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3.3.3 Mysticism

Mysticism describes a spiritual quest for hidden truth or wisdom, the goal of which is union with the divine or sacred. Forms of mysticism are found in all major world religions and in the shamanic and other ecstatic practices of ancient cultures, as well as in secular experience. In the 20th century, mysticism has undergone a renewal of interest and understanding. This comes, in part, from the feeling of alienation that many persons experience in the modern world. Put down as a religion of the elite, mysticism (or the mystical faculty of perceiving transcendental reality) is said by many to belong to all men, though few use it. There is no single definition that will cover every aspect of mysticism. Some people believe that “enlightenment” and “illumination” are better words to describe mysticism. Mysticism is different from prophetic religions, as well as from shamanism. Prophetic religions emphasize action to a far greater extent than most forms of mysticism. Though in ecstasy the barriers seem to disappear, in prophetism God and man are rarely identified. Shamanism, a technique of ecstasy, provides a sort of correspondence with the purgative stage of mysticism. The closeness to paranormal or supernatural phenomena is more pronounced in shamanism. Both the shaman and the mystic, however, communicate with a world beyond normal experience; they have a similarity of goal, if not of practice and content. The path to union with the divine is usually described as having four stages:

  • Purgation (of bodily desires)
  • Purification (of the will)
  • Illumination (of the mind)
  • Unification (of one’s will or being with the divine)


If “the object of man’s existence is to re-establish the harmony which originally belonged between him and the divine state, before the separation took place”, mysticism will always be a part of the way of return to the source of being, a way of counteracting the experience of alienation. Mysticism has always held that the discovery of a non-physical element in man’s personality is of utmost significance in his quest for equilibrium in a world of apparent chaos. In spite of its lunatic fringe, the more mature forms of mysticism satisfy the claims of rationality, ecstasy, and righteousness. As Zen masters say, mysticism is true knowledge that cannot be expressed in words. If there is a mystery about mystical experience, it is something it shares with life and consciousness. Mysticism, a form of living in depth, indicates that man is more than one-dimensional. Despite the interaction and correspondence between levels–“What is below is like what is above; what is above is like what is below”, they are not to be equated or confused. At once a technique and a gnosis (esoteric knowledge), mysticism consists of a way or discipline. The relationship of the religion of faith to mysticism is ambiguous, a mixture of respect and misgivings. Though mysticism may be associated with religion, it need not be. The mystic often represents a type that the churches do not know what to do with, if and when one appears. Although mysticism has been the core of Hinduism and Buddhism, it has been little more than a minor factor, and often a disturbing element in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As the 15th century Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli said of the 13th-century Christian monastic leaders St. Francis and St. Dominic, “they had saved religion but destroyed the church”. There are religions of authority and the religion of the spirit. Thus, there is a paradox:

  • If the mystic minority is distrusted or maltreated, religious life loses its raison d’être
  • On the other hand, these “peculiar people” do not easily fit into a community composed of less sensitive seekers of safe and religious routine

Though no deeply religious person can be without a touch of mysticism, and no mystic can be, in the deepest sense, other than religious, the dialogue between mystics and conventional religious persons has been far from happy. From both sides there is a constant need for a greater tolerance, a union of free men’s worship.  Mysticism has common features with magic, prayer, worship, religion, metaphysics (transcendent levels of reality), and even science. It may not be always easy to distinguish mysticism from these, but its approach and emphasis are different. Though there is an element of magic and occult in much of what passes for mysticism, it is not comparable with the science of the unseen, or with voices and visions. Powers of the occult are viewed as real, but they are not of interest to genuine mystics. Prayer and worship may form part of mysticism, but they are viewed as means, and not as essence, since mysticism is pure consciousness, or a union with God. Science is analytic and discursive, and expresses its findings in precise and abstract formulas; mysticism, on the other hand, relies on paradoxes and an unusual use of language. Nature mysticism is another prominent variant, to which poets and artists are particularly prone. The natural state of the true mystic is serene and not agitated. Mysticism, among the many forms of experience, confirms the claims of religion and is viewed as providing a foretaste of the life after death.

Christian Mysticism
Although the essence of mysticism is the experience of contact with the transcendent, mysticism in the history of Christianity should not be understood merely in terms of special ecstatic experiences, but as part of a religious process lived out within the context of the Christian community. From this perspective, mysticism played a vital part in the early church. Early Christianity was a religion of the spirit that expressed itself in the heightening and enlargement of human consciousness. The Synoptic Gospel tells us that Jesus was thought to have enjoyed a sense of special contact with God. In the primitive church, prophets, who were believed to be recipients of a revelation coming directly from the Holy Spirit, played an active part. The mystical aspect of early Christianity finds its fullest expression in the letters of Paul and the Gospel According to John. For Paul and John, mystical experience and aspiration are always for union with Christ. It was Paul’s supreme desire to know Christ and to be united with him. The recurring phrase, “in Christ,” implies personal union, a participation in Christ’s death and Resurrection. Christ-mysticism finds renewed embodiment in the Gospel According to John, particularly in the farewell discourse (chapters 14-16), where Jesus speaks of his impending death and of his return in the Spirit to unite himself with his followers. In the prayer of Jesus in chapter 17, there is a vision of an interpenetrating union of souls in which all who are one with Christ share his perfect union with the Father. In the early Christian centuries the mystical trend found expression not only in the stream of Pauline and Johannine Christianity, but also in the Gnostics. Most Gnostics thought of themselves as followers of Christ, a Christ who was pure spirit. The mysticism of the Gnostics can be seen in the religion of Valentinus who was excommunicated in about AD 150. He believed that human beings are alienated from God because of their spiritual ignorance; Christ brings them into the gnosis that is union with God. Valentinus held that all human beings come from God, and that all will in the end return to God. Other Gnostic groups held that there were three types of people:” spiritual”, “psychic”, and “material”. Only the first two can be saved. The Pistis Sophia (3rd century) is preoccupied with the question of who finally will be saved. Those who are saved must renounce the world completely and follow the pure ethic of love and compassion. They will then be identified with Jesus and become rays of the divine Light. Christian mystics, who often speak of “union with God,” generally do not imply identity with the divine, since this might lead to heresy. The 16th-century Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila could write with impunity: “It is plain enough what unity is, two distinct things becoming one.” Even if there had been a semblance of interpenetration between man and the divine, there could be no substantial identity. There is here a great distinction, for the creature never becomes God, nor does God ever become the creature. Identification of man with the divine, according to many the heart of mysticism, raises problems from other points of view as well. Pantheism, which asserts that all is God (or Nature), and God (or Nature) is all, is looked upon as a false doctrine in many religions.

