We may be tempted to think of mystics as special, super-spiritual people who reach heights of devotion and ecstasy beyond anything that normal people like us could hope for. We may feel that there is little we can learn from mystics as we try to build a spiritual life in the midst of our chaotic world. But mysticism is nothing more than knowing God, or Transcendence, or the More through our own personal experience. And this capacity for experiential knowing is in us all.
In this podcast, we explore why our spiritual experiences and states need to be interpreted, how to avoid becoming stuck in certain spiritual stages because of our spiritual experiences, and what the one essential thing is that we can all learn and experience from the mystics. And it’s something that can make all the difference when we’re seeking to live as our most sacred selves.
When I was fourteen years old, I had a dramatic spiritual experience. It came after weeks of spiritual searching and questioning and conversations, all of which left me wanting to experience the reality of the Divine. But when it happened it was completely unexpected. I attended a church service one Sunday evening where, to be honest, most of the sermon left me bored and disconnected. But a story the preacher told of an American prisoner on death row who died in peace after an experience with God that happened a few days before his execution, caught me off guard and touched my heart.
The preacher then had a kind of altar call. Instead of calling people to the front of the church he simply invited those who wished to come to Christ to “look up to Jesus”. I opened my eyes and looked up at the stained glass window at the front of the church that depicted Christ’s ascension. And then I realised that I was the only one with eyes opened and head lifted and so I quickly returned to an attitude of prayer. But after the service I went back into the now empty sanctuary and prayed a simple prayer offering my life to God and asking for God to fill me.
And that was when I had what I can only call a mystical experience. I was overwhelmed with a sense of joy and wonder. I was suddenly aware that God’s Spirit was within me, and that I was beloved. And I felt such a deep connection to the divine presence. That experience changed my life and set me on a course that would shape everything about me from that time on.
Spiritual experiences like this are powerful. They change us. But they are not as easy to navigate as we may think. Firstly we need to understand there is the experience and then there is how we interpret that experience. There are lots of factors in our brain, our emotions, our personality, our religious, cultural and family backgrounds, and the context in which we experience the experience that can affect what experience we have, why we have that particular experience, and the meaning we give it. And yes, we do give it meaning. No experience has an inherent, uninterpreted meaning that is an essential part of it. And so we need to be very careful with the meanings we make of our spiritual experiences.
And then secondly, we generally assume that mystical experiences always transform us in positive ways. That they automatically lead us into deeper and healthier stages of spirituality and maturity. But that isn’t the case. Sometimes we believe that mystical experiences confirm what we believe. They validate our beliefs and prove that we are right. But that’s because we forget that experiences must be interpreted.
Ken Wilbur makes a very helpful distinction between spiritual stages and spiritual states. Stages are the different levels of health, maturity, and insight that we should all be journeying through in our spiritual pilgrimage. They were well described in James Fowler’s book: Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning(affiliate link). But others have developed and expanded Fowler’s thoughts since. And now is not the time to go into this, but we do need to remember that we all move through stages of growth in our faith and spirituality.
States, on the other hand, are the different kinds of spiritual experiences that we can have, all of which are influenced by our personal, religious, familial and cultural background and all of which must be interpreted. When we forget that, our mystical experiences (our states) can leave us stuck in a particular stage—because we will validate the stage we’re in using the state we’ve experienced. And that’s why people can have amazing spiritual experiences and still come out of them with a tendency toward racism, patriarchy, violence, religious nationalism, and other expressions of toxic religion. Ecstatic spiritual experiences, unfortunately, do not automatically make us good people.
So with that as a foundation, what can true mystics—those who have done the work of journeying through the various stages of religious development, and who know how to work with their spiritual states or experiences in a healthy and mature way—teach us about God?
At its heart, what mystics teach us—and invite us all to embrace—is that God is accessible. Once again, feel free to replace the word ‘God’ with your preferred designation for Spirit, Mystery, the Divine, the Cosmic Consciousness, Transcendence or Life. Mystics show us that God is close, and can—indeed must—be experienced, not just understood intellectually. I agree with Richard Rohr when he defines mysticism as ‘experiential knowledge of God’. This is what it means to be a mystic—it is to know the More through experience, not only through our intellects, understandings, textbooks, and theology. It’s not that our understanding is unimportant. It’s just not the only thing that is important in our spiritual existence.
And then, if we are to live a sacred life, we need to live out of that awareness and experience of God. And here is where things get quite specific and—for me—important. For the writer of First John, God IS love:
Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.
(1 John 4:7-8 CEB)
We don’t know the author of that first letter of John, but it is likely that the person or group who wrote this letter also wrote John’s Gospel. And for this writer or writers, the essence of following Christ, the essence of faith, is to live within Divine love and to share that love expansively. We find exactly this same perspective from the mystics. I’m going to quote Richard Rohr again here—he says this: “The people who know God well—mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.”
Mystics teach us that God IS love and that there is a longing in God—in the Divine, in the Mystery, in the More—for union with creation; for union with us. Often the mystics use erotic language to describe this divine longing for union—which, of course, is true to the biblical tradition.
We find fullness of life and a sense of sacredness—in us and in all things—when we live in this divine union. And when we live in union with God that means that we also live in union with the universe, with others, and with ourselves.
When we experience God as love, and when we experience ourselves as beloved, the result is always a more compassionate, creative, and connected spirituality. We cannot truly experience our lives and world as sacred without this.
There is a journey here. It begins with experiencing God as love and ourselves as beloved. Then we find compassion and forgiveness for ourselves because we learn that whatever brokenness and flaws are in us—even when they hurt ourselves and others—do not stop us being beloved. Then, out of that belovedness and the healing it brings, we automatically become more understanding and compassionate toward others. We know that what is true for us is also true for them—their brokenness does not disqualify them from being beloved, and so we can begin to express compassion, understanding, and love toward them. And once that journey has begun, it cannot do anything else but expand continually outward—to strangers, to the world and its creatures, to the universe.
If we long to live sacred lives, we need, in our own way and at whatever stage we may be, to become mystics. We need to open to the accessibility of God, to the experience of the Divine, and to the love that we find there. Because when our lives are flooded with this divine love, we love and value all things as beloved of God. And in that belovedness we find sacredness, we treat things as sacred, we honour things for their sacredness. And then we find that we cannot help but live a sacred life in a deeply, radiantly sacred world.
Next time we’re going to talk about what we can learn about God—and how to connect with and love God more intentionally—from scientists. It grieves me that faith and science are so often seen as mutually exclusive or in conflict with one another. This is so unnecessary. It is much more creative to view the findings of science as ‘divine revelation’—to paraphrase Michael Dowd. And when we listen for God’s voice in scientific truth, when we observe God’s fingerprints in what science discovers, our spirituality is nurtured and enriched magnificently. I hope you’ll join me for that conversation next week.
Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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