The World the Mystics Inhabited
Ineffable Longings, Incarnation, and the Sacramental Imagination
I received a letter the other day that read:
"I've been turning to the saints a lot lately. Primarily the mystics. I love my Catholic faith and admit to feeling at times that there has to be more, more of what, I haven't sorted out yet.
"I feel like a fringe Catholic most days because I feel like while so many find what they need at Mass, and Mass is heaven on earth no doubt, I feel there is so much more beyond the Mass to experience, like a converging of faith, tradition and magic- but magic isn't really the correct word but I haven't been able to find the right word.
"I'm confident the mystics lived in this space that I know is there but I've been unable to bring definition to it, I'm a college professor so my inability thus far to wrangle this inexpressible feeling has been a bit frustrating - as I re-read this I'm realizing how I might appear a bit scattered and off- but this longing to bring shape and clarity to this feeling I have led me to a Google search where I landed at your place with an invitation to go off-roading, and I think off-roading is where I may find a way to bring shape and words to this longing I have inside, to experience more..."
We were about to start the Spiritual Off-Roading program. The author of this letter had just signed up for this adventure into Mystery, and was trying to put her finger on the same Nameless Something that draws all off-roaders to the wilderness.
It's not easy describing the ineffable. This seeker was “wrangling,” “eagerly awaiting,” “longing… to experience more.” While feeling like a “fringe Catholic,” she knew in her bones that “there has to be more.”
More what, though? Something like a “converging of faith, tradition, and magic-- but magic isn’t really the correct word but I haven't been able to find the right word.”
Whatever it is, it’s where the mystics lived.
"I feel there is so much more beyond the Mass to experience," she wrote, "like a converging of faith, tradition and magic- but magic isn't really the correct word but I haven't been able to find the right word."
Magic is as great a definition as any I’ve heard.
It’s what some call the sacramental imagination.
What is the Sacramental Imagination?
At its core, the sacramental imagination is a way of seeing.
One might say it is akin to magic. It’s the vision of the poet and artist, that looks through things instead of at them.
It is the sneaking suspicion that our regular haunts and hollows are inhabited by the holy.
It’s the symbolism and sacramentality of everything from bread and wine to children's laughter. Everything means something, is exploding with the Logos.
Logos, that fraught Greek word, can be translated as meaning, word, or reason. It is the principle of the universe, the meaning that inhabits and sustains all things, the flow connecting everything in existence.
Or, at least, that’s how many of the ancients understood it. One of the original Christian mystics penned perhaps the most potent three words in all of Scripture: Logos sarx egeneto. That is: Meaning became flesh.
The repercussions of the incarnation have everything to do with our workaday lives. Writers like Richard Rohr sometimes refer to this notion as the Universal Christ: that principle, the Logos, that existed before time began, and is present in all things. Because if Significance itself took on flesh, it is simply highlighting the fact that a divine mischief already inhabits all things.
Some call this panentheism. I call this sacramentality.
The sacramental imagination is the sneaking suspicion that our regular haunts and hollows are inhabited by the holy.
In my Catholic upbringing, we are taught that a sacrament is a material thing that makes present a spiritual reality. It’s more than just a symbol: bread, wine, and water; beads and cloth and hands all make present the divine in a totally tactile way. It’s one thing I love about my tradition: it’s absolutely embodied. There are plenty throughout history who have not lived it that way, but it is irrevocably woven into the fabric of the religion. Skin and bark mean something. You cannot be Catholic (or maybe even Christian!) and deny the holiness of material, especially the body.
Think about how much this changes your worldview when it is extended beyond rituals and into the world. That everything you touch (and smell! taste!) make present a divine reality.
Yes, that includes whatever you stepped in on your morning walk.
That includes your bitter morning coffee.
It includes your neighbor’s “Minnesota nice” smile from over the fence.
It includes the sixteen emails you’ve sent today, the socks your feet are in, the lovemaking two nights ago.
EVERYTHING IS MAGIC.
