Spirit am I, Free of all limits Safe, and Healed and Whole, Spirit am I, Free to Forgive and Free to Bless the World, Spirit Am I.
Christian Mysticism – on Thanksgiving Day
By Norma J. Burton, M.Div. November 28, 2013
My birthday always comes around Thanksgiving time- what a grand time to be born when everyone is giving thanks, eh? On my 12thbirthday my grandmother gave me one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received. It was a favorite belonging of hers and it was now time for me to have it, she said. As I carefully unwrapped the small parcel, I disclosed a well worn copy of – “Walden Pond” by Henry David Thoreau.
I opened to this passage – “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so simply and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.” In the inside cover she has written a quote from Thoreau for me: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” What a great gift to receive from one’s grandmother! It was like she was saying – “Go ahead – be a mystic!”
Mysticism, a word that comes from the Greek and relates to the word Mystery, is “the pursuit of achieving communion with ultimate reality, with the divine, with spiritual truth, or God through direct experience.” A common theme in mysticism is that the mystic who has this direct experience understands she is one with all of creation. When we have these experiences of oneness in nature and through visions and dreams, we transcend limited or ego identity, we let go of self-importance and re-identify with the All that is.
Well, my grandmother helped to kindle the mystic fire in me early on and I set my course on a life long journey to find this knowing that comes from first hand experience of the divine.
In college in the early 70’s I was majoring in Christian theology and psychology and I searched high and low for sacred texts about mysticism – when in a dusty back corner of the library, I came upon the revelations of St John of the Cross, Theresa of Avilla, St Francis of Assisi, I was elated to find others within Christianity who knew that which I was experiencing: Ecstasy in nature, the fruitfulness of the shadowy dark night of the soul, and mystical union. But these handful of texts were the only writings around at that time about the mystics. And they were not the subject of study in our religion classes.
A few years later in 1977 browsing in a Christian book store I came upon another book that would change my life – it had a bear dancing on its cover- the title was intriguing: “The Musical MYSTICAL Dancing Bear.” This was Matthew Fox’s first book. I devoured every word of this precious book and determined that someday, somehow I would find this man and study with him. Maybe this mystical dancing bear guy could help me become a mystic. By the mid 1980’s I had found Matthew Fox and became a student of his at the Creation Centered Theology school in Oakland CA.
As many of you may know Matthew Fox, a catholic priest, began translating the texts of medieval Christian mystics and the small trickle of books out there on Christian mysticism, thanks to him, has now became a great river.
The theological tilt in Fox’s mysticism is GREEN – its toward nature and creation. His mission is to warn the world about any version of Christianity in which creation appears as an afterthought, versions he calls “fall/redemption” theology actually separate us from knowing God directly telling us we are sinful and that we need a mediator between us and God. Rather he says the Cosmic Christ is available to everyone, everywhere at all times – present in the wonders of creation. So Creation centered mysticism is egalitarian – there is no hierarchy between us and God. Fox focuses on what he calls the “primal sacraments”: sea, land, wind, fire, and life energy– the universe itself. The great passion of mystics, he writes, is to find our portal into the awesome mystery of the universe and experience our existence within it. I share the vision with him that if we practiced these primal sacraments a great ecumenism would sweep the earth like a new Pentecost and we would know a spirituality of planetary Oneness.
A great Pentecost… “I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every spark of life…I, the fiery life of divine essence, blaze in the beauty of the fields, I am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon, and stars. With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything, I awaken everything to life. The air lives by turning green and being in bloom. The waters flow as if they were alive…. I am also Reason, having the wind of the sounding Word by which all things were created, and I breathe in them all, so that none may die, because I am Life…”
This was fiery vision was written by Hildegard von Bingen, and it was Matthew Fox who brought us the first translations from the German of Hildegard. You know – she was a Catholic nun who had been having visions and ecstatic experiences with Nature as a youngster and then at age 42, after her abbess died, she couldn’t hold back any longer and began to write and paint and sing her visions. She was understandably afraid to speak out because it was radical that she as a woman dared to speak in the voice of GOD. “I the highest fiery power have kindled every spark of life…” But mystic that she was – she felt certain she knew God from the inside of her own soul.
