“Even if I don’t see it again”: Marie Howe on mysticism

Today’s Gospel reading in the Catholic Church–about Jesus’ transfiguration–reminded me that for some time I’ve been wanting to share the following poem by Marie Howe.

Like the Gospel reading, which describes the apostles’ brief glimpse into the transcendent, Marie’s poem, “Annunciation,” describes the joy and solace of moments of seeming communion with God. In different ways, both pieces speak of a dazzling brightness which accompanies the realization that the things of this world and the things beyond it are much more intertwined than they usually appear. The two accounts also hint at the disappointment which comes after these fleeting, mystical encounters. They acknowledge that the peace and clarity we feel will come to an end. We have to come down the mountain, just as Peter, James, and John did in today’s passage.

Marie writes the poem in the voice of Mary, mother of Jesus. She reads it beautifully, so I encourage you to listen to her recitation of it below, via Soundcloud. You can also read the piece and listen to it on the On Being website, where you can also find On Being’s hour-long interview with her.

Marie’s poem nearly perfectly articulates what I’ve felt in my own experience. I nearly cried when I first heard it. It provided me with a reminder I needed: that though the emotion that emerges in prayer sometimes fades away, the experience was still real, and is worth hanging on to. I hope you enjoy the poem and find it as moving as I did.

In closing, I’d also like to share a quote from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which also channels the message of Marie’s poem and the transfiguration story.

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light …. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”

More in Heaven: Wisdom from Julian of Norwich

God wants us to know that this beloved soul was preciously knitted to him in its making, by a knot so subtle and so tight that it is united in God.

This bit of wisdom comes from Julian of Norwich, a Catholic mystic whose birthday is celebrated today, on November 8. I’d like to share a bit about her life, experiences, and writings in order to expose others to this woman, who has become one of my favorite saints and spiritual guides.

A statue of Julian, holding her famous text, "Revelations of Divine Love"
A statue of Julian, holding her famous text, “Revelations of Divine Love”

Julian actually is not a saint, at least not for Roman Catholics. That’s because so little is known about her life, aside from her writings. We don’t even know her name; she is called ‘Julian’ because she lived in a small structure attached to the St. Julian church in Norwich, England, during the latter part of her life. Born around 1342, she lived through political upheaval on behalf of the poor (and the subsequent repression at the hands of conservative, and often Church-related, forces) and plague that wiped out large portions of the population. She likely lived an ordinary life—as a married woman, beguine (itinerant religious sister), or cloistered nun—before she moved to the secluded life of an anchoress, which involved a life dedicated to prayer and the sacraments. Scholars today suggest that she may have moved there in order to write about her mystical experiences without risking backlash from church authorities.

At the age of thirty, Julian became deathly ill, and upon her deathbed received sixteen revelations or “showings,” as she called them, of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. She recovered fully and lived for many more years, during which time she wrote two texts describing and expounding upon the meanings of her revelations. She wrote the “short text” shortly after the revelations, and the “long text” at least thirty years later. The difference in length indicates that in the intervening years Julian had uncovered considerable additional meaning from the visions. Her writing indicates that she was a very learned woman, and had a strong understanding of Catholic theology and how her own visions reflected (or conflicted with) orthodox belief. Julian became known as a spiritual authority in England, and we do know that people visited her seeking advice.

Julian’s combined texts, Revelations of Divine Love, is the first known book written by a woman in the English language (Middle English). But it only became well known within the last century, when it was translated to modern English. Some have called Julian a “woman of our day” because of the incredible way her writing and understanding of God can speak to the modern reader today.

Catholics celebrate her “feast day” on May 13, when her showings ended and she returned to health.

Instead of trying to summarize the massive amount of Julian’s spiritual wisdom, I’d like to share a few themes and reflections, with the hopes that readers will feel compelled to pick up Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, which is not a difficult read.

Closeness to God

As illustrated in the quote above, Julian understood God as incredibly close to her, as inseparable. All mystics, no matter their religious tradition, somehow achieve union with God in this life.

“He is our clothing who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us.”

“My dear darling,” Julian hears Jesus say, “I have always been with you, and now you see me loving…”

She understood God’s incarnation in Jesus to be a validation of humanity, an indication of his desire to be in union with us. It was not a rejection of human weakness or sin, but a desire to be a part of it—to suffer with us—and raise us out of it. Many of her showings were of Jesus’ brutalized body on the cross.

