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Starting Point

A schemer seeks the mystical


When I began retreat, I wanted a mystical experience. Even after two years, I was lonely and chagrined at the death of my life-long friend. I had been faithful and did not deserve such stripping. I believed I had a right to a signal from God.

Despite this truculent state of mind, the retreat week passed swiftly. I prayed the breathing prayer as the director suggested, as strange as it was to my perpetually scheming mind. It was a method that confounded my usual way of reflection. It was not reflection at all, but the attempt to “not-reflect,” trying not to try, bending the mind to non-action. I wanted to do it well and knew that the wanting subverted itself. My own personal koan.

I breathed and breathed, and breathed again. I relaxed, in spite of myself. I breathed in the trees, the rain, the restless wind of a hurricane. I breathed so much I almost forgot about having a mystical experience. I remembered a phrase from an old master: “an increase of faith, hope and love.” Would this suffice? Ah, perhaps. And then came the idea (thought I was trying hard not to have them): If I had a mystical experience, would I recognize it?

The day after I returned from retreat I awoke to a cloudless sky and set out for the beach at noon. It was neither hot nor cold. The wind was moderate, caressing, and the sea had been purged by the storm. Its undulating blue moved without a break to the shore until it arched in waves that curved to a perfect semicircle and seemed to hover for an instant, tossing a delicate mist backward before crashing down in a silver spume.

A butterfly crossed my line of vision as I admired this dance, then a second, then a third. They were monarch butterflies, dark gold etched in black. I was breathing, not thinking. A body-surfer caught my eye, glancing down on the wave curve, slithering to shore on the last inches of water. Then another butterfly. If flight could ever be linked to leisurely pace, this creature seemed to fly without hurry. I began to count them. Eight, nine, 10. A child ran past, joyful, lithe. My butterfly count faltered.

How long my observation lasted I cannot say. By and by I realized that any time I chose to look, there were butterflies in my line of vision. Moreover, they were orderly, entering to the left and exiting to the right, traveling a sure southwesterly path, past me out to sea, to Mexico, I guess, and I was witness to the first leg of the journey. All afternoon they came, hour after hour, nicely spaced so the parade would last. Sometimes I forgot them, dozing briefly in the sun, turning my back to fetch water from the boardwalk fountain. But then I’d breathe and see them again, fluttering golden into the deep blue.

But I am a schemer as much as a breather, and it was inevitable, no doubt, that the question would return. If I had a mystical experience, would I recognize it? Another koan, because isn’t mystical experience beyond what you know, so then, if you have it, how do you know it?

Breathe. Breathe again. Look. A pair of wings stirs the air, parts the delicate mist of the wave, shrinks and vanishes into the horizon. Another pair of wings to the left, almost close enough to touch. The clot of thought threatens to diminish, separate, as the schemer works to name it. But she breathes. And with breath comes this certainty at least: It would be ingratitude to hold out for better.

Sister of Charity Mary Beth Moore works in psychiatric rehabilitation in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999