Mysticism: “For the Rest Of Us”

I am aware that a case can be made that there is some implicit irreverence in the Seinfeld installment where Kramer and George’s father come up with a feast called “Festivus” as an alternative to Christmas and Hanukkah. But I laughed a lot while watching it anyway. You may remember Kramer’s punch line: “Festivus for the rest of us!” I thought of that line recently when reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.

I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading Merton. But I finally did, at the recommendation of a friend. It is a moving account of his conversion and decision to become a Trappist monk, as well as an intriguing portrait of life in the United States in the years just before World War II. (Anyone who believes that Joseph McCarthy had no basis for suspecting a widespread Communist presence in our universities owes it to himself to read Merton’s reminiscences of his years at Columbia University.)

And what could Merton’s book possibly have to do with Kramer and “Festivus”? Well, it struck me that I have never — not once — experienced anything close to the mysticism Merton describes; and that if something akin to mysticism is essential to what it means to be a Catholic, there is a need for a “mysticism for the rest of us”.

Merton writes of “feeling as if I was going to explode” after receiving Communion, of being “overwhelmed like a tidal wave” by grace, of weeping profusely when chanting the Magnificat, of the “exultancy of the fear of God.” Well, I pray regularly and go to Mass and receive Communion almost every day and immerse myself in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, everything from Benediction to the Stations of the Cross to the throat blessings on St. Blaise’s Day. It is all very important to me. I take it seriously. But, sorry, no bouts of weeping, no tidal waves of emotion, no imminent explosions. My Catholic life is very different, something warm, reassuring, comforting, more like a nice old blanket than a jolt of religious intensity.

I couldn’t help but wonder, then, while reading Seven Storey Mountain, if I have a problem, if perhaps my religious beliefs are in the lukewarm category that Jesus said He would “vomit” from His mouth. I hope that is not the case.

What do I think is the explanation for my failure to encounter God as intensely as the mystics? What I offer for your consideration are just my personal reflections on this matter. I am not sure if they are theologically sound. Take them for what they are worth. But I think they have some merit. My hunch is that most lifelong Catholics, the people I see at daily Mass and the Sacraments, are in the same boat as I am, that they too have never experienced the overwhelming bouts of religious fervor that Merton describes.

First of all, we have to keep in mind that God’s graces are a gift. We are not “entitled” to the rewards of religious ardor that Merton and the mystics have experienced. Why would God grant these uplifting periods of religious intensity to some of us and not to others? To Merton and not to me? That is God’s business. If we have not been given the grace to experience mysticism, perhaps it is not something God wants us to find in this life. It could be that our job is to do the best we can with the graces God has given us, rather than brood over why we have not been given something more rarefied.

Am I saying that God in His wisdom might not want all of us to experience the intensity of Merton’s mysticism? Yes. I don’t see why that might not be the case. God makes some of us smarter, taller, stronger and better looking than others. He may not intend for all of us to be mystics in the full sense of the term.

Perhaps I should rephrase that. What I mean is that perhaps what most of us experience when we kneel in prayer at Mass and speak to God is the full extent of the religious fervor we are meant to encounter in life, even if it never comes close to the experiences that bring tears and tidal waves of emotion to the mystics; perhaps that is all that God the Father and Jesus expect from us; that it is our version of the mystical experience; that it is more than sufficient.

We should keep in mind Jesus’ words about there being “many mansions in my Father’s house.” What Our Lord meant was that there are many ways to serve Him, many versions of worship, many different dispensations of grace and reactions to those graces. Was Thomas Merton a “better” Catholic because of his mysticism than a priest or nun actively involved in the world as an administrator of a Catholic university or hospital? A better Catholic than Mother Teresa? Than Pope John Paul II? Are Catholics returning quietly from Communion less devout than the born-again Christians we see at religious revivals, with their eyes closed, swaying and shouting out their love of God? I say, not necessarily. Only God knows the answer to these questions.

There is another angle to consider: Could it be that lifelong Catholics, whose Catholicism is like my “nice old blanket”, should be grateful for our more pedestrian religious life, instead of feeling shortchanged because we have been deprived of Merton’s religious intensity? Maybe. It strikes me that the intensity of the mystical experience comes most often to those who have come to Jesus, such as Merton, as part of a conversion process. The same is true of the born-again Christians shouting out “Praise the Lord.” It is why the Trappists and other cloistered orders find themselves with large numbers of recruits in the years after major wars.

If, in contrast, Jesus and the Church have been a constant presence in our lives since childhood, supporting us in times of grief and helping to express our joy in happy times, such as at weddings and baptisms, we are not likely to go through the profound sense of deliverance and reassurance that the convert experiences, the great relief of rising to the air and the sunlight from dark waters in a near-drowning experience. There is no reason to feel shortchanged if you do not know what that is like.

