The Mystic Way: Awakening

The name of this blog site is Pathways to God. Today I want us to begin thinking about the Mystic Way. In the Christian context, three movements are usually affirmed: purification, illumination and union. However, two additional steps are sometimes mentioned. One may occur between illumination and union. It is traditionally called the Dark Night of the Soul. The other is prior to purification. It is awakening. And it is awakening that I want to think about today.

The experience of awakening can happen in at least two different ways. One is to experience the glory of God externally. Nicholas Hermann (popularly known as Brother Lawrence) saw a dead tree in winter and thinking about how it would come back to life, he was awakened to the greatness of God. It was life-changing. Men as different as St. Paul and Rulman Merswin saw a great light and they were never the same. Even Jesus heard a divine voice at his baptism and a ‘normal’ life was no longer a possibility.

The other way is inward. Richard Rolle felt a heat or warming in his heart. (I don’t think it was heat that Tums could ‘fix’!) Catherine of Genoa was struggling in a loveless marriage and perhaps with depression. She went to a priest for her normal Lenten confession, but wasn’t able to say anything. As she knelt, her heart seemed pierced by the love of God. In one moment she saw her own miserable state, but more importantly God’s boundless love. Both Rolle and Catherine became great affirmers in word and deed of a divine love that fills and overflows our hearts.

Awakening comes in different ways, but when it comes the person is never the same. The Divine becomes the ever present reality of their lives. They live for God and God’s will. They affirm the beauty and the love of God.

So, what can we do to be awakened? Perhaps nothing. It comes to irreligious and religious persons alike. We can’t make it happen. All I can suggest is to pay attention to life within and without. All life comes from God and perhaps if we pay attention, we are more likely to experience a moment of awakening that will last a lifetime.

2 thoughts on “The Mystic Way: Awakening

  1. I find it intriguing that I just finished a book in which the author referenced the three movements you mentioned in the first paragraph. I don’t recall ever hearing about them before, and have now heard them referenced twice in as many weeks!
    Regarding awakening, I have two questions: would you equate or link awakening in any way with salvation? Can one have one without the other? I would think the soul must experience some sort of new understanding of Christ’s love in order to choose salvation. At least that is how I remember my experience as a child.
    And second, would this experience with God only happen once? Or is it the impetus that leads us into greater communion with Christ? I can point to a few moments when I felt like a new, deeper understanding of some aspect of Christ’s personality, whether his holiness, or his love, or his goodness, or his forgiveness…and how that could and should affect my own life as well as my relationship with others. Would you call that awakening, or simply spiritual maturity?


    1. Those big three are probably the most significant contribution of Christian mysticism to our understanding of spirituality. I have preached on them and taught them several times–but obviously not when you were around! Your questions are spot on. Evelyn Underhill who is the early 20th century expert on mysticism says that awakening and what she called Protestant conversion are not the same. The main reason is that in her understanding of such conversion there was an intellectual commitment to certain theological ideas. However Fisher Humphreys has given an analysis of faith or belief that I think is very helpful. It involves insight and decision. I wonder if the ‘insight’ might be comparable to ‘awakening’. But I honestly don’t know. I wonder if we who experienced conversion at an early age would still have ‘need’ for an awakening later. In ‘awakening’ experiences, the course of that person’s life takes on a different direction or luster. As a child, I don’t remember any earth-shattering experience, but simply an experience of trust that connected me in some mysterious way to Christ that I hardly realized until I sort of grew into it. Concerning your second question, rather than suggest that awakening can happen more than once, I suspect that what is happening is Illumination–that second of the big three. BUT, and I will say this more as the series goes along. We must never assume that the pattern is some standard that we all need to follow or experience and that each step happens only once or even in the ‘normal’ order. God will not be programmed into any particular system. Thanks for your questions. I don’t get very many, so it’s nice to get some feedback. It helps me to continue to think these things through.


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