Non-Christian Mystics
Islam has been critical of the claims of oneness and the medieval mystic al-Hallaj paid with his life for making the unorthodox announcement of his identity with the divine: “Ana al-haqq” (“I am the Truth”). The more moderate Mahmud Shabestari had reported an experience: In God there is no duality. In that presence “I” and “we” and “you” do not exist. “I” and “you” and “we” and “He” become one. But Muslim theologians as a rule tended to dismiss those who “boasted of union with the Deity”. In the Jewish tradition, it is generally considered improper and indecorous for any man to give a personal account of his own mystical experience. The Hindus’ Upanisads, however, insist on this identity of man with the Divine. This may not be simple pantheism but an identity in difference, a paradox present in even Vedanta. Mystical practices and esoteric sects are to be found in all forms of Buddhism. Buddhist mysticism like other forms of mysticism, insists on the ineffability of the mystical experience, because it defies expression in terms that are intelligible to anyone who has not had analogous experience. The knowledge involved is never merely intellectual, but is a kind of felt knowledge in which things are seen in a different perspective, and the mystic seems to be outside time and space, oblivious to his surroundings and the passage of time. The experience of this new dimension of reality was a vision in marked contrast to normal perception, a vision that went far beyond the reach of “mere logic The core of the Shinto mythology consists of tales about the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, the ancestress of the Imperial Household, and tales of how her direct descendants unified the Japanese people under their authority. In the beginning, according to Japanese mythology, a certain number of kami simply emerged, and a pair of kami, Izanagi and Izanami, gave birth to the Japanese islands, as well as to the kami who became ancestors of the various clans. Amaterasu, the ruler of Takama no Hara; the moon god Tsukiyomi no Mikoto; and Susanoo (Susanowo) no Mikoto, the ruler of the nether regions, were the most important among them. A descendant of Amaterasu, Jimmu, is said to have become the first emperor of Japan. Japanese mythology says that the Three Sacred Treasures (the mirror, the sword, and the jewels), which are still the most revered symbols of the Imperial Household, were first given by Amaterasu to her grandson.

Modern Christian Mysticism
In the 14th century a wave of mystical ardour seemed to run down the Rhine valley, enveloping men and women in the rapture of intense, direct experience of the divine Spirit. It centred in the houses of the Dominican order, where friars and nuns practiced the mystical way of their great teacher, Meister Eckhart. This wave of mysticism radiated beyond convent the walls to the marketplaces and hearths of the laity. Eckhart had the gift of making his abstruse doctrines understandable to a wider public than was usual for mystics. Some people found mysticism by joining the Dominicans; others, remaining in the everyday world, joined with like-spirited brothers and sisters in groups known collectively as the Friends of God, where they practiced methodical contemplation, or, as it was widely known, mental prayer. Probably few reached, or even hoped to reach, the ecstasy of mystical union. Out of these circles came the anonymous German Theology, from which, Luther was to say, he had learned more about man and God than from any book except the Bible and the writings of St. Augustine. In the Netherlands the mystical impulse awakened chiefly under the stimulus of Gerhard Groote who was not a monk, or even a priest. Groote gave the mystical movement a different direction by teaching that true spiritual communion must be combined with moral action. At his death, a group of followers formed the Brethren of the Common Life. These were laymen and laywomen, married and single, earning their livings in the world, but united by a simple rule that required them to pool their earnings and devote themselves to spiritual works, teaching, and charity. Houses of Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life spread through the cities and towns of the Netherlands and Germany. A monastic counterpart was founded in the order of Canons Regular of St. Augustine, known as the Windesheim Congregation, which in the second half of the 15th century numbered some 82 priories. The Brethren were particularly successful as schoolmasters, combining some of the new linguistic methods of the humanists with a strong emphasis upon Bible study. One of the most influential books of piety ever written, “The Imitation of Christ”, is attributed to Thomas Kempis, a monk of the Windesheim Congregation. One man whose life was changed by The Imitation was the 16th-century Spaniard Ignatius of Loyola. After reading it, Loyola founded the Society of Jesus and wrote his own book of methodical prayer, Spiritual Exercises. The outburst of mystical and contemplative activity in 16th-century Spain was mainly an expression of the intense religious exaltation of the Spanish people. Spanish mysticism belies the usual picture of the mystic as a withdrawn contemplative with his or her head in the clouds. Not only Loyola but also St. Teresa of Avila and her disciple, St. John of the Cross, were activist Reformers who regarded their mystical experiences as means of fortifying themselves for their practical tasks.

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