Pandemics and Mysticism

Has the 2020 pandemic placed humankind at the threshold of a new beginning? Covid-19 is revealing the inequality and exclusion that have been present in U.S. society all along. A new beginning must insure the values of inclusion and equality. Whether it is in our families, our businesses, our communities, whether they be big steps or small, whether others tell us our endeavors are misdirected or not, we need to act toward greater inclusion and equality. This blog post attempts to place Covid-19 pandemic in the context of mysticism, now and during another pandemic in the 14th century.

14th Century
On April 19, 2020 The New York Times Opinion Section began a weeks-long series on the novel coronavirus and the inequalities within the United States that it has exposed, and that have been a pre-existing condition that has made the virus so much worse in our country. Unsurprisingly, they took a glance back to the pandemic of the 14th century. What they missed however was the flowering of mysticism that accompanied that plague. This is some of what Walter Scheidel, a professor of classics and history at Stanford University, said.

In the fall of 1347, rat fleas carrying bubonic plague entered Italy on a few ships from the Black Sea. Over the next four years, a pandemic tore through Europe and the Middle East. Panic spread, as the lymph nodes in victims’ armpits and groins swelled into buboes, black blisters covered their bodies, fevered soared and organs failed. Perhaps a third of Europe’s people perished.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron” offers an eyewitness account: ‘When all the graves were full, huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards, into which new arrivals were placed in their hundreds, stowed tier upon tier like ships’ cargo.”
According to Agnolo di Tura of Siena, “so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”….
            In looking for illumination from the past on our current pandemic, we must be wary of superficial analogies. Even in the worst-case scenario, Covid-19 will kill a far smaller share of the world's population than any of these earlier disasters did, and it will touch the active work force and the next generation even more lightly...

21st  Century
Religion and spirituality already suffering today’s disenchantment will also be touched much more lightly than before by this pandemic. But it is worth looking at the role of mysticism today and whether it has the energy to pull those who are open to God-consciousness into a new society of more inclusion and equality.

On May 10, 2020, the New York Times published the article “Christianity Gets Weird,” Tara Isabella Burton wrote: “More and more young Christians, disillusioned by political binaries, economic uncertainties and spiritual emptiness that have come to define modern America, are finding solace in a decidedly anti-modern vision of faith. As the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns throw the failures of the current social order into stark relief, old forms of religiosity offer a glimpse of the transcendent beyond the present…. (F)or these weird Christians, this crisis doubles as a call to action.” One commented that Christianity (in light of the pandemic) “compels us not just to take care of people around us but to seek to further integrate our lives and fortunes into those of the people around us, a sort of solidarity that necessarily entails creating these organizations to help each other.”

What is described as weird is merely taking seriously that “mystic sweet communion” where we sing of mysticism in that old hymn “The Church’s One Foundation.” We tend to use very little bandwidth for our God-consciousness, though mysticism is foundational to the church. The first step is to awaken to a grander vision for our life, what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement.” To do this we want to open our minds to the forces that impinge upon us – appreciations of beauty, feelings of thankfulness, the love given us by friends. Mindfulness taught by Thich Nhat Hahn among others is a lesson in this openness.

We can encounter God within us, in our human spirit, because God, apparently or not, is already there.
The meaning of mysticism is basically “an experience of the Divine,” or as a friend suggests the “divine" could be rendered "Buddha-nature" ... or Tao, or holographic whole, or Mysterium Tremendum, or the One in the many. It is a sense within the human person that a transcendent and divine presence or power is directly encountering him or her.

