I was surprised when I learned that I might be an ordinary mystic. I didn’t know mystics could be ordinary. I thought mystics were otherworldly people who probably lived in the desert. My imaginary mystics were extraordinary people who had given up all material pleasures. Since I like indoor plumbing and other creature comforts, I assumed that mysticism was beyond my reach. But I have learned that mystics can indeed be ordinary. Author and retreat leader Emilie Griffin writes, “I believe that we are meeting mystics every day, but we do not recognize them.” She describes “a mysticism of ordinary living,” where “the ordinary routine of daily life becomes the texture of contemplation for the devoted Christian.”Emilie Griffin, Wonderful and Dark Is This Road: Discovering the Mystic Path (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004), 25.
The possibility that I might be a mystic intrigues me. In this issue of Conversations, Bruce Demarest quotes John Michael Talbot: “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.” C. S. Lewis described mysticism as “direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color.” Tilden Edwards said that mysticism is a spiritual awareness that “appears in the spaciousness before and between our thoughts, spaces we are not usually conditioned to value.” Whether I am a mystic or not, I want to pay attention to those spaces and to experience the reality of God’s presence in my life. I have had a taste of that, and I would like more.
But I must admit that I stand in awe at the edge of mystical awareness. Mysticism includes a self-surrender that will be a lifelong challenge for me. David Downing reminds us of Jesus’ ultimate surrender of divine power and knowledge, starting with the temptations in the wilderness and culminating at the cross. God calls upon me to surrender my desires to win approval, to fix other people’s problems, and to be in control of my own life. It is a mystery to me how I can let go of these desires. But if it is true, as these authors say, that mystery is at the heart of mysticism, then perhaps I can learn to live with the mystery of self-surrender, the mystery of my own journey to God, and the mystery of God’s transformation of human beings.
One of my favorite “mystics” is the lovely goldfinch at my bird feeder. Male goldfinches are bright yellow most of the year. But in the winter, they lose their color and become a very ordinary brown. Each spring I can see a gradual, almost imperceptible change as the birds that come to my feeder turn from brown to yellow. My soul is like that. Sometimes, even for months at a time, my soul seems to be an ordinary brown. But other times, without my knowledge or my action, my soul becomes bright and vivid in its awareness of the presence and activity of God. I cannot, as Edwards says, “think” myself into this change: “What is happening in us and what we realize in the spiritual heart are always more than the mind can ever fully grasp.”
This is good news for me. This means I do not need to understand. I do not need to be in control. Mysticism invites me to let go: to let go of the things I do to gain God’s love, to let go of my need to know the whole truth, to let go of taking myself so seriously. When I let go of my own grip on life, I find that God is already at work, changing me, as it were, from ordinary brown to extraordinary, bright, vivid yellow.
This is what mysticism is all about. The most important thing is not whether we can explain it, but that we truly experience God’s presence in our lives, that we are being transformed by God’s grace, and that we are loving one another with God’s love. Mysticism, after all, is not about deserts and creature comforts so much as it is about living in God’s love. Perhaps I am a mystic after all.