Introduction to Christian Mysticism

If you want to find God, then honor God within you, and you will always see God beyond you. For it is only God in you who knows where and how to look for God.

When you honor and accept the divine image within yourself, you cannot help but see it in everybody else, too, and you know it is just as undeserved and unmerited as it is in you. I call this the “Principle of Likeness.” From this frame you stop judging and start loving unconditionally, without asking whether someone is worthy or not. The breakthrough occurs at once, although the realization deepens and takes on greater conviction over time.

As I mentioned earlier this week, mystics are nondual people who see things in their wholeness and call forth the same unity in others, simply by being who they are. Wholeness (head, heart, and body, all present and positive) sees and calls forth wholeness in others.

Dualistic or divided people, however, live in a split and fragmented world. They cannot accept that God objectively dwells within them or others (See 1 Corinthians 3:16-17). They cannot accept or forgive certain parts of themselves. This lack of forgiveness takes the forms of a tortured mind, a closed heart, or an inability to live calmly and humbly inside their own body. The fragmented mind sees parts, not wholes, and invariably it creates antagonism, fear, and resistance.

What you see is what you get. What you seek is also what you get. We mend and renew the world by strengthening inside ourselves what we seek outside ourselves, not by demanding or forcing it on others.

Mystics are human like the rest of us, and none of us are perfect. We are inconsistent creatures with blind spots and cultural limitations. Outside of flashes of insight and unitive experience, mystics are products of their place in time. For example, they may have sexist, anti-Semitic, or other biases common for that period, as we see even in the much-idealized Desert Fathers. In spite of momentary glimpses of universal and unconditional grace, they may still be rooted in a retributive understanding of God. It takes more than a lifetime for us to grasp the Mystery that we experience during moments of deep presence and surrender. [1]

What mystics finally do, it seems to me, is heal in themselves the fragmentation that is evident in the world. Instead of hating, excluding, or dismissing it over there in others, they heal it in themselves. This healing is God’s Spirit working in us. Mystics see the whole—good, bad, ugly, and beautiful—in themselves and others, refusing to hate or ignore any of it. This allows them to have immense sympathy, empathy, and compassion and to work in service of the world’s healing. I am not sure if you can come to such empathy in any other way.

Richard Rohr: Mystical Belonging

Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, for example, defines mysticism as “the experience of limitless belonging” that can be felt by everyone, whether in nature or in parenthood, in community or in love. I think his conception of mysticism pairs well with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s. A scholar of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, Kushner defines a mystic as “anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.”

Richard Rohr Meditation: The Living Word of God

Fundamentalism is a growing phenomenon, not only in Islam and other religions, but within Christianity as well. Fundamentalism refuses to listen to the deep levels of mythic, metaphorical, and mystical meaning. It is obsessed with literalism and exclusion. The egoic need for clarity and certitude leads fundamentalists to use sacred writings in a mechanical, closed-ended, and quite authoritarian manner. The ego rarely asks real questions and mostly gives quick answers. This invariably leaves ego-driven, fundamentalist minds and groups utterly trapped in their own cultural moment in history. Thus they miss the Gospel’s liberating message along with the deepest challenges and consolations of Scripture.

There is an especially telling passage in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus becomes angry with his disciples, who are unable to understand his clearly metaphorical language. He tells them to watch out for “the leaven” of the Pharisees and “the leaven” of Herod. Taking him literally, they began looking quizzically at one another because they did not have any bread (see Mark 8:14-16). Is Herod Bread a new brand that they had not heard about? Is Pharisee pumpernickel something to be avoided?

I can imagine Jesus responding with a bit of impatience and frustration: “Do you think I am talking about bread? You’re still not using your heads, are you? You still don’t get the point, do you? Though you have ears, you still don’t hear; though you have eyes, you still don’t see!” (see Mark 8:17-18). They do not yet know that the only way to talk about transcendent things is through metaphor! But early stage religious people are invariably literalists, and not yet poets and mystics. It takes inner experience of the Holy, and your own attempts to describe it, to finally move you toward a necessary reliance upon symbolic language.

.. Jesus consistently uses stories and images to describe spiritual things. Religion has always needed the language of metaphor, simile, symbol, and analogy to point to the Reign of God. Note how frequently Jesus begins teaching with the phrase: “The Kingdom of God is like. . . .” There is no other way to speak of the ineffable.

Against conventional wisdom, this simple, seemingly childlike approach actually demands more of us—not just more of our thinking mind, but more of our heart and body’s attunement. Maybe that is why we so consistently avoid sacred story in favor of mere mechanical readings that we can limit and control.

The final and full Word of God is that spiritual authority lies not just in ancient texts but in the living Christ of history, church, community, creation, and our own experience confirming its truth. The mystery is “Christ among you, your hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27)—this is the living Bible! Keep one foot in both camps—the historical text and the present moment—and in your fullest moments you will find yourself also saying “it is like. . . .” Words are fingers pointing to the moon, but words are never the moon itself. Not knowing this has kept much religion infantile, arrogant, and even dangerous.

Richard Rohr: Law and Grace: Grace Must Win

a match in which grace must win. When it doesn’t, religion becomes moralistic, which is merely the ego’s need for order and control. I am sorry to say, but this is most garden-variety religion. We must recover grace-oriented spirituality if we are to rebuild Christianity from the bottom up.

In Romans and Galatians, Paul gives us sophisticated studies of the meaning, purpose, and limitations of law. He says its function is just to get us started, but legalism too often takes over.

.. Why did they fail? Because they relied on being privately good instead of trusting in God for their goodness!

.. Law is a necessary stage, but if we stay there, Paul believes, it actually becomes a major obstacle to transformation into love and mercy. Law often frustrates the process of transformation by becoming an end in itself. It inoculates us from the real thing, which is always relationship. Paul says that God gave us the law to show us that we can’t obey the law! (See Romans 7:7-13 if you don’t believe me.)

.. We’ve treated Paul as if he were a moralist instead of the first-rate mystic and teacher that he is.

.. Ironically, until people have had some level of inner God experience, there is no point in asking them to follow Jesus’ ethical ideals. It is largely a waste of time. Indeed, they will not be able to even understand the law’s meaning and purpose.

.. Humans quite simply don’t have the power to obey any spiritual law, especially issues like forgiveness of enemies, nonviolence, self-emptying, humble use of power, true justice toward the outsider, and so on, except in and through union with God.

Richard Rohr: Franciscan Mysticism

In the Franciscan worldview, separation from the world is the monastic temptation, asceticism is the temptation of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, moralism or celibacy is the Catholic temptation, intellectualizing is the seminary temptation, privatized Gospel and inerrant “belief” is the Protestant temptation, and the most common temptation for all of us is to use belonging to the right group and practicing its proper rituals as a substitute for any personal or life-changing encounter with the Divine.

Richard Rohr: Mystical Experience

Now don’t let the word “mystic” scare you. It simply means one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience. All spiritual traditions at their mature levels agree that such a movement is possible, desirable, and even available to everyone.

.. You quite simply don’t have the power to obey the law or follow any ideal—such as loving others, forgiving enemies, nonviolence, or humble use of power—except in and through union with God. Nor do doctrines like the Trinity, the Real Presence, salvation, or the mystery of Incarnation have any meaning that actually changes your life. They are merely books on shelves.

.. However, until we have personally lost our own foundation and then experienced God upholding us so that we come out even more alive on the other side, the  theological affirmation of the paschal mystery is little understood and not essentially transformative.