Often mystics feel the need to reject completely the mortal, physical world. But, in good Christian fashion, Julian claims that our mortal bodies are not a stumbling block for our communion with God, but actually the means through which God reaches us—through the divine-human being, Jesus!

God as Mother

Julian also speaks of Jesus as “Mother.” This might seem shocking, given that we as Christians tend to talk about two-thirds of the Godhead (the Father and the Son) in masculine terms. Julian is not alone in using feminine language to describe God, but regardless it is striking for any reader. She understands God’s mercy and active participation in our lives—particularly creating, “birthing,” and taking on human form—as a motherly quality.

It’s also important to note, as I have in other writing, that the word for mercy in Hebrew comes from the word, “womb.” It is unclear if Julian would have been aware of this linguistic connection, but it is interesting to note that in all three monotheistic religions, mercy is perceived as something inherently motherly and physical. As an imam I know once said, mercy is about “feeling for another person deep in your gut, in your bowels.”

God’s will

Religious people often talk about “God’s will.” It’s a tough thing to understand, and something I’ve thought about a lot. How do I know I’m following God’s will for me? What is ‘God’s will’?

Julian answers the question quite simply. The will is not a laid-out set of events that a person must follow in order to please God. Rather:

“It is his will and plan that we hang on to [the Blessed friend, Jesus], and hold tight always, in whatever circumstances; for whether we are filthy or clean is all the same to his love. He wants us never to run away from him, whether things are going well or ill.”

Following God’s will simply means clinging to Jesus, trusting him and following him wherever he takes us. Some wisdom from a Carmelite nun and friend of mine, Jean Alice, helps, I think, to expound upon what Julian means:

“I think the concept of God’s will becomes a stumbling block in people’s lives. They get the image of a person, who has a will, and ‘this is what I want you to do, and if you don’t do it you’re going to suffer and suffer and suffer.’ Whereas if you see God’s will as simply Love that follows us…we maybe make a bad choice here but that Love comes right at us with other choices.”

Following God’s will simply means following Love, following Jesus There is not one “plan” but an infinite number of opportunities to choose love, no matter what decisions we’ve made in the past. Conforming to the plan of God means choosing love in every circumstance.

For me, this conception of God’s will in very comforting, and it allows me to be more at ease with the uncertainty of the future. There’s not the worry of messing up or missing out on God’s plan, because I can conform to it everyday, in big and small ways, by discerning where Love is and how to respond to it. 

Sin as “blindness”

Julian’s insistence on God’s all-encompassing mercy is especially evident in her conception of sin. I wrote a paper about this for my college course on “Medieval Women Mystics,” and I’ll attempt to summarize the ideas here.

In one of Julian's visions she saw a hazelnut and heard God telling her how much he cares for her. Images of Julian often depict her holding a hazelnut.
In one of Julian’s visions she saw a hazelnut and heard God telling her how much he cares for her. Images of Julian often depict her holding a hazelnut.

Julian illustrates a beautiful parable for her readers, in which she re-writes the Fall. Instead of the human person (Adam) deliberately trying to disobey God out of pride, Julian paints an image of a lord and his servant, who runs off joyfully to do the work of his master. He tries his best, but falls into a ditch and thrashes around in the mud, upset by his own failure and so distracted by it that he fails to see that his lord is right beside him, wanting to help him up. The servant’s failure does not induce in the lord a desire to punish him; he can clearly see how much the servant wants to do good. Rather, recognizing that it was simply distractions and missteps that led the servant to turn away, the lord is moved with compassion and brings the servant even closer to himself.

For Julian, sin is about blindness, not seeing God when he is right there:

“Man… falls into sin through naiveté and ignorance. He is weak and foolish in himself, and also his will is overpowered in the time when he is assailed and in sorrow and woe. And the cause is blindness, because he does not see God; for if he saw God continually, he would have no harmful feelings nor any kind of prompting, nor sorrowing which is conducive to sin.”  (emphasis mine)

Thus, for Julian, moving away from sin to union with God is about a shift in perception and awareness, not a shift in being.  We are always with God—or he is always with us; the problem, Julian says, is that we fail to recognize that.

“My sin,” Julian says, “will not impede the operation of his goodness.” Her insistence on God’s all-encompassing mercy was radical for her time, when many of the religious voices around her claimed that the plague was a punishment for people’s sin.

“My dear darling,” Julian hears Jesus say, “I have always been with you, and now you see me loving…”

Encouragement for the journey

Though Julian lived in a time wrought with violence, death, and sickness, she was extremely hopeful, constantly writing about experiencing joy and bliss despite suffering. She is probably best known for her line, “[God revealed to me that] all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” This is the core of Christian truth: that in the end, Love wins. Julian’s reminder can be helpful to all of us, no matter our life circumstances.

