From Silent Compassion
To speak of mysticism in simple terms means we speak of experiential knowledge of God instead of merely mental or cognitive knowledge of God. And when you really experience the divine, you naturally move to a higher (or deeper) level of consciousness. When most people hear the word mystical, they think it means something impossible for most of us or only available to those who are ascetical for twenty-five years. However, mystical encounters come to people who are still weak and sinful, as Jesus makes very clear in many of his stories (The Prodigal Son, the woman “who was a sinner,” and the Publican and the Pharisee stories, for example).
A mystical or unitive moment is not something that can be accessed by the left brain, but by the whole brain – right and left – and the heart and the body and the soul together. It is an intuitive grasp of the whole and by the whole! That is what makes it so convicting and transformative.
God is another word for the heart of everything and for everything precisely in its connectedness. When you say you love God, you are saying you love everything. Immature religion becomes an excuse for not loving a whole bunch of things and reveals that you have not had an authentic God experience yet. Rigid religion and compulsive religiosity, all unloving religion, is a rather clear sign that you have not met God! Once you have had a unitive experience with God, reality, or even yourself, your life invariably shows two things: quiet confidence and joyous gratitude.
That’s why mystics can love their enemies, can love the foreigner, can love the outsider. They don’t make these distinctions that low-level religion does. Low-level religion is more tribal, a social construct to hold an individual group together. Some believe, “I’m Catholic because I’m Irish,” or, “I’m Catholic because I’m Italian.” This is just group identification, and not even close to mystical experience, and, in fact, this often becomes an avoidance of it, as Jesus says to his own Jewish compatriots who tried to claim superiority because they were “sons of Abraham,” (Luke 3:8). He even seems to say that the stones beneath his feet could be more fruitful than such futile reliance upon group or blood affiliation, (Matthew 3:9).
Organized Religion and the Mystical Path
Organized religion is an example of incarnation. You have to start with the particular to go to the universal. You have to start with the concrete. And, in fact, you need a holding tank, a container to hold you in one spot long enough to learn what the real questions are and to struggle with them. And that’s what organized religion does for you. Some form of religion is almost necessary to carry on the Big Tradition, to give you at least the right words to tell you that mystical experience is even desirable or in any way possible. Otherwise, you have to start from zero and go in all ridiculous directions, as often happens in our time. Organized religion is an accountability system that holds your feet to the fire long enough to know what the issues really are, who God might just be, and what your own limitations might also be.
So, in my vocabulary (and that’s all it is) organized religion is very good and almost entirely necessary for what I call the first half of life.
Now, the trouble is that organized religion usually tells you that mystical union with God is possible, but just don’t really expect it! That’s only for special people. This ends up making mystical moments something very elitist and distant and only available now and then and to a few.
Organized religion often becomes problematic – not wrong, I’m just saying problematic – when you move into the second half of life because it tends, in most instances, not to answer the questions that the soul is asking. Many people have found various forms of para-church, like the Franciscans. But not everybody is called to be a priest or a nun or even to the Franciscan Third Order. You need to find some way to learn or study or to pray alongside your Sunday worship community, some form of para-church grouping, which some today call the “emerging church.” The Sunday service alone seldom leads people on deeper or even real journeys; we must begin to be honest about this.
All that organized religion can do is to hold you inside the boxing ring long enough so you can begin to ask good questions and expect bigger answers. But it seldom teaches you how to really box with the mystery itself. Organized religion does not tend to cook you! It just keeps you on a low, half-cold simmer. It doesn’t teach you how to expect the mystery to show itself at any profound level. It tends, and I don’t mean to be unkind, to make you codependent upon its own ministry, instead of leading you to know something for yourself, which is really the whole point.
It’s like we keep saying, “keep coming back, keep coming back” and you’ll eventually get it. But you don’t because the whole thing is oriented toward something you attend or watch and not to something you can participate in 24/7, even without the ministrations of priest and ministers and formal sacraments. Again, I mean no disrespect. If God-experience depends on formal sacramental ministry from ordained clergy, then 99.9 percent of creation has had no chance to know or love God. That can’t be true.
And if the clergy themselves have not gone on a further journey, they don’t know how to send you there or guide you there because they have not gone there themselves yet, (see Matthew 23:13). Nemo dat quod not hat, we said in Latin, “You cannot give away what you do not have yourself.”
The Mystical Path and Daily Life
Father Karl Rahner speaks of “the mysticism of daily life.” It’s a good phrase. We’ve got to stop making mysticism something that happens only to celibates and ascetics and monastics.
That’s precisely what Francis came to undo in order to bring religious life back to the streets and to the laity and the normal parish, who have always been made to feel like third-class citizens of the kingdom.