The conditions of the 14th century generated and encouraged a blossoming of this mysticism. In Italy there was Catherine of Siena, in England Julian of Norwich among others. German mysticism at the time included Johannes Tauler. There was the Beguine movement in the Netherlands, and mystic Jan van Ruusbroec. “The fourteenth century… was a time not only of great natural disaster as the bubonic plague ravaged Europe, but also a period of conflict.  It was the century of the Hundred Years War ….. the masses… were eager for the personal experience of God.” (God Within, p. 190)

Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) lived in this perilous time when all of Europe was wracked with suffering. She answers the question how does one cope?  How could something small endure such great catastrophe?  As an answer, Julian believed that God’s love embraces everything.
He showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball.  I looked at it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, “What can this be?”  I was amazed that it could last, for I thought, because of its littleness, it would suddenly have fallen into nothing.  And I was answered by my understanding, “It lasts, and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.”      (Two Worlds, p. 149)
God’s love beholds, holds, upholds, and enfolds each one of us.

Similarly the 21st century has seen pandemics such as Ebola, H1N1 and the global covid-19 pandemic. It also has been a time of terrible conflict in the Middle East. And we too have seen a rise in mysticism. There are, Franciscan Richard Rohr, Episcopal priests Cynthia Bourgeault and Matthew Fox, Dr. Barbara Holmes, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, among others. The Center for Contemporary Mysticism (contemporarymysticism.org) has introduced mystics such as Patricia Pearce, Mary Reed, Cyndi Smith, Joan Diver. But I wonder if there are also smaller mystics, “little ones” as Therese of Lisieux might say. Is it possible that there could be a groundswell of grassroots mystics, which I think is the genius of the Center for Contemporary Mysticism.

The pandemic brings a sense of ending. Nothing will ever be the same. The future is unclear. Esther de Waal points out that a threshold is sacred. It opens onto “the other, the new, the strange, and (shows) the image of difference, mystery, otherness at work in God’s world.” (Living on the Border, p. 5) The most profound threshold we can cross is that between the inner and the exterior, “between going deeper into the interior self and emerging to meet the world beyond the self without protective defenses, as friend not as foe.” (Living on the Border, p. 3) Then in openness and receptivity we can come to know the universe as basically a hopeful and benevolent place. Mysticism makes no sense without hope. The threshold is where we pause to honor the significance of crossing over. de Waal asks, “Am I willing to cross the threshold of new understanding by being open and receptive, not closed in and defensive?” (Living on the Border, p. 3)

The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec believed that contemplation of the transcendent unity of the divine Trinity brings us, through the touch of divine love, to the threshold of the divine mystery.  

On April 26 Richard Rohr began a series of meditations on Liminal Space, which to my mind is another image of threshold. He writes, liminal space “is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next…. It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way…. In liminal space we sometimes need to not-do and not-perform according to our usual successful patterns. We actually need to fail abruptly and deliberately falter to understand other dimensions of life…. It takes time but this experience can help us reenter the world with freedom and new, creative approaches to life.”

Angels meet us at these thresholds, those messengers of the divine. Angels can be disturbing because they urge us to go beyond where we are. Angels carry news of journeys to be taken, changes to be made, demands to be met, tasks to be carried out, growing to be done.

Angels bring the message of the beyond. Angels are all about transcendence. To believe in them, says David Bentley Hart, is to live an enchanted life. What threatens civilization he argues is simple disenchantment. The age of technology makes it difficult to live in the world as an enchanted place. And my, are we disenchanted today! We are disenchanted with our government. They have left us unprepared and some of our leaders mislead. We are disenchanted with church. Has religion served to exclude and widen divisions among us? We are disenchanted with our work. Unemployment soars and job-based health insurance disappears when needed most. David Bentley Hart calls upon us to raise our sights to the angels who “continue to move in their inaccessible heavens, apparently still calling out to mortals, still able to provoke  our sons and daughters to prophesy, our old men to dream dreams, our young men to see visions” (A Splendid Wickedness, p. 219). The angels want us to live enchanted lives! Look for the divine that envisions a recreated world unblemished by exclusion and inequality.

Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380)
Catherine praying alone in her garden would often sing. Singing is one of the ways we reach for God. She drew energy in those alone times from her practice of prayer. She wrote of her soul in dialogue with God where she found an inclusive love that enfolded the ancestors and all creatures.

