When the Knowledge of Sin Can Set You Free – The Mystical Awareness of Being Broken

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Sin is a heavy burden.  Perhaps the best way to understand this burden is to compare it to what we experience when we become overweight and physically unfit.  As we gain weight our bodies become overtaxed and we become more limited in what we can do.  We don’t notice the extra work our bodies need to perform or the mobility we’re losing because it happens gradually over a long period of time.  Very few people wake up one morning weighing 30 pounds more than when they fell asleep.  We don’t realize we can’t walk as far, climb the steps like we did in the past, or run as fast as we could when we were in a better physical state.  Because these limitations creep up on us little by little we’re almost completely unaware of how much being physically unfit is limiting what we can do.  Even worse, we seldom realize how much we have stopped doing things just so we can maintain the illusion that we’re okay and these physical barriers aren’t really a part of our life.  Instead of taking the stairs, we take the elevator.  Instead of walking to the store, our favorite restaurant, or to work, we drive or take an Uber.  It’s an unconscious decision we make to choose a more accommodating lifestyle rather than acknowledge our limitations and the need to change.  We become slaves to our limitations because we never acknowledge them.  We refuse to see our life as it is so we can continue to live with the illusion we’re okay.

The same problem occurs in our spiritual lives.  We slowly allow sin to become a burden and it starts to limit what we do.  As long as we refuse to acknowledge sin in our lives we will grow more and more spiritually handicapped.  We will forget how to forgive, be grateful, and ultimately love.  This is why one of the greatest hurdles in the spiritual life is to face the fact we have sin in our lives and it’s limiting us from being the profoundly beautiful creature God created us to be.  The mystic understands the paradox that as one grows closer to God one begins to see the sinful creature they are.  By drawing closer to the light one begins to see the darkness they have in their life.  If you refuse to acknowledge the darkness you never get to draw closer to the light which is God himself.  As Rosetti writes in the book When the Lion Roars:

“When we do not see the beauty of goodness and God, we are not fully aware of the tragedy of sin.  We must not underestimate the damage of sin.  This is a danger of our time.  If the previous error was to overemphasize our sinfulness, our era underestimates the reality and horror of evil and sin.”

The knowledge of our sinfulness is a grace given by God as we draw closer to him.  It is grace because when it’s acknowledged and we allow his life to transform ours, we live a more beautiful life.  When we face sin for what it is, claim it as our own, and allow God to purge us of its presence what remains is the divine presence reflected in us.  We are no longer hindered in our exercise of the Christian life but rather we are free to love, exercise peace, be patient, kind, and sincere.  To know our sin is to become free of its power because when we know it we can turn it over to Christ who exchanges his life for ours and therefore the life we live is not our own, but Christ living in us (Galatians 2: 19-21).

Be free of sin by acknowledging it, confessing it, and allows God to dwell within you.  If you won’t do that you will be forever spiritually trapped and never exercise the virtue you were created to live.  By being free from sin and embracing God’s life in you, you can reflect his goodness and virtue in the simplest acts of love that make an ordinary day an extraordinary moment.

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Prayer is to Dwell with God

 

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When one prays they find themselves dwelling with God.  This realization grows over time as you mature in the mystical life.  At first, you speak with God sharing your hearts concerns believing God listens to every word you speak.  In this way, you discover you dwell with a God who hears the concerns, needs, fears, hopes, joys, and sorrows of those who love him.  Then, gradually your spirit begins to hear the still and quiet voice of God whether in a crowd or a quiet place in the garden.  This is another way of dwelling with God as his Spirit impresses itself upon you communicating his presence to your very soul.  Then, when you have progressed further along your spiritual walk, it’s not only your conversations with God allowing you to know you dwell with him, rather it’s in knowing his continual presence surrounds you with every breath you take.  God is in you, above you, below you, beside you, and permeates all of creation upholding and lifting you up. 

It’s when your eyes see the eternal in the temporal, your ears hear heavenly choirs within worldly things, and your mind grasps paradoxical truths within what appears to be illogical presuppositions that you know you dwell with God in a mystical way.  Prayer, when practiced in this way leads us to know we dwell in the very source of light and love and can never escape it.  Prayer is to dwell with God.

Tears for the Dead – Why We Cry For Our Loved Ones

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It shouldn’t surprise you that many of the behaviors associated with grief are similar to those associated with depression.  For example, people struggling with grief tend to have crying spells in which they weep and shed tears in an almost uncontrollable way.  Home might be a constant reminder of the deceased. When you lose a spouse you may cry when you look into the face of your children because they remind you of your husband or wife.  Different activities, traditions, family photos, home movies, foods, etc. are all reminders of the person who died and when you see them you experience a heavy sadness that leads to tears.  Excessive and sometimes uncontrollable crying is part of grieving.

