So What Is A Mystic Anyway?
I am still super adverse to labels these days. I have a feeling this might be a permanent change in status. But I’ve thought that before about many things and have been proven wrong, so who really knows.
In the interest of sharing my work with y’all, it seems like it might be important to get on the same page about a few things. So in the coming weeks we’re going to spend some time making sure that we all have the same baseline understanding about what I mean when I use certain words.
Today, lets talk about what I mean when I talk about being a mystic.
The terms mystic and mysticism can conjure up some interesting images. I know, because I used to hold them. For me, it was something like Professor Trelawney from the Harry Potter stories. But although I’m into divination, attic spaces, and decorating in a style I call “Great Aunt Francis”, this is not what it actually means to be a mystic.
Being a mystic does not require any particular training or certification or degree or letters after your name.
It also doesn’t require an invitation to Hogwarts or a key to Brakebills. While I genuinely believe that mystics have access to magic, its not the kind that works through spells and charms.
Although I do think that would be mighty cool.
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Mysticism is not a religion but is found in all of the world’s major religions. Madonna made Kabbalah mainstream for awhile there. And Kabbalah is, in fact, Jewish Mysticism. There are also mystic arms of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism along with the Buddhist and Sikh faiths. And there are mystics who call themselves atheists and some who don’t call themselves anything at all. This is because being a mystic has a lot less to do with what you believe. Actually, it has just about nothing to do with what you believe. What is has to do with is how you see.
As my teacher Father Richard Rohr explains:
Now don’t let the word “mystic” scare you. It simply means one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience. All spiritual traditions at their mature levels agree that such a movement is possible, desirable, and even available to everyone.
(The Naked Now: Learning To See As The Mystics See, pp. 29-30.)
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I think its important to note something here. Sometimes the verbage used around the term “mystic” can bring with it a sense of judgment or a “greater than” mentality. And that’s certainly not what I mean to convey. So I want to make sure that whoever is reading this goes back and reads that last line from Father Richard up there. What I am talking about here – its available to everyone.
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I get a little wary about ascribing definitions to things – particularly things that fall within the spiritual realm. I very much struggle with imposter syndrome as I am dipping my toes ever deeper in this pond of mysticism, so it seemed a bit crazy that I was going try to explain what it means to be a mystic.
But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.
Ironically, mystics tend to shy away from things like checklists and certainly do not measure their journeys by the benchmarks of those followed by others. So while these are some of my observations based on those I learn from and study with and, of course, my own experience, this is by no means meant to be an exhaustive and all-inclusive list. Rather, its meant to give you a better understanding of where I am coming from, how I got here, and the way many mystics see the world.
Mystics don’t accept things at face value. They question. They often experience a nagging belief that there is something deeper than the answers they have been given by this world. Mystics have come to understand that the answers they long for may not be available in this lifetime. In my personal opinion, this is the cornerstone of the mystic life – the constant presence of a deep longing to know more while simultaneously being comfortable sitting with the knowledge that we will never know everything while we exist in this plane.
This leads us to the second element of mystic life – the ability to overcome society’s dualistic ways of thinking and shift into a nondualistic mindset. This doesn’t mean that the mystic never falls back into dualistic thinking patterns. But she is able to recognize when this is occurring and take steps to return to a nondualistic mindset.
In this vein, most mystics hold to the philosophy of “one God many doors” – that connection to Divinity is available to anyone, through whatever path best serves them. That there is no one right path. Connection is not only available to those who choose the "right" set of rules to follow. Perhaps this is why mystics tend to feel restricted by rules, hierarchies, and the politics that govern most organizations.
And for this reason, many mystics find it necessary to leave the organized religions they grew up with in favor of their own unique relationship with God. This personal relationship begins to take precedence over the dictates handed down by religious leaders as one begins to understand that no two spiritual journeys look the same.
They have also learned that rather than look to those in leadership for guidance and counsel, the best place for them to look is inside – to the voice that lies within their own heart. Whether calling it the Holy Spirit, intuition, the true self, Goddess, the Divine, or Bob (hey – to each his own), the mystic has learned that they have the guide they most need with them constantly – wherever they may be and that they can invoke that counsel whenever they desire.
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As I said above (and as Father Richard taught me) the mystic life is available to everyone. So does that mean anyone can choose to be a mystic?
I’m not so sure its as easy as all that.
I think its safe to say that most mystics were forced there. Whether through some tragedy – disease or addiction or a death or divorce – the individual found herself in a place where she became willing to completely surrender to a truly intimate experience with the Divine. Father Richard calls the period that follows such a surrender the “second half of life” – a measure of time calculated not by chronological age but by experience. It is in this second half of life that most enter into the life of a mystic, evermore connected deeply and consistently to God.
But I also think some are born mystics. Maybe they were forced there in a past life, and have come into this lifetime ready to continue that journey. I’m not sure. But I do know that many of the characteristics of a mystic are ones I have possessed – and fought against – since childhood. I did not lean into them until I was finally forced to surrender to them. But still, this is not a choice. And – although speaking from my own personal experience – I am not sure any mystic-by-birthright could have come to accept this aspect of themselves without at least a gentle nudge from the Divine.
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Thomas Merton wrote:
What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance.
(New Seeds Of Contemplation, p. 296.)
Perhaps these few lines capture quite simply what it is to be a mystic - to master the art of letting go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all. Letting go our our own plans. Letting go of our forced identities.
Letting go of it all, and falling into the One who waits to share with us more than we could ever imagine.