Every family has its weirdos. For some it is Aunt Trudy (the cat-lady), Cousin Sarah (who still can't hold down a job), or maybe Uncle Chet, who always, always speaks his mind—whether his thoughts have anything to do with the occasion at hand ... or not. We try not to exclude these characters from family gatherings, but sometimes we are (shamefully) relieved when they're unable to attend.
It is no different with the family of the Christian church. We have more than our share of odd-balls, characters we begrudgingly include in our history texts. Many of these fringe-dwellers have been relegated to a club, affectionately ("bless their hearts") referred to as the "Mystics."
Thanks to a recent "Spirituality of the Mystics" class at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, I have been drawn back to those often outcast writers of old. Those strange sages of spirituality (Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jan van Ruusbroec, etc.) have quirkily burrowed themselves once again inside my soul, inspired my imagination, and have even renewed my hope for the church and our sacred mission.
What to do with the weirdos?
There is little doubt that the Mystics are a complicated band of personalities: desert-dwellers and pole-sitters, ascetics and scholars. Their discourses are often difficult to follow, full of foreign metaphor and rhetorically tedious, to say the least. To put it even more frankly, much of that world is downright scandalous to our modern sensibilities.
My friend Chuck Conniry recently said that many of the mystics would likely find themselves hospitalized if transported to today: talking to animals (Francis of Assisi), bizarre wounds, possibly self-inflicted (stigmata) and self-destructive eating disorders (the fasting of Catherine of Siena.)
Scandalous? Yes, the Mystics are. But let us not wholly dismiss our obscure aunts and uncles. There is much for us to glean and utilize from the lives and teachings of these ancient guides.
To that end, I was recently inspired to ask this question: What contributions can the Mystics make to the 21st century proclamational mission of the church?
- The gift of the "messy." Broader society often dismisses the church today because it is perceived as fake. That's right, fake. We reinforce that perception—often unknowingly—when we present a triumphalistic message fueled by the illusion that Christianity is always clean, neat, together, well-dressed and convinced. "Perfection" smells like "manufactured and manipulated" (think of the movies The Truman Show or The Stepford Wives).
In contrast, the mystics give us story after story of struggle, of organic, clumsy pursuits of God, including: embracing extreme poverty, rejecting broader society, and scandalous acts of devotion. A whimsical and affectionate story about one of our odd-relatives could help open a transparent faith conversation. (For more, read Messy by A.J. Swoboda.)
- The gift of the ancient. Most people live in a world that is only 15 minutes old. Everything they interact with is immediate, shrink-wrapped, faddish, fleeting, and transient. Most people don't even have intimate relationships with their own grandparents, let alone a sense of being part of an ancient tradition that has been tested by time and reaffirmed by generation after generation. We are titillated by the words of a pop-star (or a pop-preacher), but the human-soul is ultimately inspired by time-tested wisdom. The mystics, within the surrounding cloud of witnesses, can give our neighbors a link to the ancient that the rest of society has neglected. (For more, read Beyond Smells and Bells by Mark Galli.)
- Expanding our metaphoric vocabulary. The church is perceived by many to be verbally constipated. Our vocabulary is as predictable and unimaginative as the trinkets in a religious bookstore. We describe God by well-worn images such as "lion," "king," or "Lord," but would we dare to refer to God as a "rainbow," "black widow," or "grandmother"? Heck, Jesus displayed the Divine as an Unjust Judge, a wind, and a fig-tree murderer. The teachers we choose help us explore the boundaries of our vocabulary. The mystics were far more courageous than most of our modern thinkers. Maybe we could lean on them to expand our rhetorical comfort zone and thus light a more imaginative fire in the souls of our neighbors.
- Helping us bring the creation (environment) into our spiritual dialogue. One of my dearest friends has left the Christian faith. He is sincerely inspired by the life of Jesus and even fondly respects many of the Christians in his life. However, he flatly refuses to be a Christian. Once I pressed him to explain to me why. The first thing he said with passion and supreme sorrow in his eyes was, "I have tried to believe, but I cannot get past the fact that Christianity has no coherent and practiced theology of earth-care." For the sake of my friend and many more of our nature-devoted neighbors, I hope that stories like those of Francis of Assisi (who loved all creatures) and Ignatius of Loyola (who teaches us to find the voice of God in all created things) help provide language for the church's long-held (if minority) dedication to environmentalism. (Look for Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis, releasing October, 2014, from Baker Academic.)
- Show us we are not alone. Loneliness is becoming epidemic in society today. Our detached and depersonalized culture starves people's souls, and the resulting entertainment and consumption addictions keep people trapped in those pain-filled states. The writings of the mystics are littered with many a "dark night of the soul" and they can help us demonstrate how spiritual pain and loneliness are an integral part of the human experience. (For more, read Leadership Journal'sFall 2011 issue on "dark nights of the soul" in ministry.)
- Illustrating that "we are all on spiritual journey." It seems counter-intuitive to my life-long religious training, but in our culture today, it often breeds credibility for me to lean on teachings—like those of the Mystics—that I cannot fully explain or cite teachers that I do not even fully agree with. Each time I do, I communicate to my neighbor that I am actively wrestling with my faith, that my hope is not in my thinking alone but in God, and that I am open to new ideas (which is exactly what I am asking my neighbor to be).
- Bringing reciprocal exchange to cross-spiritual conversations. If my neighbor sees that I am willing to learn from weirdos (especially if I can do it in a laugh-at-myself, non-anxious way), they may in turn believe that I am willing and wanting to learn from them as well. There is nothing as powerful as a cross-spiritual conversation fueled by genuine exchange, genuine mutual trust and affection, and genuine hearts for learning.
Weirdos in the pews
Well, I don't know about you, but I am convinced. Even though there is no doubt that many of the Mystics dabbled in the heretical. It is also true that most of these characters would make for challenging additions to any modern congregation. But still, for the above reasons and many more, there is much for us to learn from these weirdos of old.
But before we go, this conversation begs one more question. If I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the oddballs of yester-year, then what about the oddities of today? Am I also open to affording them the same benefit? I am talking about the unique personalities that walk the halls and foyer of most every church. You know who they are: syrupy-spiritual-lady, the one-issue activist, mumbles-to-himself, always-raises-hand, passion-prayer, always-critical, under-socialized, never-speaks, the list-keeper, old-curmudgeon, young-zealot, Bible-thumper, political-extremist, etc.
Will I offer them my ear; treat them as my teacher?
If there is one thing that the Mystics remind us, it is that God is not limited in the palette the Divine might draw from in order to reveal the Kingdom to the world. If I believe that God is truly an unhindered communicator, then I must even open my learning to the weirdos all around me: across history, and across the pew.
Tony Kriz is a writer and church leader from Portland, Oregon, and Author in Residence at Warner Pacific College.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.