This is the fourth sermon in our Lenten series, “Fully Alive: Living as Warrior, Monk and Mystic.” It is followed by a reflection by Kelli Pearson, a member of our congregation, on identifying with the mystic archetype.
Have you ever had the experience of being enlarged? In that moment, you felt yourself a part of something far bigger than your small self. And maybe that bigness felt so big it seemed to have a capital letter — capital-l Life, capital-l Love, capital-g God. Maybe you experienced it when you saw your child’s face for the first time and knew yourself to be part of the great river of Life. May you felt it in a moment of intimacy, and you knew yourself to be in Love. Maybe you were out hiking and felt the boundaries between yourself and the manzanita tree and and the sky become permeable, softer – and you saw yourself not as separate, but a part of All that is.
Have you ever had an experience where you felt yourself emancipated? Freed not only from the fears or anxieties that attend your days, but from your self-consciousness, from the constant commentary of your mind? Maybe you were walking down the street and happened to look up at the etch of a bare tree against the winter sky and were lost – even if just for a few seconds – as you beheld the tree. In that moment, your mind stopped talking to itself. In that brief yet eternal moment, you were simply present.
Maybe you’ve had experiences where you have forgotten yourself, where you just became the thing you were doing – as you hit the 40th mile of biking, sanded the 2 x 4, sat in silence, sang with others, surfed, skied. Or maybe one day you were overcome by awe, and you suddenly knew why the ancient Israelites believed you could not look upon the face of God and live, how you could be so easily extinguished in that flame. Or maybe you simply came to realize, over time, like a drop of water eroding rock, that you were the beloved.
These moments of enlargement, of emancipation, of self-forgetfulness, of love, reveal to us our heart’s true home – reveal to us what is most real – reveal to us our true selves. How large and spacious we are. How we are, in reality, part of God, part of the Great Love, part of the Big Life. And when we experience this mystic in us, something in us is curiously unsurprised. A part of us says – “Ah, I knew this all the time. This is who I really am. This is where I come from. How did I ever forget?”
The word “religion” traces its etymological roots to a word that means “to bind fast.” And so the real work of religion is not to devise dogmas or determine who’s saved or give us a list of dos and don’ts. The real work of religion is to re-bind, reconnect us to our true selves, to each other, to creation, to that which we call God. The real work of religions is to re-member. To bring back together what was never meant to be separated, what was dis-membered. In the gospel of John, in Jesus’ final prayer before his arrest and crucifixion, he prays: “The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind — just as you, Abba God, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us” (The Message version). Jesus’ fervent prayer before he left this earth was that we would understand and experience our union with each other and with him and with God.
The deep wisdom of all the world’s religions agree that we are all meant to be mystics. The scholar of religion Huston Smith likes to hold up his hand and say that all religions of the world seem far apart in their externalities – their creeds, their rituals, the cultural trappings. These he compares to the fingers. But if you go into the depths of those religions (which he compares to the palm of our hand), you find the same core truth, which is the truth of the mystic. And this truth is that 1) There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things. 2) There is in the human soul a natural capacity and longing for this Divine Reality. And 3) We can experience union and communion with this Divine Reality. Sometimes this Divine Reality is called God or Christ or Spirit or Soul. Sometimes it is called the Tao or Buddha nature or Allah or Brahman. Whatever it’s called, it’s always a capital letter.
The only thing standing between us and this capital-letter experience that we long for and have a natural capacity for… is our self. Both Christian and Buddhist religious traditions have called this self that stands in the way the ego self – or, sometimes, the false self or small self or monkey mind. But thanks neuroscience, we can now locate the seat of this self in the left hemisphere of our brain. It’s the part of our brains that is the Analyzer, that thinks linearly and methodically. It’s part of our brains that is the Language Processor, that creates and understands language. It’s the part of our brains that is the Judge, that defines the boundaries of where we begin and where we end, then notices differences between ourselves and others and judges those differences — what is right and wrong, good or bad, pleasing or not. We need this side of our brain, but it also the side that issues the constant source of chatter that we are all familiar with, the chatter that, as one person puts it, “keeps telling you, endlessly, how you are doing with anything you are doing, in great detail. It’s your personal play-by-play announcer, commenting on whether you should have just made that remark to your boss or worn those shoes today.” It’s the part of our brain that doesn’t notice the sunset over the Pacific Ocean because we’re too busy thinking about our grocery list. I think about my grocery list a lot.
We use this part of ourselves a lot. In our culture especially. But it’s precisely the part of ourselves that needs to get turned down if we are to experience the spaciousness of Divine Reality.
Some of you may have heard the remarkable TED talk of neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffered a stroke on the left side of her brain in 1996. Because she was literally a brain scientist, Taylor became her own research subject as she witnessed what was happening to herself during the stroke. As she stood in the shower, trying to remember how to turn on the water, she says, “The harder I tried to concentrate, the more fleeting my ideas seemed to be. Instead of finding answers and information, I met a growing sense of peace. As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent, my consciousness soared into an all-knowingness, a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will.” Eventually, she turned on the water on, and continues: “As I held my hands up in front of my face and wiggled my fingers, I was simultaneously perplexed and intrigued. Wow, what a strange and amazing thing I am…. Life! I am life! I am trillions of cells sharing a common mind. I am here, now, thriving as life. Wow!”
