Divine Union is Embodied: Notes on the Incarnational Nature of Christian Mysticism

I’ve been working my way through Mystical Theology and Contemporary Spiritual Practice: Renewing the Contemplative Traditiona book in Routledge’s “Contemporary Theological Explorations in Mysticism” series. There’s a delightful essay in it called “Unlikely Mystics” about the sense of wonder and numinous reality that people encounter when visiting medieval cathedrals. Based on her research at Durham Cathedral in England, author Rosalind Brown describes the cathedral as “mystical space for ordinary people.” Telling the story of a visitor to the cathedral who had two very different experiences of the building at different points in her life, Brown makes this observation:

Mystical experience is not entirely from beyond ourselves; in an incarnational faith it incorporates our humanity, our particularity, into the life of the Trinitarian God.

I agree wholeheartedly.

Mysticism — at least, theistic mysticism — is about relationship. We often think that mysticism is about experience (we equate “mystical experience” with peak or ecstatic moments), or about consciousness (what makes a mystical experience “mystical” is how it represents an enlarging or enlightening of awareness, an “in-rushing” of divine union or sacred presence). Those are certainly meaningful categories for understanding or exploring the landscape of mystical spirituality. But theistic mysticism — God-centered or divine mysticism — always anchors experience and consciousness, no matter how beautiful or illuminating, in relationship — specifically the relationship between the creature (the person) and the Creator (God, for lack of a better word).

So much of the language of mystical experience/consciousness/relationship is unitive or nondual in nature: “one with God,” “divine union,” “God and I are not-two” — but the reason why such language is even necessary stems from the fact that we have a pervasive sense of the otherness of God/The Mystery: the nondual unitive theosis (“en-God-dening”) of mysticism has to be talked about because it represents a rupture or transformation of the all-too-common experience of God-as-separate. And while we can argue that such a sense of separation is wrong, or misguided, or incomplete, for many people, it simply is. And I think there’s nothing to be gained for shaming those for whom God is encountered as “other.” Instead, let’s see this for what it is: a splendid and beautiful opportunity to be in relationship with the divine other, even if such a relationship ultimately leads to a recognition that “God” and “I” have been one all along!

So the heart of mysticism, divine union, is relational. But it’s not just a spirit-to-spirit or mind-to-mind nonduality.  Again, speaking at least in a Christian sense, the relational nature of mysticism is an embodied or incarnational relationship. We do not just imagine that we are one with God — we embody it. We bring our own selves into the relationship: the fullness of our selves, mind, spirit and body.

So this is why you and I can both visit a sacred site, like a monastery or a holy well or a shrine associated with a mystic, and one of us has a luminous sense of divine presence while the other one was left unmoved. God is not playing favorites here, as much as it might seem like that. Nor is the Mystery “rewarding” one person while ignoring the other.

Rather, there are a host of variables at play here: a person’s capacity for belief and wonder, their emotional state, their need or desire for a sense of divine presence, and maybe even the inscrutable mystery of God’s own designs (it is possible that for some people a mystical experience or sense of encounter with the divine could be frightening, or ego-inflating, or in some other way counter-indicated for the good of that person’s soul).

The common theme here is that the fullness of the human being matters when it comes to mystical spirituality: my body, my mind, my soul, my beliefs, my feelings: all have a part to play in the “particularity” of how I encounter the Trinitarian God.

More than once in a my life, I have been at a particular place and have enjoyed a surprising and meaningful sense of God’s loving and beautiful presence. Then, a year or a quarter-century later, I return to that particular location, only to find that my experience of it is remarkably different the second time around. Does this mean I am somehow “less worthy”? Or that there is a capricious randomness to mysticism that makes any sense of the presence of God completely unpredictable? I suppose you could make the case for either of these interpretations.

But I prefer to think of it this way: mysticism means relationship: the human encounter with the mystery we call God. Like all relationships, I can never fully be in control of this encounter. All I can do is try to bring myself as fully and consciously to the encounter as I can. But even there, I never have full control over the mystery of my own being, let alone God’s! Issues concerning my health, wellness, emotional state, physical fitness, experience of illness or trauma, etc. etc. are often partially or fully outside my control. So all I really can do is to do my best to show up — and then experience what ever it is I am available to experience.

Mystically speaking, we “show up” by praying. By opening our hearts and minds and souls to meditation, to contemplation. We make ourselves available and we consent to the hidden mystery of the divine presence. Then, we experience whatever we experience. Maybe “nothing.” Maybe simply a sense of yearning or hope. Maybe boredom or a sense of fidgety unease. And maybe a sense of euphoria, or happiness, or rapture, or ecstasy, or boundary-dissolving union.

This is why the mystics tell us not to over-focus on experience. Maybe the key is, don’t waste time and energy judging or evaluating our experience (or lack thereof). Let God meet us in our bodies, in our particular places, just as we are. And then trust whatever happens (or doesn’t happen) as just what the God-human relationship needs, at that place in space and team. Trust the particularity of the mystical encounter, no matter how hidden it may be. Let our humanity, our “contribution” to the mystical encounter, be what it is: and let God receive that gift as God gives God’s own immeasurable gifts to us. In this gift-encountering-gift, the mystery happens: no matter what we feel or experience.

Yes, mysticism involves the mind, the imagination, the heart. But it also involves the body. Your body is the “location” of your relationship with God. It truly is, therefore, a temple of the Holy.

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