What is sound?
Vibrations resonating through airwaves received in the eardrum?
Encoded harmonic messages communicating rhythmic information?
And how do individual notes come together in such a way as to make a chord?
How do chords become songs?
Why is it when we listen to a symphony something is stirred deep inside us?
How can vibrations in the air communicate beauty and transcendence?
Asking these questions is like asking what’s good about prayer or meditation or any other spiritual practice. But sadly, in our modern age of science, control groups, double blind experiments, and empiricism we’ve managed to reduce almost each aspect of the spiritual life to something quantifiable. In order to understand ineffable aspects of mankind we’ve stripped away all the wonder of a wondrous thing, like atomizing a song into “interrelated vibrations communicating encoded harmonic information through airwaves.”
Today, people are clinically observed, behaviors are analyzed, and mental states such as love, spirituality, and wonder are said the product of brain secretions, no different than a cow’s secretion of milk from her udders. We are biological machines, born from natural and random causes with no more “otherness” than what we manufacture in our brains. The world is changing so fast. On a daily basis, we have to deal with a globalized/globalizing economy, looming nuclear threats, and ever advancing technology. And the moment we think we’re clued into the latest advancement, everything changes. Where does that leave us?
In the midst of such advances in science and technology, we seem to have lost something, but we’re not quite sure what. Somehow, the human element of life has been stripped away from us, and with that, our sense of the Divine in our everyday lives. For we reflect, both individually and collectively, something of the Divine in our best, weakest, and most vulnerable and searching moments. These all-important moments make us human and connect us with God, and cannot be empirically reduced, measured, or categorized. This unquantifiable element of human experience which has been described as the “spiritual”— that ineffable and unquantifiable part of us that cannot be explained by natural causes. We are forced more and more to look outside the natural realm to understand and explain the aspects of our experience that can only be thought of as sacred. This is the point of intersection – where the sacred stumbles into the humdrum of everyday life – opening an inner door in the heart of the seeker to the mysteries of the invisible made visible God.
In fact, we come across spiritual and metaphysical mysteries every day. Yet we ignore them because they don’t fit into our empiricist-naturalist-scientific paradigms. We dismiss the spiritual because it doesn’t meet our qualifications of “existence,” or because it’s not politically correct to talk about such things. So the metaphysical goes unaccounted for, and we continue on with our day. But over time, the intersection of the everyday with the spiritual becomes more obtrusive and pervasive. The old pleasures no longer satisfy: our consumerism loses its zeal, that romance or love affair or drink or smoke doesn’t scratch the itch like it used to, and the nagging paradigm-breaking sense of something greater becomes unavoidable. Eventually, some of us are compelled to search, to look up at the stars and ponder, to allow our minds to wonder. These seekers eventually discover the One who has been calling all along. Those ancient words suddenly make sense: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13, NIV).
That One voice is joined by others, a cacophony of ancient and new, resonating to a tune that coalesces into a sweet tapestry of sound. These voices are calling out, beckoning us to come and sit at their feet. And by listening and learning, we join the chorus, resonating out our own stories, creating a harmony contemporary with the ancients. This is the story of the Christian mystics.
The poem above by Gerhard Tersteegen, a German reformed lay theologian and poet in the late 18th century, described Christian mysticism as a journey in search of union with God. Mysticism is a tradition of Christian spirituality that deals in the unknowns of life, the deep ravines of knowledge and wisdom that come from intimate experience with the Divine. The word “mysticism” is itself rather new, having been around only since the seventeenth century, and gaining popularity in the nineteenth; it comes from the Greek word mystikos, a word Christians have used since the second century, which means someone who possesses secret knowledge (Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, p. xiv). Carl McColman, lay associate of the Cistercian Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia and notable author on the subject of Christian mysticism, described mysticism as that which “pushes beyond the normal boundaries of human thought, human logic, and human rationality and knowing. It goes beyond the limits of philosophy, theology, psychology and science” (The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, p. 25).
The Christian mystics sought understanding which was not limited to the intellect, but which touches that deeper part of us that is hard to define with words. The Christian mystics experience God’s love so powerfully their lives changed. God’s love penetrated every part of their being. Their wisdom has been passed to us through the Contemplative tradition. A tradition that has been woven over centuries, a tapestry threaded with visions, divine experiences of love, and compassion for others. We today can benefit from this beautiful tapestry. By sitting at the spiritual masters feet through study their wisdom can help us embark on our own journey with God. And so, the purpose of this book is not to update the ancient Contemplative wisdom and practices of the Christian mystics. For me that would be a violation of the mystics writings, wisdom and experiences. Instead, the intent is to understand their wisdom in the hope of articulating it in such a way that a seeker from a modern context can understand and apply for the benefit of their spiritual life.