The Way of Knowing God in the Darkness
Deification (Greek theosis): process by which a Christian becomes more like God.
…as they gathered around the sage, old, blind man he began to speak, “the life you are living is a lie! Look to the heavens; you say there are stars, the sun, the moon, you are wrong. I know this for I have looked as well and have seen nothing, you must see as I see and know this as well.” The crowd dispersed having wasted their time.
So, where do we start as we try to untangle the blind man’s ravings? All Christian experiences, mystic or not, begin in scripture. That is not to say that a person can’t have an experience of God without first reading the Bible; rather that the experience they are having finds its root there.
In Genesis 1:27 we are told that God created us male and female in God’s own likeness. In community, thinking, creative beings are capable of amazing things. Possibility and power were grafted into us as a mirror of God’s own self. Perhaps the greatest, and least thought-of power we possess, is the ability to make (or re-make) the world in our own image. All this was and is ours, for we were intended to assist God in the furthering of creation. We, like God, are caregivers and lovers, participating in the protection and flourishing of life.
Even as we possess these abilities today, we rarely use them as they were intended. Having broken away from God (Genesis 3), enticed by power, and seeking the self instead of the other, we are preoccupied and distracted by fear and loathing. God continues to call to us, and we do hear though many times—most of the time—we can’t hear that sweet, still silence. Still, we know that we are being called and we are afraid of what that means and we are ashamed of the misuse of the power God has given us. The tragic results are broken relationships, seeping regret, and disquietude.
From Genesis 1 through Genesis 7 the physical and spiritual trajectory of humankind is mapped: from being created as the image of God in joyful communion to broken trust, murder, the perversion of nature, and worldwide destruction. The rest of the Old Testament is an ongoing account of war, famine, destruction, deception, slavery, and death. But, through it all, in every age and time, there is hope. Through the biblical witness, God is calling, leading, at times even pleading for healing and renewal. Throughout time, God has called us, not by our power, but by God’s. God is always the initiator, leading through spirit and presence, always affirming that our wholeness lies in union with the divine (Deification). Ultimately God points the way to the consummation of all things in a New Heaven and New Earth, where there will be reconciliation and wholeness—in God.
Human power, the usurped power God has given us, is never why God chooses us. God chooses out of love and seeks weakness and humility in those who are made in God’s image. To show us exactly what that looks like, what we are meant to be, God becomes one of us, the perfect image of God’s self, God reflected in us as we are reflected in God.
Born in a humble state, Jesus, the Imago Dei, (image of God) reveals love, hope, caring, joy, peace, and relationship as the path to wholeness. “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3a) as he is both the author of life and the teacher of what it means to live. By love, in love, through love, Jesus—God incarnate—leads and witnesses God’s self to us, not through power and oppression or fear and selfishness, but by self-giving (Genesis 1).
So, in short, the pattern of scripture (and our lives) is: wholeness, rebellion, brokenness, self-justification, fear and resignation, potential awareness and wholeness, rebellion, brokenness, . . . In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-10) Jesus clearly teaches what we must do to break this cycle and begin growing in his likeness (completely human). Seeking God in all things as the answer to all things we will be filled—enlightened.
Enlightenment: spiritual awareness of God’s presence and purpose and of God’s pre-creation devotion to communion with us.
As Jesus spoke with Nicodemus, he told him to be “born again;” to be born of the spirit. The only route to enlightenment is through Christ. As Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” and that way through him is by being born again by the Spirit. Jesus did not speak these and other words of instruction idly or frivolously; what he said he meant and what he proposed is possible. Sadly, most often these words of Jesus are taken to mean simple discipleship, believing, and following the Lord, but they mean so much more. How can it be that we can be transformed into the likeness of Christ simply by saying we are Christians and deciding to do good things? Surely, God will honor those who take this first step and stop, but God intended us for much more.
