Pit Stop

Bright Week — the week after Easter — offers a beautiful time of rest, a chance to breathe after the heavy lifting of Holy Week. It’s a week to sit beside an open window and gaze in wonder. It’s not a week for deep thought or contemplation.

And so, it makes a natural point for us to rest and catch our bearings in this long journey of reflecting on knowing God that began last Fall, reminding ourselves of where we’ve been and looking ahead to where we’re going as we enter into this last stretch.

The series began with call and a warning: a call to know God in the depths, and a warning about the inability of our language to accurately describe that knowledge. The inexhaustible and infinite, unknowable Mystery that is God wants to be — longs to be — known. This is the challenge and opportunity of the life of faith that has inspired humanity and all of its religious quests and sacred practices for thousands of years.

Since the new year, we’ve been seeing how this challenge has played out in a series of case studies, first from among the oldest stories in our tradition — Abraham, Moses, Job — and then, most recently, among different Christian mystics from over the centuries: Saints Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, Gregory of Nyssa, Teresa of Avila, and Julian or Norwich.

In all of these examples we see the tension between the finite and the infinite, the accessible and the inaccessible, at work.

At the same time, they demonstrate an incredible amount of diversity in experience and approach. Abraham met God in the face of (seemingly) human strangers; Moses and Job experienced God in the forces of nature; Hildegard and Julian experienced God in deeply sensory visions; John of the Cross and Gregory of Nyssa in the stripping of sensory experience. Hildegard started having visions as a girl; Teresa didn’t start having her mystical experiences until middle age. Both of these women experienced these ‘peak religious experiences’ often, whereas Julian, as far as we know, had only the one experience, and then dedicated the rest of her life to unpacking it.

These differences haven’t always played nicely together. John of the Cross, for example, was famously uncomfortable with the ecstasies that his good friend and mentor Teresa of Avila experienced. And, the three-movement structure commonly found in mystical circles — affirmation, negation, and re-affirmation — assumes there is a linear progression, in which one way of knowing God is ‘better’ than the one preceding it. And yet, this doesn’t quite seem to fit the reality of ‘life of the street’ of human spirituality. While St. John of the Cross rejected St. Teresa’s ecstasies as being unsuitable for mature believers, he nonetheless knew she was no novice. And while Job experienced an extreme Dark Night, God’s answer to it was a whirlwind tour (both literally and figuratively) of the whole of creation. Where the data doesn’t fit our preconceived ideas and beliefs, it’s always tempting to try to change the data; but really, in the interest of honesty, it’s our beliefs that need to change. When what we see doesn’t fit our maps, we need a new map.

And so, I have to ask: What if there was a way of affirming the difference in approaches without saying one is better than the other?

The rest of this series will suggest one such way and explore how an integral framework can help us create a more accurate map of the territory of knowing God.

The next post in the series will introduce the framework, and then subsequent posts will look at each of the components of the model, with reference to both important figures in Christian history and, most especially, how they play out in the life of Jesus himself.

But for now, let’s all just sit and rest and enjoy the view.

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