She coined this term VIRIDITAS – to try to speak of the greening power of God she felt in all of creation. She said the VIRIDITAS was the moisture that enlivens every bit of creation and nurtures our life energy. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator.
While studying Hildegard and other mystics with Matthew Fox, he gave our class the assignment of going out for a walk and seeing if we could hear the voice of God in some form of nature. I walked up in Tilden Park every day but with that invitation I listened in a deeper way and was I shocked when as I came up over the crest of a hill… there I beheld a small orange flower actually raising her petals in glory to the sky and she actually began to speak to me. She said over and over again – “Be thankful for everything! Be thankful for everything!”
This reminded me of Meister Eckhart, a great mystic of the 1300’s who said: “If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
How can this be the only prayer? Because a prayer of thanksgiving is a way of perceiving life—even when life hurts, wounds, disappoints, frustrates, or angers us – if we still perceive the divine there, we are not separated from love. Such a prayer is an attempt to cultivate an ongoing attitude of gratitude. Such thankfulness is a way of seeing ourselves in a universe that gives us life continuously. There is a gift in every shadow. And with such perception we find the universe to be a friendly place offering us love and care and inspiration. It is cultivating this kind of awareness——that constitutes our Cosmic Thank You. . . . We celebrate Thanksgiving because this is what the pilgrims of old experienced: the Cosmic Thank You!
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall see God.”
Said Jesus in the Beatitudes. The poor are those who are emptied out of self-importance…. Meister Eckhart says, “The poor are those who will nothing, who know nothing, and who have nothing. “
The Pilgrims became that poor in spirit – they were emptied out – by the sufferings of the religious persecutions they had undergone in Europe and then fleeing for their lives across the ocean, they faced into death in another way that frigid winter in the new world – of their 100 people – over 50 died that first year. Well… the Native People of the land came to help them sharing their winter rations and then teaching them how to tend the greening, the VIRIDITAS, to grow crops that spring and harvest them that next fall so that they had nurturance for body and soul. Then the pilgrims invited the Natives to come to a huge feast and in one big prayer of gratitude they radically let go again- they did not hoard the food – they shared it generously –over 300 Wapanogs came – they learned the food generously and received the secret of the give away – the great gratitude – the Cosmic Thank You flooded their souls and they bonded deeply with their new neighbors. The new comers had opened to a way native to this land – the way of acceptance and gratitude for everything was the way of this new world – the pilgrims learned from their Wapanog neighbors to trust into the great emptying that leads to the great filling. Thus the first Thanksgiving could be looked at as a mystical experience.
To have the Breakthrough into this kind of awareness of knowing God in this mystical way – directly – in our experience of everything that happens – Meister Eckhart counsels us that
When dark nights of the soul come to us — “we cannot turn back from this great darkness, we must not run from it or allow ourselves to be distracted from it. “By putting aside our reasoning and even our own imaginations, as well as our accomplishments – we may enter on the way of pure nothingness. If we can let go in this deep real way, then God, the great mystery who stands at the door knocking, and waiting – can come in. “ (B -247)
There is so much waiting there at the door of our hearts to flood in upon us – if only we can become still and sensitive and open. When emptied like this – we become simply thankful for all that is —– we open ourselves to a tremendous potential beyond our wildest imaginations. This potential is so rich – it might be called a potential to be filled with All potential.
Through their direct experience, the pilgrims opened to this greater potential and found a LOVE that celebrated all Oneness. They experienced first hand their oneness with nature and the native peoples. They came to know the oneness of understanding the common human bond of life and death and compassion for one another on the journey.
To say “thank you”. . is not to approve of or give in to all that comes our way or that gets visited upon us. Rather it is to face and take all that life gives us and then—be a mystic – use our will, and the resources and power of the human spirit—to become agents of transformation for ourselves, for those with whom we are in community here, our neighbors, and for a world that stands in need of our care.
So on this Thanksgiving Day – I hear my grand mother giving us all a nudge – -“Go ahead –be a mystic!” Our mother earth surely needs her mystical children to follow our wildest dreams NOW.