Spiritual Reading 11

11. The Mystics’ God

Mysticism is direct unbrokered contact with God. A mystical consciousness has also grasped that the divine life is one with our life, not identical but not separate either. Thus experience of the depths of ourselves, where we are silent and free of ego, is the experience of God. This is what is meant by God as an intrapsychic reality. Intrapsychic does not mean conjured or created by the mind. Intrapsychic in this context refers to the interior truth of the psyche, what Huston Smith calls “the beyond within” and what Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the beyond in our midst.” The history of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus happened mainly among the mystics. To be drawn to the mystical life and to live it in some way is the essence of devotion to the Sacred Heart.

St. Paul heard God’s voice above but felt the indwelling presence of Christ as immediate union. Thus, psyche, i.e., the soul, or life, is rendered “heart” in Eph. 6:6: “doing the will of God from the heart.” The experience of St. Paul presents the divine as an inner or deep reality within but also as the goodness in us that continually diffuses itself in the world. Indeed our expression of love for others is the presence of God in the world. The divine in our inner stillness becomes the divine in daily action and this combination is holiness.

The reason we can appreciate a divine presence in our human depths is that they are not simply personal. Using the limited metaphor of depth we can say that they are transpersonal and universal i.e., not under the influence of our limited ego. Depth does not mean far inside but ever-opening interiority, replete with endless possibility. The image of the Sacred Heart has depth when it points back to us and out to the world. Our spiritual depths are the same as those of all other beings and of nature. They are not limited or individual, like personalities, but infinite like outer space. These depths are what the mystics mean by God, an unlimited spaciousness in us and throughout the entire universe. Such a mystery cannot be grasped by logic or thought but only sensed and felt. Entering the mystery of God and ourselves does not take thought but awe.

Both the word God and words about God are metaphors. Words are only pointers. Metaphor in religious terms is not simply a literary device but refers to the fact that something has more meaning than can be accommodated by any literal definition. William James used the word “More” to refer to the transcendent. This More is a way of referring to the transcendent God. Reality includes More than can be grasped by the senses, More than can be measured by our limited means, More than we imagine possible. The German renaissance theologian and mystic Nicholas of Cusa calls God “a metaphor for a mystery, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” Each of us and everything in nature is a center and there is no outer limit. Thus God is incarnate in us and limitless in the universe—immanent and transcendent as mystics realized.

Whether we configure God as a person or as the More Within as well as the More Surrounding us, devotion makes our relationship to God personal, that is, full of human passion and lively energy. This is why devotion is an essential element in a relationship to God. Devotion brings personal responsiveness, feeling, and passion to our spirituality. Indeed, our lively energy is actually the urge of the higher Self to come to life in individual consciousness. Devotion lets the life force bloom.

The mystic St. Catherine of Genoa, referred to the intrapsychic More in this way: “Nor can I say anymore: My God and my All. Everything is mine, for all that is God’s seems to be now entirely mine. I am mute and lost in God.” In The Interior Castle Jesus communicates something similar to St. Theresa of Avila: “Seek yourself in me.” The spiritually conscious scientist, Peter Russell, says: “’Be still and know that I am God’ is knowing that the I am is God.” This wisdom is our heritage, intuitively known by sages and saints, from ancient times. Mystical wisdom validates and values our humanity so definitely. God within means self esteem is a spiritual certainty!

Jesus is the first mystic of Christianity. He prayed deeply and alone, spent long hours in contemplation, had visions, heard from and spoke to God directly without mediators, was filled with wisdom, acted with compassion, and enjoyed an intimate relationship with and devotion to God as one with himself. These are all qualities of mysticism.

Mystics realize that the sense of a self is not all there is to consciousness. In the mystical view, the Higher Self is usually not separate from ego and personality but intimately one with all the psychic processes. Some mystics do preserve the sense of God’s transcendence, e.g., those referring to “the Beloved.” For most, there is no I-Thou left but only God. Meister Eckhart states it this way: “In a breakthrough, I find that God and I are both the same.... Love God as he is: a not-God, a not-spirit, a not-person, a not-image, a sheer, pure, limpid unity, free of all duality.” In The Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross adds: “God communicates to the soul his supernatural being so that the soul appears to be God himself and has all that God himself has…. All the things of God and the soul are one in participant transformation, and the soul seems to be God rather than the soul, and indeed is God by participation.”

Mystical consciousness is called apophatic, which we can distinguish from the cataphatic experience of the divine:

Cataphatic refers to the clearly lighted path. It involves affectively and intellectually responding to teachings and images with the active use of reason, imagination, and memory in order to assimilate the truths of faith and grow in love. This is the knowing mind of a believer. “I know that my redeemer lives and that I shall see him on the last day.” Job 19:25

Apophatic is the dark path. It is resting in God beyond concepts and actions and maintaining a loving attention to the divine presence. This is the don’t-know mind of mysticism. St. John of the Cross opens one of his poems this way: “I entered I knew not where and there I stood not knowing: nothing left to know.”

Mystical consciousness requires a dissolution of ego as a willingness to go into the dark void, the formless definition-less space that lies at the base of all reality. There we lose our habitual sense of self. This is terrifying in proportion to how attached we are to a separate identity, i.e., one deprived of universal expansiveness. A mystical experience renders thought irrelevant and that can feel like loss of ourselves and a consequent chaos. Mysticism is lofty, joyous, and peace-giving. But the price for this level of consciousness is facing terror and takes intense courage. St. John of the Cross says it this way: “Swiftly, with nothing spared, I am being completely dismantled.” Are we ready for that?

In the depths of ourselves we always knew the ego was not all there was to us. A hidden life abides in us and the mystics lived from that place and called it God. Just as only a few saw the risen Christ, only a few see the deeper reality of religion. Mysticism does not devalue religion but rather revalues it at a different level. Mystics have grasped the fact that religious maturity does not happen because of beliefs but because of ego-transcendence that leads us to act lovingly, wisely, and healingly in the face of life’s inexorable conditions. These are Jesus’ virtues and how he pronounced his unconditional Yes to human conditions.

Finally, we might ask if mystical consciousness renders us less able to live life’s daily routine. Toward the end of her life, when she wrote The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila did not alternate between moments of rapture and ordinary consciousness anymore. Her mystical consciousness pervaded her entire daily life. Her ordinary consciousness had become rapturous but she went on with her routine tasks with responsibility and patience. This fits with D.T. Suzuki’s answer to the question “What if someone became enlightened while he was chopping wood?” “He would go right on chopping.”

The recovery of Paradise is the discovery of the kingdom of God within…. It is the recovery of man’s lost likeness to God in pure, undivided simplicity.

–Thomas Merton