The new mysticism

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.

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