Archive for the ‘Mysticism’ Category


Saturday, November 17th, 2007


Back to Deikman. He seems to see mystical union in only in monistic terms. The individual is subsumed into the whole, losing its individuality, like a drop of water falling into the ocean. But unity need not imply singularity. In the mystical context it is dynamic, not static. When a pianist plays all the disparate elements of his body, his heart, mind and emotions become a unity. Likewise with an orchestra. The idea of God as the Lord of the Dance is not coincidental. We are all elements in the cosmic dance, only we are not aware of it for the most part. Union is one-mindedness, more than just co-operation and co-ordination. ‘Have the same mind in you as was in Christ Jesus,’ said Paul to the Philippians. Mystical union is not the realisation of an ontological primordial state. It is the realisation of one mind, one will. Hence the importance of conversion. 

What I am trying to express here is not easy and needs a lot of working out. Although Deikman is often very clear, at other times he confuses things. In his chapter on Intuition he begins by treating mysticism as a science. Whatever it is, mysticism is not a science. An art? – better, but this does not include the moral element. Moran is quite right in asserting that a concept of what it means to be human, and what is involved in human development, must include the idea of conversion. We are, above all, moral creatures. There are plenty of descriptions of drug induced mystical experiences which agree, more or less word for word, with natural mystical experiences. The assumption by many, including I think Deikman, is that they are the same. My feeling is that this is too simplistic. There are other factors involved.

There are different types of mystical experience, a feeling of expansion, nature mysticism, soul mysticism, pan-en-henism, the numinous encounter with the mysterium tremendum, transforming union – to give a rough list. Some are natural states which do not involve a personal or moral commitment. 

We are, above all, moral beings. Love is a fundamental driving force. The idea that the experience of union with the Absolute, with God, is amoral, i.e. does not require any moral commitment, does not seem correct. In other words, the experiences of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Alduous Huxley, Timothy Leary, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine are not equivalent although their descriptions of these experiences may be similar.

The scientific approach to mysticism is that of the detached observer. The mystical approach is one of engagement. The scientific approach is limited because it can only evaluate in a detached way from outside the context of the mystic’s experience. It cannot experience what it is to be the dynamic confluence of relationships that a person really is.


Monday, August 20th, 2007

Just finished reading Ursula King’s book on Teilhard de Chardin.* I like what TDC seems to be saying about mysticism. Religion is about more than the encounter with God. The emphasis on this and on the coming of the Kingdom, on the Parousia, or the next life has contributed to preoccupation with the ‘other world’ and the denigration of this one. It has focused on spirituality with the emphasis on ‘spirit’ at the expense of body. In Catholicism and in Orthodox Christianity this has led to an ideology which puts forward, or has in the past, worldly detachment, celibacy and asceticism as the ideal way of life. The early monks saw it as the imitation on earth of life as it would be in heaven.

This dualistic worldview, body/spirit, earth/heaven is the result of early Greek thought on Christianity.** Jewish thought was dualistic in the sense that it saw Heaven above and earth below. Although earth reflected the glory of God it was not God’s natural domain. God is the wholly transcendent other, although his shekinah does manifest itself from time to time in particular places and in particular people.

TDC puts forward a new kind of mysticism which is non-dualist but which embraces the whole continuum from nature mysticism to transforming union. Why do I like this better? Because it includes religious insights from other religions. If you accept the Christian position as put forward by the Catholic Church then the other religions are either wrong or only partly right. It is very hard to accept that the religious insights of so many sincere seekers of the truth over so many thousands of years are all wrong. Especially since the Church’s own attitude to its teaching is so paranoid.

Our common ground is our individual experience of humanity, of the search for answers to questions concerning identity and meaning, and of the search for fulfilment and happiness. So, in what sense then can it be said the mystic knows something he did not know prior to the experience? So much of the accounts of mystical experience have to do with feelings – love, peace, joy, certainty – all these are feelings. Feelings are the dominant and most important aspect of mystical experience. Feelings validate the experience. They give it meaning and significance. They are the salt and seasoning without which the experience would be bland and unremarkable. The mystic, like the poet, is a person of intense and deep feelings. You only have to look at Pascal –

Dieu d’Abraham, Dieu d’Isaac, Dieu de Jacob,
non des philosophes et savants.
Certitude. Certitude. Sentiment. Joie. Paix.

and at John of the Cross

El amado en la amada transformada.

Language becomes difficult and inadequate here. Knowledge and emotion are so intertwined that they would seem to be two sides of the same coin. Feeling brings knowledge to the attention, it categorises it, validates it and gives it meaning. I know thousands of things but only those that are accompanied by feelings, good or bad, matter. To have no feelings, to be bored, to be apathetic is to be less than alive. We are constantly searching for experience with feelings attached. The stronger the feelings induced, the more vital and important is the experience. Boredom stalks us, lurking at the edges of empty moments, threatening to dissipate our reason for living. Hence the frenetic search for newer, more vivid and exciting experience. Meditation tries to focus on the intersection of knowledge and feeling, to observe the interaction of one on the other. It stares boredom in the face. It has to penetrate boredom and nothingness.

* King, Ursula. Towards a New Mysticism: Teilhard De Chardin and Eastern Religions. Collins, London 1980.
** cf. Mcginn, Bernard . Presence of God: v1 The Foundations of Mysticism (The Presence of God: a History of Western Mysticism). SCM Press, London, 1992.

