After paging through my draft proposal and talking through my idea for a book about experiencing God’s mysterious, glorious presence using all our senses, even, especially, our “sixth” ones, my would-be editor looked at me and said, “It’s like practical mysticism.”
With that, I knew this was the place my book needed to land. I didn’t care what amount of money they offered, what their royalty rates were, what their ability to connect my book with my audience was (well, I cared a little about these things), with those two words, I knew my book had been understood and my idea had found a home.
And not just because the editor described my project so well, but because she described me so well. In fact, the moment itself turned into a rather sweet moment in God’s mysterious, glorious presence because of those two words. You see, probably 20 years before a therapist had described me as “practical.” This sounds silly, but it was one of those moments when someone cuts to the quick (in a good way) of who you are. The moment with my therapist stands out as one of my first times feeling completely understood and known by another person.
Then, probably 10 years later, a colleague called me a “bit of a mystic.” The word mystic caught me off guard. After all, practical people aren’t mystical, right? Especially not ones who love of reason and rationality and straight-up knowledge the way I do. And yet, as I talked to my colleague about my experiences with God — about the times I knew God to be real, about the times I knew God saw and heard and spoke to me, about how I sought God’s wisdom in the midst of my many, many questions — my colleague squinted and said, “Wow. I wouldn’t have guessed you were a bit of a mystic.”
Neither would I have. But again, this was an identity-shaping moment. I’ve clung to that word ever since.
So you can imagine my surprise when out of this conversation with my editor came the words: practical mysticism. Frankly, I was surprised there wasn’t lightening, that her declaration wasn’t followed by claps of thunder. It was, well, practically mystical.
I tell this story only to add some background so you understand better a new concern. Although I know not everyone’s theology jives with the mystics or mysticism and though I know plenty who roll their eyes at those of us who speak of “hearing from God” or having a moment of spiritual ecstasy, I did not realize there were Christian folks who found mysticism heretical. Silly me. Of course, there’s no shortage Christians ready to find anything heretical.
But truly, I did not know, for instance, that folks critiqued Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts and questioned her faithfulness because she senses God in her writing cabin out at the edge of the fields or in “three gifts round” or in gratitude in general. Similar “charges” have been leveled against Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling.
I’m not saying these books (or any) are above critique, but really? People write them off as “dangerous” mystics?
They do. And I’m troubled. After all, Christianity has been filled with mystics since the get-go. St. Peter went into a trance, for crying out loud. And God’s people — from Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton and Ann Voskamp and, well, me — have been having rather other-worldly experiences with God ever since. Truth be told: God’s people have been having other-worldly experiences with God long before Christianity. From burning bushes to Samuel’s ghost, from the Psalms to the Prophets, our faith — one where flesh-and-blood humans worship a spirited God — is rooted deep in the ooky-spooky mystical realm, whether we like to use that sort of language or not.
So I’m left scratching my head? What’s the big problem with mystics? Is it that mysticism is too personal or unclear? Just that it makes no earthly sense? That some think it smacks of New Age-ism? That it’s hard to understand how we can hear God in the crackle of a branch without believing God is the branch?
Here’s what I know, my answer to the mystic mystery: God chose to reveal himself to us in many ways — through his Word, through his creation, through the life of Jesus Christ, through the whispers of the Spirit and the serendipities of life. And without the belief that we can indeed experience God in unexplainable, sometimes other-worldly, ooky-spooky ways, our faith seems so, well, impractical.