Street Mysticism

The time is fast approaching when one will either be a mystic or a non-believer (Karl Rahner).

I have long been fascinated and intrigued by mysticism and mystics. A certain state of prayer is termed “mystical.” It affirms the possibililty of a direct contact with God, that is, without intermediaries. That statement amounts to saying that it is possible for a human being to “touch” the absolute, the ultimate Reality. There is an experiential knowing of God. The Divine Essence makes itself palpable. There is the fascinating terminology mystics use: they speak of a “transforming union,” of a “spiritual fusion” of the soul and the Divine Essence. The mystics speak metaphorically of “spiritual espousals.”

Mysticism is not a peculiarly Catholic phenomenon. There are the mystical systems of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism; and the mystical phenomena have a striking resemblance. As Simone Weil stated “the mystics of all Religious Traditions resemble one another to the point of identity.” (Letter to a Religious, p. 49)

These ideas about mysticism make my interior life seem so superficial and mediocre, mawkish. I feel I’ve been feeding on spiritual baby food. Vatican Council II spoke of the universal call to holiness, and holiness involves the mystical life.

The experience of God which the mystics describe is not reserved for the spiritual elite. Karl Rahner spoke of “low level mysticism”, and Thomas Merton spoke of “street mysticism”, by which he meant “mystical moments,” which many (most) people have. “Mystical moments” can be taken to refer to “epiphanies.” Epiphany in Greek means an unveiling, there is some appearance of divinity among mortals. Someone grasps a deeper, more essential reality. There is a sudden illumination, a moment of transcendence. These mystical moments occur to many (most) of us. I can remember a couple particular such brief instances in my life.

I particularly remember an early Sunday Spring morning. I was visiting my sister, and was alone on her porch. I sensed the fresh dawn, and it is the sounds I particularly remember: the sound of birds calling to each other; the chirrup of grasshoppers in the sunshine; the clicking dishes from the kitchen; the radio purring in my sister’s room above. I was filled with a profound satisfaction with life. There was a feeling of integration with a greater reality, an experience of merging with something eternal—there was a powerful experience of God’s presence, indeed, an experience of God, a transcendental moment. It was like a flash, a holy spark. This moment passed and I returned to my customary way of experiencing things. But it happened, this glimpse of a direct contact with God.

I particularly remember something similar happening during a certain summer morning in a park. There was the smell of summer. Again, it is the sounds I particularly remember: the laughter of children and the voices of their mothers; the yells and laughter coming from a basketball court. Again, there was a sensation of intense happiness and a union with a “Greater Vitality.” Aristotle spoke of these kinds of experiences and regarded them as among the highest happenings to humans. and as the root of true happiness.

I’m convinced that these brief priceless moments happen to most of us. In 2016, the Gallup organization asked Americans if they had had a mystical experience, a moment when they went beyond the ordinary self and felt connected to some infinity. Eighty four percent of the respondents said they had had such an experience at least once.

There is such a thing as “street mysticism,” moments of divine illumination. Most of us are momentary mystics, “street mystics” who have mystical moments that come now and again upon us, moments of sudden divine illumination.

Street mysticism involves only a small portion of what is given to the great mystics, but God does take an opportunity for breaking into human times. Life gives us moments, and there are times when time withdraws and boundaries blur, and there is a personal experience with God. Something is glimpsed. There is a kind of expansion of consciousness to a greater reality, an expansion beyond image or actual thought. There is a kind of intuition, an immediate awareness. Something is revealed beyond ordinary seeing, and there is a feeling of integration with that reality.

T.S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding” spoke of “the timeless moment” and the particular place where it is experienced as “the intersection.”

Unfortunately, in our times mysticism has been neglected or shelved or ignored.