On Mystical Madness

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Last week my wife and I hiked into Santa Elena Canyon (pictured above) in Big Bend National Park. We were both struck speechless by the beauty. My wife, having the gift of enthusiasm, said “I’d love to sing.” So together we stood in the depth of the canyon and sang loud enough for it to echo down the canyon. We sang “Amazing Grace”. As we finished, my wife pointed to the sky. Two eagles circled high above, giving us an Amen.

William James, writing in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience, described mystical experience to consist of 4 elements: ineffability, the inadequacy of words to capture the experience; noetic quality, that is, a sense of insight into a deep truth; transitory; and passive, which means one can’t generate a mystical experience. They simply find us. James also noted “Certain aspects of nature have a peculiar power of awakening … mystical moods.” (p. 310)

Madness, too, involves a “stepping out”, a letting go of concern about what will others think. In that regard, madness involves a certain risk, certainly a risk of judgment and rejection. When you look at various YouTube portrayals of individuals giving free hugs, you note that a lot of folks look the other way and walk on by. In a more serious vain, acts of mystical madness can get you locked up. Consider what would happen, say, to St. Francis of Assisi. As an expression of liberation from the world of possessions, Francis supposedly went into the town square and removed his clothes. Today such action would most likely result in hospitalization. Yet for Francis it was a profound moment of spiritual madness and liberation.

The only real step we can take into the world of mystical madness is to be open to it. To pay attention. To not dismiss an opportunity.

There is another challenge to mystical madness. Big Bend National Park is 200 miles from El Paso. Must I travel 200 miles to experience mystical madness? Rabbi David Wolpe notes an invitation to become a normal mystic which Wolpe describes as someone who “…looks at life as you and I know it, but with an acute eye, one that tracks…the suggestion of God in every corner, at every turn.” (The Healer of Shattered Hearts, (p. 81). There is the key. Sensing God’s presence in ways I cannot articulate with words. Sensing connection with someone in a profound way that eludes description. Such experiences are available amidst the skyscrapers as well as in nature. I just need to be open to them and to pay attention. As the great naturalist John Muir wrote “The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere.”

As my wife and I stood and sang, I felt connection. To the God of my understanding. To my wife. To the canyons walls. To the hawks circling overhead. Others might see this as sentimental and perhaps a little nutty. I will remember this gift of beautiful mystical madness for the rest of my life.

Reflection: What have been your experiences of mystical madness?

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On Spiritual Food

I’ve often heard people comment on what happens at their churches with the phrase “I’m not being fed.” I’ve even had that thought myself after dozing through an uninspired sermon. But wait! Am I not responsible for choosing what I ingest physically and spiritually? beyond that, what do I ingest spiritually that is the equivalent of junk food?

What has fed and continues to feed me spiritually? This is not as easy a question to answer as you might think. First of all, I face the painful fact that traditional religious practices such as attending Mass often don’t feed me. On some mornings the music enriches me and perhaps the readings. There are mornings too when I have touched the mystical elements at church. But sadly I often leave hungry.

Thankfully, I find others ways to be fed. Here are a few ways:

Physical: 1.I do enjoy a good meal and fellowship with my wife. 2.Running is my form of meditation. Some of the most profound mystical moments I’ve had occurred while running; 3. Sexual intimacy can be profoundly spiritual.

Mental: Throughout this blog I have cited writers who have fed me. Nouwen. Merton. Bonhoeffer. Frankl. Thich Naht Hahn. Dorothy Day. These and other writers have consistently inspired and challenged me. I go back to them when hungry.

Emotional: There is no doubt but that I get fed nutritious spiritual food through the arts. Here are a few examples

Judy Collins singing “Amazing Grace”

Dylan Thomas reading “Do Not Go gentle into that Good Night”

The theme of hope in “The Shawshank Redemption”

If I am going to develop a menu of spiritual food then I also honestly need to face what is not healthy for my spirit.  For me, this would include anything with the power of addiction. Been there. Done that. It poisoned my spirit.   I’m also wary of anyone or anything who advertises having the answers. I don’t think there are any easy ones. But those easy answers can feel good going down.

Reflection: What feeds you spiritually?

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On Martyrs: Dorothy Day

I wanted to repost this in memory of Clare Mummert, a beautiful spiritual woman here in El Paso whose godmother was Dorothy Day

Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD


I trust that someday soon the Catholic Church will decalre Dorothy Day a saint (even though she did not like being called a saint). Dorothy is a saint to whom I can relate.

