May 192016

Like other spiritual traditions, mystical and otherwise, Christian mysticism is chock full of highly prescriptive goal-oriented approaches to spiritual development. Whether we are speaking of purification, sanctification, illumination, holiness, righteousness, or what have you, one very common thread is to begin with a fairly detailed vision of what we presumably can and should become; in other words, we establish specific goals for how we intend to think, behave, and appear to others. Typically this vision is largely defined by religious doctrines about right beliefs and virtuous behaviors, and is usually illustrated by reference to certain historical figures as exemplars.  Even those in rebellion against tradition may simply work up a kind of anti-traditionalist vision to idolize. In any case, once the vision is crafted, we then strive to manifest it in ourselves.  Even most teachers and preachers who claim that only God actually creates the changes in our lives nonetheless challenge us to constantly work at fulfilling specific goals.  The work may take many forms, including every kind of spiritual discipline – prayer, scriptural study, fasting, almsgiving, confession and penance, worship, abstaining from sins and vices, and so on.  Such approaches have value, and the present intention is not to categorically denounce them, but rather to consider why and how we might also take another path in spiritual development.

One of the reasons for taking another path is that an approach based on attaining specific character outcomes can too easily become about reworking the persona, changing the mask of public identity each of us wears, rather than actually transforming the soul at deeper levels.  In other words, the energy we give to our spiritual disciplines is essentially devoted to pretending as much as possible that we are the vision we have idolized.  One danger here is simply in misrepresenting the truth of ourselves to others, encouraging others to believe we are more pure, holy, illuminated, etc., than we actually are. We might even secretly enjoy the deception and the esteem and favor of others we gain by it. In the worst cases, we may slip into psychological denial of our whole humanity and fool ourselves into believing we have become the idol, all the while struggling to conceal a host of vices, including false humility, spiritual pride, and spiritual materialism. There should be no need to go further into how unwise such circumstances are, and the unhealthy effects they can have on our souls, other people, and the world around us. Sooner or later, these idols, these masks, are bound to crack and reveal the ordinary human soul within. The guilt and shame in inevitably realizing our deceptions and our failures to live up to such visions can be miserable and counterproductive. On the other hand, and speaking from personal experience, sometimes the toppling of these towers of illusion can be among the most transformative and truly illuminating experiences of our lives, despite how painful they are. To some extent, such moments of disillusionment may be unavoidable for most of us.  Even so, there are other ways of spiritual development that can be less fraught with these particular challenges, and it may well be worthwhile to engage them.

Taking a less goal-oriented approach to spiritual development doesn’t mean forgoing spiritual practices or disciplines; the difference is in the mental framework by which we engage them. We can begin by reminding ourselves that the self, our whole being, is more than our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and that there are aspects of us beyond the awareness and control of our conscious minds. Furthermore, as mystical Christians we believe there are mysterious dimensions of the soul that are superior to our conscious minds in some ways. It therefore follows that we must acknowledge the conscious mind’s inability to micromanage our spiritual development. The conscious mind isn’t fully equipped to predetermine what all our outcomes should actually be, let alone precisely how we should attain them. At this point we may once again see the real value of an unassuming faith and hope, and leaning upon them we can begin giving up some of our presumptions about the changes in our being that might result from a practice or discipline.  In this way we can take an experimental approach to spiritual practice, like a scientist performing an operation to observe what happens and learn from it. There obviously still is a goal, which is simply to learn, yet it isn’t prescriptive of specific results that we might fool ourselves into believing have happened when they haven’t.

It may be worthwhile to consider the prayer of silence as a practice especially fitting to a less goal-oriented path of spiritual development.  In the prayer of silence we aren’t asking anything from God, or telling God anything, we are simply sitting as quietly as possible in openness to the presence of God. We also let go, as best we can, of any expectations for how God is or might be present to us. Similarly, we are open to the immediate actuality of ourselves, neither trying to filter out what we deem undesirable nor attaching our minds to thoughts of who or what we desire to be. We simply abide in acceptance of the present moment as it actually is, faithful that we are communing with God in ways beyond our awareness, understanding, and control. We do not even assume that any effects of such communion will be noticeable to us or anyone else, let alone that they will conform to preconceived notions of what spiritual development should produce. The prayer of silence is thus a very deep practice of accepting the presence of God, ourselves, and everything else; it is an act of all-embracing unconditional love.

Christ be with you



Dec 212015

This series presents, in no particular order, what I regard as the scriptural teachings most essential to Christian mysticism. It draws attention to key words and phrases, and poses some questions about them that I simply leave for interested readers to address as they see fit.  Part 1 was on the Great Commandments. You are welcome to respond in the comments section.

Teaching 2: The Farewell Prayer of Jesus


My prayer is not for them [my chosen disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. (John 17:20-26)

Key Words & Phrases

“I pray also for those who will believe in me….”

Jesus’ farewell prayer begins by expressing his hopes for everyone who believes in him. In contemporary Christian life, we often take the word “belief” only its connotation of agreement, consent, or submission to a doctrine. But deeper than this intellectual position is the attitude of trust, and so Jesus is saying that his prayer is for those who trust him, who have enough confidence in his claim of oneness with God.

