Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 16

Mystical Transformation of Heart and Mind

Peter N. Borys, Jr. & David G. Benner

Peter N. Borys, Jr., in Conversation with David G. Benner

In his 2006 book by Paulist Press, Transforming Heart and Mind: Learning from the Mystics, Peter N. Borys, Jr., shows that he is not afraid of tackling an ambitious project. He sets as his goal the synthesis of the most important insights from the history of Christian mysticism and the integration of this with Roman Catholic theology and select aspects of modern psychology. What he accomplishes is impressive and definitely of value for us in this issue as we seek to mine the riches of our Christian mystical heritage.

The book draws principally on the mystical theology of such classical mystics as Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, but also makes excellent use of contemporary voices such as Gabriel Marcel, Bernard Lonergan, and Edith Stein. Thankfully, Borys doesn’t simply offer us a summary of these and other authors. Rather, he chooses the more difficult but valuable task of providing a synthesis. The result necessarily reflects his own journey, and for this reason, I immediately knew that I wanted to interview him, not just review the book. Noting on the book jacket that he was trained as an attorney and is a member of the New York State Bar caught my attention and made me wonder how a lawyer found his way into writing on mystical transformation. That seemed a good place to begin when I was finally able to track him down.

David:      Peter, first let me thank you for the book and for your willingness to interact with me around it. But the place I want to start is not with the book but with you. I am interested in hearing a bit about your own spiritual journey. You refer to the seeds planted by the Holy Spirit at your baptism leading at age thirty-three to an awakening and deeper conversion. Tell me a bit more about what was happening to and in you at this point.

Peter:     At the time that I began to consciously awaken to God’s grace, I was working with my parents in a paper distribution company that we had formed. This was a period of both great fulfillment and great pain, and in the midst of this, God offered grace to embark on a new direction for my life. The stress awakened me to the unresolved wounds of my false self, particularly as these appeared in my family relationships. This was a great gift to me—even greater because both my mother and father also experienced their own awakening at this time. This was the beginning of my conscious journey of transformation in Christ and my awareness that the path to the true self lay in union with God.

David:     How did this lead to your engagement with the mystics?

Peter:     I was led to the mystics through my search for healing and self-development. My conversion awakened me to a need to better understand the meaning of my life. This quest for wisdom and understanding led me to the study of psychology, philosophy, anthropology, religion, theology, and mysticism. The mystics led me to meditation, and through this, God drew me to a new understanding of my faith. In the spring of 1998, I discovered the works of Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, and as a result of this, I was led to do a retreat at the Cistercian Abbey of the Genesee. Over the next few years, I visited the Abbey often. It played an important role in the early stages of my spiritual awakening. The more I became exposed to the writings of the mystics, the clearer it became that mystical transformation is the development of the true self that I was seeking.

David:     You also have an obvious appreciation for the contributions of psychology to the understanding of and journey of Christian spiritual transformation. Where did this appreciation come from? I have to suspect that it wasn’t law school!

Peter:     You are quite right! The roots of my interest in psychology lie in my awakening and deeper conversion to faith. Initially, this led me on a search of psychology—particularly psychodynamic, existential, phenomenological, and family systems theory. The knowledge I gained from this study helped me understand both my wounds and the intergenerational transmission of unhealed traumas from prior generations.

David:     Early in the book, you make what I think is a tremendously important distinction between mystical experience and mystical transformation. Your focus is on the latter, and your definition of Christian mysticism reflects this. You define Christian mysticism as “the participation in the transformation of the Christian mystery through the loving knowledge of God in the presence of a personal encounter.” This emphasis on the transformation of the self, not the experience of paranormal or ecstatic phenomena, is, I think, a very helpful way to make the insights of the mystics relevant to all Christians.

Peter:     A great deal of my work is focused on helping people understand that mysticism is the normal progression of the life of grace, redemption, and transformation to our true self in Christ. Hence, the mystics are not only relevant to all Christians; their message forms the essence of God’s gift to us in Jesus. Unfortunately, this rich and broad understanding of mysticism is easily lost, the word often being understood to refer to the experience of something esoteric—a special charism, ecstatic raptures, or even parapsychological phenomena. Most often when we are graced with a mystical experience, we receive an abiding sense of peace, joy, and love that we immediately know is beyond our ordinary capacity of human happiness. But these experiences should not be confused with the essence of Christian mysticism, which is transformation to the true self in God. The periodic gifts of mystical experience give us a glimpse of our underlying truth and show us where God is ultimately leading us. The gift of transformation is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. Mystical transformation of the true self is a gift for all. It is a unification of our being in incomprehensible light and glory. It is beyond intellect, reason, and the senses. It is life in the Spirit—lived within the heart, mind, and body. We become the fullness of the image of God and live love and creativity in the world.

