Mysticism: It’s Not Just for Saints

Thomas Merton, Catholic writer and mystic
Thomas Merton, Catholic writer and mystic

When I told an elderly Trappist monk that I was writing a book about Christian mysticism, he scoffed. “Not everyone is called to be a mystic,” he objected. “But doesn’t God want us to be in union with him?” I replied. “Well, yes,” he admitted, “we are all called to holiness but not all to mysticism.”

I disagreed with him — not about holiness, but about his assumption that holiness and mysticism are so disconnected. As I see it, holiness (expressing God’s love to the world) rests on mysticism, which I would define in a very humble way as the process of cultivating intimacy with God.

My friend the monk thought only someone with “special graces or extraordinary signs,” could be a mystic — which is to say, a spiritual genius along the lines of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Ávila, or Thomas Merton. Certainly such singular mystics are the gold standard by which we all understand mysticism. But even the Catholic Catechism points out, “God calls us all to this intimate union with him” (#2014)  — which means everyone is called to be a mystic, just as we are all called to be saints.

My Trappist friend and I would see eye-to-eye by agreeing that not all of us are called to be extraordinary mystics. But that’s like saying not every guitarist plays like Eric Clapton. Those of us with ordinary musical ability who make the effort to learn and practice the guitar can be good, perhaps great, certainly accomplished. But only a few will be geniuses. Likewise, we are all called to be mystics and those who immerse themselves in the life of prayer, contemplation, scripture, and the sacraments, may enjoy profound union with God — even if they never approach the lofty vision of one of the “great” mystics.

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What makes a mystic, well, “mystical”? Mystic and related words come from the Greek language — from the same word which gives us mystery and even sacraments. But the Greek root word, mueo, also gives us the English word mute. So a mystic is someone who enters the mystery of God. And a mystic also, and therefore, is someone whose spirituality is muted (in other words, profoundly silent) — which is to say it cannot even be put into words. It’s the silence of a monastery, understood not merely as the absence of sound (or thoughts, or words), but as an opening that allows us to discern the quiet presence of God.

A mystic, in the broadest and must humble sense of the word, is simply someone whose relationship with God is primarily contemplative. Someone who prays, and who prays silently, opening the heart to the presence of God, which cannot ever be fully put into words.

RELATED: Julian of Norwich: Revealing Divine Love

Nevertheless, some mystics of nearly every generation have tried to communicate the story of their encounter with God in written form, which is why we have spiritual classics from the hand of the great mystics. When we read the writings of the mystics, we discover that there is tremendous variety and beautiful diversity in how people receive God into their lives. Our job, in our time, is not merely to try to replicate the spirituality of the great mystics of the past, but to immerse ourselves in their wisdom to find inspiration for God to lead us into our unique expression of intimate union with Him.

How can ordinary folks like you and me begin to embrace the beauty of mystical, contemplative spirituality in our lives? Here are three steps anyone can take.

1. Visit a monastery. I don’t mean just stop by to grab a fruitcake from the gift shop. But actually spend some time there: an entire day, or even a weekend retreat. Participate in the prayers of the monks or nuns, and if possible, arrange to meet with one of the brothers or sisters to talk about your spiritual life. Monasteries are great places to turn off your smartphone and detach.

2. Learn to pray silently. This does not replace vocal prayer forms, like the Rosary. But to seek the mystery that cannot be put into words, try praying in a “wordless” way. Our minds, of course, love language, so when we try to be silent before God we often just discover the frenzy of our interior thoughts. One solution to this, dating back to the early centuries of the Church, is to repeatedly pray the name of Jesus, even synchronizing it with the breath.

3. Read the writings of the mystics. It would take a lifetime to read all the great mystics, but several works are regarded as perennial classics. I would especially recommend Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” Teresa of Ávila’s “Interior Castle,” and Julian of Norwich’s “Revelations of Divine Love.” Remember, mystical writing needs to be read slowly and prayerfully — read not for information, but for formation as you prayerfully seek God’s presence in your life.