“…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

The end of this sentence suggests that the belief, the trust and confidence, he has spoken of is not an end in itself, but that it is a step that opens us to the possibility of existing in oneness, to “be one,” experiencing and knowing it, “just as” he does.

“you are in me and I am in you,” “May they also be in us,” “I in them and you in me,”

Note the interchangeability of subject and object in those statements:  God in Jesus, Jesus in God, us in God and Jesus, Jesus in us, God in Jesus, and thereby God in us.  This interchangeability communicates oneness as well as can be done in dualistic terms.

“complete unity”

In John’s Gospel, the Greek for “complete” is teleioo, and like our English word it speaks of something finally accomplished, in a state of fullness, and perfected.  The Greek for “unity” is the same as that used for “one” in this passage. Thus “complete unity” speaks of being fully one.  In the state of complete oneness, there is no longer two or any other number of things, only the one.  The subject and object dichotomy becomes meaningless, and all these statements are, in effect, simply different ways of saying the One is one.

“I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

Here, at the very end of his prayer, Jesus says that all the ways in which he has made and will make God known to us are for the purpose of having us come to experience the same love (agape) that God has for Jesus, and thus he will be one with us.

Questions for Meditation

  1. How does your meditation from Part 1 on the oneness of God inform the way you think about the meaning of oneness or unity in Jesus’s prayer?
  2. In mystically loving God, what is the role of belief and how does it relate to the Great Commandments?
  3. How does belief in someone or something differ from knowing someone or something? How does believing in something differ from being in it?
  4. What does this prayer say to you about possible outcomes of following Jesus, ones that he greatly desires for us?
  5. How might your life change if you were to ever know oneness with God so completely, even for just a single second, that it no longer made sense to speak of you and God as separate from each other?
  6. What would be the implications of such oneness for your relationships with other humans beings, the world, and all of existence?
  7. What relationship is there between being loving and knowing oneness?


Christ be with you!



Jul 212015

There is some folly in presuming to offer explanations, guidance, or suggestions about mysticism. To begin with, the very nature of the subject leads us toward, if not into, realizations about matters well beyond the abilities of human consciousness to fully grasp. Next, there is a crucial experiential (for lack of a better term) dimension of mysticism that can only be pointed toward or perhaps facilitated, but never actually communicated from one mind to another. As has been noted by many mystics and philosophers, that dimension is enigmatic and even paradoxical when viewed from an ordinary rational perspective. And of course there are the very ordinary and natural limitations that arise from trying to speak about anything without chasing down and working through every possible implication or misunderstanding. One can make statements in one context that seem contradictory with those made in another. For example, even if you were to carefully read everything I’ve ever posted on this blog, there would still be plenty of room for drawing inaccurate conclusions about what I mean.  None of these challenges are anyone’s fault, they are simply facts that we may try to integrate into our understanding of mysticism and how we communicate with each other about it.  With these points in mind, this series presents, in no particular order, what I regard as the scriptural teachings most essential to Christian mysticism. It draws attention to key words and phrases, and poses some questions about them that I simply leave for interested readers to address as they see fit. You are welcome to respond in the comments section.

 Teaching 1: The Great Commandments

Les pharisiens et les saducéens viennent pour tenter Jésus

One of the teachers of the law came and heard the Sadducees arguing. He noticed that Jesus had given the Sadducees a good answer. So he asked him, “Which is the most important of all the commandments?”

Jesus answered, “Here is the most important one. Moses said, ‘Israel, listen to me. The Lord is our God. The Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And here is the second one. ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ There is no commandment more important than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

The first commandment is taken by Jesus directly from Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

The second is taken from Leviticus 19:18:

Do not try to get even. Do not hold anything against any of your people. Instead, love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am the Lord.

Key Words & Phrases

“The Lord is one.”

In the Gospel of Mark, the English ‘one’ is from the Greek heis, which has connotations of first in rank or importance, something unique, and something singular, whole, or unified.  In Deuteronomy, the Hebrew word is achad, which has similar connotations.

“Love the Lord…. Love your neighbor….”

In Mark, the Greek for love in both cases is agapaō, and in Hebrew it is ahab. Both of these words communicate love in the sense of an affectionate, intimate, caring relationship, and even a romantic one in the original Hebrew.


The Greek is holos, and the Hebrew kol. The connotations of both are the same as for the English ‘all,’ which means everything, the whole, the entirety and each of its parts.


In Greek, kardia, and in Hebrew, lebab. These words speak of the innermost part of the human being, the seat of our thoughts, emotions, affections, desires, intentions, and will.


In Greek, psyche, and in Hebrew, nefesh. Here the scriptures are addressing everything we regard as the personal self, and especially the very essence of our lives as creatures in this world. Furthermore, both words are directly connected with the concept of breath, and thus the literal and figurative meanings we give to the English phrase, “with every breath,” may also be found in “with all your soul.”


