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Mysticism and Christian Faith

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I came across an article in the Globe and Mail today that made me sad. Click here to look at the article

What makes me sad when I read this article is that while churches are struggling with steep decline, the article clearly points to the deep longing in the world for meaning and purpose. Why are our churches not able to become places that speak to this need? There are a lot of reasons for this of course… And to be fair, there are some churches that are not in decline.  But the longing of the world is so profound, so real.  How is the church positioning itself with respect to that longing?  I wonder… Will the meaning the fashion industry is offering be enough to meet the deep longings of our world? And what do we make of a mysticism that is about finding one’s inner peace (together with fashion accessories) but possibly not much else?

Christian theologian Karl Rahner has said, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”  While this may be a comforting quote to some, to others it will be surprising or even disheartening.  What is the connection between Rahner and the pursuits of the fashion industry?  Here we must explore the word “mysticism”, for it goes by many meanings (perhaps because of this, many Christians fear this word and as a result, have lost contact with an important part of Christian spirituality).  Throughout history, many mystics were Christians who received this title because of their deep and profound encounters with God – encounters that became a source of healing (aka inner peace) for themselves and that also became the wellspring for their compassion that extended to all people and all of creation.

Perhaps it is at this point that “trendy” mysticism critiques the church.  The search for meaning outside the church places at the doorsteps of the church the following questions:  How has the church invited people into profound encounters with God’s presence?  How have people been invited not only to belief but also to an experience of God?  And how are people being invited to translate that experience into a compassionate embracing of the world?

These are important questions because like all things, mystical pursuits can be used for both good and for ill.  If mystical experiences are flights out of this world such that the world and its needs can be ignored, or that the relationship of the self with one’s ego is not transformed – then we are right to challenge the mystical endeavour.  In contrast, when mystical experiences involve encounters with God’s presence, one’s flight is not out of this world but into this world.  In God’s presence, the beauty of one’s true self is awakened, one’s wounds begin to heal and one’s spirit learns to regard the world in fully new ways – the world becomes both a living and joyful vessel of God’s goodness as well as the location of God’s suffering in all the places where the world is broken.  As one’s heart beats with the heart of God, one celebrates the world’s beauty, suffers its brokenness and to the best of one’s ability, one also binds the world’s wounds.  Living according to this heartbeat involves a stance that often makes no sense to the ways of the world.  But it is a stance of hope and compassion, humility and courage, joy and yes, even suffering.  It is a stance desperately needed for a world longing for meaning and purpose.  It is nothing short of being carriers of God’s mercy – with respect to the world, with respect to the people one encounters and even with respect to oneself.

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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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