The first part of Dorothy Day’s life is the story of a lost soul — alcohol abuse, an abortion, suicide attempts, another child out of wedlock. But then Dorothy found a center for herself and converted to Catholicism.

Even in her “lost years” Dorothy was drawn to help the poor. After her conversion she and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement, opening homes to the marginalized, offering meals to the starving. Catholic Worker homes can be found throughout the United States to this day.

Dorothy also became a prolific writer, in part through her newspaper. But, more than anything else, she became a Christ-like presence in our midst. Dorothy lived the Christian message. She ministered to…

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On Immigration

Some years ago my wife and I visited a museum in Cobh Ireland. This town was known previously as Queenstown and was a point of departure for Irish immigrants. When I saw the exhibits that portrayed the conditions endured by immigrants so that they could start a new life in America, I was very moved.

My people came to America later than many Irish and Scottish immigrants. Patrick McDonald and James Patterson came to America in the 1870s and Will Lynch brought his family from Wales in 1882. One of his family was my grandmother.

Patrick McDonald’s first house in Hawley PA was a shack. James Patterson went to the coal mines for work, as did many of my other relatives. The Irish faced much prejudice here in America. As they looked for work, many encountered signs saying “Irish need not apply”.

But they endured and slowly, slowly they were able to build lives such that my cousin Bob, my brother and I were the first college graduates on both sides of the family. I and my family have benefitted from the great sacrifices and suffering of these immigrants.

For me, the current crises over immigration has a personal impact. While my family may not have been welcomed, they did pursue opportunity, a pursuit that has greatly benefitted me.

I now live in El Paso TX, a border town rich with a bicultural atmosphere that provides opportunities for immigrants. Young people not only from Mexico but from oppressed countries in Central America as well as the Middle East find opportunities for education and work.

Given my background, how could I possibly support a ban on certain immigrants? How can I possibly ignore the Biblical exhortation to welcome the stranger? Would I not be turning my back on my own immigrant family members?

Yes, I know there are problems of available jobs and crime and infrastructures. The challenges are formidable. But I cannot condone closing doors as the solution.

I am grateful to the McDonalds and Pattersons and Lynchs who endured great hardship not that long ago so that my parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins could all have a better life. Because of them, I stand with those who are struggling to keep doors open.

Reflections: 1. What are your experiences with immigration? Do you see the current crisis as a spiritual issue?

The enclosed is shared in loving memory of James Patterson, Patrick McDonald, Will Lynch, Ellen Lynch (Ducey), and others of my family who opened doors for me by getting onto boats to a new land and enduring poverty, rejection, coal mines and so much more. I am grateful!

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On Christianity and Protest

As I look back over my writings here and elsewhere over the past few years, I note that many whom I call spiritual mentors and heroes were men and women not afraid to speak up in protest when political actions stood in opposition to their Christian principles or simply their notions of morality.

On the day after national protests on behalf of immigrants, I am certain that persons such as Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, and Pete Seeger would have been at airports yesterday on behalf of those detained by presidential edict. I know that today Thomas Merton would be penning a letter of protest.

Some who call themselves Christian have criticized those who speak out, claiming there is no place in Christianity for politics. Yet the founder of Christianity was a rebel who spoke out and who constantly challenged not just religious officials but politicians as He reminded time and again us to love our neighbor, telling us, among other things, “I was a stranger and you invited me into your home.”

I fear that in some ways Christianity has failed. I was accused once of being a “Cafeteria Catholic”, picking and choosing what I believe. So be it. I choose to think about what I believe, not accept it without question. In any case, many Christians nowadays pick and chose what they quote from the Bible. Some offer an arbitrary definition of what it means to be “pro-life”. Others justify war and violence.

I’m hardly a Biblical scholar but it seems clear to me that we are called to love our neighbor without exception! This means I am called to love not only the nice people but also my enemy. Jesus Christ didn’t seem to make any exceptions to the commandment to love.

It isn’t easy being a Christian. It never was meant to be. I’ll close then with a scene from the classic movie On the Waterfront. In this scene, we see a Catholic priest stand up to gangsters who ran the union for dock workers. This character was based on a real priest (one who in fact was criticized for his political involvement!) His words, as portrayed by Karl Malden, speak to us today during this time when, as Christians, we are called not to be silent.


Reflection: What if any role does protest play in your spiritual journey?

