Congratulations to Spencer Clark French, whose essay “My Mild Stigmata” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2021 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.
“Stigmata (singular stigma) in Christian mysticism, bodily marks, scars, or pains corresponding to those of the crucified Jesus Christ…A stigmatic person may temporarily or permanently have one or more of these wound marks… the presence of stigmata is a sign of mystical union with the suffering of Christ.”
Just a knob of skin. Just a small callous. Just a weird wart burrowed into my palm.
At a time when God’s absence was as obvious as it has ever been, I got a sliver in my right hand—from a shovel handle, if I remember correctly—that was too deep for pliers. I decided to let my body heal it over time. After a week, the surrounding flesh hardened; after two, the swelling and pain relented; after a month, it was inducted into the geography of my hand. But around that same time, I reevaluated and was struck—it occupied the exact center of my palm, the exact center. I tried picking it off, to no avail, so I clenched my hand into a fist for fear that people would see it and ask. In my less vigilant moments, I found myself rubbing the wart with my ring finger over and over—half pseudo-religious practice and half nervous tic.
After three months, I revealed it to my spiritual director (a title which has always seemed like an oversell). He looked at me, then at my hand, then back at me—grinning.
Of course, I had not the hubris to claim a stigma. The most reasonable explanation was that I had a strange growth in my hand—a fact qualifying me for dermatologist, maybe, but hardly anything more. And yet the callous remained, and yet my confusion about it. Questions haunted me, namely: in light of all our secular preoccupations, all our scientific developments, all the well-documented abuses of religious people and institutions, what is a (non-delusional) modern person to do with experiences like this, with the notion of the mystical?
It did not help that the word “mysticism” is a peach pit in the teeth of modern speech. It works well enough when describing historical (read: long-dead) figures, like Rumi or Teresa of Ávila, but the moment it starts referring to the contemporary world, things veer into the fantastical: theword conjures crystal-wearing, tree-talking LSD-gurus or esoteric ceremonies with velvet shawls and, surely, at some point, pig blood. Much like the term “martyr,” mild embarrassment arises when “mystical” is invoked to describe an experience—especially among those who fancy themselves intellectuals. Immediately the furrowed brows, immediately the incredulity. And yet under these reactions, one cannot help but sense a sincere desire for something more than fresh formulations of well-worn doubts—the suspicion of those who desperately want to be proved wrong. There is a reason why the most popular quote of academic theologian Karl Rahner is not about the Trinity or Soteriology, but rather, “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or…not exist at all” (The Practice of Faith).
But how would we speak about such a life? What words would we use? In every age, language—especially religious language—must be reimagined if it is to continue being meaningful. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed to when he wrote from a Nazi jail cell, “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today” (Letters and Papers from Prison). Our American context is saturated with a longing for precise, beneficial spiritual language—language which helps us speak of transcendent experiences while honoring the mystery therein; language which acknowledges the complicity of our words (and selves) in systems of oppression while providing a way for justice and peace; language which negotiates both the wide silence and occasional intrusion of God. What could such mysticism mean for us today?
I. A Catalogue of Strange Happenings
A five-minute walk from my childhood home lived an evangelist who also happened to be my grandfather. He was thin-framed with a belly, energetic and gregarious, and as conviction goes his love of the Detroit Tigers was surpassed only that for Christ. In the 70s he was a missionary in Brazil with his wife and two children; he loved Portuguese—Porrr-TOO-geyz. And, of course, he had stories—this was my favorite:
Because of his father’s new Navy placement, my ten-year-old grandpa, his siblings, and their few possessions were piled into the family’s old, two-door DeSoto. So began a long trek from Michigan to California. It was one of the colder months, December maybe, and they had made it all the way to the Rockies. His father decided to brave a precarious, uphill road despite nightfall and snow, which only grew heavier with altitude. They chugged and jolted up the slope, but the asphalt was slick—too slick—and the car lost traction, swerving into a snowbank on the ledge, which was the only barrier between the road and the darkness that went beyond it. The vehicle teetered. His father commanded all the kids to the safe side of the car, and then, without breaching equilibrium, started lifting them, one by one, out of the driver-side door. My grandpa was among the first evacuated. They were miles away from the nearest city. The snowstorm was blinding. The road had no shoulder—if someone drove through, they would be roadkill; if not, icicles. And that’s assuming that everyone made it out before the car plummeted into the abyss. The blizzard became a room with no doors.
