Sometimes when we think of mystics, we think of individuals who had extraordinary religious experiences. They heard God’s voice. They saw angels. They levitated three feet above the ground. They lived for 30 years solely on Cheetos. (Okay, I made up that last one.) But some did live solely on bread and water. Notice, when describing mystics, I even used the past tense—as if all mystics died before the 21st Century. Surely, in modern times most mystics would be medicated. Doctor to mystic: “I notice you’re floating three feet above the ground? We have a pill for that.”
It was the noted 20th Century Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner who wrote, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic or nothing at all.” Theologians have been arguing for years what he meant by that. But many agree on one thing: For Rahner, being a mystic was not reserved for the spiritually elite. It was something available to all, because, as Rahner believed, the Divine is accessible to all. Mysticism then was not something restricted to desert caves, monastery cells, or convent chapels. No, it could be found in kitchens, office cubicles, and local grocery stores.
What exactly is meant by the word mysticism? For our purposes here, this definition by Kaya Oakes will suffice. Mysticism is “a transcendent experience of an encounter with God” (America Magazine, December 17, 2020). According to Oakes, a mystical experience could happen, for example, while experiencing nature, hearing a favorite song in a new way, or having a deeper and more honest conversation with a loved one. Mysticism is not confined to Christianity either. It runs deep in other faiths, such as Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim traditions.
For me, I have always thought of mysticism as seeing something as it really is. Often coupled with this seeing, is the realization of our connectedness with all that is. A mystical experience also bestows a sense of profound appreciation for the inherent mystery, goodness, and beauty of which we are a part. Mystical experiences are most often filled with joy—even ecstasy. The Divine is often sensed as both very near and very far beyond us.
That brings me to green peppers. I sometimes make my mother’s recipe for ground meat, tomato sauce, and elbow macaroni. She called it “Mess,” and several generations of our family have been raised on this dish. (It’s inexpensive and easy to make.) I get excited when I make it, not only because I feel connected to my mother when I do. But also because the recipe calls for a green pepper—sometimes called a bell pepper. That means I have to go to the grocery store and visit the pepper bin. Is there anything more beautiful than a display of green peppers? As I approach the pepper array, I take a moment to gaze at their deep green color, their shiny surface, their gentle inviting curves. I can almost hear the peppers’ tiny voices crying out to me, “Touch me! Touch me! Take me home with you!” So I begin my selection. I handle each pepper carefully, even reverently, seeking the perfect size, firmness, and color. Then I finally select “my” pepper. It’s “my” pepper not because I’m going to pay for it. No, it’s “my” pepper because I picked it out from all the others. It’s become The Chosen Pepper.
When I get it home and start to make my Mess, I rinse the pepper in cold water. Then, on the cutting board, using a sharp knife, I halve it. As the two pieces fall onto the board, I sniff its familiar earthy aroma. Then I take a moment to gaze at the tiny, ecru-colored seeds nestled in the hollow chamber. There are zillions of them! (I exaggerate their number, I know, but I find it hard to curb my excitement!)
I wonder: why are the seeds ecru—and not brown or black like so many other seeds? I’ll have to look that up somewhere. For now, I just appreciate their beauty as I pick one up (easier said than done) and admire it. Just think, I muse, inside this tiny seed is not merely a future pepper, but a future pepper plant! Locked inside each seed, is the genetic code to reproduce itself—that is, to extend itself into the future. Now who came up with that idea? Who makes it all possible? How? And (more importantly) WHY? Was the Divine Creator so enthralled with the sight, feel, smell, and taste of the first pepper that she decided peppers deserved a future—so she devised this ingenious way to keep peppers (and everything else of value) going into the future?
I dice my pepper and saute it in a little oil. That’s what my mother’s directions say. “When soft,” I’ll spoon them out. Then I cut up a “medium onion” and saute that too. (Have I mentioned how excited I get over onions—their vast variety… their perfectly formed concentric circles when you slice them… their translucence when you hold a slice up to the light? Don’t get me started…)
I will continue to make the “Mess” and eventually dine on this cherished family recipe… alone or perhaps with a couple of friends… And here’s the best part: That beautiful chosen pepper will become part of me! How cool is that?
Some people think a mystical experience has to be extraordinary. But I believe many of us are mystics of the everyday. Just ask yourself:
+ What do I get lost in?
+ What takes my breath away?
+ Where do I experience goodness and beauty?
+ What gives me the sense of my connectedness to the cosmos?
+ What makes me feel the nearness and beyondness of God?
PS: I know some of you might be asking, “Can you share the recipe?” So here’s my mom’s recipe … in her own words… typed on an old Royal portable typewriter… on a 3″ X 5″ file card, now slightly bent and stained:
Cut up 1 medium green or red pepper. Saute in skillet with a little oil. When soft, spoon out. Cut up 1 medium onion and put in same skillet and saute until transparent. Put the pepper back into the skillet with 1 lb. fresh ground meat. Add a teaspoon of ground paprika, tsp. of salt & 1/4 tsp. pepper. Brown the meat real good. Add 1 10 oz. can tomato soup. Boil 1/4 lb. elbow macaroni. Drain and add to meat mixture. Mix well. Serve.
The song today is a 17th Century poem by George Herbert, a Welsh poet who was thought to be a mystic by many. It is called “Love Bade Me Welcome” and is a dialogue between the poet (the soul) and God (Love). Love invites the soul to come in to the banquet, but the soul, aware of his sinfulness, hesitates. He feels unworthy, until Love speaks of the one “who bore the blame” (Love/Jesus). The poem ends with Love (God) actually serving the soul. In three simple stanzas, the poem demonstrates the gentle invitation of God (Love) to the human soul, the admission of our sinfulness, the forgiveness of sins through Jesus, Love’s presence in the Eucharist, and God as the Host of the Eternal Banquet.
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