The Heart of a Mystic

When we consider the concept of mysticism, most of us assume mystics are somehow set apart from the rest of humanity as mysterious and highly intuitive people who participate in an exceptional relationship with God.  Mysticism is easily translated across multiple religions, and even within Christianity, there is some debate as to what defines a mystic.  As a lifelong Catholic, I have always been drawn to the notable mystical saints: St. Padre Pio, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila.  Their extraordinary ability to sense and recognize God in vast mysteries has fascinated and lured me into the supernatural realm of knowing and being.

I was exposed to St. John of the Cross four years ago during a time of uncertainty and crossroads in my spiritual life; I had long wrestled with questions of my purpose and existence, lamenting to God incessantly and yet receiving no direct or clear answer.  My spiritual director at the time recommended that I become acquainted with John of the Cross, and so I dared to delve into the worn pages of his collective works.  The words were as I anticipated: mysterious, hidden, intuitive.  Most people had warned me that his writings were, at best, difficult to comprehend, and so I should not expect much of myself as I read them.  I was prepared for this, but I was also open to the possibility that perhaps God might permit me to understand even an iota of wisdom or truth that might be contained in the pages of that tattered volume I owned.

I believe it was in this openness of heart where God spoke to me through the fluid, perceptive and artistic wisdom of this Spanish saint; I was enthralled at the gaping distance between epochs – his and mine – and yet the relevance of his message as it pertained to my own life and personal spiritual journey.  I felt as if I were reading a letter from an old friend, one who knew me perhaps more intimately than I knew myself, and one who offered a message of great hope in the midst of contradiction.  It was during this time in my life when I realized that darkness does not always entail despair or despondency.  Darkness is not always interpreted as unholy or sacrilegious.  It is not a punishment, but rather a blessing and grace from our Heavenly Father.

St. John of the Cross so succinctly defined the difference between unholy darkness and the “dark night of the soul,” in which a soul is purposefully, for a time, not illuminated to the inner workings of God; the senses, will and intellect are all often darkened so that the person is incapable of viewing the good taking place within his or her heart and soul.  People who have entered this “dark night” tend to express a sort of “desert” spirituality: dryness in prayer, without consolations or adulations.  They feel an intense longing to feel God’s presence, for a deeper union with Him, and in their emptiness, they believe they are abandoned and forsaken by Him instead.

The mystical saints have spoken to my heart, because I have the heart of a mystic.  I do not approach mystical writings of the saints with trepidation or apprehension, because I know that there are others in this modern age who experience similar movements of their hearts and souls, similar to those of the saints who lived perhaps hundreds of years ago.  This occurs, I believe, because God longs to reconnect the hearts of His people with His Sacred and Eucharistic Heart in a unitive fusion of two hearts into one: a spiritual, mystical marriage, a communion.

Unbeknownst to many, mysticism does not necessarily entail spiritual ecstasies, visions, revelations, and locutions.  It is not an experience exclusive to an elite and holy few, but rather it appeals to many hearts who – right now, in this moment – are convicted with zeal, a hunger, a pining for the unitive love between God and the souls of all of humanity.  Mysticism unites the soul of one who actively engages in solitary and disciplined prayer with God’s own heart, but it also expands into the realm of a desire to suffer with and for all souls who are afflicted with the plight of the human condition resulting from sin and strife.

The modern mystic is one who is open to contemplation, in which God innocuously and spontaneously draws a soul into a deeper union with Him for a time – perhaps a fleeting moment or several hours.  Contemplation is a gift, an invitation from God to engage in an experience of His suffering for the sake of love.  It occurs when and how God wills it.  A mystical soul also meditates deeply on the mysteries of faith: the Trinity, the Eucharist, redemptive suffering, the consequences of original sin.  A mystic does not have to be a theologian and yet must remain true to the teachings of the Church, submitting oneself in full obedience and humility to the Magisterium and doctrines and dogma of our faith.

Ultimately, the heart of a mystic is transformed by Love Himself: from a heart of fear, anxiety, and vice into a heart that naturally loves with abundance and self-sacrifice.  Our once-stony hearts become hearts of flesh, alive and vibrant, ready and willing to be and do all that God asks of us in every facet of our lives.  A mystical heart is one that is moved to quiet and solitude when necessary, but also action and service when it is warranted.  It is a heart that is in waiting – waiting for God’s beckoning and discerning His will for us to respond, sometimes boldly and sometimes gently.  It is a heart that is not afraid of the periods of aridity in prayer, but one that also does not seek exuberance in spiritual experiences.  It is content with a holy indifference, always quietly waiting and yet simultaneously seeking God.


Jeannie Ewing believes the world ignores and rejects the value of the Cross. She writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief.  As a disability advocate, Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters and is the author of From Grief to Grace , A Sea Without A Shore , and Waiting with Purpose.  Jeannie is a frequent guest on Catholic radio and contributes to several online and print Catholic magazines.   She, her husband, and three daughters live in northern Indiana. For more information, please visit her website

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  • Jill Marie

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve often felt alone on my spiritual journey, particularly when realizing that other Catholic friends and family didn’t share a similar longing to spend time with God; a desire to love and serve Him more perfectly. I’ve come to recognize that my “zeal and hunger” is a gift from God. I also wonder, though, whether my mostly
    melancholic temperament inclines me to being more open to receiving this gift? If so, what advice would you give to other personality types who desire to feel a closer union with God? I would love for my husband (& 13 yr old daughter) to experience God in a more transformative way. However, my daughter’s sanguine personality and husband’s sanguine/phlegmatic tendencies don’t particularly mesh well with conditions usually necessary for contemplative or even meditative prayer. I do realize that God has a special plan for each of them, which may or may not involve “mystical moments.” It’s just hard to imagine growing closer to God and being able to follow His will without a deep prayer life, because for me, that has been so vital. I also struggle with how much to help them in
    this area, since, as a parent, I’m the primary teacher of our faith, and as a wife, I’m trying to help my husband get to heaven!