You do need to be given a new operating system. I don’t care what you are doing. You cannot approach that daily work, that daily job, your family with what I call the dualistic mind, the judgmental, comparative, competitive mind, which most of us are entirely trained in – so much so that we think it is the only mind.
Jesus refers to this as the judgmental mind. That’s why he says, “Do not judge,” (Matthew 7:1). Maybe we would simply say, “Do not label” things. It is just a way of trying to take control and often a game of superiority. The judgmental mind tries to know everything by merely comparing it to something else, which is to start with a negative first step. It is far removed from knowing things in themselves, by themselves, and for themselves. Such low-level attempts at knowing will never get you anywhere close to mystical experience. That’s the simplest way to say why the great spiritual teachers always have some form of “Do not judge.” The judgmental mind is all too self-referential and closes down the open horizon right away.
The original word for this different mind, this alternative consciousness, and that’s what it is, was simply prayer. That word has been so misused and trivialized to mean merely petitionary prayer, reading prayers, social prayer (liturgy), or reciting prayers. I’m afraid we Catholics are even known for that: learning formulas and reciting formulas. Many of us had to stop using the word prayer and instead use the word contemplation so others know we are talking about something different.
I’m not saying that formulaic prayer is wrong, but that is not what was taught by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the first three or four hundred years of Christianity. That’s not the original meaning of prayer. We see this from Jesus’s many and long forays into the desert alone, and that the disciples had to coax him to teach them what we call the Our Father, (Luke 22:1). Temple prayer or social prayer is not what Jesus is known for, although he surely would not have opposed it unless it became too ritualistic, legalistic, or transactional, as we see when he cleanses the temple. The Gospel does say Jesus and the disciples “sang psalms together,” (Mark 14:26; Matthew 26:30), the Hallel or Psalms 113-118, which opened and closed the Passover Meal.
Prayer is looking out from a different set of eyes, which are not comparing, competing, judging, labeling, or analyzing, but receiving the moment in its present wholeness and unwholeness. That’s what I mean by contemplation. It takes years of practice to switch from our normally dualistic thinking to allow non-dual, receptive prayer to become our primary mode of consciousness.
For many, prayer still means reciting Our Fathers and Hail Marys, and I’m not trying to put down such prayers, especially when they are the spoken fruit of deeper prayer. But I know Catholics that have said Our Fathers and Hail Marys all their lives, priests who have said Mass all their lives, and do not know how to pray. That is not a judgment on them, because no one taught them any differently. It is more a deep sadness, because I know without access to the deeper stream, their lives, their celibacy, their ministry will be more about function than unction, to quote Pope Francis’s words to a recent clergy gathering.
The goal of prayer, as any good Christian would agree, is to give you access to God and to allow you to listen to God and to actually hear God, if that does not seem presumptuous. But mostly, prayer is to allow you to experience the Indwelling Presence yourself. You are finally not praying, but prayer is happening through you, (see Romans 8:26-27), and you are just the allower and enjoyer.
The only way you can do that is to work to maintain an open field, and, yes, it is work to remain open to grace. What a total paradox. However, it does not mean that grace cannot break through anytime and anywhere. In fact, that is the most common pattern. But we want to enjoy the fruits of grace 24/7 and not just now and then.
If you lead off with the left brain, if you lead off with the judging, calculating, dualistic mind, you will not access the Holy because the only thing that gets in is what you already think, what you already agree with, and what does not threaten you. And God is, by definition, unfamiliar, always mysterious, beyond, and more. So if you aren’t ready for more and mystery, how can you possibly be ready for God? Your intake valve will be very tight and guarded.
Contemplation is non-dual thinking; it emerges when you don’t split the field of the moment between what you already know and what you don’t already know as if it is totally wrong or heresy or evil or sinful. I am afraid dualistic thinking is the common mode of thinking, and, of course, the evidence for that is just about everywhere, especially in religion and politics, which is why we cannot meaningfully talk in those split fields.
Can We Trivialize Prayer?
If a whole lot of people are praying for the same thing and apparently at the same time, then there is a tendency to think that prayer is going to bend the arm of God. “More is always better,” is the operative assumption here. At this point, I’m not really loving or serving God; I’m trying to get God to be on my side and give me what I want. It necessitates neither love nor surrender, but it is just well-disguised desire to be in control, very often. The wonderful news is, of course, that God is already on my side, so such thinking is futile and a waste of time. It is another way to try to manipulate mystery, as if we could.
There is something compassionate about asking God to heal your grandmother – of course, that’s beautiful. But it is still you in the driver’s seat trying to get God in your car as a passenger, when God alone can be trusted with the driving. So first you must listen for God’s possible will, and not yours, and then, and only then, can you pray in the Spirit.
