The Mystical Community by O’Neill D’Cruz

Every person is a special kind of mystic.

David Steindl-Rast

“A mystic is not a special kind of person. Every person is a special kind of mystic.” So affirms Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, echoing Ananda Coomaraswamy’s statement about artists. We covered mystical maps in the first part of this series, “The Mystical Canticle,” and mystical paths in “The Mystical Camino.” Now we turn to the community of mystics as they journeyed “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).

While mystics may have roots within a faith tradition, the wisdom of the Mystical Community enriches our common spiritual heritage. In this reflection, we first consider how mystics are perceived and portrayed by their contemporaries and community, using Jesus as our model. Next, we study shared soul qualities of well-known mystics. If our reflections help us discover the heart of one’s art, perhaps they will also give us the conviction, compassion, and courage to express the art of one’s heart in our own lives and communities.

Let us begin with the community of Jesus, which serves as a prototype for human communities of all places and ages. We use five-point formats in this essay, keeping in mind that while formats and formulations maybe helpful, it is neither necessary nor advisable to let them constrict or constrain our reflections.

Mystics often reveal society’s moral hypocrisy and collective blind spots and, in return, face ruthless opposition and appalling adversities in their life journeys. In addition to spiritual struggles, they are misunderstood, mislabeled, and mistreated by their contemporaries and communities. Perpetrators justify their actions as a necessity to maintain societal norms and harmony, or even as “offering worship to God” (John 16:2). Jesus faced his share of all these challenges and taught his disciples to expect them: his followers would be repaid by their contemporaries “with persecutions” (Mark 10:30), including being “scourged, pursued, expelled, killed” (Matt 23:34).

Mystic or Misfit?

We find five labels applied to Jesus in his lifetime, and see similar patterns among mystics in other times and settings.

Lunatic: “He is out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). Jesus is labeled as being beside himself, insane, crazy, mad, having lost his senses, etc. (same verse, different text in various translations of the Bible). When Jesus came home with a large following that interfered with the family’s customary activities and routines, his own relatives considered this was sheer madness and set out to seize him. His relatives likely considered they had good reason to question Jesus’s sanity: not only did he not acknowledge his mother and family, he reframed the very definition of mother and family! (Mark 3:31-35)

Satanic: “He is possessed” (Mark 3:22). When Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, he violated Jewish canon law that forbade work on the Sabbath. This posed a dilemma for canon lawyers: endorse the spirit, or enforce the letter, of canon law. The charge of demonic possession is a clever legal strategy: since the end does not justify the means, enforce canon law on the grounds of doing moral good by immoral means. This would not be the first or only time that a mystic was improperly accused by religious and legal authorities: John the Baptist was also accused of demonic possession for not eating and drinking! (Luke 7:33)

Alcoholic: “He is a glutton and drunkard” (Luke 7:34). In contrast to John the Baptist, Jesus eats and drinks—and he is labeled a glutton and alcoholic. Why? Jesus befriended and shared food and drink with social outcasts of his day, which violated societal norms for segregation and hierarchy. By casting aspersions on his character, the “people of this generation” (Luke 7:31) seek to avoid moral dilemmas and systemic change, thus perpetuating the status quo.

Hysteric: “You will raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20). Jesus upended the currency exchange and temple commerce systems during peak sales season. While his disciples cite the actions as evidence that “zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17), his behavior had adverse economic consequences for the business community. Clearly, his zeal was also considered ill-advised by devotees, who issued a show-cause notice. Jesus’s contemporaries likely considered his response (tearing down a place of worship that was built over nearly a half century and raising it in three days) as hysterical as his behavior. (John 2:18-20) Challenging established economic systems and religious traditions rarely goes unpunished, as Jesus and his disciples soon discovered. This act was one of the charges against Jesus at his inquisition (Matt 26:61).

Heretic: “He has blasphemed” (Matt 26:65). Jesus is asked under oath: Are you the Son of God? Jesus responds with a blended quote from Hebrew scriptures (Dan 7:13, Ps 110:1), which neither confirms nor denies the honorific. However, what is heard by the high priest leads to a charge of heresy. Whether motivated by pride, prejudice, payback, or petty behavior, an accusation of treason easily suffices to incite mob violence. In the very next verse, Jesus is deemed deserving of capital punishment (Matt 26:66).