“O mad lover!  It was not enough for you to take on our humanity.  You had to die as well.  Nor was death enough.  You descended to the depths to summon our holy ancestors and fulfill your truth and mercy… You deep well of charity! It seems you are so madly in love with your creatures that you could not live without us.  What could move you to such mercy?  Not duty or any need, but only love. (Two Worlds, p. 155)

Catherine also understood that for mysticism to be obedient to the transcendent message it hears, it must be active. A consistent message is a world more inclusive of its creatures, more equal in its opportunity. Catherine calls this walking with two feet: love of God and love of neighbor.

When Catherine of Sienna had to leave her cherished solitude to go and talk with someone in need, she felt a sharp pain in her heart.  This is what she understood God was saying to her: “Be quiet, sweetest daughter; it is necessary for you to fulfill your every duty.  I have no intention of cutting you off from me; on the contrary, I wish to bind you more closely to myself, by means of love of the neighbor.  You know that the precepts of love are two: love of me, and love of neighbor; in these, as I have testified, consist the Law and the Prophets.  I want you to fulfill these two commandments.  You must walk, in fact with both feet, not one, and with two wings fly to heaven.” (Great Mystics, p. 33)

One finds a similar message in this Prayer Book collect:
Collect for Proper 9 – “O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416)
Julian of Norwich’s experience of God as protector/protectress who envelops us in a sustaining and all-embracing love finds its fullest expression in her remarks on the motherhood of Christ.  “So we see that Jesus is the true mother of our nature, for he made us.  He is our Mother, too, by grace, because he took our created nature upon himself.  All the lovely deeds and tender services that beloved motherhood implies are appropriate to the Second Person.  In him the godly will is always safe and sound, both in nature and grace, because of his own fundamental goodness.” (God Within, p. 187) So too in this experience of God we discover we have the same “Mother.” All are equal in this mother’s love.

We are enfolded and equally loved in God. This experience can come to us in many ways. It is not necessary to be especially gifted. The secret touches of the Spirit are adapted to whatever abilities we have to receive them. Julian writes: “Then we can do no more than gaze in delight with a tremendous desire to be united wholly to him, to live where he lives, to enjoy his love, and to delight in his goodness.  It is then that we, through our humble, persevering prayer, and the help of his grace, come to him now, in this present life.  There will be many secret touches that we will feel and see, sweet and spiritual, and adapted to our ability to receive them.  This is achieved by the grace of the Holy Spirit, both now and until the time that, still longing and living, we die.  On that day we shall come to our Lord, knowing ourself clearly, possessing God completely.  Eternally ‘hid in God’ we shall see him truly and feel him fully, hear him spiritually, smell him delightfully, and taste him sweetly!” (God Within, p. 188)

Johannes Tauler (c.1300-1361)
It frequently seems to me that the more I try to manage things the more unmanageable they become. The more I try to pull on a tangle the more knotted it becomes. The more I try to exercise perfect control the more out of control my life seems to get. Johannes Tauler suggests that this might actually be a grace of God. He writes:

“Those however who are God’s true witnesses rely upon God in the good and the bad and they rely stoutly upon his will, whether he gives to them or takes from them. They do not hold to their own intentions.  And so if they think that they can perform great things and begin to count upon that, then God will frequently shatter whatever it is that they do because he means well with them, and thus things frequently happen which were not desired…. Thus every form of fixity is broken, and we are turned back upon our own nothingness, and are dependent upon God, acknowledging him in simple, humble faith and renouncing all fixity.”  (God Within, p. 90)

As with Julian of Norwich, the experience of divine presence can come in many ways matching each person’s capacity. According to Johannes Tauler: “… the expectation of the Holy Spirit differs from person to person.  Some receive the Holy Spirit with their senses in a way that is conceivable to the senses, while others receive him in a much nobler way with their higher powers, with their rational powers and in a rational way which is much above that of the senses.  But a third group receive him not only in this way but they also receive him in their hidden abyss, in the secret domain, the ground where the precious image of the Holy Trinity is concealed, the highest part of the soul.” (God Within, p. 83-84) Mysticism is not limited to those who can access the sacred in the highest part of the soul. The divine can be present to the senses and intellect as well. This is the basis for a grassroots mysticism that can attain a critical mass for the transformation of the world.

