Christian Mysticism: Session 6
The Way of Knowing God in the Darkness
“Next week, we will review the steps thus far, answer a few questions I have received, and peer into a different kind of darkness.”
Steps? What steps?
We live a linear life, placing one foot in front of the other. Our sense of the world is based on time, and time is relentlessly predictable. It is no wonder we are so often at odds with ourselves; our time is disrupted. Our time -- what a strange thing to say and a sadder thing to live.
Still, we must call it something, as we are linear, but we do not have to be oppressed by it. When we claim ownership of time, even as a turn of phrase, we corrupt our understanding of God’s presence and our enlightenment. God honors us by acting in the time that God owns. God calls us in God’s time out of time, to live in God’s presence.
There are methods and ways of relinquishing ourselves to God in time (OK, let’s call them steps), but the end of our pursuit must be reflected in the journey. God honors us by freeing us from time. Our awareness of God—God’s gift of God’s self, becomes a timeless reality in time.
Q: “Is Christian Mysticism all about personal experience?”
A: As with everything we do, experience is involved. The experience of the mystic is a spiritual closeness to God that transcends what we would call typical. From the study of Scripture through the prayer process, an ever-increasing awareness of God becomes normal. God is no longer “out there” or “sometimes;” God is present in everything always. This is not because God is actually in everything (that would be panentheism), but because the mystic is now aware of God and recognizes God everywhere.
Q: “Is there a simple method I can follow to become a Christian Mystic?”
A: There are many methods through which you can grow in spiritual depth and awareness. The starting point of every method is simple prayer. From there you can follow any one of many spiritual masters who outline prayer practices you can use. That is as simple as it gets, but that is only speaking about what you DO, not how you live within the doing.
Outside of the self (spiritual self), you can follow a method that will aid you by focusing your attention through structure and repetition. The method is intended to become a habit of devotion and an intimate space of peace and harmony with God. Achieving peace and harmony is no small task, however, and requires an act of will beyond simple practice.
The real work must/needs to take place within you. If you persevere through the struggle with your own thoughts and feelings, God will make God’s-self known to you. It is not your will that makes this happen, but thy will be done. While this sounds simple, in truth it is not (except the method part). There are many stages within the methods, within you, that must be dealt with.
Q: “How will I know I am doing it right?”
A: It boils down to the “doing it right” part has nothing to do with method or practice or habit. “Doing it right” rests in your willingness to relinquish yourself to God. When you can enter into prayer with an open heart, mind, and spirit, humbly placing yourself before God, you will no longer ask this question.
Q: “How long will it take?”
A: I suppose at this point I must make sure you understand what “it” is. If you are thinking “it” is a mystical union with God, I would have to ask you what you think that means. If by “it” you mean simply knowing that you are changing and moving toward God in a qualitative way, then I can answer: It will take a moment, a lifetime, a whisper, a grain of sand, a kiss, a book; it will take the amount of time it takes the light to reach your eye and the waves of the sea to pound the beach. It will take the time it takes for all things to come together and come to an end. It will take God’s time and your time and when time no longer matters it will be that time.
A Different Kind of Darkness
“Not all that glitters is gold” or is it?
There are as many ways of expressing suffering as there are people. Each of us suffers in our own way by attributing special value to different aspects of our lives. Emotional, physical, spiritual--there is no end to the possibilities, to the mixtures of life that we suffer from. Our suffering is often referred to as darkness, as in, “It was a really dark time for me…”
On the mystical path, there is a trial, referred to by St. John of the Cross as the “Dark Night of the Soul.” I will not spend time on that here, as it is much beyond our current measure, but St. John opened the door for us to understand an aspect of our lives that is already a mystical experience.
Darkness, this/that “dark time,” is a place of suffering, long-standing or excruciatingly short, from which we cry to God for release and repose. Unanswered suffering can have the cumulative effect of wearing down our faith. I have often heard, “Why did God let me suffer?” a question most often asked precisely at the time when the answer can’t be heard.
Darkness, in all its forms, is allowed by God because this is the world we live in, the world we make. Even people of faith go through the darkness, the suffering times of life feeling alone and distant from God. In fact, that feeling is a second darkness, and too tragically often, the most devastating one.
We enter the darkness and God allows it, so God can find us. Suffering is a crucible that burns away the shallow and transitory of our lives, but it is also a gift through which we find and are found.
Saint Faustina of the Divine Mercy Devotion, wrote in her diary of suffering:
“Oh, if only the suffering soul knew how it is loved by God, it would die of joy and excess of happiness! Someday, we will know the value of suffering, but then we will no longer be able to suffer. The present moment is ours” (963).
The experience of God we seek, and find too hard to receive, is already present to us in our suffering. This “Dark Night” of distance from God is, in reality, where we can be filled and healed. If you hold onto the suffering, past or present, as your burden to carry, you always will. You must embrace the suffering, and peer through darkness to the light that shines within; Jesus is there.
In response, to Saint Faustina, the Lord spoke and said, “My daughter, suffering will be a sign to you that I am with you” (669).
Embracing the darkness,
Father Bill Burk†