Posts tagged ‘Gerard W Hughes’

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

When the Path Dries Up ll Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA

When the Path Dries Up
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

Why does it happen that sometimes one’s church/spiritual home/path doesn’t fit anymore? Self-blame is a first reaction when the path dries up: “What am I doing wrong? What do I need to do get things back to where they were?”

You work harder at whatever your spiritual practice is. You read more books, go to more conferences.

But in many cases, you’re just growing up and your chosen spiritual institution won’t let you.

I dwelt in the land of spiritual conundrums while living in Islamabad, Pakistan, about 20 years ago. In those days, English-speaking counselors were as rare as finding gold in my backyard, books ordered through the mail from the United States to Pakistan rarely arrived, and it would be years before Google answered questions.

Islamabad’s Our Lady of Fatima Church ministered to the Catholic population and had a library that carried English-language books. Although the French-speaking priest serving the oppressed Pakistani population had scarce time for what he saw as a privileged, white, middle-class American woman—and I understood this—he had limited time and limited resources—he didn’t forbid me the use of the Church library even though I was not a Catholic.

Hence I came upon, in Fatima’s dusty library of a select few English books, guarded by that stern, elderly French priest, God of Surprises, authored by Gerard W. Hughes (Note 1).

Catch the irony there?

And surprised I was, as Hughes nailed it for me.

Hughes draws his ideas from the writings of Friedrich Von Hügel, in his The Mystical Element in Religion.

Von Hügel develops his work from the three main stages of human development—infancy, adolescence, and adulthood—outlining the principal needs and activities which characterize each stage. He believes all religions must tend to and consider the needs and activities of each stage: an institutional element corresponding to infancy; a critical element corresponding to adolescence; and a mystical element corresponding to adulthood (Note 2).

Von Hügel says there is a constant threat that one element will be emphasized to the exclusion of the other two, or two will be stressed to the omission of the third, thus stifling the religious development of its adherents. Hughes writes from a Roman Catholic perspective, but extrapolates his findings to all Churches, whereas von Hügel says this is true for all religions.

While the needs and activities continue throughout each stage, they should cease to be predominant if we are to continue into the next stage of spiritual development.

Stage 1: Infancy, an Institutional Element

When I discovered Hughes, I had been immersed in Christian evangelicalism and was versed in its institutional tenants and moral imperatives. My journey into this faith began with my rejection of Roman Catholicism at the age of 13, continued into my late teens when I joined the Jesus Movement, and ended with non-denominational Protestantism in my early 20s.

Following von Hügel’s pattern, upon entering this religious vein—and coming from a Catholic background unfamiliar with Protestant dogma—this church versed me in the institutional element, my “baby” steps: “This is what we believe and why; this is how it is manifested in one’s life.” It’s like little children learning from their adult caretakers.

Stage 2: Adolescence, a Critical Element

But when I moved into an adolescent stage of my faith—just as in human development—I began my questing. Why, when Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “Give up all your wealth and follow me,” was that an unpreached sermon? Why do we so senselessly destroy God’s creation in our consumer-oriented society? Why do only men get to sit in the big chairs up on the altar? Why does this church only have men as elders and pastors? What is meant by the word “soul?”

And while I was a leader in my profession—I was elected president of the state chapter of a national construction association—I couldn’t be a leader in my church. Consequently, I had a disconnect between the male-centered, consumeristic teachings of the Church and my everyday experience. Women could lead governments but couldn’t lead in the church. Christ led a life where “he had no place to lay his head” but that wasn’t modeled by Church leaders.

Hughes says that,

“A Church isolated from our human experience can only survive as long as it can succeed in forbidding its adherents to ask questions and think for themselves. It must lay heavy emphasis on the importance of obedience to religious authority, obedience being understood as unquestioning acceptance of whatever is presented by the teaching authority, and by making it sinful for its members to criticize, or to read or listen to anyone who may propose any contrary teaching (emphasis added) …. If the critical element is not fostered, Christians will remain infantile in their religious belief and practice, which will have little or no relation to everyday life and behavior” (page 17).

Around the topic of women in leadership, the Church leaders barely tolerated my questioning. I was told that I had to “speak nicer if I wanted the [all-male] church leaders to listen to me”—which I never did achieve. The counseling pastor called me “ornery”—i.e., “ugly and unpleasant”—as he shooed me out of his office (Note 3). He expected a Stage 1 response from me: “…unquestioning acceptance of whatever is presented by the teaching authority,” making it “sinful” for me to criticize or question the teaching authority. Time ran out for any further discussions with this pastor; I was returning to Pakistan. Although not familiar with Hughes’ book at that time, I did have enough sense to withdraw my membership.

But reading Hughes later on handed me an “ah-ha!!” moment, the lightning bolt hit: My church had fostered an infantile spirituality. And in the process, it became irrelevant to my everyday life.

And as von Hügel says, all religions have this tendency. While living in Indonesia, the stricter Islamic clerics issued a fatwa (religious edict) forbidding all Indonesian Muslims from practicing yoga, saying it would lead them astray from their true faith (Note 4).

Stage 3: Adulthood, a Mystical Element

By the time I discovered Hughes, I had been a global citizen for years, living and working alongside people from all religions, cultures, and countries. I encountered life’s mysteries in myself and in my world, primarily through suffering. My suppressed inner life bubbled out all over. I related to earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. I had spent years dwelling in John of the Cross’ via negative, the way of darkness, and following and knowing the Divine in that darkness. Through quantum mechanics, I became aware of an interconnected world, one with potentialities and possibilities—at least at a subatomic level, and no one knows how that plays itself out on a macro level.

Life was full of enigmas and mysteries within myself, others, and in the cosmos. I studied models and metaphors of God, how God is referred to Biblically as a mother hen, a suffering servant, a woman looking for a lost coin. But I’d walk into Churches and hear the Divine spoken of with certainty and exclusively as “He, Father, King, and Lord,” and “this is what He wants you to do.” I’d cringe at this idolatry and make good my escape.

And what is “mystical?” I’ll discuss that further in next month’s blog, but suffice it to say it includes vision, gazing, and attention to our inner lives.

If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.

Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, political activist and author

In adulthood, if we allow ourselves, scary stuff can arise from within, from “an examined life.” What arises doesn’t fit into a tidy, enclosed, and infantile institutional box. But this inner space is where we encounter our deepest selves, this is where we connect to and unite with Ultimate Reality/Divinity, however we define it. We welcome our inner life into our consciousness. People House believes that, “Developing our ability to be conscious is the key to an increasingly meaningful life.”

Based on von Hügel’s analysis, what has been your own experience of a spiritual institution? Has any one or two elements dominated to the omission of the other one? Does it help you understand how hostilities and divisions develop between various institutions?

Notes & Sources:

1.) Hughes, Gerard W. God of Surprises. Darton, Longman, and Todd Ltd. London. 1985.

2.) Note these are MAIN stages; these three stages are broken down by various human development experts into further categories.

3.) I found out many years later from an elder serving at that time that the male church leaders had assigned one of its pastors to scholarly research the role of women in the church. This pastor concluded, that from a Biblical point of view, evidence supported both sides: installing women as church leaders and not installing women as church leaders. The male leadership decided to maintain the status quo of no women in church leadership. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said: “The truth is that male religious leaders have had–and still have—an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter” (emphasis added). I was so deceived; I thought these leaders were truth seekers!


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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