Everything makes present the divine! In churchy language, we’d call it an efficacious symbol. For those “capital S” Sacraments, that would mean the water doesn’t just symbolize cleansing, it actually does cleanse you in a profound way. The bread isn’t just a symbol of togetherness and nourishing; it actually brings about that shared union and nourishes our soul’s deepest center.
Skin and bark mean something. You cannot be Christian and deny the holiness of material, especially the body.
But if that’s the case, why aren’t we all walking around in perfect bliss all the time? If the divine is as close as my keyboard or my red blood cells, why aren’t we all living in perfect communion all the time?
The answer has to do with us. A sacrament’s impact is determined, at least in part, by our disposition.
Are you open? Ready to receive?
This makes sense of how varied our responses are before reality. One person may marvel at the mountain they drive by everyday (“Brandon, look at that MOUNTAIN! ...Hood, I am never going to get over you.”); another gets lost in their morning commute.
It’s like the parable of Eyes and No Eyes, out for a stroll one day:
"No-Eyes" has fixed his attention on the fact that he is obliged to take a walk. For him the chief factor of existence is his own movement along the road; a movement which he intends to accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as he can. He asks not to know what may be on either side of the hedges. He ignores the caress of the wind until it threatens to remove his hat. He trudges along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but oblivious of the light which they reflect.
"Eyes" takes the walk too: and for him it is a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder. The sunlight inebriates him, the winds delight him, the very effort of the journey is a joy. Magic presences throng the roadside, or cry salutations to him from the hidden fields. The rich world through which he moves lies in the fore-ground of his consciousness; and it gives up new secrets to him at every step.
"No-Eyes," when told of his adventures, usually refuses to believe that both have gone by the same road. He fancies that his companion has been floating about in the air, or beset by agreeable hallucinations. We shall never persuade him to the contrary unless we persuade him to look for himself.
(As recounted by Evelyn Underhill in Practical Mysticism - a book I highly recommend!)
Have we been taught to see? Do you have Eyes?
No-Eyes believes reality to be opaque: what you see is what you get.
Eyes knows reality to be transparent: objects and events are to be looked through more than looked at.
This is what leads the CS Lewises of the world to see a Narnia behind every wardrobe, and the GK Chestertons to miss their train because you got rapt up marveling at a spiderweb.
This is also the way of painters and poets, seers and sages. Whether through nature or through nurture, they see through things into its deeper reality. What does it mean? What is it making present?
This can be a beautiful spiritual practice: letting each object or animal reveal its “word” or “meaning” to you. Little squirrel: what was the divine trying to say when he spoke you into existence? Massive oak: what is the divine expressing through you? Screaming toddler: what is the divine making present?
I’m not saying any of us have the answers to these questions. And it’s not meant to be a head exercise, where you “figure out” or analyze. It’s a gaze of wonder.
Let each object or animal reveal its “word” or “meaning” to you. Little squirrel: what was the divine trying to say when he spoke you into existence? It's not something you figure out. It’s a gaze of wonder.
Perhaps the squirrel is revealing the part of God that is mischievous, or moves quickly in small and hilarious ways. Maybe the oak reveals strength in flexibility, or the cycles of change, or a vibrant verdancy. Maybe the toddler makes present a part of the divine that simply wants to be held.
How about you? What do you reveal about the divine? What was the divine trying to say when he spoke you into existence? Are you living into that meaning?
Bringing it All Together
With a sacramental imagination, you see the world differently. Situations and circumstances are pregnant with meaning, even if we cannot put words to them.
This is the world the mystics inhabited. Reality’s opaqueness dissolves before their unassuming gaze, and the Logos becomes apparent in All Things. From their avocado toast, to their surging emotions, to the light fixture above their heads: all incarnate (literally “enflesh”) the divine.
No wonder Rumi is always drunk on love and Francis is dancing and singing about Brother Sun and Sister Moon. There is a reason for their mischief, the sparkle in their eyes.
Their world is the same one you and I inhabit. Will you have Eyes, or No Eyes?
Kelly Deutsch is a personal growth coach, international speaker, and bestselling author of the book, Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.