Covid Mystics

I find myself repeating a prayer cribbed from Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): “Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that—make mystics out of cheeses.”

I wonder if a pandemic might also do the trick.

Evelyn Underhill, one of the greatest teachers of mysticism, points out in slightly different terms in Practical Mysticism, her most accessible work, that under extraordinary circumstances even the greatest cheese may become a mystic. A mystic is, in simple terms, someone who is in touch with eternity. Imagine how time distorts when you experience a death in the family, a long illness, a house fire, a war. Sometimes the occasion is happier, like when we fall in love or experience a rapturous moment in a scene of natural beauty. But more often than not, we are like a character in one of O’Connor’s stories. A violent action is the only thing that shakes us awake to the reality of eternity and our place in it. But how to maintain that stance? “The doors of perception are hung with the cobwebs of thought; prejudice, cowardice, sloth,” writes Underhill. A practical mystic doesn’t rely on “fleeting and ungovernable” experiences to blow away the cobwebs. A practical mystic trains her perception and will. She orients her heart to eternity.

The first step toward mystical practice has been made for me. My attention has been restricted, my movements confined. Faced with the suddenly undeniable reality of being unable to direct my own fate or the fates of my children, I have been forced into a mystic’s stance—which is not one of self-improvement or cleverness but of unknowing. “I do not require you now to meditate on [God] or raise various conceits, nor to form great and curious considerations with your understanding,” St. Teresa of Ávila told those who wished to learn her mystical ways. “I require of you no more but to look on [God].” A mystic is a patient observer of what already is—and what is, Underhill says, is God.

Yet mysticism doesn’t require inactivity and is not the province of “idle women and inferior poets,” as Underhill anticipates the objections of her challengers. She says, “The active man is a mystic when he knows his actions to be a part of a greater activity.” The pandemic implications are clear to me: We have become aware that staying home alone unites us in a common cause and that our private actions and mundane choices have meaning beyond our own daily lives. They always did, of course, and to believe so is part of having religious faith. But our attention has been turned by the novel coronavirus to, as Underhill writes, “new levels of the world.” A mystical moment is upon us, whether we’d have it or not.

So I have undertaken during this period of staying at home to, as Underhill put it, stand back and observe the furniture: that which was always there but has been overlooked because of my preoccupations, anxieties, and busyness. Can I work, then, to take the next steps according to Underhill—to recognize and simplify my affections, to reorient my heart?

read the rest at US Catholic.


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