I was ten years old. I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom and paging through a picture book about the lives of the saints. It was December 14. I know the date because I distinctly remember turning to that day’s page to see whose feast day the Catholic Church celebrated. I remember scratching my head over the first sentence about that day’s saint: “Saint John of the Cross was a Carmelite mystic of the sixteenth century.” I was old enough to know the Carmelites were a religious order like the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Benedictines. But a mystic?
Later that day, I asked my mother, “What’s a mystic?”
My mother was accustomed to answering my precocious questions. “That’s a special friend of God.”
“I want to be one!” I instantly blurted out, knowing that being a special friend of God would be like what I had with my best friend, Dennis, who lived across the street.
“It doesn’t quite happen like that,” she said. “You don’t choose to be one. You are chosen.”
I didn’t believe her. I was determined to become a special friend of God and would spend the subsequent years trying to prove her wrong.
Twenty years later, I sat with my spiritual director. It was one of those days—I was a bit discouraged. After telling him about that first childhood encounter with John of the Cross and my reaction to my mother’s comment, I began to think out loud:
- I should be farther along on the spiritual journey.
- Why don’t I see any progress?
- What am I doing wrong?
After twenty years of trying to be chosen as a special friend of God, I felt like I was just walking in spiritual circles. “Now I understand why St. Teresa of Avila, having been knocked out of her carriage and fallen into a water puddle, said, ‘O God, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder they are so few!’”
“But, Albert,” my spiritual director replied, “Teresa of Avila was a mystic. That’s how mystics sometimes feel. And I suspect, because you’re feeling the way you do, you’re a mystic too. We’re all called to be mystics.”
Me, a mystic? Had I been chosen as a special friend of God and not known it?
He continued, “In every moment of our lives, God is asking us to respond to grace—and grace is simply God’s ardent longing and enthusiastic invitation to a deeper relationship, a mystical relationship. Mystics are ordinary Christians who do what we are all called to do, respond to grace. I know you well enough to know you are intentional about prayer. So you’re responding to God’s invitation to spend time with him. You’re deliberate about doing acts of charity. So you are responding to God’s call to move beyond your selfishness. You make an annual retreat. You keep working at forgiveness. And you keep trying to become more attentive and sensitive to what God is asking of you. I think it’s safe to say you’ve been chosen like everyone else to be a ‘special friend of God,’ as your mother called it. You’re an ordinary mystic.”
A-n o-r-d-i-n-a-r-y m-y-s-t‑i-c. I had to let the words sink in. I never would have known it but it certainly now made sense.
Even while naively trying to make myself worthy of being chosen, I had mistakenly thought mysticism meant acquiring esoteric knowledge or having rarefied experiences—but where were the wisdom and the supersized feelings? That’s why I was discouraged.
After more than thirty years since sitting down with that spiritual director, I’ve discovered mysticism is more commonplace than I originally thought. It is living with sensitivity to the divine presence and responding to God’s ardent longing and enthusiastic invitation to a deeper relationship at this very moment: in a burning bush as happened to Moses, in the tiny whisper of a sound as Elijah experienced, in the call to come out of hiding like Zacchaeus, in the mysterious stranger who suddenly appears and offers hope as one did with two disciples walking to Emmaus.
Mystics teach us to celebrate Jesus’ offer of forgiveness right here, right now, and not live in the past, submerged in guilt over sinful actions. Mystics have distractions in prayer—Teresa of Avila mentions times when, during prayer, her attention was focused more on the grains of sand in the hourglass than the crucifix—but they acknowledge and respect distractions as potential teachers in the spiritual life. Mystics pray from their current feelings, even the ones other people consider inappropriate to express to God—think again of Teresa falling out of the carriage. Mystics sometimes lose the feeling of having God in their life—John of the Cross called it the “dark night” and Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced it for almost fifty years. Mystics are waitresses, welders, writers, and web designers who heartily respond to the direct and enthusiastic invitation of Jesus, “Come, follow me.” It’s the ordinary call singularly offered to all. The mystics’ journey is, in fact, the disciples’ journey: “We’re all called to be mystics,” as my spiritual director said.
Taken from Becoming an Ordinary Mystic by Albert Haase, OFM. Copyright (c) 2019 by Albert Haase, OFM. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com