Mystics and the Mystical Tradition of the Church
Lenten Reflections with Sheila O’Handley, Diocesan hermit
Lenten Reflection Six
the ache like a surgeon’s knife
the desires of the heart
penetrates the marrow of the bone
becoming a clearing house
distilling every cell
purifying love’s embrace
this aching ache
searching for infinity
this ache never
‘tis the ache of love.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! We are about to enter the holiest weeks in Christianity, (not that other days and weeks are not holy, they are), the weeks of Easter – the Christ event in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! The victory over suffering and death. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Indeed, a celebration of the victory of Love. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Christic Love is present universally now, in all, and is available to all: the ultimate mystical experience. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Something new has happened, and IT happened to Jesus of Nazareth. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! I often reflect, there must have been an ecstatic refrain of ALLELUIA! within the Trinity in the accomplishment of the Christ event. That ecstatic refrain of ALLELUIA continues today in various tones and manifestations. Only Christic Love activates the mystic heart to hear the various tones and numerous manifestations of the Christ Event.
The Appearances of the Resurrected Jesus tells us something has happened and is happening in the human heart and in the heart of the cosmos. What is happening is the Presence of the new life of Christic Love. The disciples on the road to Emmaus experienced IT, “…Did not our hearts burn within us … and in the breaking of bread …He took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them and their eyes were opened …”; in the pronouncement of a name, IT is recognized, “… Jesus said,’ Mary’. She knew him then, and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni’…”; in the sensitivity of human touch, IT is encountered … “Look at my hands and feet; yes, it is I indeed. Touch me and see for yourselves …”; IT is present in story-telling …”you must be the only person in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days. ‘What things?’ Jesus asked …” and, IT is present in the commissioning of Mary Magdala … ‘ go find the brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God …”.
Yes, something indeed did happen – often missed because we expect something other than the simple, yet deeply human mystical Presence of Christic Love in the here and now of daily life … a love that makes possibilities Possible and impossibilities a Reality.
However, before we can come to an Easter Experience we have to acknowledge that death is integral to new life, and is marked by suffering, disintegration and change. Not so pretty or accommodating from a human perspective – we don’t like the reality of disintegration – death and dying. We try as much as we can to avoid suffering – it is viewed as weakness and uselessness. And change, well we usually don’t want to go there, we avoid it like the plague. We take cover in the depths of our reptilian brains where fear abounds. Yet death, suffering, and change are the stuff of life’s process. Good Fridays are part and parcel of life; to grow both psychologically and spiritually we cannot remain in Good Fridays. The Resurrection – that Christ event calls us forward …”go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation”. (Mark 16:16) This is the commissioning of the Easter experience. The Resurrection is the reawakening of the Hope which lives within us – The Mystical Life. ‘Tis the ache of love.
Suggested Reading: The Resurrection Appearances
Practice: To assist in the continuous reawakening of the Hope of the Mystical Life which lives within you, this practice might be helpful. It will also require a commitment.
. Foundation: in preparation for Mystical Awaking, practice Lectio Divina, which means reflecting and pondering Sacred Scripture, the lives of the Mystics, updated articles and books which focus on the relationship between modern day science and religion.
. A support group: Gather together with like-minded individuals to share insights from Lectio Divina.
. Spiritual Direction or Personal Counselling; During the process of the consciousness that mystical presence awakens, you might sense the need for the intervention of a Trained Spiritual Director and or Counsellor.
(2) THE PRACTICE:
This practice is not about what goes on in the head, such as ego thoughts, planning thoughts, judgement thoughts, or assessment thoughts. It is about coming to the awareness of the Mystical Presence – devoid of thought, feelings, emotions.
. Daily being in a quiet space.
. Begin conscious breathing, breathe in and breathe out according to your body rhythm.
. Sometimes placing your hand on your heart will help, or breathe in a word: peace, love, Jesus, etc.
. When thoughts come, and they will, don’t get upset with yourself, just return to your breath.
