Feb 282015
 

After writing my last article, On Self-Love, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to explain what I mean by “self,” and to examine some important connections of that meaning with mysticism.

Defining “self”

The term self is used in many different ways. In fact, significant confusion and disagreement can happen between people communicating with each other with “self,” often simply because the different parties don’t realize they are using “self” in significantly different ways. The same problems arise with other words like psyche, soul, ego, and even mind.  I currently tend to use self, soul, and psyche interchangeably.  It is important to note that I say “currently tend to,” because I have not always thought, written, or spoken in this particular way, and I might not at some future time. With these terms I refer to the whole being of an individual human, and not any particular part or function of the whole.  My use of “self” is thus essentially equivalent with an ancient Christian use of “soul” in reference to an individual’s totality of body, mind, and spirit.  It also seems helpful to point out that the term ego does not equate for me with “self.”  Ego is a word I use to describe certain aspects of the self.  So, in Freudian terms for example, the psyche is that which contains the ego, id, and superego, and has both conscious and unconscious dimensions.  In that respect, I use self and psyche synonymously.

The capitalized “Self”

Sometimes we see the capitalized word Self in psychological and spiritual literature. In Jungian psychology, this term is used in much the same way as I use the un-capitalized “self.”  However, like many other spiritual writers, I use the capitalized “Self” to denote a Supreme Identity that transcends individual human existence. This Supreme Identity is a universal and divine Self that is regarded by mystics as infinitely beyond all manifest things, yet nonetheless immanent within the finiteness of all things.  In this way, “Self” refers to the whole of the One and All just as “self” does to the whole of the individual human.  For me, the capitalized “Self” is thus practically synonymous with “God.”

The self-concept

It also seems useful to clarify that there is a significant difference between the way I use the terms self and self-concept.  The most significant point I want to make here is that the self-concept is only one’s more or less specific sense of who one is as an individual human being. By analogy, the self-concept is to the self as a video about your body is to mirror_and_maskyour actual body; one is only a limited representation or reflection of the other.  Furthermore, such a representation is always more about how an actual thing was sometime in the past than what it presently is.  This distinction is important because when someone speaks in terms of myself, me, or I, one is very often actually referring to the self-concept rather than the self, which is to say one is speaking about particular perceptions of the self by certain aspects of the self.  In fact, we so rarely speak of the whole self that we frequently make it a point to highlight that we are doing so by emphasizing the word “whole.”

A fundamental self-deception 

This conflation of the self with the self-concept is evidence that most of us live in a pervasive state of self-deception and confusion about our being!  In this confusion, habitually thinking and speaking of the self-concept as if it is the whole self, we construct and maintain an illusion that serves as a kind of barrier between our present awareness and the broader range of truths about our being.  To some extent, this barrier exists out of simple ignorance, but we can also maintain it because we semi-consciously sense the need to protect the self-concept from realities or potentialities within the self that we regard as unacceptable in some way.  Freud’s theory of the ego defense mechanisms is based upon his recognition of this dynamic.

The mystery of the self

When we meditate carefully on the self, it becomes clear that we lack complete awareness of it. The many autonomous functions of our organs are themselves sufficient evidence that there are parts and processes within the self of which we are rarely if ever aware. Further and perhaps even more powerful evidence is found in the mental dimension, where intuition, the storage of memories, and the unpredictable and often puzzling content of our dreams reveal the existence of what psychologists refer to as the unconscious mind. So it is that, even when we understand the distinction between the self and the self-concept, we cannot think, speak, or write about the self with complete knowledge and understanding.

We are often unaware of the mystery of the self, perhaps even blissfully unaware, but it is ultimately an inescapable fact.  Sometimes it seems to loom around us, filled with foreboding uncertainties.illuminor It is as if we stand upon the edge of a cliff in complete darkness, where any movement at all might send us falling to our doom. Yet, as we touched upon in the previous section, the doom that we fear is in actuality often only the loss of our cherished illusions. Entering into the mystery of the self is therefore essential to liberation from some of the falseness and limitations of our self-concepts.  It is the path of freedom in realizing and actualizing more of our unfathomable potentials, for out of this mystery emerges the amazing light of creativity we express in our love of play, romance, philosophy, art, science, and spirituality.

The mystical potentials of the self

According to those who have penetrated most deeply into the mystery of the self, one of its potentials is the realization of mystical union. At first, one may make the rational observation that simply in its mysteriousness the human self is like all of reality, for there is some degree of mystery in everything. Likewise, whatever it is we mean by the word “God,” we must acknowledge that it is significantly interwoven with our sense of the most profound mysteries.  In this regard, we can gain a special appreciation for what it means to have been created in the image of God; being mysterious to us is something that both the self and God have in common. Pondering this commonality leads many of us to consider that there might be more to all of this than a parallel of two different mysteries. It is natural for us to wonder if self and God might actually intersect within the single mysterious category of all that is beyond complete apprehension by our sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Indeed, those who have experienced mystical realization insist that such an intersection is real, that it is the deepest crux and universally shared point of reality within the circle of all creation; it is the spiritual heart of the Cosmic Self and all the individual selves It begets. It is here that we discover the unity of self-love, love of others, and love of God, the very oneness of Love Itself manifesting in all Its many forms. The mystic way of the heart is thus the contemplative path of practicing devoted attentiveness and responsiveness to this Heart within all hearts.

way-of-the-heart

 Agape

Dec 022014
 

The season of Advent is upon us. This is a time when we traditionally meditate upon the themes of Christ’s coming, whether in the birth of Jesus or in the Second Coming. We therefore may be simultaneously aware of the absence of Jesus and hopeful for his return. While it would seem that this is all taken very literally by most Christians, there is another way that it is meaningful for some of us. The coming and ensuing loss of Jesus, and the hope for his return, can be taken as a pattern for the way an individual’s sense of God’s presence can come and go.