Crying is an interesting experience.  If asked why we cry different experts provide a number of different answers.  Crying is often associated with the release of stress. It can be a sign of complete joy as well as complete despair.  Crying can be associated with the experience of awe when we experience beauty. With grief, however, it’s usually associated with pain, loss, and emotional wounds.  Some say crying makes things better, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes crying is just something we do and we don’t know why we do it nor does it make us feel any better.  It’s just the human response to feelings of despair, pain, and loss. There is a popular quote that is part of a larger writing on tears that is often attributed (Although many believe incorrectly) to Washington Irving.  Some say it was written by Rumi, and others claim it is an amalgamation of a number of combined quotes. Whether it’s Irving who wrote this or some other anonymous soul, this brief piece of writing does a wonderful job of capturing the breadth of what it means to grieve with tears:

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, of unspeakable love. If there were wanting any argument to prove that man is not mortal, I would look for it in the strong, convulsive emotion of the breast, when the soul has been deeply agitated, when the fountains of feeling are rising, and when tears are gushing forth in crystal streams. O, speak not harshly of the stricken one—weeping in silence! Break not the deep solemnity by rude laughter, or intrusive footsteps. Despise not a woman’s tears—they are what make her an angel. Scoff not if the stern heart of manhood is sometimes melted to tears of sympathy—they are what help to elevate him above the brute. I love to see tears of affection. They are painful tokens, but still most holy. There is pleasure in tears—an awful pleasure! If there were none on earth to shed a tear for me, I should be loth to live; and if no one might weep over my grave, I could never die in peace.”

Perhaps in some way our tears are a tribute to the ones who pass away; a way of remembering with more than our minds, but with our very souls as well.  Maybe our tears are just one way we are reminded that we are more than just animals; rather we are creatures with souls that must find a way to express our transcendence in the face of mortal frailness.  Whatever the reason, it’s okay to cry when someone you love is no longer walking this world with you.  In fact, it does them homage and speaks the words that human language cannot express.

You Are Not What You Do

“For the Christian mystic, the first question should not be ‘What should I do?’ but rather ‘How should I be?’ The mystical journey is preeminently a life that focuses on being rather than doing. Mystics can be found in almost every walk of life and in every life circumstance and thus are largely indistinguishable in what they do. Rather, the sign of true mystics is in who they are” – Stephen Rossetti

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Today so much of our identity is derived by what we do that when what we do changes we go through an identity crisis. This is a problem for men in particular, but women struggle with this as well. When a man retires from his job he struggles to find a way to give his life meaning and purpose. Women experience this as well when their children leave home. A mother has been so identified as the person who cares for her children when they grow up and no longer need everyday care, she asks herself who she is. What we do becomes the determining factor for who we are. Our identity is deeply connected to what we do.

If there is any lesson the Christian mystic teaches us its that what you do does not determine who you are. Who we are is not determined by activity its determined by relationships. A Christian mystic is not defined by his or her job. Cooks are Christian mystics, plumbers are Christian mystics, school teachers, police officers, etc. are all Christian mystics. What they do is not what makes them a mystic its the relationship they have with God.

In the contemporary world we are very intentional about differentiating ourselves from one another because of our hyper individualism. While it was an error to identify ourselves by what we do, that error has been extended even further by people today. We are not just defined by what we do, we are defined by who we like to have sex with, whatever gender we decide we want to be, our political affiliation, the type of cell phone we use, etc. We are a mess because we now define ourselves based on so many temporary and changing trends, emotions, intuitions, and feelings that we no longer anchor ourselves in anything lasting.

We can learn a great deal from Christian mystics who define themselves by relationship rather than what they do, think, feel, etc. The Christian mystic learns he or she is a friend of God. The mystic understand the reality that they are loved by God. They know they are in a relationship with God and it is that relationship that primarily defines who they are not some shifting changing cultural idea. If we identify ourselves as anything other than a person in relationship with an eternal God we will lose ourselves as these temporal misguided ideas fade away and change. If you want to truly know who you are begin to see yourself in relationship to the eternal God. Then, when you lose your health, your youth fades, your job is eliminated, or your tastes and preferences change who you are remains firm. The mystic know their identity is in Christ and it is in that identity that they can remain confident. I am not what I do, I am a child of the most high God, loved when I am unlovable and cherished as the most valuable being in the universe. That is what the Christian mystic teaches us again and again.

The Rush to Witness to the Mystery Leads to Spiritual Pride

  

Think about the last time you ate at a restaurant and were overcome with how tasty the food was.  All you wanted to do was savor that experience, again and again, telling everyone you know how delightful it was.  The flavor of the food, how it smelled, and the lovely setting in which you dined makes you want to gather your friends together for what you tell them is the most wonderful dining experience they could ever have.  You’ve become an evangelist for this particular restaurant! You’ve embarked on a personal crusade to let everyone know this is the place to eat. 