. Awareness of the Presence is the goal. The Mystical Presence is already present within, your heart already knows. You are not looking for an out of body experience, etc. You will also know because you will love more, and global compassion will motivate you to be the Beatitudes and the Corporal Works of Mercy.
Begin with five minutes daily and increase as you move deeper into the practice.
Practice awareness outside of the Practice time…such as being present to the now of the coffee you are drinking, the dog wagging his or her tail, the arrival of the crocus, the lovers touch, the child’s playfulness … you get what I mean.
About this Lenten Journey:
You are invited to join with me during Lent to spend some time with Mystics and the Mystical Tradition of the Church. I offer these reflections as preparation for the celebration of Easter – the Resurrection of Jesus, the continuation of the central core of Christian faith, our birth right – God’s continued Presence with us.
Jesus did not speak of Lent as such. However, in the Gospel of Matthew 6:19-21 and in Luke 12:33-34 he articulates the sentiment that captures the Lenten journey – a journey of the heart, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The Church, with her rich tradition of mysticism and mystics, possesses the heart-wisdom so needed today to guide us not only through Lent but also into the unknown future being birthed at this time. We need to take pause in the wise words of Father Bede Griffiths, a mystic steeped in Eastern and Western Christian mysticism, “If Christianity cannot recover its mystical tradition and teach it, it should just fold up and go out of business. It has nothing to offer.” And the notable German theologian of the 20th century, Karl Rahner, made the following comment in the sixties, more as a warning at the time, “I believe that if Christianity, by the turn of the century, does not rediscover its mystical roots, Christianity might as well give up because it is really no longer a help to Western civilization, but more part of the problem”.
However, we must not lose heart, as there is presently a retrieval of mystical consciousness occurring through-out the world, a new dawn is indeed dawning. We must be convinced that we are made for these times and that the mystical wisdom residing in our hearts only asks of us that we listen with our heart to make the future possible.
May the Lenten Reflections assist us in the reawakening of the hope which lives within us – the richness of our mystical faith tradition.
- Sheila O’Handley, diocesan hermit
First Sunday of Lent:
on the empty page
of my soul
i came to know
you were the page
Saint Catherine of Siena was a mystic laywoman of the fourteenth century, an associate member of the Dominican Religious Order, canonized in 1461, named the patroness of Catholic women and co-patroness of Italy in 1939, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970.
I begin with Catherine of Siena because I believe that one of her prayers defines and choreographs the origins of mysticism and the mystical experience. The prayer: “You, eternal God, saw me and knew me in yourself and because you saw me in your light you fell in love with your creature and drew me out of yourself and created me in your image and likeness”.
Let me break open this prayer so as to delineate the mystical life. What is detailed here is the Divine Love Affair.
. God identifies God’s self with Catherine …’You saw me and knew me in yourself’.
. Born of God … ‘You drew me out of yourself’…
. Relationship of love … ‘You fell in love with your creature’.
. The abyss of Love – Trinitarian life: the self-giving, self-creating Source of all Love … ‘Created me in your image and likeness’.
Genesis 1:26 – 27 “…in the likeness of ourselves…” affirms the mystical simply as: the abyss of Love- The Trinity. It is not a concept. It is the experience of ‘knowing’ that one lives within this Love.
I would be remiss if I did not underscore that mysticism is not isolationism – rather it is inclusive and open. Catherine was a social active mystic, aligned with the social Gospel. She was an avid traveler in her day, advocating for the poor, promoting both necessary political and Church reform. She counselled bishops, priests and popes, and played an important role in encouraging Pope Gregory X1 to return the papacy to Rome from Avignon, France.
Catherine reminds us of a conscious awareness of the mystical self – who we are – in the words: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire”. Also, for Catherine, fire was a strong symbol of God as love. Consumed with this love we become fire: “You are rewarded not according to your work or your time, but according to the measure of your love”.
A Lenten Practice:
Using Catherine’s prayer as a mantra rest in your mystical birthing.