In Greek, dianoia.  This is a word that the author of Mark has Jesus adding to the faculties listed in Deuteronomy. While it has the same broad possibilities as the English, ‘mind,’ also like the English word it has the more specific connotations of rational, analytical, technical, theoretical, and imaginative thinking.

“strength” or “might”

In Greek, ischus, and in Hebrew, mehod. In both cases, as with the English words, the reference is to power and force.


In Greek, plēsion, in Hebrew, rea.  These terms certainly address people physically nearby, yet are also used in general reference to anyone other than oneself.

Questions for Meditation

  1. What is mystically significant about beginning with an affirmation that God is one?
  2. In telling us how to love God, why might there be so much redundancy in referencing all the different faculties of our being and all of each one?
  3. For each faculty listed by Jesus – heart, soul, mind, and strength – what are its more specific implications for how we can love God?
  4. When asked for the most important of all commandments, why might Jesus have provided not only the first but also the second?
  5. In the version of this story given in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus even says the second is “like the first.” What might he mean by that?
  6. What are all the possible ways to love another person as yourself?
  7. Christian mysticism, similar to the mysticism of other religions, has two broad categories.  One is the Via Negativa, or apophatic mysticism, where the approach to God is through letting go of all our thoughts and feelings about God to simply abide with God in stillness and silence. It tends to emphasize God’s incomprehensible transcendence.  The other way, the Via Postiva, or cataphatic mysticism, approaches God through affirming and adoring the attributes of God as we experience them manifested in our lives. It tends to emphasize God’s immanent presence.  How might the Great Commandments have relevance to both of these ways?

 Click here to continue to Part 2

Christ be with you!



Jun 042015

Recently, I got very ill for a few days. I lost over 6 pounds in 3 days! I was in such pain with fever one night that I was in tears. That has happened once before in my adult life, and the previous experience actually Opnamedatum:  2011-04-29facilitated an epiphany.  In the depths of misery, I realized there are many people in this world who would willingly take some or all of that pain on themselves to give me relief. Just the knowledge that someone would be willing produced a feeling of gratitude that was immensely powerful, and relieving in its own way. I found that this willingness to give up some of one’s own comfort to relieve the suffering of others is part of how I understand the presence of Christ in the souls of all people. I know prayer for others is part of living with awareness of this presence in our own souls. Jesus was constantly uttering prayers for others, and he also knew what it was like to desperately pray to be spared from suffering. So, as I reconnected with these memories in my recent suffering, I thought of the times others have prayed for me, and my gratitude was magnified. When I hear or say, “Christ be with you,” it means, in part, that I hope you know the beauty of both giving and receiving from such willingness.

There is another connection here, which is my awareness of people’s misery in feeling distant from The One we call “God.”  I have felt that misery, and the memory of it is part of whatilluminor drives me to serve those who feel it.  My prayer is that the words I write may in some way comfort others with hope and by knowing that they aren’t alone, at the very least. But it is also my prayer that what I write helps facilitate the realization that, no matter how lost anyone feels, we are all already intimately connected with God right now, no matter what we are thinking, feeling, or doing, no matter how distant God seems.  In this sense, when I say “Christ be with you,” it is an expression of my hope that you know the mystical truth that Christ is with you.

Christ be with you.



Mar 032015

This piece is dedicated to my dear friends and brothers, Justin Glosson and Matt Smithey, and to all others who, like them, are musicians on the way of the heart.

Practice is another one of those words that gets used a lot when describing the mystical or contemplative life. It makes no sense to speak of “achieving” the contemplative life, let alone “completing” it. The contemplative life is like an art, something that we craft, that we experiment with, practicing and practicing, and thus becoming more skillful and having it flow more naturally. Yet we never get to a place where something has been attained so that we no longer need to practice, but how we practice may change significantly. In fact, a genuine music lover is simply driven to some form of practice as part of enjoying both the experience and the expression of music. In the process, one naturally refines the ability to let the music flow, and to flow with it, as freely and beautifully as possible. For contemplatives, the “music” we love is the ever flowing presence of Being Itself, of Love Itself, in all Its diversified unity. Our practices are therefore quite diverse, and so it is that there are at least as many different means and styles of practicing the way of the heart as there are means and styles of enjoying music. Just as every music lover must love music as one is most moved to do so – whether playing an instrument, writing music, singing, dancing, or simply listening deeply – so must each of us on the way of the heart practice somewhat uniquely. However, just as all ways of enjoying music have some things in common, so do all forms of contemplative practice.