Jesus commanded us to “be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). What a cruel and ridiculous thing to say if were not possible; but it is possible, of course it is. To achieve this, St. Peter witnessed that indeed we need to be “…born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). St. Paul admonishes us that unless we gird ourselves in the Holy Spirit we can’t progress. In order to grow in the likeness of Christ we must be protected from ourselves and the forces around us:
Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:10-12, 18)
Jesus commands us to be perfect as God intended us to be and has shown us and given us the method by which we embark on this journey. To achieve the command of God to be like the Son; we must move beyond our self-effort to improve and give ourselves over to be improved by God. Not by our effort, but by our humility is the way to theosis.
The blind, old man said, “I know this for I have looked as well and have seen nothing, you must see as I see and know this as well.”
The first step in this journey is to see ourselves and the world differently.
Next week, we begin.
On the path of enlightenment,
What Christian Mysticism is NOT
Let's start off by separating our topic from “modern” mysticism and “spirituality.” When I was growing up, I remember a lot of movies with bits about mystics and shamans, séances, and mediums. In almost all cases, except horror movies (thank you Boris Karloff), the depictions were of gullible people and greedy charlatans. Today, we are still beset by mediums and clairvoyants talking to our dearly departed (for a substantial fee) and predicting love, radical success, trial, and triumph--even death (you're welcome, $cha-ching). Even the church isn’t immune to these dramatists preying on the fears and hopes of others. Mega-church pastors have made millions off the trust and hope of desperate people. Brian Hiatt of Mother Jones News wrote, “The kinds of things that have been commonplace in carnivals and communes are now center stage in the church. The principles of sociopsychological manipulation that have been used by stage hypnotists are now being used by pastors.” Unfortunately, these modern perversions taint legitimate world Christian Mysticism.
Still further, we all have been exposed to people who are “spiritual” and claim a “special relationship” with the “divine” through their own effort, goodness, and awareness. These people have no need for the church or God but relay their own power and special status. In every conversation I have had with a spiritualist, I have been told (either explicitly or implied) that they are more enlightened than the people who are still attending an actual church. In mixed conversations, I have witnessed their effort to lead astray those who are going to church with promises of joy from the ‘unfettered freedom’ they experience. In our undertaking, we must first rid ourselves of any mental or emotional connection/reaction with these images.
To be fair, there are forms of mysticism which witness to a genuine search for enlightenment. The “Mystic’s” goal is obtaining enlightenment through which they can experience union with the divine. The mystic’s experiences are self-motivated following a myriad of traditions/instructions to achieve the desired union. Union with the divine transforms the mystic, infusing their mind, body, and soul with divine power. The mystic becomes divine and lives as a portal through which wisdom and divine emanations can be experienced. The goal and end of this mysticism is self-enlightenment.
What Christian Mysticism IS
Christian Mysticism is seeking communion with God through Jesus Christ. This search leads the seeker through layers of self-awareness guided by the Holy Spirit with the witness of Holy Scripture. The Christian’s goal is to draw closer to God because that is God’s plan and, in all things, follows the witness of scripture. Christian Mysticism describes the seeker as, “one steeped in Holy Writ.” There are many wonderful writings by far-advanced masters who have trod this path, but the Bible will always be the primary source. And that is just what we will be exploring together in this series.
Step One: Self Awareness
There are many ways that we come to “self-awareness.” The Christian Mystic begins with the realization that his or her seeking is not self-motivated but is the response to God’s call. Like all our lives, Christian self-awareness as a conscious act of our existence, is rooted in relationships. In the same way, a married couple acts throughout the day considering their partnership with the other like going to the grocery store and buying food or making plans for the night, so it is with the Christian Mystic in the consideration of God. Self-awareness means being aware of God in all things because God is present in all things. Self-awareness is being aware when we are not aware of God, and being aware that we are not aware of God will change our awareness.
Starting with a foundation of proper devotion and focus makes moving toward communion with God possible. Next week we will look at the witness of Scripture and see how our spiritual journey is mapped out for us from the very beginning. Starting with the intention of God (pre-biblical witness), through the pattern of creation in Genesis, we will see the image of our own spiritual journey. Moving through the scripture to the New Testament, Jesus' words will explode as we become aware of the greater depth of meaning. See you here!
