Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lessons from the Mystics for Normal People

Last weekend was the annual retreat for my Secular Carmelite community, and for the first time since I have been involved we had a Carmelite friar as retreat master. I loved our previous retreat master who preached the last three I attended; his messages moved my heart and have stayed alive with me all this time. But there was something uniquely wonderful about having a Father of my own charism teaching this time. It was not so much the things he said that have stayed with me (although I gleaned much) as it was his lived witness of being a Carmelite.

The Lord taught me many years ago that a key component in evangelizing a soul is to reveal to that soul, by the grace of God, who he or she is, deeply, in the truth and reality that is God Himself. In other words, when God uses me to tell someone else who they truly are, an encounter with Christ has taken place.

So I'd say I encountered Christ last weekend.

And he reminded me of reality: You are a Carmelite. You are a mystic. And here's what it means for you.

Now, hold the phone. Mystics are weird, right? They have bizarre experiences and it is probably either psychological delusion supported by the ignorant, pious blindness of those around them, and probably half the stories about them are prideful, desperate, embellished daydreams to wield power over simple people, or blah blah blah.

Well, no. Although we spent the weekend learning about a mystic of recent times who would have to push the envelope of skeptics to the breaking point very quickly: St. Mary of Jesus Crucified. She had experiences that make the mystical phenomenon of St. Padre Pio look tame.

Mystical prayer simply means prayer that is the Holy Spirit's that happens in us humans. It is not necessarily accompanied by unusual experiences, though it can be. It is not necessarily a sensibly powerful experience, though it can be.

Secular Carmelites make a promise to spend a half hour each day in this type of prayer. This promised prayer is not for personal benefit or growth, but for the Church. Friars and nuns promise two hours of this type of prayer every day.

I've known this for years now, but I had a moment this last weekend where this simply clicked for me on a deeper level. A "naru hodo" moment. And in conjunction with this whole retreat, I found an incredible joy in being able to stretch out my whole being into this vocation and exclaim "This is who I am. This is where I belong."

St. Mary of Jesus Crucified (1846-1878)

As we studied the life of St. Mary of Jesus Crucified, we learned this means sharing the gloriously joyful delights of union with God, as well as the crushing pains and sufferings of union with Jesus. But it also means simply living the normal life we have as normal secular Carmelites, by faith.

And that is what normal people can glean from mystics who levitate, have visions of heaven and hell, converse with saints and angels, have the stigmata which bleed onto sheets in drops that spell out words, who persuade Popes of things by letters someone else has to transcribe because of being illiterate, being martyred but surviving because the Blessed Virgin comes to personally nurse her back to life for a month (and on, and on, and on). We hear the testimony of the mystic, of the Carmelite, whose call, according to our rule, is to bear witness to the experience of God. The vast majority of mystical phenomenon may be things we never experience, but by faith we can acknowledge the things mystics see face to face, and live in the light of their reality.

So, yes, I believe the testimony of a mystic to whom it was given to see how many angels are crowded into an empty church, and how many more guardian angels are present during a Mass. I can't see them, but I remember when I enter a church that they are there (sometimes, I do), and I respond accordingly.

Yes, I believe the testimony of many, many mystics who have seen visions of many souls falling into hell, because I know it is a possibility and I am called to pray that it not happen.

Yes, I believe the experience of the mystics who suffer interior torments when people think they are crazy, but then they find that this is typical of a process of purification Jesus often employs for souls with this vocation. I use this insight to face my own blander struggles with courage, offer them to God, and then refocus my attention away from my own needs and onto what is going on in the heart of Jesus, trusting that Jesus will care for me and I don't have to obsess.

And when mysterious things happen in my own life, I am not surprised but simply realize this is evidence God is real, which is exactly what I should expect, and that he uses these things to purify souls and draw them away from the baubles and distractions of the world. So I take courage and thank God for drawing me.

So don't bristle at the term mystic. Like many words it has experienced abuse, but it is a genuine stream of Catholic spirituality that is indispensable for our time.

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