An Experiment

"Your life is your practice." The masters all say it. My teacher says it, Socrates said it to Dan in Peaceful Warrior, Tolle teaches it in his books. St. Paul taught the principle (Whatever you do, do as for the Lord). The list goes on.

And yet for me, it’s been hard to resist a certain escapism in my spirituality. I think I might know the reasons for this, but it’s certainly related to the fact that in everything, my attention is almost always divided between a "here" and a "there." The emphasis on the present moment seems sometimes a hopeless ideal… I’ll be thinking about being in the present moment rather than just being in it right now. My mind creates a meta-reality that often feels more natural for me than simple Isness. And regarding my life as practice, I’ve got to say my life would not strike anyone as being marked by any degree of consciousness or mastery at all.

I procrastinate like crazy. I have huge avoidance issues when it comes to something I "have" to do, particularly if it’s "uninteresting." I’ve tried many times to get a handle on this… listening and reading the self-help masters, trying to be "more disciplined" (whatever that means), and so forth.  So many of their ideas have so much merit, yet my mind still ends up enticing me away from my life.  In the Zen ox pictures, that’s illustrated by the mind (the ox) leading the person.There’s always something more interesting to do than this, always somewhere other to be than right now.

This weekend, as I was catching up on a massive stack of overdue mail, I wondered: What would it be like if I found whatever I need to do fascinating? What if I really accepted that there’s no "escape" (and no need for one)? What if I were devoted to living my life well, with full devotion and attention? To some of you this may seem so obvious as to nearly be incomprehensible… how could anyone not actually take their life as their foundation for what they will do?  But for me, this is a radical experiment. I’m practicing being fascinated by what I need to do.

More later.

Mysticism and Religion

To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.’… But widom is proved right by her actions.

There’s an interesting discussion at Zoecarnate which seems to me a microcosm of the differences between the religious and the mystical approaches. It also shows what I think are some of the challenges that “Emergent” faces in as far as it wishes to incorporate mystical spirituality into the Church.

Mystics, in general, have an uncomfortable time of it in churches when their spiritual views become known. This is because the function of a church (or synagogue, mosque, or temple) has a goal that is fundamentally different from that which the mystic has. The goal of the religious congregation is to help a group of people come to be in a certain shared level of  the knowledge of God, and aspire for continued spiritual growth.

The goal of the mystic, however, is to know God as directly and totally as possible—to be experientially transformed into what his or her true nature actually is in essence—the image of God.

At first, it might seem like these goals reinforce each other, but in practice, they are in almost constant conflict. When the mystic begins moving beyond the religious preoccupations of sin, redemption, entry-level theology, and personal morality, he is moving away from that shared level and intending to go beyond it. This creates conflict, because the one who is seeking the common level is also strongly motivated to do so, from remembering “where he was” before he came to care about loving God, to being taught that deception runs rampant in the world, and that reliance upon the Church, Scripture, and the reinforcement of fellow believers is essential to not lose his way, and this is really is true for most on the religious path.

However, in most schools of Christianity, mysticism and religion have some common meeting points. The Catholic sacraments are meant to be mystical encounters of the soul with Christ. The “born-again” experience is the mystical renewal of the soul in Christ. The spiritual gifts (such as speaking in tongues in Charismatic and Pentecostal churches) is a mystical experience of the Spirit dwelling within.  But after being born again, or receiving the Baptism of the Spirit, or partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, the guidance largely comes down to reinforcement, i.e., “keep on doing and believing the same stuff, keep on trying to improve, and see you in heaven.”

Reinforcement easily becomes an end in itself. In the fifth century, Nestorius objected to a devotional title for Mary as “Mother of God” (Theotokos) and said that Mary should be called “Mother of Christ” instead, since God existed before all. However, for the majority in the Orthodox-Catholic church, Theotokos served as reinforcement for Jesus’ divinity, which in turn reinforced the value of his death and resurrection, and so on. And those who did not want to reinforce it (for whatever reason) were suspected of possibly being against it.

Too often, the reinforcers become enforcers, and as Jesus knew from experience, the “children in the marketplace” lash out against those on the path of the wisdom teachers. It’s as though the first-graders want to control the curricula in the university.

Contemporary Christian mystics also meet the spirit of religious reinforcement. “What? you’re not reading the Bible every day? Don’t you know that it’s the only trustworthy authority?” or,  “you didn’t affirm the blood sacrifice of Jesus in your last post. Don’t you believe that He’s the only way?”