David:     You argue that all baptized Christians are called to enter the transformative journey of Christian spirituality. But you then qualify this by reminding us, as do the mystics themselves, that not all Christians are called by God to become what you describe as “the full actualized potential of a contemplative or mystic.” Say a little more about what you feel should be the hope of all Christians in terms of the progress toward mystical knowing of and union with God.

Peter:     I am glad you call attention to this delicate question of discerning God’s will for us to become mystics. I think this issue represents both a historical difficulty and a contemporary confusion within Christianity. I understand Christ’s grace of transformation to be central to the gospel, which is love. Jesus gave us a new commandment to love one another as He has loved us. In order for us to fully love in this way, we must be healed and transformed to a new being in Christ. The journey of healing and transformation to the true self in God is for all Christians. But not all Christians may be specifically graced to reach the fullness of the mystic self in our current human condition. Ultimately, any progress in transformation depends on the grace of God. I believe it would be a mistake to judge someone on whether he or she reached the highest levels of transformation in this earthly lifetime. Even though full transformation is God’s gift in Jesus, as humans we are still deeply intertwined with the force of evil. Thus, not all persons are yet capable of overcoming the extent of our woundedness to receive the grace of complete mystical union in God. With this in mind, our priority is to exhibit love, compassion, and mercy to the best of our ability. What is most important is that we are on the pathway of the narrow road that leads to life.

David:     I was stuck by the central role you give psychological wounds and their healing in the mystical transformational journey.

Peter:      I often get comments about my heavy emphasis on psychological wounds, trauma, and the overall process of psychological development as it relates to our mystical transformation. While transformation is for everyone, very few open themselves to the grace to receive their gifts in Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that the narrow path to life is hard, and few find it. The question is, therefore, what we can do to enable more people to move beyond the negative inertia of our fallen human condition and open themselves to transformation. In the eighteenth century, Blaise Pascal felt that the modern mind has great difficulty in overcoming the conditioning of our wounds and the intellect’s self-reliance on its own capabilities to solve the problem. He felt that we needed a preliminary healing or purification of the heart in order to fully know and embrace the truth. St. Paul presented this problem when questioning why we do not do the thing we want, but do the very thing we hate (see Romans 7:7–25). Healing psychological wounds is important as a way to help break through the inertia that keeps us stuck in the wound of sin. Such healing helps us desire, intend, be drawn, understand, and be open to the gift of grace to receive the breadth, length, height, and depth of mystical transformation.

David:     I also note that you make generous use of the concept of the false and true selves in describing spiritual transformation. Let’s start with the first of these. Where does the false self come from, and what are your thoughts about its role in the journey?

Peter:     The false self is an identity that develops from coming into a world that is under the influence of the father of lies. We develop our false identity from attaching to the lie that there is something lacking in our self that is created in the image of God. The psychological wounds we receive in our childhood become anchors for the compensatory nature of the false self. Thus, the false self exhibits pride, envy, anger, greed, sloth, lust, self-centered striving, and all the other marks of bondage. These all emanate from the mistaken belief that we begin from a position of deficiency. This lie, which is the nature of evil, drives all the various manifestations of the false self through fear, the search for approval, and the attempt to gain power and control. No one escapes the development of a false self. In attempting to defend the integrity of the self, we all adapt to evil with falsity. However, through grace, we are responsible for opening ourselves to the healing and transformation of the false self to the true self in Christ.

David:     You describe the true self as the place where God abides within. Would it be fair, therefore, to describe the actualization of this true self as the goal of the transformative journey?

Peter:     Yes, the actualization of the true self is the destiny of the journey of spiritual transformation. I believe the true self is the goal of mystical transformation. This includes union with God, adoption as children of God, participation in the divine nature, oneness with the Father and Son in the Spirit, and deification or theosis. The true self is our authentic identity as created in the image and likeness of God. It is our whole being in body, soul, and spirit that is a unity of self-esteem and humility. The true self is the fullness of wisdom, love, and creativity. In our spiritual journey, through the grace of Christ and the Spirit, the wounds that have established our false self are healed so as to transform us to the true self in God.

