Thursday, April 9, 2009

On Mysticism

The Christian mystic is in love with God, and hungers for an awareness of God’s presence. Whether we seek it through the practice of contemplative prayer or any other means, we spend our lives learning to fix our gaze constantly on God and to be mindful of God in all things.
The contemplative life is not easy. It can be isolating. Many other Christians mistrust those who are called by God to this path. The mystic finds God more easily through silence than through activity; more through prayer than through study; more through love than through knowledge.
The mystic knows God by faith and is content with “unknowing.” But Christian church communities tend to place great value on knowledge and study. If you were to count the number of Bible studies compared to the number of prayer groups offered in churches, you could see this trend easily. Church communities are usually centered around activity and stimulation. These things do not help the mystic feel closer to God; in fact, mystics find these things to be distractions that make them feel farther from God.
In most Christian church communities, silence and prayerful contemplation are rare. The Christian mystic, longing for silence, can feel quite abandoned. How does one pray in the contemplative way? This sort of prayer is not about asking for things. Julian of Norwich described it thus: “I look at God, I look at you, and I keep on looking at God.”
Many modern Christians who are drawn to the mystic approach practice contemplative prayer in small groups which may meet once a month. Much of the prayer is silent, with anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour of silence at a time. Learning contemplative prayer involves learning how to use that silence to focus one’s mind and heart totally on God, not to say anything to God, but to open one’s heart to listen for God. Naturally we all have things constantly reverberating through our minds -– our little to-do lists, conversations, commercial jingles, whatever. The goal of contemplative prayer is to quiet all those distractions, the better to be open to God’s voice. The highest experience of contemplative prayer is simply to be aware of God’s presence and delight in it. There is no agenda other than love. “Be still, and know that I am God.” This type of prayer does not appeal to everyone.
God calls some people to activity; God calls some people to intellect and study. But God calls the Christian mystic to seek him in this interior landscape, in a cloud of unknowing, in love and by faith. Naturally, in addition to contemplative prayer, the Christian mystic must live a well rounded Christian life, including worship in community, Bible study, and compassionate living. As Catherine of Siena has said, “The secret of Christian contemplation is that it faces us, with Jesus Christ, toward our suffering world in loving service and just action.”

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