While it seems that some mystics claim they never again felt distant from God after realizing mystical union, others acknowledge that they have found themselves passing through periods of greater or lesser awareness of that union, and sometimes painfully so. Furthermore, one of the most frustrating things about this pattern is that there is nothing that can be done about it. No amount of prayer or other spiritual disciplines provides a magical formula that restores the greatest awareness of God’s presence.  Consider the parallel meaning of these words from Jesus:

At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There He is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There He is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here He is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. (Matthew 24:23-26)

This limitation on our power to realize unity with God should be no surprise; the finite mind of the human soul simply cannot fully comprehend the Infinite, let alone command it.  We may be able to raise ourselves up into higher consciousness in some ways, or remember different forms of God’s presence, but the ultimate fulfillment of our hopes is simply out of our control.  In this context, let’s reflect on the relevance of Jesus’s teaching about the coming of the Son of Man, taking it as a metaphor about the coming of a complete realization of mystical union:

No one knows about that day or hour. Not even the angels in heaven know. The Son does not know. Only the Father knows. … So keep watch. You do not know on what day your Lord will come. You must understand something. Suppose the owner of the house knew what time of night the robber was coming. Then he would have kept watch. He would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready. The Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him. (Matthew 24:36 & 42-44)

Isn’t it striking that Jesus himself said not even the Son knows when the coming will occur!?  These words are spoken by the man we traditionally revere as the Incarnate Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, whom the Apostle John records more than once saying that he is one with God! And yet Jesus also felt moments of distance from God, as evidenced by his own words on the cross, his agony in Gethsemane, and his temptations in the desert.

So the mystic simply keeps watch.  We make ourselves ready with the prayer of stillness and silence. We tend our house by loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves, remembering that God is love.  We try not to deny our feelings when God seems distant, and we avoid masking them with the vanity and arrogance of false spiritual powers.  We may suffer, but we do so with faith, hope, and generiosity of spirit. We allow that very suffering to transform us into greater vessels of compassion and kindness, greater instruments of God’s grace, and thus more fully realize our union with God.

To close, I offer one of my poems that addresses the waxing and waning of mystical awarness:

A Rose Needs to Bloom

O Beloved One,
how often I wish You were here with me,
always here in the flesh to receive
the misty gaze of adoration from these eyes,
the trembling touch of affection from these hands,
the husky whispers of appreciation from these lips.
Oh that I might see Your acceptance
of such spontaneous offerings
in the joyful sparkle of Your eyes,
hear it in the soothing tones of Your voice,
feel it in the welcoming warmth of Your embrace.

But You are the oracle of my soul,
my Cherished One,
knowing my heart and mind
from within their deepest depths.
So I would be a fool not to know
that the need to have this love expressed
is not Your need but my own.
I need it as surely as a rose needs to bloom
simply because it is a rose.

In this pining I believe I feel
something of the bittersweet pain
of Lazarus or the Magdalene,
reborn, renewed, bursting with gratitude,
and then losing You so soon,
always in hopeful longing
to be near You once more.
Yet You remind me that Your spirit
is ever near, both within and without.

O my sun and rain,
my fertile earth and restful night,
You feed this rose to bloom
and be seen by You through the eyes,
and felt with the skin
and in the heart
of everyone I meet.

rose_heart_cross

Maranatha
 

Agape

Nov 212014
 

The Feast of Christ the King is celebrated on the last Sunday before Advent, and this year it is November 23rd.  It is an official Solemnity instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1952.  According to his encyclical, it should be a time of remembering that a Christian’s allegiance to God should come before all other loyalties, and thus serve to unite us in peace regardless of whatever personal, political, and sectarian issues might divide us.  As I consider the meaning of this Feast, it very easily connects in my mind with the world into which Jesus would be born and the place that he would take in that world.  Beyond that, it speaks to me of a common experience for those pursuing a mystical relationship with God.

The nation of Israel and the Jewish faith have a long history of desire for the coming of the Messiah, and especially in the form of a Divine King who will bring peace and harmony to all humanity.  This theme runs throughout the story of Jesus and his disciples, some of whom were zealots and hoped he would lead them in a divinely sanctioned political solution to the plight of Israel.  We Christians, and Muslims too, are heirs to this doctrine.  In some accounts, Jesus seems to have promised he would fulfill it, even if only after his crucifixion and resurrection.  It also appears that some of his followers continued to expect him to return and play that role after his ascension to heaven.  Even now there are many Christians who consider that to be the prophetic promise of Revelations, just as there are many Jews who continue to wait for the Messiah King, and Muslims with similarly fervent beliefs.  For just a moment, take some time to reflect on the many millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have spent their lives hoping, praying, longing, and even pleading for God’s presence to manifest in this world in such a tangible and dramatic way.  How many of these people, how many generations of them, have staked their lives upon it, have gone to their graves and even sent others to their graves for it, and yet never saw their hopes and prayers fulfilled?!  That history may be a powerful testimony of faith, and even beautiful in some ways, but are there not also profound threads of tragedy and sadness running through this legacy of our religions?

Interestingly, it can be argued that Jesus never meant to be taken literally about any of that, but that he was instead urging his followers to completely reenvision the Kingdom of God.  Many of us regard Jesus as teaching us to seek a transformation in our hearts that then radiates God’s love out into the world through our presence. We consider this to be closer to the life Jesus actually lived, and more worthy of our time and energy than begging for a Holy Dictator to come clean up our mess for us.

