Mystery? Please give mystery a chance! The writer, James Findley, when he was speaking about Spirituality came out with this aphorism: “Questions expect answers, problems expect to be solved, but mysteries can only be struggled with”. Our culture is uncomfortable with mystery, let alone mysticism, which is a combination of inner feeling accompanied by reflection or meditation which moves beyond the immediately rational, but not abandoning it, towards the holy; the divine. So why the struggle? One view goes like this: because our culture is trapped in a mechanistic perception of existence, it becomes a struggle to be brought free from the trap. But, what a vitally important struggle, costly though it may be!
There’s direct experience of the mystical in the most unlikely places. Despite great difficulties in their lives, I’ve met those who nevertheless show deep thanks.
A story of cat allergy, mystery and palliative care
About 15 years ago, a friend of mine, Michael, who lived in Glasgow reached the final stages of a severe cancer and was bed-bound at home, looked after by his wife. Having arranged to see Michael one afternoon, his wife greeted me at the door and warned me that Michael was in considerable pain, despite palliative care. She asked me only to stay for a short time. When I went into his room, from Michael’s pillow a radiant smile and profound ‘thank you’ radiated from his emaciated face. As I sat on the edge of his bed with a cup of tea, a cat jumped up on to my lap. Forgetting that I was allergic to cats, I started to stroke the long-haired Persian. Within a minute, my face started to swell, as did my hands. Tears flowed copiously down my blotchy face. My friend, Michael, lifted himself a little and said: “Martin! It’s me that’s supposed to be ill, not you!” We both burst out into laughter. Michael’s wife rushed in and was astonished at the sight and sound of our laughter. “This is the first time I’ve heard you laugh, Michael, for at least two years!” As I left, Michael, obviously in agony, still smiled and croaked another ‘thank you’. His wife Liz hugged me as I left, repeating endlessly her own deep thanks: all from my forgetting about my allergy. There, in that house, I experienced profound gratitude that I’ve rarely experienced, despite the agony. The mystery of that experience was for me what mysticism is about. ‘God was in that place and I knew it not’, to quote Jacob in the Old Testament after his dream.
A story of a friend in prison
Visiting someone in prison is a complex process of permissions and security. Jeremy [which is not his real name] had been in prison for 3 years. We exchanged hand-written letters regularly. When I visited Jeremy, I met him in a small room. “Thank you for your letters Martin. Particularly that I found your hand-writing almost illegible.” I apologised for my hand-writing, but asked him why then he was thankful for my letters. “Well, I gather five fellow-prisoners around in our exercise period, who are in neighbouring cells and we decipher your letters together! There are six of us who are so grateful for your personal contact with them through me. Thank you!” Another experience of how thanks in the middle of oppressive circumstances is such a beautiful experience that it belongs to the Mystery of God in that moment. So, yes, I’m thankful for my poor hand-writing!
The story of John, and how he challenges our perception of being “poor”
John is one of the poorest people I know. He’s not homeless, but lives on little, as he is no longer working. He gives much of his pension away to those he knows who are desperate. You can imagine what it might be like for him with food prices rising and the supply-chain beginning to show signs of dwindling. Inviting me for a meal was initially embarrassing. How could John afford to feed me? Not wanting to seem ungrateful, I went to his house, sparsely furnished and with few possessions. At a little table, he produced the tastiest vegetable soup I’ve ever had, followed by a vegetarian dish that was plentiful and equally tasty – and home-made wine – delicious. He explained how he practices thriftiness, including going to super-markets late in the day at the end of the week, to buy food at knock-down prices. Several times during the meal he reached out for by elbow to say ‘thank you’ to me for coming. “You have given me joy and hope just by being here.” As you can imagine, I was silenced by such generosity and such joy in the middle of such frugality. Another inkling of the Mystery of Love expressed through ‘thanks’.
As half-term is with us again, maybe you could find time just to recall, recollect people and places where you have experienced unexpected thanks and joy from the most unexpected sources. And then live with the question about your own attitude to thanks.
‘Thanks’ can be expressed quickly and almost meaninglessly, but it can also be a touch of the Love of God in that moment, even when you’re not aware of it. And when heart-felt thanks is in the air, you are, perhaps lifted, raised – just a little. In this Ascensiontide, perhaps this lifting experience in thankfulness is what the Ascension of Christ is about.
Blessings to you and yours for the Half-Term… and to those who have important exams coming up. They are in my prayers.
Oh! I forgot. Thank you for your friendship, even if only experienced in passing-moments.