Conversatio Divina

Part 5 of 16

Confessions of a Badly Dressed Mystic

Larry Crabb

As I join this conversation about mysticism, I think it best to confess, at the outset, a certain awkwardness. Adding my voice to a discussion on this topic generates within me an emotion similar to what I imagine a guest at a formal dinner party might feel if he arrived wearing torn jeans and a badly stained shirt. Other contributors are better equipped than I to describe and draw you into experiences of prayer, meditation, and sacred reading that can satisfy the deep hunger in your soul for communion with God. Integrity requires me to focus more on the hunger than its satisfaction.

I know something—only a little—of the delights of communion with God that overwhelms a deeply felt emptiness with an inflowing tide of divine love. I know quite a lot, however, about a desperate hunger for God that keeps me persevering in the hope of knowing him better, and I know about being sustained by that hope.

And I know something—more than I wish—of the powerful forces within me that oppose my pursuit of God every step of the way. And I know far more than I wish of the inner darkness I’ve come to believe must be entered to discover our primal longing for God. That darkness, as I now understand and experience it, is the loss of hope that anything in this world can satisfy the desire in my center that I cannot fully numb. But it is a good darkness, a darkness that centers us in God, the only source of real joy and, by so doing, releases us into the secondary joy of revealing his character in the way we relate, and into the double tertiary joy of hotly pursuing truth and enjoying every legitimate pleasure that God provides along the way, including simple things like a good cup of coffee.

It was Kierkegaard who observed that when a variety of wells present themselves to a thirsty man, no one well is passionately pursued. But let every well but one be exposed as dry or at best leaky, and the one with water, no matter how inaccessible it may seem, will be fervently sought.Charles E. Moore, ed. Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 381.

So, I make no pretense of presenting myself as a well-dressed mystic who can wisely engage in confident conversation about the abiding experience of communion with God. Such people do exist, and I wish I were among them. If you choose to read on, know that you’re listening to a confessing badly dressed mystic who, although he is wearing the perfectly tailored tuxedo of Christ’s righteousness (I am a Christian), enters this discussion feeling more like a misfit in torn jeans and stained shirt. One more opening caveat: Better-dressed contributors can offer more thoughts and testimony than I about the delights of entering the mystical regions of spiritual experience. I can offer only what you might expect from one so poorly outfitted, a short series of rambling, loosely connected reflections. With that, I will now proceed.


01.  Reflection #1: Union is established by the cross. Communion develops in the dark.

In his classic Communion with God, which every aspiring mystic should read, John Owen distinguishes between union with God and communion with God.I recommend an edited version: Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor, Communion with the Triune God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 21–22. Union, he teaches, is the right relationship, secured by the atonement of Christ, between a sinful person and a holy God. It is a right relationship secured at conversion and lasting forever. Communion is the slowly growing enjoyment of that relationship, never a complete enjoyment in this world, but never less than complete—and somehow always expanding—enjoyment in the next.

Present communion, however, may have more to do with the pain of thirst than the enjoyment of gratification. It may be that hope of satisfied desire has more to do with joy on this side of the great divide than the experience of satisfaction. If I read Surprised by Joy correctly, I think C. S. Lewis might say something similar. I’m quite certain Mother Teresa would.

Many of you, no doubt, have read the book released in September 2007 that exploded like a bombshell in our spiritually narcissistic world, where experienced joy is viewed as a Christian’s right. The “private writings of the Saint of Calcutta” were made public for the first time in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (New York: Doubleday, 2007). If any follower of Jesus deserved a love-engulfing mystical experience of Christ to sustain her soul in a life of radically sacrificial service for Christ, it was Mother Teresa.

But listen. In 1985, during a spiritual retreat designed to draw her soul nearer God, she confided in a priest about “the excruciating night in her soul.” She went on to speak about the night in these words: “When I open my mouth to speak to the sisters and to people about God and God’s work, it brings light, joy, and courage. But I get nothing of it. Inside it is all dark and feeling that I am totally cut off from God.”Kolodiejchuk, 306.

Was Mother Teresa a failed mystic? Or did her darkness reveal an intensity of desire for God, felt perhaps by only a few, that requires us to admit persevering desire into the realm of mysticism?

On another occasion, after Mother Teresa discussed “spiritual aridity” with her spiritual director, another nun, who overheard the conversation, remarked, “Mother must have great consolation from God to support her mission to the poorest of the poor.”Kolodiejchuk, 307. Mother Teresa passed a note to her spiritual director as she entered the chapel to pray. The note read, “Dear Father, pray for me. Where is Jesus?”Kolodiejchuk, 307.

The thing to understand is this: it was in her experience of distance, not communion, that her yearning for communion became communion itself. On another occasion, as she prepared for a spiritual retreat, she wrote to her archbishop:

Please pray for me, that it may please God to lift this darkness from my soul for only a few days. For sometimes the agony of desolation is so great and at the same time the longing for the Absent One so deep, that the only prayer I can still say is . . . Jesus, I trust in Thee—I will satiate Thy thirst for souls [emphasis added].Kolodiejchuk, 165.

Is there a deeper level of communion than this? In one of the letters from Screwtape, a senior demon of hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior demon, he wrote,

The prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him [God] best. . . . Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1961), 39.