For now, I’d like to note that many people who consider themselve mystics, or perhaps aspire to be mystics, have a parallel notion in their minds and desire in their hearts.  When we read the accounts of some of the great Christian mystics, it can be easy to expect that the coming of God’s presence will be a dramatic experience that overthrows all our doubts and sense of separateness from God.  We hope for an event in which Jesus descends from the heavens to fill us with a fantastic flood of light, life, and love.  We dream of a personal Apocalypse in which the Messiah delivers us from the mess of our own personal humanity.  And why shouldn’t we want something like that, especially when some of those who have claimed it happened to them also claim that we can have it too?

But, just as there is a parallel between our desires for a political Messiah and our desires for a personal revelation of mystical union with God, perhaps there is also a parallel with the fact that Jesus didn’t come back as a Messiah King during the lives of his immediate disciples, or during the lives of the following generation, or the one after that, and so on for generation after generation through the present day.  Perhaps, just as we can come to a new and more fruitful understanding of what Jesus meant by the coming of the Kingdom, the parallel is coming to a new and more fruitful understanding of mystical revelation that doesn’t depend upon an extraordinary experience.

What might that new and more fruitful understanding be?  I think there were some well known scriptural answers to that question even before Jesus.  Consider first the story of Elijah:

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

So, unlike the dramatic way in which Moses encountered the immediate presence of God, Elijah’s experience of direct communication was only “a still small voice.”

Likewise, in Psalms 46:10, in the middle of many dramatic verses about God’s power in the world and praising and exalting God, there is this one small statement about actually knowing God:

Be still, and know that I am God

These scriptures that Jesus and many of his twelve would have known, urge us to realize that knowing God’s presence isn’t always a sudden and dramatic event. An experience of God may be very quiet and gentle, and perhaps so much so that we might not even recognize it for what it is.

And then there is the prayer that Jesus spoke for his followers as recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 17.  In that prayer he expresses his desire that his followers and their followers will come to know their oneness with God just as Jesus does, which is certainly one of the most mystical things in the Bible.  He finishes that prayer with these words:

And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved me may be in them, and I in them.

That statement highlights love as the revelation of our union with God, and it is echoed in 1 John, chapter 4:

If we love one another, God dwells in us, and his love is perfected in us.  Hereby we know that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit. … And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.

There are many important things that could be drawn out of these words, but for now it is especially noteworthy that the love that is God is not something highly unusual that only comes to a specially blessed mystic. It is the love we have for one another!

O Holy One Who is Love itself, help us to be aware of Your mystical presence in our ordinary lives. Let us know You are with us through the love that we receive from others and that we give to others. As we encounter every smile on the faces of others and on our own faces, every kind word spoken by others and by us, every gentle touch given by others and by us, as we experience every simple act and expression of human love, let us realize it as an immediate manifestation of Your love, a ray of Your light that stretches directly back to the Source, the very Heart of Divine Love.  May we know Love as the great King of our lives. Amen.

Maranatha

Agape

Jul 232013
 

A Non-Dualist Foundation

Those familiar with my previous writings know that I am most drawn to a non-dual perspective as the starting point for my theological and moral thoughts. Non-dualism is not anti-dualist in the sense that it attempts to ignore duality or entirely escape from it. Rather, it holds that duality is itself subsumed by a greater reality, that of interconnectedness, oneness, unity. In order to address the subject of this blog post from that greater perspective, let’s begin by considering how it can be consistent with scripture. While I am very cautious about taking any scripture at face value, there are some that I gravitate to as strong hints, if not simple and direct statements, of non-dualism expressed in theistic terms.

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. Isaiah 45:7

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.John 1:1-13

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the Kingdom of God is in your midst.” Luke 17:20-21

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ … ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’Matthew 25:40, 45

[Jesus prayed] “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”John 17:20-23

For in Him we live and move and have our being.Acts 17:28a

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:4-6

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, beginning and end,’ saith the Lord, ‘who is, and who was, and who is coming — the Almighty.’ Revelation 1:8

So, as I now understand such passages, while we perceive a world of dualistic oppositions – like light and darkness, peace and evil, spirit and flesh, or life and death – all of it is nonetheless united in God’s oneness. I don’t want to engage in mere prooftexting, so I acknowledge other passages that appear to declare something is rejected by God, or not of God.  Still, I think such statements are clearly made from the perspective of dualism, and thus speak to how something seems to oppose the things we prefer to identify with God, such as light, peace, and life. Furthermore, I suspect that even the most inspired writers of scripture could move back and forth between these two perspectives just as we do today.   In any case, the common scripturally based theological assertion is that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and so nothing within the realm of duality can be outside God’s mind, power, and presence.

Non-dualism is right there in the midst of ordinary Christian theology, if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear.  The Logos, the Kingdom, and the King are always here, in everything. We just fail to realize it because we are so captivated by our dualistic perspectives, and so desperately trying to achieve an either/or type of certainty through the judgments we make. In making such judgments, no matter how well intended they are, we nonetheless mentally cut something off from the whole, and thus we reinforce the illusion of separation from God and each other in some way. In short, we have made our own dualistic reasoning and concepts into a false god to which we bow rather than embrace the Mysterious One and All.

