In the Classics of Western Spirituality edition of the Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, Benedictine scholar Jean Leclercq, OSB offers the follow definition of “mystical experience”:
…those rare occasions when a handful of Christians may enjoy sublime states of prayer and union with God.
What do you think? I have problems with the idea that mystical states are “rare” and only available to a “handful” of Christians. Perhaps Leclercq is trying to protect the integrity of the “sublime” nature of the mystical by suggesting it is so uncommon. If mystical experience happened to most people, most of the time, wouldn’t it cease to be sublime?
I don’t know if that’s what LeClercq is saying or not. But it’s a line of argument that I’ve seen before: what makes mystical spirituality “special” is precisely how rare it is. It’s thinking about spirituality in an economic way: gold if more valuable than iron because gold is harder to find. That which is freely available is worth less than that which is hard to find.
So by that line of thinking, what makes the mystical precious is precisely how scarce it is. But I have a hard time accepting this kind of narrative. God’s love is freely available to all people, and yet nothing is more valuable, more precious. The Divine economy, thank Heaven, operates on a different set of values than our creaturely human economy. In the heavenly economy, the more precious and valuable something is, the more lavishly, freely, joyfully it is offered to all. Love, after all, is the only “possession” we have that grows only when you give it away. And mystical experience, it seems to me, is all about love.
So I’m willing to play with Leclercq’s idea that the mystical involves “sublime states of prayer and union with God.” But I’m with Karl Rahner: “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist.” Unless we want Christianity itself to be “rare” and only practiced by a “handful” of people, that means all of us — no matter how messy and imperfect our lives might be — need to be opening our hearts and minds to the possibility, the availability, of profound transformation that arises from prayer and union with God.
So what do you think? Is mystical Christianity for everyone who seeks it? Or just for the chosen few?