[Re-post from 2015]
The other day, a friend shared with me an experience she had with a woman whom quite a number of people regard as a ‘mystic.’ She said, “But I was not convinced. First, this woman spoke to me like she was God’s oracle without even knowing me. And she immediately directed me on what I should do, but when I disagreed with her advice she became irritated and warned me against resisting God. She has lots of groupies, who I guess want the oracle thing, but I’m not one of them. She creeped me out…”
Among other things, I shared with her my journal notes summarizing a 1993 lecture by Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko. I will share today.
Miracles and prophecy, mystical experiences or casting out demons are not necessarily the will of God in Heaven. Or signs of spiritual health. Don’t ever think just because someone works signs and wonders, or claims to have deep mystical insights, it means they’re the real deal.
Jesus is very clear, the genuine miracle worker or mystic is the one who is not interested in self-promotion, doesn’t feed on attention, using God to inflate the ego. Miracles and mystical flights or ascetical feats can cover up brilliantly the fact that we’re totally full of ourselves. As Fr. Schmemann liked to say, all too often mysticism becomes nothing but mist, I, and schism.
Solipsistic naval-gazing or spiritual gluttony, as the Roman Catholic saint John of the Cross called it. They just can’t get enough spiritual pleasure for themselves. And John says that a litmus test for genuine mystical experiences is not credulity but a consistent openness to being proved wrong; an openness to being evaluated, tested, passed through a fire. Pseudo-mystics resist tests of humility, canonize their narcissism; but real ones beg for tests. Pseudo-mystics have tender egos, and the litmus test of fidelity to God is agreeing with them; but grace strengthens the spirit of the true mystic with a thirst for the brutal truth.
I can tell you, I have known many people over the years who have gone down this seductive road of pseudo-mysticism and have gone mad, left the faith or started crazy sects.
Jesus is very clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Christian mysticism — if it means anything — leads to loving, forgiving, being poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for justice, being merciful and pure in heart, peacemaking, facing persecution with courage for doing right and not for being arrogant. Or it’s nothing at all.
To the spiritual junkies who need to feel they have a special mystical status, but fail to root it in obedience to the commandments; in the ordinary grind of faithfulness to God’s will in life, Jesus says, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers” (Matt. 7:22). I like to say, Jesus says those who ‘do,’ not those who ‘swoon,’ enter the Kingdom.
The Holy Fathers tell that no one was ever saved for fasting. The devils never eat. No one was ever saved for sleeping on the ground or giving up sleep for penance. The demons never sleep. And no one was ever saved by doing a miracle or giving a talk. You’re only saved when you renounce yourself, pick up your cross and do the will of God by loving; and to love like Christ on the Cross. Hanging there on the Cross, even if you’re stripped of everything; yet still loving and blessing and pardoning and worrying about others and not yourself. Jesus on the Cross is the supreme mystic.
Thérèse of Lisieux, another Roman Catholic saint, said it perfectly: “It is only love that makes us acceptable to God.”
So it’s love, and it’s also humility. Real humility. Humility ready to confess our total failure to love this way. Only then we can receive the mercy of God and be saved. We’re saved by love and by humility. And not just love for people we like. No! Love for those folks we can’t stand — I don’t know — liberal, conservative, opinionated, two-faced, lazy neighbors. Loving this way means we are serious about love, not just members of a club or a sect of people who agree with me; who are agreeable to me.
Mysticism is real, about reality. Real people, a real God. God loves all of these people we despise, so if we are His children, we have to love the same. God’s mercy can only teach us to love if we’re humble, able to be absolutely honest like the Publican in the synagogue, “Have mercy on me a sinner!”
If you want mysticism, say your prayers, attend the Diving Liturgy, fast, read the Holy Scriptures. But get out of yourself, set to work with humble tasks. Visit a nursing home, feed the homeless, adopt a highway and keep it clean. Do your daily duty with cheer, love the neighbors around you who need a share in whatever God lavishes on you. And have someone with whom you can be totally open and honest about everything, no secrets, who can be brutally honest with you and shine light in any shadows. Then the ‘mist’ will vaporize, the ‘I’ will become ‘Thy will be done’ and the ‘schism’ will dissolve into unity; into love.
The Prophet Isaiah was a great mystic, had a mystical vision, and he [in 58:6-8] gives us the proper sequel to any mystical experience:
[Thus says the Lord:] Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.