Realizing Unity

We are all already united with God because God is both in and around all. All of our experiences must therefore be experiences of God, which might seem to challenge the notion of a mystical path, a way of seeking union with God. What seeking is necessary?! It’s already happening! One response to this challenge is that what we are actually seeking is not a union with God that has yet to happen, but greater realization of the unity that already exists, always has, and always will.By ‘realization,’ I mean to experience something with awareness and understanding, and to express such awareness and understanding through our actions. For example, people who have fallen in love know that sometimes it isn’t realized until after the fact. Suddenly, there is simply the awakening of “Oh! I’m in love!”, followed by changes in behavior intended to more fully act upon it, to experience and express a more complete manifestation of its possibilities. Each of these elements – experience, awareness, understanding, and expression – is necessary to make something more fully real in our lives, to real-ize it rather than leave our consciousness of it within the realm of speculations, hopes, and potentialities. Thus, the actual aim of mysticism is neither to make union with God happen nor to wait for union to happen (although we often fall back on wording of either sort), but to let go of the illusion of separation and more fully realize the ever-present fact of unity.

Practicing Unity

How might we go about letting go of that illusion and realizing unity? There are many possible varieties of unitive experience. Let us again refer to the analogy of lovers. Think of all the ways lovers can experience and express their connection with each other; it can be sensed with the body, felt with the emotions, understood with the mind, and deeply intuited in silence. When lovers look upon each other, there is union in sight. When they hear each other, there is union in sound. Likewise, there is union in touch, smell, and taste. When they share attraction and affection, there is union in emotion. When their thoughts are focused on each other, and especially in those moments when they know each other’s thoughts, there is union in mind. And, of course, the most complete realization of their union occurs when they are consciously experiencing and expressing all of it. We may realize union with God in much the same way, with all our heart, soul, and mind.

As the scriptures teach, God is over all, in all, and through all, and so we are constantly surrounded and interpenetrated by opportunities to realize union with God. Thus, a practice with significant transformative potential is to regard all of existence, including oneself, as a work of art in which God is at once the inspiration, the artist, the medium, the tools, the actions, the product, and the audience. Everything we experience is a combination of divine forces formed in limited and particular expressions of God’s infinite potential for creation.

Jesus said, “It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the All. From Me did the All come forth, and unto Me did the All extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there.”Thomas 77

Feel the warmth of the sun, and recognize that it is but an infinitesimal speck of God’s power. Gaze upon a fluttering leaf, and there is God’s hand waving to all within sight. Listen to thunder roll, and hear God drumming for all with ears to hear. Smell the decay of death, and so inhale God’s slow sigh. Feel the mysterious rise of tears when listening to a hymn, and feel the unspeakable beauty of God. Discern the mathematics of a circle, and there is a thought from the infinity of God’s mind.Feel closeness of spirit in the company of others with like minds, and sense God’s arms reaching for you and through you toward others. Enfold yourself with a lover, and welcome communion with God. Experience the pain of grief, and there is God letting the present flow into the past.  Empty yourself completely into stillness and silence, and there is God’s unfathomable fullness beyond space and time, ever annihilating and renewing all within the field of space and time.

That last sentence refers to the most valued practice in contemplative Christianity, and to what may be called the mystical experience, which is to say the quintessential or most transcendent mystical experience.  Prior to this event, all the anthropomorphic metaphors we project onto God, even in an attempt to more fully unite with God, continue to raise the veils of dualism and thus some degree of the illusion of separation. The great mystics, like St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, the Blessed Jan van Ruysbroek, and many others, have tried to point beyond these veils toward a realization of union that is free of all doubt, all hope, and all speculation. Robert Forman calls it the Pure Consciousness Event. Yet, as these other mystics do in their own ways, Forman also notes that we re-emerge from the complete unity of the Pure Consciousness Event. We always come back into duality to some degree, but sometimes with an awareness, a “memory” if you will, and a greater realization of the unity that subsumes duality and expresses itself through duality. Forman refers to this development as the Dualistic Mystical State, a concept similar to that of the unitive state or unitive way in traditional Christian theology.

Prior to the Pure Consciousness Event, we can approximate the Dualistic Mystical State through the practice of regarding all other forms of experience as limited encounters with God. Such a practice can help us prepare for the ultimate experience, and might even facilitate it. It is certainly a valid attempt to more fully realize the union with God that we intuit, hypothesize, hope for, or sense in some way, but do not yet actually know. But, once the mystical experience has come there is no more need to “regard” other experiences as connections with God, for then we know it just as surely as a lucid dreamer recognizes a dream for what it is while it is actually happening.

Practicing Unity is Love

Whether regarding all of existence as in and of God, or knowing it is so and being engaged in further realizing it, we are loving God more fully. We are opening our souls, our minds, our hearts, and our arms and hands to welcome the Divine in the light and the darkness, in peace and evil, in the flesh (incarnate) and the spirit, in life and death. In this context, we may find even greater depth in Jesus’ teaching to love everyone, even our enemies. While an enemy might be another human being, in any given moment it might also be an idea, a desire in one’s own soul, a machine, or a natural event such as a flood. To love even these enemies is the unconditional love that isn’t caught in dualistic oppositions with hate, fear, or apathy. It is a transcendent love that acknowledges and accepts everything and all just as it is, appreciates the inextricable interconnectedness of everything and all, and rejoices and participates in the never ending transformation and renewal of everything and all.

His disciples said to him, “When will you be visible to us, and when shall we behold you?”

He said, “When you strip naked without being ashamed, and take your garments and put them under your feet like little children and tread upon them, then you will see the child of the Living, and you will not be afraid.”Thomas 37

Even if only for one brief and yet eternal moment, let’s strip off the layers of dualistic clothing on consciousness to directly know the One that is Its own Father, Mother, and Child, and thus more fully realize That which is living, dying, and being reborn in, around, and through all of us and everything else in every moment.

