My Stage 3: An Ordinary Mystic ll Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA

September 11, 2018
My Stage 3: An Ordinary Mystic
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

     On a misty, chilly early January morning, I stood transfixed along the craggy seashore of Scotland’s Isle of Skye, mesmerized by the power of the wind and the waves slamming up against the weathered boulders jutting out from the coastline, defining the edge of that vast ocean spread out before me, while shorebirds dipped and swayed, riding the currents.

     As a non-religious college freshman, I had scrimped and saved to join a university-organized trip to the UK between fall and spring semesters. While others used these valuable three weeks to earn university credits, I journeyed alone throughout England and Scotland.

     In last month’s blog, I wrote of the three stages of spiritual development, based on the writings of Friedrich von Hügel and Gerard Hughes. Both authors write of the importance in our spiritual institutions of a mystical element, corresponding to the adult stage of human development—Stage 3.  By this time in our lives we’ve experienced life’s pains and contradictions, and easy answers don’t fit anymore.

     Stage 3 challenges our Reality that living only by our intellects offer, which Evelyn Underhill says, provides “none of the peculiar qualities of life … but only a ‘practical simplification of reality’ made by that well-trained sorting machine in the interests of our daily needs” (Note 1, pg. 17).

And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself? Rumi

     I began life as a Catholic, denounced it at age 13, joined the Jesus Movement in my late teens, and stayed with it even as it morphed into patriarchal authoritarianism under the cover of evangelicalism. And then more than 25 years ago, my faith shifted, most evident when I moved with my family to Peshawar, Pakistan, to work with Afghan refugees. Not having read von Hügel or Hughes, I didn’t know I had moved from Stage 2 to Stage 3. Nothing made any sense. My prayers bounced off the ceiling—if they went that far. Not knowing what was happening, I worked harder at my evangelical spiritual disciplines to no avail. I attributed it to culture shock, but three years later I could no longer use that excuse.

     My husband also was experiencing spiritual angst. Fortunately, we were in contact with Ray, a wonderful British pastor. While visiting him in the States, he handed us two publishers’ catalogs of the world’s great mystics. As in all such catalogs, included with the small picture of each publication was a two-to-three sentence description of the books’ contents. His advice to us?

     “Take these catalogs. Just read the book descriptions slowly. When something resonates within you, stop. Read it over several times, and ponder just those sentences.”

     And while we both included meditation in our spiritual practices, we were unversed in the mystics.

     Within a few days of our meeting with Ray, we returned to Peshawar.  We had an unexpected layover in Lahore, Pakistan, where the Catholic Archdiocese included a bookstore. By that time, the blurbs on John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul had grabbed my attention.

     I found a lifeline in that bookstore of predominately Urdu language books: an English version of My Only Friend is Darkness. Living the Night of Faith with St. John of the Cross, by Barbara Dent.

     Stage 3 life includes what Underhill calls the push within our psyches for the transcendent, for a connection with something more than our material world. Contrasting von Hügel’s Stage 2 with its “crystalizing tendencies of thought”, she says this of mystics:

      “Only by direct contact with life in its wholeness can we hope to discern its drift, to feel the pulsations of its mighty rhythm; and this we can never contrive save by the help of those who by loyal service and ever-renewed effort have vanquished the crystallizing tendencies of thought and attained an immediate if imperfect communion with Reality—‘that race of divine men who through a more excellent power and with piercing eyes acutely perceive the supernal light’—the artists, the poets, the prophets, the seers; the happy owners of unspoilt perceptions; the possessors of that ‘intuition’ which alone is able to touch upon absolute things. Thanks to their disinterested attitude toward life . . . these do not wear the mental blinkers which keep the attention of the average man focused on one narrow, useful path” (Note 1, pg. 17-18).

Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.
― Meister Eckhart

     John’s dark nights were my introduction into the mystical element that became my structure to support my Stage 3 life: “The land of the spirit is a land without ways,” says John of the Cross. Over time, as I continually found myself returning to and sinking into this lifeline, the transcendent began to penetrate my protective ego.

     Definitions abound, and while Eerdmans’ Handbook to The World’s Religions has no definition for mystical, it includes these:

Mystic: One who seeks direct personal experience of the divine. He [sic] may use prayer, meditation or various ascetic practices to concentrate his [sic] experience.

