“Mysticism” and “mystics” may often convey a sense of exotic and extreme, if not fanatical, religion. Yet in the history of religions, mystics serve as guides to the spiritual life, which they have often explored in great depth.
Female and male mystics have contributed significantly to shaping the world’s religious traditions. Within the history of Christianity, Saint Teresa of Avila and her spiritual brother, Saint John of the Cross, as well as other Roman Catholic and Protestant mystics, testify to a more vital and profound relationship with Christ and God.
Here, intellect and feeling can be equally engaged in approaching that highest spiritual goal of the mystic life, in which creator and creature join so intimately that we speak of a “mystic union” between God and the believer.
Such intimate relationships between God and human beings have, at times, generated great tensions between mystics and church leaders, even inviting outright persecution.
For many mystics, experience became more important than correct belief or institutional boundaries, so that some became voices of religious tolerance in an age unkind to religious diversity.
Often, mysticism is misunderstood as inviting passiveness and religious inactivity. But Evelyn Underhill, the great British writer on spiritual development, sees — in her book, “Mysticism” — this quiet as an inward stillness that readies the believer for outward action.
Mystics through the ages have indeed exhibited remarkable activity, some becoming leaders in monastic settings. Saint Teresa of Avila reformed her order. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess living in the Middle Ages, gave advice to popes and rulers. This creative and gifted writer, composer and visionary has become, in our time, an icon of female spirituality.
Maura Hanrahan on depression
Female mystics still speak to modern people, as a Newfoundland writer demonstrates.
Maura Hanrahan, award-winning author of “Tsunami: The Newfoundland Tidal Wave Disaster” and several other works, including one on the life and ministry of Brother Jim McSheffrey, has recently published a new book, “Spirit and Dust: Meditations for Women with Depression.”
Hanrahan’s title alludes to a poem by Emily Dickinson, in which the American poet wrote,
Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust
“Dissolve,” says Death — The Spirit, “Sir, I have another Trust.”
After three serious episodes of chronic or long-term depression in her life, Hanrahan felt compelled to share with readers her experiences and the spiritual comforts she derived in reading female mystics from the Middle Ages to the present.
Finding no answer to the “why” of her condition, she found it more fruitful to examine “the actual experience of depression.” Her own depression was little helped by anti-depressants, but lifted spontaneously and seems to have been related to other medical issues. Therapy had limited usefulness, but meaningful relationships and activities and support from loving people were particularly helpful in restoring the author’s health.
Thematic reflections on her own journey into darkness and living with depression, as well as the hope and healing that she encountered, are followed on each page with a poignant saying from a female mystic.
So, the guilt internalized by the sufferer finds relief in the word of Blessed Julian of Norwich, “For I saw no wrath on man’s side, and He forgives that in us.”
Likewise, corrosive and merciless shame, “a mix of loathing and hatred” directed at oneself, is, according to Hanrahan, somewhat inadequately helped by the body’s own rush of adrenalin that “kick-starts the mind” from total self-destruction.
Here Saint Jane de Chantal speaks comfort: “Do not worry about your perfection, or about your soul. God to whom it belongs, and to whom you have completely entrusted it, will take care of it and fill it with all the graces, consolation and blessings of His holy love.”
Spiritual mentoring and practice took the author out of herself and “into relationship with God and with the Mystery that surrounds us and of which we are part.”
As she expresses it in her epilogue, “the words of the women mystics are potent medicine,” which she also hopes may have restorative powers for other female sufferers, for whom her book was written.
The book is published by Acta Publications and can be ordered by phone (800-397-2282) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hans Rollmann is a Professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email: email@example.com.