Apr 112012

I confess that I have often been a foolishly proud mystic.  In the wizardry of my physical and intellectual prime, I believed that through my studies of psychology and philosophy, through my spiritual practices, and aided by the grace of God, I had left behind many ordinary human troubles, and so much of my own past.  I would read these words of Paul and think I knew exactly where he was coming from because I believed I had already come and gone from there too:

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  1 Corinthians 13:11

And I must have put on a pretty convincing act!  I have received lots of praise for my seeming equanimity, wisdom, integrity, and self-confidence mixed with humility.  It’s not that there isn’t any truth to those appearances, but rather that there has certainly been more of a façade than I’ve been willing to admit to myself, let alone to others.  Even so, I’m quite sure I have often been more transparent to others than I realized, and that they knew I wasn’t as genuinely comfortable in my own skin as I wanted to seem.

Some of you, dear readers, will know what I mean when I say how very tired I am of finding myself trapped in old patterns of thought, feeling and behavior. If it hasn’t yet happened, the time may come when you know what it is like to look in the mirror and see a wounded, bewildered, incompetent, and insecure little child looking back at you through weary eyes under a furrowed and wrinkling brow.  At the relative midpoint of 50 years, I am awestruck by my own inability to be the “grown-up” I have wanted to be.  In fact, it often seems that I don’t manage life as well as I used to do, or as well as I thought I did, and so it is that these other words from Paul frequently ring in my ears:

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  Romans 7:18b-19

In my darkest moments it has been easy to fall into the despair and nihilism voiced by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. … And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.  Ecclesiastes 1:2, 17-18

I prefer the older translations’ use of the word “vanity” to the “meaninglessness” in some newer translations.  “Vanity” better communicates the intellectual and moral hubris that the author of Ecclesiastes perceives in himself.   This great lover of wisdom, traditionally held to be King Solomon, understands that everything he has done in the name of wisdom has delivered him to this very moment of realizing just how unwise he really is, and how much suffering he has generated in his conceit.

It can be so tempting to see this unmasking as a regression, a failing and falling back from previous excellence, or a “curse” of the mind and ego-defenses not being quite as sharp as they once were.  Yet I sense that there is more to this process than the inevitable fall of a house of cards.  It feels providential, and so the words of King Hezekiah seem fitting:

But what can I say?   He [God] has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul.  Isaiah 38:15

It is therefore not only conceit that has brought me to such moments, for I see that I have actually been asking for it in countless ways; “asking for it” in the colloquial sense of ignorantly inviting the natural consequences of my actions, but also asking for it in a very literal sense.  After all, seeking wisdom and understanding through meditation and prayer must mean that my own foolishness and ignorance will increasingly be revealed, at least to me.  Yet I don’t think it is only me that witnesses this baring of my soul, because as I become less able to keep up the old façade it more easily cracks and crumbles before others.   And so, as with King Hezekiah, the public embarrassment and private shame of my ego is a constant prodding toward a more genuine humility.

One of the interesting things about this humbling, if not humiliation, is that, despite all the fatigue, grief, and disappointment, it brings a great sense of gratitude and relief.   It is impossible for me to be completely honest with myself about my shortcomings without also seeing how fortunate I am to have not made even more suffering for myself and others.   I can’t begin to count the number of serious traumas and tragedies that have been narrowly missed, and I am so thankful for this with regard to others, especially those most dear to me. That relief is amplified by the freedom in not feeling so compelled to keep up the old façade.

While I often sense a divine grace in this good fortune, as a mystic I am also graced with having come to know that God holds none of my weakness and folly against me.   Without merit, I have been immersed in a baptism of Light and experienced communion with the One Love in which we all live and move and have our being.  To continue in the words of King Hezekiah:

Lord, by such things people live; and my spirit finds life in them too.  You restored me to health and let me live.  Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish.  In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back. Isaiah 38:16-17

My sins may not yet be finally behind my back, but I know that the memory of them offers not only pain, but also a reminder that my own wisdom and understanding, no matter how inspired, will never be perfect as I have at times secretly fantasized.  Perhaps more importantly, such self-awareness stimulates my compassion for those who struggle in similar ways.

God, please help me proceed in humble gratitude and continue leaning on faith, hope and, above all, Love. Amen.




  9 Responses to “A Mystic at Midlife”

  1. An honest and poignant reflection, Chuck. You are getting older and that’s a good thing. Things will be less complicated and problematic. As I have been told: “More will be revealed”.

    God’s Peace.

  2. Chuck,

    What a touching reflection. I’ve always admired your insight, wisdom and expression of your discoveries and can now see the same in your humility. I love the title and your picture: just these two together speak the message nicely. I suppose no matter what age we are, we’re in a good place if we’re a “mid-life mystic.”


  3. Hi Chuck,

    I’ve felt compelled to pen similar sentiments regarding the oft times “self inflicted brokenness” that seems to go hand in hand with mystic pursuits. I have discovered at times I struggle to even frame the next question or take up direction. Ironic that in pursuit of humility even our expectations, motivations, and/or passion can seem to hinder the journey. I like how you put it “asking for it” I believe my grandmother would tilt her gaze and say “careful what you wish for.”

    How are we to measure success? By our thoughts and actions paralleling scriptural references? Even that can add bias to humility. St Augustine makes note of contemplatives who would dedicate a life of hermitage with nothing more than faith, hope, and love. No bibles imagine that, I wonder how those folks measured success…

    What of expectation or desire must remain less we move beyond humility into death (contemplatively speaking)? But then again perhaps that’s the point, death of the self in order to be made new… In my mind that’s the question resolved by grace. The process of being made righteous, faith in He who is faithful, hope in salvation, and above all Love as our desire and the source of motivation… Regarding myself in these matters, I’ll have to agree with Paul’s words in (Philippians 3:12)

    Pax Vobiscum
    C.M. Gregory

    • Great comments and questions, Greg. I hear you about the possibility of being hamstrung by making humility our highest priority. In many ways, that is just another form of trying to earn spiritual merit and/or trying to be perfectly good, to not make mistakes. Those words of Paul’s are, to me, a reminder that we are going to make mistakes, that there are going to be unforeseen and unintended negative consequences to our actions, no matter how careful we are. Life has to be lived right now, and Love has to be loved right now. We can learn and grow in the process, leaving the rest to God.


  4. Hi Chuck,

    Great words! I think I began my midlife crisis much earlier than 50.

    In the humbleness of reflection, the mirror is always unforgiving. And I think oftentimes we are much too hard on ourselves in seeking a better place while understanding we are so inadequate.

    Still, I treasure the words in Hebrews 4:16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

    • Hi Fred,

      Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

      I’d say my midlife struggle has been apparent to me for a few years now, and part of what I am voicing in this post is my impatience with the process! 😛

      Amen, amen, to Hebrews 4:16!


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