Mysticism and Spiritual Direction – what do I do?

Dear Father John, At some point would you address the issues facing modern mystics? For example, most spiritual directors do not seem to have experience with mysticism. Even some priests I have encountered believe that God no longer acts in this way with his people, but it has been my personal experience that he does. It is very difficult finding others with similar experiences. Fortunately, I have found an elderly priest who can find occasional time to help me, and I have received advice from a priest who has written extensively on the topic. I think that means I have perhaps been blessed more than other mystics. However, the priests to whom I can go for confession are not mystics; in some cases, they have not even accepted mysticism and I am left with making partial confessions, carefully avoiding anything that seems out of the ordinary and too supernatural. It is all quite disappointing and frustrating. Any advice?

I sense frustration in your question. Watch out! Frustration doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit. Frustration is a function of expectations. When we expect reality to be different than it is, we become frustrated. As soon as we become aware of that frustration, we have to make an act of humility and turn our natural (and sometimes reasonable) complaints into fruitful actions and faith-drenched crosses. In the face of frustration, we have to ask ourselves: Can I do anything (within reason) to change the situation? If so, make a decent effort to do it. If not, however, we have to let go, not allowing it to drain emotional and spiritual energy. One of the devil’s favorite tactics is to keep us focused on things we can’t change, so as to keep us from changing what we can.

That’s a general warning. As regards the specific issue, finding spiritual directors who can give helpful guidance to mystics, it is hard for me to say much more. But I’ll try.

Clarifying Our Terms

The reason it’s hard to address is simple. The words mystic, mystical, and mysticism are not precise. Different people mean different things by them. I am not exactly sure what you mean when you refer to “modern mystics.” I am not sure what you mean when you say that some people think God no longer acts “in this way” with his people. In all fairness, then, I should tell you what I mean by the term. I will use it as a synonym for the more technical, theological term “infused contemplation.” Infused contemplation is a kind of prayer in which the soul no longer does anything and God reaches down and does everything, elevating the person to an ineffable experience of the divine presence. As St. Teresa described it, prayer is when we water the garden of our souls; infused contemplation is when God sends a thunder shower to water it for us.

This can occur in a quiet way, in which the only one aware of it is the one who is praying. Or it can occur in an ecstatic way, in which everyone is aware of it through related phenomena like levitating or the experience of auras.

I don’t use the term as a synonym for miracles. Miraculous experiences of God’s presence can happen without infused contemplation – for example, the experience of visionaries or of people receiving interior locutions. I realize that not everyone will agree with my use of terms. I also realize that by defining them in this way, I may be attempting to answer a question you didn’t ask! But at least you know what I’m talking about.

Removing Misunderstandings

Certainly God continues to work in this way. Every priest has to study this phenomenon in his preparation for ordination during his course on spiritual theology. If any clergy have told you otherwise, perhaps they misunderstood your question, or maybe there was some miscommunication. At least, I hope so.

The experience you describe of difficulty in finding an apt spiritual guide in this situation is not unique to our epoch. If you are not yet familiar with the lives of mystics from past periods, I would recommend that you read the lives of St. Theresa of Avila (1500s), St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1600s), and even St. Faustina Kowalska (1920s). If I am not mistaken, each one of them experienced deep and prolonged suffering because of the difficulty they had in finding sure guidance. I would even venture to say that finding dependable spiritual guidance is part of the cross for souls who are given this charism. That doesn’t mean anyone is at fault for it. Judging by precedent, we can say that God usually uses this struggle to help purify the soul. So then the question becomes, what is the most fruitful way to carry on that struggle?

Jesus promised that “the one who searches always finds” (Matthew 7:8). I would advise you and those like you to pray and search for a spiritual director gifted with enough wisdom to guide you competently. In the meantime, don’t feel as if you have to discuss all of your spiritual experiences in confession. If you don’t have confidence that the confessor will respect you, simply mention your sins and failings without going into anything else, and gladly receive God’s grace through that sacrament. And remember, a good spiritual director doesn’t necessarily have to have experienced mysticism himself in order to guide you effectively. He or she simply has to be someone who is coherent in their vocation and knows the Lord deeply and personally.

Tempting Mystics

But now I want to mention the most important thing. The devil is not absent from the lives of people who are gifted with this kind of experience. In fact, he may be more active. He will tempt you towards arrogance, thinking that because you have been given this gift you are superior to others, both laity and clergy. He will tempt you towards self-sufficiency, thinking that because it’s hard to find a spiritual director you can just figure everything out on your own. He will tempt you towards a subtle spiritual gluttony, thinking that because you have experienced infused contemplation at times, you should always be experiencing it, and therefore prompting you to try and manufacture it every time you pray. He will tempt you towards a subtle impurity of intention, making you pray and do spiritual things in order to experience the delightful mystical gifts, instead of simply seeking to glorify God. The devil may even try to trick you by concocting counterfeit mystical experiences, as he did with St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Unfailing Defense

The sure defense against these and other wily attacks is to take Jesus’ motto as your own: Thy will be done. The test of holiness is not the presence, frequency, or intensity of mystical experience. Rather, it is union of wills. Ask yourself each day, preferably in an evening examination of conscience: How faithfully am I avoiding sin and the occasions of sin? How faithfully am I fulfilling the responsibilities of my state in life? How can I do so more faithfully? How faithfully am I carrying out my Lord’s commandment of charity (“Love one another as I have loved you” – John 15:12) in thought, word, and deed, towards relatives, friends, acquaintances, and strangers? How can I do so more faithfully? How energetically am I striving to build up the Church and the world around me? Pay special attention to your words, using them always for good and avoiding all useless criticism. Make sure that your prayer life is always feeding your Christlike living.

This is the difference between Christianity and so many Gnostic pseudo-religions. The latter put mystical experience at the pinnacle of religion; Christ put grace-empowered, self-forgetful love there. If you strive to do the same, you will find meaning even in the midst of the challenges and suffering that mystical experience brings into your life. And you will grow in holiness and give God’s grace more and more room to work in you and through you.

I will leave the last word to St. Teresa of Avila: “Don’t seek feelings of consolations in prayer. Seek the Lord, seek to conform your will to his! If the Lord chooses to give delights and consolations, be grateful, but let them accomplish the purpose for which they were given: to encourage us to persevere in daily taking up our cross and following him.”

As I finish writing this answer, I am sending up a prayer for your continued growth in holiness. God bless you!

Yours in Christ, Fr. John Bartunek, LC

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Art for this post on mysticism and spiritual direction: Art: A Hermit Praying, Gerrit Dou, between 1645 and 1675, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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