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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Fr. Martin on mystical experience

Today I read an article by Fr. James Martin SJ on mysticism. After reading it, I walked to the window and stared out at the clouds. I was thinking in my head .... "It's been a long time since I've had any of what I'd call mystical experiences and I don't know if those were real - maybe I just made them up. It's getting harder and harder to believe in God. If God's really there, why doesn't he ...." And then I had a sudden feeling, so strange it made me stop in mid-thought. By the time I realized it had happened it was already over, like the way something can hurt so much, be so shocking, that it takes your breath away (I stub my toes a lot :) but is over before you can even really react. The feeling was gone so fast it's hard to re-feel it, but I remember it was for a moment like being a different person, one without all my worries and a completely different, sort of exalted perspective. Hard to explain. And as soon as it was over, I was thinking .... "That doesn't count." But still, I thought I'd write it down anyway :) Here's part of Fr. Martin's article ......


Want to Experience God? You Already Have: Uncommon Longings

Ever said to yourself, "I would believe in God if only I had some distinct experience of God?" .....

"Mysticism" is often dismissed as a privileged experience for only the super-holy. But mysticism is not confined to the lives of the saints. Nor does each mystical experience have to replicate exactly what the saints describe in their writings.

In her superb book Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun, says bluntly that mysticism is not simply the province of the saints. "For what is the mystical life but God coming to do what we cannot do; God touching the depths of our being where man is reduced to his basic element?" Karl Rahner, the 20th-century German Jesuit theologian, spoke of "everyday mysticism."

What does it mean to have a "mystical" experience?

One definition is that a mystical experience is one in which you feel filled with God's presence in an intense and unmistakable way. Or you feel "lifted up" from the normal way of seeing things. Or you are simply overwhelmed with the sense of God in a way that seems to transcend your own understanding.

Needless to say, these experiences are hard to put into words. It's the same as trying to describe the first time you fell in love, or held your newborn child in your arms, or saw the ocean for the first time. But just because they are difficult to explain doesn't mean that they're not real, or authentic.

St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, once described experiencing the Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of Christian faith) as three keys that play one musical chord, distinct but unified. Sometimes people describe finding themselves close to tears, unable to contain the love or gratitude that they feel. Recently, one young man described to me an experience of feeling almost as if he was a crystal vase and God's love was like water about to overflow the top of the glass.

While they are not commonplace, mystical experiences are not as rare as most would believe. Ruth Burrows writes that they are "not the privileged way of the few."

Such moments pop up with surprising frequency not only in the lives of everyday believers but also in modern literature. In his book Surprised by Joy, the British writer C.S. Lewis describes an experience he had when he was a boy:

As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's "enormous bliss" of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to "enormous") comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? ... [B]efore I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.

That's a good description of this desire for more. I don't know what a currant bush looks like, but I know what that desire feels like. It may be difficult to identify exactly what you want, but at heart, you long for the fulfillment of all your desires, which is God .........



Blogger Cura Animarum said...

I think the way you described your experience at the window was very beautiful Crystal. It's interesting how, just when we think God is far off, God seems to find a way to break through into some unexpected moment.

You might find it an interesting experience to return to throughout the day today. Not so much in a effort to 're-create' it, but merely recall it off and on through the day. Like you would with a dream or the memory of someone you're close to.

I know how easy it is to convince ourselves that these kinds of things are 'just in our imaginations'. On thing to keep in mind is that, even 'just our imaginations' are not outside of the scope of God's activity. Between God and ourselves we always walk DeMello's line "The sun and it's light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and his song - not one. Not Two."

Have a great day Crystal.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Mike L said...

For me these moments have been fairly few, but none the less most powerful. I shall always remember the evening when I was in the seminary, walking in the twilight and listening to the monks chant vespers. Suddenly all the liturgy came together and I realized I was being allowed to hear the heartbeat of God in the world. By the time I had recovered from stumbling, it was gone, buts its memory has stayed with me and supported me over the years.

To be honest, I do not think that I could continue to function as a human if that kind of experience continued. Perhaps that is what is meant by the scripture that says we "cannot see the face of God and live."

There have been other times when I have been aware of His presence, sometimes at moments of stress, others that seem to have no reason, He just dropped around to say hello. Powerful moments that bless us and change us. Hold tight to the experience, they don't come often and are more valuable then diamonds.


Mike L

7:26 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

I understand the desire to make mystical experience sound attainable and non-elitist, but I can't help but wonder if the kind of "everyday" mystical experiences I see described in some places (as in Fr. Martin's article) are not potentially an obstacle to experience something of greater depth and value.

St. John of the Cross warns repeatedly in his writings of getting caught up in spiritual feelings, which he says can prevent people from reaching "supreme contemplation" (see Ascent of Mount Carmel Book 2, Ch.4, for example); the contemplation experience St. John speaks of has what William James described as a "noetic quality," that is, they are not only "states of feeling," but also "states of knowledge."