St. Cecilia with Two Angels

The way of the heart, like music, urges us toward wholeness in the moment, to be willing to give ourselves over to it, fully present, deeply attentive and alive with a harmony of both focus and fluidity, of both intentionality and spontaneity. It requires awareness and acceptance of the moment just as it is, most importantly including ourselves, just as we are, with all our talent and skill, as well as our apparent lack of talent and skill; with all our knowledge and understanding, as well as our apparent lack of knowledge and understanding; with all our patience and perseverance, as well as our apparent lack of patience and perseverance; with all our peace and joy, as well as our apparent lack of peace of joy; with all our awareness and acceptance, as well as our apparent lack of awareness and acceptance. When we play, or dance, or sing along with music in this spirit, with this attitude, we become aware of mysterious depths in which we intuitively realize our oneness with the music. This unity inspires and informs the unique experience and expression of it in the moment, and therefore even what might have been regarded as a mistake can be experienced as a delightful quirk, if not the creative spark of some entirely new expression of music. So it is with the contemplative way of the heart in lovingly realizing, experiencing, and expressing our oneness with the One and All. Finally, just as the love of music has both solitary and interpersonal dimensions, so does contemplative practice. In music and the contemplative life, greater development and enjoyment of one’s potentials comes through practice in private as well as in companionship with others. Both dimensions are part of the whole love we are experiencing and expressing.


Feb 282015

After writing my last article, On Self-Love, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to explain what I mean by “self,” and to examine some important connections of that meaning with mysticism.

Defining “self”

The term self is used in many different ways. In fact, significant confusion and disagreement can happen between people communicating with each other with “self,” often simply because the different parties don’t realize they are using “self” in significantly different ways. The same problems arise with other words like psyche, soul, ego, and even mind.  I currently tend to use self, soul, and psyche interchangeably.  It is important to note that I say “currently tend to,” because I have not always thought, written, or spoken in this particular way, and I might not at some future time. With these terms I refer to the whole being of an individual human, and not any particular part or function of the whole.  My use of “self” is thus essentially equivalent with an ancient Christian use of “soul” in reference to an individual’s totality of body, mind, and spirit.  It also seems helpful to point out that the term ego does not equate for me with “self.”  Ego is a word I use to describe certain aspects of the self.  So, in Freudian terms for example, the psyche is that which contains the ego, id, and superego, and has both conscious and unconscious dimensions.  In that respect, I use self and psyche synonymously.

The capitalized “Self”

Sometimes we see the capitalized word Self in psychological and spiritual literature. In Jungian psychology, this term is used in much the same way as I use the un-capitalized “self.”  However, like many other spiritual writers, I use the capitalized “Self” to denote a Supreme Identity that transcends individual human existence. This Supreme Identity is a universal and divine Self that is regarded by mystics as infinitely beyond all manifest things, yet nonetheless immanent within the finiteness of all things.  In this way, “Self” refers to the whole of the One and All just as “self” does to the whole of the individual human.  For me, the capitalized “Self” is thus practically synonymous with “God.”

The self-concept

It also seems useful to clarify that there is a significant difference between the way I use the terms self and self-concept.  The most significant point I want to make here is that the self-concept is only one’s more or less specific sense of who one is as an individual human being. By analogy, the self-concept is to the self as a video about your body is to mirror_and_maskyour actual body; one is only a limited representation or reflection of the other.  Furthermore, such a representation is always more about how an actual thing was sometime in the past than what it presently is.  This distinction is important because when someone speaks in terms of myself, me, or I, one is very often actually referring to the self-concept rather than the self, which is to say one is speaking about particular perceptions of the self by certain aspects of the self.  In fact, we so rarely speak of the whole self that we frequently make it a point to highlight that we are doing so by emphasizing the word “whole.”

A fundamental self-deception 

This conflation of the self with the self-concept is evidence that most of us live in a pervasive state of self-deception and confusion about our being!  In this confusion, habitually thinking and speaking of the self-concept as if it is the whole self, we construct and maintain an illusion that serves as a kind of barrier between our present awareness and the broader range of truths about our being.  To some extent, this barrier exists out of simple ignorance, but we can also maintain it because we semi-consciously sense the need to protect the self-concept from realities or potentialities within the self that we regard as unacceptable in some way.  Freud’s theory of the ego defense mechanisms is based upon his recognition of this dynamic.

The mystery of the self

When we meditate carefully on the self, it becomes clear that we lack complete awareness of it. The many autonomous functions of our organs are themselves sufficient evidence that there are parts and processes within the self of which we are rarely if ever aware. Further and perhaps even more powerful evidence is found in the mental dimension, where intuition, the storage of memories, and the unpredictable and often puzzling content of our dreams reveal the existence of what psychologists refer to as the unconscious mind. So it is that, even when we understand the distinction between the self and the self-concept, we cannot think, speak, or write about the self with complete knowledge and understanding.

We are often unaware of the mystery of the self, perhaps even blissfully unaware, but it is ultimately an inescapable fact.  Sometimes it seems to loom around us, filled with foreboding uncertainties.illuminor It is as if we stand upon the edge of a cliff in complete darkness, where any movement at all might send us falling to our doom. Yet, as we touched upon in the previous section, the doom that we fear is in actuality often only the loss of our cherished illusions. Entering into the mystery of the self is therefore essential to liberation from some of the falseness and limitations of our self-concepts.  It is the path of freedom in realizing and actualizing more of our unfathomable potentials, for out of this mystery emerges the amazing light of creativity we express in our love of play, romance, philosophy, art, science, and spirituality.

