Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mystics in the World

Drew University: Craig Chapel
September 17, 2008
The Feast of Hildegard of Bingen

Sirach 43:1-2,6-7,9-12,27-28
John 3:16-21
Psalm 104: 25-34

Mystics in the World

One of the great joys and privileges of serving as a priest down the street at Grace Episcopal Church is that, unusually for an Episcopal church, we have at least one service every day. This means I get to preach a lot and often I get to preach on what we call the lesser feasts – the days in the Episcopal calendar when we honor some of the great men and women of our Christian heritage.

I like to think of this task as part of my continuing education. Sometimes the lesser feast honors someone very familiar such as Augustine of Hippo or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But other times the lesser feast honors someone not very well known (at least to me) such as Bernard Mizeki or Thomas Gallaudet, to mention just two recent examples. When faced with preaching about people like that, it’s time to dust off those books from seminary and get busy continuing my education.

But I think it’s safe to say that out of all the great women and men honored on our church calendar, only one has made it to the Billboard charts. Only one has her name on the wall of the HMV store in midtown Manhattan, alongside other illustrious musicians such as John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Only one had her music featured in the hit movie A Beautiful Mind. Only one has five or six different CDs of her music in the bin at Barnes and Noble on Route 10 in Morris Plains. And that one is the person we honor today, the remarkable Hildegard of Bingen.

That’s quite a lot of fame for a woman who was born 1098 in the Rhineland Valley. Apparently from a very early age Hildegard began having mystical experiences. Conveniently enough as the tenth child in her family she was tithed to the church – perhaps something to consider during your next stewardship campaign!

Eventually she and other women formed a convent and later Hildegard will found other convents. Her visions continued but Hildegard was reluctant to share them with others until at the age of 43 a voice told her to “See and speak! Hear and write!” And so she compiled descriptions of her visions along with her own interpretations in three books.

Then, as now, the institutional church was skeptical of those claiming to have mystical experiences, but Hildegard had a powerful patron in Bernard of Clairvaux who it just so happens had the ear of the pope. So Hildegard’s mystical writings received an imprimatur from the highest level and Hildegard and her work became famous across Europe.

She conducted four preaching tours and offered her advice and direction to the political and religious leaders of the day. She practiced medicine with a special focus on women’s health. She wrote about natural science and philosophy. In her spare time she wrote a liturgical drama, The Play of Virtues, in which women sing the parts of the virtues and the lone man in the cast plays the part of …the devil, who is unable to sing. And of course she composed large amounts of otherworldly and gorgeous music.

After her death in 1179 there was a movement to canonize her, using the newly created procedure in the Roman church to make new saints, but in Hildegard’s case it never quite came together. And then this remarkable woman was forgotten.

Until the 1970s when thanks to the new interest in the great Christian women, Hildegard and especially her music was rediscovered and celebrated.

Which is wonderful. But, I wonder about Hildegard the mystic. I wonder what we make of the vast Christian mystical heritage. For many centuries now, of course, many Christians have grown increasingly uneasy with mystical experience. How often have we heard someone – maybe even ourselves – say something like “If St. Francis were alive today he’d be institutionalized or be heavily medicated”? And the same might be said of Hildegard. I read that Oliver Sacks chalked up Hildegard’s mystical experiences as the result of migraines.

Is that good enough for us Christians in the 21st Century? Are we willing to dismiss the mystical as a symptom or manifestation of mental illness? Are we willing to leave mystical experience to the New Agers? Are we willing to conclude that God does not speak through mystical experience? Is mysticism embarrassing for Christians in the 21st Century? Are we open to the possibility of having mystical experiences? Have we had mystical experiences?

Those of you who have been ordained or are preparing for ordination may have received the advice that if you believe you’ve had mystical experiences do not under any circumstances tell your Commission of Ministry or whoever the gatekeepers are in your denomination. And that’s unfortunate, but probably good advice. The truth is once we start talking about mystical experiences all sorts of red flags go up.

