My regular readers know that I am what is called a “mystic”: a faithful who seeks union with God even beyond communion, who feels her relationship with the Divine flow into dissolution. Oneness. Inseparability. This means that the most important aspect of my life is lived or at least sought through unmediated grace. Perhaps, being careful with language, one might say it is as unmediated as it gets here, on this Earth. This is what mysticism is. It has a tradition in all major religions, and I am not the first nor the last Catholic mystic—and I am proud of and humbled by my company.
I do encounter skepticism at times, not even so much personal as institutional and scholarly in the Church, because Catholicism makes a particular emphasis on mediation. In a fitting turn of irony, the very first reading I assign my students in an introductory course to Catholic thought (a section on the nature of faith from Catholicism in the Third Millenium by Thomas Rausch, 2nd ed., The Liturgical Press; 2003) contains a language that exemplifies my dispute with the author’s school of thought, and I use it to demonstrate critical reading to the class: “…[T]here are some deeper reasons … for the Catholic suspicion of a religious language that is overly personal and emotional,” says Rausch. “For Catholics, knowledge of God is always a mediated knowledge; God is not experienced directly in some kind of spiritual inwardness or personal revelation” (p. 21).
Though throughout, in my judgment, an excellent book – accurate, sensitive, balanced, and nuanced for an initial introduction – the volume, as we all do, has its biases and problems, and Thomas Rausch is careless in this sentence. It is the word “always” that takes him too far. At the heart of Catholic Christianity are recorded prophetic and mystical traditions that stem from ancient Israel and run through the 20th century. Elijah heard his call in a still, small voice, discovering the “spiritual inwardness” of God’s presence in the midst of the emptiness of outward signs, before 8th century BCE. Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, and a long procession of medieval mystics poured their words of intimate and passionate love and very personal answers of revelation into poetry and prose. Thomas Merton, contemplatives of last and this centuries understand themselves dissolve into the Divine Reality that blends and erases cultural concepts and boundaries. Catholic Charismatic groups are springing up here and there across continents. Most sincere believers have attributed to the work of the Spirit, now and then – at least once – some great inspiration in their minds, or a swell of hope in their hearts in the midst of hardship, or an overwhelming sense of being loved during a lonely time.
Though we could have a separate and involving conversation about whether any awareness of God is, strictly speaking, completely unmediated, Christianity not only allows – it is built, founded upon – spiritual inwardness and personal revelation. Surrounded by his community searching for answers but still blind to the truth, Simon to be Peter encountered his ultimate meaning in the mediated and yet unmediated reality of God in front of him, and he said, “You are the Christ.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed it to you but my Father in heaven.”
The Gospels are a series of conversions.
A conversion is an immersion into faith.
Faith is an embrace between a soul and God.
Mystical union strives for immediacy and intimacy, and that’s the way it started for me – immersion. This immersion is my treasure and gift, the spring that feeds all corners of my life. Still, now that I am calmer in my everyday ecstasy, now that I am more settled and secure in my relationship with God, in my trust in it and my awareness of its intimate constancy – perhaps the next step for me is coming to understand, really to articulate for myself what the Church is talking about: the mediated grace. Rausch might be too quick to dismiss the unmediated, but the experience and concept he positively describes are nothing to ignore: they are those of Church as sacrament. God reaching each through community, and all through each. Grace flowing through the assembly coming together for symbolic action, through the billion-mouthed gasp of wonder at the mystery articulated by a two-thousand-year-old tradition. Grace trickling through human touch of compassion, through the work of art, through the beauty of the world. That, too, is the bedrock of Christianity. The other shore of the river. It is only because the acknowledgement of everyday living of mystical union in today’s world is such an uphill battle that I’ve left my inquiry into mediated grace for later. It is only because I’ve been living surrounded by mediated grace since I was born, as much as you have been, and hearing it praised in terms as diverse as the cultures who praised it that I’d taken it for granted. It is only because we don’t tend to disagree about it very much that it becomes often an afterthought – until the day suddenly it’s not.
Together with most of the rest of Creation, I am no stranger to mediated grace. It would be enough to say that I grew up loved and knew about beauty. I didn’t call it “grace” then, and I understood even less of what I was encountering than I do now, that’s all. I could say all that and more, but this line of thought would take us too far away from what Thomas Rausch is trying to say. So let me say instead that, as much as my Christianity was born (though not conceived) in a flood of revelation and the ecstasy of mystical union, in some ways, I was led very quickly and from the beginning of my conscious journey to the need for and the life in mediated grace in the Church.
After only three or four months of basking in pure glory of God, trying to wrap my mind around it, hearing answers to the questions that had torn jagged, seeping wounds in my soul and wouldn’t let them heal, more flying than walking through every day, I came to understand that there would be more to it than that. That more had happened than an improvement in my mood, so to speak. More even than a brand new worldview filling every nook in my head and a loudly ticking, newly minted, perfectly fitting heart in my chest. That there was action now and belonging, connection and imperative, and that my life would never be the same. I was drawn to the Eucharist. Drawn to come to it in powerful, longing ways – with a strange hunger and the shaking of fingers, feeling deprived and entitled and exiled in my waiting, on my long trek home through the desert, and the altar was my pillar of light in the night. The year I spent in RCIA was supposed to prepare me for baptism, but it was my pilgrimage to the table of the Lord. The test of the endurance of faith, the steadiness of my fire.
