“Christian: The Path of Mysticism”

Sermon—9Feb14

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

This is the fourth sermon in a series entitled, “Christians.” In each sermon, I discuss a Christian I have known personally. Each sermon is independent. The earlier sermons are on our website. The idea is that reflecting on the lives of other Christians helps us to live our own lives of faith.

Canon Edward West was for many years the Sub-Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. He was the sort of eccentric clergyman you read about in English novels.

Bald and rotund with a beard and piercing eyes, he cast a formidable figure as he strode around our Cathedral, directing its elaborate services. He kept his cassock on outside of church as well, and he usually wore an ornate cross around his neck; he had a large collection of crosses that he assembled in the course of his travels.

Canon West was assigned an office in one of the buildings near the Cathedral. The office was filled from floor to its ceiling with shelves of books and stacks of papers and files. Canon West would sit at a desk in one end, and his secretary would be at a desk on the other end.

Sometimes I would go to Canon West for confession in his office and he would have to clear papers off a chair for me to sit in. The secretary would keep working, out of earshot, while I made my confession.

Other times, Canon West and I would meet in his apartment. His home, unlike his office, was scrupulously neat and beautifully furnished. His crosses and church ornaments were displayed in various cabinets, along with decorations he had received from Orthodox archbishops and British royalty.

After I made my confession, Canon West might give me lunch and a glass of strong ale; he loved good food and drink, and he was generous with his hospitality.

Now some of you may be wondering, “Was this really a good example for a Christian to set? Shouldn’t he have cared less for church honors and material pleasures like jewelry and food? How in the world could he be a follower of the mystical path?”

Well, even his greatest fans would have acknowledged that Canon West could be self-indulgent! One friend of mine who knew him well said he was, “Impossible!” A walking contradiction of holiness and human frailty. Canon West was “impossible,”—and yet my friend who said that went on to name his only son, “Edward.”

The reality was: Canon West was a rare breed of Christian who could love the good things of this life at the same time that he loved even more the things of the Spirit.

Once, he and I were in his office, and we were talking about life after death. I mentioned some intellectual questions that I was having at that time concerning the Christian teaching about immortality.

Canon West was silent for a moment. He seemed puzzled by my questions. Finally, he said, “I already see the next world. I long for it.”

Intellectual questions were irrelevant to him. He already felt the presence of Heaven and he was looking forward to being there.

Canon West was, I think, a genuine mystic. He could perceive spiritual realities that most of us can only imagine. In the case of immortality, he could experience the spiritual realm that the Bible talks about. For him, Heaven was a place just as real as Central Park.

In one of his books, Canon West wrote this about the first Christians’ idea of Heaven: “The Early Church was concerned not so much with life after death, but with ‘eternal’ life entered upon here and now. For the Early Church it was no empty phrase to talk about dying at the time of one’s baptism. It meant to them that by baptism they have died with Christ and were risen with him.” So, West concluded, the eventual dropping of the human body was not death in the ordinary sense, but something of a translation (from one state of being to another).”

Granted, Canon West was extraordinary. If he weren’t unusual, I wouldn’t be speaking about him. So what does his experience mean for the rest of us? Is mysticism an option for ordinary people?

I found personally that I could catch some of his spirituality just by being with him. When he talked of seeing the next world, I could almost see it, too.

Yet those who never knew Canon West personally can be reminded by his example that we human beings are able to approach the Divine. While mystics are rare, spiritual experience is not.

For a number of years, sociologists in England have run a vast program called the Experience Project. Every year, researchers ask a broad range of people whether they have at any time been able to discern the presence of any reality beyond this one.

What is remarkable about this Project is that most of the respondents answer, Yes. Even if they don’t belong to an organized religious group, they have had spiritual experiences. This research suggests that encounters with the transcendent aren’t rare.

After all, Canon West wasn’t born a mystic. At some point in his life, he must have stumbled onto God. Why couldn’t we be touched by God too?

We should also remember that there are degrees of religious experience. The Old Testament Patriarch, Jacob, once dreamed of a ladder going up to the sky; angels were coming down from Heaven on the ladder and ascending up to Heaven as well.

And so mystics have characterized the spiritual life as a “ladder.” It’s possible to be far less advanced spiritually than the mystics and yet still be on the path to God.

Since spirituality isn’t just for monks and nuns, maybe we should seek transcendence for ourselves!

Once in a while, stop what you’re doing and be quiet. Meditate for a few moments and see what happens. Don’t worry if you don’t see visions of Heaven. You may still be on the ladder, on your own journey toward the realm of the Spirit.

Canon West loved life. He loved his 30 godchildren. He loved his many friends and all the people who came to him for counsel.

And these loves were more possible because he loved God. He loved this life because he knew that it was a foretaste of Heaven.

Amen.


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