For many years now, I’ve had a growing conviction that the great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner was right to have claimed: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” He meant that people will either have a dynamic, immediate, and experiential relationship with God, or they will be bereft of faith. Faith will either affect ordinary awareness, create new ways of living, and energize every dimension of life, or it will be formulaic, superficial, and empty.
The rapid pace and relentless pressure of our lives, the questions of truth raised by unavoidable pluralism, the explosion of knowledge and technology, and the ongoing dilemmas of the human condition all conspire to make belief difficult. It’s always true but, it’s especially true in such a climate: faith can’t survive on the meager nourishment provided by the mind alone–by ideas, doctrines, and arguments. Faith needs the nurture which comes from encounters with the Divine and experiences of the Holy.
In his 1993 memoir, Life Work, poet Donald Hall admitted that some of the New Testament’s claims about Jesus left him with questions and confusion. “But,” he wrote:
. . . when Jesus feeds multitudes; when he routs the money-changers; when he despairs and when he thirsts; when he tells parables and explains them; when he tells the crowd about to stone a woman to death that the man without sin should throw the first stone; when he eats with his friends the tax collectors; when he dies crucified–then I believe he rises again . . . It is all present or it is nothing (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993, p. 123)
Mysticism is a way for “it all” to be always “present”—for God to be immediately and palpably near–at the level of visceral and emotional experience.
We don’t simply decide, of course, that we will become mystics. Instead, we learn to spend time in shared worship and solitary silence; to listen; to open our eyes and hearts to the wonders of creation; to pay attention to our feelings, longings, fears and hopes; to share our lives with those who need our love and whose love we need; to surrender to, rather than attempt to conquer, mystery; and to expect the embrace of the sacred Spirit. These practices open us to awareness of the God who is always present with us.
Anthony de Mello described the role of such practices in this brief exchange between a wise teacher and a disciple:
Disciple: “Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?”
Teacher: “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
Disciple: “Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”
Teacher: “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”