Mysticism is an exotic word. Few of us connect mysticism with ordinary experience, especially with our own experience. Mysticism is generally seen as an exotic thing, a paranormal thing, a special kind of consciousness given only to the most elite within the spiritual life, something for spiritual athletes, or for the weird, visions and altered states of consciousness, snakes and ladders in the spiritual life.
But mysticism isn’t extraordinary, paranormal, or weird, but an important, ordinary experience given to us all.
What is mysticism? The British Carmelite, Ruth Burrows, defines it this way: Mysticism is being touched by God in a way that is deeper than language, thought, imagination, and feeling. It’s knowing God and ourselves beyond explicit thought and feeling.
But how is this possible? How do we know something beyond our capacity to speak about it, imagine it, or even clearly feel it?
Perhaps a description of a life-changing experience from her life by Ruth Burrows can be helpful here. In her autobiography, Before the Living God, she shares this incident: As a young woman in her late teens, she was sitting in chapel one day. She wasn’t there for a particularly prayerful purpose, but had been consigned there as a punishment for acting out at a class retreat. As she sat alone in that chapel she had a mystical experience, not that an angel appeared to her or that she has some special vision or some altered state of consciousness. The opposite: Sitting in that chapel she had a moment of rare, simple, and privileged clarity, a deep grounding in herself and in reality, where, for that moment, she was in touch with what was deepest and most true inside her and with what is deepest and most true inside of reality. And, in that, she knew, beyond the explicitness of words, imagination, and feeling, something of the reality of God and something of her own truest being. The experience changed her life. In that moment, she knew what she had to do and, against much of her own temperament, she became a contemplative nun – and eventually, of course, a woman whose spiritual insight has helped mentor many of us.
C.S. Lewis, sharing about his own conversion to Christianity, describes something similar, though in his case the experience was a longer, protracted one which crystallized in a moment of privileged clarity that had him, for that moment, in touch with what was deepest and most true inside of him and inside of reality itself.
Describing in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, the moment when he first knelt down in the acceptance of Christianity, he shares that, for him, the moment was far from ecstatic. Rather, he knelt down as “the most reluctant convert in the history of Christendom.” But he knelt because, as he describes it: “I had come to realize that the harshness of God is kinder than the softness of man and God’s compulsion is our liberation.”
How does Lewis understand God’s compulsion? In much the same way the same way as Ruth Burrows understands her mystical experience, namely, as a moment of simple clarity within which one touches and comes to realize what’s is deepest and truest inside of oneself and inside of reality itself and, in that clarity, knows what one has to do – as opposed to what one’s intellect might think it wise to do or what one’s heart affectively wants to do. Lewis became a Christian because he was in touch with this experience inside his mystical center and it told him what he had to do.
And what makes up our mystical center? Bernard Lonergan called it the brand of the first principles – oneness, truth, goodness, and beauty – inside the human soul. Henri Nouwen called it “first love”, namely, the dark memory of once having been loved and caressed by hands far gentler than any we have ever met in this world, the unconscious memory of having been with God before we were born. Some mystics call it the inchoate memory of God’s kiss as he puts our souls into our bodies.
Most of us don’t have a name for this, but we speak of something as “ringing true” or as “not ringing true” to us. But to what does something ring true or false? Do we carry some kind of “bell” inside of us? In fact we do. We can call it our conscience, our deepest center, our moral center, the center that tells us what we have to do, or that place inside us where we long for a soul mate, but we all know that there is a place inside of us, one that we touch in our most sincere moments, where we know the brand of the first principles, inchoately remember God’s kiss, and know what we need to do to be true to who we are.
When we are in touch with this deep center and act out of its nudges and imperatives we, like Ruth Burrows and C.S. Lewis, are living a mystically-driven life.