My Favorite Mystic

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The title of this entry will remind readers of a certain age of a popular sitcom that played around the theme of an alien, a Martian, living with a middle-class American family. Mystics in our world are something like this. We are generally all for “spirituality,” but the mystic’s witness to an immediate experience with God is baffling, challenging, and somehow compelling. It is baffling, of course, because we cannot understand God himself very well, nor the person who claims to have had some kind of intimate contact with God. It is challenging because mystics seem to speak with a special authority, and it might seem to contradict other religious authorities. It is compelling because, well, if someone witnessed to an immediate sense of touch, or union with God, might we not want to know about it? God too often seems to be the silent partner in a dialog of prayer.

Often we can go to the Middle Ages for examples of Christian experience. It is in some ways a laboratory of Christian practice and thought. In fourteenth-century England, the age of the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Wycliffe, Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there were four individual mystics that are often on course reading lists, and are popular with readers and practitioners of spiritual disciplines. Richard Rolle is very personal and almost chatty; he has personal appeal. The Cloud of Unknowing (author also unknown) is deeply philosophically and learned. Julian of Norwich is one of the great female mystics of the age whose striking images and experience are both disturbing and profound. All of these are read with enthusiasm.

But my favorite fourteenth century mystic is Walter Hilton, the more down to earth, the teacher, the less read I think, the fourth of the group. Hilton was a priest in the north of England near York, a canon who lived a regular (monastic) life, but served in a parish and so taught and worked among the people. In The Ladder of Perfection he writes to a “sister,” presumably a nun, who has questions about spiritual and mystical experience. It is the great gift of Hilton to us to describe the spiritual practice of contemplatives, how to discern between true and counterfeit spiritual experience, the relation of this experience to theological teaching like the necessity of grace given to commune with God, and the grace given to regenerate or sanctify the soul. He is methodical, and insightful. He notes types of experiences and compares them to other types; he points to methods of self discipline, meditation, contemplation, and discernment of the causes and effects of sin and grace in us.

A couple of unique teachings anchor us. First he offers counsel on living what he calls the “mixed life” (especially in a brief tract of this title). The mixed life is that of those called to an active life in the world of family, friends, service, business or school, who yet have a desire for deeper communion with God. He counsels that we must fulfill our obligations to our world of commitments and human struggles and joys, and offers ways to practice a life of prayer, meditation, and even contemplation (you will have to read him for these distinctions).

Second he explains that mystical experience must be grounded in at least two ways. Because God is good and holy we must make ourselves ready for his touch by moral and intellectual discipline; we must incline to the good, and practice disciplines that encourage the growth in us of humility, justice and righteousness, compassion for others, moderation, and love. This moral discipline goes along with intellectual disciplines that help raise the mind to the realms of God where our intellectual categories and our ability to describe what is true and good are transcended. Here we face the risk of losing our way theologically, or at least our intellectual balance. He also counsels that our spiritual practice must not be separated from the church, regular worship and the reading of Scripture. The God we are individually to seek in the “spiritual” realms is also the God who has called us to be a part the Church. He has given us the body of Christ in which to worship, to hear the word preached, to receive the sacraments through which grace is renewed in us. In and through the offices of the church we are instructed and learn charity towards our sisters and brothers.

I suppose it is this very practical and down-to-earth quality that I am drawn to in Hilton. He gives guidance, offers balance, and reminds us that whatever gifts we are given they are in and for his body, his people, the Church. He reminds me that the goal is to know and offer the love of God to others, and that this is not an easy task or the result of some splashy experience. He tells us that God is waiting, but that he is oftentimes hidden behind the many things we put in his way. He reminds us that our normal Christian experience is the path of our seeking. And yet in this down-to-earth life, God is waiting for us in silence.

“For prayer is nothing but a desire of the heart rising into God by its withdrawal from all earthly thoughts; and so it is compared to a fire, which of its own nature leaves the lowness of the earth and always goes up into the air. Just so, when desire in prayer has been touched and set alight by the spiritual fire which is God, it keeps rising naturally to him from whence it came.”

Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection, J.P.H. Clark and R. Dorward, trans. Classics of Western Spirituality (NY: Paulist, 1991) I, 27.

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