Arts and Culture

Mystics in the Pews

For most of my life when I heard about people who were called mystics I thought immediately of great saints such as Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. My limited knowledge of mystics led me to think that only those who were monks or cloistered nuns were mystics. It would never occur to me that someday I might have a mystical experience. Nor did I think that anyone I knew would have a mystical experience.

People practice social distancing are seen in the pews at a church in Zurich, Switzerland, May 31, 2020, after the country relaxed restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: CNS/Arnd Wiegmanni, Reuters)

I think it was some essay by Andrew Greeley that led me to believe that perhaps many people who take their relationship with God seriously might occasionally have a mystical experience. I had great admiration for Andrew Greeley. I read many of his books but I only read one of his novels. I think in some of his novels he presented characters who had mystical experiences.

Reading Learning to Pray (New York: HarperOne, 2021, pp. 386, $27.99) by Father James Martin, S.J. has convinced me that many people who take their relationship with God seriously may have mystical experiences. It makes sense to me that they do. Father Martin writes the following:

“In prayer can come experiences of rare intensity in which we feel an almost overwhelming connection to God. These we call mystical experiences.

Experiences of this nature are often dismissed as privileges of the super holy, but they are not confined to the lives of the saints. Nor does each mystical experience have to replicate what the saints describe ….

‘Mystical’ is hard to define with precision. One definition is the experience of feeling filled with God’s presence in an intense and unmistakable way. Another is ‘feeling lifted up’ from the normal way of seeing things. Yet another is feeling overwhelmed with the sense of God in a way that transcends your own understanding and even past experiences of prayer.

By their nature, these experiences are difficult to put into words. It’s the same as trying to describe the first time you fell in love, held your newborn child in your arms, or saw the ocean.” (p. 203)

I can understand why a mystical experience is difficult to describe. Trying to define it is almost like trying to define God. However the more I think about what a mystical experience might be, it makes less sense to me that such experiences might be had only by the great saints. If a person is sharing God’s life which is what Cartholics describe as being in the state of grace then it would seem quite possible or even likely that many people who are close to God might have at least occasionally a mystical experience.

St. Augustine claimed that it is no little thing to gain the kingdom of heaven. Well, it is no little thing to be in the state of grace, no little thing to be sharing God’s life. Sharing God’s life opens us up to radical change, momentous change. If the life we share with God can lead us to become more Christlike, then having a mystical experience does not seem like such an impossible event. Rather it seems almost likely for a person of prayer who is sharing in the life of God.

I do not know if I ever had a mystical experience but reading Jim Martin’s book has led me to reflect on whether I ever did. There is an experience that I had that seems to have been something like Father Martin’s description of a mystical experience. It happened on the day I was ordained a priest.

My ordination day was the culmination of an eight-day retreat. Though I don’t recall much about the retreat, I do know that the retreat was a trying time for me.

Probably I was nervous about the life commitment I was going to make on ordination day. Perhaps I was being tempted by the devil not to place myself in God’s hands and be receptive to the graces I am sure that God was sending me. After the ordination, my family had a luncheon for a few friends. After the luncheon when I got home to my parents’ house I was very tired. I have always had difficulty taking naps. This day I fell into a deep sleep.

When I woke, I sat on the side of the bed and I said to myself: “I am a priest, I am a priest. I will be a priest forever. No matter how I fail, no matter what I do that is wrong, I will be a priest forever. God will never withdraw this blessing. I felt exceptionally blessed. God has given Himself to me in a special way by leading me to the priesthood. I experienced the closeness of God. I experienced a great peace.”


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.

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