Catherine of Siena: Dialogue found in Classics of Western Spirituality
Catherine of Siena: Mystic of Fire by Paul Murray
Second Sunday of Lent
hide and seek
i sought for you
in your hidden presence
you found me
in the seeking
until i was content
to hide in you
your hidden presence
The first Lenten Reflection defined mysticism and the mystical experience – God’s love affair with us. This love-making establishes a union of Lover and Beloved. A “oneing” is how Julian of Norwich described the union. “Our soul is oned to God, unchangeable goodness, and therefore, between God and our soul, there is neither wrath nor forgiveness because there is no between”. Only Love.
This week’s reflection will focus on the abode of the mystical experience – the human heart. The English anchoress, mystic and laywomen, Julian of Norwich – 1342-1426, clearly tells us, “Where do we begin? Begin with the heart”. Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century, “The soul sits at the center of the heart, as though in a house”, and Jesus simply and directly invites, “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you”. John 15-4.
The heart knows love – it’s the heart’s secret. When we are in love with someone, the heart knows long before we consent. We may forget but the heart remembers, in fact, so does the body. Heart knowledge dissolves all illusions and analysis. All religious traditions accept the heart as the archetype of the seat of wisdom, the center of wholeness, the meeting place of the self and ‘the Other’.
Often it is difficult to begin with the heart, to stay with the heart, noticing the relationship of the ‘felt Presence with God’, even in ‘the little presences’, such as, the joyful presence of a friend, the walk by the beach, the first crocus, the butterfly opening its wings for the first time, the cry of breath in the newly born child. For Julian, it was a hazelnut.
So accustomed to being in the head with our thoughts, concepts, ideas, all of which are aligned with doctrines, policies and authorities outside our personal experience, we miss the coming of the Other. Yet, what the ‘heart knows’ arrives through lived experiences in the real world of daily life and nature. Both Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, one of the Church’s formidable mystics, emphasized the importance of personal experience. Teresa in her own words, “I know through experience that what I say is true. There was nothing I understood until His Majesty gave me understanding through experience”. The advice from the mystics is trust the wisdom of your heart’s experiences.
The language mystics used to describe their relationship with God, prayer, and the mystical experience, was language and imagery, that was often intimate, personal, and at times sensuous and erotic – the overflow of the affective, experienced in the heart. Mystics held fast to their mystical experience clothed in personal descriptions of sensuous and erotic union. They also paid a high price: censorship, excommunication, and even death, as did the Beguine, Marguerite Porete, condemned to death as a heretic and burned at the stake.
Yet, what could be more sensuous and erotic than The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures: 6:3 “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine”, revealing mutual indwelling, embodiment of the Divine Presence in material form in the human body, and love making, all as sacred. Julian, “our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensory being”.
Mystics alike, for example, Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Julian herself somehow escaped 5000 years of patriarchy, when it came to describing the Mystery of God. Julian, “Just as God is truly our Father, so also is God truly our Mother…God feels great delight to be our Father and God feels great delight to be our Mother”. Her understanding of the divine feminine pervades her entire understanding of the nature of God. In her words, “The deep Wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother. In her we are all enclosed”. And we, we play with pronouns, while our hearts long for the union of truth. So as not to miss the mystics understanding of the Divine Mystery it is primary that the Divine Feminine, and the Sacred Masculine be understood as spiritual energies, not gender identification. The truth is – God is beyond all images.
Let Christ’s promise to Julian is our Lenten hope, “I shall keep my word in all things and I shall make all things well”.
A Lenten Practice:
- Listen with intent to Psalm 85:8 “Let me hear what you will speak when I listen to you in my heart.”
- Knock on the door of the heart, open it, go in, rest there: you have never been separated from the original union-oneing of the soul’s heart with the Beloved.
