We hear of remarkable people—in the Bible and elsewhere—into whom God poured himself and who then pour themselves out for God. But can we be like them? Is the cost of coming so close to God that we want to give our lives to him? Is it more than we will be willing to pay?
Who are these people? These Prophets and mystics?
Who are these weirdos called “mystics”?
Paul explains to the Meeting in Ephesians that: 8Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; …. 11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
Then, in a paragraph similar to the passage in John’s Gospel we call the High Priestly Prayer where Jesus prays for his current and future followers, we are privileged to know what it is that Paul prays for us. 14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Listen to these lines again:
16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit ,and
(I pray) 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Surveys indicate that most Americans believe they have had a mystical experience of some kind or other. Christian theology instructs us that the test of legitimate mystical experience with God is found in the effects of the encounter. True mystical experience changes the self, making it transparent before God and allowing God’s light to shine through to others. Just to contemplate the possibility of dwelling in God’s love is an experience that lures and invites us. We hear of remarkable people—in the Bible and elsewhere—into whom God poured himself and who then pour themselves out for God. But can we be like them? Is the cost of coming so close to God that we want to give our lives to him? Is it more than we will be willing to pay?
Who are these people? These Prophets and mystics?
Isaiah (6:1-8) In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Jeremiah was tasked to deliver the unpleasant news to the Kings of Judah that armies from the north were going to destroy them for their wickedness and we read: (1:7ff) “gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. 18And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. 19They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.”
That’s kind of scary. We might be afraid of that kind of spiritual life. We read of other men and women transformed by such closeness to God and become willing to live their lives for God. Many of Jesus’ earliest followers were martyred for their faith. In the last century we know of people like Dietrick Bonhoeffer and Edith Stein who believed themselves commissioned to prophetic ministries that cost them their lives. So why wouldn’t we be afraid when we see how these grace-filled people live completely for God. We would really prefer to believe that mystics are a rare breed, few and far between.
Of course George Fox is among almost all lists of mystics I’ve read. And so are many other Friends. And, of course, the reality is that mystics don’t ask to be mystics. They merely desire to know God deeply. They want to know God’s love invading their lives completely. And while they know their limits, they admit their brokenness, their sinfulness and flaws and their need of God’s redeeming grace. Like everyone of us they too come to God, not saying “Lord, make me a mystic” but rather “Lord, I want to know you better.” And in opening themselves to such an intensely personal relationship with Christ they simply accept the gift.
The ancient Greek Fathers of the Church taught that all Christians, through mystical experience of God, can become windows through which the light of God shines without hindrance. They seemingly make three suggestions as to how we can cooperate with God’s initiative in making us transparent for God’s light. First, they advised purgation. This means using the light we have from the experience of Christ to allow those thoughts and habits that obscure the light of God in the self to be washed out of our lives.
Second, they advocated frequent participation in corporate worship, meeting with other Christians regularly. This allows God’s grace to work in our lives to cleanse the window of the self. Third, they urge us to enter daily and deeply into silent prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to take away all that is false within us. Purgation, participation and waiting prayer are how we cooperate with God who comes to us in mystical experience.
Caroline Stephen, a nineteenth century Quaker, wrote: “A true mystic believes that all persons have, as he himself is conscious of having, an inward life, into which as into a secret chamber, he can retreat at will. In this inner chamber he finds a refuge…from the multitude of cares and pleasures and agitations which belong to the life of the senses and the affections; from human judgments; from all change, and chance, and turmoil, and distraction. He finds there, first repose, then an awful guidance; a light which burns and purifies; a voice which subdues; he finds himself in the presence of his God.” That is so much like what Paul spoke to a gathering in Athens “God … is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:27-28)
You can relax a bit. I don’t want you to become too serious about achieving some high marks in Spiritual attainment. You don’t need to start straining to become spiritually accomplished. It doesn’t depend on you. Hear this- clearly- your spiritual growth doesn’t depend on you. In 1st Corinthians 3:6 Paul remarks that while he had planted and Apollos watered, it was God who gave the growth. The pilgrimage of faith Paul describes for the Ephesians, and for us, is to be a romance, a love affair, with Christ. Maybe it’s due to my own gender but I think it may be easier for women to understand the implications of becoming the bride of Christ.
We are all overloaded with day to day responsibilities. The very notion of becoming ‘a mystic’ begs the imagination. We may want a deep relationship with Christ but fear that that path demands too much of us. Dare I tell you that is may not be wise to set impossible spiritual goals for your life? We shouldn’t attempt the spiritual life as if we could, on our own power achieve such greatness. We can just stick to the gospel teachings about humility and adopt the tax collector’s attitude rather than that of the Pharisee. Yet C.S. Lewis said this about it. “….though something goes from man o God, yet all, including this something comes from God to man. If he rises, he does so lifted o the wave of the incoming tide of God’s love for him. He becomes nothing in that ascension. His love is perfected by becoming, in a sense, nothing. He is less that a mote in that sunbeam, vanishes, no from God’s sight, but from ours and his own, into the nuptial solitude of the love that loves love, and in love, all things.” Nuptial solitude… see what I meant about being gendered challenged.
But the concern is simply that you don’t resist it.
Paul was also aware that we can get so enamored with being held, embraced, spiritually sated that we think that this is the end all of our spiritual pilgrimage so he breaks in on our revere and adds an ethical component. Quaker Mysticism isn’t at all like classical mysticism where a person disappears in one long leap of faith into the eternal. Quaker mysticism is practical mysticism. The leap of faith is to leap head long into creation – loving, embracing and caring for that which God loves, embraces and cares. So Paul writes:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” … 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
What Paul writes acknowledges one important reality – you, follower of the way of Christ, are one of those weirdos called mystics. You too are one of those to have received ‘gifts’ to build up the body of Christ. The gifts are wide and diverse but all are applicable for building up the body of Christ and Paul said they are for all of us to come the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the full stature of Christ. Paul had high expectations of those in the Meeting in Ephesus – and in Spokane.