Pseudo Dionysius, Meister Eckart, Margerite Porete, Maximus the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, Hadewijch of Antwerp, Julian of Norwich, Hugh of St Victor, Hildegard of Bingen, Beatrice of Nazareth, Gregory Palamas, Macarius of Egypt …
There are so many more names I could list; a few you may know, most you would not. These, and the many more, are regarded as Christian Mystics.
Christian Mysticism is a little-spoken-of and highly misunderstood path of spiritual enlightenment. It is a mode or experience more than an intellectual endeavor, though the mind is obviously called upon to grasp and understand the experience of God. Christian Mysticism is concerned with the direct experience of God and the transformative presence of Divine love. It is a way of encountering God outside of the “normal” methods of devotion. It is something we experience more than something we learn and is expressed in terms such as union, unknowing, way-less-ness, Theoria, uncreated, phronema, hesychast, and theosis. It is focused on union with God and the cultivation of a deeper awareness of God’s presence in and through everything especially prayer, meditation, contemplation, reflection, and sometimes visions. Christian mysticism has a long and rich history, spanning from the early Church Fathers and Mothers to modern times.
In my last series, Reflection, Contemplation, and Prayer: A Triad of Spiritual Awareness, I spoke about methods of devotion; that is, ways (methods) by which we can ascend. I say ascension in the sense that, through certain methods we can learn the habit of encountering God and, from that place of encountering, ascend. It is, in itself, a paradox that the methods require spiritual ascension through which ascension is achieved. Practicing our methods, we move beyond the method itself which is filled with us--our minds and hearts—to an empty place above and beyond filled with God. As I say this, I am aware that this may be the first time many of you have heard this seemingly tangled proposition, but I am hoping to help with that.
For the next several weeks I will open the door to Christian Mysticism. We will only scratch the surface, but even the surface has depth rarely plumed. I pray that you will accompany me on this short journey into a part of Christian devotion and discernment that has the power of divine enlightenment.
Part One: Preparation and Overcoming Fear
This short study already seems more like a riddle than an answer. It is normal that, when faced with a seemingly complex issue or a so called “sophisticated” process, our first reaction is to leave, move on, or check out. We fear that we will be unable to understand what is being said and, not wanting to be proven right, we do not engage. How sad it is that through time brilliant minds and astute observations have gone unknown and unheard by this fear.
Christian Mysticism, though there are strange words and rare combinations of words, is about revelation—divine love. This is an opportunity to stretch our spirit towards God in ways we have never thought of. New words and word uses help us to separate Christian Mysticism from what we already know and do and from other forms of “spirituality” that lead not up, but sideways.
Christian Mysticism is about Jesus. It is about the Father. It is about the Holy Spirit. It is about the depth we seek in prayer now ascended to Divine presence and transformative to our daily life.
“Transformative to our daily life” –that alone is a scary concept! We are mostly comfortable with who we are—more so as we get older and seek simpler forms of life. We all take pride in our strengths, our ability to manage or lead or create or whatever. To be told that this will be transformative to our daily life is in a way threatening to who we know ourselves to be.
So, the first thing to do is to deny that perspective and the stagnation it produces. God is calling you into a deeper ascendance (more on that later) that will empower and revitalize you. You can’t be threatened that you’ll be revealed as less than you are, or you’ll be overcome by complexity. You can’t be threatened because it is Jesus who walks with you and the Holy Spirit who comforts as the Father calls out to you. God will not let you fall or falter when the entirety of your effort is to lay in his arms. In God’s arms there is no place for excuses or fear; in God’s arms there is only love.
Prayer of Readiness
In your prayers, ask God to set you free. Ask God to open your mind to God’s self in new and exciting ways. Ask God to be made known to you in the “in-between moments,” your gentle pauses and the rhythm of your breath. In your prayers, look with your mind’s eye for the likeness of Jesus as you ask the Father for revelation. Now, feel. There is no fear or trepidation, only love and possibility.
Next week, we begin.
Father Bill Burk†