By Mirabai Starr (Photo by Lisa Law)
“The spiritual marriage… [mystical union]… is like rain falling from the sky into a river or pool. There is nothing but water. It is impossible to divide the sky-water from the land-water. When a little stream enters the sea, who could separate its waters back out again?”
Teresa of Avila
From The Interior Castle
My love affair with the Christian mystics feels utterly natural to me, but it seems to baffle some people. Maybe because I was born into a secular Jewish family with parents who rejected any and all flavors of organized religion. In my teens I moved to the Lama Foundation, the quintessential interspiritual community in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, where I embraced Eastern traditions, dedicating myself to the practice of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, cultivating a devotion to the great Indian sage, Neem Karoli Baba, and singing Hindu kirtan. I also began following a Sufi path that led me to connect with at least three lineages, and participated in Native shamanic rituals with our Pueblo neighbors. As I grew older I added mystical Judaism to the mix, blending a weekly observance of Shabbat with a yearly plunge into the High Holy Days. Everything, in other words, except Christianity.
When I was twenty I went to live in Sevilla and study Spanish literature. There I encountered the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross). As I read his ecstatic love poems to God, it became clear to me that San Juan was the Rumi of Spain! I was smitten. I had to have more. This attraction propelled me deeper into the poetry and prose of this great being, which led me to his spiritual mentor, Santa Teresa de Avila, and the next thing I knew these Spanish mystics had become my family. I was home.
Fast-forward twenty years. With a bit of persuasion from colleagues at the University of New Mexico where I taught Philosophy and World Religions, I decided to try my hand at translating my favorite mystical text in the whole world: Dark Night of the Soul, by John of the Cross, which included his famous poem, “Songs of the Soul,” and his classic prose commentary on the spiritual journey. I composed a translation that reflected the lyrical beauty of the original, but carried the freshness and accessibility lacking in earlier translations. After that, I was invited to translate the writings of Teresa of Avila, and that led to books about Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Mother Mary, and Julian of Norwich. Next thing I knew, I (a Jewish-Hindu-Buddhist-Sufi) was walking around as the contemporary translator and commentator on the Christian mystics!
Catholic friends tell me that this unlikely mix works precisely because I stand outside the Christian tradition. I come to the mystics without the baggage of religious indoctrination and so I can perhaps more easily see through to the universal heart that shines from the depths of their teachings. What I perceive in these saints—and what (I hope) I convey—is the perennial wisdom that lies at the core of the human experience. This is the experience of longing that burns inside every soul. The longing to love and be loved, to meld with our boundless source and also to step back and adore It (Him/Her). The prophetic cry for justice and the answering response of mercy. The draw to unitive consciousness, and the remembrance of our essential interconnectedness with all life.
While each of the world’s great mystics speaks the language of their unique faith tradition—usually the only spiritual flavor available in their particular cultural and historical context—they all sing a song of global unity, creating a symphony of connectedness that transcends all dogma and beckons everyone to the feast. Christian mystics (like the Jewish, Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Indigenous mystics) reawaken our deep inner knowingness that All is One.
The mystics remind us that the path to this knowingness necessarily leads us through the wilderness of radical unknowingness. We cannot have a direct encounter with The Holy One (the definition of mysticism) unless we have been stripped of our preconceptions, emptied of our attachments to how the spiritual life is supposed to feel, and freed of the intellectual constructs we have built around the Divine. The mystics are by their very nature revolutionaries. They urge us to dismantle everything that stands between our souls and the Great Mystery. They celebrate spiritual crisis! When having a spiritual meltdown, they advise, melt.
And the mystics all seem to agree that once we have had a taste of that blissful state where the boundaries of the separate self soften and we merge--even if for fleeting moments--into The One, where lover becomes Beloved, the only thing that makes sense is to return to the relative world and dedicate ourselves to service. We discover that individual liberation is an illusion, and what matters is the alleviation of suffering for all beings, and the healing of the Earth Herself.
Mirabai Starr is author of critically acclaimed new translations of the Spanish mystics, and reflections on the unifying teachings at the heart of all spiritual paths. Mirabai Starr uses fresh, lyrical language to help make timeless wisdom accessible to a contemporary circle of seekers.
Mirabai has been an adjunct professor of Philosophy and World Religions at the University of New Mexico-Taos since 1993. Her emphasis is on making connections between the perennial teachings found at the heart of all the world's spiritual paths, in an effort to promote peace and justice.
She speaks and teaches nationally and internationally on the teachings of the mystics and contemplative practice. She is available for interviews, speaking engagements, workshops and contemplative retreats. To learn more about her work, including her most recent book, The Showings of Julian of Norwich, visit: MirabaiStarr.com
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This article appears in:
2013 Catalyst - Issue 18