Confessions of an Accidental Mystic

It is more than a little absurd that my blogging is focused on mystical ways of encountering God.

First off, by day I am a tax attorney, a most wretched analytical bean counter. To top it off, my specialty is life insurance and estate planning, because who doesn’t want a big dose of death with their taxes?  St. Matthew’s commiseration is manifested by my husband of that same name, who has made me mother of two imaginative and sprightly children.

While I can twist my brain into pretzels all day over IRS regulations, I am woefully inadequate in discussing systematic theology or any kind of philosophy. I partially blame that on being a convert who was taught formal theology and philosophy at a Calvinist college, which required mental twisting so severe some of the tendons broke. I never sat in a Catholic university classroom; I never managed to read anything more rigorous than the Catechism of the Catholic Church all the way through.

Speaking of the faith tradition I was raised in, I was taught to deeply distrust all claims to things mystical or supernatural in the present age. I was supposed to believe all the miraculous things written in the Bible (though some allowance was given that certain parts might be poetically instead of literally interpreted), and I was supposed to believe in Providence, but it was as if the Holy Spirit’s spigot of inspiration and miracle had been turned off circa A.D. 90. Sola scriptura, you know. If it isn’t in the Good Book, it didn’t happen. (I did engage in some curious dalliance with Pentecostals, much to my parents’ chagrin, but found no chemistry there.)

Just when I thought my faith brain was about to explode from cognitive dissonance, Providence put me in contact with some Catholic characters who introduced me to the Catechism, Scott Hahn and some other “easy apologetics,” and daily Mass. It suddenly all made sense and the mental Gordian knot untwisted itself into an orderly mental grid. I was received into the Catholic Church on Easter Vigil 1998.

When I received the sacred chrism and Holy Communion for the first time, the first glimmers of mystical sense imbued my soul, putting me on cloud nine all that night. But I had no frame of reference for understanding or cultivating it. The Catholics I knew urged me to read things like the Summa theologiae or the Theology of the Body, which I tried but found aggravating for various reasons and couldn’t finish. My faith feet were bolted firmly to the ground.

Over the next 15 years, a lot of heavy burdens in my personal life were dumped on that neat mental grid that I’d been given. It sagged perilously low and no amount of filling in the spaces with books off the Catholic bookstore shelf could bear it up again. But here and there, some unseen, unexplained force began to pull my weary heart heavenward.

What began as some ephemeral mystical snowflakes slowly intensified, gathered, and snowballed. Eventually I stopped being puzzled and afraid of it, and started cultivating it in my prayer life in daily Mass and meditating on (not “saying”) scriptural rosary. I started reading more of mystic saints and embracing the supernatural in the sacraments. Like Elsa, I began to let this mysterious power fly from me and watched in awe as it constructed itself into magnificent palaces of beatific thought. And then it began to enter the observable world, a stream of concurrences between liturgy and prayer and the inspirations and fulfilled needs of loved ones and even mere acquaintances who cross my path, so striking and frequent none but the most determined skeptic could call it coincidence. It has become essential to my identity, this strange and wonderful gift that I no longer can hide.

Which brings me back to the theological and philosophical constructs that I always found so difficult. When St. Thomas Aquinas himself beheld the mystical beatific palace, he declared all his previous constructions “straw” and refused to touch them again. And yet I find so many in the Catholic Church today pore over Aquinas’s abandoned blueprints as if they were the grandest of cathedrals. They rarely acknowledge the crystalline city of the Communion of Saints and the workings of the Holy Spirit and the Mystery—yes, Mystery!—of Faith. They even scoff at it, or bury it under a mountain of legalistic discourse, much like my neo-Puritan parents.

How do we know God? As Catholics we say we worship a tri-Personal God, and we encounter Him through His Mystical Body and Bride, the Church. The foundation of our faith is the Real Presence, not a Book, or a library of books. Books can be helpful to sort out some more puzzling aspects of another person, as they help me understand my daughter better by explaining how her ADHD leads to different ways of understanding and acting from mine. But these are only aids to real encounter and knowing her as a person. Scripture and theological texts similarly help us understand something of the ineffable I AM, but the most important knowledge is found in personal encounter. To make possible this personal encounter, Christ gives us His very Body and Blood in the Eucharist, and the Holy Spirit in prayer.

The reflections I write mostly come from contemplative prayer. The work of theologians may be a touching-off point, and I have extensive familiarity with Scripture from 16 years of Christian education and now daily Mass, but I make no claim to having exegetical skill or systematic knowledge of theology or of Church history. I realize contemplative prayer is an uncomfortable and even suspect source for many, but it is essential to reviving the mystical truth of our faith that we learn to heed these ways of knowing God for ourselves. When I try to hold up my reflections against “official” sources that post-date the early centuries of Christianity, I often find they are not contradictory pictures, but rather are taken from dramatically different angles and with dramatically different focal points. Marvelous things hidden in plain sight can reveal themselves when I accept being spun around and suffering some momentary disorientation. I hope that you will likewise benefit from the fresh vista.