The BBC recently covered a New York state retiree, Phillip Patterson, who wrote out the entirety of the King James 1611 Bible by hand. 788,000 words, penned with care and purpose. It’s an astounding story, especially given that Mr. Patterson doesn’t consider himself that religious. Still, when you watch the video (and you should watch the video), it’s hard to picture him as anything but religious, at least in the sense of one being open to the greater mystery of life and meaning. This is where the language of religion, and the word “religion” in particular, fails to do much good -- but that’s another post.
Patterson says “I wondered what was in the Bible. And I knew I didn’t have the… intellectual bandwidth to read it and retain it.” He’s a man searching for knowledge and understanding of a text that speaks so much to the nature of what it means to be in this world. It’s especially interesting that he labored over a text which he feels “is not accepting of [his] lifestyle” as a bisexual man with AIDS. It’s impossible for me to see his work as anything but a sacred pursuit of divine knowledge. When you hear him say, “I would sometimes be sitting and writing, and all of the sudden, it’s like the top of my head opens up and I understand, suddenly, how small our beliefs are. I’m not a slave to what’s written in that book. It’s like everything else in life. Do you believe everything everybody tells you?”, you know - Phillip Patterson, the not-so-religious man who happened to write out the Bible, is a mystic.
As I revisit this man’s story over and over, I am continually struck by the instant kinship I feel with him. He, too, is a seeker, a wanderer in the Cloud of Unknowing. Patterson is working towards knowing by not knowing, by opening himself up to possibility through an experience with the unfamiliar. I feel keenly that the mystic pursuit is a path by which those of us who find ourselves wrapped in lost-ness can emerge into some of the richest parts of our religious traditions. I suppose it’s easy for any person to feel like they don’t fit the movement of their times (the zeitgeist doesn’t have handles, man), and this wanting for place, for name, for identity, can become suffocating. Though when you look at someone like Patterson, or to writings of the past from the likes of Julian of Norwich or Pseudo-Dionysius, you begin to realize that being lost doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. Rather, it can be the very circumstance needed to encounter that which is true, divine, and lovely.
It leaves me lamenting the passing of the mystic as a vocation. The work of pursuing mystery, residing in thought and contemplation in a non-academic, non-analytic way, is both critical and something I feel drawn toward. In some ways, the vocation still exists; I could pack my stuff, head to a monastery, and hermit it up. But for those of us who naturally lean toward relationship and practicality, we are left wondering how to encounter meaning in the felt aimlessness of our journey.
The quick answer for many is “religion.” But, as we saw with Phillip Patterson, those structures and beliefs represented by the word “religion” aren’t for everyone, and they’re not always for me, either. This is where mindfulness practice provides solace. Using physical action to become present, to encourage myself to inhabit my space as wholly as possible at any one moment despite all the confusion and fear that rises from the feelings of not belonging, is to participate in the idea of the modern mystic. It’s what Patterson was doing all along. Still, even the practice must be handled with grace and patience, as being present is difficult; the awareness of how un-present we tend to be is actually hilarious.
I’m lost, and the possible solution involves holding my beliefs with care and examining them, noticing their faults, their quirks, and their value. Mindful awareness, the act of resting in what is, can lead to uncovering and dusting off the beliefs I hold – about religion, about myself, about everything – and thereby allow me to put my tension and my hope in conversation. In those moments, I can begin to notice how “small my beliefs really are” and how much potential resides in the looking, in the lost places, in the act of noticing my breath even when I can’t get a grasp on anything else. I, too, can become a mystic by resting in the notion that knowing can come from not knowing, and that truly, "not all those who wander are lost"