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On Spritual Mentors: Thomas Merton

It was shortly after I left the Army in 1979 that I began my search for a bridge between psychology and spirituality. One of the early architects of that bridge was Thomas Merton.

I had a copy of Merton’s well-known biography The Seven-Story Mountain but found some of the guidance I sought in other of his writings.

As a young man, Thomas Merton lived the fast life but when that life began to be empty, he turned to spiritual pursuits. His search eventually took him to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. There he found his way and became a Trappist monk.

While Merton treasured the life of a monk, he found in his meditation and prayer a connection to mankind that he would later articulate in passionate writings on behalf of racial justice as well as opposition to nuclear proliferation. Finding a connection to others by looking inward was an early bit of guidance Merton offered me.

Thomas Merton also gave me permission to pursue my growing interest in other religions. Merton spent much of his life exploring common ground with other paths, especially Zen Buddhism. He made connection with Thich Nhat Hahn who would also become a mentor for me.

Merton has offered me hope through being very human. He fell in love with a nurse who cared for him and conducted a correspondence with her. While he may have struggled, he also celebrated this woman’s beauty and his attraction to her. This humanness made Merton more accessible as has the humanness of other spiritual mentors such as Henri Nouwen and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Merton and others have helped me revise my understanding of sainthood.

In New Seeds of Contemplation Merton opened for me the notion of the God of my understanding long before I came to know the Twelve Steps. Merton wrote: “Our idea of God tells us more about oursleves than about Him.” (p.15) He also reminded me to quiet the noise in my head when he wrote “So keep still and let Him do some work.”(p.261)

Also important on my journey was Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. In the spirit of paradox, Merton observes: “God help the man who thinks he knows all about himself” (p.150), a powerful caution against my arrogance. And as I observe the current lack of dialogue in politics as well as religion, these words of Merton are relevent: “…when one is firmly convinced of his own rightness and goodness, he can without qualm perpetrate the most appalling evil.” (p.170)

Merton died in Thailand while attending an inter-faith conference between Catholic and non-Catholic monks. The seeds he planted in my mind and heart many years ago continue to yield fruit.

Reflection: 1. Who are some early influences on your journey?

2. What role does silence play on your journey?


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On the Shakers

Image result for sister frances carr

Sister Frances Carr died recently. I never met her but did have one exchange with her. She was one of the last of the Shakers. I first saw Sister Frances in a documentary on the Shakers. At one point, images of her cooking are interfaced with a nearby auction of highly valued Shaker furniture. Oprah Winfrey ends up winning one bid. Sister Frances then reflects on the auctions, noting that it is often said that it rains on auctions days. She observes with a catch in her throat “Some say it is the old Shakers crying.” Their furniture, beautiful in its simplicity, was never meant to bring in riches.

After seeing that video, I grew to admire the Shakers. Their spirituality was simple and straight forward and is reflected with sayings such as “Hands to work. Hearts to God.” and the more well-known “Tis a gift to be simple. Tis a gift to be free.” I think that is one aspect of the Shakers that draws me. Their approach to life is based on hard work, simplicity, and welcome. To this day, visitors who wish to come to Sabbathday Lake where Sister Frances lived and who wish to join in the work or simply reflect are all welcome.

I also feel drawn to their commitment to pacifism and to their commitment to meaningful roles and leadership for women, lessons that other more mainline religions would do well to note.

There were at one time as many as 6000 Shakers in the U.S. due in part to the Shakers welcoming of orphaned children. As Child Welfare laws changed, so did this source for membership. In addition, the Shakers commit to a celibate life. As such, there are only a handful of Shakers left.

Legend has it that composer Aaron Copeland was driving in upper New York state and overheard a hymn coming from a Shakers’ church. Copeland adapted that hymn and it became a centerpiece of his great Appalachian Springtime. The hymn is known as “Simple Gifts”. The hymn and its many adaptations live on as part of the Shaker legacy.

No, I am not a Shaker. I lack the self-discipline. I also think too much. But the Shakers have a treasured place in my spiritual tapestry, in part because they remind me always that perhaps my relationship with God need not be so complicated and so troublesome and that freedom can indeed be found in simplicity.

Reflection:  Do you see a need for simplicity in your own spiritual journey?

Here then is a version “Simple Gifts” that I love for its simplicity.



