Emmitsburg Council of Churches


Message of the Mystics--Part I

Father John J. Lombardi

Many persons today think the mystics are overly introverted people, disconnected from life, praying too much and thinking of others too little. Rarely do people think mystics are the most practical people in the world. Huh? Why?--you ask. Because: they teach us the way of Jesus and the Holy Bible, the path to Union with God and spiritual discipleship. They are the most pragmatic people because they help us to be free. They teach us what it means to be a full human being. Spiritual writer St. Irenaeus says: "The glory of God is man fully alive."

Look: everyone in this life tends toward union-becoming one with something or someone, and hopefully this union is with God--"God has placed the timeless in their hearts" (Eccl. 3:11). Whether a person is a bank robber, teacher or priest, their main concern--directly or indirectly, in good ways or bad--is to achieve happiness thru embracing a way of life, a person or possession. The mystics, however, show us the most direct path toward Ultimate Union with God, how we falsify this Union. Just as the natural tendency of an acorn is to turn into an oak tree, so the tendency of a human being is to become one with God and "to participate in the divine nature" (II Pt. 1:4).

Okay, but, just what is a mystic, anyway? There are many definitions to this overused word today, but, we may say, simply: a holy person- a heroic follower of Jesus Christ, leading a contemplative life, who has had some kind of immediate experience of God.

Now, ask: Shouldn't I fit this description if I truly want to be a Catholic, a Christian? After all, Jesus Christ says: "Become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5: 48), and: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" (Mt 5:6). St Paul encourages-"Pray unceasingly" (II Th 5:17). These are counsels for everyone, not just "mystics" and saints. But: the mystics took the Bible more seriously than most, and simply followed intensely its counsels we all take half-heartedly. These saintly people show us the spiritual path is made up of both desire (emotive and affective love of God) and disciplines (practical practices and holy habits), to let Christ be formed in us (Gal. 4:19), and thereby cultivate Union with God.

We will look at three eminent mystics in these reflections. They will show us two essential truths and themes sometimes underplayed in today's Christianity--Purification and Union with God. Purification of: all disordered attachments to self, world and others; and Union with the Blessed Trinity thru melding all of the soul's powers to God. St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is one of the most courageous and tenacious women of all time-she reformed the Spanish Carmelite order and, despite all the challenges, didn't waver in love for God, neighbor or Carmel. St John of the Cross (1542-1591), another Spaniard, helped St Teresa, spiritually directed Carmelites and laypersons, overcame poverty and rejection, and wrote some of the finest mystical literature in the world. Blessed Jan Van Ruusbroec (1293-1381) was a Dutchman who became a priest, wrote spiritual literature and founded a monastery. All three of these extraordinary folks were activists and contemplatives-busy in their worlds but making godly love the priority of life -showing us the way to balance these two essential aspects of Christianity

Let us now consider aspects of each of these mystics' lives. 

Teresa of Avila shows us at least three ways of spiritual love. +We are all called to: apostolic life in the world, but not to be overwhelmed by it. She demonstrated that mental prayer (meditation) and work go together. How? She had a tremendous organizing zeal and activity-level, especially by founding of many Carmelite communities. Thru her skills as a "managing-mystic," she was very practical in her work and used the world's wisdom for furthering God's kingdom. She updated her Order's ideals --union with God, holy poverty-making these the absolute basis of all reform. In the midst of busyness she reminded her sisters and all that God should be the center of all action: "Christ is understood better.  by the effect this life has.  .the soul clearly understands that it is God who gives life to our soul."

St Teresa shows us the great need for, and practice of, interiority. Her major spiritual work, "The Interior Castle," shows souls ways of going deeper into God and true self, and how to persevere in this joining to the Lord, saying:-- "This secret union takes place in the very interior of the soul". Lastly, St Teresa shows us a way of sacred imagery in the spiritual life: Teresa prudently states that the imagistic, content-filled, visionary life of mysticism, when balanced and by the Church and Bible, can eventually lead one to a more simple faith and prayer life. These supernatural phenomenons are usually given to people to move them to mystical simplicity, not attachments.

St Teresa describes the tendency toward Union with God: "The soul always remains with its God in that center (spiritual betrothal"). Let us say that the union is like the joining of two wax candles to such an extent that the flame coming from them is but one, or that the wick, the flame and the wax are all one. In the spiritual marriage the union is like what we have when rain falls from the sky into a river or fount; all is water, for the rain that fell from heaven cannot be divided or separated from the water of the river. Or, like the bright light entering a room through two different windows; although the streams of light are separate when entering the room, they become one" ("The Interior Castle"). 

