Mystics Among Us
John 6: 16-35
Every one of you has it in you to be a mystic. Every one of you has the capacity for a direct experience of God. Not only that, but you have the capacity for the experience of God to be a common, everyday experience. What do you think the world would be like if we all walked around having mystical experiences all the time? Would we spend our days in some kind of ecstasy or trancelike state? Would it become impossible to accomplish anything practical? Would ordinary concerns, like supplying our daily bread and water, or tending our homes and children, or going out to work or play become meaningless, pointless distractions?
As bizarre as the prospect of mystical experience sounds to us, it was even more bizarre—even downright dangerous—to the Jewish people of Jesus’ age. For first-century Jews, and for Jews stretching back millennia before them, the very idea of a direct experience of an ineffable, inscrutable, and completely impalpable, transcendent God was absurd, the stuff of mythology. To reach a God with whom you can speak, and whom you can hear and touch, you have to go as far back as Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. And even their experiences of God seldom brought clarity or peace of mind. More often they were confusing, challenging, and even disturbing. Abraham’s encounters with the living God left him homeless and wandering, drove him to disrupt the lives of two women in pursuit of the seemingly impossible promise of a son, and then challenged him to sacrifice that very son. Jacob’s encounter left him with a limp. And Moses was told to go back to the land he had left as a fugitive, confront and challenge the people who had raised him as their own, and liberate the people who more than likely viewed him more as an Egyptian than as a Hebrew. Their encounters with God completely rearranged their lives. To suggest to a people with this history that they might see God—that God is right now standing in front of them offering them bread from heaven—is not only unfathomable but probably undesirable.
It is no wonder that the crowd’s encounter with Jesus in today’s gospel lesson reads like a comedy of misconnections and misunderstandings:
“Teacher, how did you get here?”
“You only came looking for me because I gave you brown barley bread. You’re wasting your time.”
“OK, so, what should we do instead?”
“Believe in me.”
“Huh. Well, show us a sign, then. Give us something to believe in. Something worthy of the ancient ones.”
“Only God can give the true bread from heaven.”
“OK. Give us that, then.”
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This crowd had already seen Jesus perform two miraculous signs: multiplying five loaves and two fishes to feed a crowd of 5000, and somehow getting across the lake without a boat, and getting there much more quickly than is humanly possible. But still they say to Jesus, “Why don’t you give us a clue about who you are, just a hint of what’s going on? When we see what’s up, we’ll commit ourselves. Show us what you can do. Moses fed our ancestors with bread in the desert. It says so in the Scriptures: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” The crowd wants to see Jesus work a sign to prove who he is, even though they cannot seem to see or understand the signs that God is standing right before their very eyes.
Why can’t they see God when God is standing right there in front of them? Why can’t we? Maybe what we need is not a change of circumstance—no water into wine, no five loaves and two fish into dinner for 5000 with 12 bushels left over, no heroic rescues at sea, not even blindness into sight. Maybe what we need is a change of heart.
One of my favorite descriptions of that kind of eye-opening experience of God comes in a short story by Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory. It’s the story of friendship between an old woman, Sookie, her young cousin, Buddy, their little rat terrier, Queenie, and their custom of baking fruit cakes at Christmastime. On Christmas day, after all of the cakes have been delivered, Sookie and Buddy are flying the kites they’ve exchanged and peeling Satsumas, while Queenie buries her Christmas bone:
“My, how foolish I am!” [Sookie] cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—“just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”
The beauty of stories like this one, of course, is that they condense hard-won nuggets of experience into crystalline gems of truth. More often than not, the reality is that the capacity to see God comes through long practice. If we avail ourselves of it, the guidance of spiritual masters like Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton, and Sister Ruth Burrows can ease our practice.
Brother Lawrence was a seventeenth-century Carmelite monk who wrote a masterwork of Christian spirituality called Practicing the Presence of God. In it, he describes how he cultivated the habit of always seeing God at work in even the most mundane tasks, like washing the dishes.
