Exploring the Makings of a Modern Day Mystic

During a day of silence, a Guideposts editor learns to open himself up to hearing from God.  

Posted in , Mar 24, 2020

A silouette of the back of a woman's head in mystical light.

I recently attended our church’s annual Quiet Day, during which we’d spend most of a Saturday sitting in silence, focusing on prayers and tuning out the noise of modern-day life to tune into God.

The whole thing reminded me of what mystics did in past eras. People who lived in the Middle Ages, say, or in Jesus’ time. Saints and figures from the Bible. You wouldn’t find them hunched over a computer like me—an ordinary dad, editor, writer and spiritual seeker. Or as the leader of a church prayer workshop. Or would you?

Quiet Day was led by a modest, unpretentious seventy-ish woman, whom I’ll call Nell. She served as our spiritual director, helping us grow in our faith. Nell structured the day into half-hour periods of silence, during which we scattered throughout the church before returning for more of her instruction. Each time we did, Nell suggested prayers and topics for us to focus on, giving glimpses of her own spiritual journey. With each story, I found myself wondering—are these the insights of a modern mystic?

Early in her career, Nell told us, she’d worked as an editor for a big New York publishing firm. Her boss was an irascible, demanding, intelligent man who contracted lung cancer after she’d been there only a couple years. Out of a sense of duty—and compassion—she would visit him in his dark ground-floor apartment. Most of the time, he had only unpleasant things to say, cursing a God he didn’t believe in, angry at a fate he couldn’t reverse, wishing he could simply delete the disease like a badly written paragraph. The only brilliance in the room came from his collection of cut-glass crystal.

One day, she got a call from the hospice nurse on duty. Time was running out. Nell dropped everything at work and headed to her boss’s apartment, dreading what she would have to face.

And yet his demeanor had completely changed. He held her hand. Nell talked about God’s love, about the hope of eternity. He nodded in acceptance, as though God had already reached out to him. A new strength came into his voice. He sank back into his pillow. His breathing slowed. Then stopped.

What happened next so startled Nell that she couldn’t move from her seat. A light entered the room. The gloom dissipated, and the man’s precious collection of cut glass shimmered all at once. He was gone...but not gone.

I liked the story. It was touching and vivid. But as we split up again and retreated into silence, I wondered what it had to say about my prayer life. What had happened to Nell was all God’s doing, nothing she did. She just happened to be a witness. What was so mystical about that?

At another break, she told a story about a husband and wife who couldn’t have children. The doctors said that the woman was unable to carry a child. So the couple began adoption proceedings. Then, sadly, the husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

On the last day of his life, two days before Christmas, the wife sat at his hospital bedside, holding her husband’s hand. “God told me that you are going to have a child,” he said. She nodded, trying to take in the news, even as she acknowledged its impossibility. How would she be able to adopt as a widow? In that era, a single woman would never be considered a viable candidate.

Ten years later, she remarried. She and her new husband soon looked into adoption. Maybe her first husband’s dying words would be fulfilled.

They were. Just not in the way she expected. Before the couple could even be accepted into an adoption program, she conceived—like a modern-day Elizabeth or Sarah. Despite what the doctors had said, despite the odds, she would fulfill God’s word. On Christmas Eve, she found herself in the same hospital where her first husband had died. This time it was to give birth to her son.

During our next quiet period, Nell sat in the pew next to me for a few minutes. Despite the task at hand, the editor in me could not be silenced.

“Was that story about you, Nell?” I asked her.

“Well, yes, it was. But I wasn’t the point of the story,” she replied.

Immediately, I knew why Nell had tried to disguise her identity. She’d wanted to avoid putting too much of a spotlight on herself in the excerpts she’d shared. This one had been directly about her, so she’d just taken herself out of it. Because telling it the way she’d experienced it would make it too easy for anyone listening to say, “Yes, well, she’s special. Not like me.” Wait a second. Was that what I’d been trying to do?

Nell left, and I sat there by myself. I glanced up at the stained-glass window, my favorite, of a descending dove in opalescent glass, the Holy Spirit dropping down on this holy place. Usually, when we were here, we were making noise, saying prayers, singing hymns, hearing Scripture, greeting each other in peace.

Now we were silent in a way that spoke volumes. It occurred to me that this is what mystics did. They quieted themselves down. They “waited for the Lord,” as the Psalmist puts it. They were willing to lose themselves to find themselves. To uncover the mysteries of life. Things happen to people like Nell not because they are in any way special or different from the rest of us, but merely because they are open to receiving what God offers, becoming more fully human by reaching for the divine. That’s something that’s accessible to all of us, and that’s mystical enough for me.

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