We sometimes feel forsaken. We always are accepted and loved. That’s union. In the darkness, when we feel forsaken, we discover our desperate thirst for God, our consuming desire to know him, to experience him, to enjoy him. And concentrating on that desire, even as the experience of his absence deepens, is one form of communion, perhaps the one most pleasing to God.

02.  Reflection #2: Reason and imagination have equal value in mysticism.

In a recent survey of its readers, Christianity Today reported that the Christian writer who has had the most impact on the lives of serious Christians was C. S. Lewis. J. I. Packer came in second. Both Lewis and Packer agree that any true experience of God, mediated often by imagination, is consistent with and grounded in a true knowledge of God, a knowledge that is reasonable. Reason and imagination are equally necessary ingredients in God-ordained, Christ-provided, Spirit-directed mysticism.

Good theology interfaces with good mysticism as marital commitment supports and makes possible a growing depth in marital pleasure. Packer strongly suggests that at least three theological perspectives—each one apprehensible, though not experienceable, by reason—must be in place for true spirituality to develop.Alister McGrath, ed. The J .I. Packer Collection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 233–237. First, thoroughgoing theocentricity: The aim of true mysticism is not to experience God; it is to glorify God. And, as John Piper reminds us, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. But note, our satisfaction is not the end; it is, rather, a grace-supplied means to the ultimate end of God’s glory, that is, His pleasure in us. Lewis speaks of the high privilege of being an “ingredient in the divine happiness.”C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory.” The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperOne, 1949), 40.

Second, thoroughgoing trinitarianism: True mystical experience consists in nothing less than literal participation in the eternally ongoing perichoretic life of the divine community. As Packer wrote, “The essence of the Christian life is involvement in the relational life of the triune God.”The J .I. Packer Collection, 234. As participants in the divine nature, which Jonathan Edwards suggests is self-communicating love, our truest experience of God is made real in giving to others what we receive from him.

Third, thoroughgoing two-worldliness: There is life now in this world, and there is life later and forever in the world now unseen. Perhaps Lewis’s central theme in all his writing was revealed in the fanciful map of the world—Mappa Mundi—that appears in his first Christian book, The Pilgrim’s Regress. Packer thinks so. Lewis himself stated that the map is “the Holy war as I see it,”Quoted in the J. I. Packer Collection, 234. the war going on now that will carry the victors to eternal bliss and those who enlisted in the enemy camp into eternal destruction. With this theological perspective in place, Christian mysticism becomes not the attempt to experience now what can be fully experienced only in the next world, but the desire to experience now what will sustain us in the battle until we rest in the next world forever. Empowerment, not fulfillment, is more the point of mystical experience in this world.

In Lewis’s Mappa Mundi, enemies of experiencing “the life of God in the soul of man” (to quote the title of Henry Scougal’s classicHenry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man. (London: Westminster Press, 1948). Henry Scougal (1650–1678) was a Scottish minister, theologian, and author. The Life of God in the Soul of Man was first published in 1677, one year before his death.) come from both North and South. Northern enemies are rigid systematizers, intellects with no regard for imagination. Southern enemies are “boneless souls whose doors stand open day and night to almost every visitant, but always with the readiest welcome for those . . . who offer some sort of intoxication. . . . Every feeling is justified by the mere fact that it is felt: for a Northerner, every feeling on the same ground is suspect.”The J. I. Packer Collection, 276. Imagination without reason is a danger equal to reason without imagination. Good theology and true mysticism are partners in a common cause, not enemies.

03.  Reflection #3: Cosmetic transcendence is no substitute for curative transcendence.

When Packer first left England and became familiar with American Christianity, he described it in the now famous line as a mile wide and an inch deep. When an experience of God is pursued more vigorously than the truth of God, the result is spurious experience, a feeling of transcendence that Buddhism can produce as powerfully as Christianity.

The difference, however, is this: transcendent experience not dependent on transcendent truth is cosmetic, not curative. Our disease, inherited from Eden, is, in Packer’s words, “a lust after self-sufficient knowledge, a craving to shake off all external authority and work things out” for ourselves.The J. I. Packer Collection, 31. It is that disease which a true experience of God most directly heals. Any experience—no matter how stirring or apparently God-related—that fails to release us a little bit more from the bonds of self-sufficiency, fails to reach beneath our deepest and most painful wounds and expose our resolve to relieve our pain at any cost to others, and fails to supply power to please God and advance His kingdom at any cost to ourselves is counterfeit.

Well, now I stand exposed in my torn jeans and stained shirt. I have not spoken of the delights of a mystical encounter with God. I believe they exist and, in measure, are available now. I have tasted them.

But I live more with the awareness of desire discovered in darkness (Reflection #1), of the need for defensibly reasonable theology to launch legitimately imaginative experience (Reflection #2), and of a concern that our mystical experiences of God displace rather than cover over our natural inclination toward self-centeredness (Reflection #3).

If I discover better clothes in my closet, I’ll put them on and write a better article.


About the Author

Larry Crabb is a psychologist, author, spiritual director, and founder of NewWay Ministries. He currently serves as distinguished scholar in residence at Colorado Christian University and spiritual director for the American Association of Christian Counselors. Among his more than twenty books are Inside Out, Shattered Dreams, The Pressure’s Off, Soul Talk, and The PAPA Prayer.