CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: THE MYSTICISM OF ST. AUGUSTINE

Most of us know St. Augustine as a Church Father and theologian. This week, I discovered that Augustine can also be considered a mystic. The church historian Dom Cuthbert Butler called him “the Prince of Mystics” because, in works like the Confessions, Augustine speaks of traveling inward to meet God. He also writes of experiencing the divine presence of God and of seeing God invisibly.

I suppose it’s not too surprising to think of Augustine as a mystic since, according to some–and this is a view I also espouse–every Christian is a mystic. We’re designed to encounter God, to experience his divine presence, and to yearn for greater intimacy with him.

In that vein, I want to quote a somewhat mystical passage from Augustine’s Confessions. I have long loved this passage for the beauty of Augustine’s language and the passion with which he seeks to meet God within. This is a spirituality of longing, and it’s on my heart this week. Early in the Confessions, Augustine calls upon God to come to him–to come into him, in fact. But no sooner does he call than questions arise:

But what place is there in me where my God can enter into me? . . . Where may he come to me? Lord my God, is there any room in me which can contain you?

A little later, Augustine gives the answer. There’s not just a room but a house. However, there are some problems with this house:

The house of my soul is too small for you to come to it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins: restore it. In your eyes it has offensive features. I admit it, I know it; but who will clean it up? Or to whom shall I cry other than you?

We cry out to God in mercy to rebuild and restore the house of our soul. God cleans up the house he intends to inhabit. That’s a good first step on the mystical journey, and it’s where I am right now. I’m feeling my own lack and asking God to restore my house that I might meet him there. I’m encouraged that there’s the potential for such a beautiful and spacious place inside me.

Does your heart similarly cry out to God? Have you ever experienced this intense longing for the Creator?

Read St. Augustine’s Confessions here.

CONTEMPLATIVE HISTORY: BEATRIJS OF NAZARETH

Beatrijs of Nazareth (c. 1200 – 1268), a Flemish Cistercian nun, was prioress of the Abbey of Our Lady of Nazareth in Brabant (present-day Belgium). She is often studied in the context of the beguine movement since she received her education from beguines before becoming a nun. In the mid-thirteenth century, Beatrijs wrote The Seven Manners of Loving, a mystical treatise that describes the soul advancing in love for God.

I’m drawn to the striking imagery that mystics often use to describe spiritual growth. Beatrijs of Nazareth does not disappoint! In one passage of her treatise, she likens the soul to a housewife putting everything in order. Although housework seems down to earth, it characterizes a very advanced kind of love in Beatrijs’s treatise.

In the sixth manner, as the bride of our Lord advances and climbs into greater holiness, she feels love to be of a different nature, and her knowledge of this love is closer and higher.

The soul has advanced this far because she has prepared her house for love . . .

And you may see that now the soul is like a housewife who has put all her household in good order and prudently arranged it and well disposed it; she has taken good care that nothing will damage it, her provision for the future is wise, she knows exactly what she is doing, she acquires and discards, she does what is proper, she avoids mistakes, and always she knows how everything should be.

I suppose that calling anyone or anything a “housewife” sounds a little out of date today. I wouldn’t want to be called that! And Beatrijs’s standards for housework seem impossibly high. But I do like the image of the soul bustling around preparing and making room for love.

The rewards of this spiritual work are great. When the inner house is ready, love moves in, and the soul is able to have a “close comprehension of God.”

And then love makes the soul so bold that it no longer fears man nor friend, angel or saint or God himself in all that it does or abandons, in all its working and resting. And now the soul feels indeed that love is within it, as mighty and as active when the body is at rest as when it performs many deeds.

Does Beatrijs’s household imagery resonate with you? Can you picture your soul bustling around preparing an inner home for love? For more examples of this kind of imagery in medieval devotional literature, see the post Finding Christ in the Kitchen by Louise Campion.

For more on Beatrijs of Nazareth, see, among other sources, Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature by Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff.

FEATURED ARTICLE: Every Christian is a Mystic

This article in Seedbed is a couple years old, but it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing on Christian mysticism. Why? Because it takes some of the mystery out of mysticism. We often think that a mystical experience must be ecstatic, perhaps involving tears and visions. Or that it’s the preserve of a very saintly kind of person.

Donald Richmond, a clergyman and a Benedictine oblate, explains that this is not the case. Mysticism is not only practical but also essential to a vibrant, everyday faith   it “is central to the revealed religion of the Bible.” Every Christian who longs to encounter God, who wants her faith to be real and lived, is a mystic. Richmond writes:

When we read our Bibles . . . mystical experiences were frequently referenced. Enoch walked with God. Moses had his burning bush. Abraham entertained “angels.” Gideon spoke with “God.” Samson experienced supernatural strength. Mary spoke with an angel. The disciples saw Jesus transfigured and personally worked wonders. Mysticism is Bible-based religion.

