Thursday, October 14, 2010


The feeling remains that God is on the journey, too.
--Saint Theresa of Avila

Today, October 14, is the anniversary of the death of the 16th Century Christian saint and mystic Saint Theresa of Avila, with tomorrow her feast day. Like so many mystics, Saint Theresa’s exhortations on walking the path to the Divine can be appreciated by anyone, I think, no matter what their particular faith tradition. Like Rumi, she is a friend to all of us. Her story brings to my mind the virtue of Mysticism.

As with many of the virtues featured here on TTV, Mysticism per se does not appear on any formal lists of traditional ethnic or religious values. However, I would claim that Mysticism represents an aspect of the virtue Spirituality, which traces to the universal human root virtue of Transcendence.

When I say “Mysticism,” you probably think of magical hermits or wandering sadhus, people far from you and me, shut off from the world to share secret knowledge or practices. And that’s not entirely wrong. Ironically, though, I am struck by how much of what mystics have to say applies across the whole living world from which they have withdrawn. Traditions of Mysticism are common to almost all world religions, from the Sufism of Islam, to the Vedanta lineage in Hinduism, to the Kabbalah of Judaism. The mystical state of union with the divine has been described virtually everywhere, whether called Te in Taoism, Moksha in Jainism, Satori in Zen Buddhism, or Ein Sof Ohr in Hassidic Judaism. Author Ben Gruagach argues in his book The Wiccan Mystic that Wicca, too, constitutes a path of Mysticism. Mysticism is the place where virtually all paths converge.

Almost all schools of Mysticism voice a belief in Immanence--the presence of Divine energy permeating all aspects of our material world. Another juicy paradox, since “Transcendence” implies that the Divine exists above/away from material life--explaining why so many of the mystics move out to remote mountaintop caves, lonely moors, or barren deserts. When I think of Immanence (and I’m showing my Buddhist bias here), I think about the teaching that Buddha-nature can be found in every single sentient being, although as with antique silver, we may need to apply a bit of elbow grease to buff off the tarnish and let it shine.

Saint Theresa devoted her entire adult life to mystic practice, although in her writing she admits she didn’t particularly seek out the path to mystic ecstasy--the path found her. There’s a nice summary of her biography here. As a contemplative Carmelite nun, she found her portal to the Divine through prayer. For the sisters who studied under her, Saint Theresa described three primary virtues as essential aspects for finding the Divine: Love, Detachment, and Humility. With my Buddhist training, I’m struck by how strongly this resonates with ideas about Maitri (Loving-Kindness--a virtue we touched on in our very last entry), Nekkhamma or non-attachment, and shedding of the ego. Patrick Burke, a Carmelite monk living in Ireland, gives a nice overview of Saint Theresa’s view on these virtues here.

For those of us caught up in the day-to-day world of life, work, filling out tax forms, washing the dishes or our children or our dogs--what does the virtue of Mysticism say to us? I think the answer lies in the notion of Immanence: we can find the Divine in those mundane details. Buddhist author Jack Kornfield talks about this in his book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, visiting many religious traditions as he explores this truth. As a teacher of prayer, Saint Theresa reminded her students of the importance of a daily meditation practice as a necessary foundation for progress on their spritual path. And so, I believe she reminds us to stake out a small corner of our busy lives for a daily practice of contemplation and reflection for at least a few minutes each day. We can hear the Divine in the rustle and bustle, but we have to listen.

May we see the gates of Mysticism, and perhaps make a home there.

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