I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a mystic. But I’ve discovered that word makes some people, particularly non-charismatic evangelicals, nervous, so let me explain. By “mystic” I mean a person whose devotional life is characterized by intensely affecting spiritual experiences. These experiences may be in the realm of simple theological insight, or they may take more literary forms. At times they may cross over into the realm of prophecy; that is, dreams, visions, words, and phrases laden with theological context.
From a natural perspective, mysticism can come from two sources. It can be personal, or social: On the social spectrum, mysticism can be presented as something to aspire to. Some Christian traditions – the Pentecostals, the Orthodox, some revivalist traditions – present mysticism in such a way that it seems to be the only way to have a properly Christian devotional life. At the other extreme, some traditions, particularly the Reformed and Protestants as a whole, seem to perceive mysticism at best as something useless, at worst as something suspiciously unchristian, smacking of Papism, adding to scripture, even beckoning the demonic. On the personal spectrum, a person could be naturally predisposed to have certain kinds of experiences, or they could find themselves completely unable to do so, or they could be somewhere in between. (Please note that, for the sake of simplicity, I’m lumping what a person thinks about these things in with the social scale.)
The difficulty, of course, comes when a person’s natural predisposition doesn’t align very well with the tradition they find themselves in. I’ve heard many a story of someone coming under the impression that the validity of their devotional life, and even their salvation, is to be defined by the intensity of their mystical experience. If it so happens that they also have some measure of innate mystical capacity, bully for them. But if not… these people usually find themselves either rebuffed from Christianity entirely, or moving on to some other group with a bitter taste in their mouths. Sometimes it happens the other way as well.
I am not a mystic by choice; quite the opposite, and part of this has to do with my personality – INFJs have “an unusually rich inner life.” Frankly I am mystified (pun not intended) by people who give every evidence of true conversion, strong character, and true Christian feeling and yet have no mystical inclinations whatsoever. For me, to live without regular mystical experiences is to live practically as an atheist – without any reference to God whatsoever; it is to flirt with apostasy. In other words, if I’m not having these kinds of experiences, it’s because I’m not praying.
Which brings me to a problem. INFJs also think, which is fine – being a mystic doesn’t mean turning your brain off. But when I think, I am intensely analytical, and I grew up in a tradition that isn’t. They aren’t thoughtless, but systematic theology and comparative historical theology aren’t exactly things that make my revivalist and pentecostal friends’ toes tingle. It does mine. Actually it fires up a little button in my heart only millimeters across from the one that makes me see things when I pray. And I found, as I became more and more fond of theology, that I was moving away from my revivalist/pentecostal background, which had little place for that sort of thing, and toward something that is referred to, in polite circles, as Calvinism.
Now I could argue for you that John Calvin, and in fact most all the reformers, and Augustine, and anybody else important that you like, were all for mysticism, but it doesn’t negate the fact that culturally in those circles, mysticism is frowned upon. And as I became more and more accustomed to the culture surrounding the Reform tradition, contra a pentecostal/revival tradition, I found that I didn’t know how to pray.
The manner in which we pray, in which I pray – the phraseology, the scriptures that we quote, what we mean when we say certain things, all of them – are bound up in the culture of the church. I could go to any Southern Baptist church in this country and pray with them a prayer that was in everything the embodiment of Southern Baptist theology, and I would find, even as I prayed, that I didn’t quite mean what I was saying the way it was normally understood. The same applies to nearly every non-denominational, pentecostal/charismatic, word-of-faith, Bible church in the country. Our devotional life, our prayers, even our private prayers, are couched, not only in our theology, but in the milieu of the particular church to which we belong. No man ever prays alone.
And as I was transitioning, I had no idea with whom it was that I was praying. I was finding myself a mystical, charismatic, Calvinist. Now you tell me, what kind of prayer is that? Nearly overnight, I found that I had gone from bold and impassioned “prayer warrior” to a newling, faltering in his words like a day-old convert on the temple steps.
This is turning into something of a pubic confession,and I think that is right, so I want to make it clear: What I should have done was to have pressed on, to have kept on praying, day after day, feeble halting prayers, knowing that, while I did not know what I was saying, the God who sits in heaven ever delights to answer the prayers of his saints. I didn’t press on. I didn’t know what I was saying, so I stopped saying. No prayer; no spiritual experience. No spiritual experience; “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” My heart grows cold.
Let me belabor this point: for my personal psychological makeup at least, this is no mere faltering or backsliding. I cannot compensate, spiritually, for a lack of prayer. This, more than anything else, is living as though there were no God – practical atheism. Apostasy. But I am still inclined to “ an unusually rich inner life,” and what can take the place of what Aquinas called “the beatific vision”? Nearly anything, but for me: romanticism, idyllic rumination, pornography – God help me – even theology. I am the man who tries to gloss over his failing zeal for God by pursuing ordination – possibly even the ordination to which he is legitimately called. Nevertheless, it is a glossing over, and he is perishing.
In the midst of this, yet God is gracious. Though I should have pressed on in prayer, what I was waiting for, even looking for, was first a model. God sent me a model in the form of a little blue book called The Practice of Piety by Charles Hambrick-Stowe. What I wanted was to see a culture that was Reformed and highly theological, yet importunate in prayer and given to mysticism, and that is exactly what Hambrick Stowe demonstrates in the lives of the New England Puritans. As I read it, the little chambers of my heart burst open with spikenard and myrrh.
And I remembered the book, and recommended it. But what is seminary, if not the reading of many great books while fully giving oneself to none? I moved on. First there was the money crisis, then there was the moving crisis, then there was the job crisis and the baby crisis, all little diversions from piety, when they should have been gaping wide opportunities for prayer. My heart stayed cold, unnaturally.
God has continued to be exceedingly gracious. He forced me out of an underpaying, over-pressured job, and while a month of unemployment is bad in every other way, for my personality it is perfect for remembering how to pray. He placed us in a community of churches that are part of the Reformed tradition, yet also unabashedly charismatic. Almost more importantly, they are desperately concerned for the spiritual growth of their members. CJ Mahaney has a motif you can easily get him on, about the importance of books for devotional life, and since we’ve been in the Sovereign Grace community, I’ve been hearing a lot more about them. I think I may sometime peruse and see what else there is to encourage me. In the mean time, I’ve tracked down my Puritan book again and I’m going to be reading it to remind me of what to pray and how to pray.
And deep inside my heart, increasingly more often, I feel a little warming, as if old, forgotten coals were found to be still burning: small corners of barely growing ash which call out a piercing quiet note. “All is not lost,” they say. “Though you have cast off, you have not been cast off. And He has bound you to him, sure as light is bound to day.”
Oh Lord, remember me to pray.