Being a cautious mystic

By Johan Maurer
9 Mar 2007

I am a mystic. I have some misgivings about owning that label, since the word "mystic" is over-honoured in some quarters and dismissed in others. Also, I've spent most of my adult life upholding denominational structures - what kind of a mystical calling is that?

Another misgiving - I don't have the gift of discernment. But others close to me have that gift, so I don't feel too vulnerable. It just means I can't be under delusions of self-sufficiency.

Yet another misgiving - according to those wiser than me, we're not supposed to desire extraordinary experiences. Fine if they come, but the important thing is the fruits. As Marge Abbott properly summarizes in a Woodbrooke College paper, "For Friends [Quakers], the importance of numinous spiritual experience is in its power to strengthen faith, to transform our lives, or to provide clear leadings for service when properly discerned by the individual, or in conjunction with the larger group."

I totally agree that the fruits are the important emphasis, and that the consolations of spiritual ecstasy and immediate intimations of the Holy Spirit are not to be pursued (or faked!) for their own sake. St Paul said as much, too.

Furthermore, when I'm in teaching mode, I would want to be extra sensitive to the diversity of temperaments in the room with me. As American psychologist and philosopher William James points out, some of us simply are not wired for those kinds of experiences, and that's not a defect. That's just a difference.

Yet another caveat: in a world that has not yet learned the practical imperatives of reconciliation, my individual gratification is simply not an adequate focus for life. It's like admiring a fine painting while the politicians cut all arts education funding from the school budget (and the vegetables from the school lunches).

In other words, I'm just as opposed to pious gluttony, at least in theory, as anyone else. In theory. But the truth is that the mystical hunger in me doesn't want to pretend it doesn't exist. I admit I not only want to keep experiencing the joy of inner confirmation of God's power, but I also love to hear about it from others. But this conversation just doesn't happen very often.

Is this because we Friends have a healthy understanding of the difference between hunger and addiction, or is it another dimension of our corporate timidity? In the North American and European context, have we given too much weight to caution and moderation?

Are we quiet about our experiences of God because we don't want to honour an excess, because we don't want to be mistaken for Pentecostals (in whose historical stream we at least partly fit), because we have a rationalistic glaze over our eyes, or because we dismiss things we can't explain? (Forgive me if all my alternatives seem tendentious!)

My own experiences of confirmation are not dramatic. I've never seen Jesus and I have never heard an audible voice, though I'm close to people who've experienced these things. To cross into the risky field of what gets called supernatural awareness, I've only once had a completely unexplainable burst of knowledge.

My experiences of the well of living water are frequent but almost the opposite of spectacular. I wouldn't think that they were even worth mentioning, but what makes me think that I should is this: I want to know what your experience is, and how can I ask you if I'm not willing to tell you mine?

Most Friends I know and deeply respect are in one of two camps. One group says little or nothing about spiritual experience; rightly or wrongly, I get the sense that for them it's not quite a proper subject.

Friends in the other group take spiritual power, even to the point of healing or extraordinary insight, almost for granted. I find relatively few people who are aware of spiritual power but also acutely aware of how incongruous their beliefs or experiences may be to others.

To sharpen the discussion one notch further, I had a long talk with one weighty Friend about a week and a half ago. This person convincingly recounted a number of experiences of what I would gingerly label "embodied evil."

Later last week, I was speaking to another Friend who completely dismissed these sorts of experiences as, at best, superstitious misinterpretations. These mysterious things really do happen - I know they do - but I also intensely mistrust the political agendas of some of the celebrities in the ‘spiritual warfare industry’.

I was already pondering these themes when I read a communication from Burundi by Peggy Parsons. My mind went back to an incident almost twenty years ago, where another person far away had an equally accurate impression of a dangerous situation I was in, walking in a deep snowfall in the dark through downed power lines.

Inordinate fascination with these sorts of phenomena is not recommended. I know that, and I have my share of caution. But in a climate of pervasive skepticism, I also don't want to pretend indifference to evidence of God's power in our lives.

Is it possible that this pervasive skepticism stifles the testimonies of some among us, and tempts others to seek spiritual thrills in cults that really do pander to a more addictive fascination? As in most other controversies, I believe that the best balance is not one arrived at through theoretical moderation and institutional cautions, but through dialogue.

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Johan Maurer is a freelance writer and recorded Friends minister living in Portland, Oregon, USA. His weekly commentaries appear on Can you believe?

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