  • Hi Jill,
    I, too, am a melancholic, and I do agree that this temperament is more conducive to contemplation than the others. My husband is also a sanguine, but we recently discussed how he is able to spend time in solitude to think and pray and reflect, and basically he told me it is just a discipline for him. It does not come naturally, but he disciplines himself to do it.

    Have you read, “The Temperament God Gave You?” In that book, there are suggestions of different spiritualities and types of saints who appeal to all four temperaments.

    I wouldn’t worry about how your daughter and husband experience their faith, as long as it is deepening for them personally. Each has his or her own journey to sanctification. 🙂

  • Librarian50

    How do you know that you have a “melancholic temperment”? How do you know that your daughter has a “sanguine temperment.” ? Your “melancholy” seems to be making you feel alienated from the people around you. Pray that God will send someone into your life with whom you can share your spiritual journey so you won’t be alone. God may be calling you to make some radical changes in your own life. . And stop comparing your spiritual life to a 13 yr. old’s. ( or anybody’s else’s.) Bad, bad, idea !

  • Jill Marie

    Thank you for sharing your husband’s experience with prayer. It reinforced my hope and brought a smile to my face. Discipline. Some need it in order to pray. Others need it in order to stop praying & pondering so they can get on with the work of serving and putting love into action! (God certainly has been dealing with me on this one, and I need every ounce of His grace to help me balance prayer time with attending to my duties in life. Yes, we certainly do have our own unique path to holiness!)

    I think my inquiry, particularly with respect to my daughter, was based on a (perhaps misplaced) desire to provide her with as many tools & techniques for connecting with God, hoping that, someday, one of them will click with her particular personality and help her develop a prayer life when she’s older. But, yeah, at 13, I’m thrilled if she simply shows an occasional interest in learning more about Jesus, the Catholic Church, the saints… anything! So while I understand that such a spiritual “toolbox” is useless without necessary maturity or desire, I nonetheless feel an urgency to fill it. Other than weekly homilies, religious ed classes, and a rare comment from my husband (who is still a babe in the faith), I am the only one teaching her about God. My worry is that secular messages
    will resonate louder than God’s due to the pervasiveness of such views (teachers, friends, media, etc) and despite efforts to set limits, guide, and teach. This fear had caused me to develop a “How can I help you discover God (quickly!) so I don’t lose you to the world” mentality. God recently reminded me (again) that giving the gift of faith is His job, not mine. My job is to teach her and demonstrate our faith by loving her. He’ll take care of the rest. But upon reading this article, I couldn’t resist asking the temperament question. Breaking free from attachments, including aspirations for my family’s spiritual life, is a work in progress 🙂

    I also appreciate the book recommendation. I actually have it on my “wish list.” For me, reading is another activity that can easily teeter out of balance and, for that reason, I haven’t purchased a new book in a
    while – but I may have to make an exception 😉

  • Jill Marie

    I’m sorry, you may have misunderstood. I don’t feel alienated from anyone. I am “alone” in that no one else among my family & friends seems to share a similar ongoing urge to seek God, be in His presence, discern His will, etc.

    Yes, God has called me to make radical changes in my life and continues to do so. (And while I know I may not always experience the joy of
    feeling His nearness, the opportunity to experience the joy of suffering for
    love of Him will always exist. I continue to pray that my love for God
    increases so that one day I can move beyond just accepting my crosses into truly being able to receive them with joy. )

    I didn’t intend for my inquiry to come across as a comparison between my spiritual life and that of my 13 year old or my husband. When you experience something wonderful, it’s natural to want to share that, to wish that for others. I was merely trying to express my desire for them to develop a close relationship with God. Given our different temperaments, as well as God’s special plan for each of us, I acknowledged that their paths would probably be different than mine. At the same time, however, I was certainly seeking input from anyone who knew of something I could share that would help them on their journey.

    I apologize if my ineffective wording gave you the wrong impression. I do sincerely appreciate your advice. It’s nice to know that people care enough to take the time to respond!

  • Kelli

    This article is so thought provoking, thank you for your insights. We are all hard wired for intimacy with God. However, it does require discipline. This is where people fall short. Helping our children understand silence and creating moments of time throughout the day without noise, is a great way of tuning their little ears to God. As for our husbands, I just heard that we should pray for brotherhood in their Christian walk instead of conversion. I think the saints that we are drawn to might indicate the way God can speak to us best…just a thought I have. Interesting that my top 3 are listed in this article!

  • Pat Darby

    Dear Jill, It seems to me that you are on the right track, more than you know. That sentence: “…giving the gift of faith is His job, not mine.” is the bottom line and the answer to all your questions. And your love for God, for prayer, for your family is so evident in your writings and such a blessing for your family. I relate to everything you have said. Sometimes, we just have to “let go and let God”…after all He does it better! And yes, we are all a “work in progress” Thanks for sharing…It was quite beautiful to me.