What Makes a Modern Mystic?

Mysterious Ways|Apr/May 2020

What Makes a Modern Mystic?
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.
Rick Hamlin

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.

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Apr/May 2020