In the Lectionary

May 16, Easter 7B (John 17:6–19)

Jesus’ high priestly prayer is a call to a new kind of knowing and loving.

For many years, I struggled to make useful sense of Christian mystical writings. Much as I admire Bernard of Clairvaux’s productivity, how many sermons on the first three chapters of the Song of Songs does anyone need? But proliferating contemporary spiritualities don’t seem to be especially bashful about visionary and mystic experience, from drinking ayahuasca to casting hexes. And the vast mystical corpus within the Christian tradition isn’t going anywhere.

So I recently went back to Bernard McGinn’s anthology for help. Mystical “consciousness,” McGinn writes in the introduction to The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, is comprised not of ecstatic or spiritual experience but of “new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts, not as an object to be grasped, but as the direct and transforming center of life.”

I had found it too easy to polarize love and knowledge between the mundane, “secular” experience of daily life, with all its duties and consolations, and the kind of “mystical” experience of insight and union with God that I assume is available only by a special divine gift, extensive ascetic practice, or hallucinogens. There was no room for the more gradual transformation of perception and love within God, or for the more subtle and chronic estrangement from the world, witnessed in so many mystical texts.