The World May Be Filled With Ordinary Mystics


(OPINION) In 2020, I decided to bend my own COVID-19 lockdown to positive ends. I used the enforced solitude to pursue and, I hoped, deepen my personal spirituality.

I started reading about Christian mystics, those seemingly rare and special souls who — sometimes during extended periods of aloneness — found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by transcendent revelations of God.

I became so fascinated that I’ve continued studying them, what they said and saw.

Of much help has been William O. Paulsell’s book “Longing for God: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism.” Paulsell, formerly president of Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, is an expert on the subject.

“Longing for God” looks at mystics across the centuries, from Augustine to Thomas Merton.

“A mystic is a person who has experienced the presence of God in a very direct way,” Paulsell writes. “The event is so real and certain that there can be no doubt about what happened. However, mystics throughout the centuries have found it impossible to communicate the experience to the rest of us. Human language fails in its effort. God is beyond all language, all definition, all modes of expression.”

He uses William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience” to define four specific markers of mystical experiences:

  • They are “ineffable.” That is, the experience can’t be explained in words. “Such a vocabulary does not exist,” Paulsell says.

  • They are “noetic.” The event produces knowledge, but not the knowledge produced by human logic. “It goes beyond the limits of reason and takes the mystic into new ways of knowing,” Paulsell says.

  • They are “transient.” The experience is temporary and often brief, “although the mystic loses all sense of time until it is over. The subsequent absence of God is frustrating and the mystic wants God to come back.”

When I started reading about mystics, I tended to think of them as rare and Roman Catholic (or at least traditionally religious) and long since dead.

But recently, I was prattling on to my wife Liz about James’ list of the attributes of mystical experiences.

Liz said something that caught me up short. According to James’ checklist, she said, a sizeable portion of the people we know are mystics. People of all religious and spiritual stripes have told us of being suddenly blindsided by the presence of God — or at least of something ineffable.

I hadn’t thought of it that way. But Liz was right.

I’ve since remembered so many stories. Details vary, but folks have said they were overcome by a humility, a love, a sense of their oneness with all living things. The world shimmered. It was as if they saw into another universe that operates beyond and yet within the one we normally see. It envelops everything.

They were shown a new reality. Then the vision departed. And they still couldn’t describe it, really, but they’d never forgotten it. They’d never been the same.

I thought of a young journalist who worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She was Jewish and an agnostic and not overly interested in religion.

But she told me about a day she was visiting a museum in Europe. Without prelude, found herself resonating, electrified almost, by an awareness of something beyond herself, something that united all things everywhere.

“Was that God?” she asked rhetorically. She shrugged. Whatever you wanted to call it, it was beautiful and wondrous — and it was not her.

Just this past Sunday, in our adult Sunday school class, a retired businessman spoke of the time he went to check a stream near the entrance to his farm, to see if it was flooding.

It was just another rainy day until, as he was checking the water, he was suddenly awestricken by the love of God, by a oneness with the Almighty he’d never experienced in a lifetime of going to church.

This happened to him a few years back, but he could hardly tell the story for crying. The experience had transformed him.

I could go on for pages recounting stories I’ve heard. None of the people I’m thinking of were terribly pious or kooky or, as far as I know, mentally ill. They were just people. But something had happened to them spiritually.

In my observation, people tend to put these events into the box with which they’re most comfortable. Folks from a Christian background say they saw Jesus or were born again. Those who are areligious, such as my journalist friend, say they’re not sure who it was.

The phenomenon appears to be widespread.

A couple of decades ago, an extensive BBC study of Britain’s spirituality found that 38% of Britons said they’d been stricken by an “awareness of the presence of God.” Thirty percent reported having felt an “awareness of a sacred presence in nature.”

A study of Brazilians found 35% reported having had a mystical experience.

What if mysticism isn’t confined to a handful of holy men and women living in monasteries and chanting the Psalms?

What if the mechanic at your local car dealership has received the same visitation as Bernard of Clairvaux? What if your kid’s third-grade teacher has stared into the depths of all creation?

One of my favorite contemporary spiritual thinkers, Richard Rohr, believes God is as close to each of us as our next breath.

“Remember, the only thing that separates you from God is the thought that you are separate from God!” he has written.

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