Sometimes people experiencing God in a mystical and charismatic way do the same thing.  They have a profound experience of God and the first thing they do is tell everyone how God touched them in a special way.  While there is a place for sharing our experiences of God with others, the beginning mystic needs to be cautious of this desire to share.  It’s an understandable impulse, you just experienced God in the most profound way, but it’s often better to step back and explore the experience with more mature Christians before sharing it more broadly.  In fact, Rossetti states: 

“Launching out on a personal spiritual crusade at the beginning of one’s mystical journey is almost always a sign of spiritual pride.” 

The new mystic and the new Charismatic Christian often believes what they’ve experienced and the knowledge that comes from that experience is some new revelation God has tasked them to share with the “less spiritual” members of the church.  This is a dangerous idea because what God shares in these mystical and charismatic experiences is nothing new. There is no new revelation one is compelled to share with other people. All we need to know about God is already revealed in Christ.  The mystical experience is not a new revelation God has never shared before, rather it’s a new experience of the person of Christ who has been revealing himself to the world since time eternal. Again, we read this in Rossetti’s book: 

“What the beginner embarks on is not so much learning new ideas about God…the mystical journey imparts a different kind of knowing.” 

The mystic is not experiencing a new knowledge about God rather he or she is experiencing the same revealed truths about God in a new way; a mystical way.  What the mystic experiences is Christ, the complete revelation of God, in a profoundly different way. The mystical experience, as well as the charismatic experience of Christ, is not a way to acquire hidden knowledge about God, but rather it is a grace-filled experience of Christ that changes how we know him, not what we know about him. 

 It’s good we remain humble in our walk with Christ, even in that mystical and charismatic walk.  We must not be so quick as to try and convince others of the “rightness” of our experience or that they need to drink from the same stream of his grace as we do in order to know more about divine things.  All of us already drink from the same stream of God’s word. Some of us experience that water differently because God intends us to have unique experiences, but the water we all drink is the same water from the same stream.  It’s best for the new mystic to dwell in that experience and discuss it with those more mature in their faith walk. By doing this, God will distill the fruits of the Spirit in us so that when he is ready for us to share our experiences we do so as a conduit of his grace and not as a means to feed our own spiritual egos. 

 

The Lost Mystical and Charismatic Experience and Spiritual Growth

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What does one do after having a profound experience of God?  The Christian mystic values this experience, and it can be important for spiritual growth.  However, what does the mystic or charismatic Christian do when the experience disappears? The beginning mystic often mistakes the profound experience of God as if it were God himself.  The truth is of course that the experience of God emerges from our awareness of his constant perpetual presence in our lives. The experience of his presence occurs when we overcome our indifference to God’s ever-present place among his creation and allow ourselves to dwell with him. This realization is, however, dangerous to the new mystic because the experience of God is not God himself, it is simply an awareness of God.  One might say it is a gift from God but one that can dissipate and disappear. We cannot chase the experience of God as if it is God. Instead, we must use it to know God in a more profound and mystical way. One cannot make the experience of God an idol replacing God himself.

In traditional Christian writings, these powerfully overwhelming experiences of God are called consolations and they’re the result of the Christian’s new awareness of God in his or her life.  When we acknowledge that a powerful God is right here among us, we are exuberant and joyful. This new awareness can cause us to be filled with the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues, weep with joy, or be carried away in worship of this powerful God.  For many people, this experience is a type of second conversion in which what they know in their minds becomes powerfully real in their lives. We know about God, but with this new experience, we know we dwell with God and are surrounded by him. We experience the fact we live, move, breathe, and exist in his powerful presence and are moved by that experience.  With the recognition of this powerful presence, we see all the things we once thought were important, valuable, and special as nothing more than straw.

There is a dark side to this experience of God that must be acknowledged.   Often, the one who has a profound experience of God experiences spiritual pride.  Spiritual pride puffs us up and makes us believe somehow we have earned this experience of God by what we have done.  We must have performed the right rituals, been in the right place, or said the right prayers to be able to have this profound experience of God.  We believe we have achieved a high spiritual status and we begin to judge those who have not had that experience as spiritually inferior.

Along with this judgemental attitude comes the belief that we must continue to exercise spiritual disciplines in an unbalanced way.  They become overt badges of pride that mark us as true Christians. We make sure people know we are fasting, pray very publically, and make very public professions of our faith.  We attempt grand miracles of healing and speak loudly in tongues for everyone to see. The purpose of this unbalanced practice of spiritual things is to maintain the experience. We are addicted to the mystical experience and believe we can continue to make it manifest by what we do… except we can’t.  At some point, the profound experience disappears. That doesn’t mean it won’t come back but at some point, it’s gone. This is when we no longer merely partake of the milk and soft food of the spiritual life but rather feed on the solid food required for continued growth. This is when our experience of God matures and our mystical walk with God moves forward.  How does it move forward? By learning trust. For the new Christian to dive more deeply into the experience of God they must let go of control and embrace a true trust in God.