- Revelation of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich
- Christian Mystics by Ursula King
- The Song of Songs
Third Sunday of Lent:
you are the wine
i am the wine
we are the wine
pressed and distilled
from the grapes of life
we drink together from love’s vessel
you are the vessel
i am the vessel
we are the vessel
molded and formed
from life’s vineyard
where love inside love
acclaims without expectations
the alchemy of love.
This week’s reflection will focus on the effect brought about by the original mystical experience – which is the wound of love imprinted on the heart. In response to the wound of love we consent to a personal journey – life. The poignant motivation of life’s journey is desire – to reunite with the One who first loved us. Life’s journey is both the fuel and the vessel for the alchemy of love – the purification of love’s desires into the pure gold of the Divine in us. Within the alchemical process the heart is refined, broken more than once, and the personal ego is aligned with the true Self. The return to the heart’s Source is not without the dark nights of the spirit, break downs, break throughs, conversions, and surrender.
The desire to return to the Beloved is often disguised in undiscerned impulses of ego desire…we do what we need to do consciously and unconsciously. We fail, we fall short, we make inadvertent mistakes and inappropriate decisions, which take us off course. We lose our way, sometimes we even go in reverse, so it seems. We learn life’s lessons, pick ourselves up, continue on, doing our best, and sometimes we succeed.
The mystics, however, were not impeded by dark nights, misunderstandings, rejections, and human frailty. They, grounded in the original experience of being loved, surrendered trustingly to life’s purpose which is etched in the human psyche. Their focus was Love – the goodness of God. As Julian of Norwich says, “My own sin will not hinder the working of God’s goodness”. Let us begin to steep ourselves in Julian’s wisdom of focusing on the goodness of God, the goodness that we are, and less on our sinfulness.
Thomas Merton, 1915-1968, Trappist monk, priest, and mystic also described the working of God’s goodness” as the light of Divinity in us. “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure gold of God in us. It is, so to, speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billons of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely”. The mystical experience weds us to the Divine.
Thomas Merton’s story is an example of one man’s mystical journey, yet his journey, in some aspects, resonated with everyone’s journey. Authentic mysticism does not close one off from life, from evil and sinfulness, nor from personal gifts; instead, mysticism enhances personal gifts in addressing the presence of evil. Merton’s mysticism awakened him to a social consciousness in the turbulent sixties – a social consciousness that addressed evil, both in State and Church re: peace, the cold war, nuclear war, racism, and social justice issues. He also explored the relationship between Eastern and Western spirituality and monasticism, not without great criticism. His creative gift as a writer of prose, poetry, personal journals, articles and books established him in the world, not only as a writer, but as a mystic who became a writer
Mysticism also opened Merton to the sensory and the erotic, when he fell in love with the young nurse, Margaret, who cared for him while he was hospitalized. What he learned from loving another person was that the erotic and the mystical are not separate realities. He found a new expression of the feminine which soared in his soul, and in return experienced himself and God in a new way. I believe that this experience of loving this woman and being loved by her also healed the deep feminine wound that Merton carried in his soul from an early age, due to the death of his mother. It is consoling and comforting to know that mysticism heals both the ancestral and family of origin wounds that we all carry.
Human frailty, mistakes, and missing the mark are the stuff of the mystical alchemical process that returns us to our true self – to the One to whom we belong.
- Ponder: Joel 2:12-14 “But now, now – it is Yahweh who speaks – come back to me with all your heart…”
- Write a poem.
- Hold in thanksgiving those who have loved you.
The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton
Spiritual Pilgrims: Carl Jung and Teresa of Avila, John Welch
Fourth Sunday of Lent:
has overshadowed me
and i am
by the sunlight
A note of interest as we begin this week’s reflection – some mystics were well known and held in esteem during their life time; most, however, remained hidden in the simple ordinariness of daily life while others became famous only after death. They rise from the ashes of history and appear when most needed, for example, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955, geologist, Jesuit-priest, and mystic. Therefore, given the timeliness of his vision, this week’s reflection will be Part One of a two-week reflection.
