I AM TEACHING a five-week class on Wednesday nights billed as “Christian Mystics”. Originally, it was planned to be just that: talk about the biographies of some of the Saints and read a little bit of their writing. Get a little levitation here, a little bi-location here, old-cat-lady-anchorites, “Oh, Look somebody is talking to bears!” – you know, a rather innocuous bit of church history.
BUT, AS I talked with several congregants and friends, it began to dawn on me that it is really hard for us in the twenty-first century to engage (or even recognize) the mystics, as it is so easy for us to wave them off as having over-active brain tumors or delicate emotions. These days, few of us know what to do with the mystics as we usually just wonder if they were completely insane. We all desire the transcendent and the numinous, yet regard those who had direct experience with these things as suspect. Which is really a shame, since most of us have – at least – a shallow predilection for some kind of non-specific, disembodied spirituality. I suppose this is probably true of every time in history, too.
SO, I DISCOVERED that before you can even engage the mystics, you must understand their worldview. To get this, I’ve been using Fr. Freeman’s (of Glory to God for all Things) understanding of the one-storey/two-storey universe and Evelyn Underhill’s definition from Practical Mysticism that “Mysticism is the art of union with Reality.” Basically the class focuses on how our understanding of reality has been so skewed by sin that we have lost touch with true Reality, which is God. According to the mystics, therefore, following Christ is about uniting in body, soul and spirit with this Reality by flipping our understanding of the world on its head and being purified from it (our Orthodox brethren call this theosis). This union with God (or Reality) is the goal Christian life and the mystics are the exemplars of such a path.
THEREFORE, INSTEAD OF just talking about the lives of the mystics, we’ve been talking about consolations, sin and the incarnation, only using the Saints only as a guide. Following the path of life laid down by the Spanish Carmelites, here’s what the schedule has looked like:
Week 1: “The Mystical Worldview: Julian of Norwich and the One-Storey Universe.”
Week 2: “Everything is Comin’ Up Roses: Teresa of Avila and the Beginning of the Mystical Life.”
Week 3: “3 in the Morning: John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul.”
Week 4: “A City on a Hill: Seraphim of Sarov and Theosis.”
Week 5: “An Anglican Life of Prayer: The Mass, The Office and Private Devotions.”
The last week, as you might notice, departs from mystical theology and looks at how to begin to live the mystical life. Fortunately for Episcopalians, we have everything we need to begin to live the mystical life in The Book of Common Prayer. Right there, typed in Sabon and between its red covers, is what you need to begin living out the life of union with God.
ADAPTING A QUOTE from one of the Desert Fathers, the last week will basically say, “Read the Prayer Book and the Prayer Book with teach you everything.” Go to Mass. Read the Office. Pray. This is how you can hope to begin to live the life of the Christian mystics. And it will teach you everything you need to know — way more than a five-week class taught by an amateur. Thanks be to God and Tom Cranmer.