Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Couple of Thoughts on Mystical Phenomena

I recently finished reading Ralph Martin's book The Fulfillment of All Desire. It's a great book on the stages of spiritual life, all drawn from various doctors of the Church, with a heavy emphasis on the Carmelite trio of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I first discovered the mystics when I was in college (wrote about that here) and was very much not Catholic, and was still very much of the mind that Catholicism was dead at best and evil at worst. But even then, when I discovered and read these saints, my jaw dropped open and my heart yearned with an agonizing desperation to be with people like this. It was like I could feel the furnace blast of love for God that was their hearts come right off the page and into my face.

What I wanted was, of course, the Lord Himself. My only problem was that I had Him already. Sometimes it is hard to want more of someone you already have. I think that's why we confess that we believe in "the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints...." God manifests Himself through the Holy Spirit in the life and vocation of each baptized believer differently so that we all know we are called to be part of a body or a temple as St. Paul puts it -- we are each deeply significant but none of us has the fullness of who we are created to be without belonging to all the others in the covenantal structure called the Church!

The mystical life of prayer, the realm of spiritual life, is grossly misunderstood by many, I think. Some folks want their religion tidy and predictable, so they can stay in control, and are quick to dismiss mystical phenomena as 98% products of the minds of those far sillier than theirs, and 2% reserved to people like Pope John Paul II. Other folks totter between the extremes of finding it yet another indication that they are "less than" other people, or basing their entire spiritual life on one momentary flash of something that happened to them that was extraordinary. Both of those two extremes are great examples of what I like to call "Satan-bait." True mystical prayer is focused on union with God in the person of Jesus Christ, period.

Mystical phenomena are far more common in the lives of believers than many might be led to think. Several different settings have shown me that people have these experiences that they don't always know what to do with, or even how to mention to others. Many Catholics who leave the Church in order to join others do so because they can't find someone who can help them make sense of how they've experienced God. And that's a shame. 

It is true that St. John of the Cross generally encouraged people not to pay too much attention to things like locutions, visions, prophetic words and the like. Apparently it was extremely common in his time and place for people to be experiencing these things, and he was very concerned that people stay focused on the Giver of gifts, not the gifts themselves, that people not get deluded and led astray from the truth of the Church and Scripture. I've seen people get goofy over these things, and I had my own go-around with getting severely tested, too. But lately I've thought again about a positive experience I had, and that's really what I set out to write about in this post (said she, the long-winded writer!).

In about 1988 at a Sunday evening service, I responded to an altar call issued by a visiting missionary, and I asked for prayer about what God wanted for me in my post-college life. After a general prayer, and completely without the dramatics one might stereotypically imagine, the missionary prophecied over me to the effect that God had called me to prayer, to worship Him, to teach and lead others to worship Him, and to some kind of academic teaching.

To be honest, I was disappointed. Prayer: boring. Worship: yeah, ok, no-brainer, everyone said that. Academic teaching: I had just made a bargain with God that since I hated the Education class I took, even though an English degree was useless without a teaching certificate, I really totally didn't want to be a teacher.

Without any difficulty at all (but for all the wrong reasons) I was able to follow the advice St. John of the Cross gives and I didn't give this much attention, and just went on my way, struggling to live my faith.

Not too long ago I was reminded again of this prophetic word. And I do believe it was an authentic word from God. He showed it to me this way -- Prayer: the soul of Carmel, which my heart climbs even if I'm not in the 3rd order yet. If you think a life of prayer is boring, I think you don't pray, or haven't been at it very long. Yes. Worship: Yes. Don't understand it all, but yes. Academic teaching: Guess what, I homeschool my two miracles. When I looked at this recently I was struck that I am doing exactly what I'm made to do. That doesn't mean that life is without its pains and challenges. I admit that right now I have the strange sense that even in the midst of this realization I still have cravings that gnaw at my soul that make me need to choose my life every day. The other day a Facebook friend posted this song snippet: "Shepherd me, Oh God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life." I have always resonated deeply with that song, but when I read it that time, I balked, like St. Augustine when he prayed, "Give me chastity, Lord, but not yet." Chastity wasn't Augustine's natural inclination, and I too have natural inclinations that lean away from where God leads me. His leading is a gift of grace. And that is exactly what things like prophetic messages given 24 years ago are supposed to help with: when the time comes and it fits with God's plan, you can look back and say, yep, God has been building this for a long time, and He knew all that time ago that I would need a hand right now. So, take it and trust.

I don't believe St. John of the Cross meant at all for us to reject mystical phenomena, or even to be overly suspicious. He did want to encourage us to follow only Jesus, though, which means embracing His cross, and His Church, and allowing Him to be in control, not we ourselves. If God wants to make something of something, He certainly will. Let nothing at all be my concern except Him, and He will take up all that concerns me.

And if all this intrigues you, by all means read Ralph's book.

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