Spiritual Reflections

Called to Mystical Vulnerability

Authentic intimacy and suffering demand the embrace of powerlessness and vulnerability.

The words mystic and mysticism tend to perplex many people. This is unfortunate because every world religion, and all Indigenous peoples have members who are considered mystics and affirm mystical practices. When Christians hear the word mystic they usually think of Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, and John of the Cross. These mystics’ writings are catalogued and in countless libraries. 

There are many definitions of mysticism and variations of mystical experiences, but the Spirit is at work in all. Mystics have a deep sense of God’s transforming presence, which is always a free gift. This union with and knowledge of the transcendent might be accompanied with visions or moments of ecstasy and it always produces more generous love toward others. What is required is that one “surrender” oneself to what is taking place. The urge to control the experience must be resisted. This is a very vulnerable time for the person being swept away by the intimate experience of deep love. It asks for considerable trust and the ability to let the mystical journey be the guide.

What begins as a very private personal experience always has the potential to become a catalyst for social change. 

There is a relatively new term being used to describe individuals whose deep mystical experiences of God have led and guided them to a particular kind of ministry in the public forum. These individuals are not monastics or hermits. They do not choose to withdraw from the world, but find their vocation among the challenges, joys, and sufferings of life in society. They are called public mystics. This article will focus on four women whom I believe are public mystics. They are also women who had to face their own vulnerability as they responded to God’s love and call. We are fortunate to have many of their letters and writings along with historical records of their lives. They are Harriet Tubman, Etty Hillesum, Caryll Houselander and Thea Bowman. 

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman experienced vulnerability from the moment she was born into slavery in 1825. Little did she know that one day she would be called by the name Moses. Within her DNA were the traditions and mystical beliefs of her African ancestors who traveled the Middle Passage. The vulnerability of slavery included isolation from family and physical and emotional abuse. At the age of twelve she was struck in the head by a two-pound lead weight that was being thrown at a slave boy. The ramifications from this incident were lifelong. Tubman had dream-like spells from which it was difficult to awaken her. She believed that God and her ancestors spoke to her through these dreams. Having such physical challenges created a very real vulnerability for her. 

However, it was during some of these “episodes” that Harriet had a recurring vision of a “flight” to freedom. She saw herself flying over fields and towns, rivers, and mountains. Harriet always knew that she was a child of God. She experienced the pull of the divine, not only for herself but for all who were enslaved. She tried to flee to freedom three times but was too afraid. Finally, she chose to put herself in a vulnerable place and opt for freedom. She would state in 1859, “God’s time is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens; He gave me the strength in my limbs; He meant I should be free.” 

Not only did Harriet Tubman reach freedom in Philadelphia, but she also returned countless times to lead southern slaves out of bondage. She liberated over three hundred slaves, and none were captured. It was her mystical prayer and union with God that inspired her and gave her the strength she needed. During the Civil War she worked as a spy, and she extended the Underground Railroad north to Canada. Harriet teaches us to trust the many ways God wishes to communicate. She teaches us that the human spirit cannot be limited by physical challenges and personal vulnerability. As Fredrick Douglass told her, “The midnight sky and the silent stars have been witnesses of your devotion to freedom.” She stood in the swamps and prayed to her God. The waters parted before her. 

Etty Hillesum

On September 7, 1943, a young Dutch Jew was put into a train car at Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands. As the train headed East, she slid a postcard through the slats of the car, informing a friend that she was on her way to Auschwitz. Her name was Etty Hillesum. We are fortunate that this incredible woman and mystic bore witness to what was happening in her life and in the world by keeping a journal and writing in it, almost daily from March 1941 to August 1943. 

As with Harriet Tubman, Etty Hillesum faced many challenges and vulnerabilities throughout her short life. Her family was deeply disturbed and as a result Etty was a very anxious and fearful woman. Eventually she would join a group of intellectuals in Amsterdam which gave her stability and spiritual nourishment. She became a patient and partner of the therapist Julius Spier. His guidance and care along with her contemplative being in love with God, helped liberate her from the inner forces that kept her emotionally and spiritually unfree. Her life became an uninterrupted dialogue with God. She knew that she must chronicle what was taking place in Amsterdam as the Nazis took over. “If I have one real duty in life, in these times, then it is to write, to record, and to retain.” 

Hillesum chose to see the beauty in life in the midst of horror. She was willing to be vulnerable and loving in a climate of fear and hatred while resisting the evil around her. Little did she know that years after her death, Dorothee Soelle would embrace the concept of mysticism as resistance writing, “Trust in God and resist, is becoming the new imperative!” Etty’s relationship with God was her protective shield. Addressing God she stated, “I love people so terribly because in every human being I love something of you.” She was often criticized for this stance but deep down she realized that authentic intimacy and suffering demand the embrace of powerlessness and vulnerability. Pope Benedict XVI wrote of Hillesum, “In her disrupted, restless life she found God in the very midst of the tragedy of the 20th Century.” We are fortunate to have her for our guide as we face our own times. 

