GWM: What a cool phrase: “audio icon.” I like that very much. And your description of creation reminds me of Calvin Miller’s beautifully written trilogy—The Singer, The Song, and The Finale.
But to continue with the notion of sacred music having the potential to be sacramental, your first album as a monk was The Lord’s Supper (1979). Another one of my favorites, Quiet Reflections, contains a series of songs that take the listener through what I’ve called a “virtual Communion.” For years I’ve ended retreats with those songs, inviting the students to imagine each breath to be an experience of receiving Communion—welcoming Christ to the center of their bodies and beings. As a good Catholic, how weird do you think this is—Communion without the elements?
GWM: Fine that it’s weird or fine to be that casual with Communion?
JMT: Both. The Church is using the language of communio to best describe life in Christ. It is communion that flows forth from the Communion of Eucharist, and leads back to Communion. It is sacramental that flows from the Sacrament and leads back to the Sacrament. The Eucharist symbolizes grace that is already in the believer, and effects that grace to grow stronger and stronger through faithful reception of the Sacrament.
GWM: Let’s transition to your book, The Way of the Mystics: Ancient Wisdom for Experiencing God Today. What was the driving motivation to write it?
JMT: It was a follow-up to my best-selling Lessons of St. Francis.
GWM: Now right after I’ve bragged on you for being humble, you drop in a phrase like “best-selling.”
JMT: Sorry. I meant to say my surprisingly popular book.
GWM: Much better.
JMT: As I was saying, my life in community is based on Franciscanism, but it has always gone beyond it to the entire monastic tradition. This does not make us “better.” We are just not easily housed within the parameters of the Franciscan family alone. The Way of the Mystics kind of follows that progression.
GWM: I love the structure of the book. After a very helpful introduction, you provide thirteen chapters arranged in chronological order that each presents the life story of a different spiritual pioneer—from Antony to Thomas Merton. And as a side note, your use of thirteen chapters would seem to make this book ideal for small groups that meet on a quarterly basis. If that wasn’t intentional, I’ll assume it was mystically inspired. Before getting into any of the specific “pioneers of the spirit” you present, I have a few more general questions.
You make the interesting statement that while rational discussion is good and potentially very helpful, “rationality is not the source of religion. Before expressing itself in words and ideas, religion is born of experience.”See John Michael Talbot and Steve Rabey, The Way of the Mystics: Ancient Wisdom from Experiencing God Today (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 1–2. Or, according to Frederick Buechner, “Religion starts, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat.”The Way of the Mystics, 1. Please say more about how experience and feeling are at the heart of mysticism.
JMT: I am most pleased that Pope Benedict XVI has reintroduced eros, where we get the word erotic, into the full Christian notion of love, to balance our recent, almost exclusive use of agape, or a self-diffusiveness free of lust and such. Going back to Church fathers and philosophers, he shows us how the use of the passion in love can help to lift us out of our erroneous use of love/lust. The whole point of love is to rise above self-obsession and really become self-emptying so we can authentically be self-giving.
God uses thoughts, feelings, and intuitions of the spirit to reach people. Sometimes they occur separately, and sometimes all at once. Usually, they cannot be dissected like the frog on the ninth-grader’s biology table.
Most of us are addicted to negative patterns regarding the use of these faculties. Most of us develop an entire self-image based on these unhealthy patterns, and we really believe that this persona, or personality, is the real “me.” Our real identity includes these things, but is based on a person of the spirit that we have ignored for so many years that we often are not even aware that such a person even exists deep within on the level of the spirit.
GWM: When you use the phrase “person of the spirit,” I’m reminded that when we attempt to measure religion as a variable in psychological research, we most often use belief and behavior as indicators. But when the attempt is made to measure spirituality, the variables become experience and feeling. In this sense, does discussion about the mystical, about the internal “person of the spirit,” seem more at home with spirituality than religion?