Mysticism: The search for direct personal experience of the divine. There is a distinction between seeing mysticism as leading to identification with God (as is common in Hinduism) and as leading to a union with God’s love and will (as in Islam, Judaism and Christianity).

     All major world religions encourage their adherents to develop a mystical component in their spiritual disciplines.

We should pay attention to such a point that we no longer have the choice.
Simone WeilGravity and Grace

     Is there an opposite to mysticism? I am crudely summarizing, but Iris Murdoch juxtaposes mysticism with practical reason, the latter emphasizing rationality, and through the use of our will, choosing duty—primarily an outward pressure. Mysticism consists of vision, gazing, and attention to our inner lives, with its emphases on waiting and attention. Simone Weil, a religiously unaligned mystic, says, “We should pay attention to such a point that we no longer have the choice” (Note 3, page 159).  

     The first step, therefore, as you enter Stage 3, is to grow in awareness and consciousness of the undercurrents of your psyche, or your spirit—however you prefer to name that great current of life that flows within you, that bubbles up, that’s capable of sensing the Divine, that breaks through our ego, through our focus on the “one narrow, useful path.”

     Of course it isn’t an either/or situation but and/both. I will choose to stay faithful to my familial commitments. But Western religions tend to emphasize duty over paying attention to our inner lives.

     Thomas Moore says mysticism “involves a constructive loss of self and a feeling of being connected to the whole.” And while a consistent loss of ego and absorption with the divine may not be your regular experience, he says anyone can be an ordinary mystic. That was my Isle of Skye experience: A sense of unity when I felt connected to something so much greater than myself. Moore calls it a “moment of bliss”—such as what you may experience in parenting, gardening, artwork, music, yoga, or nature. He says to take these moments and “weave into your thinking, feeling, and relating so they become part of your life and your identity” (Note 4, pages 41-42). We need this weaving to navigate the waters of Stage 3. I experience moments of bliss in nature—and in baltering with my husband on the dance floor to fun music (balter: to dance with minimal skill but with great joy and enthusiasm).

     Mysticism includes an ethical component. After all, if you are experiencing one with all creation, you would feel the pain and suffering due to injustices inflicted on not just humanity, but also on our planet’s animal and plant kingdoms. Based on one’s personality, abilities, and inclinations, the trajectory of your ethical component is determined by paying attention to where your energy goes, your emotions—in short, what grabs your attention. What values and subsequent choices will guide you in this next stage of your life?

I perceived the universe as in some way conscious.  ―Karen Armstrong

Contemporary spiritual author Karen Armstrong says:

     “Mysticism is one such spirituality, found in all religions and is a startling example of this deep unity of the religious vision. Mystics often have different beliefs which inevitably affect their experience. They will describe their interior journeys in terms of the orthodox traditions of their faith: Jews, Christians and Muslims, for example, believe in a personal God while Buddhists feel that this is an unreligious idea and prefer to speak of an ultimate but indescribable Reality.

     But the actual experience of all mystics is strikingly similar: all encounter a reality in the depths of the self, which is, paradoxically, Other and irrevocable separate from us. All emphasize that this ultimate reality, which gives meaning and value to human life, is ineffable, transcending our limited words and concepts. . . . They feel that they have transcended the confines of their limited and isolated egos and also feel that they have been somehow absorbed into the ultimate truth and are at one with the world.” (Note 5).

     If you feel the pull of Stage 3, seek out what these insightful authors have to say about this instinctual need for the transcendent in your life. Don’t push it away, but welcome it as “normal.” Mindfully sit with anything that resonates with you. And if necessary, pick up a publisher’s catalog!


Notes & Sources:

1. Underhill, Evelyn. The Mystic Way, Ariel Press. 1992. First published in 1913, it remains a central authority in the role of mysticism in Christian life.

2. Eerdmans’ Handbook to the World’s Religions. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1982. Page 417.

3. Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics. Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Penguin Books. 1997.

4. Moore, Thomas. A Religion of One’s Own. Gotham Books. 2014.

5. Armstrong, Karen. The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century. Kyle Cathie. 1991.


About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her People House “tribe” and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation

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