The great mystic anchoress, Julian of Norwich, has said these two simple things:
Between God and the soul there is no between. (1)
The fullness of Joy is to behold God in everything. (2)
While these statements are short and plainly written, their implications for the mystical life are nonetheless profound.
First, let’s consider what is meant by ‘soul’. Today, as in Julian’s day, it is common for Christians to think of the soul as an immaterial thinking and feeling aspect of our being that occupies or animates the physical body. (Anima, the Greek root of ‘animate’, actually means soul.) For some people, ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are interchangeable, yet in Christianity there is an ancient tradition of considering the whole human being as a trinity – body, soul, and spirit – where spirit is the very essence of our being in its most transcendent state or level. The soul is therefore the immanent manifestation of spirit, taking on a particular identity through life in this world. In this context, we see that the soul of a human being, at least while living in this world, cannot be understood in its wholeness apart from the body. The importance of this wholeness to Christianity is reflected in the doctrine of the resurrection of the physical body. In any case, all of our thoughts and feelings, our knowledge of self, of the world, and even of God, develop in conjunction with our bodily experiences in this world. Therefore, in reflecting upon the soul’s relationship with God, it makes sense to consider all the dimensions of human experience – physical, emotional, intellectual, and transcendental – as offering ways of knowing oneness with God or, as Julian says, beholding God in everything.
It is my observation that most people who are driven to experience greater communion with God tend to seek powerful emotional or intellectual experiences they take to be the preferred evidence of God’s presence in their lives. In fact, many people focus almost exclusively on a particular type of experience as the only one they consider truly valid, and so they might strive repeatedly to evoke such an experience through corresponding activities and ignore or negate the other possibilities. However, if Julian is right, and I believe she is, then limiting the ways we are open to knowing God is how we ourselves create an illusory “between” to separate us from God, and thereby we rob ourselves of the “fullness of joy” that is possible for us.
Opportunities to appreciate this fullness are constantly available. It takes very little consideration to realize that these dimensions are intricately interconnected. Indeed it is arguably impossible to conceive of a physical, emotional, or intellectual experience that is not accompanied by experience in at least one of the other two dimensions. Even dreams, visions, and hallucinations, which we might be tempted to deny any material reality, are nonetheless accompanied by electrochemical activity in our bodies, and they are experienced by the mind as having the sensory characteristics of physical objects and events. And while intuiting or contemplation in the transcendental dimension can occur apart from the other dimensions, it also immediately gives rise to reactions in one or more of them.
Finally, in playing on Julian’s words, I want to note that ‘the fullness of love is to behold the beloved in all ways’ – physical, emotional, intellectual, and transcendental. In its various forms, prayer, being the intentional effort to commune with God, also has the potential to reach across all four dimensions, if it does not always do so to some degree. These realizations, taken with Jesus’ teaching to love God with all that we are and our neighbors as ourselves, and all of it considered within the context of St. John’s assertion that God is Love, provides us with the richest, most promising, most accessible, and most whole model for what it can mean to be a Christian mystic.
1.Chapter 46, Revelations of Divine Love; another version reads, “For our soul is so fully oned to God of His own Goodness that between God and our soul may be right nought.”
2. Chapter 35; another version reads, “…for it is more worship to God to behold Him in all than in any special thing.”