LIVES OF THE MYSTICS
An interview with Emilie Griffin—author
of the new book Wonderful and Dark Is This Road—on
the lives of Mystics and how they relate to each one of us
spiritual writers and thinkers define mystics in different
ways. How would you describe a mystic?
GRIFFIN: I think a
mystic is a person who is very close to God.
the term “mystic” is drawn from the Greek word mystos (mustes),
which means, one who has special knowledge. The term
is applied to someone remarkable, someone spiritually advanced.
of us, when we use the word “mystic,” are thinking
about people who have estatic experiences, visions and other
spiritual gifts. But as I say in my book Wonderful and Dark
Is This Road, I
think there are many unrecognized mystics--mystics
who fly below the radar--who are very close to God, who are transformed
by that relationship, but may never earn the title of “mystic” in
the eyes of others.
wrote about it this way: “A mystic is a person far advanced
in the spiritual life, one who very likely spends time in prayer
and worship with a disciplined regularity. But surely, this definition
would include a fairly large number of people.”
the book I am trying to show that there’s a difference
between authentic mystics (people who are very close to God)
and those who are well-recognized as mystics because everyone
is agreed about how far advanced they are in the spiritual life.
(These more “famous” mystics are also authentic;
but my point is, they’re only a few among a much larger
number of those who enjoy the intimate friendship of God.)
point worth mentioning is that there
is no formal process for saying who the mystics are. The
title of “mystic” is awarded by an informal consensus,
a common opinion. To make any account of it we have to rely on
what is said by the mystics themselves as well as observations
and interpretations made about them.
the introduction to your book, you refer to the "recognized
stages of the mystic journey." Does this mean that there
are identifiable patterns that all mystics seem to follow?
GRIFFIN: Students and scholars of mysticism (like
Evelyn Underhill) have traced a path of recognized stages.
Most of us receive that wisdom and abide by it. In a sense,
I think this notion is reassuring to people who are beginning
in the spiritual life. They are glad to know that there is
a path of some kind and you can guess what may lie ahead.
idea of recognized stages is reassuring. But it shouldn’t
be confining. People
shouldn’t be saying, “Hmmm...am I out of the
purgative stage yet and into the illuminative way?” The
grace of God is very unpredictable, and God’s plan
for each person is unique to that person.
spiritual teachers say that beginners in prayer get a great infusion
of joy and delight, which is followed after awhile by a time
of dryness. That may happen for most of us, but there are really
no rules about the spiritual life. It is an adventure, uncharted
FAITH: What can modern-day seekers learn from the
lives of the mystics, most of whom lived hundreds of years
in the past?
GRIFFIN: I think we can learn a lot from the mystics
about the love of God. Many of the mystics write and speak
passionately about a great love that has been poured out on
them . It reminds me of that text in Jeremiah where The Lord
says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” There
are many texts in the Bible that give evidence of God’s
love and tenderness, for example, Hosea 11 and many readings
in the Gospel of John. But the
mystics (in many centuries) are not just reading about this
love. They are experiencing it, and
giving new witness of that intense love and friendship. I think
they can invite us to come closer to God and take the risk
of experiencing something like that ourselves.
say that most of the mystics lived hundreds of years in the past.
I guess I would say that most of the mystics we have heard
of lived far in the past. But for example, Thomas Kelly,
a Quaker, I think is an authentic mystic. Probably Rufus Jones
is too. Both of them are twentieth-century Quakers. Frank Laubach,
another Protestant spiritual giant, wrote a book called Letters
of a Modern Mystic. Wherever I can in my book, I mention
contemporary or very recent people who can be considered mystics.
They would never seek the title, mind you, but they are just
as intense and holy as, for example, George Fox or George Herbert.
FAITH: For many people with families and jobs and
an overload of day-to-day responsibilities, the idea of becoming
a mystic seems far from attainable. They may feel that they
don't have the time, the energy, or possibly even the inclination.
