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Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic
Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic

Strength in All Things

Friday, March 25, 2022

For Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941), the renowned writer on mysticism, the impact of Paul’s mystical experience was an all-pervading belief that Christ’s love was with him in all things, especially suffering:

We misunderstand St. Paul’s mysticism if we confuse it with its more sensational expressions. As his spiritual life matured his conviction of union with the Spirit of Christ became deeper and more stable. . . . Its keynote is struck in the great saying of his last authentic letter: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). This statement has long ago been diluted to the pious level, and we have ceased to realize how startling it was and is. But St. Paul used it in the most practical sense, in a letter written from prison after twelve years of superhuman toil, privation, and ill-usage, accompanied by chronic ill-health; years which had included scourgings, stonings, shipwreck, imprisonments, “in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Corinthians 11:26–27). These, and not his spiritual activities and successes alone, are among the memories which would be present in St. Paul’s consciousness when he declared his ability “to do all things.” [1]

Author and professor Julia Gatta describes the heart of the apostle Paul’s ministry as holding the paradox of suffering and new life, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, together:

Suffering and death are everywhere, from roadkill to mass shootings to tsunamis: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only creation, but we ourselves . . .” (Romans 8:22–23). Paul’s metaphor of “labor pains” implies that suffering is woven into the process of creation from the very start, and it continues through the birth of the new creation. . . .

We experience resurrection, as St. Paul did, embedded in travail itself: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:8–10). Without the resurrection to enliven his experience of suffering, Paul would have been both afflicted and crushed, perplexed and driven to despair, struck down and destroyed. But he is not. The Risen Christ illumines everything. . . . According to the gospel accounts, the risen Jesus repeatedly displays his wounds: they are not left behind. Christ is both crucified and risen, and baptism is immersion into both sides of this paschal mystery. The resurrection irradiates present affliction with hope streaming to us from the glory yet to be revealed. [2]

[1] Evelyn Underhill, The Mystics of the Church (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1988), 45–46.

[2] Julia Gatta, Life in Christ: Practicing Christian Spirituality (New York: Church Publishing, 2018), 30–31, 36.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, Trash Can Study I (detail), 2020, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Dorothea Lange, “Bum blockade.” (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain. Jenna Keiper, Trash Can Study II (detail), 2020, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image Inspiration: The images on the left and right may not be immediately clear upon first glance. Perhaps there is room for our questions to stay with us gently, taking their time, until understanding slowly emerges as we walk along.

Story from Our Community:

Right this moment, I have had to let go. The three dearest desires of my heart have reached dead ends. I have even lost my physical mobility from falling while preparing for a birthday gathering. The only thing I am certain of is the faithful love of Christ. I am coming to understand what St Paul means in saying that we are people of the Spirit and not of the flesh. I am coming to know God better by walking with Him through this desert.
—Elise N.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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