Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Mystics: Ten Who Show Us the Ways of God

Murray Bodo's MysticsMystics: Ten Who Show Us the Ways of God by Murray Bodo

Murray Bodo is a Franciscan priest, poet, and essayist of deep spiritual wisdom and a writer of clear, accessible prose. His new book, Mystics, is a friendly primer for those seeking to know more about this rich and often misunderstood strand of Christianity.

Bodo's mystics span the history of the church, beginning with Mary, "mother of mystics," and ending with the poet Robert Lax, who died only eight years ago. Each chapter is a brief biography, usually with passages of the mystic's own writing. The diversity of voices is delightful, from Julian of Norwich's homely Anglo-Saxon similes (the world sits in God's palm like a hazelnut, so small and so loved; the blood on Christ's brow flows in round drops like the scales of herring) to the passionate, elegant poetry of John of the Cross; from the childlike simplicity of Thrse of Lisieux to the intellectual density of Simone Weil; from Gerard Manley Hopkins' cascading, gloriously kinetic meter to Lax's spare colloquialism.

What these ten figures (the others are Jacopone Da Todi, Catherine of Siena, and, naturally, Francis of Assisi) have in common are their profound experiences of intimacy with God--and, as Bodo demonstrates, a life pattern that follows from them. By choosing to accept this ecstatic intimacy (for God always offers them a choice), by surrendering themselves to the will of God, mystics allow their lives to be drastically changed.

As Bodo observes, their paths often lead them through great suffering--illness, imprisonment, and exile--but somehow the suffering seems to matter less to them, or to mean something different for them, than it would for an ordinary person.

Bodo emphasizes that the mystics' experiences of God are not for them to command. They occur a few times in a person's life, and are recalled for years afterward as a source of strength and purpose, but the mystics are not allowed to enter a dream state of ecstasy whenever they wish. The level of intimacy they experience cannot be a permanent condition. Because they have tasted a closeness with God that they can't have all the time, they live much of their lives with a sense of longing, at times even of despair, which John of the Cross called the "dark night of the soul."

The mystics must wait for God to reveal himself again. In the meantime, they undertake the work God has given them. Bodo's is a helpful and robust vision of mysticism--real mysticism, he demonstrates, leads to greater activity and engagement with the world, not a retreat from it.

He points out that the cell of an anchoress like Julian of Norwich has two windows: one facing the church interior so that she can see mass, and one facing the street so that she can give spiritual counsel to people who come and visit her.

Bodo also helpfully contextualizes some of the elements of mysticism that seem strangest to a modern consciousness, like extreme penances and mortification of the body, helping us to understand these practices within their historical times--but also pointing us to what is good and valuable at the heart of them. Mysticism is not something that happens to all of us.

This is not a book about how to have your own mystical experience. But it's also, pointedly, not a book that should make us feel bad about not being mystics. Those who have ecstatic experiences and live out a response have a great gift to offer the whole church, and this book can help the rest of us take up that gift. Image Journal

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