In this feature of the Conversations journal, several articles are selected for use as a small group resource. We provide you with a summary and discussion questions with the hope that each issue of Conversations may morph into a thematic resource for spiritual formation groups.
01. Our Mystical Heart
Edwards speaks to us in this article about a “knowing” that is beyond rational thought. The mind acts as interpreter and categorizer but is not sufficient to put us in touch with the knowing that we can experience in the mystical dimension.
Rational thought does not allow us entrée into experiencing God in a participative, heartfelt way. Edwards talks, rather, about an intuitive spiritual awareness, “which is our open presence to reality in the larger gracious Presence.” We are asked to listen with our minds in our hearts, and allow faith to bring us innocent trust.
Contemplative exercises are meant to draw us to this quality of direct, open presence as we become more able to surrender whatever is standing between ourselves and God. Even an image of self can be a barrier because ultimately it is how God sees me, not how I see myself, that is the truth of who I am. What happens in the spiritual heart is always more than the mind can fully grasp, even though the mind can partially translate the experience in beneficial ways.
As one matures in interior mystical awareness, there comes a sense of vibrant intimacy with a radiant Love that is the ground of all reality and that pulls us outward to shape the world by forming spiritual communities, creating services for the needy, and pursuing social reform and justice. This happens in people when they find their true identity deeply rooted in the experience of God’s presence and not in self-oriented ego. Such intuitive, mystical knowing keeps us expansive and free, and does not limit us to exclusionary, rigid ways of perceiving reality so characteristic of logical interpretation. Our minds are meant to share the Mind of Christ, and that means to share the origin from which Jesus’ words and acts came: his open, spiritual-hearted awareness in God.
- When was a time when you were aware of listening with your mind in your heart?
- Identify some different ways of knowing. What does knowing something intuitively mean for you?
- Can you describe a time in your own life when this occurred for you?
- What kinds of things might you need to surrender in order to be more open to an experiential relationship with God?
02. Mysticism: Peril or Promise?
Demarest talks about a “soft” mysticism that is different from occult forms that seek transcendent insights and use mind-altering substances. It is also different from “hard” mysticism, which alleges the merging of human nature with the Absolute, resulting in a lack of individuality or selfhood. Rather, “soft” mysticism, as defined in this article, is “the believer’s experience of intimate, relational union with Jesus Christ, which involves no loss of individuality or selfhood.”
Demarest cites John Michael Talbot, who defines mysticism this way:
A mystic is an ordinary person blessed by an extraordinary experience of God that transforms life in amazing ways. A mystic is someone who believes that there are realities to life that are beyond what can be perceived by our rational minds or described in words.
And then Demarest shows biblical examples from the prophets, OT characters, Jesus, Paul, and Peter that point to very mystical life-changing experiences. For instance, Peter writes that we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4, NASBScripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (www.lockman.org)), meaning that through union with Christ, believers mystically share in God’s grace and holiness without being absorbed into his essence.
Soft mysticism has been heartily approved by leading Christian authorities down through history. From Augustine to Francis of Assisi, from John Calvin to Evelyn Underhill, and from Teresa of Avila to Henri Nouwen, we have a rich mystical history that speaks of an intimacy with Jesus that is profoundly transformational and deeply relational. However, these experiences cannot be fully captured by words. They are too “other” than us, even though the mind is helpful in articulating what it can. Soft mysticism does not pull us out of the world but rather calls for an integration of intellect, affections, relationships, and service, recognizing that such experiences and the fruit of these experiences lie at the very heart of New Testament theology and life.
Continued spiritual practices help us to experience more fully our union with Jesus as we surrender our life to him in biblical meditation, prayer, fasting, contemplation, etc. The fruit of the Spirit alive in one’s life is the true test of one’s authentic mystical experience of Jesus.
- What is important about not having our selfhood or individuality absorbed into God? How does Jesus as incarnate God (God become flesh) demonstrate his desire for our individuality to continue, as we “put on” Christ?
- Why might maintaining selfhood be important in fostering a relationship with God?
- Have you ever had the experience of knowing someone who claimed to have mystical experiences but did not demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit?