The mystical potentials of the self

According to those who have penetrated most deeply into the mystery of the self, one of its potentials is the realization of mystical union. At first, one may make the rational observation that simply in its mysteriousness the human self is like all of reality, for there is some degree of mystery in everything. Likewise, whatever it is we mean by the word “God,” we must acknowledge that it is significantly interwoven with our sense of the most profound mysteries.  In this regard, we can gain a special appreciation for what it means to have been created in the image of God; being mysterious to us is something that both the self and God have in common. Pondering this commonality leads many of us to consider that there might be more to all of this than a parallel of two different mysteries. It is natural for us to wonder if self and God might actually intersect within the single mysterious category of all that is beyond complete apprehension by our sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Indeed, those who have experienced mystical realization insist that such an intersection is real, that it is the deepest crux and universally shared point of reality within the circle of all creation; it is the spiritual heart of the Cosmic Self and all the individual selves It begets. It is here that we discover the unity of self-love, love of others, and love of God, the very oneness of Love Itself manifesting in all Its many forms. The mystic way of the heart is thus the contemplative path of practicing devoted attentiveness and responsiveness to this Heart within all hearts.



Feb 232015

Christianity, like other religions, has its share of believers who insist that the most virtuous life is only achieved through self-denial, extreme emotional, physical, and social austerities, self-loathing, and even actual self-flagellation. In fact, it seems that most Christians share in this belief to some extent, having been conditioned to do so by our churches, families, and much of society at large. For many of us, myself certainly included, that conditioning manifests as a nagging and belittling of ourselves for our shortcomings and mistakes, and an often harsh critique and minimization of our talents and successes. In this reflection we’ll examine some of the foundations and effects of this kind of religion, and then we’ll consider the alternative of self-love.

Is Violence against the Self Virtuous?

We must acknowledge that many respected Christian leaders seem to have spoken of self-love as a vice.  For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola said:

Experience proves that in this life peace and satisfaction are had, not by the listless but by those who are fervent in God’s service. And rightly so. For in their effort to overcome themselves and to rid themselves of self-love, they rid themselves of the roots of all passion and unrest.

Statements like this are, in part, based upon the truthful realization that we are shortsighted, ignorant creatures who are often our own worst enemies. Yet it is a sad irony that this truth is often interwoven with the belief that we must do something cruel and combative with ourselves in order to serve God better or to be more acceptable to God. So it is that many of us think, feel, and act as if we must be our own judge, prison guard, and torturer, demonstrating to God how terribly aware we are of our unworthiness (as if God wouldn’t otherwise know!), and exacting from ourselves some degree of the retribution we fear we might otherwise suffer.

There are noteworthy problems with this kind of religion. First of all, it fails to acknowledge the pure grace of God’s mercy, instead making God’s forgiveness and salvation a prize to be won by effort. It also reveals another irony in our assumption, and perhaps hubris, that we have the power to make ourselves holier through violence against our own souls. In short, it is more a denial of Jesus’ teachings about meekness, peacemaking, and loving at all costs than it is a denial of ourselves.

There are not only theological problems with this practice, but it also has unhealthy consequences on our psyches. To begin with, any attempt by the self to restrain or attack anything within the self is by necessity an act of self-assertion. There can thus be no self-denial in any complete sense, but only denial of one part of the self by another. It is simply delusional to convince ourselves that we are overcoming the self by our own will and effort, for it is the self that initiates and sustains that very effort. This loss of contact with reality then becomes fertile ground for further self-deceptions, and the more we deceive ourselves the more likely we are to do harm to ourselves in other ways.  Unfortunately, these ills cannot simply be contained within ourselves, because the more we succumb to self-deception and self-harm, the less able we are to be the fervent servants of God in this world that St. Ignatius would have us be. In the end, the self-neglect and self-abuse that are the denial of self-love position us to contribute more to the ills of the world. There is very little about any of this that can rightly be called virtuous.

The Virtue of Self-Love

In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas expressed the essential wisdom of self-love very simply and directly:

Well-ordered self-love, whereby man desires a fitting good for himself, is right and natural.

The Anglican theologian, clergyman, and mystical poet of the 17th century, Thomas Traherne, unfolds this wisdom further by saying:

Had we not loved ourselves at all, we could never have been obliged to love anything. So that self-love is the basis of all love.

If, as St. Ignatius alludes, our highest calling is to serve God, and if the highest form of service is love, as Jesus teaches, then Traherne’s comment begs us to remember that the place most immediately present and constantly available for such service is within oneself, and likewise the most immediately present and constantly available person one can serve is oneself. Furthermore, if we also believe the scriptures and many mystics claiming that God is love, and that to love is to know God, then the most immediately present and constantly available way of knowing God must be through loving oneself. We should also recall the second of Jesus’ Great Commandments, where he urges us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This statement reveals that self-love is not only recommended, but is also understood by Jesus, as is later explained by Traherne, to be central to our ability to love others.

