July 21-Aug 3, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 26
Mysteries Amoung Us
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
The word “mystic” evokes a strong image. Often, one envisions a lone ascetic, placid in his isolated mountain aerie, meditating on the divine. One might also picture a wild eyed holy man with supernatural powers at his beck and call.
In either case or both, mysticism most often implies an intersection of the divine and the corporeal, the supernatural and the mundane.
Some of Catholicism’s most important saints also fall under the mystic category including St. Francis of Assisi and St. John of the Cross. And while most saints do not share a predilection for mysticism, almost all of them experienced a direct encounter with the mystical at one time or another.
“If we think of it as an experience of communion with Ultimate Reality, we have a fair working definition of mystic experience,” according to Thomas Merton. “We will do well not to introduce the term ‘God’ into our definition. Not all people feel comfortable calling Ultimate Reality ‘God.’ But all of us, regardless of terminology, can experience moments of overwhelming, limitless belonging, moments of universal communion. Those are our own mystic moments.”
But one doesn’t need to venture far to remote and isolated Bhutan or too far into the distant past to see mysticism in practice.
To see mystic traditions in practice, one need go no farther than to the Dominican Monastery on Court Street in Syracuse or to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Fulton.
Why wait until my body passes away, the mystic practitioner reasons, when I can stride toward God while I am still on this earth?
The Dominican Sisters maintain that one can seek a merger with the divine through prayer, particularly the Rosary. Meanwhile, Father Stephen Wirkes of Immaculate Conception claims divine manifestations among Christians are all too common during his Charismatic Revival services.
While their methods differ wildly, their basic ambition is a common denominator: an intersection or union with the divine.
Solitude in the Salt City
Cloistered away, just a few blocks from Salina Street, the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary dwell in their convent. In February, the Sisters celebrated their 80th year in Syracuse.
In their solitude, the Sisters immerse themselves in prayer and participate in an exercise designed to bring them into union with God.
A release designed to explain something about their order to the uninitiated sums up the Sisters’ goal: “To be a praise of glory of the most Holy Trinity,” wrote Venerable Elizabeth of the Trinity, O.P.
The same release details one of Venerable Elizabeth’s prayers.
“My Christ,…identify my soul with all movements of Thine own…substitute Thyself for me that my life may be but a radiance of Thine own,” one verse reads.
Although the release clearly details that the Trinity cannot be intruded upon, (God is eternally triune; no fourth party can be tolerated, the statement reads) the Sisters ambition is ultimately union with the divine.
“Everything we do brings us closer to the Lord so that we become one with Jesus. We make room in our hearts for the Lord and that’s what he means,” said Sister Mary Augustine of the Passion, OP.
Eleven Sisters daily recognize the 20 mysteries of the Rosary in a cycle designed to reflect the life of Jesus Christ over the course of a year beginning with the incarnation at Christmas and the resurrection at Easter.
Sister Augustine has been a member of the Sisterhood for over 50 years. She traces her inspiration to the contemplative life to a somewhat mystical experience during a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France. Her companion during the pilgrimage turned to her after praying and admitted that his prayers were in reference to a calling he felt toward the priesthood. Sister Augustine said that she felt no such inspiration at the time, but would come to realize that St. Mary had germinated a call to prayer.
“Little did I know that our Blessed Mother planted a seed of the vocation at the Grotto,” Sister Augustine said. After resigning from the European Command Intelligence School in the Bavarian Alps, she returned to her home in Pennsylvania and attended Marywood College in Scranton. During a retreat at the Villa of Our Lady in the Poconos, Sister Augustine finally determined that she would devote her entire life to prayer.
“During that retreat I just prayed my heart out and said ‘Okay Blessed Mother, I’ve been looking and looking and what would you like me to do? It’s not what I want, what do you want?’ The Holy Spirit really came in and I was filled with the Holy Spirit,” Sister Augustine said.
