|Christian Mystics by Florian
Karl Rahner is credited with stating that today when it comes to Christianity one is either a mystic or a nonbeliever. Gone are the days when one could coast through on being a christian by living in a culture that was, at least, christian in name. Today our society is more agnostic, more secular, more pluralistic and much more distracting. This is just the way it is – for good and for woe. One can no longer get by as a christian by running on the fumes of others. Our culture and even our communities and families no longer carry the faith for us. If we are to be christian then we must carry the faith on our own. In other words, we must be willing to be mystics.
Rahner’s observation then raises the question, “How might we learn to be mystics? How might we truly grasp and live the christian faith in our particular day and time?” I would suggest that both our faith tradition and this Sunday’s readings give us three points of consideration.
The first point in Christian Mysticism 101 is to learn how to ponder in the Scriptural and Hebraic sense of the term. In our western pragmatic mindset we tend to equate pondering with figuring out and solving. The Scriptural understanding is more nuanced though. In Hebrew thought to ponder does not mean to figure out but to be able to hold the tensions of life together and to remain within that tension in hope and in obedience. The primary witness of this ability to ponder on the mysteries of life and faith is Mary. Mary pondered at the words of the archangel Gabriel. When Mary, Joseph and the twelve year old Jesus were returning from their visit to Jerusalem we are told that Mary held all that had occurred and been spoken in her heart. Mary remained at the foot of the cross in the midst of pain and hurt. She held that tension in her heart.
In today’s gospel (Mk. 4:26-34) we hear our Lord say to the crowd, “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”
There is a mystery to life and to faith that is beyond our reckoning and our ability. This is not a lazy excuse on our part. We certainly have a part to play but the primary role is God’s. The mystic learns to watch in awe at God’s unfolding work. God is building his kingdom and despite any sign to the contrary it will be achieved. Holding the tensions of life opens our eyes to glimpse this and it also makes of us better people.
The second lesson in christian mysticism is found in the image of the mustard seed. Again, in today’s gospel we hear our Lord say, “To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
In his second volume on Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict uses the image of the mustard seed to epitomize the resurrection. This might seem counter-intuitive to us but the Holy Father is making a wise observation. The resurrection of Christ is the smallest mustard seed of history precisely because it is the most improbable of occurrences in history. Who rises from the dead? Throughout history who has ever heard of such a thing or thought such a thing even possible? Yet all creation and all time is being sanctified through this most improbable of occurrences, this smallest of mustard seeds. “But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches…”
Once again, the christian mystic learns to trust that God is at work even in the smallest of moments, occurrences and encounters. The mystic learns that there really is no such thing as coincidence. Rather all is providence.
The third lesson is to trust and believe in a personal God. This might seem commonsense when we consider Christianity but it may not be as common nor as sensible in many peoples eyes (ourselves included) as we often suppose. Why? Because a personal God will make personal demands upon me. Even as we might profess Christianity we are quite inventive about keeping the Christian faith a bit removed as just a moral code or social justice doctrine or good principles to aspire to. We are also quite adept at keeping Jesus locked in as just another teacher or guru from the past. The mystic is far from comfortable with this comfortable approach to faith and discipleship. Because of this he or she will often feel alone and out of step with the world and even others who may profess Christianity. The mystic knows of what is written in today’s second reading (2 Cor. 5:6-10) because he or she is seeking by God’s grace to live it.
“Brothers and sisters: We are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord. Therefore, we aspire to please him whether we are at home or away. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or ill.”
The depth and challenge of this aspiration to please God can only come about and be achieved through a relationship with a personal God. God as a nice theory or life philosophy does not cut it. God encounters us (and often in the most surprising of places and situations). The mystic comes to recognize this.
It is no longer enough to just coast in the Christian faith. One might try but when the bitter winds of pain, remorse, sin and even evil are encountered such a one will be lost. The stopgaps are gone. Again, for better or for woe, there are no longer the social structures to blunt the wind.
Today, to be a christian means to be a mystic and to ground ourselves within a community of mystics.