Maranatha

Agape

May 142013
 

Recently, a friend took me to task for making the comment that mysticism doesn’t have much to do with angels and demons. Her surprise and head-scratching are understandable, especially since I have so often stated my agreement with the Apostle Paul that God is the One in which we live and move and have our being, and that every experience is thus an experience of God if we would only realize it as such. So, in this blog post I’d like to clarify my own understanding of the term ‘mysticism’, and also comment on its relevance, or lack thereof, to other things of spiritual mystery.

The Essence of Mysticism

According to Merriam-Webster, ‘mysticism’ means:

1: the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)

In popular use, the word ‘mysticism’ often loses these more specific meanings, and this is reflected by a broader point in the definition of ‘mystical’:

1 a: having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence

The latter definition actually fits well with the etymology of ‘mysticism,’ which has the same root as our word ‘mystery’, the Greek mys, which means to conceal. Our word, ‘mystic,’ apparently traces back to the Greek mystikos, denoting an initiate of a mystery religion, a sect with secret ceremonies that facilitated powerful spiritual experiences and/or taught esoteric doctrines about life and the Cosmos.

For all of the reasons stated above, people often use ‘mysticism’ or ‘mystical’ as a blanket term that may include all sorts of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of a religious or spiritual nature, and especially anything of a mysterious or seemingly supernatural or paranormal nature. Some of these things – like angels, demons, exorcism, faith-healing, blessings, visions, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and various kinds of miracles – have their places in Christian tradition and even Church doctrine, but, strictly speaking, they aren’t necessary parts of mysticism as it has developed among theologians, monastics, and others who devoted their lives to penetrating the Christian mysteries.

In early Church history, mysticism included three mutually supportive areas of focus: (1) the contemplative practice of being present to, and even consciously one with, God’s presence; (2) meditation upon the concealed or secret meanings of scripture; and (3) the liturgical celebration of the mysteries of the Trinity, which reaches its summit in the Eucharist. While it was understood that each of these three areas supported the others, through the centuries it also became increasingly apparent that the essence of mysticism was most directly engaged through contemplative practice. Without it, the other two areas increasingly descend toward hollow doctrinal conformity and superstitions about scripture and the sacraments.

This insight about the centrality of contemplation to mysticism is reflected in the primary entries for the word ‘mysticism’ in most contemporary dictionaries, like the two given above. Consider the significance of the following words from those definitions:

  • union
  • direct communion
  • direct knowledge
  • subjective experience

These words are about the oneness with God that mystics believe, and some may actually know, is possible to experience or realize directly, which is to say in an unmediated way. This particular understanding of the essence of mysticism is reflected in the earliest writings of Christian theology.

…in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with IT that transcends all being and all knowledge. Mystical Theology, Pseudo-Dionysus (5th-6th Century)

And before that, St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions (4th Century):

If to any man the tumult of the flesh were silenced; and the phantoms of earth and waters and air were silenced; and the poles were silent as well; indeed, if the very soul grew silent to herself, and went beyond herself by not thinking of herself; if fancies and imaginary revelations were silenced; if every tongue and every sign and every transient thing–for actually if any man could hear them, all these would say, ‘We did not create ourselves, but were created by Him who abides forever’–and if, having uttered this, they too should be silent, having stirred our ears to hear Him who created them; and if then He alone spoke, not through them but by Himself, that we might hear His word, not in fleshly tongue or angelic voice, nor sound of thunder, nor the obscurity of a parable, but might hear Him–Him for whose sake we love these things–if we could hear Him without these, as we two now strained ourselves to do, we then with rapid thought might touch on that Eternal Wisdom which abides over all. And if this could be sustained, and other visions of a far different kind be taken away, and this one should so ravish and absorb and envelop its beholder in these inward joys that his life might be eternally like that one moment of knowledge which we now sighed after–would not this be the reality of the saying, ‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’?

I’d like to offer an analogy that I hope can effectively illustrate part of what St. Augustine is saying about this experience or state, and thereby shed some light on Christian mysticism as distinct from other kinds of spirituality.

Imagine a great puppeteer, one who is legendary for both making and performing with puppets. You decide you’d like to learn more about this great artist, and so you go to one of the puppet shows. The puppeteer is so talented that the puppets seem to be actually alive, with their own movements and voices, their own distinct wills, thoughts, and feelings. The show is so fantastic that you keep coming back to see it and others, spellbound by the mastery shining through them. During the shows you are very taken by what you see and hear, and eventually you even forget that you are watching puppets, let alone remember that they are being animated by a puppeteer.

And then one day, during an intermission in one of the shows, you suddenly recall why you started coming to the shows – to learn more about the puppeteer. You shake your head and laugh, reminding yourself that everything you are seeing is being created by someone you can’t directly see. As entertaining and beautiful as the show itself is, you begin to feel a growing sense of wonder, of admiration and gratitude, of love, for the unseen genius behind the scenes who has made you think and feel so many things. You feel a desire to meet the puppeteer personally, to shake hands, to speak face to face, so you can share your admiration and learn more about the puppeteer. Of course, you know that the puppets and the show are revelations of the puppeteer’s intelligence, skill, love, and spirit, and thus you are indirectly in communication with the puppeteer, but the indirectness of it, the incompleteness of it, the inadequacy of it, becomes increasingly obvious. You know that whatever your appreciation for the show is now, it will be enriched many times over, in both depth and breadth, if you can know the puppeteer intimately. You know you will never again be nearly as satisfied with simply sitting in the audience and watching the show. You are smitten.