So I won’t ask for a show of hands about how many of us have had some kind of mystical experience. But I do remember a sermon given by John Koenig, New Testament professor at General Seminary and longtime member of the seminary’s admissions committee. In his sermon he noted that a very large number of applicants to the seminary described experiences – maybe not quite on the level of Hildegard’s visions – but nonetheless experiences that could be described as mystical. Professor Koenig concluded that God speaks to us in this way more often than we might think.

Maybe the key way to recover our confidence in Christian mysticism is to recall that mystical experiences are not given for our enjoyment or edification, but instead they call us to action right here in the flesh and blood world in which we live. The Jesuit scholar Robert J. Eagan notes that mystical experiences are liberating – they remind us that things do not have to be this way.

Maybe we can recover our confidence in Christian mysticism by reminding ourselves that being a mystic doesn’t mean going off on a mountain forever and pondering but instead it means working to translate the mystical vision into a physical reality, in the manner of the 20th Century mystic Martin Luther King.

And sometimes even mystics themselves need to learn the role they are called to play in the world. I remember seeing a photograph of Thomas Merton taken on the day he entered the Abbey of Gethsemane. In the photo he’s laughingly holding up a newspaper, apparently thinking that he was saying farewell to the world described in its pages. Instead, of course, God was going to nudge Merton the cloistered Trappist monk into an even more public role in the world.

In the Christian tradition mysticism calls us to action in the world. And this connection is very clear in the visions of Hildegard. Her visions, for all their mystery and power, usually have a very concrete, here and now message.

For example, there is Hildegard’s vision of God enthroned. She writes: “I saw a great mountain of the color of iron, and enthroned on it One of such great glory that it blinded my sight.” And then God speaks to Hildegard and says: “O human, who are fragile dust of the earth and ashes of ashes! Cry out and speak of the origin of pure salvation until those people are instructed, who, though they see the inmost contents of the Scriptures, do not wish to tell them or preach them, because they are lukewarm and sluggish in serving God’s justice. Unlock for them the enclosure of mysteries that they, timid as they are, conceal in a hidden and fruitless field. Burst forth into a fountain of abundance and overflow with mystical knowledge, until they who now think you contemptible because of Eve’s transgression are stirred up by the flood of your irrigation."

And then the voice of God concludes: “Arise, therefore, cry out and tell what is shown to you by the strong power of God’s help, for He who rules every creature in might and kindness floods those who fear him and serve him in sweet love and humility with the glory of heavenly enlightenment and leads those who persevere in the ways of justice to the joys of the eternal vision.”

The mystics – and you and I – are called to arise and cry out. Mystical experiences are not given for our own enjoyment but rather to give us the strength to speak out, to stand up for the oppressed, to speak the truth to power.

And that’s exactly what the great Christian mystics have done. Think of Paul and his powerful transforming mystical experience of the Risen Lord – which gave him the strength and courage to live a life filled with setbacks and adversity. And Hildegard bravely involved herself in the world – challenging those in authority; a medieval woman emboldened by her mystical experience.

And that’s what we’re called to do. We “Professional Christians” have a special role to play in a society that leaves no time for contemplation and is dismissive of mysticism. We are called to be mystics in the world. When I was ordained a deacon the bishop said something that has continued to haunt and challenge me. He said “We pay you to pray.” “We pay you to pray.”

That pay isn’t just for my own personal spiritual growth. That pay is for me, for us, to translate our spiritual – mystical – experiences into the flesh and blood world, right here and now.

And isn’t that the message of today’s gospel? This very familiar passage sums up the message of the very mystical fourth gospel. “For God so loved the world…” The flesh and blood, right here and now world. “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God’s love for the world – for this world - is expressed in the flesh and blood life, death and resurrection of Jesus – the mystical Jesus who had a vision of the Kingdom of God and who lived and proclaimed that vision.

Today we give thanks for Hildegard whose mysticism gave her the confidence and the courage to live and proclaim her Christian faith. May we be open to the possibility that God continues to speak. May we make the time and establish the quiet so we might have our own mystical experiences. And may we follow Hildegard’s example and in our own way, in our own time and place, be mystics in the world.