Mystics, God, and foolish thoughts on prayer

Mystics, God, and foolish thoughts on prayer

Glynn Cardy

Sun 11 Aug

A story from Anthony De Mello:

“Excuse me,” said one ocean fish to another, “You are older and more experienced than I, and you will probably be able to help me.  Tell me: where can I find this thing they call the Ocean?  I’ve been searching for it everywhere to no avail.”

“The Ocean,” said the older fish, “is what you are swimming in now.”

“Oh this?  But this is only water.  What I’m searching for is the Ocean,” said the young fish, feeling quite disappointed as he swam away to search elsewhere.” [i]

Little fish stop searching.  Just be still, open your eyes to what you are already seeing.

And so it is with God.

The late German theologian and political activist Dorothee Soelle, one of my heroes back in the 1980s, put it like this:

“The language of religion, by which I do not mean the stolen language in which a male God ordains and imperial power radiates forth, is the language of mysticism: I am completely and utterly in God, I cannot fall out of God.”

The word mysticism has a long history and is rife with multiple meanings and inferences – a bit like the word ‘faith’ or ‘religion’, or ‘God’ for that matter.  So rather than explore the multiplicity, I want to use a working definition (so to speak) from Matthew Fox.  Mysticism is about a creative opening of oneself (or ‘launching out into the deep’ as St John of the Cross says) to the omnipresence of God, the Sacredness in and through and beyond all, conscious and subconscious.  Mysticism is opposed to the duality of political and religious systems with their splits between male and female, powerful and powerless, human and other species, spiritual and secular, etcetera.  Mystics are often therefore prophets; and frequently use poetry or story to express their understandings.

Matthew says that deep down we are all mystics, and when we tap into that energy we become alive again.  From the creativity we release is born the prophetic vision and work that we all aspire to realize as our gift to the world.[ii]  Matthew uses the image of an underground river as that sacred energy, and different religions and spiritual traditions dig wells that tap into that river.  It is the same river that they are tapping into.  And it’s a river that can bring healing.

Dom Crossan, who is well known to many of us through his New Testament scholarship, in his book on the Apostle Paul makes the comment ‘you cannot be a Christian without being a mystic.’  While I’m always dubious about statements that seemingly put a fence round the word ‘Christian’, I think it’s important to know that some who wear the rigorous label in their scholarship, also identify with mysticism.

The themes one can discover amongst the Christian mystics are not unknown, indeed often embraced, here at St Luke’s.  These include the fine weave of spirit and matter, the sacredness of the earth, deep ecumenism, beauty and joy, compassion and social and ecological justice, creativity, meditation, stillness, contemplation, loss and unknowability and the dark night of the soul…

Recently I penned a poem based on a line from the contemporary English poet Jack Underwood who wrote:  “God [is] a cup in your house that you haven’t yet recognized as God but you drink from nearly every day.”

  Blessed be the whisper
often hard to hear
but there regardless
every day.

Every day do you hear it?
It’s coming from the path.
It’s coming from the cup.
It’s coming from the mirror.

When you walk, 
when you drink,
why your very looks…
it whispers.

It whispers quietly, disturbingly:
you are infused with divinity – 
tiny, tender, terrifying..
every day.

Blessed be the whisper 
that suggests all is not as it seems,
that around the corner of our banality
awaits our brilliance.

Mysticism invites us to see that we are infused with divinity, with brilliance, with glory.  And the glory permeates all our tininess, our tenderness, our fears – and like in the blessing I’ll use at the end of our service – embraces our forgetfulness, our clumsiness, our foolishness, so they become not an embarrassment but an accepted ingredient of the wonderful mysterious creation we are.

One of our contemporary antipodean mystics, who would shun the title like he shuns most titles, is Michael Leunig.  Here is a paragraph from him about why he often uses the word ‘God’ in his cartoons for the Melbourne Age:

“I have thought that perhaps [using the word ‘God’] requires a daring creative imagination or a sublime lyrical vision to use the word meaningfully and with ease or equanimity. Perhaps it requires a very free and flexible mind or the capacity to not know and not worry too much – and yet the ability to be fully alive to life’s spiritual possibilities and the capacity to have and use and simply enjoy a vivacious mystery. 

Apart from the obvious appalling uses and meanings of the word in history, it also seems to have been used to reference something natural, valuable and vital; a thing so deep and wide or so beautifully light and vast that it was practically unsayable because no word existed to describe such a state or such a thing. And so, a more free, enlightened and helpful interpretation of the word becomes possible – ‘God’ as a sort of shorthand or password, a fertile inconclusive everyday expression, a signpost, a catalyst, a spark, a stepping stone, a bridge, a makeshift handle … A simple, robust word used lightly and loosely or as devoutly and deeply as we might feel – and a way to break free from this material world for a moment or two, a day or two … or for what’s left of a lifetime.

