Language, Symbols, and Self-Understanding


A reporter once asked two men at the construction site where a church was being built what each did for a living. The first man replied: “I’m a bricklayer.” The second said: “I’m building a cathedral!”  How we name an experience largely determines its meaning.

There are various languages within a language, and some speak more deeply than others.

Thirty years ago, the American Educator, Allan Bloom, wrote a book entitled, The Closing of the American Mind. This was his thesis: Our language today is becoming ever more empirical, one-dimensional, and devoid of depth.  This, he submits, is closing our minds by trivializing our experiences.

Twenty years earlier, in rather provocative essay, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff had already suggested the same thing. For Rieff, we live our lives under a certain “symbolic hedge”, that is, within a language and set of concepts by which we interpret our experience.  And that hedge can be high or low. We can understand our experience within a language and set of concepts that has us believe that things are very meaningful or that they are quite shallow and not very meaningful at all. Experience is rich or shallow, depending upon the language within which we interpret it.

For example: Imagine a man with a backache who sees his doctor. The doctor tells him that he’s suffering from arthritis. This brings some calm. He now knows what ails him. But he isn’t satisfied and sees a psychologist. The psychologist tells him that his symptoms are not just physical but that he’s also suffering from mid-life crisis. This affords him a richer understanding of his pain. But he’s still dissatisfied and sees a spiritual director. The spiritual director, while not denying him arthritis and mid-life crisis, tells him that this pain is really his Gethsemane, his cross to bear. Notice all three diagnoses speak of the same pain but that each places it under a different symbolic hedge.

The work of persons such as Carl Jung, James Hillman, and Thomas Moore have helped us understand more explicitly how there is a language which more deeply touches the soul.

For instance: We see the language of soul, among other places, in some of our great myths and fairy tales, many of them centuries old. Their seeming simplicity masks a disarming depth. To offer just one example, take the story of Cinderella: The first thing to notice is that the name, Cinderella, is not an actual name but a composite of two words: Cinder, meaning ashes; and Puella, meaning young girl. This is not a simple fairy tale about a lonely, beaten-down, young girl. It’s a myth that highlights a universal, paradoxical, paschal dynamic which we experience in our lives, where, before you are ready to wear the glass slipper, be the belle of the ball, marry the prince, and live happily ever after, you must first spend some prerequisite time sitting in the ashes, suffering humiliation, and being purified by that time in the dust.

Notice how this story speaks in its own way of what in Christian spirituality we call “lent”, a season of penance, wherein we mark ourselves with ashes in order to enter an ascetical space in order to prepare ourselves for the kind of joy which (for reasons we only know intuitively) can only be had after a time of renunciation and sublimation. Cinderella is a story that shines a certain light into the depth of our souls. Many of our famous myths do that.

However no myth shines a light into the soul more deeply than does scripture. Its language and symbols name our experience in a way that helps us grasp the genuine depth inside our own experiences.

Thus, there are two ways of understanding ourselves: We can be confused or we can be inside the belly of the whale. We can be helpless before an addiction or we can be possessed by a demon. We can vacillate between joy and depression or we can alternate between being with Jesus ‘in Galilee’ or with him ‘in Jerusalem’. We can be paralyzed as we stand before globalization or we can be standing with Jesus on the borders of Samaria in a new conversation with a pagan woman. We can be struggling with fidelity in keeping our commitments or we can be standing with Joshua before God, receiving instructions to kill off the Canaanites so as to sustain ourselves in the Promised Land. We can be suffering from arthritis or we can be sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane.  The language we use to understand an experience defines what the experience means to us.

In the end, we can have a job or we can have a vocation; we can be lost or we can be spending our 40 days in the desert; we can be bitterly frustrated or we can be pondering with Mary; or we can be slaving away for a pay check or we can be building a cathedral. Meaning depends a lot on language.

Who Goes to Hell and Who Doesn’t?


Hell is never a nasty surprise waiting for a basically happy person.  Nor is it necessarily a predicable ending for an unhappy, bitter person. Can a happy, warm-hearted person go to hell? Can an unhappy, bitter person go to heaven? That’s all contingent upon how we understand hell and how we read the human heart.

A person who is struggling honestly to be happy cannot go to hell since hell is the antithesis of an honest struggle to be happy. Hell, in Pope Francis’ words, “is wanting to be distant from God’s love.”  Anyone who sincerely wants love and happiness will never be condemned to an eternity of alienation, emptiness, bitterness, anger, and hatred (which are what constitute the fires of hell) because hell is wanting not to be in heaven. Thus there’s no one in hell who’s sincerely longing for another chance to mend things so as to go to heaven. If there’s anyone in hell, it’s because that person truly wants to be distant from love.

But can someone really want to be distant from God’s love and from human love? The answer is complex because we’re complex: What does it mean to want something? Can we want something and not want it all at the same time? Yes, because there are different levels to the human psyche and consequently the same desire can be in conflict with itself.

We can want something and not want it all at the same time. That’s a common experience. For instance, take a young child who has just been disciplined by his mother. At that moment, the child can bitterly hate his mother, even as at another, more inchoate, level what he most desperately wants is in fact his mother’s embrace. But until his sulk ends he wants to be distant from his mother, even as his deepest want is to be with his mother. We know the feeling.

Hatred, as we know, is not opposite of love but simply one modality of love’s grieving and so this type of dynamic perennially plays itself out in the befuddling, complex, paradoxical relationship that millions of us have with God, the church, with each other, and with love itself. Our wounds are mostly not our own fault but the result of an abuse, a violation, a betrayal, or some traumatic negligence within the circle of love. However this doesn’t preclude them doing funny things to us. When we’re wounded in love, then, like a reprimanded, sulking child who wants distance from his mother, we too can for a time, perhaps for a lifetime, not want heaven because we feel that we’ve been unfairly treated by it. It’s natural for many people to want to be distant from God. The child bullied on the playground who identifies his or her bullies with the inner circle of “the accepted ones” will understandably want to be distant from that circle – or perhaps even do violence to it.

