“The Christian of the future will be a mystic or nothing at all.”– Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J.
Many bemoan the drop in participation in all mainline churches over the past several decades, including Catholics. In fact our “fallen-away” number is the biggest of the bunch. Many parents worry whether their children will ever “come back” or “make it to heaven.” Perhaps there might be another way of looking at things?
Back in the early 60’s Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ said “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or nothing at all” – a mystic being someone who has had an experience of spiritual union or direct communion with God. In 1962 pollsters found that 22% of Americans claimed to have had a “mystical experience” of God. In 1976 that number had risen to 31% of our U.S. population. The most recent poll reported a whopping 48% who said that they had this kind of encounter with the divine.
Diana Butler Bass believes that these numbers indicate that “American faith has undergone a profound and extensive reorientation away from externalized religion towards internalized spiritual experience.” Is this good? Bad? I don’t know.
What if the trend we are observing is “the first stirrings of a new spiritual awakening, a vast interreligious movement toward individual, social and cultural transformation? Have we lived the majority of our lives in the context of this awakening, struggling towards new understandings of God, how we should act ethically and politically, and who we are deep in our souls? What if we are playing a significant role in forming the contours of a new kind of faith beyond conventional religious boundaries? Is America living in the wake of a revival gone awry or a spiritual awakening that is finally taking concrete – albeit unexpected – shape?” (Butler Bass)
I certainly don’t know the answer, but I do know that I am solidly in that 48% and that my first “mystical experience” changed the course of my entire life.
I left college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a negligible amount of talent. Though I graduated with high marks, my portfolio was average at best. I had no idea what to do next. Moving back in with family was not an option, and, career wise, I felt no great desire or pull in any direction. So, I prayed the famous prayer “Help!”
Through a series of small miracles, I landed a job at Chrysler Motors in their photography department and arrived at 7AM sharp on my first day of work, eager to join the ranks of corporate America. I was promptly shown the completely darkroom (we’re talking pre-digital age here. I’m an old-timey Gen Xer.) where I was to spend the next two years – 8 hours a day, 5 days a week – alone, in the dark doing very repetitious, mind-numbing work.
By 7:05AM that first day I was thinking “I’m going to go mad!”
Those that know me, know I’m a bit of a “people person”; a talker from a long-line of talkers. So I always like to point out the great lengths God had to go to get me to shut up for a minute! To stay the insanity, I bought a Walkman (remember those? If you do, apparently you’re a bit “old timey” too.) and borrowed a bunch of books on tape to listen to in the dark. One of those books was the New Testament and my life was never to be the same.
I was powerfully and profoundly wooed in that darkness by the great mystery that is God. So much so, I left the dark to go on to study Theology and as they say, the rest is history (and still a bit of the future I hope). I listened to so many teachers who profoundly formed me: Richard Rohr, Brennan Manning, John Powell, just to name a few. The words of St. Paul often brought me to tears – and of course it was like Jesus in the Gospel was talking just to me. More than all else, I pray my children have an experience of God’s love and acceptance such as this at some point in their lives. It changes everything.
Robert Michel, once said “You must try to pray so that, in your prayer, you open yourself in such a way that sometime – perhaps not today, but sometime – you are able to hear God say to you: `I love you!’ These words, addressed to you by God, are the most important words you will ever hear because, before you hear them, nothing is ever completely right with you, but, after you hear them, something will be right in your life at a very deep level.”
Mystics have the great joy of hearing that “I love you!” in the way the rain hits their face, or in their children’s laughter, in the green of spring, and a whole host of other innumerable ways.
You can stop reading there if you like…but if you will endulge me, I’d like to share one more of my “mystical experiences” that relate to the Christ the Redeemer community (among many!)
It happened on the day I was hired at CTR in 2014. I had been working since 1998 in campus ministry at St. John Fisher and it was truly the most amazing community in which to work, grow, and raise a family. I had started there when I was 28 and single – I celebrated my wedding day there with 700 members of the SJF community present, all my babies were baptized there. It was the truest of homes I’ve ever known.
One of the programs we offered for the college students was called “Coffee & Conversation” (we called it C&C for short) at which we would gather at the local coffee shop for faith sharing and friendship. At these gatherings I would often have to “get the ball rolling” but then the young people would warm up and begin to share with me and one another their struggles and joys of college life. Quite often these tales were quite scandalous and/or salacious, which would open the door to share deeply about God’s mercy, and we would talk into the wee hours about how everything (every…thing…) is potentially revelatory of God – even the experiences WE deem “inappropriate” or feel embarassed or guilty about (tis the definition of Sacramentality – a future “Strong Language” word to explore no doubt).
Anyway, around the time my third child was a toddler I started to notice something peculiar. I was over 40 years old now, and instead of the conversations starting when I arrived to C&C the students would actually stop talking when I walked in! I had officially become “the Mom.” Initially it broke my heart, because I loved this ministry for so many years, but, I knew that God was calling me to something new; as Ecclesiastes reads “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose…”
Not long after that, Nancy Clancy tapped me on the shoulder to consider the job at CTR and the day Fr. Joe Dailey hired me I was very relieved and excited, feeling God powerfully in the change. That evening I was slated to give a talk at the Capuchin Retreat Center and I was a bit behind on my prep because I had spent several days updating my resume, interviewing and the like. So I called my friend Rakhi who loves contemporary Christian music (which I generally do not) and told her I needed a good song on the quick for this talk I was giving in about an hour! She sent me the link to the song “Good to Me” by Audrey Assad.
As I was driving my then 5-year-old daughter home from school, I put on the song in the car and I began to cry happy tears of praise and thanksgiving. It so perfectly fit how I was feeling and how thankful I was that God had found a new place for me to serve and grow. At first, my daughter was alarmed by my tears (and probably by how loudly I was belting out the refrain on the third, or 20th replay), but then I explained to her that it was no accident that my friend sent me this particular song, how perfectly it fit the momentous day and that God often works this way (aka how “mystical” the coincidence was).
For a full year or more my little one would ask at least once a week (often more) “Mommy, let’s put on ‘Good to Me’ and dance together!” And we did. We danced quite a bit together that year with joy. On occasion, even as an 11-year-old, I still find her singing the song in her bedroom and I’ll go dance with her. That moment in the car was thick with the Holy Spirit and my little one felt it and she has not forgotten about it yet!
So, maybe instead of wringing our hands nervously we can trust that God might be up to something with this 48%. It is entirely possible that we have NO idea how much is possible!