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Practical Mystics – Br. Mark Brown

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Br. Mark BrownEph. 4:1-6/Psalm 113/Mat. 19:27-29

Today is St. Hilda’s day. What we know about Hilda of Whitby (c. 614-680) comes to us from St. Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, which he finished in about 731. St. Hilda was the founding abbess of Whitby Abbey, the site of a pivotal Synod of the English church.  It was this Synod in 664 that strengthened the English church’s connection with the Roman church. Hilda was known for her devotion and grace and kindness; she was also recognized as an able administrator, sought out by kings and princes for her wise counsel.

I’m inclined to put St. Hilda in the category of “practical mystics”, along with St. Teresa of Avila, who founded many monasteries. And I would put St. Paul himself in this category.  We might think of “practical mystics” as individuals who have a keen sense of the presence of God in and through all things and take on the practical work of building up the church.  In building up the church we deal with real people in real time in real situations; with all the confusion and brokenness and incompleteness of real people.

The passage we heard earlier from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians gives us a glimpse both of his mystical and practical side.

“I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to live the life worthy of the calling to which you have been called with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” [Eph. 4:1-6]

When Paul speaks of God being “above all and through all and in all”, I suspect he is speaking not only theologically, but from personal experience. He speaks elsewhere of visionary, trance-like experiences of the Divine.  And, of course, much is made of his Damascus Road conversion in the Book of Acts. (I don’t think being mystical requires visions, trances or blinding lights, but I’ll come back to that.)

And Paul is concerned here with the very real, practical challenges of people living together in community.  And so he speaks (as he does in several other places) of humility, gentleness and patience. (By the way, I can’t help suspecting these attributes were high on Paul’s own personal self-improvement list–they would certainly be on mine! He could be inclined to a little arrogance and roughness.  “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me…” he says to the Philippians [3:17]. I wonder if he ever had second thoughts about having put that in writing…  Or, when he was on a rant with one of his churches: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”  [Gal. 3:1])

In our passage from Ephesians Paul speaks of the presence of God above and in and through all things, and gentleness, humility and patience in practically the same breath.  And, by the way, I think this is as good a definition as any for “mysticism”: the growing awareness of God above all and through all and in all.  I think it’s a simple as that: visions, apparitions, levitations and ecstasies are not required to be a mystic—only the dawning awareness of the Divine Presence above and in and through all things (which, of course, includes people…)  This dawn can come to us simply and quietly, without any drama at all.

There’s at least the suggestion in Paul’s words of a connection between the mystical and the practical, since he’s dealing here with a real community and its issues. If Teresa and Hilda and Paul are “practical mystics”, perhaps we might define that this way: a “practical mystic” is one who is growing in awareness of God above and in and through all things and growing in responsiveness to this awareness.  This responsiveness to God’s abiding presence becoming manifest in humility, gentleness and patience in dealing with real people in real situations—even in the realm of budgets and buildings, policies and procedures.

Humility, gentleness and patience: wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all had these qualities all the time?  Well, if Paul could struggle, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves.  But there is a role for thoughtfulness and discernment, a role for Wisdom in the struggle–Wisdom with a capital W.  Wisdom as in Christ as Wisdom, as Holy Wisdom.  From the early days of the church Jesus Christ has been seen as Holy Wisdom. Paul calls Jesus the “wisdom of God”.

We need Wisdom, we need the accompaniment of Christ in finding our way to the fullness of true humility, the fullness of true gentleness and true patience. True humility is found in knowing who we truly are.  Grandiosity and arrogance are obviously not humility.  But neither is a negative self-image born of insecurities: that is not the fullness of Christian humility.  True humility remembers that, whatever our flaws as human beings, we are made in the image and likeness of God.  True Christian humility is secure in the knowledge that God has made us, God loves us and God forgives us all our imperfection, sinful and otherwise, and is reshaping us in his image.

Patience is true when it waits for that for which it is good to wait.  True Christian patience does not wait while others are suffering abuse or oppression; true Christian patience does not wait when we might intervene to improve life for others. Patience might be thought of as “trusting in the slow work of God”, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it. But we also need to trust in the fast work of God: sometimes we are called to the “fierce urgency of now”, as Martin Luther King put it. Passivity in the face of evil is not patience.

Gentleness is true when it is not mere squishiness or lack of back bone or failure to use the strengths we have to help others. There is a level of assertiveness appropriate to a given situation–true gentleness will be found there.

All of this, whether it be finding our way to true humility or true patience or true gentleness requires thoughtful discernment and reflection.  It is a process of maturation in which Christ in us is the Wisdom of God in us.  The light of Christ in us is the light of Wisdom on our path as we stumble our way through the thickets of this life. Christ Holy Wisdom in us is also Christ the Good Shepherd who seeks us out and Christ the Redeemer who saves us from any and all weakness, error and sin.  He did say he would be with us always, even to the end of the age.

I’ve put Paul and Teresa and Hilda in the category of “practical mystic”. Maybe you’re in that category too.  And if you’re not a “practical mystic”, maybe you’re a mystical pragmatist.   If we think of ourselves as leaning toward the mystical, maturity in Christ draws us to a growing response in the ordinary, concrete circumstances of our lives—even in the realm of budgets and buildings, policies and procedures.  If we think of ourselves as leaning toward the practical, feeling most at home in the realm of budgets, buildings, policies and procedures, maturity in Christ means growing in awareness of the Divine Presence, whose love in us comes to fruition in humility, patience and gentleness.

The Synod of Whitby forged stronger ties with the Roman church. It’s said that the Celtic monks of Lindisfarne decamped to the Isle of Iona unhappy with this turn of events.  So I’ll let Celtic Christianity have the final word–some lines from “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

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1 Comment

  1. clement carelse on November 19, 2014 at 21:31

    Timely message as I stumble forward in my discernment to ordination. Thank you for providing some light and clarity for my journey.
    Deo gratias.

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