Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 16

Our Mystical Heart

Tilden Edwards

From where inside are you reading these words right now? If you are reading from your thinking mind alone, then what you see will be run through the sieve of your mind’s reflective categories and conditioning. What you see will also be affected by the mind’s “ego coating,” its often unconscious way of skewing the words’ meanings to fit its protective desire for the familiar and the securing.

If we want to be in touch with the reality behind the word mystical, this dimension of our minds is not sufficient. We can’t “think” the mystical; its deep reality is “misty,” “mysterious” to the mind. By the thinking mind’s very nature of stepping outside experience in order to “think” about it, the mind is an outsider to the experience. It can point to what we experience, interpret experience in its own conceptual terms, relate it to other interpretations in the historical and contemporary spiritual community, and connect the experience with our personal faith. That is a wonderfully gifted capacity in us. But it is not the same as direct knowing within the experience itself, free of the mind’s translations and ego skewing.

There was a time in my life when I believed differently. I assumed that my mind’s interpretations of spiritual experience in scripture, tradition, and my own life revealed what was “really real.” My thoughts carried the reality of the experience itself. I didn’t think the experience was accessible in any other way. Thus, I put a great deal of weight on trying to capture the experience with my mind’s way of thinking, and valuing the outcome of my thinking as the sole carrier of the experience’s reality and value.

Over time, both from my own experience and through my mentors in the contemplative tradition, I came to see that we have the capacity for “knowing” an experience more directly and fully than is possible through the thinking mind. This knowing is a kind of intuitive awareness that emerges from within the experience itself. That awareness is a different dimension of my mind, a different way of knowing reality, a more immediate, participative way of knowing. To the thinking dimension of our minds, that is a way of unknowing (as in the classic mystical text, The Cloud of UnknowingThe Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the fourteenth century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages.). One way of understanding what authentic mysticism is about is to point to what comes to us in intuitive spiritual awareness, which is our open presence to reality in the larger gracious Presence.

01.  A Way into the Heart’s Awareness

What comes to us in that awareness? I want to invite you to discover at least a hint of an answer by sharing a particular contemplative practice with me, a practice that will allow us to listen with not just our thinking mind, but “with our mind in our heart,” as advocated by the desert mothers and fathers and some of their mystical, contemplative successors ever since.I will be using the terms “contemplative” and “mystical” synonymously here, but their connotations could be seen to differ. For example, “contemplative” could refer more to the whole way of life that is oriented to immediate presence in God, while “mystical” could refer more to the kinds of awareness and experience that occur within that direct presence.

As I’m using the word here, the heart is more than just the seat of our feelings and will. It is also the seat of our intuitive spiritual awareness. This awareness comes through our spiritual heart’s direct participation in reality as it is—just as it is, before our thinking mind begins to interpret it, and before any sense of possessive “self” arises. It appears in the spaciousness before and between our thoughts, spaces we are not usually conditioned to value.

My faith brings innocent trust to this vulnerable heart-presence: trust that I am opening to the radiant Love hidden in reality as it is. That Love brings my open awareness inside itself, sharing whatever it will at a given time. This may involve intimate communion,I am using the term “communion” throughout this article to stand for both “communion with” and “union in” God. In a sense they can never be separated. “Communion” with God emphasizes a subject-subject intimate relationship. “Union” connotes a sense of being more one than two in God. Both carry the same paradox as the Christian triune sense of God’s nature, where we affirm an awareness of God’s oneness, and yet within that oneness there is diversity, a mutually self-emptying love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Mystical tradition on the whole, I think, gives special emphasis to the intimate unity. In doing so, it compensates for what I think is an overly dualistic emphasis in non-mystical Christian tradition: too great a distancing of the divine and human, too little a sense of the divine image in us. The dualistic emphasis, I believe, often has retarded the deepening spiritual journey of many people, which involves a much more intimate sense of identity in God. wisdom, purging dryness, or any number of other impressions. My heart’s awareness is “inside” whatever is given. It’s part of what is happening. For example, it’s part of the love that shows itself, it reflects that love, and it “knows” that love from the inside.

Perhaps a toddler’s way of purely looking at something is a helpful analogy here. The toddler looks without a sense of self and without a label for what is seen. There is then nothing between the child and what is seen. The toddler is free to be “inside” what is seen, “knowing” it from the inside. I’m reminded of Meister Eckhart’s line: “Between us and God there is no between.” In the heart’s open awareness, this is true of whatever is seen in creation as well. We are innocently brought inside what is, just as it is, unskewed by ego self-image and undistanced by the thinking mind’s labeling of things.