Asking around, you learn that most people in the audience have never seen the puppeteer. Some of them say it never occurred to them to try because they’re just here for the show. There are other people who doubt that there is any puppeteer, and instead believe they are watching machines that run on their own. Others say they’ve caught a glimpse of the puppeteer, and you listen patiently as they describe what they think the puppeteer is like based on their fleeting impressions, obviously filling in large blanks with things others have said and from their own imaginations. It occurs to you that they have made their own mental puppet of the puppeteer! Some claim to know the puppeteer personally, but when you ask how you can meet the puppeteer, most only tell you to keep going to the show and watching the puppets. Some say the only way to know the puppeteer is for oneself to try being a puppeteer. One or two quietly admit they have actually seen and spoken with the puppeteer, and they say that the only way to do so is to go sit by the locked backstage door, waiting patiently until the puppeteer emerges after the show. They say there is no way to know how long the wait will be; the puppeteer might come out right away, but sometimes the puppeteer seems to never come out. When you ask them what the puppeteer is like, they simply smile, sigh, shake their heads, and perhaps utter an enigmatic word or two. Something about them earns your trust, and perhaps it is because you see in them the same love for the puppeteer that you feel growing in your own heart. You resolve to do as they have done, giving yourself to this love for as long as it takes.

Mysticism is such a love affair with God. Yes, the mystic loves the works of the Creator, and deeply loves the immanent presence of the Creator’s Spirit and Logos in those works, but also feels that this love of the Creator’s works remains unfulfilled until the Creator is known directly. As the Blessed Jan van Ruysbroeck says in The Sparkling Stone (14th Century):

The spirit forever continues to burn in itself, for its love is eternal; and it feels itself ever more and more to be burnt up in love, for it is drawn and transformed into the Unity of God, where the spirit burns in love. If it observes itself, it finds a distinction and an otherness between itself and God; but where it is burnt up it is undifferentiated and without distinction, and therefore it feels nothing but unity; for the flame of the Love of God consumes and devours all that it can enfold in its Self.

These terms ‘undifferentiated’ and ‘without distinction’ aren’t just the kind of romantic prose about union that we often apply to our strongest feelings for other people. They can and should be taken literally, and if they are then it becomes apparent that there is only one kind of experience that qualifies as totally mystical, no matter how many different ways humans might arrive at it. In utter and complete oneness there is no other to behold or to be beheld by. Anything else, no matter how revelatory, inspiring, or transformative, is not the mystical experience spoken of by the great mystics. So, while mysterious things – like the secret meanings of scripture, the magic of the liturgy, miracles, or demons and angels – might lead someone into mysticism, into the contemplative pursuit of the One behind those veils, he or she should also realize that such concerns are not the essence of mysticism and must, at some point, be released, even if only momentarily.

In stronger words than my own, Ruysbroeck concludes:

…all those are deceived who fancy themselves to be contemplative, and yet inordinately love, practice, or possess, some creaturely thing; or who fancy that they enjoy God before they are empty of images, or that they rest before they enjoy. All such are deceived; for we must make ourselves fit for God with an open heart, with a peaceful conscience, with naked contemplation, without hypocrisy, in sincerity and truth.

While these statements might sound like doctrine, something we should simply accept in submission to religious authority, I don’t read them that way. It isn’t merely an arbitrary decree of theologically or institutionally acceptable concepts to point out that there is a natural and logical order in such things, one that has been repeatedly discovered and taught by the mystics of different eras and also in religions other than Christianity; the cup must be empty before it can be filled.

Beyond Mysticism?

Another friend, who states he doesn’t consider himself either a mystic or a contemplative, asks if there might be something beyond mysticism. In one respect, I can answer yes. The direct realization of oneness with God can come without identifying oneself as a mystic, or holding any philosophy, or practicing any methods that might be called ‘mysticism.’ There are plenty of cases of full-blown mystical experience occurring in the absence of any special desire or effort. In such cases, one’s consciousness suddenly and directly shifts into a state stripped bare of all words, images, feelings, and any trace of a me-God duality. This can happen ‘beyond’ mysticism because mysticism is, after all, a human thing, and God is not constrained to act within the bounds of human things. However, once such a moment has occurred, if a memory of it persists and the person understands its significance, then, technically speaking, that person is a mystic and has, ironically, gone beyond non-mysticism.

Here are two reasons I can answer no, there isn’t anything beyond mysticism: First, it’s clearly circular to say so, but there is no pursuit beyond mysticism because there is nothing to pursue beyond the deepest mystery of God. Mysticism reaches as beyond as anything can! Second, once the aim of mysticism, which is knowing our oneness with God, has been directly realized and is no longer just a matter of concepts, beliefs, or feelings, then everything after that can, potentially, also be realized as direct contact with God in some particular way, rather than being assumed, hoped, or hypothesized as such.

For me, that last observation suggests that the more meaningful questions are about what lies beyond the mystical experience itself, where ‘beyond’ points to what comes afterward. In Christianity, like other religions, our lore is filled with stories of the miraculous works of people who have received the ultimate touch of the Absolute and identification with the Ground of Being. These stories therefore heavily shape our expectations about what it means to be a mystic, and reinforce the common misperception that such mysterious things are essential to mysticism. They can even lead people to question the validity of their own mystical experience or that of someone else. Yet, as Jack Kornfield addresses in his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, most of us will continue living with many if not most of the ordinary limitations of human existence, even if we have an extraordinary awareness of the nature of this existence. In other words, the gift of the mystical state does not necessarily bring with it any other spiritual gifts, let alone totally transform us into saintly miracle workers and glorious battlers of demons. We must instead commit ourselves to opening our hearts and minds in a lifelong process of unfolding the depths of wisdom the mystical experience holds for our own unique and very human lives.

