my Faith so that I might live more faithfully to God and do well. But despite my desire, I could see nothing of them."
She doesn't come right out and say, "There is no Hell." Instead, she says, "The Church teaches that Hell and Purgatory are real, and so of course, it must be so; but I could see nothing of them." Thus, she cleverly protects her orthodoxy and challenges it in the very same statement.
But for all of her boldness, Julian's writings are most rewarding because of her deep mysticism. She invents many words in her book, no doubt because she needed them and they did not yet exist. One word she uses repeatedly is "oneing." God "ones" us to himself, God is "oneing" the universe. Today we may say "uniting" or "atonement" (at-one-ment) but these have different shades of meaning. For Julian, all the universe resides in God. "See!" she writes, "I am God. See! I am in all things. See! I do all things. See! I lift never my hands off my works, nor ever shall. See! I lead all things to the end I ordained it to from the beginning, by the same Might, Wisdom and Love through which I made it. How should any thing be amiss?"
And this is the great comforting kernel of Julian's work: as distressing as sin, suffering, and evil are, as difficult as it is to reconcile these things with God's love, in the end Julian is convinced that "all things work together for the good," and in her visions she is told to be at peace. God is in control, God embraces the world in love always, and nothing and no one will ever be lost. "All shall be well," she is told. "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."
Julian gives us an image of God as mother, cradling the world, cooing at it like her child, comforting it, and promising to keep it safe. She calls Jesus "our mother in nature and in grace." The cross was his travail of childbirth and we his children. The milk by which we are suckled is the sacraments, and the bosom to which we cling is his wounded side. We can run to him when we are hurting, and as Julian says, "The dear gracious hands of our Mother are ever about us, and eager to help."
Julian is thus not only one of the first women ever to write in English, but she is most assuredly the first feminist theologian.
If we must have a single image with which to typify her visions, it would be her description of the hazelnut. She writes that God "showed me more, a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, 'What is this?' And the answer came, 'It is all that is made.' I marveled that it continued to exist and did not suddenly disintegrate; it was so small. And again my mind supplied the answer, 'It exists, both now and for ever, because God loves it.' In short, everything owes its existence to the love of God."
Julian's fever dream was a true Awakening experience because in it she saw a God very different from the one she was given: instead of a God of wrath, she saw only a God of love; instead of hell, she saw only mercy; instead of sin, she saw only illusion. Julian's God is big enough to hold the whole universe in the palm of his hand, and yet he nurses and supports it out of pure and eternal love. Yes, sin is troubling, she says, but all will be well. Yes, the Church teaches God is wrathful and people go to hell, but I could not see it. Yes, God is our father, but Jesus is our mother; he gave birth to us and he cradles us in love now and forever.
Excerpted from Growing into God by John R. Mabry. Copyright © 2012 John R. Mabry. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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