In the last few years, I’ve noticed that my interests have shifted somewhat from the purely intellectual to a greater focus on aesthetic pursuits. In my faith, this shift has led me from being virtually consumed with apologetics (an intellectual defense of the faith, which, by the way, still interests me) to greater focus on Christian spirituality, including an interest in Christian mysticism.
Recently, my friend and colleague, Dr. Ruth Schiller, lent me a book that really is astounding me at every turn: “Why the Mystics Matter Now,” by Frederick Bauerschmidt. I know I love this book because I find myself daydreaming about giving it as a present to every serious Christian that I know! Basically, the book attempts to connect some of the thinking of some of the great Christian mystics to problems commonly encountered today. I cannot remember reading something so honest, insightful, or novel. Given this, I want to begin a series of posts on each major chapter, allowing myself space to more fully reflect on the meaning and applicability of its major ideas.
Before beginning discussion of the first major topic, I want to address an introductory issue: What is mysticism? It is fascinating to me that Bauerschmidt notes that the adjective “mystical” wasn’t used widely until the 16th or 17th centuries. Before this time, the term “mystical” was used to refer to a depth of experience of God, but it was something expected of all Christians. As he states: “. . . the path of the mystical tradition is simply a way of recognizing one’s fundamental receptivity before God and of entrusting oneself to God’s Spirit.”
The first major chapter of the book is a reflection on “How to Live in a World Without God.” To help with this, Therese of Lisieux’s trials of faith are discussed. I reflect on the major ideas presented below.
An important feature of Therese’s life story is from one of a pure, almost childlike faith in God to a sincere struggle with doubt. As she one time wrote:
“He permitted my soul to be invaded by the thickest darkness, and that the thought of heaven, up until then so sweet to me, be no longer anything but the cause of struggle and torment. This trial was not to last a few days or a few weeks, it was not to be extinguished until the hour set by God Himself and this hour has not yet come. . .”
First off, I must say that I really resonate with what Therese is saying. When I am intellectually honest with myself, I, too, must admit serious doubts about the existence of God, Deity of Jesus, truthfulness of an afterlife, etc. Certain arguments still lead me to believe, but doubts painfully linger. At the same time, I also doubt the credibility of arguments for atheism and other belief systems as well, which often leads me to a profound sense of agnosticism. Typically, I try to act in faith, assuming that Christian precepts are true. This, I believe, is the essence of faith, which the author of Hebrews states is the “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Still, I honestly have a sense for this darkness that Therese wrote about. It is refreshing to read a great Christian wrestle with the same basic problem.
I don’t think I’m the only one. Intellectual doubt in God is widespread. And, how couldn’t it be? It’s hard enough to commit to a spouse in marriage. How does one commit to an Entity that one likely has never directly seen or heard?
Yet, in the midst of this darkness, Therese found peace. Bauerschmidt uses this as a launching pad to consider how individuals can find God in an experience of God’s absence and other problems. He notes:
“Perhaps the genius of Therese’s spirituality is that she locates the encounter with God in the midst of what, in the modern-day world, seems most bereft of God: everyday life. She described herself as following a ‘little way’ – a spiritual path made up not of great sacrifices or extraordinary experiences, but of trying to bring the love of the crucified Jesus to the most mundane, seemingly Godless situations. . . Therese saw everyday life as constantly presenting us with opportunities to respond with love rather than anger, irritation, or disgust. And when Therese entered into the darkness of her trial of faith, when God fled from her experience, she persisted in seeking God in the everyday. Faithfulness to the God she could no longer see took the form of love and generosity toward [others], whom she could see. Heaven may have been closed to her, prayer may have become painful, but by her taking up the task of bringing Jesus’ love into each moment of her day, Therese sought to re-enchant those moments, even if this re-enchantment was a reality that remained hidden from her.”
What I love about this is that it provides a path out of darkness through a focus on action, despite a lack of feeling. All too often, I fear, my feelings get the best of me. I consistently expect mountaintop spiritual experiences, but mostly, I believe, God calls me to love the people I consistently live life with in a way that demonstrates my commitments more than makes me feel good. This is true even when, or maybe even especially when, I don’t feel like doing so. Surely, this was exemplified by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
“It is precisely when God is most hidden from Therese, when she is gripped by the Godlessness of her experience, that she turns her faith entirely over to God. . . Therese must trust the abyss, must greet it as the infinity of God’s love and not as God’s annihilating absence. But she must do this against all evidence, against all feeling. She must abandon herself to the love of God whom she cannot see or feel. . . For Therese, the experience of God’s absence becomes what Jesus meant by ‘poverty of spirit.’ It is to the poor, the hungry, and the mourning that God promises the Kingdom.”
This surrendering is difficult for me, and I imagine it is for others as well. The most difficult part is letting go of control. Yet, this is as difficult as I allow it to be. The more I realize that I am not ultimately in control, the more I am able to let go of this delusion that I am in control and trust. Therese provides an excellent role model here, again, in spite of a lack of feeling. As in most important things in life, one must choose.