Finally, I also believe there is something beyond mysticism in terms of importance, and that is love in general. While it could be argued that mysticism is the ultimate response to the Great Commandment to love, and to Jesus’ admonition to seek first the Kingdom of God, I would counter with another of his admonitions: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Mysticism isn’t for everyone, and its followers are not automatically ‘superior’ Christians or human beings, just as those who do not pursue the mystical path are not therefore necessarily ‘inferior’ Christians or human beings. In this light, mysticism can be understood as one among many ways of loving.

Agape

Oct 122012
 

While I and many others have a lot to say about Christian mysticism, it’s worth considering how using ‘mysticism’ as a modifier for ‘Christian’ is somewhat redundant.  In other words, it can be argued that Christianity is already mystical by nature, and that all Christians are therefore mystics, especially if they understand this aspect of our religion.  The purpose of this post is to make a case that Christianity is indeed a mystical religion, and discuss what value there may be in continuing to use terms like ‘Christian mysticism.’

For the purposes of this post, let’s begin with Merriam-Webster for a conventional understanding of  ‘mysticism,’ ‘mystical,’ and ‘mystic.’

Mysticism:
1: the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)

Mystical:
1 a : having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence <the mystical food of the sacrament>
b : involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality <the mystical experience of the Inner Light>

Mystic:
1: a follower of a mystical way of life
2: an advocate of a theory of mysticism

Notice these key words:

  • union
  • direct communion
  • direct knowledge
  • subjective communion

These words speak to a connectedness with God, a oneness with God that mystics believe, and some may actually know, is possible to experience or realize.  Technically speaking, it follows that to use ‘mysticism,’ ‘mystical’ or ‘mystic’ as a modifier for ‘Christian’ could imply that Christianity itself isn’t inherently mystical, and that some of us have added mysticism to it.  So we should ask if that is the case or not.

Does Christianity already include mysticism? Let’s begin to answer that question by reviewing some relevant scriptures.

Jesus Declares the Kingdom of God is Within

“Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He replied to them by saying, the kingdom of God does not come with signs to be observed or with visible display, nor will people say, Look! Here [it is]! or, See, [it is] there! For behold, the kingdom of God is within you [in your hearts] and among you [surrounding you].” (Luke 17:20-21 AMP)

The Prayer of Jesus for His Followers to Know They are One with God

My prayer is not for them [the disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  (John 17:20-23)

St. Paul on Our Interconnection with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit

While in Athens, Paul argued for the closeness of God by quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides:

…he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’  (Acts 17:27-28)

Speaking to the Corinthians, Paul made these statements:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? … For it is said, ‘But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.’ … Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 6:15, 17, 19a)

St. John on Love as Union with God

No one has ever seen God. But if we love one another, God lives in us. His love is made complete in us.  We know that we belong to him and he belongs to us. He has given us his Holy Spirit. …  So we know that God loves us. We depend on it.  God is love. Anyone who leads a life of love shows that he is joined to God. And God is joined to him.  (1 John 4:12-13, 16)

There are many more scriptural references we could draw on, but these words attributed to Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John are enough to suggest that, at the very least, it is possible to personally know union with God, even if only under certain circumstances.  It is also understandable why some of us find in them the further revelation that we are already one with God, though we may not be aware of it.  From these passages, it is obvious that mysticism as previously defined is an inherent part of Christianity, unless we take their words as nothing more than the loosest form of metaphor. (But be careful, for if we take it as nothing more than flowery prose, then we have poor grounds to take Jesus more literally when he says, “I and my Father are one,” a statement central to his prayer for his followers.)  All Christians, if by the term we mean those who consider themselves adherents to the theology of Jesus and his Apostles, are therefore mystics as defined by Merriam-Webster, whether we recognize ourselves as such or not.

Given this conclusion, what value is there in using terms like ‘Christian mysticism’ ‘mystical Christianity’ or ‘Christian mystic’?   We begin to answer that by acknowledging the simple fact that not everyone uses or understands the meaning of ‘mysticism’ offered above, and neither do all recognize that Christianity fits that definition. Likewise, many of us have personally experienced varieties of Christian spirituality that hinge more upon emphasizing the distance between God and humanity rather than upon our communion with God.  To overtly use these terms is therefore to emphasize one’s own commitment to intentionally engage in and/or draw attention to this aspect of Christianity.

Finally, I want to suggest that a technical redundancy is the least of all risks in using these terms.  One of the bigger risks is reinforcing a perception that mysticism is an innovation within Christianity, a departure from the “faith of our fathers,” if not some entirely foreign and heretical appendage grafted onto our religion.  Therefore, whenever we speak of mysticism in Christianity, I think we have a duty to help others understand that we are talking about something lived and taught by Jesus and his Apostles, something they prayed that all their followers would come to know.  Another risk is building up spiritual pride through the notion that, in applying these terms to oneself, one is somehow identifying oneself as a ‘better’ Christian, or, God forbid, even a ‘true’ Christian.  It is for this reason that some of us choose not to apply them to ourselves.   While that might be the wisest option for some, I don’t believe it should be a rule for all, anymore than I believe we should avoid calling ourselves Christians because we might be prideful in doing so.  I think Jesus’ teachings about sharing the Good News and letting our lights shine are instructive in this context. Even so, these same teachings remind us that our loving actions are the best testimony and fruits we have to share with others, and that any words we might use without them are no more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.  Any mysticism that doesn’t eventually yield such fruit is, at best, a distraction.

