Book of the Month
~by Michele Gregoire
May 2015 Review: The Way of the Mystics: Ancient Wisdom for Experiencing God Today (Lessons from Thirteen Holy Men and Women), by John Michael Talbot, with Steve Rabey.
This month I wanted to share a book that is entirely focused on the way to holiness through learning about the lives and practices of mystics from Antony and the Desert Fathers to Thomas Merton. Most of the books reviewed for this column are secular treatments that contain little segments of the sacred and bits of divine teaching that are expressed in and through creation by writers who are not attempting to address the religious or spiritual. Talbot’s book is strictly a book to lead the reader to a deeper practice of faith through prayer and perhaps modeling of the mystics’ practices. Of course, some are a bit severe and not particularly recommended, but most represent applications that can be transferred to our time and faith ways. All but two profiles are of well-known Catholicand/or Orthodox mystics from the very earliest time after Christ to the mid-twentieth century and covering many of the intervening centuries. The two who are not Catholic or Orthodox are the poet John Donne, an Anglican, and George Fox, the radical founder of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. I found it a little curious that these two were included given that there are other saints who would have provided better models for Catholics, but Talbot is a very ecumenical religious whose ministry reaches out to all Christians so he selected mystics from different Christian faith traditions in order to appeal to a broader readership. Still, the majority of mystics profiled are recognized as Catholic saints.
The book was published in 2005 and incorporates 13 chapters, each addressing a different mystic in chronological order of their lives. Talbot and his co-writer Rabey begin with an introduction entitled ‘A Journey to the Heart of Our Faith’ wherein they expound upon the focus of the book, which is to deepen the reader’s spirituality through a study into the mysteries of the sacraments and scriptures, and showing how the selected mystics’ practices can be adopted within each individual’s spiritual journey. The authors state, “…there’s no such thing as a foolproof, step-by-step manual to the mystical life. If there were, spirituality wouldn’t be a mystery! No one can predict when or where the wind of God’s Holy Spirit will blow. The most we can hope for is to learn how to trim our sails so they can catch the wind when it does blow our way.” And this is the fundamental purpose of The Way of the Mystics, to share the experiences and wisdom of particular mystics to guide us on our own spiritual quests.
Each chapter title begins “The Way of…” and follows with a descriptive noun that encompasses in one or two words what the mystic of the chapter represents. First is “The Way of the Desert: Antony and the Desert Fathers” and this chapter is followed with twelve other ‘ways’ and mystics who represent that ‘way.’ Included in the text (along with their descriptive ‘way’), in order, are: Bernard of Clairvaux (love), Hildegard of Bingen (visions), Francis of Assisi (joy), Catherine of Siena (suffering), Ignatius of Loyola (service), Teresa of Avila (union), John of the Cross (darkness), John Donne and England’s metaphysical poets (artist), George Fox (inner light), lessons on prayer from an unknown seeker (The Way of the Pilgrim), Thérèse of Lisieux (childlike love), and Thomas Merton (modern mystic). Within each chapter is quite a wealth of condensed biographical information as well as elaboration on each individual’s mode of spirituality.A common theme in each is the desire to remove oneself from secular life, in varying degrees, while seeking to reach the goal of oneness with Christ. Some became hermits, most entered the consecrated life, and all of them sought to escape into that mystical realm of ultimate contemplation and prayer.
Francis of Assisi is associated with the way of joy because of how completely he loved God and how he wanted all of creation to join him in his celebration.He urged every created thing to experience the joy of its Creator and express this joy in its own unique way. We are all familiar with Francis’s most famous sermon which was delivered to the birds in the trees. And they were most receptive to his message as they stretched their necks and extended their wings as Francis walked among them, touching and blessing them. Francis was affectionate, passionate, and had a “no-holds-barred love for God” that drew followers to him.
In the later chapters one finds other reference to creation, as for example in the pilgrim’s way as he perfects the breath prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” to pray without ceasing, which had been his intention. This prayer is said continuously when inhaling and exhaling – the first phrase on intake of breath and the last phrase when exhaling. As the prayer became so internalized that it ‘became’ him and was ‘said’ from the heart, the wisdom of the scriptures were opened to him. He wrote, “All things prayed to God and sang his praise…Everything drew me to love and thank God: people, trees, plants, and animals…I saw clearly all my internal organs and was filled with wonder at the wisdom with which the human body is made.” Along his way he shared his insights with people and told them, “let every action be a cause of your remembering and praising God.”
The authors share that Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, saw all creation as a garden tended by God and she saw people as flowers in that garden. Thérèse wondered why all souls don’t receive an equal amount of graces and saw that “the Divine Gardener appreciated the unique beauty of each and every one of his many varied flowers.” She states: “And so it is in the world of souls, Jesus’ garden. He willed to create great souls comparable to Lilies and roses, but He has created smaller ones and these must be content to be daisies or violets destined to give joy to God’s glances when He looks down at His feet. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be.” And when she received her Carmelite habit in the spring of 1888 a light snow in the woods outside the monastery heightened her sense of spiritual consummation. She wrote,“Nature would be adorned in white just like me. What thoughtfulness on the part of Jesus!”
The foregoing examples are a few that illustrate selected mystics’ communion with God through nature. These are the nuggets of sanctity that draw me in any writings and I was very pleased to learn that so many of the holy people included in the book were enveloped by creation in their prayer lives. Talbot and Rabey made excellent selections for this compilation, although I would have preferred to see one of my favorites, Julian of Norwich, included in place of George Fox. Nevertheless, this is a fine book and a potent guide to assist any reader in a deeper prayer life, and I highly recommend it, even if only to learn more about the lives and spiritual practices of each of these individuals.
Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.
Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.
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