The topic of mystical experience might sound too mysterious—too raw and bewildering, too personal—to talk about, but Janet Ruffing knows it’s too real to ignore.
For some three decades, Ruffing’s vocation has been spiritual direction, the practice of helping others grow closer to God. As listener and advisor, she accompanies individuals trying to get clarity on personal, unexpected experiences of divine presence. She gives scholarly heft to spiritual direction’s wide-ranging debates and vocabulary. She teaches other spiritual directors all over the world as they endeavor to understand the winds of spirit in the 21st century.
And as YDS professor in the practice of spirituality and ministerial leadership, she helps a diverse student body discern the meaning of surprising signals of transcendence in their own lives.
“God is always stunning us with beauty,” Ruffing says.
“People have religious experiences they might never dare talk about. But it’s God’s gift to give, and it’s up to each of us to accept such experiences and grow them.”
Ruffing speaks from personal life. Growing up Roman Catholic in California, she sensed a persistent presence of God in childhood. By high school, the signals got stronger. She felt the divine presence on dates, on the dance floor, at the beach while she was surfing.
“It was so persistent,” she recalls. “I knew I needed to learn to ‘show up’ and be accountable to it and realize it’s the heart of my existence.”
So she made a life-changing decision. At 18, she joined the Sisters of Mercy order and became a sister.
“I needed the situation of religious life in order to be present to what was happening in my spiritual life.”
Next year, she celebrates her 50th year with the Sisters of Mercy community—a five-decade journey as secondary school teacher, university professor, author, lecturer and spiritual companion on a global stage.
From early on, the religious order offered her the framework and freedom to discover her talents. She was drawn to spiritual retreats and disciplines. She found she had a gift for walking with other people through their own questions and sojourning. She discovered her vocation as a teacher, workshop leader and program creator.
Her life with the Sisters of Mercy tracks almost exactly the history of the modern reform movement in the Roman Catholic Church: The Vatican II Council, in session from 1962-65, was commencing just as she joined the order. The theme of spiritual direction, as she discovered, would flourish in the modernized climate of the post-Vatican church.
“Spiritual direction really took off in the 1970s,” she observes. “One reason is: Vatican II called for a retrieval and renewal of holiness, and that universal call to holiness had the effect of democratizing holiness and prayer so it was no longer perceived to be restricted to clergy and religious. There had been a debate in the church about mysticism in the 20th century: Is it for the many or for the few? Vatican II settled it. It’s for the many.”
Ruffing earned her B.A. at Russell College in Burlingame, CA, then an M.A. from the University of San Francisco, an S.T.L. (Licentiate in Sacred Theology) from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley and a Ph.D. in Christian spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. By 1986 she was on the faculty at Fordham University, pioneering a premier international program for spiritual direction in an academic setting. In 2009 she retired from Fordham as professor of spirituality and spiritual direction.
The next year, she came to YDS to offer new courses in spirituality and discernment. Courses include “Discernment of Spirits through Selected Mystics,” “Contemporary Christian Spirituality,” “Meditation: East and West,” “Women Mystics,” and “John of the Cross: A Guide for Difficult Times.” She is also the author of five books.
“I’ve been thrilled, surprised and somewhat amazed at the interest in mysticism among the students,” she says.
“It’s very moving to see them come from such varied backgrounds. Many have no vocabulary for their experiences, and so they take my class.”
Besides teaching and mentoring YDS students, Ruffing continues to see about a dozen individuals whom she has worked with for years as their spiritual director.
Who seeks spiritual direction? Ruffing says the purpose is to develop a relationship with God in a more personal way. Often individuals become keenly interested in spiritual guidance after reaching a pivotal point in their lives—a growth point, she says—caused by grief and loss or some new direction unfolding.
Or they want guidance because they are grappling with spiritual experiences they can’t explain. A good spiritual director should be able to recognize what’s happening and give a person a vocabulary for understanding the experience.
“These experiences can come unbidden—yes, absolutely unbidden,” explains Ruffing, who is a founder of Spiritual Directors International.
“It might be an altered state of consciousness, or a sudden experience of feeling deeply loved—an experience of new joy and reconciliation. Or it could be an experience of great pain and darkness—or ecstasy.”
“There had been a debate in the church about mysticism in the 20th century: Is it for the many or for the few? Vatican II settled it. It’s for the many.”
She has lectured on the phenomenon of “love mysticism,” where the individual experiences God or Jesus as lover, expressions of passionate desire for the divine. She has developed a guided retreat on the subject of love mysticism for spiritual directors who are unfamiliar or uneasy with such mysticism’s emotional or erotic dimensions. For centuries, she says, love mysticism was trivialized or marginalized as “bridal mysticism.” Yet love mysticism can be found in writings of some of the early church fathers and has appeal today with men and women. She plans to write her next book on the subject.
Ruffing takes seriously the political and prophetic dimensions of mysticism. In a 2001 book she edited, Mysticism and Social Transformation, she explains that Protestants in the 20th century tended to devalue mysticism and stress the prophetic call to social change, while Catholics tended to accept mysticism but reject prophecy.
“Yet social movements,” she writes. “have often had mystical roots, and without mystical depth, it is impossible to discern between the products of one’s own inflated consciousness and the impulses of the divine Spirit mediated through a prophet’s personality. Without contemplative depth, it is extremely difficult to sustain ongoing resistance, which so often entails suffering at the hands of the very community the prophet serves.”
For her 50th jubilee year as a Sister of Mercy, Ruffing hopes to make a trip to China to visit former students who are church leaders and practitioners there. Her lectures and workshops have taken her to India, Europe, Thailand, New Zealand and elsewhere—far-flung probings of the spirit, opportunities enhanced by Vatican II’s re-engagement with the world. And so her own unique story of spiritual reckoning and sacramental vocation unfolded.
“Many of us could not have stayed in our religious congregation without Vatican II,” she says. “But the subsequent renewal of religious life enabled us to make decisions with our own integrity and conscience. It gave us our adulthood back. It gave us a way to be involved in the world, which is what our religious community was called to do. It was a way of being sacramental in the world.”