Everyday Mysticism

{The following long piece is from a book-in-progress on the subject of ‘everyday mysticism.’}

When I set out to attend a PhD program in Scotland—in the captivating town of St. Andrews, the stirrings of my imagination went wild. Every fantasy I’d conjured watching Jane Austen movies, or PBS’s Masterpiece, of living in a stone cottage on a cobblestoned street festooned with arcs of roses cut loose in my brain. One of my undergrad professors whose doctoral studies took place in nearby Edinburgh had lived in an actual castle while in Scotland—a detail that fueled my elaborate fantasies. Why would my experience be different?

But on the day my husband, daughter and I were led to the flats that would be our residence for two years in St. Andrews, I had to pick up my decimated dream and haul it up five dreary flights of stairs to our post-graduate family housing that resembled nothing so much as a Soviet-era complex. The place lurked behind a stately stone administrative building and looked onto a gravel parking lot and stark, neglected courtyard. This was the first of several withering disappointments.

I had come to the PhD program not only with rose-colored dreams, but bile-tinged insecurities, feeling myself inadequate to the rigors of doctoral work. It didn’t help that I’d earned an all-tuition-paid scholarship. Expectations were high. But in the end, the doctoral program itself was within reach. What nearly did me in was living overseas.

Amidst the inevitable stress of moving to another country to complete an advanced degree, family in tow, my body didn’t adapt. St. Andrews, though incomparably lovely among Scottish towns, is damp and windy, and hosts an onslaught of new viruses as internationals flock to the area for golf, tourism, and academia. As it turned out, I was perpetually sick for most of a year. In part, this was the result of chronic illness that wouldn’t be diagnosed for several years. No matter how I strove to be healthy, I wasn’t predestined for it; if I was to complete the program, I would have to soldier through like a Marine. Anyone into wellness can tell you what a travesty that turned out to be. Each morning I walked Madison fifteen minutes to school, returned to our flat, and spent a grueling five to six hours in my writing chair surrounded by books, forcing myself to work against every physical impulse. My head throbbed. I was painfully tired. My chest rattled. I suffered fungal infections as a result of long courses of antibiotics for bronchitis and sinusitis. During Madison’s school hours, I ate lunch then took a short nap in my chair—my only breaks. Other than this daily reprieve, I was hell-bent on writing a dissertation.

What I needed to do was sleep. To get well. I needed a dry, warm climate where my body could rid itself of viruses, and I needed a proper diagnosis and treatment for what ailed me. Nonetheless, I pushed myself forward. With energy so low, the only thing that kept me working was Herculean force of will.

It was in this state that I found myself, one Sunday in Martyr’s Church, of the Church of Scotland, which Darryl, Madison, and I had attended since arriving in St. Andrews. The church was a progressive older congregation that hosted ‘coffee mornings’ to raise money for the homeless and free slaves in Sudan, and that met in a grand old chapel with stained-glass depicting John Knox among more conventional saints. Not being from a mainline church, Darryl and I found the place novel, intriguing. More than anything, we went for the minister’s eloquent, left-leaning sermons, and for the hymns.

Church of Scotland hymnals are full of poetry: lyrics by Christina Rossetti, John Greenleaf Whittier, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins. A cantor pairs the verses in the small embossed hymn book with a tune from Scotland’s folk repertoire, creating a hymn-singing experience that was new to us. He’d say, “Hymn number 238, to the tune Glengarry,” for example, and the hymn would begin. No music printed on the page.

Though the asphyxiating weight on my chest that day was figurative, I quite literally struggled to breathe—or at least to achieve a deep breath. I fought to quiet the mind-chatter that had dogged me for months. I was worried about a colleague who disliked me, worried about teaching tutorials, worried I was too sickly to complete a PhD, worried what my advisor thought of me, worried about my fairly new marriage. My life overwhelmed me.

As the congregation began a John Greenleaf Whittier hymn, I stood fretting and obsessing. “Dear Lord and Father of mankind,” the voices sang, resonating through the cavernous church. Though my eyes fixated on the hymnbook, I didn’t sing along. My mind wandered. “Reclothe us in our rightful minds,” the voices continued. The organ marched through the verses as I pulled my long wool coat more tightly around me, buffeting myself against the building’s inescapable chill.