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On Home

One Christmas song I like is Perry Como’s version of “Home for the Holidays”. It brings to mind the powerful notion of Home. I see 4 different meanings for the concept of Home:

  1. There is the most frequent notion of Home as the place where I live. This concept of Home means more than a house. It means a place of safety and refuge. It is the type of Home that far too many are without, especially among my brother and sister veterans. (How shameful! Men and women fight for the Homeland and then have no Home waiting for them!)
  2.  Home also may mean where you are from. Home in this sense is that setting that shaped you in many ways. Not just the Home where you grew up but the locale, the setting, the accents, the regional food. I have lived in El Paso TX for 40 years and the first type of Home is clearly here. But Home in this current sense is Scranton PA, that unique coal town in Northeastern PA that is better known as the setting for “The Office”. Scranton is for me a time and place of food (Dunmore and Old Forge have the best Italian food anywhere!), ethnic cultures, and accents. Because I am from Scranton, I knew immediately what Vice President and fellow Scrantonian Joe Biden meant when he referred to something as “a bunch of malarkey”.
  3. Some few find an internal home. A place of inner peace that can be accessed any time, anywhere. Perhaps that Home is reached through meditation or prayer. Perhaps it is reached while listening to music. Perhaps it is reached on a long run. This type of Home is available to one and all but, like all great quests, requires some struggle and effort as well as facing the Inner Darkness that first appears when one journeys inward.
  4. For some, Home is Heaven. The place of eternal rests. My mother referred to this Home on her deathbed when she said “My bags are packed and I’m going to see my girls.”

Home doesn’t just happen. A comfortable physical Home requires taking the time to create that type of environment. To be in touch with the Home where I come from requires some reflection and sifting though memories, some of which may be painful. An Inner Home requires a commitment to the inner journey. The Heavenly Home is a challenge of faith.

I leave you then with two reflections on home — Perry Como himself as well as George Carlin. For this holiday season, may you each have at least one of these Homes to go to.

Reflection: 1. What is Home for you?

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On the Long Thanksgiving Dinner

A few days late. Since I first wrote this, a few more loved ones have left our table and walked through the black curtain. I am grateful for all the wonderful loved ones.

Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD

Some years ago, my wife directed a wonderful production of “The Long Christmas Dinner” by Thornton Wilder. In this play, the story of several generations of a family is told symbolically with family gathered at a long table for Christmas dinner. We see family members age and, when their time comes, they rise and slowly walk through a black curtain. Some young people walk through that curtain. Others leave the table quite suddenly.

For me, that table is set at Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I can see generations gathered about that table. Many have gone through the Black Curtain, some quite suddenly, some way too young.

One of my sisters never even makes it to the table. She comes to the table and leaves immediately through the Black Curtain. My other sister sits for only a moment, then also leaves.

But I also see many loved ones who sat at…

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I Was a Soldier Once

As I have written before, I wasn’t a very good soldier. I had an attitude, expressed by not polishing my shoes, leaving my shirttail hanging out, wearing bright green socks on St. Paddy’s Day and  a myriad of other  protests. One day a gentle-spirited retired chaplain confronted me saying “Why so much protest over something as simple as being a soldier?” Why indeed, Charley? Why indeed?

It took a concert by my daughter’s middle-school orchestra to help me embrace my status as a veteran. Anyone who watches the annual Memorial Day and Fourth of July concerts knows that, towards the end, the orchestra plays of medley of Armed Forces themes. The first time I experienced that was with my daughter’s orchestra. Veterans were invited to stand when their theme song played so, when I heard the familiar “Over hill, over dale..” theme, for the first time I claimed my veteran status with pride and stood up.

My journey as a veteran has been humbling. The Army gave me some of my closest friends. My veteran status also connected me to some of my finest teachers. Some veterans taught me lessons of faith in the face of horror. Others challenged me with their honest expressions of anger and bewilderment with God. Female veterans helped me see the devastation of sexual harassment. All the combat veterans have solidified in me the belief that war is never a solution and is such an assault on the human spirit that few if any can go through war and not be changed forever.

On this day November 11 many citizens will greet veterans with a “Thank you for your service.” Some veteran enjoy this. Others resent it. As I’ve said before, many vets want to be listened to. Others simply want to be left alone. Still others, too many, become isolated, having no one who will listen, and end their lives. Just this morning I read of yet another veteran who took his life while waiting for help through the VA.

I was a soldier once. A feelings doctor in the Army, as my grandson proudly tells others. Thus, today as on every Veterans’ Day, I will wear my dog tags as a sign of solidarity with my brother and sister veterans. And I will wear my dog tags with pride.


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