Why The Mystics Matter :
Absence, Presence and Discovery In Our Muddled World
'Strive to preserve your heart in peace; let no event of this world disturb it', wrote Juan de Yepes y Alvarez, known more commonly as John Of The Cross (1542-1591). A tough ask might come the reply when one reflects with any degree of sensitivity on the events in today’s troubled world! The months of May and June 2017 were particularly dark periods of unimaginable loss and pain for many communities in the UK. The Manchester and the London terror attacks, followed by the ‘Grenfell Tower’ fire left citizens shaken, angry and fearful. Our screens - TV that now records the moment and the magnitude of the moment - floored us with images, both horrific and shocking. The individual accounts of people caught up in the terrible realities cast long, solemn and uncomfortable shadows. Youth, talent, wisdom, beauty…..stolen from us within a matter of minutes. Time seemed locked in despair. Families left bereaved, communities left isolated. Our buildings, our streets, our neighbourhoods, felt more vulnerable, more exposed than ever. Our powerlessness in the face of tragedy, more palpable.
Those same media networks that relayed images of brutality and loss were then, poised and ready, to record immediate reactions and responses to the unfolding events, but seemed only to meet with responses that were often muddled and searching. In the aftermath of the incidents some politicians, civic leaders and social commentators seemed distant from the reality of suffering and unable to convey people’s sense of fear, despair and loss. Any stock answer provoked more questions. There was a kind of void - an 'absence' - as we struggled to come to terms with the human pain inflicted by such human cruelty, and human neglect. An absence of leadership, an absence of direction, an absence of truth seemed more obvious than ever in an already troubled world.
Muddled and confused responses, as distinct to clear visions and proactive measures, were perhaps nothing new to many British people. Here was a nation still deliberating on the significant vote to leave the European Union in June 2016 (....along with the ubiquitous term 'Brexit', and the subsequent discussion as to what that might mean in practice) and the prospect of further regional fragmentation of the UK, with continuing fallout from the referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014.
Major challenges remain ahead of us as a nation, but by returning to John’s plea to ‘preserve peace in our hearts’, his words might offer an added ring of meaning when we consider their wider historical context. His 16th century world was a troubled and most turbulent place. The Reformation period had opened up people's deepest fears about the direction of their material and their spiritual life, it had threatened existing political and religious hierarchies and left thousands of innocent people massacred across Europe. John himself was imprisoned and physically maltreated for nearly a year as courageous reformers within the Church asked searching and critical questions about the basis of theological truth and any moral outlook on the future. New ideas and ethical codes, promoted by the rapid developments in printing at the time and by charismatic and outspoken figures, along with the ever looming threat of further brutal conflict, had shaken people from their comfort zones in spectacular ways. Religious visions and political posturing went hand in hand as ordinary people were left at the mercy of factional power bases. However, there was something quite distinct that marked the little Carmelite friar, John, out from the times in which he lived. He was a poet and a mystic, ready to turn beyond language, rhetoric and doctrine, to search for truthful and trustful relationships.
One of the key elements of the mystical tradition of which writers like John of The Cross, Teresa Of Avila (1515-1582) and Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) are part, is a readiness to confront the truth within themselves regardless of how hurtful and upsetting that process might be. They maintained, in the face of mayhem and misery, that both joy and suffering can lead us to shining points of discovery or broader understandings of who we are and our real purpose. Teresa of Avila implored her community of reforming sisters to remember in trying times that 'all things pass' and affirmed the principle that 'through sorrow God calls to us'. The thirteenth century Islamic scholar and poet, Rumi (1207-1273), echoes this sense that any present darkness in our lives will never shut out truth completely when he writes, 'the wound is the place where the Light enters you'. Layers of anxiety and uncertainty - fueled by our constant stream of 24 hour news - should similarly not push us towards a bleak and solely pessimistic view of human potential and progress. In simple terms we should never lose that appreciation of our secret adventure to discover, or seek out, what John called the 'flame' or the near presence of the Eternal.
