Vade retro?

Mystics have traditionally been considered very suspect by the Western branches of Christianity. Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy (though he died before judgment could be pronounced), Miguel de Molinos was imprisoned for the latter years of his life, and others were sidelined (frequently to monasteries) and treated with considerable suspicion; most of those who wrote did so in elliptical ways, possibly as much to avoid the attentions of the church hierarchy as to express what is possibly a fundamentally inexpressible experience. Some wrote anonymously, such as the authors of “The Cloud of Unknowing” and the “Theologia Germanica”. Even in the early 20th century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was regarded as extremely suspect for his “Milieu Divin” theology.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, however, mysticism has at least sometimes been seen in a more positive light. Father Richard Rohr, for instance, is very widely known, and is respected across many divides within Christianity. There is still suspicion, however – Marcus Borg’s mysticism-based identification of Jesus as “spirit man” is one of several factors which led to him being anathema to conservative Christians. It is, I suppose, hardly surprising; mystics have access to what at the very least feels like unmediated contact with God, and this forms a potential source of authority separate from that of scripture and tradition, and from the church hierarchies which exist to interpret these for us. I’ve written before that when Jesus is credited in the Fourth Gospel with saying “I and my Father are one”, this is something which any mystic would feel able to say to themselves, and so is eminently something Jesus could have said, but is almost certainly something he never actually said – because his life-expectancy would have been minimal after saying that in public, given the attitude of the Temple authorities of the time (and probably that of everyday Jews) to percieved blasphemy.

Mysticism also seems to be deeply suspect from the point of view of Peter Rollins “Pyrotheology” project. I’ve written about this before, here and here. (Pete has apologised for the suggestion that the mystical state might be equivalent to psychosis, but has still mentioned the potential connection a few times…)

Now, Pete spends a lot of time talking about mystics, and Meister Eckhart in particular. The snag is, he seems to treat the mystics as having a particular philosophical approach to the question of what-it-is-that-is-God, namely the apophatic, rather than as having a particular experience, albeit one which strongly tends to lead to expressions of negation of conventional categories when attempting to describe what mystics understand as an experience of God (William James, in “Varieties of Religious Experience” identifies this ineffable quality as being one of the characteristics of the mystical experience).

The thing is, the viewpoint is a result of the experience, not its cause. Indeed, talking about mysticism with people who do not themselves identify as mystics, many of whom say “that seems a good way of looking at it”, and so communicating the viewpoint, has never, to my knowledge, contributed to someone actually having a mystical experience themselves. That was for some time a major concern for me – it was, for me, a superlatively good experience, and I wanted to share that with others – but on the whole, couldn’t. Again, James identifies another characteristic as being that it is something which happens to you, not something you do yourself, as essentially passive.

(For what it’s worth, the way to get there is by recognising the signs that there may be a mystical experience developing, and not stop it, for instance by trying to analyse it as it’s happening or by becoming scared; both the dissolution of the sense of self and the realisation of the immensity of the divine can be extremely scary. Contemplation and meditation are both very helpful in training yourself towards this; in addition, most people find an affinity with certain places or situations in which an opening of consciousness is closer for them – the “thin places” of Celtic spirituality, and you can seek those out or create the right circumstances – but that is no guarantee, it merely increases the probability.)

Pete, bless him, goes further in a recent video (which I’m afraid is not accessible without at least some financial contribution to his Patreon page), in which he suggests that as wholeness and completeness (“oceanic oneness”) are not attainable, the suggestion that people can achieve this is effectively Satanic.

Now, were it true that wholeness and completeness were unattainable, I would be with him (at the very least, offering something which is nonexistent is cruel) – but another of the characteristics of the mystical experience is an immense sense of wholeness and completeness (this is not one of the characteristics identified by James, but is one identified by F.C. Happold in “Mysticism; a Study and an Anthology”). Granted, it is transitory (one of James’ characteristics), and it may be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence (several major religious figures have written about a singular event which has shaped the entire remainder of their lives, notably Pascal). However, bringing in the fourth and last of James’ characteristics, the experience is nooetic; it carries some knowledge about the universe (as James puts it), and typically this knowledge is of ultimate oneness.

Again, it is true that you cannot stay in a peak mystical state for very long; you are not going to be able to combine a peak of mystical contemplation with (for example) walking down the street safely, without bumping into lamp posts or getting run down by cars; you are sometime going to need to eat, and attend to other mundane instances of being embodied. However, this long term continuation is not necessary due to exactly that nooetic character; once experienced, it can never be un-experienced, and at least some measure of the consciousness of oneness, wholeness and completeness is going to persist, possibly for life. I will grant that it is a mistake (one which I made for some time, though I did take away from that a much improved facility for not stopping an experience in it’s tracks) to pursue a repetition of such a peak experience to the exclusion of living your life – this results in people who, as has regularly been said, are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good.

Having said all that, do I think that proffering the possibility of a peak mystical experience to people is offering them something unattainable, and therefore cruel? No. In the course of something over 40 years of talking to people, I have found both that most people have at some point had experiences which are verging on the mystical, and that if I can stifle my own natural impulses to analyse everything happening to me and to be terrified in the fact of the immeasurably vast, I can at least sometimes progree from “verging on the mystical” to a fuller experience.

And those experiences are so good that I would still like to share them with as many people as possible…


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