Bolte eventually, arduously recovered her left hemisphere – although she was almost sad at times to do so since she felt such peace and bliss and compassion without it. But she is now very careful about “tending the garden of her mind,” as she puts it. She is careful not to let her left brain always have dominance, as so many of us do. She is careful to cultivate equally her right brain, the part of herself that can access that capital-letter consciousness.
And how do we do that? We do that through all the things that mystics and contemplatives have told us to do throughout the ages. We go on retreats that give our left brain a break. We enter into silence and solitude and open ourselves to the mystery of God. We worship. We surrender to the present moment. We slow down and savor the sheer wonder of life – those fingers that can wiggle, that strawberry, that sunset. We come to our senses and taste the food we are eating, feel the touch of wind against our face, smell the soft scent of pine and sea. We meditate or sit quietly. We follow our breath or say our mantra or lose ourselves in physical exertion or repetitive movement or ritual or an unbelievably beautiful aria. We dance, draw, sing, read poetry. We gently close the door on the analyzer, the judge, the language processor, and open ourselves to the grace of the spacious Self that is one with Abba God already.
So let us now, together, with great intention, become the ones – the mystics — we were created to be. The ones we so deeply long to be. Amen.
Reflection on Being a Mystic
Hi, I’m Kelli, and I didn’t actually think of myself as a mystic until this series.
Though looking back, there were clues. Even back in my very non-mystical childhood church, where everyone’s favorite Bible verse was John 3:16, the verses I loved were very different:
–Acts 17:28 For in God we live and move and have our being.
–Exodus 3:14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”
–John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
I don’t think of a mystic as woo woo or magical, but rather as being drawn to mystery.
Here’s my definition of a mystic:
A mystic is someone who notices the world, wonders about the world, and finds patterns in the world. And often, those patterns point to God.
I’ve always been in love with nature. I talk to plants, and plants talk to me.
Ok, I’ll be honest–I don’t just talk to plants; I pet them. I can’t help it. I talk to them in baby voices. “Oh my goodness, look at you!”
I think it’s because I’m always finding babies on plants: little curling baby ferns; tiny pink buds on twigs; or sweet new leaves that are so soft.
The other day I was on a walk, getting my steps in, listening to my music, and I came to this lemon tree and just stopped in my tracks. There were these teenaged lemons, and I’d never seen a teenage lemon before. It looked like a little light bulb.
The neighbor across the street looked all suspiciously at me, like she’d never seen anyone petting a lemon before.
A mystic is someone who feels the world deeply.
In college, this one time I had a boy visiting at my house, and at one point he reached up to my plant that was hanging above his head, and absentmindedly broke off some of the leaves.
I gave him this look, like “What have you done?” I almost cried.
Sometimes it’s hard to be that connected to the natural world. To cry when a tree is cut down, to feel it in your body.
It takes courage to be that permeable to the world’s pain. To keep your eyes open, to stay aware of what’s happening around you. Sometimes it’s all you can do to stay standing.
I’ve always felt like that’s a thing that made Jesus more God than any of the rest of us: he felt everything. He took it all in, and didn’t push any of it away.
That is as human and as holy as it gets.
A mystic makes space for God’s voice.
The Spirit is an introvert. It’s like she’s sitting at a table with a bunch of people talking, trying to get a word in edgewise.
When there are lots of voices talking–Netflix and email and TikTok and Zoom and Spotify–the Spirit sits back and keeps quiet.
She’s waiting her turn.
She may be the one with the richest, most important, most delightful things to say, but she doesn’t want to interrupt.
It’s not until all those other loud voices go away, and there is space for deep breaths and the feel of sun on skin, that she starts to speak up.
Sometimes I’ll sit with a blank notebook and pen in hand, and just wait. There’s nothing I want to write, nothing I want to say. But I know she’s got something to say, and when I hear her voice I start writing.
Later, I sometimes read those words with a sense of wonder, because they didn’t come from me. They’re teaching me.
A mystic hears God’s voice in nature.
There is a thing I’ve noticed about trees. Each kind of tree has its own special shape.
A certain kind of oak tree has its own oak tree shape. And if you look at just one big branch of that tree, that branch is the same shape as the whole tree. It’s like a mini-me.
And if you look even closer, at a small branch on that big branch, that’s the same shape again, a mirror image of the big branch, which looks just like the whole tree.
This is called a fractal.
What I learned from this is that small things teach us about big things.
The small truths that we find all around us are mirrored in the large truths. We can learn a lot about the big things in life by asking questions about the little things.
For example: take composting. I’m blown away by the idea of composting. The way nature takes garbage, and dead things, and buries it, and warms it, and transforms it into this rich, life-giving soil and food.
So I start wondering about composting everywhere.
–Like, what does it mean for my relationship with my brother?
–What does it mean for my mom dying?
–What does it mean for the regrets that I can’t change…but that I can trust to the universe, to compost and remake into something rich and wonderful?
Being a mystic means always coming back to: What do you notice?
What do you wonder?
What patterns do you see?