Caryll Houselander

When I was a novice in the IHM community, I was introduced to a book entitled The Reed of God by an author with whom I was unfamiliar. Her name is Caryll Houselander. I learned over the years that Houselander was also an art therapist, illustrator, wood carver, visionary, and healer. She was born in 1901 in Bath, England and lived through two world wars. She was baptized but left the Catholic Church at age 16 only to return later after years of exploring other religious traditions. Like Etty Hillesum, Houselander had a difficult childhood. She was a natural introvert who was often anxious. She experienced the hardships caused by the wars, often had panic attacks, and probably suffered from PTSD due to the bombings of London in WWII. Some call her a divine eccentric. 

Houselander’s first two visions took place when she was young, and they both involve her “seeing” Christ suffering in another person. Throughout her life Caryll experienced a heightened intuitive sense and could discern when others needed to be healed. She would write, “To try to avoid suffering is useless, for the seed of it is in the human heart.” Her mystical call was to bring divine love into the world. “Divine love is to be lived at home, at work, in any place, any circumstances. Through our natural human relationships, through the people we know and the neighbors we see.” Houselander’s vulnerability facilitated her healing abilities and her writing. This gift impacted her greatly when she was at liturgy. She believed the liturgy expresses every passion, emotion, and experience of the human heart.

The third vision Houselander experienced took place on the subway in London. This vision lasted a few days. Much like Thomas Merton who had his vision on the corner of 4th and Walnut Streets in Louisville, Kentucky, Houselander “saw” Christ in everyone on the train. Being able to see this and speak of it to others was one of the mystical gifts she offered to the world. Houselander chose the reed to be a symbol of Mary. She writes, “The reed is the simplest of things, but it must be cut, shaped and pierced before it can utter the shepherd’s song.” In other words, it must become open and vulnerable. It dawns on me that this description of Mary can also be used to describe Houselander’s journey with her God. 

Thea Bowman

On December 29, 1937 a baby girl named Bertha was born to Theon and Mary Esther Bowman in Mississippi. She would later go by the name Thea and call herself an “old folks child.” It was from the old folks that Thea learned the story of slavery and the ways her people fought to survive. She also discovered that God was a God of the oppressed. It was Thea’s choice to be baptized a Catholic at age 10 and to enter the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin in 1957. Thea would be the only Black sister in the congregation. While her upbringing was joyful and loving, the fact that she was a woman of color would make her quite vulnerable. She already knew that she had to guard her feelings, speech, and thoughts in certain company. 

From the moment the Civil Rights Movement began, Thea Bowman was a part of it. Her life opened up as she did further studies and formed a sisterhood with other Black women religious. Her creative abilities blossomed as she wrote, sang, taught black spirituality and indigenous literature to college students. She declared, “When God is on our side, when we walk in faith and hope and love, no wall, no obstacle can stop us.” 

Vulnerability came to the forefront of Thea Bowman’s life in 1984. That fall her mother Mary Esther died, and Thea’s father followed shortly after. As an only child she felt lonely and alone. That same year, at age 47, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I went through a struggle in the beginning,” wrote Thea, “I did not know what to pray for; I didn’t know how to approach it.” Faced with the vulnerability of illness, Thea declared to all “I pray to live until I die,” and “I want to find ways to make the most of the time I have left.” These decisions transformed her vulnerability into a forceful ministry to God’s people. She preached and spoke to groups, including the American Bishops, for as long as she could. Thea Bowman is clearly a public mystic. Recognizing the life she led, the Diocese of Jacksonville, Mississippi, in 2018, opened the cause for her sainthood. At that time, she was declared a Servant of God. 

A challenge and a blessing

The lives of these four women demonstrate that vulnerability can be both a challenge and a blessing. They each embraced mystical vulnerability. They were “ordinary” people who taught, built, cooked, nursed, and advocated for others and who were often overlooked. In fact, “we are all mystics” insists the late German theologian Dorothee Soelle. And we cannot forget the poignant words of another German theologian, Karl Rahner, who in his book Encounters with Silence wrote, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” 

Suggested Readings: 

  1. Walking the Way of Harriet Tubman by Therese Taylor-Stinson. Broadleaf Books, 2023. 
  2. An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum. Henry Holt and Company, 1996. 
  3. Caryll Houselander, Essential Writings by Wendy M. Wright. Orbis Books, 2005. 
  4. Thea Bowman, Faithful and Free. (People of God Series) by Maurice J. Nutt. Liturgical Press, 2019.

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