Mystics and the Mystical Tradition of the Church
Lenten Reflections with Sheila O’Handley, Diocesan hermit
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
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 will 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