Inner Experience — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Inner Experience

Disciples, Prophets, and Mystics

Inner Experience

Wednesday, March 18

While most Christians consider themselves disciples of Jesus and try to follow his teachings, a much smaller number move toward practical acts of service or solidarity. But I’m afraid even fewer Christians have the courage to go on the much deeper mystical path. Both Catholics and Protestants have failed our people by mystifying the very notion of mysticism. The word itself has become relegated to a “misty” and distant realm that implies it is only available to very few and something not to be trusted, much less attractive or desirable. For me, the word “mysticism” simply means experiential knowledge of spiritual things, as opposed to book knowledge, secondhand knowledge, or even church knowledge.

Most of organized religion, without meaning to, has actually discouraged us from taking the mystical path by telling us almost exclusively to trust outer authority—in the form of Scripture, tradition, or various kinds of experts—instead of telling us the value and importance of inner experience. (I call that trusting the “containers” instead of the “contents.”) In fact, most of us were strongly warned against ever trusting ourselves, told that our personal experiences of the divine were unnecessary and possibly even dangerous.

Discouraging or denying people’s actual experiences of God often created passive people and, more sadly, a lot of people who concluded that there was no God to be experienced! We were taught to mistrust our own souls—and thus the Holy Spirit within us. We can contrast that with Jesus’ common phrase, “Go in peace, your faith has made you whole!” (as in Mark 5:34 and Luke 17:19). He said this to people who had made no dogmatic affirmations, did not think he was “God,” did not pass any moral checklist, and often did not belong to the “correct” group. They were simply people who trustfully affirmed, with open hearts, the grace of their own hungry experience—in that moment—and that God could care about it.

The irony in all of these attempts to over-rely on externals is that people end up relying upon their own experience anyway! Most of us—by necessity—see everything, mystical and otherwise, through the lens of our own temperament, early conditioning, brain function, role and place in society, education, our personal needs, and cultural biases and assumptions. Admittedly, personal experiences are easy to misinterpret, and we shouldn’t universalize from our “moment” to an expectation that everybody must have the same kind of “moment.” We also can’t assume that any experience is 100 percent from God. We must develop filters to clear away our own agenda and ego. Nothing beats a solid understanding of some theology, psychology, and sociology, along with good and wise counsel. We cannot forget Paul’s reminder which was meant to keep us humble: “We know imperfectly and we prophesy imperfectly” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 1-3. For more on this theme, join CAC’s online course The Franciscan Way: Beyond the Bird Bath

Image credit: Santa Teresa de Jesús (St. Teresa of Ávila) (detail), José Alcázar Tejedor, 1884, Museo del Prado, Madrid, España (currently at the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, España).
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: [A] notable characteristic of the mystical tradition has been the very large number of women who feature prominently in it, women who wrote extensively about their mystical experiences and acted as advisers and counselors to men and women of all kinds. —Richard Rohr
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