One would expect that Jesus had the support of those who knew him best. We see that was not the case, and his foes included everyone who found his mystical insights inconvenient—after all, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” As history reveals, Jesus is hardly an exception, and the list of Hebrew prophets who shared his fate spans the alphabet from Abel to Zechariah (Matt 23:35). The Sufi mystic Mansour Al-Hallaj was executed for making the statement “I am the Truth” which his accusers considered a blasphemy. An example from the Catholic tradition of how contemporaries misjudge mystics is that of Joan of Arc, who trusted the truth of her mystical visions, was burnt at the stake as a heretic, and canonized nearly five hundred years later.

A caveat on the Mystical Community: Each mystic is special in their own way. Some are anonymous, others seek anonymity. Some “teach as one who has authority” (Mark 1:22), others serve with amity. All lead lives with authenticity. Not all are labeled misfits, and many are agents of change within their secular and faith communities. Some are lauded for their efforts, others are lynched.

So how do mystics find the spiritual resources and resilience to love and care for “the world [that] has hated them because they do not belong to the world” (John 17:14)? We consider that next, using the first five letters of the alphabet as our acronym.

The ABCDE of Spiritual Practice

An ABCDE acronym—simple, but not easy—helps us recall attitudes and approaches commonly found among mystics, and we can choose to use them as a checklist for our spiritual practice.

Altruistic (in Intention): Ego-based aspirations are shed early in the spiritual journey. At every step of the Way, the intention that forms and informs the mystic is a steadfast altruistic concern for the welfare and well-being of all. As Jesus states, “What you did to the least of my kin, you did to me” (Matt 25:40).

Benevolence (in Thought): Derived from Latin, bene (good) and velle (will, wish), benevolence encompasses nonviolence, kindness, and goodwill toward all, in thought, word, and deed. When angels sing, “peace on earth among people of goodwill” (Luke 2:14), they announce the link between goodwill and peace for all humanity. Jesus emphasized the primacy of thought—“from within . . . come evil thoughts” (Mark 7:21)—which precedes malevolent actions that disturb communal peace.

Compassionate (in Conduct): In Luke’s gospel, Jesus clearly outlines compassionate conduct toward all as the feature that defines “children of the Most High.” Like the Most High, they are to be “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked . . . compassionate, as the Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:35-36).

Detachment (from Consequences): Selfless service is, by definition, devoid of self. Selfless love does not serve with expectation of reward. Thus, mystics serve with love and yet remain detached from seeking ego-based rewards such as praise, profit, or “paradise points” for their service. Jesus states this as “when you have done everything expected of you, say . . . we have only done what was ours to do” (Luke 17:10).

Established (in Abiding awareness): Mystics derive their conviction and ethos from an established and abiding awareness of the indwelling Divine Presence, which provides them “a peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27) along with serenity and courage that the world and adversity cannot take away.

We find these spiritual principles and practices in scriptures and teachings across faith traditions. Buddhism teaches interdependent kinship across life-forms and asserts that one is not truly nonviolent till one is nonviolent even in one’s dreams! The Dalai Lama concisely summarizes: “My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.” The Bhagavad Gita states: “You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction” (BG 2:47). Nonviolence, non-blaming, compassion, loss of ego-identity, and selfless service are all part of the journey of the soul (nafs) in Sufi mysticism.

As we await the dawning of the Divine Light on and in us, we have as little to contribute to the dawn as the rooster that crows each morning. All we do as members of the Mystical Community is to be the “special kind of mystic” that each of us was called to be when we were formed in the womb in the Divine Image. Mystics seek to conform to the Divine Image from womb to tomb, for as the Indian Sufi Kabir sang:

What hope of cutting loose after one’s death
The noose stifling heaven in every breath?
As now, so shall be – seek liberation
In Life, or be interred in illusion!

We answer the Divine call by Way of the Truth of our Life. If we are not sure what our call is, let us first listen for and then live the song the angels sang the day we were born, so our life becomes our prayer and our Amen! ♦

O’Neill D’Cruz retired once from academic clinical practice as a pediatrician and neurologist, a second time from the neuro-therapeutics industry, and now spends his time caring, coaching, and consulting from his home in North Carolina, known locally as the “Southern Part of Heaven.” He is a wounded healer who works to heal the wounded, in order that All Shall Be Well.

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