Julian also praises the constant search for God, and encourages us to keep praying, keep seeking. Our desire to pray and know God comes from God himself!: “Our Lord God is the foundation of our beseeching.”

Julian’s revelations remind us that union with God will not only occur at the end of time, when we are perfectly unified and meet him “face to face.” They also tell us that we can get a taste of that eventual full communion, right here, and right now.

“God wants us to understand and to believe that we are more truly in heaven than on earth.”

Conversations with a Carmelite

When I chose the name Teresa of Avila for my Confirmation name during my freshman year of high school, I didn’t know what an important, meaningful decision I’d made.

I picked her because she founded the Discalced Carmelites, a group of sisters I had grown close to in Indianapolis and admired for their contemplation, simplicity, and intellect.  Living in Spain during the 16th century, Teresa was a prolific spiritual writer and was eventually named a “Doctor of the Church” for her contributions to Catholic thought. She was a mystic, something that at the time sounded pretty darn cool, even though I didn’t really understand what it meant.  And—most importantly!—Teresa’s life is celebrated on October 15th, the day before my birthday. 

Since picking the name Teresa, I have—without knowing it—grown closer to her.  As I started to read bits of her work, I noticed that we share more than a love for writing and a common day (give or take) for celebrating our lives. I see my own experiences mirrored in hers, and I’m also struck by the way she challenges me to go deeper in living my relationship with God.  I’m currently taking a class on medieval women mystics because I wanted to be forced to read Teresa.

I’d like to share a few excerpts from her work that are particularly powerful for me, in the hopes that they will be edifying for others.

Finding God Within 

Mystics across all religious traditions share an understanding that God can be found inside the heart.  It’s a radical and powerful assertion that often challenges our usual notions of a distant God.

It is an ennobling thing to think that God is more in the soul of man than He is in aught else outside of Himself.  They are happy people who have once got a hold of this glorious truth.  In particular, the Blessed Augustine testifies that neither in the house, nor in the church, nor anywhere else, did he find God, till once he had found Him in himself.  Nor had he need to go up to heaven, but only down into himself to find God… 

You need not go to heaven to see God, or to regale yourself with God.  Nor need you speak loud as if He were far away.  Nor need you cry for wings like a dove so as to fly to Him.  Settle yourself in solitude, and you will come upon God in yourself.  And then entreat Him as your Father, and relate to Him your troubles.  Those who can in this manner shut themselves up in the little heaven of their own hearts, where He dwells who made heaven and earth, let them be sure that they walk in the most excellent way… 

He sits on the innermost seat of your heart, and holds it to be His best and bravest throne. 

Prayer as Love and Relationship

Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstacy

Teresa is known best for her writings on cultivating an interior prayer life.  She experienced an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus, and often reported visions and moments of ecstasy and union with God.  This is why Teresa is also known as St. Teresa of Jesus.

Prayer is an act of love.

For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us… The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. 

She had candid, often humorous conversations with Jesus.  When she asked Jesus why her friends and others showed her hostility, Jesus said to her, “Teresa, that’s how I treat my friends” and she responded, “No wonder you have so few friends.”

But it took her a long time to develop this close relationship.  She writes that she tried unsuccessfully for eighteen years to converse with Jesus.

The Importance of Action

Teresa understood that prayer meant nothing if it wasn’t tied to action. Christ’s love, she recognized, can only be expressed through our human activities.

Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world. 

Like all of us, Teresa was a busy, overworked woman.  She founded a new order and was busy instructing sisters, writing, and fending off the Inquisition.  But she, like St. Ignatius, practiced ‘contemplation in action.’

If you [God] want me to remain so busy, please force me to think about and love you even in the midst of such hectic activity. If you do not want me so busy, please release me from it… I know that you are constantly beside me, yet I am usually so busy that I ignore you.

Intent on doing God’s will, she offered up her entire being for God’s service.

I am Yours and born of You,
What do You want of me?

In Your hand
I place my heart,
Body, life and soul,
Deep feelings and affections mine,
Spouse — Redeemer sweet,
Myself offered now to you,
What do You want of me?
 

Give me then wisdom.
Or for love, ignorance,
Years of abundance,
Or hunger and famine.
Darkness or sunlight,
Move me here or there:
What do You want of me?

Be I Joseph chained
Or as Egypt’s governor,
David pained
Or exalted high,
Jonas drowned,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?