I worshipped Him [as often as] I could, keeping my mind in His holy Presence, and [returning to Him] as often as I found it wandered from Him. I found this exercise [to be difficult], and yet I continued it, notwithstanding all the difficulties that occurred, without troubling or disquieting myself when my mind had wandered involuntarily. I made this my business, . . . all the day long . . .; for at all times, every hour, every minute, even in the height of my business, I drove away from my mind everything that was capable of interrupting my thought of GOD.
Let it be your business to keep your mind in the presence of the LORD. If [your mind] sometimes wanders, and withdraws itself from [God], do not much disquiet yourself for that; trouble and disquiet serve rather to distract the mind, than to [refocus] it; the will must bring it back in tranquillity; if you persevere in this manner, GOD will have pity on you.
One way to re-collect the mind easily in the time of prayer, and preserve it more in tranquillity, is not to let it wander too far at other times: you should keep it strictly in the presence of GOD; and being accustomed to think of Him often, you will find it easy to keep your mind calm in the time of prayer, or at least to recall it from its wanderings.
For Brother Lawrence, the practice of being continually in the presence of God is simply to rest your thoughts on God, and as often as your mind strays, to simply and kindly direct it back to God. Don’t scold yourself, don’t blame yourself, just welcome yourself quietly back to the presence of God. It is, in fact, that simple act of kindly refocusing your thoughts on God that does the work of training you to rest in God always. And when you rest in God, God rests in you. The way Jesus puts it later in John’s gospel is: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” and “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” To worship and break bread in the community of Christ is to abide in Christ. And to abide in Christ is to have Christ abide in you.
One of my favorite guides of late has been Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who died in 1968, but who left a legacy of writings on the spiritual life that have guided pilgrims along the way for over fifty years. Hear what Thomas Merton has to say about having the love of God in us:
When the Love of God is in me, God is able to love you through me and you are able to love God through me. If my soul were closed to that love, God’s love for you and your love for God and God’s love for himself in you and in me, would be denied the particular expression which it finds through me and through no other.
Because God’s love is in me, it can come to you from a different and special direction that would be closed if [God] did not live in me, and because [God’s] love is in you, it can come to me from a quarter from which it would not otherwise come. And because it is in both of us, God has greater glory. His love is expressed in two more ways in which it would not otherwise be expressed.
To me this is the miracle of God’s love: that each one of us is a unique and particular expression of God’s love. That you, Cecil, are a unique expression of God’s love. And you, Erma, are a unique expression of God’s love. And you, Lynda, and you,Barbara and Al and Lisa, and Michael, and Jeffrey. I can experience God in you in a way that is unique and would be unavailable to the world if you did not have the love of God in you and did not share that love with me.
And when we share that love in a congregation—as in BPC—and when in reading and proclaiming the word, in celebrating the sacraments, in teaching other men and women and children that God is love, in demonstrating what God’s love looks like through service to others, God’s love is increased exponentially. And not only that, but it is increased in a way that is absolutely unique to BPC. When each of us has the love of God in us, God becomes knowable, touchable, and as close to us as we are to each other.
Sister Ruth Burrows is a Carmelite nun who scoffs at overblown claims and descriptions of heady, overly emotional and sensational mystical experiences using phrases like “Nonsense!” “Pish-posh!” and “That’s just play-play!” When I read her books, I imagine her writing them with lots of huffing and puffing and dramatic eye-rolling. She seems a most unlikely spiritual guide, but I find her curmudgeonly explanations of mystical prayer helpful and blessedly down-to-earth. In her book, Guidelines to Mystical Prayer, she writes that the only reliable evidence of progress in mystical life is a growing selflessness. Warm feelings, sensations of being transported, even visions are no guarantee that you are growing in your experience of God. The only sure sign is loving others more and putting that love into practice.
Every one of you has it in you to love one another. Every one of you has the capacity for giving and receiving the love of God through each other. Not only that, but you have the capacity for the love of God coming through you to others to be a common, everyday experience. What do you think the world would be like if we all walked around having mystical experiences like that all the time? I think it would be a little like Sookie, sitting up suddenly, eyes wide, taking in this church and each other and our neighbors and the pre-K families and the folks at Durham Urban Ministries, and the folks who stop by to take food from the Blessing Box and saying “Oh! It’s you! I know you! You are the Bread of Life that lives in me and I in you!”
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus and in you and in me, forever and ever. Amen.