Prayer is something that people of all religious traditions understand as a necessary component of holy living. And yet somehow, the mystical path is often seen as accessible only to those in religious life, especially members of cloistered or monastic communities.
Drawing upon Sts. Francis of Assisi, Clare, Anthony, and Bonaventure; Brothers Giles and Juniper; and Blessed John Duns Scotus, Richard Rohr explores the Franciscan genius that spawned a strain of mysticism characterized by an overarching wonder at the mystery of the Incarnation, which is grounded in nature, animals, the poor, the outsider, contemplation, joyfulness, and a cosmic sense of Christ. He points to Saint Francis’ detachment of self; imperfection, not perfection, as the entry way to God; the focus on prayer as experiential; and mind, body, and soul as intimately connected and holy.
Rohr talked to St. Anthony Messenger following a conference on mysticism at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the center he founded in 1987. We asked him for a bit of a primer about mysticism for today.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. What is mysticism?
A: To make it simple, it really means “experiential.” And when you have real experience, it’s high-level. When most people hear the word mystical, they think it means impossible for most of us, or distant, or only capable to those who are ascetical for 25 years or something like that. Actually, in my judgment, it simply means experiential knowledge of God, instead of merely mental or cognitive knowledge of God.
Q: Is mysticism more for the heart or the mind?
A: It is not something accessed by the left brain, but by the whole brain — right and left—and the heart, body, and soul. It is an intuitive grasp of the whole. . . . God is the heart of everything. When you say you love God, you, in fact, are saying you love everything. And that’s why immature religion is an inauthentic God experience. It becomes an excuse for not loving a whole bunch of things.
That’s why mystics can love their enemies, can love the foreigner, can love the outsider. They don’t make these distinctions that low-level religion does. Low-level religion is more tribal, a social construct to sort of hold my group together. [Some believe], “I’m Catholic because I’m Irish” or “I’m Catholic because I’m Italian.” This is just group belonging. This is not a mystical experience.
Q: Does organized religion help us on the mystical path?
A: Organized religion is an example of incarnation. . . . You have to start with the particular to go to the universal. You have to start with the concrete. And, in fact, you need a holding tank, a container to hold you in one spot long enough to learn what the real questions are, and to struggle with the real questions. And that’s what organized religion does for you. Some form of it is almost necessary for the first half of life to carry on the tradition, to give you at least the right words to tell you that mystical experience is possible.
The trouble is it usually tells you that it’s possible, but just don’t expect it. It’s only for special people. It ends up making real conversion something very special, elitist, and distant, if you will.
So, in my vocabulary—and that’s all it is—organized religion is very good, and almost entirely necessary for what I call the first half of life.
It becomes problematic—and not wrong, I’m just saying problematic— when you move into the second half of life because it tends, in most instances, not to answer questions you are asking by the second half of life, unless you go deeper. Many people have found ways to do this, like join the Franciscans. But not everybody is called to be a priest, a nun, or a Third Order Franciscan.[You need] to find some way to learn or study or to pray sort of on the side of your Sunday worship community. Those people [who do] tend to go deeper. A Sunday service and believing a certain set of doctrines—which is what organized religion means for most people—is not enough.
All that can do is hold you inside the boxing ring, but it doesn’t teach you how to box with the mystery, if I can use that metaphor. It doesn’t teach you how to really encounter the mystery. It tends, and I don’t mean to be unkind, to make you codependent upon its own ministry, instead of leading you to know for yourself. It’s like, “Keep coming back, and you’ll eventually get it.” But you don’t, because the whole thing becomes keep attending these services and something magical is going to happen.
Q: From what you have said and written, you seem to suggest that mysticism is not something in reach of only the monk or cloistered nun. But rather I could actually be a mystic. Is that true?
A: You’re absolutely right. Karl Rahner [the late Jesuit theologian] speaks of “the mysticism of daily life.” It’s a good phrase. We’ve got to stop making mysticism something that happens only to celibates, ascetics, monastics.
That’s precisely what Francis came to undo and bring it back to the streets.
Q: How do I even think about tapping into a sense of the mystical if I am completely absorbed in family responsibilities and the chores of everyday life?
A: You do need to be given a new operating system. I don’t care what you are doing. If you approach daily work, that daily job, your family, with what I call the dualistic mind, the judgmental, comparative, competitive mind, which most of us are entirely trained in, so much so that we think it is the only mind.
When Jesus talks about this, he’s talking of the judgmental mind. That’s why he says, “Do not judge.” The judgmental mind simply knows everything by comparing it to something else. It’s an endless job of comparing and competing. That hardwiring can’t get you to the mystical experience. That’s the simplest way to say it.
