Ever said to yourself, "I would believe in God if only I had some distinct experience of God?" In my last two posts, I spoke not only of our innate desire for the divine as a call from God, but also of some specific ways through which we can become aware of those God-given desires: first, feelings of incompletion, and second, common longings and connections.
Also in the rather loose category of "longing" are more intense experiences. Sometimes we feel an almost "mystical" sense of longing for God, or a connection to God, which can be triggered by unexpected circumstances.
"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.
This is closely aligned with the feeling of "awe," which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel identified as a key way to meet God. "Awe ... is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding. Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves. ... Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple."
In my own life I have encountered these feelings a few times. Let me tell about one.
When I was young, I used to ride my bike to school in the mornings, and back home every afternoon. Sometimes I would ride to school with a boisterous group of friends from the neighborhood. We would start off early in the morning, carefully lining up all our bikes in front of a neighbor's house, each jockeying for the lead position.
But some mornings I would ride to school by myself. There were few things I enjoyed more than sailing downhill through our neighborhood, down the clean sidewalks, past the newish late-1950s houses, beneath the leafy trees, under the orange morning sun, the wind blowing past my ears.
Closer to our school was a small concrete path that ran between two houses in our neighborhood: the school lay at the far end of the path, behind what seemed a vast tract of land. At the end of the path was a set of six steps, which meant that I had to dismount and push my big blue Schwinn up the stairs.
At the top of the stairs lay one of my favorite places in the world, the memory of which, though I am writing this over 40 years later, uplifts me. It was a broad meadow, bordered on the left by tall oak trees and on the right by baseball fields. And every time of the year it was beautiful.
On cold fall mornings, clad in my corduroy jacket, I would pedal my bike over the bumpy dirt path through a meadow of crunchy brown leaves, desiccated grasses, and dried milkweed powdered in frost. In the winter, when I would not ride but walk to school, the field was often an open landscape of silent snow that rose wetly over my galoshes as my breath formed in cottony clouds before me.
But in the springtime, the little meadow exploded with life. It felt as if I were biking though one of the science experiments we did in school. Fat grasshoppers jumped among the daisies, the black-eyed Susans. Crickets hid in the grasses and old leaves. Bees hummed among the Queen Anne's lace and the tall purple and pink snapdragons. Cardinals and robins darted from branch to branch. The air was fresh and the field was alive with creation.
One spring morning, when I was 10 or 11, I stopped to catch my breath in the middle of the field. The bike's metal basket, packed with my schoolbooks and homework, swung violently to one side, and I almost lost my homework to the grasshoppers. Standing astride my bike, I could see so much going on around me -- so much color, so much activity, so much life.
Looking toward the school on the brow of the hill I felt an overwhelming happiness. I felt so happy to be alive. And I felt a fantastic longing: to both possess and be a part of what was around me. I can still see myself standing in this meadow, surrounded by creation, more clearly than any other memory from childhood.
In such uncommon longings, hidden in plain sight in our everyday lives, does God call to us.
1) Karl Rahner and Ruth Burrows, two spiritual masters, both believe that mysticism is not simply for saints but for all of us. Do you believe that?
2) Have you had any experiences that you might describe as "mystical"?
3) Does anything in your life correspond, even slightly, to C.S. Lewis's experience before the currant bush?
4) What fills you with awe? Does this lead to a desire for God? Where do you think that this desire has its origin?
In our next post we'll look at "exaltation" and "clarity" as ways of coming to identify our desire for God.
James Martin, SJ, is a Catholic priest and culture editor of America. This essay is adapted from his new book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.
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