Lent is upon us. The pandemic and the snowstorm may have distracted us, but Lent is here, and I hope you’re ready for it. I hope I’m ready for it!
I came across something in my reading the other day that stopped me in my tracks and got me to thinking: some words from the great 20th-century Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, whose writings, to be honest, can sometimes be so arcane and abstract that he loses me. But not this time. “In the days ahead,” he said, “you will either be a mystic (someone who has experienced God for real), or nothing at all.” Let me repeat that: “you will either be a mystic (someone who has experienced God for real), or nothing at all.”
There’s a lot in those few words. Of course, the word, ‘mystic’ probably seems completely out of reach for most of us mortals. It conjures up images of saintly, other-worldly sorts whose heads are in the clouds and whose feet never touch the ground! But Rahner was trying to bring it close – to de-mystify it, if you will. He was saying that all it takes to be a mystic is to have an experience of God, a relationship with God or, as I like to think of it, a ‘heart to heart’ with God. And we all have those moments, don’t we? Maybe not as often as we like, but we have them. Maybe at a particularly beautiful or moving celebration of the Eucharist, maybe in an exchange with a loved one, maybe in an encounter with a poor or marginalized person, maybe in the beauty of nature. A walk I took during the recent snowfall – as I looked at trees heavy with the white stuff – nature’s ever-so-casual but splendid sculptures – I felt a closeness to God that prompted joy and wonder in me. A mystical experience? I think so. Certainly an experience of God.
The truth is that, if only we keep our eyes – and our hearts – open, these mystical experiences, these experiences of God, are happening to us all the time. We are mystics without knowing it.
The same theologian, Karl Rahner, went on to say that “knowing God is more important than knowing about God.” When you think of it, that’s quite an admission from a sophisticated theologian who spent his whole life exploring the depths of the mystery of God. All good, of course, but all for naught if, in all his explorations, he didn’t come to know God better, didn’t deepen his personal relationship with God.
All this to share with you my hope that this coming season of Lent will be a time when each of us in the parish grows in our relationship with God, or to return to what I quoted earlier, my hope is that we will all become ‘mystics’ this Lent. It’s the only way to go because, as the theologian put it, we will either be mystics or nothing at all.
Lent has many opportunities for becoming mystics. Simple opportunities, too. They are the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.
Let me zero in on almsgiving and fasting first. Both of them bring us close to the poor who are all around us. By sharing our resources with the poor and by denying ourselves all the food we might hunger for, we are in solidarity with the poor, and in encountering them, coming face-to-face with them, we are encountering, coming face-to-face with the Christ who identifies himself with the poor. And that encounter is a mystical thing: through it, we’re coming to know God better, we’re growing in our relationship with God.
And then there’s prayer – the ideal ‘school’ for becoming a mystic, the place more than any other where we encounter and come to know God. My hope is that this Lent our prayer will gain some spark and energy. And if we’ve been slow to pray or lazy about praying, my hope is that we will find time for prayer again. And if our prayer has become perfunctory, I’m hoping it will come to life again.
Of course, our greatest prayer is the Mass - the Eucharist - and Lent is the perfect time to make that a priority. There is really no better way to encounter the living God – to become mystics - than by coming together to celebrate the Eucharist as a community of faith. During the pandemic, this has been difficult, to say the least. But you have been wonderfully responsive to the opportunities we have offered. In the early days, we were limited to livestream liturgies and you were there by the hundreds; then, ever so gradually, we began to celebrate Masses for small groups outside in the Cathedral courtyard. From there, we moved into the Cathedral where, before long, we were able to fill the Cathedral to 25% capacity – first with two Masses, then three, then four. That’s where we are now and have been for many months.
Many of you have availed yourself of these opportunities and I know you have found them spiritually enriching and rewarding. I certainly have myself. Others of you – for good reasons having to do with health issues or issues of age – have wisely remained home and joined the liturgies via the miracle of livestream. Now, as Lent begins, I am hoping that those of you who are healthy and not compromised, but who have yet to come to the Cathedral for Mass, will consider doing so. I say this especially to all of you who have received the vaccine. We have made great efforts to assure that the Cathedral is a safe space to gather: social distancing is easily achieved, masks are worn, and all the protocols set down by the government are scrupulously followed. You might be amazed to hear that since the pandemic began, some 40,000 public Masses have been celebrated in the Archdiocese of Seattle, and there has not been a single known case of transmission of Covid-19 at Mass.
I make this point because I suspect that some of you have held back because of concerns about exposure; or you have grown so used to attending Mass in the comfort of your home via livestream that you haven’t given much, if any, thought to actually coming to the Cathedral for Mass. Wouldn’t Lent be a great time to give it a try? As effective as the livestreamed liturgies are – and I applaud our gifted team who with great skill makes them possible week after week – still, they are lacking the most important thing: gathering with the community to actually celebrate and receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Let me return to where I began – to the words of the Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner: “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who experiences God for real) or nothing at all.” The alternative is clear, my friends, and rather stark. None of us would think of choosing to be “nothing at all,” so our only real choice as believers is to be mystics. Strange as that may sound to our ears, it is true.
My friends, let us be mystics together this Lent!
Father Michael G. Ryan