Into the Mystic

“In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic or nothing at all.”

― Karl Rahner

Recently, I have discovered the music of Van Morrison.  It’s one of those things where you say, “Where have you been all my life?”  Most people my age that like Morrison probably discovered him decades ago, but I like to think he came along just at the right time for me.  I love his song titled “Into the Mystic.”  I have learned with most music not to spend too much time trying to interpret them.  It seems with most artists, they leave some mystery to most of their art and that is what makes it intriguing and interesting and worth the time to contemplate.    Suffice to say that this song just sends my mind off away from the temporal and causes me to think a little more deeply.

The tradition I come from doesn’t talk much about the mystical.  Even though the simplest definition of mysticism could be “experiencing God” and one of their teachers, Henry Blackaby, wrote a book by that title.  Ironically, a denominational leader once told me, “He’s a bit of a mystic.”   But what does that really mean?  Is this just a throwback to the times in religion’s history where we threw off common sense and logic and got all emotional and focused on feelings?  Or is this like ascetic people who devote their lives to being with God and not being with people?  Some of this is a little confusing for someone with my background.  Sure, I’d like to go deeper – I’ve instituted some practices like centering prayer, yoga and meditation.  But what is this mysticism that people talk about?

This weekend, I had the privilege to listen to Dr. Glenn Young, from Rockhurst University, speak about this topic.  Most of us know a little about a lot of things.  Dr. Young has spent his career studying primarily one thing, Mystical Spirituality.  I love it when I can hear someone speak about their passion.  He spoke for 3 hours essentially without notes.  I find that when people are able to study something their whole adult life, they tend to be less argumentative, more open and more excited about conversation.  It’s my hope for the world that we have more conversations about the things that matter.  Maybe we need more true experts—possibly we need more mystics.

He confirmed the basic premise of mysticism in that it is a direct encounter with God.  In contrast to our usual fascination with doctrinal logic, mysticism is experiencing directly the presence of God.  Sometime around the Reformation, some traditions seemed to discourage basing anything on experience.  Many of us opted for simply an intellectual reading of Scripture and a dogged commitment to the written Word and we diminished any experiential interaction that couldn’t be verified directly.  At times, maybe many of us have been irresponsible and swung the other way with our experiences.  But if experience doesn’t mean anything, then why do we have experiences?  Maybe an important distinction to make is that experience is more than just feeling something—it’s not just an emotion—it is an encounter.

Dr. Young, also gave the following expanded definition from Bernard McGinn:

“Mysticism is that part of Christian belief and practice that concerns preparation for, consciousness of, and effects from the direct presence of God.”

So, to begin with, mysticism is not just something that happens.  We do not generally just stumble into it.  It is a part of a spiritual practice and it is generally connected with Scripture.  My pastor, Brian Zahnd, teaches a prayer school all over the world.  His liturgy begins with prayer and Scripture that helps leads a person into the presence of God.  Our practices not only help form us, but they also lead us to the place where we can have that direct encounter with God.  Brian implements a form of centering prayer at this point called “sitting with Jesus.”  But he seems to agree with Dr. Young that there is some preparation involved.

For the second part of the definition, Dr. Young considered the actual experience of the direct encounter with the Divine.  We discussed three different areas where mysticism takes place:  in prayer, in the sacraments, and in contemplation and action.  Without going into a lot of detail, my primary takeaway from these sessions was that although mysticism may involve some solitude, it is also a part of the mainstream of our spiritual life.  We had an in-depth discussion about how Mary and Martha of the Bible represented the contemplation, but also the action.  And while we could argue that Jesus said one was more important than the other, many other passages tell us that Jesus was highly interested in His ethos (His practice), which involved not just going up to the mountain, but then coming down to exercise that practice.

And, that is the final part of the definition.  Bernard McGinn simply called it the “effects” of the encounter.  The result of the encounter with Divine is that we move from that sacred space and express to others what God has impressed upon us.   When we experience the love and adoration of the Father, Son and Spirit, we become different.  It doesn’t just affect us, but it has an effect on others.

I kind of lean toward the interpretation that Van Morrison’s song was sort of a love song.  He was sailing home to see his love.  But isn’t that sort of what we long for when we consider mystical things?  We long to be home with the one we love.  We long to feel the sweet embrace.  We long to have deep conversation and savor our time together.  When we imagine traveling “into the mystic,” I don’t think we should be afraid.  I think it is somewhat like the love song, but maybe even something deeper.  Young describes it as a face-to-face, direct encounter where all the coverings and facades are removed.  I better stop there!

I describe myself as mystical, probably because I’m way more interested in those things than I used to be.  Part of my journey is to put language to the things I’m discovering, but I hope the other part of my journey is mystery and paradox and the actual encounters that I sometimes can’t even describe.  Some of the best things about being married only gets muddied when you try to define them.  Love songs are really poets trying to put into words what cannot be adequately defined.  So, I hope my mystical experiences have more of an outward flow that benefits me and the people I encounter.  As the song alludes, let us “float into the mystic.”



** Please feel free to like, forward or comment on this blog. Part of this is for me to just sort through my beliefs and feelings, but it would mean so much more to have your input. **



  5 comments for “Into the Mystic

  1. January 21, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    Great post Karl. This is super interesting to me… in fact I have a book on Christian Musticism in the amazon cart from a while back I may need to purchase and read now!
    Keep posting your musings on faith, I am less certain than ever but only feeling good about it. Your my new guru lol.


  2. January 21, 2019 at 6:57 pm

    Loved it! Definitely important to focus less on dogma and more on our experience with God as a whole👌


  3. grammatteus
    May 1, 2019 at 5:03 am

    Always feels strange when people talk about the spirituality in the music of Van the Man, because I grew up in the same neighbourhood. Van went to my brother’s school. He wrote about “walking up the railroad with my cherry, cherry wine” which was the old railway cutting through East Belfast that I worked on at 18 to help make into a conservation reserve/ nature walk. It backs onto Cyprus Avenue (another of his songs), where Iain Paisley lived (and his widow still lives). We went there while giving out leaflets to the residents, and found ourselves between three armed police officers!

    There is inevitably a lot of mysticism here in my country because we grew up in an extremely religious but divided small nation. The tussle between the liturgy and rituals of Rome and the doctrines and staunchness of the Reformation leads us down a path to either choose one or the other and defend it to the hilt (No Surrender!), OR to cast it all aside and be done with it. 90% of it is purely political, so it’s a mini-version of the USA in that respect. Our main Unionist party (in which I have friends) base their politics on their doctrines, and became kingmakers in the UK.

    Casting such religion aside leads then to another duality of choice: atheism or a new, personal experience of God. My problem with evangelicalism here is that it is meant to provide that experience, of meeting God personally and exclusively, regardless of any other doctrines, and while it always ‘preaches’ that, if you step out of line with any particular precious doctrine, you’re out! Thus it has allied itself to one side, again.

    In the meantime, I experienced and absorbed all I could from all aspects of culture around me, and found Jesus, quite by ‘accident’ (lol – I was never meant to find God in my atheist upbringing). My experience ten years ago in the ICU when I heard God speak to me (just five words) just as I was about to let my life go… and go… was profound. Maybe that marks me down as a mystic. I’ll not push away the label.

    Thanks for this. 🙂


    • May 1, 2019 at 5:42 am

      Wow thanks for sharing your sacred story with me. My book may resonate with you, it’s called “Apparent Faith” and it comes out in June. I wish you well!!


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