- Why must these types of experiences go hand in hand with the fruit of the Spirit alive in one’s life?
03. Reading the Mystics as Spiritual Formation
In her article, Parkinson-Webb defines mystic as anyone who experiences God. Mysticism is a part of our Christian tradition that we need to reclaim, the teachings of which can give us much insight into the process of spiritual formation. For instance, the mystics teach us the path toward God—ultimately the process of sanctification—through three movements: purgation, illumination, and union. Knowing these three movements can help us better understand the variety of ways we may come to God.
The mystics have much to teach us on prayer and different ways in which we experience and know God. Mysticism also challenges our relationship to our bodies. It explores the connection between our physical-psychological state and our spiritual posture.
Many women mystics speak of deep intimacy with God especially as it has to do with God’s love and passion for all people. “Dark nights” are also a part of the mystics’ writings, and these have been validated and experienced by them in ways that can be a great encouragement to those who are suffering. The mystics teach there is a process to our lives and our spiritual walk. An unforced movement of grace is often a surprise gift from God along the way.
Bridging the gap between the old voices of the ancient mystics, who use imagery and language that we might find difficult to understand, and contemporary life may not always be easy. Yet the substance and challenge that come from the mystics’ deep experience of the presence of God can, in turn, make our doctrine come alive with a new phenomenological awareness of the living God present with us now.
- If you have read any of the writings of the mystics, how have they been helpful for you?
- Why might it be important to reclaim the lessons of the ancient mystics for our day?
- Do you think there is a desire for a more experiential faith on the part of the unchurched in recent times? Why or why not?
- How might our worship services change in churches if we allowed for some of the more experiential, mystical elements to direct our times together?
- Do you think this would be a good or a bad idea? Discuss.
04. C. S. Lewis and “The Region of Awe”
David C. Downing
Although referred to as the “Lord’s logician,” C. S. Lewis, as described by Downing, also had a very mystical side. Lewis spoke of his own conversion as moving him into the “region of awe.” Lewis continues the description of his conversion by depicting God in very mystical terms: “the naked Other, imageless, unknown, undefined, desired.” In his book Miracles, Lewis also states that “the burning and undimensioned depth of the Divine Life is unconditioned and unimaginable, transcending discursive thought.” Downing says these and other statements made by Lewis show that his spiritual intuition was every bit as powerful as the brilliance of his discursive thought.
Lewis said he considered himself to be more of a foothills kind of person, not being called to the higher level—the crags up which mystics “vanish out of sight”—and yet Lewis’s work is full of mystical themes and images, he himself being fascinated by the mystical texts. Lewis distinguished between “believing” a doctrine and “realizing” it, which is a head-to-heart journey, one that involves intellect and imagination. Lewis felt that studying mysticism could help people realize the very doctrines they already affirmed.
Downing explains Lewis’s theology, which, in essence, is the mystical reality of God’s redemption given by the ultimate test of One (Jesus) who would cling to love at all costs. Jesus did not reach out for power and control, the desire for which was always the human failing (that began in Eden), but rather emptied himself and went through torture, humiliation, betrayal, mockery, and even abandonment from God. Love won out. In the coming of the Holy Spirit, we experience vicarious empowerment in order that we, too, might, as Lewis put it, “tread Adam’s dance backward” and not seek power and control, but rather empty ourselves and “be taken up into the life of God” as was Jesus. We are to become “little Christs.”
Lewis’s suggestions for experiencing the region of awe are three. First, act on what you know is true, not on what you feel. Second, there is no syllabus for stages of spiritual growth, and you cannot predict or create hierarchy. Finally, experience of God is only part of God’s work, not the totality of it. The totality of what God is doing is much greater.
- How does Lewis put the spiritual experience of God into a theological context?
- Look at Lewis’s suggestions for experiencing the “region of awe” (last paragraph). Discuss how you can work on each of these three suggestions in your own life.
- Which one might be the hardest for you? The easiest?
- What are some things you can put into practice in order to facilitate growth in your own spiritual life?
