catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 16 :: 2006.09.08 — 2006.09.22


Mysticism in community

This text was originally presented as a sermon on August 13, 2006 at Extended Grace, a ministry in Grand Haven, Michigan.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

John 19:25b-27

Jesus was a Jew. We all know that, right? A Jew who ushered in a whole new lineage of spiritual teaching. We call that lineage Christianity. But just when did the Christian community begin?

Most often we think of it starting after Jesus was crucified and appeared to his disciples. These small groups of scared followers would gather to proclaim the mystery—what once was dead is now alive. Slowly they grew in number, gathering around a meal, sharing all that they had with each other, retelling the stories Jesus told, and offering to the community their own experiences of God’s presence and love and grace.

But the Gospel of John seems to say something else. According to Donald Capps, Professor of Pastoral Psychology at Princeton, the Christian community began before Jesus took his last breath. He points to the foot of the cross as the moment of conception.

Here at the cross those who loved Jesus the most came together in their great pain. Here Jesus told a woman and a man to behold each other—and in that moment they saw what the one on the cross had seen in each of them. And the Gospel tells us “he took her to his home.” According to Capps, “In that moment, a bond of love was established, a bond much stronger than…the death we die daily. By inviting them to behold one another as he was, even then, beholding them, Jesus exercised a new kind of authority, and ushered in a new era in human relating.”

For most of the summer, we’ve been talking about mysticism. In the process, we have identified that our deepest hunger and longing is to love and to be loved. And we have acknowledged that mysticism—the direct experience of God—both satisfies and heightens that yearning by bringing us finally face to face with our own true self.

We’ve talked about such experiences occurring in nature, in eroticism, in our suffering and in our joy. So far, you might have gotten the impression that mysticism is purely a private and isolated affair. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, for mystical communities, the idea of isolating the individual is intolerable—for they understand that God needs the community even when the ego thinks it can become whole without it.

In fact, that same ego can so easily pile on so many layers of self-protection and defense that we can have a nearly impossible task picking up any clues as to who we truly are. Many people will never look, but for those of us intent on self-discovery, we will find ourselves in the midst of a great cosmic treasure hunt. To find the hints that will lead us to ourselves, we need to look to God, but not to God alone. We also need the assistance of others because our true self is discovered through the recognition we receive from one another. We learn who we are not just in private introspection, but in the way our own souls mirror and are mirrored by others. 

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote, “A community is established the very moment I recognize…and extend greetings to [you]. One individual extends the 'shalom greeting' to another individual; and in so doing, creates a community…the individual withdraws in order to make room for the [we].” This recognition isn’t just about making a physical identification. This recognition is about identifying someone “as a person who has a job to do, that only he can do properly. To recognize a person is to affirm that they are irreplaceable. To hurt a person is to tell them that they are expendable, that there is no need for them.”

Community then is not a melting away of individuals into a common, lumpy soup. It is the deep valuing of each individual as a unique expression and incarnation of the living God. Jean Vanier wrote, “Communion is not fusion. In a relationship of communion, you are you and I am I…We are called to grow together, each one becoming more fully himself or herself. Communion gives the freedom to grow…[and to help others] become more fully themselves.”

So often we set up a false dichotomy between the individual and the group, devaluing one or the other. We can either assimilate, get along and lose our self or be defiant, self-centered and egomaniacal. There doesn’t seem to be much space in us or our culture to honor both the individual and the corporate experience. But on the spiritual path we come to find life continually oscillating between integration and differentiation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson pleads for solitariness as a conduit for entering into real community, encouraging us to gain greater trust in ourselves through intentional acts of self-reflection (like prayer) so that we might affect a "revolution" in human relationships. “The deepening and strengthening of our true selfhood,” he advises, “will result in more satisfying, more authentic human associations, expressive of the real convictions and desires of those who come together. Absolute independence results in loneliness, but individuals are even more desperately lonely when they are compelled to misrepresent themselves, to put forth a false self."