The ways we do and do not love ourselves shape the ways that we do and do not love others; to a significant degree, we cannot help but love others as we love ourselves. This view is more than a theologically sound appreciation of self-love; it draws attention to the deep psychological dynamics by which one’s social and moral character in the world is formed.  By analogy, consider that people who starve the body of food and water eventually become compromised in their ability to serve others food and water. So, for example, our refusal to be forgiving of our own shortcomings and mistakes leads us to be more hostile towards those of others, despite any pretense of forbearance we might offer.  Likewise, if we are in the habit of harshly criticizing and minimizing our own talents and successes, then we will habitually do the same to other people, though we might try hiding our negativity behind feigned appreciation and admiration. In the extreme, violence to our own souls can even produce an attitude of justification in exacting unmerciful and vengeful violence on others. Thankfully these dynamics also produce positive results and thus reveal the virtue of self-love — the more we practice genuine acceptance, intimacy, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and care for ourselves, the more freely we offer them to others.

Self-Love in Contemplative Practice

The hallmark of contemplative practice in Christianity is silent prayer, the practice of being still and quietly attentive to the present moment.  Silent contemplative prayer is practiced with faith that the Holy Spirit is revealing God to us in and through this very moment just as it is, including not merely what is apparent to us through our physical senses, but also, and more importantly, though what is occurring within our hearts and minds.  In other words, God, as Truth, is always immediately present to us in the truth about ourselves, a truth that we encounter most clearly and fully when we are simply attentive to and accepting of the natural flow of our thoughts and feelings.  We simply practice being as consciously present as possible to the truth of ourselves without judgment, neither condoning nor rejecting, but just being honestly aware of our bared souls. It is a way of being that, while often wordless, may be approximated with words like these:

Ah, yes, there is pain. Ah, yes, there is pleasure.
Ah, yes, there is anger. Ah, yes, there is peace.
Ah, yes, there is sadness. Ah, yes, there is joy.
Ah, yes, there is confusion. Ah, yes, there is clarity.
Ah, yes, there is doubt. Ah, yes, there is certainty.
Ah, yes, there is gluttony. Ah, yes, there is temperance.
Ah, yes, there is greed. Ah, yes, there is generosity.
Ah, yes, there is arrogance. Ah, yes, there is humility.
Ah, yes, there is distrust. Ah, yes, there is faith.
Ah, yes, there is despair. Ah, yes, there is hope.
Ah, yes, there is love, always love, in and around all of this.

It might not be immediately apparent that this way of being is actually the cornerstone of self-love, but it becomes apparent when we consider what we most desire in giving and receiving love with others.  Underlying all the wonderful experiences and expressions of love between human beings, and between us and God, what we most need is to know we are intimately welcomed, unconditionally accepted, and compassionately understood, just as we are, without hiding or pretending in any way.

Self-Love in Extension

As we have already seen, how we love ourselves determines our character in this world. So it is that the contemplative practice of silent prayer leads us into greater awareness, acceptance, and compassionate understanding of the world as it really is and of other people as they actually are. This is the kind of love that Jesus revealed God freely offers us, and which he urges us to let flow through us for ourselves and others. Indeed, this kind of love can mystically reveal to us that the self is not actually an entity separate from others. It can awaken us to the reality that each individualized self, with all its limitations, is nonetheless a precious expression of the one infinite Spirit lovingly breathed into all of humanity, the one Self that is God’s living presence in all of us.

This mystical realization has a number of additional benefits. At a very personal level, it frees us to develop, express, and enjoy our uniqueness as gifts of God to this world. There is no need to crush our spirits with false humility, excessive guilt, toxic shame and other forms of self-abuse. It further enables us to embrace and celebrate the same freedom for other people, letting go of expectations for everyone to conform to the mores and customs of a particular culture, the specific beliefs of a single religion, or the attitudes and behavioral patterns of a particular personality type. In welcoming ourselves and others as we are, and knowing God’s love is always abundantly present within us and through our spiritual interconnectedness, we are less likely to regard relationships, other people, rights, and liberties as personal possessions we must jealously keep to ourselves. It isn’t hard to see how such significant shifts in attitudes would result in less psychological and physical suffering in this world, and more peace, harmony, and healthy creativity.

A Closing Observation

While there is so much to be gained in the practice of self-love, we should avoid assuming that it automatically results in nothing but rainbows and butterflies. There are constant temptations to fall back into our self-deceptions and vacillations between self-aggrandizement and self-condemnation, and we are surrounded by other human beings with similar struggles. Contemplatives also invariably become more sensitive to the suffering in this world. A huge portion of the work of loving self and others is therefore persevering in our intentions to practice non-judgmental awareness, acceptance, and compassionate understanding when it seems most difficult and least rewarding to do so.  Of course, this also means returning to patience and understanding with ourselves when those intentions have been temporarily lost. It certainly helps to keep a sense of humor!