It was not until the fourth or fifth stanza that something wrested my attention and drew me into the presence of other congregants. The stanza went like this:

Drop thy still dews of quietness

till all our strivings cease.

Take from our hearts the strain and stress,

and let our ordered lives confess,

the beauty of thy peace.

I was shaken into the present moment by those words. Something about them was what I needed to hear, what I so longed to hear at that moment that tears filled my eyes. I read and re-read the lines. Dews of quietness. Strivings ceasing. Ordered lives. Beautiful peace. The words seemed a prescription for my soul; they moved me indescribably, unexpectedly.

Yes, I wanted quietness. I followed along with a whisper, unable to sing as I teetered on the edge of sobbing. Suddenly, in my utter heartbreak and exhaustion, I longed for conversion. I recited Whittier’s hymn like it was the Drunkard’s Prayer. If it had been a tent-revival I would have laid my worries at the altar, that day: the demands volleying torturously about my head, all of my tired, relentless insecurities. I would have laid them on the altar like a bottle of 100-proof whiskey. Intellectually, I knew most of the demands were self-imposed, that the words I put on the lips of colleagues and acquaintances were my own creations. Nonetheless, the voices chanted: You are not good enough. You are not enough. . . 

For the remainder of that church service I sat with the hymn-book open on my lap, repeating Whittier’s lines again and again until they adhered to my memory. Then after the service, I didn’t stop. As I trudged through the Sabbath, cooking dinner and staring at a book, I chanted the words over and over in my head. I had never read this Whittier poem before that day, or sung it as a hymn. To my knowledge, it is not a commonly quoted bit of poetry. Yet those five lines became my best friends. For days, weeks, and months—almost years—they were my mantra. For some reason, they worked on me like a spell, calming and turning me back to what I most valued. As I repeated “till all our strivings cease,” the long fingers of ambition loosened momentarily from around my neck. When my brain tired of the mantra, my heart took over. During the coming months, I chanted those lines hundreds, probably thousands of times, with the steadiness of breathing. The experience even changed the way I pray, as I eventually adopted a hesychastic, “mantra” style of prayer that worked on me like meditation.

On that one day at Martyrs Church, in that frigid stone chapel in St. Andrews, everything started to change.

Over the course of the year, I gradually relaxed. I no longer needed anxiety meds to get through meetings with my advisor, and I almost enjoyed leading tutorials—small-group, discussion-oriented teaching sessions with students. During my second year, illness became less frequent and I develop a solid topic of research and a good theory. I made a couple of friends. Still, I chanted Whittier’s lines repeatedly throughout each day. They were my reminder, my grounding. A beautiful life is not one of striving, they told me, of copious published articles and long resumes. A beautiful life is one of balance and repose, of passion and pleasure. It includes nourished friendships, long, restorative silences, and senses awakened. It includes good health.

It was exactly the kind of life I most desired.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Months after returning home to Oregon, we bought a house—a modest, canary-yellow one-level at the back of a cul-de-sac in a 1970s development scattered with mammoth trees. Darryl landed a job with a small but growing design firm thirty miles away, and I hunkered-down in our home office to finish the last leg of my dissertation. We plunged into a Quaker church and made friends. Everything, it seemed, was settling. I concluded 1999 by submitting my PhD dissertation and would begin 2000 by teaching in my field, as adjunct faculty at my undergrad alma mater.

It had been about two years since I’d heard the Whittier hymn at Martyr’s Church in St. Andrews. In the past six months, I had stopped reciting it as my mantra. Living back home in my own pond, away from the pressures of the PhD program, finishing up my last year of doctoral work in absentia, I became complacent and comfortable. Darryl and I were painting bold colors on our walls and planting perennials in the garden. We frequently hosted people for meals. My years of academic work folded neatly into shape like a colorful origami swan.

But then the start of classes approached and my swan became a fretful old hen.

As it was wont to do, my self-doubt descended. I was convinced I would fail at teaching, that my students would see through me, that I would instantly forget everything I had learned. My self-deprecating mind-voice grew louder by the day.

Before long, it was the first morning of classes. Though I had over-prepared, I was a wreck. I had packed my new leather briefcase with everything a professor might want, and I dressed the part, wearing a snappy black skirt and linen shirt ensemble that said “professional, yet comfortable.” The comfortable part clearly fraudulent.

