Musings for Ordinary Sunday 20 in the absence of the vicar
19 August, 2012
During the past week, Fr Hugh has been in New Zealand celebrating his father's eightieth birthday with other family members. He has asked me to write some musings for this week's pew bulletin.
Fr Hugh and I are planning to present some teaching on four great Medieval Christian Mystics, commencing on Sunday, 21st of October. One cynic has defined mysticism as 'beginning in mist (myst-), centering in an 'I' (-i-), and ending in schism (-cism)'! This definition conveys the false idea that the mystics are individuals caught up in a fog or riding on 'cloud nine' or gazing for hours each day at their navels. It represents them as people who are totally self-centred and preoccupied with personal, exotic experiences. We will be seeking to address that misunderstanding. We do not think that the four mystics that we will be considering — Julian of Norwich, Aelred of Rievaulx, Richard Rolle or Bernard of Clairvaux — would recognize themselves in the above definition.
It is our shared conviction that mysticism, properly understood, is not something to be enjoyed by a select few. Rather, as we hope to demonstrate, there is something in it for everybody. As the gifted English New Testament scholar, Paula Gooda, argued when she spoke at the Institute for Spiritual Studies last year, there is a sense in which mysticism can be a part of every Christian's life, without denying that some Christians have had a more intense kind of mystical experience.
I like to distinguish between what might be termed 'small "m" mysticism' and 'big "M" Mysticism'. The former refers to the experience of God's presence that all religious persons enjoy to a greater or lesser degree whereas the latter refers to the more extraordinary or intense experiences of grace. Our goal will be to show how some of the extraordinary Mystics can speak to us more ordinary mystics who live in the twenty first century.
The Christian faith, for each of the Mystics we will be considering, was not simply about a system of abstract reasoning and argumentation. It is possible to engage in this kind of exercise and not be changed at any deeper level. Intellectual verification has its place in defending the faith but it is not the only element or even the most important element in our faith. The Mystics point us to the experiential side of our faith. Faith in God is not just something to be analysed and reasoned about in conceptual terms. It is something to be loved and lived.
Our sessions will therefore contain space to engage with God and that requires both time and silence. One of my favourite former archbishops of Canterbury was Michael Ramsey. His photo hangs in our Church vestry as a reminder of his visit to this parish. On one occasion a pert young American journalist harangued the archbishop just before he was leaving for an overseas trip. Poking the microphone towards his substantial purple-clad girth, the journalist called out from the media scrum: 'Have you said your prayers this morning archbishop?' 'Yes' snapped back the archbishop. Determined to make a story that might show the Anglican leader up as a hypocrite, the pert young journalist pressed the archbishop further, asking: 'How long did you pray for?' As quick as a flash Michael Ramsey responded, 'One minute. But it took me 29 minutes to get there'.
It was an answer that has stuck in my mind. With all the external and internal clatter of our lives, it takes time to slow down and come to some kind of inner tranquility so that we can hear 'a voice that can only be heard if we are listening'. The Mystics have much to teach us about the art of prayerful intimacy with God.
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