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Reclaiming the Bible as a Mystical Masterpiece

Some years ago now — shortly after The Big Book of Christian Mysticism was first published — I was invited to be a guest on a video podcast, for an episode devoted to mysticism. The host of the podcast was a UCC Minister, a nice guy. Toward the end of our interview he said, “Carl, what is the one book you would recommend to anyone who wants to explore Christian mysticism?”

In retrospect, I realize he was setting me up to talk about my own book. But in the moment, I just took him at his word, and I answer the question as honestly as I could. What is the “one book” necessary for the exploration of mystical Christianity? I said, “Why, the Bible of course!”

The host looked surprised. Clearly it wasn’t the answer he was expecting. He asked me to elaborate.

“I don’t think we’re accustomed to read the Bible as a mystical document. But anyone who spends time reading the mystics themselves soon realizes that the Christian mystics are quoting the Bible all the time. It was their guidebook, their manual for living a contemplative, mystical life. And once we take the time to learn to read the Bible like the mystics, it becomes obvious just how deeply calibrated this collection of sacred writings is — calibrated toward contemplative and mystical prayer.

Part of the process of reclaiming mystical Christianity in our day will be the equally important task of reclaiming a mystical understanding of the Bible. There’s more to this than I can cover in a single blog post — for now I just want to encourage readers to consider that the Bible is more than just an ancient text with some outdated morality and primitive ideas about cosmology. If we approach the Bible as a mystical book, it can give us as much inspiration and enlightenment as the writings of St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Ávila.

A few years before that podcast interview — during the time I was writing The Big Book of Christian Mysticism — I attended a conference where Brian McLaren gave a talk in which he said, “The things we focus on determine what we miss.” To illustrate this point, he had us watch the following video featuring a group of basketball players, and instructed everyone in the room to pay close attention to how many times the basketballs were being passed back and forth.

If you’re not familiar with this video, take a moment to watch it — and follow the instructions. It’s an interesting experiment, and the original researchers wrote a book about it called The Invisible Gorilla.

Certainly when Brian McLaren showed it to a room of about 1000 people at this conference, asked us to count the basketball passes, and then said “Raise your hand if you saw the gorilla” — I would guess that less than 50 people raised their hands.

What we focus on determines what we miss. If you are so focussed on watching the basketball players, you’ll miss the gorilla. The gorilla is not “invisible” — we just filter it out, because our attention is focused elsewhere.

McLaren then applied this principle to how Christians read the Bible. Most of us have been taught to read it as an instruction manual for being a good Christian (someone even said once that “BIBLE” stands for “Basic instructions before leaving earth”!). In other reads, we read the Bible to learn about God, to figure out what we need to do to get saved or to be a good person, that sort of thing.

McLaren went on to point out that many Christians ignore the Bible’s teachings on social justice, because they are so focussed on reading the Bible as a manual for individual salvation. He’s right of course.

But I saw the contemplative implication here. Like I said, this conference took place while I was still working on The Big Book, and so my head was filled with the writings and ideas of the mystics. Just by sheer osmosis, I was learning to read the Bible in a new way, a contemplative way. But I realized that for most Christians, mysticism in the Bible is like the gorilla in the video above. It’s hidden in plain sight. We ignore it because we are so busy paying attention to other things.

Which leads us to something Meister Eckhart once said. The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart is an anthology of nearly a hundred sermons by the great medieval German mystic. In the very first sermon, he say something, almost off-handedly, that I think has profound ramifications for the mystical life.

Eckhart says:

The nature of a word is to reveal what is hidden.

This is a clue to the mystical meaning of scripture.

When I experience love for you, that love begins as a deep intuition in my heart. It may emerge as a feeling, as an insight, as a sense of affection or care. When it’s romantic love, it can be the heady feelings associated with infatuation or “falling in love.”

But notice: all of these “love experiences” are hidden within me (or whoever it is that’s embodying the love).  Hopefully I am showing my love with my actions — and yes, I know, “actions speak louder than words.” But there’s still a very real sense that until I say “I love you” then the love remains hidden in my heart.

The nature of a word is to reveal what is hidden. And what is true for the word “love” is true for every word.

If I’m thinking about guacamole, you very likely know nothing about it. But then I say, “let’s go get some guac,” and thanks to the word guacamole what was hidden in my mind (and appetite!) has been revealed.

Pick up a book — any book — and in the reading,  you are ushered in to the hidden world of the author’s mind and heart.

Van Gogh, Still Life with Bible, 1885.

Recovering the Mystical Sense of Scripture

How do we recover the mystical sense of the Bible, then? It may be as simple as reading the mystics and learning what they have to say about it. It may involve a commitment to praying the Bible (such as by praying the Daily Office) or praying with the Bible (by the practice of lectio divina). Most of all, I think it’s important to bring an open mind and open heart to the Bible. When you read the Bible, pray for contemplative insight. Pray that the spirit may guide you to sense how the words in the Bible might reveal truth that has been hidden — hidden in the very mind and heart of God.

In his book A Faith You Can Live With, Jesuit author John O’Donnell quotes another Jesuit, Philip Rosato, for an insight he made about the articles of faith in the Apostle’s Creed. “Each article of faith refers to reality; each touches the believer’s personal existence; each has social (communal) consequences; and each contains a dimension of human hope.”

What’s true for the Creed is also true for wisdom encoded in the Bible, the Word of God. Every sacred, spiritual, contemplative and mystical teaching in scripture has something to say to us on four levels:

  • The way things are;
  • The way things could be;
  • How this teaching impacts us as individuals;
  • How this teaching impacts us as a collective/community.

The Word of God — which can be seen as a metaphor for Jesus himself, but also as a way of understanding the Bible as a wisdom document — reveals what is hidden to us: truths about ourselves, truths about our relationships, truths about present reality, and truths about future possibility. Clearly, not every single word or verse in the Bible carries the same weight — some sections have only historical interest (such as the purity codes or the detailed descriptions of the ark of the covenant), and some passages, it must be said, reflect the limitations of the culture in which they were originally written. So the Bible still needs to be read in a careful, informed, interpretive way. But if we see it as not just a historical religious document, but also as a living text containing spiritual wisdom and the invitation into union with God, then the Bible, read in a mystical and contemplative way, can reveal the great “hidden” (mystical) truth of all: that God exists, God loves us, and God seeks union with us, right here and right now.

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