The following is a transcript of a Raised Catholic Podcast episode. To listen to the episode, click here.
Today is episode 58: Mystical Union
Well, hi friends. As I said in last week’s episode, here on the Raised Catholic podcast we’re going on a bit of a journey into mysticism as we begin this new year. Last week we had an overview of sorts and today we’ll talk about the definition and universality of mysticism plus tell the story of a few saints whose mystical experiences defined so much of the Church’s understanding of God. And while we do all that, we’ll try to move ourselves away from feeling that mysticism is something ‘old’ or for ‘old dusty saints’ or for ‘other, more holier people’ than we are. Mysticism really is for everyone.
First, here’s a working definition for us. A mystical experience is intuitive knowledge of spiritual truth by way of contemplation and direct communion with God. Every world religion claims its mystics – there are the Catholic mystics that we might have heard about but also Christian mystics from the larger church, and there are Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu mystics as well. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Mysticism is the sense of some form of contact with the divine or transcendent, often understood in Christian tradition as involving union with God.” That ‘union’ between God and a human is what makes an experience mystical. It’s often described as timeless or abundantly peaceful or joyful, even ecstatic, and the knowledge or understanding that might come from that experience is very good fruit that often serves not just that particular human but the larger community, and in a few cases, the fruit of these encounters benefits all of humanity from that time on. If you were born and raised Catholic, that can seem like a pretty high bar, I know, but as I will continually remind you, friends, mysticism is accessible to everyone and it can be as simple as a story I once heard about a humble man, either sitting in a church or working in a field, depending on which story you’re drawing from, but anyway, in response to the question of what he was doing while just sort of sitting or standing that day, this everyday mystic replied, “I look at Him and He looks at me.”
As we look back on the early Church, we see lots of examples of this kind of mystical union. The apostle Paul experienced the risen Christ as a blinding light when he was still Saul, a pharisee who was persecuting Christians. Saul was transformed, which is a hallmark of mystical experience, and his rebirth is reflected in a whole new name. From that day, Paul went on to experience visions, dreams, groundbreaking insight and language around the nature of God, as well as many miracles, too.
It’s been said that Paul can be a hard person to get to know in the Scriptures. He can sound sort of bossy and controlling at times, and this might be in part his personality, but his mystical experiences may play a role as well. Fr. Richard Rohr says,
“All I mean by mysticism is experience-based religion whereby you come to really know something for yourself. It’s not just believing something; it’s knowing something. That’s why Paul is able to speak with such authority. He’s constantly saying, “I know, and I know that I know. I’m telling you what the Spirit has taught me.”
Experience-based religion is just another way to say ‘mystical encounter’, and this is something that’s available to all of us.
To me, a mystical encounter feels at first like a nudge, like a sort of ‘pay attention to this’, but it might also feel like an unexplained wave of peace or joy. It may appear as a picture or symbols that make me want to stop and contemplate for a while. It may feel like an insight that’s hard to put into words, or like time has stopped just for a moment. And this is the reality that we know from the Scriptures, that we are one with God, part of Christ’s body, but in a mystical moment, we experience that truth as real. We can read about the reality that God is love every day of our lives, but experiencing that as a knowing – well, that is something that can change us forever.
Julian of Norwich, a 14th century English mystic, wrote of one of her revelations of Divine love,
““Greatly ought we to rejoice that God dwells in our soul; and more greatly ought we rejoice that our soul dwells in God….I saw no difference between God and our substance, but, as it were, all God; [I]t is nothing else than right understanding with true belief and certain trust in our being, that we are in God, and he is in us, which we do not see.”
She also said,
“so truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother…What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing. Know it well, love was his meaning…Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love.”
A mystical experience of knowing God as love and of union with Him will bear such good fruit, and we’ll talk more about the abundant good fruit of mysticism next week, but it can also spill over into clarity about who we actually are in relation to each other, and that is very good fruit indeed, especially today. If you were walking around downtown Louisville, Kentucky today, you’d find a plaque and what may be the only historical marker of a mystical experience found in the United States. Trappist monk and beloved author Thomas Merton describes what happened on that commemorated day in March of 1958. But as you might notice, friends, if you were there, you would not have seen a thing. Merton says,
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.”
If only we could see each other that way all the time. Hmm.
It’s interesting to note that Merton’s language about us all ‘shining like the sun’ is very similar to that of 12thcentury mystic St. Hildegard of Bingen. In her visions, God caused her to see humans as “living sparks” of God’s love, “coming from God as daylight comes from the sun.” This overlap of language makes my heart so full – it’s like a shared vocabularly, but many, many miles and many centuries apart, and I love that, don’t you?
The experiences I’ve described today can seem sort of simple, I guess – they might easily be dismissed as childish imaginings if they hadn’t provided so much of the context of what our faith professes today. If you were born and raised Catholic, it may seem safer to stick to the prescribed prayers and routines that you were taught as a child, but friend, I hope we can open ourselves a bit to something more. My hope is that these accounts have you thinking about times in your own life – moments of union with God, of joy spilling over, of timelessness and clarity about the nature of humanity and about our connection to each other. And I hope you look on those times with a bit more weight now. I hope that you know that your experiences with God are just as valuable, just as holy as the ones I shared here today.
I’ll leave you today with an everyday mystical experience of my own, something which I hope is relatable to your experience. Let’s see.
Years ago, I had just dropped off my daughter at a very early morning bus for a school trip and was enjoying the mostly empty streets on my ride home. Something about the light of that time of day cast everything in a rosy glow, and it occurred to me in a flash that the day and the streets and the buildings were a stage of sorts and that we humans were preparing to take our places once again as that day began. I felt that if I tapped any one of those buildings with the tip of my finger, they’d fall over like cardboard, and I immediately understood the short span of our lives and the opportunity of that day as golden. It made my heart so full and brought me such joy and peace. I wanted to hold on to that feeling forever, but in a minute, it passed, and I went on about my day.
Still, it’s a memory that I hold onto, and our own encounters can be that for each of us, touchstones, some solid truth to refer to and to remember. As Fr. Rohr said, “to know and to know that we know.” That’s what a mystical lens is all about, and it is a gift from God who loves us so dearly, so let’s practice using ours today.
Well, thanks so much for listening today, friend. I want to let you know about an upcoming forum that I’ll be a part of on February 22nd, and I hope you will be, too! It’s a roundtable on the topic of finding faith even in the midst of a broken church. It’s sponsored by the Cenacle Sisters in Chicago, and it looks like it’s going to be a wonderful conversation, so I hope you will join us via zoom. I’ll put the details for that in the show notes, and if you have any questions, please let me know, but I hope you’ll join us!
Okay, so next time, we’ll talk about the good fruit of mysticism for us as individuals and for our Church and then we’ll finish the series with a primer of practical steps to help us to develop our mystical lens for ourselves. In the meantime, if you’d like to connect with me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my blog at mylittleepiphanies.com. If you’d like to support this podcast financially, you can do that over on my page at buymeacoffee.com and I’ll put a link in the show notes to help you do that, so thanks. Also in the show notes are lots of resources which will help you to explore this topic in a deeper way on your own, so do check those out, but for now, let’s pray together.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
God, you’re continually speaking to us in love. Help us to hear, see, and discern as you communicate the beautiful truth of our union with you and our vital connection to each other. St. Paul, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, and St. Hildegard, pray for us and our dear ones, too.
In the name of Jesus and wrapped in the mantle of His Mother Mary, we pray, amen.
Well, thanks so much for listening today, friend, and I’ll see you next time.