What is mysticism, why does it matter, and how are we practical mystics? The answer to these questions partially resides in formulating a proper definition. After many years of thought, I have arrived at the following: Mysticism is a direct encounter with God by Christ through the Holy Spirit as often (although not always) mediated through Holy Scripture, Sacraments, and Christians living as “saints.”

Christian mysticism is direct encounter. That is, mysticism is experiential religion. It is philosophy (the love of wisdom) practiced.

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Practical mysticism matters. We are hardwired for an experiential faith. We want to “know” penetratingly intense intimacy with God. When the Psalmist wrote, “my flesh yearns for [God],” his words highlighted both desert experience and ardent desire.

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Read more.

Reflection: Have you ever thought of yourself as a mystic?

Saturday Prayer

Today’s prayer is from the Divine Hours:

“Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Read more in The Divine Hours.

Featured Article: How to Resist Distraction

We are surrounded by distractions that are more than appealing to our minds that crave a quick win and pleasure. Choosing to focus runs against, the grain and the more we give in, the harder it is to say no.

So what recourse do we have when a text message pings or a commercial calls for our attention? This compilation of studies offers some practical steps you can put to good use when you writer or pray:

 

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Your lazy brain is happy to just react to that relentless bombardment of stimuli coming its way. But when you just react, you don’t usually make the best choices. And while you’re definitely doing something, you’re rarely achieving your goals.

That’s because when you’re reacting, you’re not in control of your life. In fact, reacting is the opposite of control. You see something fun and you chase it. You see something scary and you run away. Either way, your environment is determining your behavior.

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When you need to get work done, put your phone on the other side of the room. Make distractions harder to reach.

When you have fewer things to react to or you make it harder to react to them, you’ll be less reactive.

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Neuroscientists say stress takes your prefrontal cortex — the rational part of your brain — “offline.” Quite simply, stress makes you stupid. And that’s why just reacting often makes you do stupid things.

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Read more…

 

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Book of the Month: Everything Belongs

everything-belongs-rohrWeek Two: Replacing Illusion with Reality

In his book Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr writes about the great surrender that must take place before we can find God and our true selves in prayer.

He is quick to note that God is already present. In fact, we cannot escape God’s presence but we can obscure it or overlook it. Our illusions about ourselves or about God can get in the way.

Therefore the great goal of every spiritual practice is to help us move past our illusions, distractions, and oversimplified answers so that we can be truly present for God.

 

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“We have no real access to who we really are except in God. Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are. Only when we live and see through God can ‘everything belong.’ All other systems exclude, expel, punish, and protect to find identity for their members in ideological perfection or some kind of ‘purity.’”

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“We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us in every breath we take.”

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“All spiritual disciplines have one purpose: to get rid of illusions so we can be present.”

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“When we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. Fixing something doesn’t usually transform us. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer.”

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“When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transformation. We avoid God, who works in the darkness—where we are not in control! Maybe that is the secret: relinquishing control.”

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Read more in Everything Belongs

 

For Reflection

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Contemplative Profiles: The Female Mystics of the Middle Ages

In the past I have made the mistake of ignoring the spiritual teachings of the Middle Ages, missing out on the rich contemplative practices that were documented at great personal cost. Dr. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff notes in an article in Christianity Today that women were often denied educations in the Middle Ages, so their religious communities took on a more contemplative, creative, and spiritual shape, while many religious men leaned toward theological reflection.

This resulted in a unique spirituality from women who experienced the love of God in rich and vibrant encounters. Perhaps the simplicity of their spirituality became their greatest strength. While some female mystics from this time were supported by the church hierarchy, many wrote down their accounts and visions despite heated opposition, risking persecution and even death at the hands of controlling church leaders.

Dr. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff writes about female mystics for Christianity Today:

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We think of the Middle Ages as the age of faith, and so it was, but it was also an age of crisis. In such a context, mysticism was not a retreat from the negative aspects of reality, but a creative marshaling of energy in order to transform reality and one’s perception of it.

Mystics were the teachers of the age, inspired leaders who synthesized Christian tradition and proposed new models for the Christian community. We know some of the men—Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas—but we are not as familiar with the women, although they were actually more numerous. Hildegard of Bingen, Clare of Assisi, Beatrijs of Nazareth, Angela of Foligno, Julian of Norwich, and other women mystics drew on their experience of the divine to provide spiritual guidance for others. Such women became highly respected leaders of the faithful. Their role as prophets and healers was the one exception to women’s presumed inferiority in medieval society.

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She goes on to write:

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Dame Julian of Norwich said in her Showings: “ … God forbid that you should say or assume that I am a teacher … for I am a woman, ignorant, weak and frail. But I know very well that what I am saying I have received by the revelation of him who is the sovereign teacher … because I am a woman, ought I therefore to believe that I should not tell you of the goodness of God, when I saw at that same time that it is his will that it be known?”

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As we honor their legacy, learn from their wisdom, and embody their practices, may we have the courage to share with others the ways God has spoken to us.

 

Reflection

Take 5 minutes to ask God what you need to receive today.

Remain open to sharing that with someone else if appropriate.