Agape

Feb 062011
 

jesus-sweating-blood-in-gethsemaneThis is a perennial topic in spirituality, and Christian devotion is certainly no exception. We have our ascetics who have glorified the value of suffering to the point of practicing the most extreme forms of mortification.  We’ve had clergy and elders who have directed the faithful to always quietly submit to whatever abuses, cruelties or injustices they may have suffered as trials of faith.  I’ve heard of Inquisitors who went into raptures of ecstasy at hearing people cry out to God as they burned at the stake.  Mother Teresa allegedly did not allow patients in her care to receive pain medication because she believed it was so important for people to suffer with Christ.

As mystics we seek to know union with God, and to live in accord with our faith in and knowledge of that union. How does suffering, our own and that of others, fit into this context?

The Roots of Suffering

Let’s avoid the temptation to slip into distraction with ontological tail-chasing about why suffering exists at all.  My preference is to begin by simply accepting the existential reality, and from that place begin considering what meaning it has for me.  And, before going further, it may be helpful to note that there are two general classes of suffering:  The first is the basic experience of physical and emotional pain immediately resulting from loss, injury or disease,  and the second is the additional suffering we create for ourselves with our mental responses to the fact or possibility of such things.  While this post has relevance to the first class of suffering, it is actually the second class that is of primary concern.  That sort of suffering is something we have more opportunity to prevent or transform, and not only for our own benefit but also because it so often spills over into the lives of others.

It first occurs to me that suffering reveals our illusions, or at least our attachments to them.  It is actually our resistance to accepting illusions for what they are that causes so much of our distress and dis-ease in life.  Sometimes this happens when we get what we thought we wanted, only to find the reality is significantly different from our dreams.  Sometimes it happens because of the experience of impermanence and our vain struggles to preserve what was.

“Attachment” and “impermanence” seem to be key words here.  It’s simple enough to see how our desires to keep and hold what pleases us must always be thwarted by the reality of impermanence here in this world.  A deeper truth of this is that we tend to define ourselves through our attachments, though we might not realize it, either on the whole or with specifics.   But anyone who has experienced a significant loss – like the death of a loved one, the breakup of an intimate relationship, the loss of a career, an ability, a reputation, a home, or even membership in some group – to some degree knows that anxious sense of having lost something of the self.  Sometimes in these situations we even ask ourselves, “Who am I now?”

So we can see how in the depths of such suffering one often, if not always, perceives a blow to one’s own self-concept, and there is little to nothing we want to protect and preserve more than the self-concept; it is simply the survival instinct, if nothing else.  The truth, however, is that the personal self is temporary.  It is always changing and, despite a more or less constant sense of a “me”, that “me” is obviously never precisely what it was a little while ago.  It is memories of “me” that largely form the collage each of us habitually relies upon for a self-concept, the patchwork emblem we have of the present “me”.  So at best the self-concept is a fluid theory or working hypothesis of who and what we have been and are becoming in this world.  At worst it is an illusion we mistake for a concrete actuality, the psychological equivalent of an idolized statue standing on fragile clay feet, destined to eventually be broken.

The Transformation of Suffering

I think this issue is close to the very core of the mystical impulse.  On the one hand suffering urges us to desire the eternal, to identify with it no matter how paradoxical that may seem.  On the other hand we are drawn to the fleeting unique beauty of impermanent things.  Is there an unresolvable opposition here that begs us to abandon one for the other?  There are many ways we can respond to this juxtaposition, but it seems the general tone of Christian mysticism is to focus on Love.  For us, the value of suffering can begin to be found in its revelation of our illusory attachments and reminding us of our obsession with protecting and preserving the self-concept.  We are thus provided the opportunity to transform temporal suffering from something to be fled at all costs into a catalyst for more fully knowing eternal Love.

Among other ways, people have tried to define Love as the very principle of union itself, the reintegrating power that resolves oppositions and dissolves separation into oneness.  However, when two or more join in love, another one often arises from them.  So it is with all forms of Love as we know it, and so it is that the principle of union is never the last word on the meaning of Love.  Love transcends the duality of separation, union, and the birth of the new.  It is in Love that we know and rejoice in both the eternal, transcendent mystery of non-duality and the temporal ever-becoming, ever-passing wonder of the relative world.

So, for Christian mystics, what are the implications about the suffering of others?  First and foremost it is a reminder of our shared humanity, and that awareness combined with the focus on Love naturally delivers us to compassion, kindness and service.  Yet, as the human heart and mind strive to express something of Love, it is often said that one can only love another to the extent that he or she loves self.  It’s easy to get the idea that one must place self-love first and foremost on some sort of love agenda, as if we would otherwise have less Love to offer others. On the other hand, much has also been said about forgetting self in the love of others, as though time spent in loving self always robs others of Love. But these distinctions reveal our fear that there is some absolute limit to our ability to express Love, if not a limitation in Love itself; it is an assumed lacking that reduces infinite Love to a temporal commodity rather than an eternal good.  Notions such as these are veils on Love’s transcendence of all dualities, for genuine love of self and genuine love of others each have the effect of magnifying the other, despite the suffering that may be intertwined with them.  Like mirrors facing one another, notions of giver and receiver evaporate into the infinite depths of their shared reflection. And so it is that in expressing compassion and kindness in response to the suffering of others, we become a unique temporal flowering of the transcendence of eternal Love; we actually participate in the mystery of the Incarnation, and thus, in the language of our tradition, shine as the light of Christ in this world.