Jan 052015

Recently, a friend asked about how to “grow in the love of Jesus.”  It’s an interesting question, because “the love of Jesus” can mean either (1) love directed at Jesus or (2) the kind of love Jesus gave.  I think 2 is the best way to 1, but I also think it’s helpful to meditate in a way that is similar to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

It seems to me that it’s especially helpful to first become familiar with Jesus as he is actually presented in the gospels, rather than relying solely on what theologians and preachers have said about Jesus. As one studies Jesus and the way he behaves in the gospels, seeing how very human he was, one can meditate on what it would be like to sit and talk with him, to dine with him, to walk and work with him as his contemporaries did.  These sorts of meditations can be done as a merely analytical observer, but one can also respond emotionally as one would in actuality.  Who wouldn’t feel great compassion and sorrow for the agony Jesus felt in Gethsamane and on the cross? Who wouldn’t speak to him with those feelings, trying to comfort him with a gentle touch and let him know he is not as alone as his sleeping disciples would make it seem?  Beyond these scripture-based meditations, we can also imagine him with us in moments of our own lives, supporting us, counseling us, having compassion for us.  In meditating upon Jesus in this way, we cannot continue to regard him as some angelic judge far removed from humanity, but increasingly he becomes known as a real human being who understands what it’s like to be tempted, to doubt, to distrust, to fear, to falter, and to forgive.   We better understand the love he gave to others, and we feel kinship with him and a more immediate sense of his presence in our lives.  All of these things contribute to growing in the love of Jesus in every sense.

Meditations on being present with Jesus in this way have influenced some of my posts on this blog, including this series: Alone in the Wilderness, parts 1, 2, and 3.




Dec 022014

The season of Advent is upon us. This is a time when we traditionally meditate upon the themes of Christ’s coming, whether in the birth of Jesus or in the Second Coming. We therefore may be simultaneously aware of the absence of Jesus and hopeful for his return. While it would seem that this is all taken very literally by most Christians, there is another way that it is meaningful for some of us. The coming and ensuing loss of Jesus, and the hope for his return, can be taken as a pattern for the way an individual’s sense of God’s presence can come and go.

While it seems that some mystics claim they never again felt distant from God after realizing mystical union, others acknowledge that they have found themselves passing through periods of greater or lesser awareness of that union, and sometimes painfully so. Furthermore, one of the most frustrating things about this pattern is that there is nothing that can be done about it. No amount of prayer or other spiritual disciplines provides a magical formula that restores the greatest awareness of God’s presence.  Consider the parallel meaning of these words from Jesus:

At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There He is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There He is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here He is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. (Matthew 24:23-26)

This limitation on our power to realize unity with God should be no surprise; the finite mind of the human soul simply cannot fully comprehend the Infinite, let alone command it.  We may be able to raise ourselves up into higher consciousness in some ways, or remember different forms of God’s presence, but the ultimate fulfillment of our hopes is simply out of our control.  In this context, let’s reflect on the relevance of Jesus’s teaching about the coming of the Son of Man, taking it as a metaphor about the coming of a complete realization of mystical union:

No one knows about that day or hour. Not even the angels in heaven know. The Son does not know. Only the Father knows. … So keep watch. You do not know on what day your Lord will come. You must understand something. Suppose the owner of the house knew what time of night the robber was coming. Then he would have kept watch. He would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready. The Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him. (Matthew 24:36 & 42-44)

Isn’t it striking that Jesus himself said not even the Son knows when the coming will occur!?  These words are spoken by the man we traditionally revere as the Incarnate Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, whom the Apostle John records more than once saying that he is one with God! And yet Jesus also felt moments of distance from God, as evidenced by his own words on the cross, his agony in Gethsemane, and his temptations in the desert.

So the mystic simply keeps watch.  We make ourselves ready with the prayer of stillness and silence. We tend our house by loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves, remembering that God is love.  We try not to deny our feelings when God seems distant, and we avoid masking them with the vanity and arrogance of false spiritual powers.  We may suffer, but we do so with faith, hope, and generiosity of spirit. We allow that very suffering to transform us into greater vessels of compassion and kindness, greater instruments of God’s grace, and thus more fully realize our union with God.

To close, I offer one of my poems that addresses the waxing and waning of mystical awarness:

A Rose Needs to Bloom

O Beloved One,
how often I wish You were here with me,
always here in the flesh to receive
the misty gaze of adoration from these eyes,
the trembling touch of affection from these hands,
the husky whispers of appreciation from these lips.
Oh that I might see Your acceptance
of such spontaneous offerings
in the joyful sparkle of Your eyes,
hear it in the soothing tones of Your voice,
feel it in the welcoming warmth of Your embrace.

But You are the oracle of my soul,
my Cherished One,
knowing my heart and mind
from within their deepest depths.
So I would be a fool not to know
that the need to have this love expressed
is not Your need but my own.
I need it as surely as a rose needs to bloom
simply because it is a rose.

In this pining I believe I feel
something of the bittersweet pain
of Lazarus or the Magdalene,
reborn, renewed, bursting with gratitude,
and then losing You so soon,
always in hopeful longing
to be near You once more.
Yet You remind me that Your spirit
is ever near, both within and without.

O my sun and rain,
my fertile earth and restful night,
You feed this rose to bloom
and be seen by You through the eyes,
and felt with the skin
and in the heart
of everyone I meet.




