A lot of talk about mysticism and spirituality can be heard as giving you an escape route. Life is difficult but let’s take our glasses off so things look a bit more vague. But the proper definition of mysticism means we can see the nature of suffering more clearly, not less. It doesn’t make it easier, it makes it clearer...
Let’s be very careful about telling ourselves a cheery story. Because the future may not turn out very cheery. There is no guarantee whatsoever that things will turn out well in the ordinary sense. But we can live, day by day, out of a sense of the worthwhileness of our being, and therefore of our decisions. And to live with that sense of worthwhileness of who we are, that’s where hope resides.
Rowan Williams, in a talk on mental health, mysticism and spirituality, reported by Jules EvansThe sense of Romans 8.28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose", and of the words Julian of Norwich records hearing from God, "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well", is not however a cheery story, nor an attempt to paper over a harsh reality. It is an invitation, "a profound invitation to notice how condemning we are of reality in ordinary life, and to experiment with letting go of these condemnations, to live in a way without the protection such condemnations offer." (Julian Centre) More than that, it is an invitation to look unflinchingly, through the clarity of contemplative perception, as Julian did, and as Rowan Williams does, at the nature of reality in the presence of God.
The mystical and the spiritual is the key to understanding what well-being is. Not a protected calmness and unnatural detachment, but having sufficient freedom to look clearly at what’s there, inside and outside, to resist some of the imprisoning models pushed at us, to resist some of the systems of power in which we live, so that, by being more deeply open, passive and receptive to truth and the real, we become more genuinely active, capable of living from an active centre of our being, not the periphery, not just reactive.
Williams, ibid.I have mentioned elsewhere, in the context of the dark times in which we live, Fr Sophrony. Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov lived through the years of the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War. A Russian, he prayed in community at Mount Athos, and later at The Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, England, and like most Orthodox religious, he was a contemplative. Sophrony wrote, and taught, on the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and it was to this practice that his life was given.
We all tend often to have far too narrow a sense of what prayer is. Paul wrote, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8.26-27)
We cannot, humanly, know how to pray in the direct, petitionary sense under the utterly distressing and alarming circumstances within which we find ourselves living. Coming before God with some list of demands, and our advice, however well-meaning, on how best to fulfil them, simply won't do. Sophrony understood this. He wrote, "Sometimes prayer seems to flag, and we cry, 'Make haste unto me, O God' (Ps. 70.5). But if we do not let go of the hem of his garment, help will come. It is vital to dwell in prayer in order to counteract the persistently destructive influence of the outside world." (His Life Is Mine)
Dwell in prayer. Yes, that is how Julian came to hear what she was told, and how Paul came by the letter to the Romans, too. digitalnun, a sister at Howton Grove Priory, writes:
Whatever is black, bleak or broken in our lives or the lives of those around us is shot through with light and grace but we may have to put a lot of effort into discovering that for ourselves; and we are unlikely to discover it all at once. That is where we can identify with the widow’s persistence — that stubborn hoping against hope almost, that constant going over the same ground. It is not so much that we must continue to pray — though we must — as that we must be prepared for our prayer to be changed and ourselves with it. We must grow in prayer just as we grow physically and emotionally. The image of God that may have sustained us in childhood is not usually adequate for us as adults. It is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews remarked, a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, yet that is what each of us must do, not just once, but again and again. And that is not a childish business.