“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.
Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
I’ve never really gotten into the old Christian mystics. I’ve tried reading a few of them—John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Meister Eckhart. I’ve looked at Brother Lawrence’s well-known The Practice of the Presence of God and cherry-picked through the anonymously penned Cloud of Unknowing. (How could it be anything but anonymous?) But no matter how much I intend to go along for the ride, with a sigh I always end up jumping ship mid-journey.
Don’t get me wrong. These mystical mavericks were totally gun-ho about the seeking God thing. I can appreciate that. (I’ve had to hunt for my wallet lots of times.) These people were committed to going where no one has gone before—and they came back with some serious recon. Now, I can’t say I understand much of what they’re talking about, but I’ve got to hand it to these folks for their gumption and spiritual spelunking skills, and all without the benefit of a GPS.
For the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on why these ethereal explorers didn’t appeal to me. I’m no religious heavyweight by a long shot, but I am more than a little interested in making my own bumbling pilgrimages into the God Zone. You’d think that their snapshots of the heavenly landscape were exactly the kind of stuff a guy like me would be interested in. It was only recently that I finally figured out just what it was about these daring transcendental voyagers that put me off.
I freely confess that my impressions of the Christian mystical tradition are unhampered by expertise. But this is actually what shapes my first impression. For some reason these individuals tend to come off to me as specialists. Whether they mean to or not, the mystics seem to project membership in an exclusive club which allows them privileged access to the divine Green Room. Like the Hebrew high priests, they enter the Holy of Holies while the we wait outside for their report. It’s not so much that the rest of us are forbidden to look behind the curtain, but that it takes a special breed of believers to actually pull it off. I’m not saying that this is so, only that when I read these guys it seems to be so.
This leads me to a related problem. The way that these folks recount their gathered intelligence seems so dang definitive. If Meister Eckhart reports that “God is green,” who am I to suggest lemon yellow? If Teresa of Avila sees a shiny angel with a long golden spear who thrusts it into her so that she moans with pain and pleasure, who am I to assign an NC-17-rating? The vibe I often get from these metaphysical maestros is that theirs is a kind of epitome of the Christian spiritual experience. The rest of us who traffic in religious mundanities are to be mildly pitied. Woe to me if my vision of God is limited to the Scriptures.
Dark is the New Light
Still, to be honest (and with a few notable exceptions) I really don’t find particular fault with most of these halting attempts to convey in human words the experience of the ineffable. Even for the Hebrew prophets and John of Patmos it was a soul-shredding endeavor. No wonder. Capturing the immortal in mortal language is, by definition, impossible. Their sanctioned attempts have given us some of the weirdest passages of the Bible. Heck, Ezekiel alone could make you rethink your religious affiliation. Compared to him, Hildegard of Bingen is a Puritan.
So when it comes down to it, maybe the main thing that tilts me away from the Christian mystics is the way many of them characterize their quest as a journey toward God. Thinking of God as a destination may seem harmless and even poetic, but for the mystics this seems to be no mere figure of speech—and this leads to what is for me the most troubling aspect of the mystical tradition.
In order to arrive at their divine destination—a vision of God or a mystical union with him—it seems that many of our mystical comrades must traverse a wide, harrowing gulf characterized by terrifying emptiness and profound shadow. It is a forsaken place, precisely were God isn’t. St. John of the Cross exemplifies this tortuous experience. His masterpiece, The Dark Night of the Soul (1578?), portrays a darkness in which the absence of God is painfully felt but which immediately precedes union with God. This, for St. John, typifies the earnest search for God. “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on,” he writes, “he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” In other words, God is somewhere on the other side of a dark expanse, and it’s your job to grope your way across to find him.
The Palm at the End of the Mind
So why should I care? I have no aspirations to join the magical mystery tour. I don’t need even to read these guys if I don’t want to. (Hardly anybody does.) My world won’t jolt one bit if I let their esoteric eccentricities molder into obscurity. Why not let them have their spiritual safari, complete with dark moat? Why are their metaphysical adventures any of my business anyway?