Nov 212014

The Feast of Christ the King is celebrated on the last Sunday before Advent, and this year it is November 23rd.  It is an official Solemnity instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1952.  According to his encyclical, it should be a time of remembering that a Christian’s allegiance to God should come before all other loyalties, and thus serve to unite us in peace regardless of whatever personal, political, and sectarian issues might divide us.  As I consider the meaning of this Feast, it very easily connects in my mind with the world into which Jesus would be born and the place that he would take in that world.  Beyond that, it speaks to me of a common experience for those pursuing a mystical relationship with God.

The nation of Israel and the Jewish faith have a long history of desire for the coming of the Messiah, and especially in the form of a Divine King who will bring peace and harmony to all humanity.  This theme runs throughout the story of Jesus and his disciples, some of whom were zealots and hoped he would lead them in a divinely sanctioned political solution to the plight of Israel.  We Christians, and Muslims too, are heirs to this doctrine.  In some accounts, Jesus seems to have promised he would fulfill it, even if only after his crucifixion and resurrection.  It also appears that some of his followers continued to expect him to return and play that role after his ascension to heaven.  Even now there are many Christians who consider that to be the prophetic promise of Revelations, just as there are many Jews who continue to wait for the Messiah King, and Muslims with similarly fervent beliefs.  For just a moment, take some time to reflect on the many millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have spent their lives hoping, praying, longing, and even pleading for God’s presence to manifest in this world in such a tangible and dramatic way.  How many of these people, how many generations of them, have staked their lives upon it, have gone to their graves and even sent others to their graves for it, and yet never saw their hopes and prayers fulfilled?!  That history may be a powerful testimony of faith, and even beautiful in some ways, but are there not also profound threads of tragedy and sadness running through this legacy of our religions?

Interestingly, it can be argued that Jesus never meant to be taken literally about any of that, but that he was instead urging his followers to completely reenvision the Kingdom of God.  Many of us regard Jesus as teaching us to seek a transformation in our hearts that then radiates God’s love out into the world through our presence. We consider this to be closer to the life Jesus actually lived, and more worthy of our time and energy than begging for a Holy Dictator to come clean up our mess for us.

For now, I’d like to note that many people who consider themselve mystics, or perhaps aspire to be mystics, have a parallel notion in their minds and desire in their hearts.  When we read the accounts of some of the great Christian mystics, it can be easy to expect that the coming of God’s presence will be a dramatic experience that overthrows all our doubts and sense of separateness from God.  We hope for an event in which Jesus descends from the heavens to fill us with a fantastic flood of light, life, and love.  We dream of a personal Apocalypse in which the Messiah delivers us from the mess of our own personal humanity.  And why shouldn’t we want something like that, especially when some of those who have claimed it happened to them also claim that we can have it too?

But, just as there is a parallel between our desires for a political Messiah and our desires for a personal revelation of mystical union with God, perhaps there is also a parallel with the fact that Jesus didn’t come back as a Messiah King during the lives of his immediate disciples, or during the lives of the following generation, or the one after that, and so on for generation after generation through the present day.  Perhaps, just as we can come to a new and more fruitful understanding of what Jesus meant by the coming of the Kingdom, the parallel is coming to a new and more fruitful understanding of mystical revelation that doesn’t depend upon an extraordinary experience.

What might that new and more fruitful understanding be?  I think there were some well known scriptural answers to that question even before Jesus.  Consider first the story of Elijah:

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

So, unlike the dramatic way in which Moses encountered the immediate presence of God, Elijah’s experience of direct communication was only “a still small voice.”

Likewise, in Psalms 46:10, in the middle of many dramatic verses about God’s power in the world and praising and exalting God, there is this one small statement about actually knowing God:

Be still, and know that I am God

These scriptures that Jesus and many of his twelve would have known, urge us to realize that knowing God’s presence isn’t always a sudden and dramatic event. An experience of God may be very quiet and gentle, and perhaps so much so that we might not even recognize it for what it is.

And then there is the prayer that Jesus spoke for his followers as recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 17.  In that prayer he expresses his desire that his followers and their followers will come to know their oneness with God just as Jesus does, which is certainly one of the most mystical things in the Bible.  He finishes that prayer with these words:

And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved me may be in them, and I in them.

That statement highlights love as the revelation of our union with God, and it is echoed in 1 John, chapter 4:

If we love one another, God dwells in us, and his love is perfected in us.  Hereby we know that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit. … And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.

There are many important things that could be drawn out of these words, but for now it is especially noteworthy that the love that is God is not something highly unusual that only comes to a specially blessed mystic. It is the love we have for one another!

O Holy One Who is Love itself, help us to be aware of Your mystical presence in our ordinary lives. Let us know You are with us through the love that we receive from others and that we give to others. As we encounter every smile on the faces of others and on our own faces, every kind word spoken by others and by us, every gentle touch given by others and by us, as we experience every simple act and expression of human love, let us realize it as an immediate manifestation of Your love, a ray of Your light that stretches directly back to the Source, the very Heart of Divine Love.  May we know Love as the great King of our lives. Amen.