Jan van Ruusbroec (1293 – 1381) 
Ruusbroec urges mystics to be active. Only in activism can mystics partner with God to recreate what has been revealed to them, a world unblemished by exclusion and inequity. “Now understand how we can meet God in each of our works, increasing in our likeness to him and more nobly possessing our blissful unity with him.  Every good work, however small it may be, which is performed in God with love and a righteous, pure intention, earns for us a greater likeness to God and eternal life in him.  A pure intention unites the scattered powers of the soul in the unity of the spirit and orientates the spirit towards God.  A pure intention is the end and beginning and adornment of all virtue.  A pure intention offers praise and honor and all virtue to God.  It passes through itself, the heavens and all things and finds God in the purity of its own ground.  That intention is pure which holds only to God and sees all things in relation to God.” (God Within, p. 136) As I said in my introductory paragraph whatever the setting, domestic, commercial, or social, and whether we feel our contribution is great or miniscule, God is there, and we draw closer to God’s likeness.

Though angels may call us from without, grace drives us from within. Ruusbroec explains: “Now the grace of God, which flows forth from God, is an interior impulse or urging of the Holy Spirit which drives our spirit from within and urges it outwards towards all the virtues.  This grace flows from within us and not from outside us, for God is more interior to us than we are to ourselves and his interior urging and working within us, whether natural or supernatural, is closer and more intimate to us than our own activity.  For this reason God works from within us outwards, whereas all creatures act upon us from without.” (God Within, p. 139-140)

At this time of pandemic there is a lot of talk about when society can return to normal? This is the wrong question. If we are open to a direct experience of God in small ways or large we see before us an opportunity to live into a society that is more inclusive and equal. God, Catherine of Siena understood, is madly in love with every created person and thing. All are included in this extravagant love. Julian of Norwich encountered Jesus as humankind’s “true Mother,” and just as a true mother cannot decide among her children, we are all equally loved. The message today is not so different from that of centuries past, though race and the legacy of slavery mar our current time. The pandemic drives us to a threshold. “Every form of fixity is broken,” says Johannes Tauler. The right question is what can we create in its place? God’s grace drives us and angels pull us to a less blemished place. One can begin to imagine a world that is anti-racist. This will not happen on its own. We must be driven. Every good work no matter how small is essential. It adds its own momentum or intention toward every other in creating a place of inclusion and equality. Catherine of Siena says that we get there on the two feet or two wings of love of God and love of neighbor.

There are great mystics who encounter God with a supernatural directness. But perhaps most of us are “little ones” as Thérèse of Lisieux would say. For those, there are many “secret touches” from God adapted to our ability to receive them. Johannes Tauler adds that there is not just one way to be a mystic. The Holy Spirit’s expectation differs from person to person. What is to be looked for is a grassroots mysticism where each one directly encounters God’s word for an unblemished world and are driven to love all that God has created and accept that all belong.

Bibliography and References
1.     Davies, Oliver; God Within:The Mystical Tradition of Northern Europe; Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2006.
2.     De Waal, Esther, Living on the Border: Connecting Inner and Outer Worlds; Norwich: The Canterbury Press, 2001. 
3.     Hart, David Bentley; A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016 (Nook Reader)
4.     Macquarrie, John; Two Worlds Are Ours: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
5.     Rakoczy, Susan, IHM; Great Mystics and Social Justice: Walking on the Two Feet of Love; New York: Paulist Press, 2006.