Islamic influence

Living in a country steeped with Islamic thought, Teresa was influenced (consciously or not) by Islamic mysticism, Sufism, and contemporary theologians have argued that this influence is reflected in her writing.

My own spiritual life has also been shaped by Sufism, particularly by the poetry of Rumi, and thus this point of connection between Teresa and I was initially surprising and comforting.

≈≈≈

My choice of the name Teresa illustrates the way in which God works through even the most mundane or careless of our actions. Though I had no idea of the name’s significance at the time, God did.  God wanted me to draw closer to Teresa, so I could draw closer to Jesus and find him in myself and in those around me.

It seems appropriate to end with this prayer from Teresa, a prayer I wouldn’t be surprised to find in a book of Rumi’s poetry.

Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.

St. Teresa of Jesus, pray for us.

Two of my friends who also share the confirmation name Teresa!

For Teresa’s feast day, I made oatmeal CARMELitas for my friends at Mass!

Attentiveness in Advent

Every year during Advent, the four-week season leading up to Christmas, Catholics hear passages from Scripture that remind us to be watchful and ready for the coming of Christ.   These passages explain that we are not only awaiting the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also for his second coming at the end of time.

Advent wreath in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel

Gabriel tells Mary about the birth of her son.
Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. (Luke 1)

John tells his critics that he is not the Messiah.
There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me. (John 1)

And Jesus tells his disciples to prepare for his second coming at the end of time.
Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. (Mark 13)

To be honest, every year during Advent I feel a bit bashed over the head with these constant reminders about Jesus’ coming.  ‘Ok, ok, I get it!’ I think after the third week. The message never seems all that surprising or relevant. We surely never forget to celebrate Jesus’ birth—even amid the red and green Christmas regalia—and the event of the second coming seems far away (and, in my mind, not quite as concrete as the way it’s described in Scripture.)

Thankfully, this year these concerns of mine were addressed by two Georgetown Jesuits, whose homilies on the Advent Scripture passages helped clarify what this season is all about.

These two events we hear about—Jesus’ first coming at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time—are at the ends of a very long timeline of history, a Jesuit said, and we are in the middle, distant from them.  What we really should be preparing ourselves for are the third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ that happen in between.  The times when Jesus breaks into our lives in ordinary and unexpected ways.

As Christians, we believe in the Incarnation, the act of God taking on human form in the person of Jesus.  The Incarnation isn’t a singular event that happened two millennia ago, but rather a fundamental doctrine that tells us in quite simple terms about how we understand God: God wants to be with us, here and now, and reaches out to us through human experience. A belief in Jesus doesn’t ask us to remove ourselves from this world in order to be with God; it says that we can best achieve unity with God by engaging fully with our human reality.

The question is, do we notice Jesus’ third, fourth, fifth, and infinite comings, these expressions of the recurring Incarnation?

Unfortunately, the Jesuit said, we often don’t.  We’re too connected to our phones, music, and email.  And even when we put the technology away, our minds are running at 100 miles per hour, thinking ahead about the ways in which we can be as efficient as possible.  We don’t give ourselves time to reflect back on our days, to find the times in which Jesus has appeared to us.  During Advent then, we must be actively attentive to the Incarnation, to God’s countless attempts to push through the clutter of our lives.

Knowing that I’m guilty of this lack of attentiveness as much as the next person, I welcomed this challenge from the Jesuit.  It’s a challenge I have already been working on for much of my time at Georgetown: to slow down enough to notice Jesus in my life.

And, thankfully, I have begun to notice.

When a chaplain-in-residence passed me on campus several weeks back, he said, “Hey Jordan!” and gave me a quick fist bump. It was a simple, silly gesture, one that the chaplain probably forgot about two minutes later. But for me, it was a brief, yet powerful example of the way Jesus appears to me everyday.  With his short but enthusiastic hello, the chaplain reminded me of the great love God has for me, reflected through ordinary people and ordinary situations.

I recognized the significance of this small act because I wasn’t talking on my cell phone (as I often do when I walk) or mentally preoccupied with my next task.  By simply slowing down, I was also able to recognize that the jokes I shared with my friends, the music the choir sang at Mass, and the beautiful sunset that burst into view as I turned a corner in one of the most ugly parts of campus are all little third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ.

Most if not all of the time, “finding Jesus” isn’t about having a mystical experience or undergoing a massive life change.  It’s about simply realizing that a hug from a mentor or a laugh with a friend is the mystery of Incarnation at work. 