Here’s why. (You were hoping I’d eventually get to a reason for all this.) Because in my own little prayer closet I’ve caught myself inventing a similar experience. I say “inventing” because I’m convinced that, for Christians anyway, this is exactly what the dark void is—a fabrication, a human construct. It is we who dig the dark ditch of the soul; otherwise, it’s simply not there.
In my case the dark zone takes the form of a psychic scrunch. When I’m praying in hardcore seek/intercession mode, I tend to focus my inner energies into a kind of mental wedge with which I attempt, by repeated salvos, to pierce the tough supernal membrane between me and the inner sanctum. My success rate using this militaristic technique, by the way, is exactly zero. Even so, whenever I hit my knees, it isn’t long before I find myself gathering my dispersed psychological and soulish resources, compressing them into a hardened spiritual projectile, packing them with the gunpowder of zeal, and then firing them with great force at the fortified gates of heaven.
You may smile, but that’s how my inner experience has often played out since the very beginning. What’s more, I assumed that this, with minor variations, was the normative experience for any Christian who was serious about seeking God. To search for God with all my heart meant pushing through the DMZ (Divine Murk Zone) and attempting to kick the throne room door off its hinges. This is, I understood, what the old-time religionists meant by travailing in prayer. If I was to meet God, there was something in the heavenlies I must first negotiate, something as inherent and formidable in that landscape as a sunless swamp is in Louisiana. In my less pugnacious moments—and to shift metaphors—I tended to associate my personal tent of meeting with an elusive singularity at the end point of a demanding process of spiritual and psychological convergence.
I’m not sure what sparked my reassessment of this deeply entrenched notion. I can’t relate a single moment of epiphany. Rather, as I continued in prayer and the Scriptures, it slowly dawned on me that what I so fervently sought through my lunging, grasping supplications was quite simply already the case. I was already awash in the presence of God. I didn’t need to strive to take hold of God for he had already taken hold of me. What I needed was not a hard won beatific vision but a new set of spectacles—and my Bible now reasserted itself as the perfect prescription lens.
I realize now that there really is no dark void to traverse on the way to God. Jesus himself is the way and, as the Scripture tells us, there is no darkness in him. Ours is not a quest to find light, but one that starts in radical spiritual enlightenment. Divine illumination marks the beginning of all our inquiries and is the means by which we learn anything about God at all. As the Psalmist writes, In Your light we see light. The room, I discover to my astonishment, is incandescent. There are no murky corners, no lurking shadows. The only darkness I encounter, it seems, is when I close my eyes. Unlike my friend John of the Cross, I prefer my certainty served with open eyes and light.
What’s more, I’m concluding that the venerable metaphor of faith as a journey towards God is misleading. If there is any journey, it is one through human ignorance and limitation, not through some vague etherial wasteland stretching between me and God. The Scriptures testify that in Christ God is with us—and even more astounding, that he is in us. My problem wasn’t a thwarted spiritual hope; it was a faulty map. I feel a little like Dorothy Gale upon returning from my own misstepping adventure in some religious land of Oz: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” There’s no need to fight for a peek at the man behind the curtain. That veil was ripped open, once for all, 2000 years ago. It is by faith that we see its author and perfecter.
He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature.
—2 Peter 1:4
The effects of these molehill revelations have been profound for me. No longer do I trudge through a turbid metaphysical bog. No longer do I hit my knees and take aim at heaven like a battering ram. No longer, in self-referencing spiritual fever, do I wage holy war against the Holy One, regarding my prayers as Herbert’s “engine against th’ Almighty.” Now, instead of hunting a fugitive or facing a worthy adversary, I meet my welcoming Father who is beyond reckoning, the good and wise God, the sustainer of all things, my very life. We don’t fight; we fellowship.
Retraining my mind and heart has been a process, and from time to time I still catch myself converging for another heroic siege of heaven’s gates. But when I do, I stop. Dropping my petitions and repetitions, I lift my head, raise my arms, and throw open the gates of my own soul to the refreshing, clarifying breeze of the Spirit. I am enveloped in the surpassing knowledge that in him I live and move and have my being.
And God himself sounds the amen.
Prone to implosion
I pray with eyes wide
“Mysticasualty” is included in my collection of poems
The Prophet’s Book of Common Prayer which is available here.