Jesus warns us about this verbal prayer when he says, “Why do you babble on like the pagans do? God already knows what you need,” (Matthew 6:7). He also warns us against telling God what God already knows better than we do, (6:9), and I must say many times the formal prayers of the faithful at a Catholic Mass sound more like announcements than actual prayer, especially given the fact that they are done in the third person and not addressed actively as if God is in the room, which would lead us to pray in the second person. (You have to go to Pentecostal or black churches to hear that!) And in that same Gospel, Jesus even warns us against too much public prayer, (6:5), since it has too many social payoffs. We must be honest and admit that we have not followed Jesus’s basic advice on prayer, and, in fact, often directly disobeyed it.
Jesus does tell us to ask God for what we want, (Matthew 7:7-11). He does seem to affirm what we call petitionary or intercessory prayer. Why did Jesus say such a thing? Not to talk God into what we want. Not to announce it to God since God knows and cares about suffering more than we do.
I believe intercessory prayer is important because we need to hear our own thoughts and words out loud. We need to jump on board with what we hope is the will of God and what may well be the will of God. It is an exercise in participation, in unitive caring together with God, what Paul calls divine and human cooperation, (Romans 8:28). God does not need our prayers as much as we need to say them to even know the deepest will and desire of God – and our own. Our prayers are simply seconding the motion.
The first motion is always from God’s Spirit working in the soul, making you care about human suffering and need. So when you pray sincerely, God has already spoken to you, and you are just saying, “yes,” to what God wants even more than you do. That is why prayer leads you to fall in love with God, because you know you are not doing this good thing. It is being done unto you and through you.
It also seems that we don’t know our own needs, feelings, thoughts until we speak them. So we all must keep praying “with groans unutterable,” (Romans 8:23), until our prayers match the much deeper caring of God, and we discover our own will and God’s will are finally the same.
Is Happiness on the Path of Mysticism?
Here is an image that many have offered before me. You don’t catch a butterfly by chasing it. You sit still, and the butterfly alights on your shoulder. You don’t find happiness by directly seeking happiness because that leaves you too self-centered. It is still all about you at that point, although you don’t know it yet. “I’m going to be happy today,” we think. And maybe you’ve had days like that, where you realize that you are trying too hard. It is too self-conscious, it’s too intentional. Ego consciousness is still steering the ship.
Remember what I said earlier about the old mammalian brain. Deep contentment is something you drop into – not anything that you consciously work too hard toward. Have you noticed how the happiness of a goal achieved rather quickly passes, and all you do is create another supposedly higher goal? There is an inherent restlessness – and defeat – in the conscious seeking of happiness. Happiness is much more in the realm of gift and surprise, like an alighting dove or a tongue of fire, which is surely why these metaphors are used for the Holy Spirit.
Happiness is too often selfishly defined, and thus it never works for long. We first, like children, define happiness in a largely sensory way, like a satisfying meal or a beautiful hotel room or a wonderful sexual experience, which is all understandable. But those things, of themselves, do not make you happy. If you don’t bring happiness into the hotel room, you’re not going to be happy. You’ll just be pleased for a few minutes. But it you are already happy, you can be in a mediocre hotel room, or even in a not-so-nice hotel room, and you’ll still be able to say, “I’m happy and content today.”
Sometimes simple things can give you even more and deeper happiness precisely because you know you are drawing upon a deeper well and stream – and it can be accessed all the time, even without a five-star meal or fantastic sex.
Happiness is always a gift from first seeking union or love. If love is your actual and constant goal, you can never really fail, and happiness comes much easier and more naturally. Please think about that, and you will know it is true.
The purifying goal of mysticism is divine union and nothing less. The goal of prayer is divine union – union with what is, with the moment, with yourself, with the divine, which means with everything. Such things as healing, growth, and happiness are admittedly wonderful byproducts of prayer, but they must not be your primary concern. It pollutes the process. So you don’t want to make the goal of mysticism or prayer your personal happiness. That keeps you as the reference point: “I want to be happy.” This important purification of motivation is quite central, and because we have not insisted on it, we have a lot of church involvement being nothing more than very well disguised self-interest (high premium fire insurance), and not the love of God at all.
As a priest, I am aware that most of the official prayers in the Catholic Sacramentary are praying in some form, “That I might go to Heaven.” Don’t believe me? Check it out. As if there is no higher concern or greater need in the world than for my personal eternal livelihood! I do not know how priests continue to recite such self-centered and individualistic prayers day after day. If the rule is true that “lex orandi est lex credendi,” (the way you pray becomes the form of your belief), then it is no wonder that the Christian people have such a poor record of concern for the suffering of the world and have themselves initiated so many of the wars and injustices on this Earth. We did not teach them how to pray!
You must first seek union itself with God, and with everything, and then the butterfly will most assuredly alight gently and firmly on your shoulder. Then happiness comes along as a wonderful corollary and conclusion, as a gift, as a rich icing on the now well-baked cake of life itself.