We need to develop as individuals apart from the expectations and repressions of the group. Then as individuals we continue to grow as we craft together true community. 

Hasidic philosopher and activist Martin Buber lived out this transition. In 1914, at a time when he was actively pursuing his own individual mysticism in isolation from society, a young man came to visit him. He had been filled with religious enthusiasm on his own, and now with another person he felt as if his soul just wasn’t in it. It was only after the young man died that Buber learned about his crisis and the reason for his visit. “Since then,” Buber wrote, “I have left behind that kind of religiousness which is nothing more than…a matter of being taken away…or else it has left me behind…What help is it to my soul that it can be transported again from this world into that unity when this world has…no share whatever in that unity?”

In place of his isolated pursuit, Buber found meaning in the gift of community inherent in the I meeting the You, what he called the I-Thou relationship. The I-Thou doesn’t deny that that the soul experiences ecstatic union with God, but it goes on to ask what are the consequences of that union.

One consequence is that we are given the opportunity, the challenge and the responsibility of communicating the experiences of our soul to others. In the sharing of experience comes the search and struggle for language. I love the hard questions my most intimate friends ask of me about my inner feelings and unexpressed images because they force me to bring them out into the open where they can be seen, appreciated and maybe even marveled at by others. In the process, those feelings take on more richness, depth and meaning.

To remain silent, concluding that “nobody can possibly understand this” is not only pretty arrogant but an abdication of duty. When I attended the Integral Institute last year, I found myself resonating with Ken Wilber’s belief that we only receive such experiences and understandings because somewhere deep in the bottom of our soul we made a promise that if we did, we would share them by getting involved with others.  

Thomas Merton said, “Any joy that doesn’t overflow and help others rejoice in God doesn’t come from God.” Holy power is that which distributes itself in order to make others strong. When my consciousness expands, my knowledge deepens and my being changes. This is the beginning of a process with a much greater conclusion that the salvation or illumination of individual souls. Genuine mysticism must move beyond spiritual egoism, into the ongoing creation of the world in which we participate.

In the Hasidic community there is a story of a bird that landed on the highest tree. The king of the land ordered the bird to be fetched down. Thousands of people gathered under the tree to make a human ladder. Climbing onto each other’s shoulders they tried to reach the top. But those who stood nearest the ground lost patience, shook themselves free, and everything collapsed. In this story the bird is the image of Messiah while the king is the image of God. Everyone else is a participant who can work for the Messiah’s coming only together with everyone else.   

John tells us of a man who saw his followers so clearly that he was able to open their eyes to seeing each other. One night at the drop in center earlier this summer a man nobody knew came for the first time. The next night he was pouring a cup of coffee when a woman came in for the first time. Seeing him, she walked over and, without being introduced, said his name. He turned around and recognized her as well. It turns out they were brother and sister, long estranged, with no idea how to find each other. In both of these stories there is a more going on than the human players. There is an I, there is a Thou, and what happens in between—is God. 

Meditative Practice: Namaste

Find one other person and just look at them. See another human being occupying the space in front of you. Put your finger near your left eye and focus on the left eye of the person before you. Try to maintain eye contact with their left eye.

Know that never before and never again will love and consciousness come together in the form that you are looking at now.

Think about the fact that the person you are looking at is on a journey.

They are somewhere right at this moment between life and death.

This body they inhabit is more than a shell, it is the very vessel of Spirit.

Look at this person and know that their life force is within them and is all around them.

Look at this person fully, unflinchingly and with absolute love. See in this person the face of Christ.

Then take a step back from each other and beginning with the person with the lightest color hair, place your hands together in front of your heart and bow to the person in front of you. Bow to the Christ, the divinity that is within this individual person and that unites you with each other as one.

Now the other person can place do the same.

In whatever way you are comfortable, thank this person for being the irreplaceable, essential, special individual they are and then you can return to sitting.

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