During our Lenten series on Christian mysticism called “A Voice to Call Us Home,” people at First Mennonite shared a story or a reflection related to the theme. This reflection is by Karin Holsinger, who gave it on the first Sunday of Lent, March 6.
This is the story of how I became a mystic…
I was raised, like I imagine some of you also may have been, in a Mennonite home that was rather suspicious of mystics and monks—mystics appearing to dwell outside of reason and rationality and monks appearing to shirk concern for the poor and suffering.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the evangelical saying that mysticism starts in mist, is centered in “I,” and ends in schism. My parents were unfamiliar with the saying, but I’m guessing they would have agreed. They raised me to have a pretty staunchly Enlightenment world view—that the only things we know to be true we experience with our senses. Everything outside of that is profoundly untrustworthy, and probably dangerous. I was brought up without “lies” like Santa Claus and instilled with a distrust of Catholics and their “sacraments.”
Things shifted, however, when I lived and worked in the rainforest in Central America. I lived quite simply and intimately with the jungle around me—rats in the thatched roof, scorpions in my shoes, a tarantula (that I nicknamed Pedro) that lived behind my toilet, an enormous grasshopper that liked to lick my toothbrush, and king cockroaches everywhere (that I let crawl on my arms when I was bored). There’s a different way of relating to nature when you have to look for living things underneath you every time you sit down—a pervasiveness of the life-force. It was very non-sanitized and quite lovely.
It was this experience, mixed with my first readings of Annie Dillard and Thomas Merton, that began to open my eyes to different layers of reality. There was an alchemy to it— this intimacy of the rainforest and the prose of mystics. This is not coincidence. If I know anything for certain, it is that God and nature are in cahoots. And the saints and mystics, I have realized, are in it, too.
Somehow, in that magical chemistry, I tripped and fell into a new, very intimate and vulnerable, and I would say raw, relationship with the divine. And the veil began to lift. A flame was lit.
And then I met Jake, who became my husband many years later. Jake grabbed a hold of that Enlightenment world view that was already peeling and cracking, and took a hammer to it. With his extensive knowledge of medieval philosophy and persuasive ability to convince others of the reality of magic and fairies, he basically backed up my emerging awareness that “the cosmos is replete with inescapable meaning.”
Then I learned about contemplative prayer, or centering/silent prayer.
In rapid succession, everything came alive. The movement of a fern in a breeze. The play of light on a wall. The flicker of a candle. The words of the mystics like Julian of Norwich, and the desert fathers and mothers. The words of poets. (Omg, poets!—I finally “got” poetry!) I enrolled in a Franciscan seminary as a result of all of this and began to feel a real kinship with saints and mystics, realizing that this wasn’t some “new” way of experiencing spirituality, but was an old and well-trodden path. Scripture also came alive. I spent a week in the desert by myself—my parents thought I’d lost my mind—and learned to love, deeply love, the psalms. The desert makes the psalmist’s words glow as resplendently, and truthfully, as the stars.
My most powerful mystical experience took place during a Lenten Desert experience with a Franciscan non-profit outside of Las Vegas. I don’t have the time, and barely have the words, to speak about it here, but I bring it up because it transformed how I understand mysticism—and answered that childhood question of whether mysticism is essentially world-denying. At the time we were immersing ourselves in issues of nuclear weapons, ecological devastation and the exploitation of Indigenous Peoples and their land. For a short while, I entered what felt like a union with God, a consuming communion with the fires of divine love. And I realized that the essence of mysticism is that it pull us into the heart of God, while simultaneously sending us out into the world with that same flame of love, a flame that doesn’t go out.
My favorite desert saying at the time was Abba Joseph. Abba Lot came to him and said “I keeps a moderate rule of fasting a little, praying, meditating, and quiet —what else should I do?” Abba Joseph rose, spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten candles. “If you will,” he said, “you can become all flame.”
Just to close…
I have to be honest and confess that I no longer live in that same intense mystical state of my younger years. But thankfully I don’t think the veil ever fully come back down. The world will never again appear be merely what it seems on the surface of things. The light may fade from behind the stained glass, and the colors go dark, but I will always know that it’s still a window, and not just a wall or even merely a pretty painting. And I firmly believe that no matter where we are in life (even as a middle-aged stay-at-home mother who loses herself in the weeds of worldly responsibilities), the alchemy is always available. When nature and the words of those who have already traveled this path conspire to turn our heads, and when we give our assent to the all-consuming, rather dangerous reality of God’s presence, we can all ignite and catch.