Perhaps the key to understanding some of the mood of gloom and confusion that currently pervades the UK is to be honest enough to admit to a sense that decisions made at a socio-political level have too often stemmed from an absence of perseverance and of trust. For what preceded the Manchester and London attacks was a particularly trying and testing phase. An election in the UK in June 2015 left many disillusioned with the state of British politics, and raised questions about how an unfair electoral system and an adversarial style could ever spark any real lasting change. There were the serious challenges of a chronically underfunded health and social care system, and a wider distrust of the political elite caused in part by a series of 'Parliamentary Expenses' scandals that left the public bewildered. People became sceptical about other people's motives, there seemed little if any 'faith' in people's potential to unite and to transform lives. It is credit to the Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, that despite much doubt and apathy, he has mobilised many young people to consider what they can do themselves from a grass roots level to affect change.
On a wider scale too, war and the ‘legacy of war’ continue to have their impact. The world has undoubtedly begun to feel smaller and circumstances witnessed some years ago in countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria, now feel just that little bit nearer to our everyday lives. It is indeed tougher than ever 'to let no event in this world disturb the peace of the heart'. There is (….as we write) the continuing refugee crisis and the ongoing tensions on the Korean peninsula. And of course there was in November 2016 the surprise election of President Trump to the White House. Still cousins, still friends? Both within these shorelines and beyond, here was some further uncertainty....if it was ever needed, about the role that our neighbours should play in our island lives. People of all ages and all backgrounds seem to have grown tired and uneasy as they were confronted by the stream of ‘negative news’. And as they struggled to find positives amid the negatives, along came the incessant storm around the ‘fake news’ agenda!
In a world of ‘absences’ we can too easily fill the spaces with words and self-proclaimed truths for the sake of it. It doesn’t need any definite ‘agenda’ as such; we now do it all the time for ourselves. At the workings of our fingertips, we can, more rapidly than ever, select the precise information that allows us to pitch the best representation of ourselves online. Information, text and images that help us project our version of 'the self' into an arena of ‘competing selves’! Technology has brought such challenging and disturbing information now to our attention, and yet it fuels and releases the various perceptions we hold of ourselves. Energies are naturally sapped in this non-stop cycle. We live and breathe in our crowded computerised space. The danger becoming that there remains little or no ‘wide, sweet spaces’ kept open for higher beauty and for encounter ‘….where fervent longings watch and wait thy coming’ (Julian Of Norwich, 1342-1416).
Maybe there is a basic issue that lies within our political and cultural life working as an obstacle to deeper progress, confidence and understanding. That is the absence of a genuine openness, or what the Zen Buddhist author, Thich N. Hahn (b.1926), calls 'deep listening’ in the here and the now. This is not just the capacity to sit down with another for a prolonged period of time and absorb their important information, their experiences or their emotional state. It is rather an approach to building trust so as we can serve others in need and encourage our own potential and others' potential more effectively. It begins with less of a rigid view on time and involves a journey around the simplicity and the sincerity of the human heart.
In many ways there are parallels with music here as a means of giving us renewed energy and purpose, something that allows us to move beyond 'the here and now'. Singer/Songwriter Van Morrison writes on his album ‘Beautiful Vision’ (released 1982) about the value of the search for truth and deeper contemplation. ‘Let your flame burn into the night.…for I saw you knocking with your heart’. Music can help us convey and express emotions and ideas, but it can also help us listen in a completely unique way, to appreciate pain, to open us up to joy, to company. True listening experiences are associated with live performances and the presence of others, with intimate recorded moments and ‘bodies’ of work. These collections still reach out to us and help us to listen more deeply, to see the 'flame' of the artist and be open to their journey, their sway on us.
Listening with patience is critical in an age of puzzlement and muddle, of technology and non-stop talk. Searching for presence behind the absence, a human necessity. There is sadly no modern framework that encourages ideas such as ‘discernment’, 'receptivity' and ‘vocation’. These terms were of course traditionally held within almost exclusively religious structures and defined accordingly along with rigid doctrines, a centralised power base and often extremely limited choices for the majority of people. They were embedded within wider religious language and vocabulary inaccessible to vast numbers of ordinary men and women.. And yet, they are terms which could be re-discovered as ‘springs’ of deep listening, opportunities that stem from real time and space that we give others and make for ourselves.
Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila, wrote about the ‘expansion of the heart’, Dominican Meister Eckhart about the goal of a ‘peaceful heart’, but both emphasise that these new ways of being are achievable only through a new approach to listening. Technology might present so much more for us to ‘listen to’, but it cannot help us to ‘listen more deeply’. Listening with patience involves courage to step aside of ourselves - a going behind and beyond the words, encountering new inner dimensions. Perhaps it involves starting from the perspective that all humans are merely searching for value - in complex, simple, false and truthful ways during the course of a lifetime.
Mystics point to the 'Presence' of goodness in our world (realities tinged with traces of the Eternal) as a means of measuring our lives and our worth. Instinctive responses to kindness, to care, to nature, to humour, to open and sincere conversation, to childlike prompting, become the barometer by which we can gauge truth afresh.
After the terror attacks and the Grenfell fire there came an overwhelming sentiment to fill the void – the loss and the sadness – with compassion, steady perseverance and solidarity. By taking small steps, with the support of other human beings - near and afar – those same affected communities initiated the long journey of healing, restoring value, seeking truth, identifying again with goodness and with love. The events that unfolded over those difficult weeks seemed to resonate profoundly with many on a spiritual and a personal level.
Embracing times of uncertainty, or the unknown, with a spirit of reflection, followed by a spirit of doing - acting in the interest of others directly - can remind us of our capacity to reach one another on a higher level, to extend hands, ears and hearts towards people of faith or of no faith. Religion is essentially about parameters, spirituality about possibilities and it is here that the mystical traditions (within all our major world faiths) can offer models for a considered and pragmatic way forward. Children murdered at a pop concert by those little older than children themselves could suggest that an absence of love and truth has a firm hold. But that is never the whole story. Our very breath and the dawn light remind us of different possible paths.
The mystical traditions have always worked around this confidence in, and understanding of, ‘Presence’; that which can and does lift us gently, often silently in our daily lives, beyond those temporal dilemmas and anxieties. This ‘Presence’ could be in the form of light, in food, in song, in prayer, in company. Our search for it is satisfied by discovering and forging that human bond with others in the face of common tragedy, in public spaces, in personal conversation, in peaceful moments.
However, there is no romanticism here, or loose attempt to ‘escape' from situations and events that take place around us. Any sense of ‘Presence’, as a permanent source of comfort and ease is unfeasible. It is not something that is continually manifest in our lives. ‘Presence’ can fade in and fade out; it can re-surface and then seem distant again. Living with the fading in and fading out of ‘Presence’ is what mystics do. They acknowledge human pain, and they point to the positive influences on us that remain numerous in this world. The mountain, the coast, the breeze, the multi-layered colours of nature, intimacy, friendship, all play their part. And yet the mystics push for, and speak up for, a peace and a stillness like no other – a joyful union – that belongs to all of us.
Witnessing our fellow beings clinging to life in the summer of 2017, and us knowing its great preciousness again through suffering, may have marked a small watershed in the way the British public defines ‘common humanity’. Individual and communal actions and kindness have left their impression and probed us around the ways we might fill the lives of those in need, not just with sympathy and with donations, but with our gifts and creative talents, our active love and compassion.
Anglican priest and poet George Herbert (1593-1633) urged, ‘Do not wait; the time will never be 'just right.' Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command…..for better tools will be found as you go along’. Perhaps the 'tools' he writes of are the tools of self-discovery, of self-knowledge, necessary to preserve a sense of inner peace, and yet they are the very same tools that enable us to make a lasting difference to our community and society around us.
To take the necessary steps aside, away from the pressures and the anxieties of the world is the challenge - in terms of making time and space, in finding a genuine distance away from our overwhelming thoughts and emotions. It is the pace and the demands of the world that sap our energy…..and somehow the news, the media and information technology ‘bubble’ have become 'our world'. The call of the mystics is to discover again what lies in proximity to us, to return to the simple and the pure sources of joy:
''The silent music,
The murmuring solitude,
The supper which revives, and enkindles love' (John Of The Cross)
There and then, refreshed, newly aware, we can move confidently back into the world without it unduly disturbing us.
September 2017 :
For Sr. Judith and all the community at Maryton Grange