Through the wall of white strode four men shoulder to shoulder. They were all the same height and wore matching leather vests. They walked up to the driver side window. One said, “sir, you need our help.” They picked up the rear of the car and dragged it back to the road, directing his father to turn it around. Pointing him to the nearest city in the valley, one of them drawled, “You need chains on your tires to make it over this mountain.” Everyone piled back into the car and said nothing, still in shock from the cold and the cliff. Those four men walked ahead of them, into the strobing white-black of headlights on a snowy night. When they started down the road a few minutes later, the men had disappeared.
My grandpa spoke nothing of this for years until one random day when he turned to his mother, bashful for having waited so long, and asked, “Mom, on the mountain…those men…were they—” She interrupted, “Those were no men…”
I believed him entirely. In fact, my young mind added to the leather vests: from then on, all angels wore spurs and wide-brimmed Stetsons. And I believed that they could be anywhere.
But life was more solitude than deus ex machina, more often the quiet sky than the four cowboys.
When I left my Podunk hometown to study ministry, I had been equipped with the certain logic of simple faith—if you come near to God, God will come near to you. Jesus wants a personal relationship with everyone, after all. A clear corollary followed: if God is not near, it is surely because you aren’t near to God. As I prepared to become a pastor, a shadow grew in step with my every attempt at deepening my belief. I went on antidepressants. I read voraciously, hoping to find the reason for my grief or, at least, something to distract me from it. One time, my father intimated that the depression was actually caused by all the books I was reading. There are crazier suggestions.
Poets helped most:
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
—No worst, there is none…, Gerard M. Hopkins
Your children, burdened with
disbelief, blinded by a patina
carom down this vale of
fear. We cry for you
although we have lost
—Savior, Maya Angelou
Three years into an undergraduate degree in Christian Ministries, the possibility of faith collapsed. I assumed the bitter title, agnostic. I told those closest to me that I could no longer shoulder the weight of belief.
But that fledgling agnosticism did not last, or at least, did not progress unimpeded: peculiar, sporadic moments followed me around—a shooting star tearing across the night in reply to the petition reveal yourself!, the prolonged eye contact of a sparrow, my name appearing on road signs in the midst of a long debate with the sky. Of course, these could be rationalized—coincidence, want of birdseed, confirmation bias, respectively—but my dismissals could not annul the churning inside. They felt more like evasions than explanations. I blamed my grandpa for my fealty to grandest possible interpretation.
But the emptiness remained. I was caught between the darkness in which I lived and the few moments of light that perforated it—which, in most cases, just made the darkness darker. I was a semi-believer on psychotropics who argued with the ether and occasionally talked to birds. Is befuddled a religious category?
The encounters continued:
The day before Yale Divinity School’s application results were published, I went for a run to steady my nerves. It was March in South Bend, Indiana and not warm. After finishing, I crouched down in front of my apartment building to stretch. A couple, who I had never seen before or since, walked by with their pet—a bulldog. My eyes perked, but I steadied myself against any hasty spiritualization. In that same moment, the bulldog turned and stared directly in my eyes. I was admitted the next day. While I’m at it, the rural farm town that I grew up in? Its name is Yale, Michigan. All my life I attended Yale Public Schools. The colors are navy and white; our mascot is a bulldog.
While working at a church—in the midst of my dark half-decade of the soul—a man who struggled with homelessness limped my way, told me that his kneehurt real bad and asked for healing. I tried to signal to one of the more spiritually-equipped staff members, but they were all busy and service was about to start. Wincing, I placed my hand on his knee, so as to not insult decorum, prayed the most generic, qualifier-laden prayer of my life, hurrying away afterwards to veil my shame. When service finished, I tried to slink out a back door unseen, but he found me and bounded over, tears streaming down his face. “It’s better, yes! It’s all better! Thank you, Yes! Thank you, Jesus!”I still see him sometimes. He does not limp.
