Mysticism: Who’s Called to it?
Many times when we hear of mysticism we think extraordinary phenomenon for the chosen few, the Saints: Saint Catherine of Siena’s visions or living image prayer, Saint Faustina’s locutions or dictated words from the Lord, Saint Padre Pio’s stigmata, the visible wounds of Christ in Pio’s flesh. We may feel discouraged for our experiences don’t match these spiritual giants.
However, Father Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. author of The Three Ages of the Interior Life promulgates something profound, “Reality, as God made it, is far richer than all our limited and narrow conceptions. Mystical life is not essentially extraordinary but something eminent in the normal way of sanctity for all of us!” What does he mean, “mysticism is the normal way of sanctity?”
Mysticism with a face!
To answer this, we turn to the life of Servant of God, Elisabeth Leseur (1866-1914), a wealthy French lay woman, whose journal includes no reports of mystical transports or spiritual experiences outside the norm. What sets Elisabeth apart was her ability to offer her life as living sacrifice for the very ones causing her suffering. Although she endured many physical sufferings: infertility, intestinal abscesses, and finally breast cancer that claimed her life, what crucified her most was the spiritual isolation and ridicule that she endured at the hand of her atheist friends and husband, Felix, who was a leader in the French anti-clerical atheistic movement.
Elisabeth’s daily thoughts from 1899-1906 reveal to us the climate of her interior life, a mystical life of infused insights into daily life and ministry to others. She shares, “Our outer life is the reproduction of our inner life, and the visible part of us reflects what is unseen; we radiate our souls, so to say, and, when they are centers of light and warmth, other souls need only to be brought into contact with them in order to be warmed and enlightened. We give out, often unknown to ourselves, what we carry within us; let us strive to increase daily this reserve store of faith and quiet charity.” She lived deeply grounded in the unseen presence of God within so she could radiate Him to others around her without speaking of Him, which would have violated their sensibilities.
By making daily flexible resolutions for prayer and virtues, any excessive emotional sensitivies or tendency to self focus brought about by her physical maladies became sacrifices for others. She wrote, “It is only in heaven that we will realize how wonderfully God made use of the labor of these little workers: the multitude of small duties, the daily acts of self-sacrifice, the acceptance of pain, offered to the heavenly Father, poor worthless metal transformed by God into gold for others, that pure gold of love enriching others and ourselves” (February 12, 1912).
In a letter to her spiritual friend, Sr. Goby, Elisabeth wrote, “Let us think of ourselves as small, insignificant stones that God has placed where he wished in his grand building plan. No matter how insignificant we think we are, we still desire to reach the heights where Truth, Goodness, Love, Beauty gently attract those who don’t feel at home in this world” (January 24, 1912.) Elisabeth epitomizes what Father Lagrange describes, that “pure contemplation is like a wine of exquisite flavor which lifts those who drink it out of themselves.”
After her death, her husband, Felix started reading her journal. Animated by the power of her sacrifices for him, he was torn at the heart in realizing how his ridicule and indifference to the Faith had wounded Elisabeth. One year following her death, he converted back to Catholicism and in 1923 was ordained a Dominican priest. He offered spiritual exercises with her spirituality to Blessed Fulton Sheen, who preached about them in his television program, A Life Worth Living.
Elisabeth shows us, as Father Lagrange suggested, that in truth “reality, as God made it, is far richer than all our limited and narrow conceptions, and in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, that “few people suspect what God would make of them if they placed no obstacle to His work.” Mysticism, rather than always involving extraordinary spiritual phenomenon, is about love for God and our neighbor in the concrete. It’s something within reach of any Baptized soul who seeks to empty themselves of any preoccupations “that are useless for salvation, obstacles within that hamper Christ’s loving action through them. Even when the extraordinary is manifest, according to Father Garrigou-Lagrange, it is a “divine sign given to draw us from our lethargy and make us understand what is most profound and most lofty in an ordinary Christian life when the soul is truly docile to the Holy Spirit.” We can become “ living stones, edifices of Spirit, a holy priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 2:4-5), living mystics that beget spiritual life to others.
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