However that’s at one level of soul. At a deeper level, our ultimate longing is still to be inside of that circle of love which we at that moment seemingly hate, hate because we feel that we’ve been unfairly excluded from it or violated by it and hence deem it to be something we want no part of. Thus someone can be very sincere of soul and yet because of deep wounds to her soul go through life and die wanting to be distant what she perceives as God, love, and heaven. But we may not make a simplistic judgment here.

We need to distinguish between what at a given moment we explicitly want and what, at that same moment, we implicitly (really) want. They’re often not the same. The reprimanded child seemingly wants distance from his mother, even as at another level he desperately wants it.

Many people want distance from God and the churches, even as at another level they don’t. But God reads the heart, recognizes the untruth hiding inside a sulk or a pout, and judges accordingly. That’s why we shouldn’t be so quick to fill up hell with everyone who appears to want distance from love, faith, church, and God. God’s love can encompass, empathize with, melt down, and heal that hatred. Our love should too.

Christian hope asks us to believe things that go against our natural instincts and emotions and one of these is that God’s love is so powerful that, just as it did at Jesus’ death, it can descend into hell itself and there breathe love and forgiveness into both the most wounded and most hardened of souls. Hope asks us to believe that the final triumph of God’s love will be when the Lucifer himself converts, returns to heaven, and hell is finally empty.

Fanciful? No. That’s Christian hope; it’s what many of our great saints believed.

Yes, there’s a hell and, given human freedom, it’s always a radical possibility for everyone; but, given God’s love, perhaps sometime it will be completely empty.

Beyond Mysticism


I’m a practicing mystic!” A woman said that in one of my classes some years ago and it raised lots of eyebrows. I was teaching a class in mysticism and asked the students why the topic of mysticism interested them. Their responses varied: Some were simply intrigued with the concept; others were spiritual directors who wanted more insight into what constitutes mystical experience; and a number of others were taking the course because their faculty advisor asked them to. But one woman answered: “Because I’m a practicing mystic!”

Can someone be a practicing mystic? Yes, providing both terms, practicing and mystic, are understood properly.  

What does it mean to be a mystic? In the popular mind, mysticism is most often associated with extraordinary and paranormal religious experience, namely, visions, revelations, apparitions, and the like. Sometimes in fact this is the case, as is true of some great mystics like Julian of Norwich and Theresa of Avila, but these are exceptions. That’s not the norm. Normally mystical experience is ordinary; no visions, no apparitions, no ecstasies, just everyday experience – but with a difference.

Ruth Burrows, the renowned British Carmelite, defines mysticism this way: Mystical experience is being touched by God at a level deeper than words, thought, imagination, and feeling. We have a mystical experience when we know ourselves and our world with clarity, even if just for a second. That can involve something extraordinary, like a vision or apparition, but normally it doesn’t. Normally a mystical experience is not a moment where an angel or some spirit appears to you or something paranormal happens to you. A mystical moment is extraordinary, but extraordinary because of its unique lucidity and clarity, extraordinary because for that moment we are extraordinarily centered, and extraordinary because in that moment we sense, beyond words and imagination, in some dark, unconscious, and inchoate way, what mystics call the indelible memory of God’s kiss on our soul, the primordial memory of once having experienced perfect love inside God’s womb before birth. Bernard Lonergan, using a different terminology, calls this the brand of the first principles on our soul, that is, the innate imprint of the transcendental properties of God, Oneness, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, inside us.  

We have a mystical experience when we are in touch with that part of our soul that was once touched by God, before we were born, that part of our soul that still bears, however unconsciously, the memory of that touch. Henri Nouwen calls this a dark memory of “first love”, of once having been caressed by far gentler hands than we have ever met in this life.

We all have experiences of this to some degree. We all have mystical experiences, though we aren’t all mystics. What’s the difference between having a mystical experience and being a mystic? It’s the difference between having aesthetic experiences and being an artist.  All of us have deep aesthetic experiences and are at times deeply moved in our souls by beauty, but only a few persons become great artists, great composers, and great musicians, not necessarily because they have deeper experiences than the rest of us, but because they can give exceptional aesthetic expression to their experience. Aesthetic expression is always according to more or less. Hence anyone can become a practicing artist, even if not a professional one.

The same holds true for mysticism. A mystic is someone who can give meaningful expression to mystical experience, just as an artist is someone who can give proper expression to aesthetic experience.  You can be a practicing mystic, akin to a practicing artist or practicing musician. Like a struggling artist, you can struggle to give meaningful, conscious expression to the deep movements you sense within your soul and, like an amateur artist, you will not be the Rembrandt or Picasso of the spiritual life, but your efforts can be immensely helpful to you in clarifying the movements within your own soul and psyche.

How, concretely, practically, might you practice being a mystic? By doing anything that helps you to more consciously get in touch with the deep movements of your soul and by doing things that help you steady and center your soul.

For example, in striving to get in touch with your soul you can be a practicing mystic by journaling, doing spiritual reading, taking spiritual direction, doing various spiritual exercises such as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and by prayer of any kind. In terms of centering and steadying your soul you can be a practicing mystic by more consciously and more deliberately giving yourself over to the biblical practice of Sabbath and by doing other soul-centering things like gardening, taking long walks, listening to good music, sharing wine and conversation with family and friends, making love with your spouse, holding a baby, visiting a person who is ill, or even just taking up a hobby that healthily breaks the obsession of your daily concerns.

There are ways of being a practicing mystic, even without taking a formal class on mysticism.