Cultivating a Mystical Life

I have appreciated the writing of Carl McColman, so was happy when my friend Richard forwarded to me a post written by McColman about a talk he recently gave in Atlanta.  In the post, he shared his response to a question asked by an audience member about “best practices” for those who want to develop a more mystical spirituality.  His answer is well worth reading in its entirety (which you can do here), but I particularly appreciated McColman’s summary list of “ingredients for a truly mystical life.”  Here is the list and an excerpt of what he said about each item.  You might consider what role each of these has (or could be developed) in your own life.

  • Silence — silence is the foundation of mysticism. We need meaningful amounts of attentive silence, each and every day. …[T]hat’s a necessary first step to finding to limitless silence that expands beyond the “noise” of our thoughts, imaginations and feelings.
  • Liturgy — we need a structured form of daily prayer. … But not everyone needs a daily liturgy as complex as what you’ll find in a monastery. There are other ways to become established in regular prayer. What’s important is that we pray, and that we pray every day. And a daily liturgy, of some form, is an essential tool for keeping such daily prayer alive and real, especially over the long haul.
  • Embodiment — Prayer and silence can sometimes leave us stuck in our heads. The mystical life is a full-bodied life, which pays attention to labor, to rest, to health and even to appropriate ways in which we discipline ourselves (for example, exercising regularly or going on a diet)…. Therefore, our spirituality needs to have a material as well as a psychological component.
  • Community — Christianity is not a do-it-yourself spirituality; neither is Christian mysticism. We need each other. We need to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and we even need to work on loving our enemies. Mysticism often appeals to introverts (I’m one!), and so this is sometimes the hardest part of the spiritual life for us. But Jesus is clear: he said where two or three (or more) are gathered, he is present. Of course he is present with us individually, too. But his point is that we should not neglect intimacy with God found through community.
  • Justice — Again, Jesus is clear. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Feed my sheep.” “Feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, set the prisoners free.” Christianity is clear in its commitment not only to heaven-after-death, but to working for the reign of God (which is to say, the heart of love) here in the present.
  • Interspirituality — not everyone is called to do interfaith dialogue or interspiritual work in a formal way. But we are all called to be  hospitable toward others, and especially in this day and age, “others” includes those who do not share our faith. ..
  • Humility — …Authentic mystical experience tends to increase humility rather than pride: the “experiencer” is often left with a profound sense of unworthiness after having encountered such vast love. Many of us, meanwhile, are called to be mystics of unknowing, where our is faith shaped not by extraordinary experience but by deep faith and lively trust. No matter what our relationship with God may look like, we are all called to walk humbly with God.


Uniting Prayer and Action

Today is the celebration of the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a saint who occupies a special place in my heart.

My shorthand description for people who know nothing of this wonderful saint is that Vincent really got what Jesus was saying in the judgment passage in Matthew 25. You know the passage – the one where Jesus explains how the sheep and goats will be separated. Vincent took to his heart the message of this passage better than anyone else I can think of (although some of my Vincentian brothers come close).

Vincent looked at the faces of the poor and the marginalized and what he saw was the face of Christ. He once observed, “We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ.”

Just as the Ignatian spirituality that is so close to my heart, Vincent’s heritage is a spirituality committed to uniting contemplation with action.  Let me share words I’ve shared here before on the relationship between prayer and action, words  written by Robert Maloney, C.M., a former Superior General of the Vincentians:

Divorced from action, prayer can turn escapist. It can lose itself in fantasy. It can create illusions of holiness. Conversely, service divorced from prayer can become shallow. It can have a “driven” quality to it. It can become an addiction, an intoxicating lure. It can so dominate a person’s psychology that his or her sense of worth depends on being busy.

An apostolic spirituality is at its best when it holds prayer and action in tension with one another. The person who loves God “with the sweat of his brow and the strength of his arms” knows how to distinguish between beautiful theoretical thoughts about an abstract God and real personal contact with the living Lord contemplated and served in his suffering people.

Fr. Maloney’s words are a good reminder to all of us on this feast day of Vincent.

Wishing all of my friends in the worldwide Vincentian family a blessed feast day.

What Are My Gifts?

Today was the third session of the five-week series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas this fall on Discerning My Place in the World.  In the first two sessions of the series, we focused first on God’s invitation to each of us to co-labor with him in the building of Kingdom, and then on getting in touch with our deepest desires (the place where our desire and God’s desire for us is the same.  The theme for today’s session was What Are My Gifts?

I spend some time talking about why this is such an important question in discerning vocation, the role of humility, and on how we might explore answering the question.  The participants then spent some time in silent reflection, after which we had a good discussion surrounding questions relating to why we have difficulty acknowledging and using some of the gifts we have been given.

You can access a recording of my talk at today’s session here or stream it from the icon below.  You can find the prayer material I distributed today here.

“What are We To Do About All This?”