Every Sunday I watched the mystery happen before my eyes and permeate the world, and then I stepped aside as hundreds of people streamed past me to the altar and put their lips to His body and dipped them in His blood and didn’t seem to give it a second thought. And they didn’t weep, and they didn’t tremble, and alone and rejected in my pew I could not understand how they could take it so for granted. I cried into my hands, pretending to pray, then, and would – not hear – feel Him whisper to me in a still, small voice, “Patience. Patience.”
I still cry at Eucharist, sometimes with tears. Shivers and shaking and the trembling of fingers. Enveloped in the love of Christ every moment of my life, leaning into His arms whether I laugh or grit my teeth, feeling His presence and talking to Him in silly voices when no one can hear, I still – and I hope, always – feel the Earth sink from under my feet when, once a week, we get to touch.
This is sacrament. Mediation of grace we can effect. A wondrous concept in itself. Sacrament is mystery, and so it draws us in and dissolves our boundaries. That we can bring about mystery at will is a gift I am not sure we ever adequately appreciate, for it is the culmination and epitome of the sacramental principle of the universe through which we move and in which we have our being.
Another, related, and different gift is the sacramentality available to us every time we open our eyes and ears and are willing to become aware of it. In the overwhelming, all-embracing splendor of the sky. The quivering of a violin string. The shape of a human wrist. This is the mediation of grace we can perceive. Thank God for that. We move through life surrounded by and constantly offered a million ways to perceive God, and as much as I cherished beauty and inquiry before, since the day of conversion, every day I’ve been discovering more, realizing more depth of their grace.
What I didn’t quite realize and began to articulate to myself only a while into my Christian life is what it means to receive God by means of other people. This, very possibly, currently is my most pronounced regular series of discoveries.
I’ve always had other people, and, looking back on my life’s length, as desperately alone as I sometimes felt, it was mostly through them that Love was reaching me. I never was alone in humanity, I always knew that, and for the sake of those others and with their help I lived, worked, smiled, spilled my sweat and tears. Let me say it again. Before I could ever know it, name it, or glimpse even a fraction of the joy it offered, the Grace of God mediated through the love of other people had saved my life every day, kept me going until I could stand on my own, and made me what I am.
I did what I could under my circumstances and within my understanding to return the favor to humanity: I tried to help. To help teach, to help heal, to help feed. To help make peace. I had done, fighting through more fatigue and disorder, nevertheless all the same things I try to do now, before I ever looked at a face distorted by pain and saw in it the Suffering Christ. Before I ever named Him, knew Him, or given myself consciously to Him, His saving grace had set me on my path and kept me honest.
I’ve always had other people. I’ve always had the mediated grace they could deliver, if I might say, unbeknownst to me. What I did not have was the mediated grace that has to be consciously passed on and consciously received. The love of God talked about. Serenity extended. Forgiveness offered and explained. Hope – perpetuated, shared, and embodied. Only in the last couple of years have I discovered this treasure, first through my fellow parishioners and Holy Child sisters and then, every day greater and more deeply, through my Dominican sisters. Coming together with them, I began to realize that there was an aspect of mediation the Church (and Thomas Rausch) consider possibly of the most important that I had never fully explored, wrapped up in my mystical union and accustomed to taking summits on my own. Coming together with my people of the Church, I began to experience the sparkle of a different face of this divinely shaped diamond: Church as sacrament. This is not the jaw-dropping, awe-filled mystery of the flowing essence of realities but the simple and comfortable, everyday mystery of the constant presence of the Spirit in the midst of the Body of Christ. Breathing, working, laughing, hugging, accepting, mourning, utterly dependable, profoundly honest, questioning, hopeful, never defeated, filled with faith, inspiration, and joy – one body, interconnected, one spirit, one Church.
I’ve always had other people through love and through need, but only now, in the Church, have I begun to understand really what it means to receive God by means of other people: seeing not only Christ’s suffering in human suffering but Christ’s Love in human love. Feeling it flow in my direction and seeing His smile in a human smile. Rising after prayer, discussion, or sharing renewed, restored, and re-filled with Him from coming in contact with these people who belong to Him consciously. People who mediate His grace for me.
This is mediated grace always around we can perceive that we can effect also. This grace is two gifts in one: we give and receive it at once. I cannot imagine ever adequately appreciating this unthinkable treasure, not in this life – its value is infinite, its mystery unfathomable, its life-saving force ineffable. But then, perhaps it’s a good thing that we can’t grasp it fully. This way, we get to spend our lives marveling at it, basking in its glory, cherishing its goodness, adding to it from our hearts as carefully and as fully as we possibly can, never to worry that the journey will run out.