The Call to Mysticism – Part II, Moses as Mystic
July 2, 2009 § Leave a comment
Moses, I think, could fairly be called one of the Fathers of Western Mysticism. He had at least three mystical experiences of God in the Book of Exodus: the meeting at the Burning Bush, the reception of the Ten Commandments, and the meeting in the cleft of the mountain. From these we can gather that there are several effects of a mystical union with Love itself, including service, witness, the need for commandments, a burning desire for closer Union, humility, and worship.
Service and Witness
As the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen says, love requires slavery to the beloved. In an act of love, one gives up one’s own will for the sake of the other. The finest New Testament example of this is our Mother Mary, who through her Fiat, her union and surrender of will to the Divine brought Salvation into the world. Mystical union, is seems, is no different. As can be seen in the first encounter of Moses with YHWH, a union of love with the Divine awakens a desire to serve Him. Moses questions his worthiness to serve, but desires to serve despite his unworthiness because YHWH has called him.
Meanwhile Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There an angel of the LORD appeared to him in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed. So Moses decided, “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father,” he continued, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. But the LORD said, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the country of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. So indeed the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have truly noted that the Egyptians are oppressing them. Come, now! I will send you to Pharaoh to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” He answered, “I will be with you; and this shall be your proof that it is I who have sent you: when you bring my people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this very mountain.” “But,” said Moses to God, “when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?” God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.” (Exodus 3: 1-14)
Another effect of mystical union, as can be seen in the passage above, is the call to witness. The service Moses in drawn to is to act as a witness for God to the Israelites. After a union with the Divine, the servant cannot be silent: the heart must cry out to others in an attempt to share the Love it has received, or else it will simply burst the mortal cage and fly away.
The Need for Commandments
The third effect of mystical encounters it the need for commandments in the life of the servant. The Divine desires to protect His beloved ones from the thickets and mires of the Evil One, so He provides commandments – rules – as guiding lights for their steps. Thus God provides His chosen people, through His servant Moses, the Ten Commandments which have been handed down through to the second covenant (where they remain as valid as when they were originally set down by the hand of God Himself).
Then God delivered all these commandments: “I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain. “Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your beast, or by the alien who lives with you. In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. “Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you. “You shall not kill. “You shall not commit adultery. “You shall not steal. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him.” When the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the mountain smoking, they all feared and trembled. So they took up a position much farther away and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we shall die.” Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come to you only to test you and put his fear upon you, lest you should sin.” Still the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the cloud where God was. (Exodus 20: 1-21)
The machinations of Satan are positively terrifying. His greatest and most cunning weapon is to twist evil and make it appear good. Twist killing so it looks like justice, twist murder to make it look like the protection of another’s rights (as in the incredible injustice of abortion today), twist stealing to make it look like charity (“Steal from the rich to give to the poor”), twist adultery to make it look like ‘star-crossed love’, twist disobedience and disrespect to parents to look like a mere ‘assertion of independence’ by moody teenagers, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. We need the ten commandments to protect us from justifying things that are always simply wrong and which will condemn us ultimately for eternity. Our loving Father does everything He can to keep it from happening, but it is our free choice whether to obey or disobey the safeguards He has put in place for our own good.
Desire for Union, Humility and Worship
The final three effects of mystical union are the desire for closer union, humility and worship. After he has been given the ten commandments, Moses has an insatiable thirst for an even closer union with the Divine. He cries out to God to let him “see His glory”. As the servant spends more time with God and experiences a union with Him, he cannot help but desire to experience it more often. Union with God for eternity is Heaven itself.
Union with God also gives a greater understanding of the unbridgeable chasm between God and man, resulting in profound humility. God does not need the creature; yet, God loves the creature so deeply that He deigns to give it a taste of Himself. This gives way to worship, as the creature realizes that all he has to give the Divine is dust and ashes. But even this he will give to God in acts of worship.
The LORD said to Moses, “This request, too, which you have just made, I will carry out, because you have found favor with me and you are my intimate friend.” Then Moses said, “Do let me see your glory!” He answered, “I will make all my beauty pass before you, and in your presence I will pronounce my name, ‘LORD’; I who show favors to whom I will, I who grant mercy to whom I will. But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives. Here,” continued the LORD, “is a place near me where you shall station yourself on the rock. When my glory passes I will set you in the hollow of the rock and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand, so that you may see my back; but my face is not to be seen.” (Exodus 33: 17-23) Having come down in a cloud, the LORD stood with him there and proclaimed his name, “LORD.” Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out, “The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but punishing children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for their fathers’ wickedness!” Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship. (Exodus 31: 5-8)
All these effects of mystical union seen the Moses’ encounters with YHWH – service, witness, the need for commandments, a burning desire for closer Union, humility, and worship – are not merely present in mystical union granted to those chosen by God to be mystics. These effects are present in every servant of God as a result of every moment of encounter with the Divine, from that of a lay person at Mass, a priest at the Consecration, a monk in prayer, to a great mystic in ecstasy. The Holy Father’s call to all the faithful to “be mystics” I think is to respond to those effects of Divine encounter, to be servants and witnesses of Christ, to follow His commandments faithfully, to make more time to speak with God, to practice humility and worship in daily life.
[This is Part II in a series on mysticism. To read Part I, click here.]