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Perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century was Karl Rahner. While his writing style was heady and dense, his most famous sound bite was anything but. He made a prediction about the role of mysticism in the future church: “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” These word seem prophetic today as more and more people report  “nothing at all” in reference to religion.

The gospel today beckons us to channel our inner mystic this Advent season. Some are uncomfortable self-identifying as mystics, presuming mystics have a different mode of spirituality. Here we say “all are welcome” and “all are mystics.”  In this and similar gospel texts we see that God comes and goes in our consciousness as God wills – the only variable is whether we are ready for the experience. Some are prepared and some are not.

This evening I am going to borrow heavily from Thomas Merton and explore with you a method of preparation for mysticism, a spiritual posture to encounter an unpredictable God. 

Connect the Dots 

I suspect most of us were taught that “being prepared” meant getting the sacraments and paying attention to what people in spiritual authority were saying and doing. Merton says preparation for transcendence involves meditating on and connecting the dots on our own spontaneous contemplative experiences: those moments when we intersect with the infinite, feel a deep connection with Love, or become aware of the utter holiness of the present moment. Many report such contemplative experiences early in life and these experiences are a rock on which a spiritual journey is built. 

Spontaneous contemplative experiences come in all shapes and sizes. Richard Rohr says they tend to come in uncontrolled places like births, AA meetings, cancer wards and hospice care. They happen walking in the woods, watching a movie, experiencing art, in meditation. They happen in vulnerable moments with others. Merton said they happened for him watching children at play.

Moments of spontaneous contemplation can also happen in church settings. I will never forget going to a youth meeting in college and heard a women give a sermon for the first time and her text was the Prodigal Son. I was astounded by the God she described and felt plastered to my seat. A door deep inside me cracked open that day.

What is your story of mystical experience? If your pattern of mystical experiences is nature, head for the woods! If your pattern is human connection, make small group faith sharing a big priority. Think about it and connect the dots and be prepared for what is next.

The Ache of Advent

If we connect the dots of our spontaneous contemplative experiences we arrive at the essential mystical insight: we become aware that most of the time we are not aware of the diamond of light within us. We become aware of an unfulfilled longing and waiting because we trust in the connections we have experienced and recognize their absence.

A Merton expert, James Finley, illustrates this mystical ache by telling this story: A woman drives to work each day on a winding road that passes a small, wooded lake. Most of the time she does not even see the lake while lost in daily thoughts. One day, coming home on a misty day with fog hanging, she is startled as she drives by the lake by a flock of geese descending through the fog and landing on the water. She pulls over to watch and a second wave of geese, and then a third majestically descends. The beauty and serenity of the moment captures her and she experiences a deep and rich connection to God as she is lost in the richness of that present moment.

After a few minutes she starts driving again. As she gets to the driveway a bike is in the way. She groans and moves the bike. She looks at the mailbox hoping a bill isn’t there. It’s there. As she unlocks the door a phone rings inside and when she rushes in she bumps her shin against the coffee table. As she grabs the phone it goes silent. As she stands there out of breath, her heart pounding and mad at the world, she remembers the graced moment of connection with the infinite she experienced not 10 minutes before. She smiles at herself. 

This is the smile of a mystic. Mystics know there is a home base even though it is not felt most of the time. It is like a river of life flowing nearby. Sometimes it comes to us like a flood, sometimes we are minding our own business and we stumble in the water, sometimes we prepare for the swim and the water is actually there. By studying our connections to the river we are ready with a raft when it comes by.

I know of no higher calling for a community like this than to help each find home base and help each other find our own mystical story. We gather tonight and every week for this noble purpose. Let’s spend time this season connecting the dots in our experience. Let’s be ready for what is next.

 

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the First Sunday of Advent Saturday Evening,

November 30, 2013

Focus text: Mt 24:37-44 (be ready for the Son of Man)

Photo by Vicki Mundoo on flickr.com

 

Note: The references to Thomas Merton and the story were adapted from James Finley’s CD Presentation, “Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere.”

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