What would you say to someone who wants a deep relationship
with God but feels that the mystic path is beyond their capabilities?
GRIFFIN: I agree with you that the idea of becoming
a mystic seems unattainable. I also think it’s not desirable
to set oneself impossible goals in the spiritual life. We shouldn’t
go about spiritual life as if we could (under our own steam)
achieve a high level of spiritual greatness. We can’t.
It is best to stick with the gospel teachings about humility,
and follow the tax-collector’s attitude rather than that
of the Pharisee. Even though a certain discipline is required,
spiritual transformation depends on the grace of God; it is
it’s more about setting our expectations aside and
coming close to a God who wants to shower love and blessedness
on us. God’s
love is transforming. We don’t become mystics by wanting
to. It’s what God wants for us that counts.
about the overload of daily responsibilities. Most of the mystics
had an overload of daily responsibilities. Brother Lawrence spent
his days as a cook and a sandalmaker, but learned to experience
God’s presence in the middle of things. There are dozens
of these “everyday mystics” who learn to practice
the love of God in a hectic and high-pressure circumstance. I
think we should find this encouraging.
Looking back on the lives of mystics of the past, we glamorize the mystical
life. But John of the Cross, for example, had a very tough life. He had administrative
responsibilities, founded new communities, built monasteries (and laid the
bricks himself) acquired real estate, organized picnics for his fellow friars.
He and his colleague, Teresa of Avila, were sandbagged by the political pressure
and envy within their religious communities. John’s mystical writing
could be viewed as a sideline. Probably his prayer life was limited in terms
of time spent, but unlimited in the blessing it gave him. His relationship
to God was central to everything in his life. He served as spiritual director
and confessor to thousands, and they all said he helped them to be cheerful
and deal with their anxieties.
FAITH: The title of your book claims that Wonderful
and Dark Is the Road. What makes the mystic path both
wonderful and dark?
GRIFFIN: First of all, it is about an adventure in
the life of the Spirit. I come across people for whom “prayer” is
a meaningless word. At the most they think of it as a tiresome
necessity or duty. But the
mystics open up a wonderful path of faith...and they invite
us to set out on the path as adventurers and pilgrims.
have always felt that this metaphor of the journey or the path
or the Way is compelling. Then I came across the statement that
the spiritual path is “wonderful and dark.” It comes
from one of the best-loved handbooks of the spiritual life, Abandonment
to Divine Providence, by Jean-Pierre deCaussade (1675-1751).
DeCaussade writes: “The way of pure faith...enables us
to find God at every moment. Can anything be more magnificent,
more mysterious, and more blessed...What has to be done to produce
such an amazing effect? Just one thing: let God act and do all
he wishes according to our state in life. Nothing in the spiritual
life is easier, and it is within everybody’s reach. Yet
so wonderful and dark is this road that we need great faith to
walk along it." Notice that DeCaussade is also writing about “the
present moment.” But in this case, his present moment is “wonderful
and dark,” requiring pure faith.
FAITH: Do you think the mystics that you write about
were a select few chosen by God, or does anyone have the potential
for being a mystic?
just anyone become a mystic? Well,
I’m not really in charge of that information. Some scholars
think it is a matter of temperament. I think it really has
more to do with the willingness of some individuals to follow
their own yearning for God wherever the path may lead.
FAITH: What was your motivation for writing Wonderful
and Dark is the Road?
GRIFFIN: I have found the mystics very encouraging.
They are motivating to me. In a sense, when I first began to
become acquainted with them through their writings and history,
I first began to believe in the spiritual life as a reality--something
that really happens and transforms ordinary people.
see that with the first disciples of Jesus: fishermen, men without
much education, who underwent a remarkable change because of
God’s grace. And it didn’t stop with the first century.
It keeps on happening. The mystics help us to see that.
like the way the Evelyn Underhill puts it. She says the
mystics have gone ahead of us, motivated by their love. They
are lamps to our feet. We can follow in their footsteps. It’s
not up to us to say we can’t if God thinks we can.