When she returned from the retreat, she told a friend she was drawn exclusively to prayer and the friend recommended to her the Dominican Sisters. “When I got back from the retreat, a friend who was taking the course of studies asked ‘What happened to you, you’ve changed?’ And I said, well I think that God is calling me into a convent and she said ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I said all I want to do is pray. And she said ‘Well, good, I know a nice convent in Syracuse…So that’s how I came,” she said.
Prayer, and the Rosary in particular, has been at the center of the order since its inception as the brainchild of St. Dominic. The saint, a native of Spain, initially set about establishing the order as a means of countering the spread of the Albigensian Heresy in France. According to a story relayed by Sister Augustine, St. Dominic’s efforts were fruitless until Mary revealed to him that he must use the Rosary. Once he began using the Rosary, several women joined his movement.
Mild-mannered priest by day…
Six years ago, Father Stephen Wirkes thought those Charismatic Renewal Catholics and their Protestant equivalents among the Pentecostals were a little off, a bunch of holy rollers. But then, in the words of the Northern Region priest, “God got me good.”
Six years ago, Father William Gaffney and Gloria Anson visited Father Wirkes’ former parish, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Mexico on the northern fringe of the diocese. Unbeknownst to Father Wirkes, his visitors were “holy rollers.” After witnessing one Charismatic Renewal Mass, he was inspired.
For Father Wirkes, Charismatic Revival was an answer to prayer. After many years in the priesthood, after many years of reading accounts of the miraculous lives of the saints he asked God for more. Shortly after, he received it.
Now the pastor at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Father Wirkes and his compatriots in the Charismatic Renewal and Charismatic Revival movements maintain that the “gifts of the Lord” as experienced by the Apostles and saints of old never really left the faith.
“What we find in Charismatic Revival is new to us, but it’s not new to the church,” Father Wirkes said. “Much of what we experience was experienced by mystics before us.”
A robust contrast to what one can imagine life among the Dominican Sisters to be, Charismatic prayer meetings include music with all manner of instruments and a number of manifest gifts rarely found in a conventional Mass.
Among the “gifts” Father Wirkes said his church has witnessed are canon to the Charismatic movement: 1.) Warmth: Many participants feel warmth when they pray. This was not uncommon among saints. St. Stanislaus is said to have grown so hot during prayer, he needed to jump into a mound of snow afterwards.
2.) Manifest presence of God: The participant is frozen in one position, sometimes for hours, in a trance-like state while praying.
3.) Holy tears: The touch of God is so powerful that the participant bursts into tears.
4.) Trembling: The touch of God compels the participant to tremble.
5.) “Slain in the Spirit” or “Resting in the Spirit”: The participant is so overwhelmed by the presence of God that he or she collapses to the floor where he or she remains for some time.
6.) Speaking in tongues: The participant renders up incoherent speech during prayer. Father Wirkes’ groups have garnered experiences beyond the realm of the renewal movement. As a Charismatic Revival group, it has encountered gold dust within the confines of the church, as well as holy laughter; oils issuing from the skin during prayer; and fragrances when no physical source is present. The Charismatic movement identified these gifts in 1994, but Father Wirkes notes that they were in evidence with his group long before they were aware of their names.
The “end result” of experiencing such gifts is “an incredible sense of peace and refreshment,” Father Wirkes said. The group has between 30 and 50 core members hailing from as far as the Rochester and Ogdensburg Diocese. Father Wirkes noted that very few participants hail from the parish in which services are based. At St. Mary, Star of the Sea, some six participants were from the home parish. Fewer still Immaculate Conception parishioners attend today.
Nevertheless, Father Wirkes spends a considerable amount of energy and time promoting his Charismatic Revival meetings noting that the movement has the potential to transform the church.
According to Father Wirkes, participants in Charismatic prayer meetings often find themselves inspired in their faith. Participants experience a rejuvenated interest in prayer and Mass and often begin attending daily Mass.
For his part, Father Wirkes identified a revival in his own prayer in terms of the enthusiasm, the quality and the length.
Although his prayer life was already satisfactory, Father Wirkes said Charismatic revival amplified his enthusiasm. “I desire to pray and have a deeper felt communion with Christ,” Father Wirkes said.