Reflections: How can I nurture within me, this beautiful Union with God and "Spiritual Betrothal"? How can I balance, like St Teresa, action and contemplation? What are the obstacles to this? How can I be creative in my own work to further God's Kingdom and Holy Tradition like St Teresa? How can I wisely use interior images and sensual inspirations to grow closer to God? What can the "Flame of God" purify in me that I cannot myself?

St John of the Cross-the "Mystical Doctor"-- has, also, three messages for us today--Spiritual Poetics: for the sometimes banal, dense times of today's overly-saturated word-ed world, poetry is John's diet for hungering and thirsting souls. Poetry is John's original seeds of mystical insight and experience. For instance, John describes the union of God and soul in "Romance # 7: "That the lover (soul) become/ Like the one (God) he loves; / for the greater their likeness; / the greater their delight." Here, again, the tendency to union is expressed in spiritual poetry as highly symbolic (allowing room for freedom of interpretation), paradoxical (helping the mind "bend," and "grow"), and artistic (intuitional). St John can help us today realize we need to use not only our intellects and soul-powers, but also realize their utter dependence on God's grace to empower and complement them.

  • Sacred Desire: our appetites and wills are disordered and sometimes chaotic-leading us into bad things, and attaching us to created things inordinately. Our spirits are intended to rest fully in God-not totally in things or people. St John teaches that, thru the purification of desires we can become free and fully human, realizing, cultivating and protecting holy desires, "The more the soul is equipped to receive the wound and union the more this love finds that all the soul's appetites are brought into subjection, and unable to be satisfied by any heavenly or earthly thing."
  • Identification with God: we let things get in the way of total union with God. John is essentially saying: there's always something, Someone more. St John writes (prayerfully consider these sublime words) "That I be so transformed in Your (God's) beauty that we may be alike in beauty, and both behold ourselves in Your beauty, possessing now Your very beauty; this, in such a way that each looking at the other may see in the other his own beauty, since both are Your beauty alone, I being absorbed in Your beauty; that I may resemble You in Your beauty, and You resemble me in Your beauty; wherefore I shall be You in Your beauty, and You will be me in Your beauty; and there fore we shall behold each other in Your beauty. ("The Spiritual Canticle"). Reflections: How can I use holy poetry (as above) as a "spiritual stimulant" for meditation? What am I making into an idol, replacing God? How can I be more identified with God as by inner identity and beauty? Remember: the "dark night of purification"-from sin and attachments-is proportionate to the ungraspable union with God.

Blessed Jan van Ruusbroec was born in Flanders, lived a life of extreme austerity, and wrote great spiritual works ("The Spiritual Espousals," "The Kingdom of God's Lovers"). Van Ruusbroec shows us that discipleship should not be separable from authentic spirituality. He criticized rich, abusive prelates and clergymen (who weren't faithful to Christ's example of poverty and simplicity) and also people known as the spiritualists and quietists, who denigrated the sacraments and role of the Church, as well as the need for grace within deeper forms of prayer (under the guise of a false form of "detachment"). Against this past and present, "spiritualism", Van Ruusbroec says God's grace and His call to Mystical Union is very practical, communal and sensual, and empowers disciples to "perfect conduct, after the manner of Christ and His saints, bearing the Cross with Christ, subordinating (human) nature to the commandments of the Holy Church and to the teaching of the saints, according to the strength of our nature, with discernment".

Van Ruusbroec also shows Eternal Destiny is (hopefully!) Unity within the Trinity: "God is every being's super-essence. His Godhead is a fathomless whirlpool; whoever enters it loses himself in it. God is one in nature, threeness in Persons. .  They are three distinct Persons, namely Father, Son and Holy Spirit: and one Godhead whom one should not divide or separate."

Van Ruusbroec shows us that God "overflows" into us if we are really receptive, actively waiting, selflessly desirous: "This flowing of God always demands flowing-back, for God is a flowing, ebbing sea, which flows without cease into all His beloved, according to each one's needs and dignity. And He is ebbing back in again, drawing all those whom He has endowed on heaven and earth, together with all they have and can do."

Van Ruusbroec calls for a transformation of the person-in Christ, and not just a "throwing away of the natural person" (as some spiritual extremists are wont to do). He emphasizes that a person is a full person when changed in, and identified with, God: "This essential unity of our spirit with God does not exist by itself, but it abides in God and it returns to God as into its eternal cause, and it never parts from God.  this is the nobility which we have by nature in the essential unity of our sprit, where it is naturally united with God

Reflections: Am I relying, appropriately, on the Church and others for my spiritual life, like Ruusbroec counsels? How can I be more aware of, and loving to God-as Trinity?

Briefly Noted

The Desire to Please God(a prayer): "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your Will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone." -Thomas Merton

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi