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THE MYSTICAL CLOSET
by Janice Stensrude
published in What Canst Thou Say? No. 91 (2), Aug. 2016, pp. 9–10.
I arrived at last June's WCTS retreat in a physically vulnerable state, at the tail end of one of those undiagnosed, just-feel-lousy illnesses that my mother used to call "the epizoody." As if the stress of standing upright were not enough, the powerful exercises in naming ourselves mystics and exchanging blessings opened the floodgates of my consciousness. It was as if a backlog of messages had been waiting for a channel to open, and now they came pouring out in a deluge. Some of them came as waking thoughts early in the morning, others just appeared in my consciousness during my daily routine, and one flowed from my pen one morning as I began to make my daily journal entry: Coming out of the closet is more than freeing ourselves. We are also freeing society. We are servants of the moral growth of humanity. I was stunned with the clarity and simplicity of the message.
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I had made a list of continuing themes I had observed at the First, Second, and Third Gatherings of Friendly Mystics. At each of these, the issue of whether to tell others of our mystical experiences—and who those others should be—had been a hot topic. And now, it seemed, it had ripened to receive spiritual intelligence.
I had to hang out with other mystics to learn that what I considered a spiritual matter is thought by many to be a mental-health matter. Jean Roberts, a WCTS founder, had been advised to check herself into a treatment center, where the goal was to talk her into believing her mystical experience was a sign of mental illness. Psychologist and WCTS contributor Jennifer Elam, in her interviews with one hundred people with mystical experiences, found that Jean's experience was not unique. Jennifer recommended that we should be cautious in sharing our mystical experiences, choosing our confidants carefully. One very important thing has happened since Jennifer's research study: the psychiatric profession has not only officially removed mystical experiences from its list of mental illnesses, but also recognized spiritual counseling as a psychotherapeutic specialty.
As I contemplated the notion of a mystical closet, I began to see connections in my reading and my personal experience. One such connection was Sam Proctor's memoir, My Moral Odyssey. Sam was an African American educator and minister, who held numerous government posts, beginning with his 1963 appointment as an associate director with the Peace Corps in Africa and culminating with his service as special adviser on an ethics committee on recombinant DNA research during the Carter administration (1977–1981). His academic career included stints at Virginia Union University, Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, Rutgers University, Vanderbilt University, United Theological Seminary, Kean University, and Duke University. In other words, Sam was a hard-working, well-educated, well-connected, and high-profile public figure.
Consciously and with forethought—and with the strength of his pacifist convictions—Sam Proctor used his notoriety to strike at the heart of racism. He wrote that he made an effort to circulate in the white community to give white people the opportunity to change their stereotypes about the black race. He would talk about his college-graduate siblings, most with advanced degrees. His speech was articulate, even elegant.
I've moved in and out of unfamiliar territory most of my life. My earliest adventure was at the age of five, when I put on my Easter dress, packed my cardboard suitcase and set out to see the world. My mother played along until she realized I was not pretending. It would be many years after that before I traveled very far from home, but I was discovering other worlds by befriending and accepting friendly overtures from people with backgrounds different from my own.
At the time that I made the decision to move to Australia, where my younger son lived with his young family, I was volunteering my administrative expertise as the only white person in an African American community organization. "You are one white woman who will be missed," the organization's president told me when I announced my plans to move. Ten years later I heard an echo, when I was drawn into conversation with a middle-aged black woman, a resident in the nursing home where my brother was recovering from a series of strokes.
Louise had murdered her husband, and her schizophrenia diagnosis was the only thing that had saved her from the Texas death chamber. The nursing home, for her, was a sort of half-way house between the mental hospital and the assisted living facility, where she would have her own small apartment, with the medical supervision to ensure she took her medications. She lived in a semi-conscious state, speaking slowly, and dragging her feet when she walked. She told me she was a retired military officer and grew up in a prominent local black family. "We're related to the white Meriwhethers," she said. "Everybody knows it but nobody talks about it." We had a long conversation while I waited for my brother to return from a therapy session.
"It was nice talking to you," I said, when a nurse interrupted to say my brother was back in his room.
"I wish all white people were like you," she responded.
After that, we always spoke when passing, and she bummed cigarettes from my brother in the outdoor smoking area. She even borrowed a few dollars from him once, which was paid back a few days later as promised. I guess we weren't white anymore, just two of the very few people who spoke to her.
Though white Australians looked like white Americans and more or less spoke the same language, I soon became aware of cultural differences. My years in Australia advanced my knowledge of "others," and my volunteer work took me to remote Native Australian communities where exchanging stories of children and grandchildren and the love of colorful skirts were the threads that connected me to the women I met.
I had always thought of these wonderful experiences as broadening only my own horizons, until I recently perceived a similarity between my forays into foreign situations and Sam Proctor's interactions with white society. While I was getting a chance to have a look at their way of life, they, too, were having a chance to glance into another world.
I have come to see that closets come in layers. I was born into the closet of my family and emerged into a larger society one room at a time. I think about my gay friends who each have a story about coming out of the closet, first into the gay community, later venturing out the front door into the greater world . . . which led to my thinking about us coming out to each other as mystics. How many of us will walk out the front door into the world after we've ventured out of the closet? Do we need to?
I remember years ago reading about a young man whose life goal was to make positive changes in elder care. After achieving his degree in social work, his first job was in a large retirement home. After a few months, he saw that his long hair—which he had grown throughout his college years—was interfering with establishing rapport with his elderly clients. He made the hard decision to cut his hair. To him, it felt like pretending to be someone he was not; but after some soul searching, he concluded that he was not willing to postpone communicating with his clients in the hope that they would eventually abandon their bias against young men with long hair. He chose the closet.
Times have changed, but Jennifer's advice to carefully choose our confidants still holds true in many cases. The American Psychiatric Association may have created a new diagnostic category that describes "Religious or Spiritual Problems" as "nonpathological," but everyone is not yet willing to accept spiritual phenomena as healthy human activity. Not too long ago, a young mystic, who shared her experiences with a member of the clergy, was referred for exorcism. As a community of mystics, we must continue to support those at every stage of the journey . . . including those who choose the closet.
But Spirit took my hand and issued a challenge I will not soon forget: Coming out of the closet is more than freeing ourselves. We are also freeing society. We are servants of the moral growth of humanity—just like Sam Proctor, just like my gay friends . . . and like my Sister in the Spirit, who shows her mental illness to the world. Servants of the Moral Growth of Humanity: what a fine-sounding phrase.
When an interviewer marveled at how good Gloria Steinem looked as she sailed through her fortieth birthday, Steinem replied, "This is what forty looks like." Is it your turn to say, "This is what a mystic looks like, sounds like, walks like, lives like"?