Jesus had something to say about this, you will recall. Complaining about not experiencing Merton’s mysticism strikes me as comparable to the peevishness of the older brother who resented his father’s welcome to the Prodigal Son.

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  • Warren Jewell

    “God may not intend for all of us to be mystics in the full sense of the term.” Or, He may intend the mysticism of one or most to look very “pedestrian” indeed. Just a thought, while reading Mr. Fitzpatrick’s article.

    I have learned that mysticism is simply meant to bring God closer and become more alive to His human child. Okay – maybe ‘simply’ is over-simplifying. However, for most of us, it can seem that it is not that “God is dead” but He just isn’t a living entity as we think of life, nor Whom we can relate to on ‘living’ friendly terms. But, then again, in fact, in perceiving oneself as “God’s beloved child” is already to call upon a sense of mysticism that any can have. It is very and nearly actually “pedestrian” – that we walk with our Father for this moment, this hour, this day. And, in that walk, the mysticism of Father and child is celebrated.

    Maybe, Mr. Fitzpatrick doesn’t quite recognize it as he returns to his pew from Communion. He’s arm-in-arm with Jesus Christ, Who just gave Himself to this child of God – and, oh, how Jesus does relish that closeness. Now, really – can it get more mystical than that?

    Some of us need crashing glimpses of God’s glory, maybe so that child of His just gets on with God’s purpose for him or her. For the rest of us, His mystical way is just a walk here, a walk there – nothing stunning. Just Dad out with His kid.

  • bkeebler

    I am comforted that God’s knows us so well. He knows just what we need, can we want anything more or less than what God wants for us? And if we obey His commands as He asks us to, if we walk with Him, we have nothing to fear… He Loves us, and we will know His Love.

  • wgsullivan

    I can relate to what Mr. Fitzpatrick says. With a group of kids from a conservative diocese attending a Steubenville Conference on campus, a young gentleman asked if there was something wrong with him since he was not experiencing what so many others were, namely outward signs of the Holy Spirit at work.
    Our priests attending pointed to scripture and suggested that the lower gifts were some of what the kids were seeing and that they may have passed over those gifts to the more mature gifts.
    I have experienced a few very close moments with Christ and Him in the Eucharist. However, I am about as far away from the qualities of a Mystic as one can be.
    I think the example of the prodigal son and peevishness are on the same parallel as the parable describing those hired early in the morning complaining about the late day workers receiving the same wage crying, “That’s not fair” (paraphrasing of course).
    I must practice not being jealous of those receiving what appears to be more from Christ when the cup He sets before me is full.

  • Lucky Mom of 7

    I agree with how this subject is treated. I have some mystical traits in my spirituality. It’s like any other “talent” in that it is both a privelege and a burden. I have never thought myself more or less than anybody else based on those traits. It’s like my perfectionism which makes me highly capable in some areas of my life and almost handicapped in others. I have to manage it. 🙂 Several years ago my longing in Eucharistic Adoration got so unbearable that I haven’t been back with any kind of regularity. I recognize this as cowardice and it’s something with which I struggle.

    I think that most of the saints were probably more of the plain-vanilla variety. God works through the miraculous (and mystical), but more often through the ordinary.


  • plowshare

    I am surprised to see that Fitzpatrick does not know that, towards the end of his life, Merton was so flabbergasted by the huge Buddha statues he saw on a visit to Sri Lanka, that he more or less converted over into Buddhism. I had been meaning to read Seven Storey Mountain until I saw a documentary revealing this. I still haven’t started reading it, and perhaps never will.

    Now I see from Fitzpatrick’s article that the old age conversion experience of Merton’s was very much like his earlier conversion experience–full of extravagant emotion of the sort easily thought to be mystical revelation.

  • plowshare

    I investigated further, and I see that “old age” was the wrong term and that Merton died of an accident at age 58. Calling up “Thomas Merton Buddhism” on Goodsearch gives many revealing passages on how deeply involved he was not only in Buddhism but also Sufism and other Eastern religions. Here are two contrasting sites:
    One is highly complimentary, the other seemingly neutral (but a perusal of links shows it is very much opposed), but both indicate Merton’s turn to what is, at best, a passionate indifferentism (not to be confused with indifference!) towards religions.

  • Mary Kochan

    Appreciate your attention to these details, plowshare, but please don’t assume that Fitzpatrick is unaware of them. Merton’s later turn away from the faith does not negate his earlier work — although you are right that it may make it suspect to some. Remember, Tertullian became a heretic, but is quoted in the catechism. Origen’s theology is problematic on a number of points, but he is likeways quoted.