Contemplative practices are meant to draw us to this quality of direct, open presence. Whatever I would hold on to separately from the Gracious One is relinquished in trust, insofar as possible. In my desire to share the self-emptying of Christ, I want nothing left standing between reality—as it is in God—and me, not even an image of myself. Who I really am, after all, is not found in my conditioned self-images. Who I really am is an image of God, a unique reflection of that radiant divine Love. Such a personal identity is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), leaving me as open a mystery as God is.

With such a sense of identity and intent, let me ask you to join me in the following little way to mind-in-heart presence:

  • Take a few deep, slow breaths to help clear away any clinging tightness or anxiety in your body and mind.
  • Open the desire in you for your deep soul in God, your true Christ nature, the divine image in you, to be further awakened.
  • Let your thinking mind rest, and lean back into your open spiritual heart.
  • Now, for at least five minutes, as any thought, image (including self-image), or sensation appears, gently let it go. Remain steadily at home through and behind them, at home in your spacious, awake spiritual heart, simply given to God.
  • See what it’s like now to read the rest of this article with some vestige of that stance of open presence right through the words. Read not only with your outside, “figuring out” mind, but also with the “inside” awareness given you in your open spiritual heart.

We don’t have to possess just what comes to us with our thinking mind. Sometimes, we’re called to let what we know obscurely in our spiritual heart be sufficient, trusting that God’s ongoing transformative awakening can be carried forward in secret. What is happening in us and what we realize in the spiritual heart are always more than the mind can ever fully grasp. Often, though, our spiritual heart’s awareness can be beneficially translated into the mind’s at least partial understanding.

02.  Showings of the Heart

During that very short practice, much or nothing may have shown itself. As you were emptied of surface thoughts, you may have found there was room to participate in a more intimate and yet inclusive sense of reality. You may also have sensed a fragrance of radiant Love pervading reality. Or your experience may have been entirely different. This particular exercise, of course, is just one of a great many possible ways into the spiritual heart’s awareness.

What might be born over time in our spiritual heart’s awareness—in terms of communion, wisdom, and spontaneous discernment—is described in a great variety of ways by great mystics. Jesus, in his mystical heart, speaks of being inside his Father and his disciples, and of his disciples being inside him. He spoke of a direct presence in God that he said, in effect, we would share in the Spirit’s power. He spoke of his awareness that the divine radiant Love is relentlessly growing the way of Love, the way of the Kingdom, in our midst. The way is marked by all the blessings and callings of the Beatitudes and all the sufferings of the way in a world so out of touch with the divine communion that is, a communion we share when we have eyes that really see.

His mystical followers in Christian tradition have spoken of other gifts appearing in their spiritual-hearted awareness. The mystic Paul speaks of Christ living in him, of sharing the mind of Christ, the love of God, the power of the Spirit, and a vision of the world’s wholeness in God. Many later mystics of the church right up to our own day have shared similar gifts.

Perhaps the most common overlap in all this interior mystical awareness is a sense of vibrant intimacy, a sense of people and creation growing from the same mysterious, radiant Love, from the divine Wellspring that courses through all that is, even in creation’s broken places. Mature mystics come to discover that an interior communion with God, one another, and creation is simply the given ground of reality, whether or not we are conscious of it at a given time.

They would likely agree that in our thinking and ego minds, we can feel ultimately separate, wanting to search for divine and human relationship, but in our intuitive heart’s direct awareness, we find that we are already in a dynamic Love-grounded communion. The mystics who realize this communion often burn with the desire to let its fruits inhabit all dimensions of their lives and to share its good and transforming news with the world.

03.  The Overflow of the Heart’s Gifts

This good news is received in a mysteriously broken world, including dimensions of ongoing brokenness in many mystics themselves. The mystical early church elders spoke of the paradox of our being born in the image of God and yet needing to move by grace toward the full likeness of God. A narrow self-centeredness nourished by ignorance and willfulness needs to be outgrown. We need a community of mutual spiritual support to help us move beyond our easily buried larger Self in God and live out that larger Self as leaven in the world. Great mystics historically have done just that: forming spiritual communities, creating social services and institutions, and leading prophetic movements for reform and justice.See, for example, the profound description of the social witness of great Christian mystics in the past few centuries in Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, Barabara and Martin Rumscheidt, trans. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001).

To me, these great historical and contemporary mystics are the most precious leaders in human history. Those people who have come through the graced conversion from an autonomous, self-oriented ego-self to a steady central identity with their deep soul in God are an enormous divine gift to human vision and community. They include not just certain great public figures. They may include the humble, God-touched and -led neighbor next door.

