I had a conversation with several members of my Patreon circle the other day. We talked about the kinds of challenges people face when it comes to learning about contemplation and mystical spirituality. We talked about how so many people have had bad experiences with churches, or have a hard time relating to God, or have bought into the idea that Christianity is just a religion of judgment and fear.
In other words: there are plenty of reasons why people are either unable or unwilling to receive the joyful, life-affirming spirituality of the mystics and contemplatives.
Needless to say, this saddens me.
How I wish I could communicate to the general public — and to the rank-and-file mainstream of Christianity — how radical and life-transforming the message of the mystics truly is. As I thought about that, I decided to write this blog post.
If you are unfamiliar with topics like Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality, I invite you to reflect on the following principles — all found to a greater or lesser extent among the writings of the renowned mystics — and to consider how your spiritual life might be changed for the better if you made these principles the foundation of your beliefs and world-view.
If you are already familiar with the teachings of the mystics, and/or if contemplation is already a significant part of your spiritual practice, then I offer these principles as a reminder of why we do what we do — and just how powerful, visionary, and affirming mystical spirituality truly is.
Here you go:
Spiritual Principles Espoused by the Christian Mystics (That I Wish Everyone Knew).
- God is Love — vast, lavish, wild, adventurous, ecstatic love. Everyone who has even a casual exposure to Christian teaching knows this idea, that “God is Love” (I John 4:16: “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them”). But do we truly believe this? Do we allow “God is love” to be the gold standard by which all other statements about God are measured and interpreted? And do we truly know what love really is — especially Divine Love? Mystics like Julian of Norwich have devoted entire books to explain the Love-Who-Is-God. It’s more than mere human affection or attraction; certainly far more than the desire of eros or the bonds which hold families together. All human forms of love are like colors of the rainbow — but Divine Love is the pure light that precedes the prism of human experience. Divine Love is ultimate goodness, ultimate beauty, ultimate truth, ultimate joy and compassion and care. If we truly could comprehend it, we would feel as if we were about to burst with joy.
- The Holy Spirit has been given to us. In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, he makes this bold statement: “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” This passage implies the Spirit of God is present in our hearts. Elsewhere, Paul describes the human body as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 6:19). So not only is God Love, but God is also Love present in us. Mystical Christianity is a journey of discovery that leads us to find the treasures within us — including the very presence of the Spirit of God. Is God bigger than the universe? Absolutely. But that “Big God” is not a far-away or remote God. God is not elsewhere: God is right here, right now.
- God’s love has also been poured into our hearts. Back to Romans 5:5: we can hope not only because God is present in an embodied way, but because God’s love has been poured into our hearts — I love this image of love being “poured” which evokes not only the waters of Baptism and the wine of the Eucharist, but also a sense of abundance, of plenty. God’s love is not drizzled into our hearts, it is poured in. We are the custodians of a treasure. Of course, it is not given to us so that we might hoard it or cling to it: love is always relational, and we are meant to give it away as lavishly as it has been given to us. Love is the one “nutrient” that nourishes us both in the receiving and also in the giving-away. We are invited to give love back to God, and also to one another, to the earth and all God’s creation, to the angels, to those in need, to anyone anywhere who needs a bit more in their lives (in other words, all of us). To be a follower of Christ means to be in the business of freely distributing love. To be a mystical follower of Christ means we lavishly pour out love even in hidden or mysterious ways.
- God is the God of infinite possibility. Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Matthew 19:26: “With God all things are possible.” These are foundational Biblical teachings — but do we truly trust them, so that they shape and guide our lives? I must confess that I am not one who trusts easily. And yet, I bet most people know of (or have experienced first-hand) a miracle of some sort; it seems like when Love and the Spirit of God are involved, anything really is possible. When we live in this spirit of trusting God’s infinite possibilities, life becomes an adventure: exciting and sometimes challenge, but always meaningful and pulsating with hope and potential.
- Prayer is not just about asking for things, but about deepening union with God. There’s nothing wrong with asking for what we need, or for the needs of others. But if that’s the sum total of our sense of prayer, then we are assessing the ocean on the basis of the shallow water at the shoreline. “God, of your goodness, give me yourself,” prayed Julian of Norwich. It’s a prayer of desire — loving desire, that this God of infinite love and presence and possibility may truly become intimate with us, a meaningful and luminous presence in our intuition and our consciousness. Love-with-a-capital-L is more than just an idea or a nice thought: it can be our guiding light, our North Star, our sense of abiding meaning and joy. What mysticism proclaims: Love is sentient. Love wants a relationship with us. Let’s respond!
- Holiness is Happiness. A Protestant minister once told me he wasn’t a “Goody-Two-Shoes.” He was complaining about how people project virtue on ministers (and, I would add, on monks and nuns) and then hold them up to unrealistic standards. But in his complaint I heard another, sadder, thought: that there’s something wrong with being overly “good.” We often think of someone who is “holy” as someone who is excessively self-denying, ostentatiously austere, or puritanical. But the mystics give us a different story. Margery Kempe was a brewer; Teresa of Ávila loved to dance with her castanets and tambourine, and Thomas Merton loved jazz. Holiness does not divorce us from a joyful life, but healthy holiness enhances the delight we find in simply being alive. To choose what is good, what is kind, what is compassionate and what is loving — that is to say, to choose the ways of God — means to immerse ourselves into the most authentic and reliable source of joy, peace, and love — the key elements for a happy life. Holiness may not make us materially rich, but it can fill us with limitless spiritual blessings. Then there’s what Stratford Caldecott notes in his book The Power of the Ring, “Christian ethics is about attaining freedom, which does not mean the freedom to do whatever we want but rather the power to do the right thing.” To be holy is to be truly free, as well as truly, deeply, joyfully happy.
- Silence is Praise. Another idea found in the Bible, but often not presented to mainstream Christians; Psalm 65 (translated literally) says it bluntly: silence is praise. In other words, silence need not be associated with a sour-faced old librarian enforcing a kind of joyless quiet (not meaning to impugn librarians, several of whom have become dear friends over the years: it’s an unfortunate stereotype!). Instead, silence is itself a way of bringing praise to God, of creating space for Love to flow in and through us. Silence gives us the freedom to be creative and imaginative, to drink the restful waters of Sabbath or recreation, and yes — to enter more deeply into prayer-as-intimacy. To sum it up: silence, when freely chosen and embraced, is beautiful. “To everything there is a season,” so choosing a commitment to silence doesn’t mean you can never enjoy music or laughter or conviviality: it’s just a reminder that there’s a time and a place for all good things: even the stillness that allows us to know God.
I hope that people who think of mysticism as some sort of spiritual dreaminess, or that religion is just a suffocating institution, or that God is merely a projection for patriarchal anger, would take the time to get to know the lives and teachings of the mystics. They are not a dreary bunch (okay, to be fair: some of them are. But there are sourpusses in every crowd). The mystics come in all shapes and sizes, and the same can be said of their wisdom teachings. Not everything every mystic says will resonate with you, and that’s okay. But I bet if you explore the mystics, you’ll find some of their teachings to be profoundly liberating, endlessly creative, and a sure recipe for cultivating a truly joyful life.