It’s not always easy to realize, in the moment, that many of these everyday experiences are of God and from God.  It takes a moment of stepping back and reflecting.  In a homily later during Advent, another Georgetown Jesuit encouraged the congregation to reflect back on the ways Jesus has shown himself to us.  We closed our eyes.

Jesus “brings good tidings to the poor,” he said, quoting the day’s reading from Isaiah.  When you were down or depressed, how did others bring you up?  Recognize these moments, he said, and name Jesus as gift.

He continued: Jesus “heals the broken-hearted.” When you were broken-hearted or hurt, who helped you heal?  Jesus “proclaims liberty to the captives” and “releases the prisoners.”  When you were prisoner to your own habits or feelings of inadequacy, how did others free you from those things?  Be thankful for these moments, and name Jesus as gift.

When read in full, the Isaiah passage makes clear that the “good tidings” we hear from Jesus don’t come to us in abstract terms, but through the smiles and fist bumps of those around us. He says, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me … he has sent me to bring good tidings…” We, humans, are the way in which God reaches out to the world.

This reflective exercise allowed me to think back on the at once simple and profound ways that I experienced love from friends, family, and mentors during past semester. When one part of my life felt empty, they (often times unknowingly) would rush in fill it up that hole to the point of overflowing.  Their outpouring of support and love was Jesus—God Incarnate.  It was a gift, and I must constantly reflect back in gratefulness in order not to miss it.

As we move into the Christmas season and begin the new year, we need not look for God outside of the normalcy of our everyday lives.  Instead we just to be more attentive to what’s already around us.  We must remember what we celebrate on Christmas: Emmanuel—“God is with us.”

This quote was cited by the first Jesuit during his Advent homily.

A bit disappointed; Jon’s brilliance; and our Sufi allies

A bit disappointed with Brian, Harry, and Barack

A segment on tonight’s NBC Nightly News urked me a little bit.  The segment was about Obama’s statements regarding the construction of the Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan, and how Muslims have the same religious rights as anyone else.  When introducing the story, Brian Williams describes the situation as a “fight” into which Obama waded.  Why use this word?  True, combativeness does hike up ratings, butit does not help us to better understand the nuances and details of the situation.  It further perpetuates the simplified “us vs. them” mentality that infects important and complicated political, societal, and cultural debates happening within our country.

As the piece continues, the “mosque” in question is not referred to correctly.  It is not simply a mosque–and even if it was a mosque, big deal!  The Cordoba House (it is hardly referred to by its proper name) is a cultural and community center, dedicated to bringing people of all faiths together, as well as providing swimming pool, workout facilities, and a place of worship.  Basically, it is a beefed up YMCA or JCC open to anyone.

Major news outlets must begin referring to this place as the Cordoba House.  Generalizing the Corboda House as a “mosque” or “Islamic center” only mystifies it and allows people to place their own views or ideas onto it.

I am also sad to see that Harry Reid is against the Cordoba House.  Many Democrats look up to him for guidance about their political and social views, and his denouncement of the Cordoba House encourages more Americans to do the same.

I was initially thrilled with Obama’s remarks at the White House Iftaar this past weekend.  (An iftaar is the meal with which Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.)  But since he expressed his support for the Cordoba House and received backlash from some politicians and pundits about it, he has moved backward on that statement of support.  Obama has tried before to distance himself from the Muslim community when conservatives claimed he was Muslim during the 2008 election.  That was an opportunity to have an important national discussion about Muslims in America, and he failed to take it.  Again, Obama is missing an opportunity to play a key part in a dialogue that must happen in our country.  I am disappointed by his choice to back-off his support of the Cordoba House, and I hope he chooses to reverse that position soon.  If he truly wants to see Americans’ religious rights protected, he must step in.

Jon’s brilliance

The Daily Show recently did an awesome segment about the opposition to mosque construction in the U.S.  I’ll let the video speak for itself.

Our Sufi allies

This op-ed contribution discusses how as Americans we must work with those within Islam, particularly those in the Sufi tradition, to fight extremism.  One of these Sufis is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim whose initiative is building the Cordoba House. Sufism is a version of Islamic mysticism, not a separate religion.

16th-Century Miniature Painting Depicting Dancing Dervishes, Image by © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

This line of poetry, written by the famous Sufi saint, Rumi, is crucial for us to remember and implement during this time.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

In today’s America, those barriers are fear and misunderstanding.  Only when we recognize them can we begin understanding, befriending, and loving our neighbors.