II. A Faith from the Fragments
In conversations about faith, silence, and the mystical, it’s hard to go too long without Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel showing up. Here he is at his most lucid:
“In every [person’s] life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the eternal… But such experiences or inspirations are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched. The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response.”
—Man is Not Alone
Heschel’s conception of faith is dynamic—it maintains traditional content, while removing any expectation of regular access to God; it preserves the notion that God is active in the world, while making space for God’s felt absence. But I find this quote most helpful in how it quietly sketches the mechanics of mystical experience. Heschel distinguishes between a revelatory event and our response to it. In any encounter of transcendence there is something beyond our control (e.g. man with a hurt knee, bulldog) and something in us that responds (e.g. awe, recognition of a coincidence beyond coincidence).
In the rare case that a modern person ventures mystical significance on an encounter, there is a tendency to fixate on the abnormality of events. Think of the careful grammar of the sentence, “the strangest thing happened to me today.” Events are exterior to us and therefore—the subtle logic goes—not marred by our subjective perceptions and desires. For that is what subjectivity does: mars.
One of the clearest examples of this contemporary mistrust of the self comes, ironically, from the 17thcentury clergy-poet, John Donne. In his most famous of the Holy Sonnets, Donne laments his own waywardness so much so that he pleads for an outside force—in this case God—to come and violently save him from himself:
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
—Holy Sonnet X, John Donne
But any attempt to remove the subjective from an experience misses the point. Unless you mutilate a moment into mere facts and dates, events are not objective. And even if you decided to strip them to bare data, what is there left to say of a serendipitous star or a conspicuous callous besides the trivializing— “How bizarre?” The fact of an event does nothing to make meaning of it. We have no testable, scientific meta-framework for determining whether a happening was random or from beyond. How many transcendent moments are interred in the graveyard of coincidence?
This parallels a larger truth: there is enough evidence in this world for anyone to be a rosy-eyed believer or sour-faced atheist. In a very real way, agnosticism is the only rational religious posture, but “rational” in that case surrenders everything up front—assuming that the only way you can have a reasonable religious belief is to acknowledge you cannot. At the end, evidence has never been the issue; interpretation makes apostles or apostates.
(As cowardly as I’ve called it, I still deem myself agnostic three days a week. It’s like an existential part-time job, but with no benefits and really bad pay.)
In the way of faith, our responses to extraordinary moments are more important than the events that originated them—responses involve agency, and we can choose aspects of our responses. But then there’s that pesky question of extent. It would be gross overstatement to claim that we have absolute jurisdiction over our reactions. Imagine your favorite meal: did you choose to like it? My hunch is that, in most cases, your appreciation for a dish had little to do with your conscious will and almost everything to do with the desires of some unseen aspect of yourself. But what about acquired tastes? That’s exactly my point—the existence of acquired tastes proves that we do have some agency alongside these subterranean parts of our self, but the very fact that the adjective ‘acquired’ has to modify the more common noun ‘tastes’ proves that consciously cultivating one’s palate is not the norm.
Think about all the other areas to which this mechanism applies: do you choose to be struck by a work of art? How many of your tears are chosen? Sure, through study one can procure a deeper love for a painting; yes, people can be socially conditioned to hide emotional responses, even from themselves; but at the end of it all, there is still an other-energy which moves in and through these rare moments, beyond the limits of our will. If there is any evidence for God’s specific action in our lives, I’d bet it’s found there. The Gospel of Mark argues that this doubleness doesn’t just apply to food and art, but also to faith: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24, KJV). Or consider an excerpt from Scott Cairns’ poem in defense of heretics:
Does one always make one’s choices? From what
universal view of utter clarity
might one proceed? Let me know when you have it.”
—Adventures in N.T. Greek: Hairésis
I’ve spent a lot of sentences emphasizing transcendent moments and our strange passivity to them, but here I need to turn again to Heschel, lest I outline a faith only for those who converse with small mammals and levitate regularly. When Heschel talks about moments from Beyond, he does not describe them as routine, “[E]vents happen, intermittently, occasionally. The term ‘continuous revelation’ is as logical as the term ‘a round square’” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity).