When you no longer experience the profound experience of God you must trust he is ever present as he is when you experienced him in your mystical prayer.  You must trust God is there in the emptiness, in the suffering, in the hopelessness. The mystic learns to feed on the solid food of the spiritual life which is the mystery that God is present even when it seems like he is not.  God is mystically present in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine. God is mystically present in the anointing of our sick brother or sister with the sacred oil. God is present when we pray over someone needing encouragement and God is present when we gather and listen to his holy word.  God is present even when we don’t feel like it is so. This is when our life becomes both a prayer of trust and a prayer of gratitude. This is when the charismatic and mystical Christian’s life begins to take root in the individual.

Stephen Rosetti describes it like this:

“In the midst of consolations, we feel very holy and very special.  But when the milk of God disappears and we return to earth, we feel a bit humbled and very ordinary.  Thank God that we are brought back to earth, lest we be swallowed up in our spiritual pride! A drop of humility and a sense of our frail humanity are more salvific than any sweet consolation.”

Perhaps the mystical life is not merely one of seeking the experience of God but always being mindful of the presence of God in the charismatic gifts and in the hidden sacramental mystery of Christian practice.  Perhaps we can truly begin to know the mystery of God when we accept what we know and experience is not God himself but a simple gift to be treasured when it is had, mourned when it is lost, but always treasured as a step closer to knowing the unknowable mystery of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

The Mystic, Surrender, and the Life of Grace

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I love the summer because it gives me more time to do two of my favorite things.  The first is to read abundantly and the second is to write without interruption.  In my world, a significant part of my time in the fall, winter, and spring is spent teaching, engaging students in discussions, presenting at conferences, and scheduling individual meetings to walk with people in their psychological and spiritual journeys.  The summer is my reprieve and time to reconnect with the things that recharge my batteries, so I can pour myself out for others the rest of the year.

This summer I picked up a book I read a long time ago by Stephen Rossetti called When the Lion Roars: A Primer for the Unsuspecting Mystic.  The book breaks down some wonderful spiritual truths about the mystical life and over the next few BLOG entries I want to elaborate on some of these ideas.  Today I want to briefly explore what it means to see the spiritual life as a pure gift.  This is such an important part of deepening our walk with the divine because we often think the mystical life is something we earn through various practices, readings, meditations, and exercises.  If you look at any book store, regardless of religion or culture, many of the books about deepening your spiritual life present exercises for you to follow, meditations to ponder, and places for you to make retreats to deepen your spiritual life.  The truth is none of this is necessary.  Some of it can be helpful, but in the end, none of it is necessary.  We like to think these are requirements for the spiritual life because we can puff up our spiritual pride and say, “I have achieved enlightenment and communion with God.”  However, that perspective reflects our desire to control the mystery rather than letting it unfold as God intends.  We need to feel in control and that’s one of the first issues to overcome when seeking a deeper spiritual life.  The spiritual life of the mystic is one in which the control is given back to God, not kept in the clutch of one’s hand.  The mystical life is a pure grace given to us by God without any effort of our own.  The mystical life is a life of receptivity, not intense activity.

This is a difficult concept for so many of us.  We believe the spiritual life is like the physical life where we perform exercises to gain strength, flexibility, and agility.  There are some parallels spiritual writers make comparing athletic exercises to spiritual exercises but overall, the spiritual life is a life of “active receptivity.”  Active receptivity is letting go of our preconceived ideas so that God can fill us with himself.  It is a life of letting go of the illusion of control and embracing the truth of God’s providence.  When we believe we can “do” certain things like spiritual exercises and meditations to make God more profoundly present in our lives we view ourselves as magicians and not seekers of the divine.  Yet, when we realize the mystical life is about actively releasing our lives, futures, possessions, and goals to press more closely into the God who is already present with us, we take the first step toward the mystical life.  Rosetti says it like this:

“God is boundless generosity.  Tasting God is purely a gift.  We only need to open our hearts and hands to receive the gift.  This is the first lesson and it’s the last lesson.”

For those of you reading this seeking a more mystical, evangelical, and profoundly transformative experience of God, give up.  When you try and grasp something you are doing so through your own selfish motivation.  Rather than seek God with a goal in mind, just surrender.  Actively surrender to the experience of God and let him be the pure essence of grace; a profoundly priceless gift for you to receive.  It is only when we recognize the pure grace of God’s life and its overabundant blessings being poured into us that we can receive it.  Lesson one, see God and everything he gives you as a gift of himself and be emptied of your small ways to be filled with his greatness.  You don’t have to be a monk or great spiritual master to be a mystic, just a willing receiver of a profound gift.