And eventually for me, it is a lyrical word, a poetic word – in fact, a one- word poem.”[iii]

Meister Eckhart, of the late 13th and early 14th century, spoke into a religio-political context where God was far more than a poem.  Indeed more like a hammer!  And wielded by an institution that believed it had a monopolistic mandate to do so.  And so Eckhart prayed, ‘God rid me of God’.  God rid us of the God we, the Church, make out of our desire to control and possess, and our fears that we’re not controlling and possessing.  As Eckhart would say elsewhere, using rhetorical negation, “God is a not-God, a not-mind, a not-person, a not-image”; and I would add a not-in-our-control.

For many (most?) the word ‘God’ still comes into our 21st century conversations with baggage, and sometimes the word is best left in the umbrella stand by the front door.  It is only acts of kindness, and Leunig would probably add foolishness, that might redeem the word God.  Maybe, like the Jewish practice of not saying YHWH but using the totally different words ‘the Lord’, every time we see G-o-d we could pronounce it ‘kind One’.

Another contemporary mystic who would shun the title is the philosopher John Caputo.  He has little maxims I’ve introduced you to before, like ‘God doesn’t exist, god insists.’  God insists via a weak whisper, not a powerful demand.  Unconditional love, that can’t be demanded or controlled, is the touchstone of god’s whispers.

He sees prayer as both a foolish and a vital exercise.  Caputo says that in many churches to pray is to pray to “someone”, to ask for this or that or give thanks for that, and to have a good reason to think there is someone there to answer and handle the correspondence.  However when you begin down the path of God not being somebody’s proper name such prayer becomes a shaky enterprise – foolish even.  Somewhere near the start of this path there is a confession along the lines that we do not know how to pray, or to whom we are praying, or whether there is anyone to answer our prayers, or what we are praying for.

Now many of our fellow Christians will laugh at us if they heard us talking like this.  How is it possible, they will protest, to pray to an unknown God, to pray without knowing if anyone is there to hear our prayer?  And a whisper inside us will reply enigmatically, ‘Is it possible not to?’  

Non-knowing has always been found inside prayer, inside the prayers of the mystics, in the dark nights of the soul, in moments when the only thing of which these men and women of prayer are sure is that they do not believe in prayer or God or religion.

The tradition is full of warnings about the danger of knowing too much when it comes to prayer, which is why the ancient masters tell us to be careful about what we pray for, on the grounds we may get it. 

Which leads me to comment on our first reading from the parable of Jonah (2:1-10): this prayer should get us giggling.  Here is the character Jonah, a bigot, running away from a God who is not, having being tipped into the sea and swallowed by a big fish, crying out for help to the God he’s been running from.  Well, be careful what you ask for Jonah.  Yes your prayer is answered by being vomited up on to the shore.  But, and here comes the giggle, you are not returned to the safe home and haven of your bigoted blindness but on to the shore and territory of those you are bigoted against – the dreaded Ninevites!  Be careful what you ask for Jonah.

Speaking of blindness, to lead someone in prayer is essentially the blind leading the blind.  What else can it be?  Blindness is the human condition over which, from which, in which, we pray.  The problem arises when blind leaders think they are not blind.  For we cannot lead a prayer, we can only follow it into the unknown.

By the way, the reference in the 2nd verse of Jonah 2 to ‘Sheol’ is not a reference to Dante’s kind of Hell.  Sheol like Hades is a place of unknowability rather than punishment.  Unknowability is a precondition for prayer.

The masters realized when it came to prayer there are no masters, that as Caputo says in his riddling way: “When we consciously desire this or that, we do not know what we desire with a desire beyond desire, and that this non-knowing, which makes prayer impossible, is just what keeps it possible”.[iv]  It makes as much sense as our fish looking for the ocean.

To frame the foolishness of prayer more positively (as in the via positiva), prayer is a way to keep faith with life.  (As Robin Meyers says, ‘If you’re certain you don’t need faith’).  It is a way to gratefully open oneself, to courageously launch into the deep, to tend to the shoots of compassion, joy, and justice struggling to grow in the cracks of the parched surfaces of the world.  Prayer does not commune with the eternal Supreme Being but exposes itself to the disjointedness, the vulnerability, of time.  Prayer does not demand a deal to make prayer worthwhile.  Rather prayer is a pouring out, a sinking into, an engagement with life – a joyous, compassionate engagement – that, in the words of medieval mystics, brings God alive, and makes God laugh with joy.

[i] Song of the Bird, p.14

[ii] Christian Mystics by Matthew Fox p.3.


[iv] Hoping Against Hope by John D Caputo, p.193.