On this Saturday, September 23, Fr. Stanley Rother will become the first U.S.-born priest to be beatified.  I wrote once before about Rother, the subject of a wonderful book by my even-more-wonderful friend, Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, titled The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run.

Rother ministered to the poor in Guatamala at an incredibly difficult time of armed internal conflict in that country.  Among other tasks, Rother was faced with searching for the bodies of the desaparecidos – people who “went missing” by government and military action.

In a recent article for America Magazine,  Scaperlanda writes

“And what do we do about all this?” wrote Father Rother to a friend. “What can we do but do our work, keep our heads down, preach the Gospel of love and nonviolence.” To use Pope Francis’ image, Father Rother was a shepherd who smelled like his sheep.

Paraphrasing the words St. Paul used in Acts 13:22 to recall God’s reason for favoring King David, it is clear that Christ found in Rother “a man after his own heart,” one “who did all that was asked of him”—to the point of martyrdom.

As he wrote at the end of his final Christmas letter from the mission to his church back in Oklahoma in 1980, “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”

On July 28, 1981, Father Stanley Rother, the servant of love, was murdered in the parish rectory, martyred for the Gospel and for his sheep.

I will be at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh from Thursday night through Sunday, giving a preached Ignatian retreat for women.  We will recall Fr. Stanley’s model of discipleship and pray for those to whom he ministered.

Getting in Touch With Our Deepest Desires

Today was the second session of the five-week series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas this fall on Discerning My Place in the World.  The theme for today’s session was Getting in Touch With My Deepest Desires.

I began by talking about an important antecedent to any meaningful discussion of discernment: embracing the gift of freedom of choice, which included distinguishing between a secular and a Christian understanding of freedom.

I then talked about the role of desire in discernment, focusing on an Ignatian view of desire.  After my remarks, the participants spend some time doing an exercise designed to help them get in touch with their deepest desires.

You can access a recording of my talk at today’s session here or stream it from the icon below.  You can find the prayer material I distributed today here.

Jesus As Our Model for Encountering Others

We opened the year of Adult Faith Formation at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Minneapolis this morning with the first of a seven session series on Creating a Culture of Encounter.  I had the enjoyable task of kicking off the series.

I opened by briefly talking about what we mean by a “culture of encounter” and why we picked the theme for the year.  I then focused for the bulk of the session on what we learn from the Gospels about encounter.  Specifically, what do we learn about how we encounter others from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ encounters with others?

During my talk, I suggested five lessons we learn from Jesus about encounter, each of which would make a great deal of difference to how we encounter others if we took the lessons to heart.  For each I shared some Gospel passages that illustrate the lesson.  With the hope that it might provoke some useful meditation for you, in summary form, here are the five lessons I shared in my talk, along with the scripture passages I referenced for illustrative purposes and the questions we might ask ourselves.

Lesson 1: Jesus models compassion first, without regard to whether it is earned.

Illustration: Jesus encounter with Zacchaeus the tax collector

Question for reflection:  Can I offer love and compassion without regard to whether it is deserved?  Can I make the first move, giving the other an opportunity to respond with grace.

Lesson 2: Jesus models speaking the truth with love.

Illustration: Jesus’ encounters with the woman caught in adultery and with the Samaritan Woman at the well.

Question for reflection: Can I find ways to encourage others in a more positive fashion?  Do I lead with their shortcomings or begin with connection?

Lesson 3: Jesus models acceptance of what the other is capable of giving.

Illustration: Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man and with Peter at the beach at the end of John’s Gospel.

Question for reflection:  Do I accept what others are able to offer or do I create unreasonable expectations of others and then resent when they don’t meet my expectations?

Lesson 4: Jesus models an openness to learning from others.

Illustration: Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman who asks him to heal her daughter.

Question for reflection: Am I open to allowing others to expand my understanding?  Or do I think I already have all of the answers?

Lesson 5: Jesus shows us that true encounter means opening ourselves to vulnerability.

Illustration: Jesus’ crying at the death of Lazarus; Jesus asking his apostles to be with him in the garden.

Question for reflection:  Am I willing to show vulnerability before others?  Or do I feel the need to hide behind a mask of strength?

The Universal Call to Heal the World

Today was the first session of the five-week series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas this fall on Discerning My Place in the World.  My talk at today’s session both introduced the series and focused on God’s invitation to all of us to participate in his plan for the world.

I used St. Ignatius’ opening prayer of Week 2 of his Spiritual Exercises, the Kingdom Exercise, as a way to talk about our invitation to labor with Christ for building God’s Kingdom.  Most of the talk, however, was aimed at helping people embrace the reality that each of them individually is called by God.

After my talk, we had some time for silent reflection on the participant’s experience of being called by God, an exercise I encouraged them to continue to pray with after the session.

You can access a recording of my talk at today’s session here or stream it from the icon below.  You can find the prayer material I distributed today here.