Faced with the capriciousness of mystical events and with the fact that we cannot regulate a sizable part of our response, it’s important to probe into what we can control. How would someone act if they were to claim that they lived a life open to the mystical?
The mystic, philosopher, social-activist and existential odd-bird, Simone Weil provides a helpful investigation of one answer: attentiveness. In a short essay about, among other things, the studies of school children, Weil contends that the highest motive for schooling should not the acquisition of knowledge but instead to “[increase] the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer” (Waiting on God). She believes that central to the faithful life is the absolute attention on God. She treats it as a rudimentary spiritual skill, like breathing is to basketball—rarely the focus but unthinkable without it.
To live a life open to the mystical, we must train our eyes to look for “intrusions of grace” (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners). We must prime our imaginations for the mysterious, staying ourselves against the safety of skepticism. If there are such things as mystical encounters, which I believe there are, then humans are not the exclusive originators of them, and therefore cannot manifest them readily. (An anti-example: while I was desperately trying to save a sinking relationship, I buoyed my confidence by searching out license plates for my then partner’s initials—for, surely, these were mystical messages from the Lord. I was not well.) Attentiveness requires openness and then patience.
From Weil’s same essay:
“An [Inuit] story explains the origin of light as follows: ‘In the eternal darkness, the crow, unable to find any food, longed for light, and the earth was illuminated.’ If there is a real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention… Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.”
While this quote nears a formulaic, work-centric shadow of the faithful life, I share it because of what it illuminates: attention, while passive to the object it attends to, is also an active posture in the world. We can choose what we focus on or what we avoid. We can choose to be inattentive, and our world is happy to aid and abet that self-diversion—commodifying our gaze so they can be sold to the highest big-tech capitalist bidder. In this cultural situation, there must be a great “effort of attention.” A life that is open to the possibility of mystical encounter must also have eyes that are open for those few times it arrives. Furthermore, Weil’s conception refuses to unilaterally blame humans for not experiencing God. She thinks that the spiritually attentive life requires long periods of little fruit, which relieves us of culpability when mystical encounter does not follow prolonged attentiveness. Instead, our focus silently grows our capacity for God or Whatever, even if we do not recognize it at first. But one day the numinous will break through with a flash of realization, like Jacob: “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Genesis 28:16).
To be open to the mystical, you must attend to your life, and I do not mean indiscriminately foisting meaning upon every cardinal and traffic cone. You must choose to listen to what is speaking, from within and without, and be patient when silence abounds. And you must find remedies for the distractedness of our marketing-driven culture. One such antidote is poetry—writing and reading. Poetry forces us to listen with focused ears, to look with thorough eyes, which is why poetry is a perennial avenue of spiritual clarity in the world.
The poet Lucille Clifton captures open attentiveness masterfully in her poem when I stand around among the poets. After lamenting the literary establishment’s overwhelming whiteness, maleness, and, worse of all, certainty, she pivots:
i don’t know how to do
what i do in the way
that i do it. it happens
despite me and i pretend
to deserve it.
but i don’t know how to do it.
only sometimes when
something is singing
and so far
Heschel helps locate a second arena in which the mystical life works itself out—memory: in his short, scintillating essay The Moment at Sinai, Heschel argues that the Bible is a book of events, not just ideas. He continues, “The root of Jewish faith is, therefore, not a comprehension of abstract principles but an inner attachment to those events; to believe is to remember, not merely to accept the truth of a set of dogmas.” And these memories make claims on the rememberer: “The event must be fulfilled, not only believed in.”
This is a rigorous picture of the faithful life, one that requires more than I have to offer, but as I was preparing to harangue the overstatement of such a conception, a dove landed three feet away and stared at me for half a minute. Stared. It felt like rebuke from Heschel himself. I will have to leave my qualms about biblical historicity and organized religion to the side.
What I can say is this: I believe spiritual events from the past, whether last week or last millennium, can make claims on our present lives; they can change our posture toward the world, if we let them.
This changed posture comes within the dialectic of memory and interpretation: our past experiences inform our perceptions of the present, and our present lives influence our interpretations of the past. One is not lord over the other. Think of the memories that had a fundamental meaning to your life—a childhood conversion, let’s say—only to be excused as folly amid the scrutiny of age. Consider those times that were as quotidian as clouds—a short conversation, a glance—which, later, took their position among the most important moments of your life. This is as good a reason as there is to keep a journal. The first step of deep engagement with spiritual memories is actually remembering.