05. The Night Watch: Mystical Practice for Everyday Life
Anne Grizzle speaks about the value of keeping a night watch. She was inspired by Basil Pennington’s book Lessons from the Monastery That Touch Your Life, in which Pennington talks about his night watch as the “sweetest time of day.”
Grizzle describes hearkening to the call of the Spirit to practice a night watch and beginning to rise early on Saturday mornings (at 5:00) to wait on God, using the scripture from Psalm 130:6 to frame her time: “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (NIV, 1984Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™).
This time turned her attitude around from “doing to being, from leading to waiting on God.” She speaks of this time as creating a new rhythm for her life as well as a regular Sabbath time of rest that kept her balanced throughout her week. As she would wait, maybe for several hours, a “jewel of an image or idea would rise like a pearl from the bottom of the sea.” These images became poetry that she would write out and also provided inspiration for new ideas, such as a retreat center that is now becoming a reality.
Grizzle points out that just like pregnancy or seed germination, often the most valuable, vibrant things in life begin in the dark and in waiting. As she would watch (outside, bundled up) the night turn into dawn, she also experienced a moment of wondering, “Is the sky black, or is it now blue?” and then would continue to watch as the earth filled with color. The experience of watching this transformation never fails to revitalize “an inner core of hope” within, reminding her that God’s light is more liberating than the worst that darkness can do.
- Do you have a spiritual practice that puts you in touch with God’s rhythm and allows you Sabbath rest?
- Is it easier for you to “do” for God, or “be” for God? Why do you think this is so?
- Do you have an experience that illustrates the truth of Grizzle’s comment that often the most vibrant, precious things in life begin in the dark and in waiting? If so, share these experiences.
- Would you consider practicing a night watch? Why or why not?
06. Interview with John Michael Talbot
Gary W. Moon
In this interview, Gary W. Moon speaks with Talbot about his conversion and his lived experience of this. Talbot describes seeing a “Christ figure” after searching the major world religions and asking God if “He, She, or It” existed. This Christ figure personalized Christianity for him, the essential revelation being that Christ loved him. Talbot describes the experience as “overwhelming” and then speaks more specifically about his music as conveying this mystery of God to others.
“When touched by God’s Spirit,” says Talbot, “earthly music acts as audio icons, which are called windows to heaven.” Because music is a form that points beyond itself to an invisible reality, Talbot sees music as sacramental. This links to Talbot’s book The Way of the Mystics: Ancient Wisdom for Experiencing God Today, in which Talbot talks about rationality as not being the source of religion; rather, religion is born of experience and most often cannot be dissected or measured out scientifically.
At the same time, Talbot does not champion “touchy-feely” spirituality. True experience of God is lived out in a life of loving sacrifice in which we are brought somewhere better and continue step by step in the process of sanctification. For those who distrust mysticism, Talbot reminds us that mysticism simply means “mystery” and that “if love is the heart of our faith, then faith must include mystery.” The experience of the mystery of living day by day having “Christ in us” (see Colossians 1:26–27) has been lost by many of the evangelical movements. The fact is that once you enter into the gift of Jesus and the Church, you become a “mystic” whether you like it or not, since love can be only partly, never fully, explained, and this in itself is mystery.
Talbot says that to practice mystical awareness on a daily basis, we need to pray and work. Prayer that is meditative and still puts us in a place beyond words where we can sharpen our spiritual intuition. After prayer, you go back into the world to work, and because you have been with Jesus in that place of peace, you lead people there without even knowing it. We need both the anchor of the world and the sails of the Spirit to grow into Christlikeness. We must find the sacrament of the present moment, not just the mystical “highs” if our union with Jesus Christ is to bear real fruit in our lives. Talbot ends by saying, “Real mystics are realists. When they are not, they are not real mystics.”
- Have you ever been turned off by the concept of mysticism? Why or why not?
- How does Talbot’s idea of praying and working ground our mystical, intuitive sense of God’s presence in the here and now?
- What is sacramental about this?
- How might the evangelical churches grow in their grasp of mystery?
- How might those seeking ecstatic experiences of God be challenged by working for change in the world?
- Why must “real mystics be realists”?