This week I wanted to share with you a guest post I wrote for Abbey of the Arts. In it, I reflect on inner pilgrimage during a time of pandemic, especially during Advent and Christmas. I hope you enjoy!
Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve all become a little monkish, whether we want to or not. I’ll admit that the recent months of isolation haven’t always felt very sacred to me. As I continue to restrict my movements out of extra caution, I’ve deeply missed the ordinary activities of daily life, such as gathering with friends and writing in coffee shops. And I mourn the loss of larger opportunities. For example, a friend invited me to join a pilgrimage . . . just before the pandemic began.
Wrestling with the “new normal” of pandemic life, I’ve found it worthwhile to read the Christian mystics, many of whom did not travel because they were enclosed monks, nuns, or anchorites. Perhaps because they accepted a life of voluntary restriction, they understood that journeys do not always involve footsteps. These mystics are good companions as we sit on our sofas and dream of roads not taken. . . .
As you may have noticed, I’m always talking about the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. But did you know that there were no mystics in the Middle Ages? The figures we call “mystics” – like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena — would have referred to themselves as contemplatives or perhaps simply as devout Christians.
“Mystic” and “mysticism” are more modern terms (17th century). But the medievals did use the adjective “mystical.” The 15th-century chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, wrote a book about mystical theology, which he defines as knowledge of God that comes from love (as opposed to books or academic study). Medievals also spoke of the mystical meaning of the Bible – its deeper, spiritual meaning, which usually pointed to the mystery of Christ.
So what about those figures we call mystics? Figures like Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, and Meister Eckhart? These Christians experienced a heightened consciousness of God’s presence. They sought God’s love based on direct experience, not textbook knowledge. This is what we mean when we call them mystics – and I think it’s fine for us to use this term since it’s firmly entrenched in our vocabulary now.
In the medieval era, a mystical encounter with God could result from lectio divina – reading and spending time with Scripture. At other times, it might come after meditating on scenes from Christ’s life or on sacred imagery.
Margery Kempe had a mystical experience upon seeing the site of Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She was graced with a vision of the crucified Christ in the very place he suffered and died. It knocked her to the ground. Jesus, she says, was present before her eyes.
However, mystics did not always have visions. Nor did they always experience complete or ecstatic union with God. Those were special gifts given to some of them. And they were also fairly rare experiences. The criteria for being a mystic is much simpler, and it opens the door to an “everyday mysticism” to which you and I have access today. Simply put, a mystic seeks a deeper and more direct consciousness of God in her daily life. She wants to be awakened by God! This often happens through what seem like quite ordinary activities, like prayer, reading and meditating on Scripture, and being part of a Christian community. Always, it happens through the work of the Spirit in us.
So . . . it’s not audacious to define yourself as a mystic; it doesn’t mean you’re extra holy or have to meet some impossible standard. It just means that you seek greater intimacy with God and long to be enlivened by God’s eternal presence.
What attracts me the most about mysticism is that it coaxes me out of my hiding place. I can hide behind books about God and Christianity; I can fall back on my education or on acquiring more knowledge (including Wikipedia sometimes–oops!). But all this will mean very little unless I truly know, on a heart level, God’s all-encompassing love. This is why I need to be an everyday mystic.
How about you? Would you define yourself as a mystic?
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.
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.
She goes on to write:
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?”
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.
Take 5 minutes to ask God what you need to receive today.
Remain open to sharing that with someone else if appropriate.