The fact is, there are differents kinds of experience that people call "mystical experience"; some are common and not necessarily transformative; others are far less common and far more transformative. It's important not to be too easily impressed if you want to avoid mistaking a distraction along the way for the final destination.

10:34 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for the advice .... you're making a great spiritual director :)

1:54 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for mentioning that experience you had. Yeah, it would be hard to always be in that state - it would be like the way they describe staring at the beatific vision - you wouldn't want to do anything else.

1:57 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I've read a little of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, so I think I know what you meam.

(Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but) Ignatius of Loyola sort of had a foot in their world and one in another. He also talked about different kinds of religious experience.

He spoke of a kind of religious experience that was directly from God, unmediated, and not something worked toward, necessarily, but a gift - a "consolation without preceding cause". When a person has this kind of experience, there's no doubt that it comes from God, and this is what I think you might mean by transformative and maybe full of knowledge. This is what I think people hope to find in the Spiritual Exercises retreat and it helps them decide their vocation. Karl Rahner writes about this in some of his books.

But Ignatius also spoke of a more mediated kind of experience of God that is influenced by good/bad spirits or just by situations around us, like the beauty of nature. He called these "consolation".

The great thing (I think) about Ignatius and which made him different than his almost contemporaries like Teresa and John, is that he thought people could find God "in all things" - that people didn't necessarily have to make themselves pefected spiritually to experience God.

The difficult part for Ignatius was that maybe direct experiences of God, the consolations without cause, were rare, and so people should learn discernment, so that they could recognize in their mediated experience when they were being influenced by the good and bad spirit, learn how to listen to the voice of the good spirit more often.

I do see what you're saying, I think, that prayer/meditation does pay off in terms of disipline and maybe holiness and the ability to experience something both transformative and revelatory.

But some part of me likes the idea too that it's not just us striving to reach God through our own efforts, but that God can at any time come and meet us anywhere we are.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

I know we were going back and forth for awhile via email. That was in the midst of my own training though and I was never sure if I was helping or just making more problems for you. If you ever wanted to bounce stuff off of me again I'd be perfectly willing. New address though, there's a link to it in my profile.

As far as consolation without cause, you pretty much nailed it. You definitely know your Ignatian Rules of Discernment. ;o)

Remember, Ignatius saw both consolation and desolation as being necessary sides of the same coin. The dryness of the desert becomes the source of our deep longing for God, a longing that, as you mention in your last comment God reaches into and draws us ever closer to God's self.

I wonder what instigated your experience today? Was it the clouds? The sky? Your questioning? That would be an interesting conversation to have with God.

2:56 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


No, your advice was always helpful!

What little I've picked up about discernment is probably from arguing with Fr. Marsh :) Abourt the dark night of the soul stuff, I think I remember him saying once that it's hard to discern the spirits when there aren't any "movements" .... I mean, desolation is different from dryness?

I wonder what instigated your experience today? Was it the clouds?

I think it was the clouds - they make me feel distant from all my particular anxieties :)

7:12 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...


The caress of the Nazarene always resides in the vibration between Being and Non-Being and it can only be experienced and not described and when we try it's like describing red to a blind man.

Cura's allusion to memory is important - memory as re-presentation and not merely remembrance.



7:42 PM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

desolation is different from dryness?

Not really, from an Ignatian standpoint the two are closer to being synonyms. Desolation is that movement away from God and it can bring with it emptiness, dryness, lonliness et. al. But it also brings with it a growing desire for God. Like when you forget to drink water on a hot day...eventually the thirst becomes overwhelming and you want nothing else in the world but a cold glass of water.

Desolation isn't just found within negative feelings though. Someone could be in the midst of a period of desolation and not really be aware of it (I think most people are in fact...something Mother Teresa attested to herself when she described the spiritual poverty of the West) I can have a life filled with stuff and relationships that feed my bodily and emotional needs to bursting, yet still be very distant from God. In fact, all those apparently 'good' things could be the very reason I'm distant from God.

The discernment of spirits, like you said, begins as an observation of movement with the key question being "Am I drawing away from, or towards God?" and a second question follows, "In light of my answer to the first, for what am I longing?"

John of the Cross then is not really in conflict with Ignatius at all. Even apparent mystical experience can actually draw one away from God if the experience becomes the focus rather than the relationship and the object of our heart's desire to whom we are drawn. Remember his experience with the serpent?

6:41 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Right, the serpent. His autobiography is so interesting as an example. He's so not the normal idea of a saint. I really like that about him.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Hi Crystal,

Interesting post. My comment started to go way long and will probably end up being turned into my next post over the weekend --

8:18 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

I'll come and take a look :)

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Paul Maurice Martin said...


I wrote the whole post but a Blogger glitch apparently is keeping me from pasting from Word to Blogger. For certain ergonomic reasons it's really hard for me to type directly into Blogger's posting template. So I posted something unrelated today instead -really short since I had to type it in direct.

Blogger and Mystery might be a good topic down the road...

9:33 AM  

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