With the best of intentions, these folks are cornering their mystical sibs with the trap of “begging the question.” The mystic who is discovering that life in God is not about “belief” cannot give simple yes or no answers if he cares both about meeting his questioners’ concerns where they are, and being true to his own conscience. Rather, it takes either: (1) lengthy explanations, which will probably be misunderstood or cut short before he can make his point, or (2) indirect answers, such as parables, analogies, and so forth, which are also usually misunderstood!

For millennia, religion has been the traditional “entry point” to the mystical (although mysticism can certainly be addressed in non-religious ways, as in the teaching of Eckhart Tolle, for instance.)  But even though mystics usually come from, and understand the religious path, non-mystics cannot understand the mystical path. So conflict is unavoidable when those on the religious path aren’t taught that there is another, interior approach. Historically, mysticism has thrived when it’s had a place of its own, removed from the “weaker brethren”, such as the convents and monasteries. But the desperate needs of today’s world force modern mystics to be in the world, the marketplace, and increasingly, even in those churches that have little history or understanding of mysticism.

May those who go to Jesus and those who go through him, live in peace together!

Dear Madeleine

Madeleine L’Engle has passed on. Although really the most appropriate thing to say would be “Congrats!”, I do find my eyes getting a bit moist thinking about it. Why? Well, that’s a long story, but I’ve got plenty of time.

Let’s wrinkle back in time to about nine years ago. I was still a new convert to Catholicism and was just beginning to really deliberately follow a Christian mystical path. A friend of mine whom I hadn’t spoken with for a long time asked me to think what was the one thing that got me onto this path. There were so many factors affecting me in the few years before that—discovering Jesus’ call for social justice, reading The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, and having had a crash-and-burn experience with some distorted beliefs. I answered that there wasn’t any one thing, but I continued to think about it for the next few days. Yeah, it was true that there wasn’t any ONE thing, but many, but there was one author who really cleared the way for me to be more receptive to everything that I would later encounter. Her name was Madeleine L’Engle.

To understand that, let’s wrinkle further back in time to around 1972 or so. There’s this fifth-grade kid—let’s call him—well, “Jon.” Jon’s considered a bright lad and shows a bit of creativity—likes to draw, loves to read—but he seems a bit one-sided; all of the books he checks out from the library are about animals, science or geography. One day, much to Jon’s chagrin, his teacher forces him to read a fiction book. He protests that he doesn’t want to, but she insists. Later, at home, he reads “It was a dark and stormy night…” and soon encounters worlds in A Wrinkle in Time which he couldn’t have dreamed of otherwise.

Over the years, many things happened to Jon, but one thing Jon doesn’t lose is his imagination. As well as becoming a born-again Christian, he becomes an avid science-fiction reader, and always has a conviction that there’s more to life than what meets the eye… He even comes across a couple of books that suggest that science and spirit aren’t entirely separate things (The Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Tao of Physics), and later, he finds a book that truly ignites his soul, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

To his delight, this was by her, the woman who wrote A Wrinkle in Time so long ago. In it, she explained to Jon what it was like being a Christian who couldn’t accept the limitations on love that the Church so often placed, nor its frequent distrust of the imagination,   of science, and changing understandings of reality. She described a kind of faith going back centuries (she specifically mentioned the Cappadocian Fathers), a kind of faith that amazed Jon for he had never heard of it before, a kind of faith that he would later call “Christian mysticism.”

(Wrinkle forward)
No, there wasn’t one thing. And there were many, many other authors who influenced me besides this kindly gray-haired lady who seemed to breathe out books like she breathed in God, who even made titles that were poetry and initiations in contemplation: A Circle of Quiet, A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A House like a Lotus, The Young Unicorns. Yes, many others, but I wonder what my life would have been like if I had not encountered L’Engle’s soulscapes in the forms I did at the times I did. God has his ways, but I’m sure it would have been quite different. Thanks largely to Madeleine, I enjoy science-fiction and fantasy not as mere escapes, but as expressions of truth where it’s not quite the same thing as fact.


Dear Madeleine,

Congratulations on your new home. I hope you really enjoy it, and you deserve some time off. But don’t get too cozy there. C’mon back soon and give us some more. We need you.