When I am nervous, my bladder shrinks to the size of a pecan, and I predictably needed to pee twenty times before it was even 10 a.m. What made you think you could be a college professor? the mind-chatter rattled on. Nothing scares you more than public speaking. My personality may be well-suited to sitting at a computer writing, or with my nose buried in books—but not to talking for hours a day to fifty slouching teenagers. At home I reviewed my notes for the eightieth time. I picked up my briefcase, locked the door, walked to the car, and drove my five-minute commute to the university. Garrison Keillor was on the radio: The Writer’s Almanac. It was raining.

My heart trembled like a tuft of down. After arriving at the Religion Department, I walked to the office to retrieve directions to the shared adjunct quarters and proceeded around the corner to the tiny office, which (blessed-be) was empty. No one I knew was in the halls and I released a quick sigh of relief. They likely would have seen my feigned calmness for the sham that it was.

After fumbling with the office key and opening the door to the broom-closet-sized spread, I sat my briefcase on an empty chair. No pictures graced the walls, and nothing sat on the desk save a telephone and directory. Five textbooks leaned on a lonely bookshelf that stood against one wall. I proceeded to work at my desk with all the authority of a mouse, taking out the book for my class and setting it gently on the desk’s surface. I looked for a clock on which to count away the thirty-five minutes between me and Judgment Day, the day I would be exposed as a fraud.

But just then I noticed something.

A small square of paper was taped to the corner of the otherwise barren desk in the otherwise barren office. The Scotch tape on the edges was chipped and frayed, indicating it had been there for some time. Words were printed on the paper in black ink.

As I glanced at the words, I did a double-take. The name at the bottom of the paper read: “John Greenleaf Whittier.”

Cool, I thought, I like John. Then I glanced at the poem itself. The paper on the desk displayed two stanzas. The first was less familiar to me. But when I reached the second, I read these words:

Drop thy still dews of quietness

till all our strivings cease.

Take from our hearts the strain and stress

and let our ordered lives confess

the beauty of thy peace.

. . . These were my words. How could it be? The words from the hymnal in St. Andrews. My heart mantra for months upon months. John Greenleaf Whittier. How did those words make it to the desk I sat at that very morning? The words I needed to read more than any others. My reminder.

I turned back to my book, so distracted and one-track-minded I almost missed the whole thing. Then I slowly, mechanically, turned to the paper. I stared at it. I looked to the corners of the small empty room as if I’ve entered the Twilight-Zone or been captured on a hidden camera.

The longer I looked at the paper, the more the words seemed to be for me. Some sort of gift or message.

A smile bloomed across my face. Right there, taped to my desk, were the words that got me through my PhD, the words I needed to read more than any others that morning, words that reminded me what I believe: Life is short. Breathe deeply. Stop striving. Everything is going to be okay.

The words were (shockingly, mysteriously) taped to the corner of my desk.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I try not to put many words to this or any other mystical experience. And I believe that is what it was: a mystical experience—the first of a handful I have experienced. It seems to me the divinity, the transcendent had broken into my world at that moment of wracked-nerves and dizzying neurosis, to remind me of something. Can I prove it? Can I explain why I believe it was more than mere coincidence? No.

It seems to me that part of mystical experience is its breathtaking personal-ness. The experiences are tailored to speak to our exact condition in such a way that only we are able to fully apprehend their meaning. This is not to say that only we understand or appreciate them. But only we who experience them will understand the full context that makes them so precisely well-communicated. The preceding events that carried us to that moment; the niggling worries under which we are bent; the snippets of conversation that trailed through our heads; the many experiences intermingling with that one mystical experience, giving it the contours of mind-boggling specificity and rightness that such experiences have; the way the experience meets a particular and deeply felt need. A mystical experience is a kind of communication. What it is communicating is most especially known to the person to whom it communicates.

As the story conveys, I was no saint or spiritual giant at the time of this mystical experience. I was a walking emotional shit-show—so fragile of ego and self-absorbed I could only focus on how I would perform or appear to others that first day of teaching. Which is all the more reason I believe mystical experiences are not set aside for exceptional people who have wrestled the angel of ego. If I was capable of being a mystic that day, anyone can be a mystic. “Being a mystic” is not a role. It is a momentary awareness.

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4 thoughts on “Everyday Mysticism

  1. Of course, these mystical moments come to those who need them, don’t they? A faith affirming story. Thank you.

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