As a young child, Pierre fell in love with pebbles and rocks; this allurement, seed-like, nurtured his scientific-mystical journey – the rest is history. So simply hidden – the mystical in pebbles and rocks. Let us not miss the allurement of the mystical.
The man Pierre, was a deeply sensitive and passionate person. He had a loving circle of friends, loved deeply his cousin Margaret Teilhard Chambon, and the American sculptor, Lucile Swan, his soul-friend. This was a spiritual friendship which he described in a letter to her… “I know that what is born between us is to live forever”.
His staunch loyalty to church, Catholicism, and vowed life as a Jesuit priest, became for him a crucible of suffering; the church censored him many times, and denied the publication of his writings. Only after his death did his writings become published. In his aging years, when he wished to return to Paris from America, his community denied him that wish. So, in a sense, he was exiled from Paris to the Jesuit community in New York where he died in 1955 on Easter Sunday. Given this man’s commitment to Christ, Easter Sunday was not coincidental but rather testimony to his transformation into Christic-Love.
Obedience was an iron-like value for him, not only to religious authorities but also to obedience to the movement of the Spirit within him. He writes in defense of his cosmic vision: “If, as a result of some interior revolution, I were to lose in succession my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, and my faith in spirit, I feel that I should continue to believe invincibly in the world. The world (its value, its infallibility and its goodness) – that, when all is said and done, is the first, the last, and the only thing in which I believed. It is by this faith that I live. And it is to this faith, I feel, that at the moment of death, rising above all doubts, I shall surrender myself.” The focusing energy of God’s Presence in the world was a joy for him. It steadied him, as the Cross of daily life – fidelity to his scientific and religious commitment – became a constant companion.
Today is de Chardin’s moment. He is one of the most significant cosmic-mystical guides for our time. To the challenging demands of today marked by the befriending of science and religion, global consciousness, the advancements in technology, ecological issues, divisive and alienating communities, and a global pandemic, he offers a sense of direction – a vision of hope which resides in the reclaiming of the mystical presence of Spirit in Creation. He was a cosmic mystic to the very core of his being. All one needs to do is to read ‘the mass on the world’ in his book, The Hymn of the Universe. The implications, to live from Creation’s cosmic mysticism will demand the challenging martyrdom of moving from comfort zones individually, communally, institutionally, and theologically. Are we ready, are we willing for this mammoth responsibility is the question?
He believed that the mystical journey was an entry into evolution – nature’s marriage of Spirit and Matter. The texture-fabric of matter for de Chardin was Christ – Christic Love. This marriage of Spirit and Matter manifested itself in Creation-Incarnation – nature’s community of all the living and nonliving components of the Earth, and the human as a member of this living community, as was Jesus of Nazareth. The Divine cosmic love story for him was and continues to be organically composed and narrated in nature, in us, for we are born of nature -“All that exist is matter becoming”.
He was not alone among the mystics to acknowledge the Presence of God in nature: Julian of Norwich, “God is the same thing as nature”, Meister Eckhart, “Nature is grace”, and Hildegard of Bingen, “We have neglected our erotic bond with nature and the Divine’s erotic bond with nature”. Let us begin to remember once again who we are, from where we have come: to remember makes possible what IS.
Ponder: The Presence of God resides in nature, we are not separate from nature, we are born of nature, we are then by nature mystics.
Ponder: Psalm 46:10 and Hebrew 12:18-24
Recall: your moments when you were awakened by the allurement of the mystical.
Take a nature – walk
The Hymn of the Universe, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
The Heart of the Matter, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Laudato Si’, Pope Francis
Fifth Sunday of Lent
substance of the soul
truth is the soul’s substance
a secret language
born of the center
far from the confines of the ego
steadies the heart’s resolve
in its own potency.
Last week’s reflection highlighted the scientist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of hope – the mystical Presence of God encountered in the marriage of Spirit and Matter. The unity of Spirit and Matter captivated him like bees to nectar, resulting in a holistic vision of the unity between God, humankind, and the world – a Trinitarian image, and evolution as a mystical experience of communion with the Divine.
