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.