JMT: Of course, today’s language favors the use of the word spirituality instead of religion. This is probably because organized religion has often failed so miserably. But religion also gets a bum rap. As a Catholic, I can say that even with all of our failings, religion gets more done for good in this world than almost any other institution, secular or sacred. Consider all the social and spiritual programs, ministries, and communities that bring so much good into this world.
Specifically, good religion must include both spirituality and mysticism. It is the “soul” of the Church. Without it the Church becomes a cold and lifeless institution. No matter how efficiently it does good works, and technically well it preaches faith and morality, it remains unable to bring real spiritual life to almost anyone.
As to measuring effective spirituality, I have never been a fan of touchy-feely spirituality. I have seen far too many people fall into the trap of self-obsession and unhealthy habit patterns under the guise of spirituality. Real spirituality must change a person’s life for the better. That includes behavior in the way we deal with others.
God may reach us where we are, no matter how messed-up our lives might be, but He loves us enough to show a way to change. That may come all at once, but usually it is a step-by-step process that continues our entire lives.
GWM: Well said, and your last statements reflect the balanced and practical approach to mysticism in your book. I’m also reminded that a lot of folks distrust words like mysticism. I’m even reminded of the quip, “Mysticism is something that begins in a mist, and ends in a schism because of having I in the middle.” Without having to dignify that, what is your favorite definition of mysticism, and what do you say to help people become more drawn to the term or experience?
JMT: Mysticism just means “mystery.” If love is the heart of our faith, then faith must include mystery. That is why the heart of Catholic Christian worship is not the pastor’s sermon, the music ministry’s music, or even the friendliness of the people of a particular local parish. Sacraments, especially Penance and Eucharist, remain the high point of our worship. All the rest is there just to set the table for our Divine Guest at the table of the Lord.
GWM: What you said reminds me that our managing editor recently told me that if you do a quick word search for mystery in the New Testament, you find twenty-two instances where the term occurs. That amount of real estate beats the space allotted to tithe and tithing by eleven to one. But I’ll bet the topic of mysticism trails tithing by one hundred to one for sermon topics. I’m rambling—and flirting with excommunication. So, here’s my question: When Paul refers to “Christ in you” as the great mystery that had been hidden through the ages [see Colossians 1:26–27], I believe he was underscoring the number one teaching point from all his writings—the experience of Christ within. Do you think that a lot of Paul’s excitement about the great mystery revealed—that it is possible to experience a “with-God” life throughout the day—may be lost today?
JMT: Yeah, I think you are correct. To some degree, I think Paul’s excitement about the ability to experience the mystery of Christ within has been lost. I’m sure I’m biased, but this loss may be more evident in the evangelical movements in the United States than elsewhere. I certainly believe there definitely should be more spoken about mysticism and the mystery of Christ in us.
GWM: And your book, at one level, is an invitation to follow the example of mystics past, and step into the great mystery of “Christ in you.”
JMT: Yes, exactly.
GWM: John Michael, along these same lines, you make the statement that in a sense, “every Christian who has a living, vital, and spirit-filled relationship with God can be considered a mystic.” Please say more about that.
JMT: If you enter into this gift of Jesus and the Church, you become a mystic whether you like the term or not. We can and should define much about faith and morality to lead people to and in Jesus Christ. But if we go forward in the Communion line with faith, hope, and love, then we are mystics. Why? because love can be explained partly but never completely. If this is true of love in general, how much more [is it true of] divine love from and with our infinite God?
GWM: Simply put, the goal of your book is to help people become better mystics. How do you practice mystical awareness on a daily basis?
JMT: Pray and work. Take time away from the hectic affairs of daily life that so easily dull our spiritual sense of intuition. Be still; meditate on the Word of God, and then let your spirit be awakened through that Word to a place beyond words. That place is Jesus. After that, then go back out to work in the crazy world. But now you go from a place of contemplation, peace, and love, and lead others back to that place of peace without even knowing you are doing it. You do it simply by being.