David:     Let’s talk for a bit about the notion of stages of the spiritual journey. As you note in the book, such staging of the journey has a long and venerable tradition in mystical spirituality—three stages being quite common, and the labeling of Pseudo-Dionysius of purgation, illumination, and union holding a particularly prized place since the sixth century. In the book, you do a nice job of reviewing these stages and discussing the dark night transitions between them described by John of the Cross. My question is whether you see any problems with this sort of division of the transformational journey into stages.

Peter:     Dividing the journey into stages becomes a problem only when we try to fit our journey into them from the perspective of our rational mind. The movement of God’s grace and infinite wisdom of how God heals us and transforms us to union far surpasses our capabilities to conceptualize in a series of stages. The longer we are on the journey, the greater appreciation we gain for the fact that we can never identify our progress in terms of an established map. God leads each of us along the pathway in unique and mysterious ways that our linear conceptualizations can never quite grasp. However, I do find that the overall threefold dynamic seems to reflect my own journey and that of others. But again, it appears as more of a steady evolution rather than clear-cut stages. Knowledge of the stages may be especially important for beginners to gain some context for the transformative journey.

David:     I appreciated your reference to St. Bonaventure’s emphasis on the role of the knowing of self in the knowing of God. This is, of course, a theme also found in Augustine, Teresa of Avila, John Calvin, and many others. But I also appreciated your observation that there is a corresponding danger in becoming overly preoccupied with our inner psychological states. What’s the balance here?

Peter:     Yes, knowing self is always part of knowing God. As persons made in the image of God, we only truly find God within the center of our heart. Here, God’s abiding presence opens us to God’s infinite transcendence. However, opening the heart is a challenging journey when we face mind and our emotions. The mind’s incessant chatter often presents us distorting and distracting thoughts that trigger negative emotions at either the conscious or the unconscious level. While acknowledging the consistent effort we must undertake to observe our thinking, emotions, and feelings as part of the self-knowledge that will open us to the grace of healing, the danger is that we will narrow our focus to the mind and our emotions. Paul Tournier reminds us that human effort alone cannot solve these problems. Only the gift of faith through God’s grace heals. Therefore, as we use our knowledge of inner psychological states and our ability to observe these, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to untangle our own minds. This can lead to self-preoccupation instead of self-giving love of others. We must always use our psychological insight to bring our wounds out into the light of grace. God is beyond the psychological content of our mental and emotional processes. We are seeking to unite with God through the grace of Christ and the Spirit within our heart. It is important not to become so fixated on our own transformation that we lose sight of its overall purpose. That purpose is to love others and to be open to the exchange of mutually self-giving love. While we are pursuing this, it is vitally important that we keep our attention on Jesus and our destiny as relational beings of love.

David:      If you had to distil your book down to a couple of sentences, what would you say is the single most important gift you have received from the mystics?

Peter:     The most important gift I have received from the mystics is the understanding that the journey is meant to be a normative path for all Christians in everyday life. This is a central message of the gospel. Mystical transformation to our true self in God is our fullest self-development. It is in God that our heart finds rest, the creative mission of our being, and love.

David:     You describe the transformational journey as one that is made in the midst of uncertainty and that is, ultimately, a journey of faith. This reminds me of the famous prayer of Thomas Merton in which he tells God that he has no idea where he is going, nor does he really know himself, nor does he trust his desires, but the one thing he believes is that his desire to please God does in fact please God. Because of this, he says he will always trust God, even though it seems he is lost and in the shadow of death. Such uncertainty about our journey—which we all face, even if few of us are willing to be as honest as Merton in naming it—means that apart from faith and the assurance of God’s love, we would be frozen in fear. I appreciate, therefore, that you ended the book with a reminder of the importance of faith and love in making the journey. Perhaps we could end this discussion in the same way. Any comments?

Peter:     You are spot on in recognizing that separated from a trust in God’s love, an honest and undefended vision of the uncertain contingencies of our condition results in overwhelming fear. Only by faith in God’s love can we face the uncertainty of the mystery of life. Merton’s prayer also reminds me of St. Paul’s confidence that we walk by faith and not by sight. Although we cannot see with our senses and rational mind the road that we are on in Christ, we can see the way within our heart. Ultimately, all we can do is follow the Spirit within our heart as the prophet Jeremiah foretold. When we open to this way of faith in God’s transforming love, we come to know the peace that surpasses all understanding and guards our hearts and minds in Jesus. Here, revealed by the Spirit, we find God, our true self, and the fullness of life, which is love.


About the Author

David G. Benner, Ph.D., C.Psych. is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at Psycholigical Studies Institute in Atlanta. He is a contemplative prayer novice who seeks to live his life with trusting openness to God while helping others do the same. He and his wife live on Vancouver Island in Canada.