Pointing beyond

Friday, July 20th, 2007

I was thinking this morning that I would like to start a new religion. I would like to be able to give people the secret of happiness. I would like to be able to provide a map for life, a set of guide-lines that would cut through the hypocrisy and the ideological pseudo-truths that people are so happy to subscribe to and which do nothing to make them happier, better persons, or to change the world. Unfortunately I do not know the secret of happiness and have no maps to give. I am not even sure I influence my own children for the better. The two greatest teachers of religion, Guatama and Jesus had both found that secret before they began to speak about it. I know how to go about finding it, I think, but, perhaps, deep down I am inhibited by doubt.

People want certainty; they want categorical and definite truths to believe in. They want to be assured and the last thing they want is doubt. Unfortunately – no that is undoubtedly the wrong word – fortunately, it is not possible to talk about God or about ultimate reality in that way. Fortunately, because if God could be described in concrete terms He would not be God. The one thing we can all agree on as humans is that we are not content with our lot. We long to transcend our limitations, to break down the barriers which enclose, and divide, and restrict. In a world of jaded palates we long for ecstasy.

God is in the depths of our being. We do not believe this. We give it lip-service, but we do not really believe it. We do not believe it because it places the onus on us. If God is in the depths of my being and I have not found him whose fault is that? Mine? The communities of which I am a part and who have shaped and moulded me? God’s fault? This reminds me of the story of the fish who heard about the ocean and went looking for it but could find it nowhere. Language is inadequate. God is not an object, nor is he objective reality existing somewhere to be found. This is why Buddha was so wise not to talk in this way; to refuse to speculate. Jesus did not hesitate to use the religious language of his time, but he used parables and paradoxes to point beyond the accepted conventions. That is all one can do – point beyond. That, however, is not enough for most people, or rather, it is too much. We do not want to let go of what we have until we can see where we are going. All the great teachers say that we must let go and journey in the dark, in the cloud of unknowing. We do not want to do this by ourselves, we cannot. We need a guide. Sadly, there are few guides.

The Church holds itself up as a guide. The priests recite the Mass and say the words of the sacraments. They tell us that inner transformations are occurring. They assure us that when we die we shall see God. But they do nothing that will help me to transcend this enclosing now. They do not even tell me it is possible. In fact they say it is impossible, in spite of the long mystical tradition in the Church. The Church is afraid of mystical experience. It does not know how to deal with it. The professional mystics are confined to the enclosed orders in monasteries and convents. People are hungry for God and they are given platitudes.

The new mysticism

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

Reading William Johnston’s Letters to Contemplatives.* He talks about a new mysticism. It is coming to birth, he says, as a result of a dialogue with Eastern religions. It has five characteristics.

1. It appeals to the laity and not just to monks and nuns, although the gurus and teachers still tend, in the main, to be celibate religious. Contemplation is not just the preserve of the few.

2. It speaks a different language. It does not use the abstract terminology of the scholastic theologians. It is holistic and person centred. It is aware of the distinction between the ego and the self; it is filled with awe and wonder, not just of God, but also of the mystery of the self; it is aware that the person is multidimensional and of the complexity of consciousness in the process of development and transformation; it is aware of the flow of energy within and without.

3. It emphasises the importance of posture and breathing.

4. It stresses the importance of faith – a radical faith which sustains in the darkness and the nothingness. (I am not sure that this is something new.)

5. There is emphasis on enlightenment. Mysticism has a goal – the experience of God.

To all this I would add something else. The new mysticism is not just situated within the structures and rituals of institutions and churches. Nor is it dependent on particular life-styles such as celibacy, community living, solitude, or daily routines. The former are important in that they provide continuity and a context within which knowledge can be passed on. The latter are important if a person wants to explore and develop his experience and achieve enlightenment. But they are not necessary and there are many, many who live with a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of all that is, and especially, of all life; who are aware of their immersion in and emergence from the One who is at the heart of all that is; for whom the material world, the now world, is translucent – that through the thin membranes which circumscribe our existence shines the love and the joy of a Reality which cannot be expressed.

This is the new mysticism. It is a mysticism based on experience and not enculturation, or methodology. The most interesting thing from the point of view of the Catholic Church is that it does not necessarily arise from the experience of church going, from the liturgy, or from the sacraments – though all of these are milieux where God is encountered by many believers and the result of mystical experience may be a turning to and an increased commitment to the Church for some. But the important point is that the Church and its liturgy is not the primary source of their encounter with God. God is experienced in living and this experience of God in the day to day rush, in the routine tasks and chores, in personal encounters and relationships, in the interludes and in the (short) moments of silence, solitude and awareness is often of a heart-stopping intensity.

Another thing about the new mysticism is that it is not terribly conscious of being a way, or a ladder, or a journey towards perfection, or enlightenment, or union. ‘Professional’ mystics, if one may use that term, monks and nuns and lay people with spiritual advisers, whether Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, are the inheritors of their spiritual traditions and are constantly being reminded of the paucity of their experience in comparison with the giants of the past. A path and its stages is mapped out for them together with constant warnings of dangers and false trails.

The modern mystic knows none of this, at least, not at first. All he knows is his experience and, because he has nothing to compare it with, it is appreciated for what it is. There is a freshness and an innocence and a humility which is not to be found in communities dedicated to spiritual athleticism. An exemplar of all this is Etty Hillesum. More on her later.

* Fount, London, 1991