I’d like to share with you an excerpt from my article “Mysticism for the Masses” that appears in the August issue of St. Anthony Messenger. If you’d like to receive a copy of the full article, e-mail me at <email@example.com>
We can’t manufacture them (mystical experiences) as much as we might try. The best that we can do is to remain open. This is a hard lesson for me as I like to be in control. Thus, one time I headed out to the Guadalupe Mountains about 90 miles from El Paso. I had been to this place often and had some remarkable mystical encounters with various wildlife. On this particular day, I set out planning to have such a mystical experience. None happened. As I prepared to follow the trail down from the mountains, I thought “It’s not going to happen today” and let go of the expectation. Believe it or not, in that moment of letting go, I took a last look around and there was a young deer watching me! I could almost hear God chuckling. Only by accepting that I was unable to manufacture a mystical experience could I become open to one.
Many of these experiences have indeed come to me when I have been away from day-to-day living. So, to become a mystic, must I become like Henry Thoreau or John Muir and retreat to the wilderness? Here Rabbi David Wolpe’s notion of “the normal mystic” is very helpful: “In the eye of another human being, in the daily activity of average people, the normal mystic seeks the presence of God. ..The normal mystic looks at life as you and I know it, but with an acute eye, one that tracks the almost imperceptible or often overlooked suggestion of God in every corner, at each turn.” (The Healer of Shattered Hearts, 1990, p. 81). Recalling James’ comment about passivity, Wolpe helps us see that we nonetheless can pay attention!
Wolpe’s reflections also remind us that we can sense God’s presence in the ordinary as well as the spectacular. Essential to mystical experience is the sense of connection, not only to God in some transpersonal way but to also God in the angry driver in the car next to me, to the homeless veteran on the street corner, to the brother or sister addict struggling to get on the path of recovery. Clearly I feel connected to the people I love. But mystical experience reminds me we are all connected and that the source of that connection is found in God.
Here we begin to get a sense as to why people are not in such a hurry to pursue the Mystic’s Way. If I truly aspire to become a mystic, then I am embracing not just the wonder. I am embracing the pain. For to feel a connection is to feel pain as well as wonder. Mystical experience may be the experience of wonder but it also can be the experience of deep compassion that is grounded in a faith that understands God’s presence in pain.
I encourage you to become open to the possibility of mysticism as a special faith-enriching part of your spiritual journey. You don’t have to go to a monastery or even to a National Park. Just pay attention and remember that God is a God of plenty. Monasteries and National Parks can indeed be doorways to the Divine. But there are just as many doorways to the Divine in your hometown. That’s how God planned it.
Mystical experiences include being with a person at the time that their body leaves their soul. Something mysterious and inexplicable happens at that moment. One of my friends who was dying shared a line from a poem. “The soul can fling the dust aside, and naked on the air of Heaven ride”. To a lesser extent, seeing a baby being born is also a mystical experience. People inside of other people is mystical to me as was the communication that I experienced with my unborn baby. Other mystical experiences I have had include encountering the soul of an ancestor or friend which is seen as somewhat of a delusion here but quite accepted in cultures where people are open to it.