Actually, his whole life was a passionate effort to integrate his scientific understanding of the evolutionary process – the unity of Spirit and Matter with his religious beliefs. Here might be a good place to insert a sort of description of evolution. Evolution is all the elements: fire, atoms, electrons, particles, protons, cells, etc. acting together, acting on one another, interacting with one another. And when the time is right, processes of union happen, whereby the various elements affect one another, create new unified things, universes, and eventually life, creatures and humans that never existed before, but which are now able to act as integral units in themselves, all under the unifying creative impulse of Spirit.
Sometimes, an image or metaphor is helpful in understanding evolution. The art of weaving is helpful for me. Evolution is the Loom of Life, God is the Divine Weaver, the elements of evolution are the threads that intersect, and bond together, thus forwarding the evolutionary process – the Tapestry of Creation.
He perused relentlessly, the meaning and implications of evolution – an emerging universe for Christianity. He saw Christianity as a religion of evolution – the way God continuously creates the world and humans. If God is continuing to create, this implies that Creation, and the human as well, are unfinished. The question becomes, who are we becoming? What is our purpose in evolution? What, then is evolution’s purpose? Let us see.
Most of us are not scientists. However, we are challenged in the twenty-first century to an intelligible faith response, shaped by today’s scientific discoveries. At the Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World promoted Teilhard’s position, to rethink Christian faith in harmony with the new science of an evolutionary universe. =
Such a rethinking requires a shift in God’s image as Creator, and solicits great trust in a God of evolution. Trusting that God’s creative Presence, Love, is unifying Spirit and Matter into a Tapestry of Love, as it were. In Pierre de Chardin’s words, “God creates by uniting…far from matter disappearing in Spirit, it is in Spirit that it is consummated.” We need to begin to think of God’s Presence, Love, as the inner dynamic, mover of the world, or put another way, evolution is the unfolding process of God in love with the world. This is a major shift in human-spiritual consciousness, for so often, and for too long, the world and God were perceived as separate, thus missing the mystical Presence of God in the natural world.
Rethinking will also require conversion. A turning from old and often unintelligible belief systems, doctrines, and how to think and speak about God, to a turning to new ways of understanding the Divine, the human, and an evolving world in relationship – the Divine Plan still in process. If we can make this turning – conversion, we will come to a renewed mysticism of a living faith that speaks to the human family, seeking meaningful answers to the perennial questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life?
The objective, the intent of God in Creation-the evolutionary process, is to gather all of Creation together into a community of love – the Trinity. God’s creative Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, and the Christ event in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are paramount. Pierre believed that the animating center – love energy within evolution, was Christic Love which he identified as Omega. Christ-Omega, the risen Christ, becomes the unifying energy of the marriage of Spirit and Matter, and of always arriving in the future. And when completed, there will be one common humanity inclusive of all of Creation – one Person, the Christ, in whom God will be all in all. This in essence is the purpose of evolution – the consummation of all Creation into the Trinitarian Community.
He saw the human as “…the world come conscious of itself…we are the stuff of the universe…becoming reflected consciousness”. He also held firmly to the conviction that the Christian life and the Christian are essential to the progress-advancement of evolution. He saw the role of the Christian as an essential responsibility to participate in the world, not to withdraw from the world, but to be co-creators with Christ-Onega in evolution. The Christian then is to make the future possible, the marriage of Spirit and Matter – the Tapestry of Love, in and by his or her actions of love and compassion in the world, embracing all of creation.
Ponder: John1:1-4; Proverbs 8:22-31; Matthew 5:1-12; Matthew 25: 31-46
Evolution is a cosmic birthing process by which all is gathered together into love.
Let Love flow within and over you.
Action: Do something loving for someone.
Hymn of the Universe: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
God’s Ecstasy: The Creation of a Self-Creating World: Beatrice Bruteau
Christ in Evolution: Ilia Delio