We are always interpreting and reinterpreting events. But there is a temptation to privilege recent spiritual malaise over a previous divine encounter, at least in my own life. This privileging of the present makes sense: how many months of silence from God must one endure before they begin rethinking the nature of that Being? If the faithful life is nothing more than clinging to a past ecstatic moment while you founder in the spiritual abyss, then mystical instants become nothing more than the religious equivalent of a one-night stand, God being the one who doesn’t call back.
How can we remain loyal to a past mystical event without reducing our lives to a handful of moments? How can we let those moments make claims on us without shunning our present experience? I’ve reached the boundary of what I can answer. I do believe that a person open to the mystical must be faithful to their memories, must allow past moments of transcendence to make claims on their lives. But discerning what kinds of obligations, if any, those experiences require must be made by individuals within their specific spiritual community.
For example, while angels qua cowboys may not have survived the onslaught of my liberal theological education, I still believe my grandpa’s story, which means I believe there are times where goodness does dramatically intervene, which means I must make myself open to endless examples where this doesn’t seem to be the case and all the impossible questions that spawn from them.
If I were to point in the direction of a third aspect of the mystical life, it would undoubtably be a good sense of humor:
Once, during a cheesy Christian meditation, I was asked to invite Jesus into “the living room of my imagination.” Before the deflector shields of cynicism could be deployed, in walked the poet Ross Gay. He sat across from me on a corduroy couch. I offered him imaginary tea, which he graciously accepted.
Any time some shmuck attempts to identify the characteristics of spiritual experience, something in me bares its teeth like a cornered badger; schemas rarely respect the mystery of the thing they try to define. Especially in spiritual matters, the way one chooses to describe something says just as much as what they describe. At my very conservative undergraduate college, there was a formally trained New Testament scholar who had to regularly field inquiries about how to best “apply” the New Testament stories to real life. His response, which I heard on multiple, exasperated occasions: “Asking the question of, ‘How do I apply this narrative to my life?’ is like asking the question ‘How do I bake my grandmother?’ I can give an answer, but it will involve a lot of violence.”
Having listed two (and a half) features of a life open to the mystical could be understood as a brand of this indelicacy, I need to reemphasize the mystery woven into both attention and memory: what made your eye attend to the random person in the crowded room who became your partner? What brought forth the memory of a past joy which imputed the lightness of that time into a current despair? What makes the word on the page stand out, the right word, the word which frees you from a present pain? Even though these situations can be dismissed à la psychological conjecture, I cannot bend to such explanations—I simply love my grandmothers too much.
The only mystical life that I could accept would be one that holds space for fidelity to both the memory of a past divine encounter and the keen godlessness of the rest of life, without diluting either. They must dance together.
To live a life open to the mystical in our modern world, you must be open to the absurd possibility that Whatever is out there loves us—all of us—and wants to interact with us, even “though you have considered all the facts” (Wendell Berry). Even in the face of the massive mistrust and learned hatred of the self, you must accept that you have the potential for contact with the divine, even in the face of the God’s present absence—“God would have us know that we must live as [people] who manage our lives without him” (Bonhoeffer, again). To orient a life with such beliefs would require an open attentiveness to the world around and inside you, as well as a careful loyalty to the memory of the few miraculous experiences that arrive. Such a posture would require a healthy dose of humor for when you are wrong, which would be often, and a community of people with whom you can learn and grow and struggle through our bizarre world. To claim such a life would surely beget the rolled eyes of academics and the worried denunciations of those who are only comfortable with a God who speaks from a page. Let them be. To claim such a life makes you endlessly vulnerable before others, so, because you’ve caught me on a faithful day, I’ll go first:
My name is Spencer and I am a stigmatic.
Spencer Clark French is a poet and essayist hailing from the Midwest. He received his M.A.R. in Religion and Literature from Yale Divinity School and will begin his Ph.D. on the same topic at Notre Dame University in the fall. He currently resides in South Bend, Indiana. You can reach him here at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org