The Mystical Life
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, June 12, 2016
Let me begin with a quote from Walt Whitman which could be said by every mystic in every tradition, “I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least.” And this by Fr. Thomas Hopko, “You can’t know God but you have to know him to know that.”
Now to the reading.
John's Gospel reflects a cosmic and mystical vision that touches down in the human heart. It reveals God’s plan not only for humanity, but for the whole of creation.
Today John directs us to the Lord’s prayer for union called the High Priestly Prayer. He prays specifically that his disciples would realize the truth that the same union he shared with his Father, he had also shared with them. “I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom Thou hast given Me, for they are Thine; all Mine are Thine, and Thine are Mine, and I am glorified in them.”
Undergirding this prayer is the mystical theology that resides at the heart of Orthodox spirituality. God the Father is wholly transcendent, he cannot be known or defined. Only the Son has seen him and only the Son can reveal him. Our connection with the Father comes through the Son who makes him known. “Do you not yet know, Phillip, that when you have seen me you have seen the Father?”
This knowledge of God is not an analytical and philosophical kind of knowledge, but a “saving knowledge”. A knowledge that is intimate and personal. It is love. A Communion that envelops the whole person. The Father glories the Son and the Son glorifies the Father. Here that word means “to make luminous.” This luminosity is shared also with us.
Our theology leads to radiance, to a perceptible divine radiance. St. Seraphim of Sarov and his disciple Nicholas shone like the sun in the dark, snowy woods as Jesus did on Mt. Tabor. St. Symeon the New Theologian saw this light flashing from him as every last part of his body and soul became radiant. As we become like him, this glory reveals itself as the heart overflows with love and the soul is filled with light.
Since the mind cannot perceive God it must be quieted and calmed. Then it must descend into the heart and soul where the Holy Spirit resides in the temple not-made-by-hands. St. Gregory of Nyssa writes, "For the Divine is too noble and lofty to be indicated by a name: and we have learned to honor by silence that which transcends reason and thought."
This is a silence free from the idols of thought and reason. Thought creates an illusory wall of separation of concepts that are nothing more than idols – gods of our own making. And so, the spiritual life calls for a self-emptying, a kenosis of the mind. As Jesus emptied himself and descended, so must we. This kenosis is the path to silence.
When the mind is silent, the soul awakens and then we can see clearly for the primary power of the soul is sacred mindfulness. The soul looks both outside and inside, the observer of the physical world and the interior world, as the observer and not the participant in the chaos it sees. It is there, in that mysterious temple of the Holy Spirit, that internal kingdom of heaven, where all things find their proper place and our union with God is consummated.
The union Christ prayed for has always been, only now the unconscious knowledge stored in the soul is made conscious. God has always been there and we have been blinded to his presence.
Lady Julian of Norwich, the English mystic, proclaims, “Between God and the soul there is no in between,” as does Alan Watts when he writes, “The fact of union simply is…” and we know this, as the Gospel of John tells us, because the Incarnation of the Son of God has made it plain.
So, we must learn the art of silence. We must learn to sit in stillness. The noisy internal dialogue that fills our minds must be allowed to drift to the bottom like debris in a troubled spring. And as the water clears the face of God will be seen reflected on its still surface. We must make peace in our own hearts, as Seraphim said, and then we must guard that peace and allow nothing to take it away, as the Elder Thaddeus taught.
To see God, we must become the peacemakers of our own souls.