Of course, there are many “false prophets” about whom Jesus warned us. Mature spiritual life is not the fruit of a single graced mystical experience. It’s the fruit of a lifetime of letting the Spirit’s enlightening love shed layer after layer of illusion and willfulness in us that can distort our vision and action. In that graced process we can come more and more to live from the “inside” of reality as it is in God. We can become freer to discern what is called for, not so much from our conditioned learning as from our direct participation in the heart of the situation as it is, our open-hearted, direct awareness before and through our thinking mind’s activity. We come to live closer to the divine-human dynamics of the moment. Our conditioned ego structure becomes more and more a functional vessel of our deeper soul in God rather than the center of our identity. As that happens, a more confident, courageous, free self in God shows itself more often.

Great mystics are not restricted to Christian tradition. The grace of realizing loving intimacy among God, humanity, and creation shows itself in a variety of ways among the mystical founders and followers of the world’s great religions. One gift of authentic mystical awareness to our divisive and conflicted times is its frequent inclusion of a sense of the wholeness of life and the world in God. Like an astronaut looking at the earth from the moon, mystics in their firsthand awareness see differences on the planet, but they don’t see boundaries; they see an interdependent whole radiant with a larger loving Light.

04.  The Heart’s Influence on the Mind

Without a mystical consciousness, if we have only the mind’s boundaried categories to go by, we’re much more prone to exclusionary and limited ways of seeing reality. That’s one reason we need to cultivate the spiritual heart’s intuitive awareness around the world. In the divine benevolence, the spiritual heart gives us a chance to realize deep reality from the inside, just as it is, before it may be translated into the limiting, conditioned container of our mind’s categories. It becomes a check on the mind’s potential idolatry of what it knows, a reminder of the One whose ways are beyond our mind’s ways, of the glass through which our minds see but darkly. Along with this inspired humility of the mind, though, our spiritual heart has a way of leading the mind to expand its vision and to create fresh metaphors for the depth and possibilities of life as it is in God.

Our minds may well come to see poetry as the mind’s special way of bridging to the spiritual heart’s awareness. It’s no accident that Rumi, a medieval Sufi poet in the mystical heart of Islamic tradition, who greatly treasured Jesus, has been called the most popular poet in America today. His passionate, metaphorical poetry about God’s intimate transformation of our lives satisfies the yearning of so many people for fresh words that can point beyond both literal and analytical meanings, words that point beyond themselves and help to open our intuitive spiritual hearts, words that shatter unnecessary boundaries.

Scripture can be read with the same mystical eyes as people read such poetry. Then I think we might see the deepest words of scripture as the bubbling surface of the deep consciousness of Jesus and other scriptural writers. We might find ourselves joining St. Isaac of Syria in the sixth century in reading the spaces between the words as well as the words themselves. I interpret that to mean seeking to share the deep consciousness out of which the words flow. If I want to share the mind of Christ, then I need to share the place where his words and acts came from: his open, spiritual-hearted awareness in God. When I am gifted to read scripture “heart to heart,” then I am sharing more than the outside husk of the words; I am sharing something of the mind-in-heart given kernel of the words. I am “in” Christ, where I find the graced capacity to receive the words and actions that Spirit is offering me for my unique life and situation.

From what I have said, I hope it is clear that I do not see mystical consciousness as a special awareness of a few people. Yes, it is more fully evolved in some people than in others, but the faculty and potential of direct presence, the open spiritual heart, belongs to everyone, however neglected it may be. Contemplative, mystical awareness is not really a separate spiritual path. It is an underlying direct openness to deep reality pervaded by Spirit’s living presence through whatever path we walk. The path may be one of intense feeling, devotion, and imagination; moral and social action; rational thinking and scholarship; or psychological and spiritual exploration of consciousness and prayer. What comes to us in contemplative awareness may be anything from ecstatic experiences to an utterly plain sense of life simply happening in God moment by moment. The awareness itself is fired by a desire for the deep real, for the whole-making grace, that is planted in the deepest core of our being.


About the Author

Tilden Edwards is founder and senior fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. He holds a PhD in spiritual theology and is an Episcopal priest. Author of seven books on the spiritual life, including Spiritual Director, Spiritual Companion and Living in the Presence, he is currently working on a new book on contemplative contributions to the deepening spiritual journey. Tilden and his wife Mary, a Quaker and clinical social worker, have two grown children.