Now, the original word for the different mind, and that’s what it is, was prayer. But, unfortunately, that word has been so misused and trivialized to mean merely petitionary prayer or reciting prayers, and I’m afraid we Catholics are known for that: learning formulas and reciting formulas. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but that is not in the desert fathers and mothers in the first three, four hundred years of Christianity. That’s not the meaning of prayer.
Prayer is looking out from a different set of eyes, which are not comparing, competing, judging, labeling, and analyzing, but receiving the moment in its wholeness. That’s what I mean by contemplation.
And the reason that so many of us, mostly Catholics originally, changed the vocabulary to the older word— contemplation—which was much more common in the first thousand years of the Church, is because the word prayer had been so cheapened by misuse, co-opted.
Prayer means [for many] reciting Our Fathers and Hail Marys, and I’m not trying to put down the Our Father and Hail Mary. But I know priests and religious who have said Our Fathers and Hail Marys all their lives and don’t know how to pray. I don’t know how else to say it.
Q: What then is the goal of prayer?
A: Prayer is, well, you know, any good Christian would agree, is to give you access to God and to allow you to listen to God, to hear God.
So the only way you can do that is to have an open field. If you lead off with the left brain, if you lead off with the judging, calculating, dualistic mind, you can’t access the holy because the only thing that gets in is what you already think, what you already agree with. And God is, by definition, unfamiliar, always mysterious, beyond, more. So if you aren’t ready for more, how can you possibly be ready for God? Do you understand?
So contemplation is non-dual thinking, where you don’t split the field of the moment into what I already know and dismiss what I don’t already know as wrong, heresy, evil, or sinful.
Q: Is there a sense of bargaining with God, with the hope that then God will deliver?
A: Or if you’ve got a whole lot of people praying for the same thing, [then] this is going to bend the arm of God. Do you see underneath what is happening there? It’s another way for me to get what I want. I’m not loving God. I’m trying to get God to be on my side. And God is already on your side, so that is futile, a waste of time. You see it is another way to manipulate the mystery.
This is why the word prayer is so useless. Because most of us, Catholic and Protestant, have been allowed to live at that low level. You see, at those early egocentric levels of consciousness, it’s all about me. It’s all about getting what I want and getting even God to do what I want. Why don’t we see that? This isn’t anything wonderful!
There is something compassionate about asking God to heal your grandmother; of course that’s beautiful. But it is still you in the driver’s seat and trying to get God in your driver’s seat.
The Goal of Mysticism
Q: Do we run the risk with prayers of petition, which is how many of us pray, of setting ourselves up as better informed than God?
A: Jesus says that: “Why do you babble on like the pagans do? God already knows what you need.”
Q: How should we then think of petitionary or intercessory prayer in a way that it is not all about us and our needs?
A: Jesus does say to ask God for what we want. Why did Jesus say such a thing? You’re doing it for yourself. Not to announce things to God, to tell things to God, or to get God on your side. You need to do it yourself to hear your own thoughts, and to jump on board with what you hope and what may well be the will of God. We don’t know our own needs, feelings, thoughts until we speak them.
Q: Is happiness the goal of mysticism?
A: Let me come at it this way. Here is the story that many have used, not I. You don’t catch a butterfly by chasing it. You sit still and the butterfly alights on your shoulder. You don’t find happiness by directly seeking happiness because that leaves you too self-centered. It’s all about you still: “I’m going to be happy today.” And maybe you’ve had days like that, where it’s too self-conscious, it’s too self-intentional, so it’s all about self.
No, the goal of mysticism is divine union. The goal of prayer is divine union—union with what is, with the moment, with yourself, with the divine—which means with everything, as we said before. So you don’t want to make the goal of mysticism happiness. No, because that is still you as the reference point. “I, I want to be happy,” you see?
You seek union with God in everything and then the butterfly alights on your shoulder. Happiness comes along as a corollary, as a gift, as a little icing on the cake—a big icing on the cake, actually.
Q: And it may not be the happiness we’re seeking?
A: It may not be how we defined happiness. That’s right, because that is usually selfishly defined. We’ll all define it in a sensory way, like a satisfying meal or a beautiful hotel room or a wonderful sexual experience, which is understandable. But those of themselves do not make you happy.
If you don’t bring happiness into the hotel room, you’re not going to be happy. You’ll just be pleased for a few minutes, do you understand? But if you are already happy, you can be in a mediocre hotel room. Or even in a not-so-nice hotel room, and you’ll still say, “I’m happy and content today.”
Happiness is always a gift from seeking union or love. When I say union, love is the same thing.