At the lower level, mysticism is the study and interpretation (philosophical, psychological and spiritual) of the experiences and behaviour, beliefs, thoughts, and speculations of the mystics. Mystics are people who have gone through an experience in which they enter an exalted state of consciousness and come face to face with Reality (God, the Absolute, the All in All,). The dictionaries give the following definitions of mysticism:
- A spiritual discipline aiming at union with the Divine through deep meditation, or trance-like contemplation.
- The experience of such Divine Union as described by mystics.
Mysticism is not limited to the western Christian culture, it is found at all times and in all religions. People of different culture and time have the same experience, but their understandings of Reality, and their concepts of God, are very different. The word mysticism is derived from the Greek mysteries, especially those of Eleusis. These Mysteries brought the initiate to an awareness of the Holy and of the timeless state in which it exists, and for him to gain a secret wisdom which must be kept secret to the outside, uninitiated world at large. For outsiders, the initiate’s lips are sealed and so the word mysterion (mystery) was given to this experience, deriving from muein, to close the eyes or lips. This tells us that the communication of this experience cannot be described in ordinary language, even if it was not forbidden.
As a result we are left with some definitions of mysticism that do not mean much:
- Mysticism is an immediate, intuitive, experimental knowledge of God.
- Mysticism is consciousness of a Beyond, or of transcendent Reality or of a Divine Presence.
- Mysticism is to possess the Infinite in the Finite.
- Mysticism is a study of the supposed essence of religion, or God consciousness, that prescinds from any particular dogmatic framework.
- Mysticism is the art of the union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in a greater or lesser degree; or who aims at, or believes in such attainment.
The knowledge gained from the mystical experience is a true direct knowledge of God. The mystic seeks to unite his own soul, the core of his being, with the Divine. This is not a selfish act as, having seen the Divine Vision, or having attained the Divine Union, the mystic comes down to earth from his exalted state to his duties to his fellow men. These can be a continuation of his previous labours, a desire to change his life to better serve others, a wish to convey his experience to others so that they can, too, seek and attain the Divine Union, or a combination of all these. Some lesser mystical events are better described as religious experiences that are a conscious awareness of the Presence of God but not necessarily involving the intense, direct, and personal experience of God, the absorption into the Divine. Such religious experiences are more common that is generally thought. Some events or objects can trigger religious or ecstatic experiences: some music or poetry, a work of art, a personal relationship, a beautiful sunset or landscape. To decide if these experiences are valid and true mystical or religious events is difficult. The mystic coming back from an exalted state feels obliged to communicate his experience to others. First of all he must clarify it in a coherent framework within his own consciousness and only then can he starts to transmit it to others in a comprehensible way. The communication of mystical experiences is a difficult task as there is no adequate language to express what is essentially inexpressible. The only way is to use similes, metaphors, paradox, and sensory images. Non-religious mystics -the Nature Mystics- have exalted experiences inspired by a sense of oneness with the natural world around them. These experiences are not the same as the Divine Union of the religious mystics. As a result it is easier for them to describe their experiences in common language and through the use of similes, sensory images, and by describing their inner feelings.
Mysticism in the non-Christian World
It has been said, “All mystics speak the same language, for they come from the same country” and since there is only one Reality, whatever its nature, this statement is true in principle. Earliest records of Egypt and Babylon are vague and we cannot deduce anything from them. The records of the mysteries of Eleusis of the 5th century BC are more credible. It was thought then that people learned nothing specific in the initiation ceremony, but they received impressions and were put into a certain frame of mind. Their feelings, the mystae, were profoundly stirred during the Eleusinian ceremonies, as the experience was similar to death and rising again. The Buddhists are striving for Nirvana, a paradoxical state difficult to understand. It is not a state of Divine Union as there is no personal God in Buddhism, but it is not a state of destruction of all beings, it is rather the extinction of all desires. Hindu mystical writings have much in common with those of Buddhism as they were produced in the same cultural environment, but their philosophical attitude are distinct. Within Hinduism, both Monistic and Theistic writings are found. Sankara, a Monistic philosopher, developed the doctrine of “a-dvaita” or non-duality. For him, only Brahman is real, all else is illusion, and the quest for the non-real soul is to become One with Brahman. Other Indian mystics are Theistic, in their writings they avoid philosophical speculations and doctrinal instruction and concentrate on the reality of God and on its attainment. The Islamic mysticism, Sufism, derives its name from the Arabic word for wool, a reference to the ascetic origin of the early sect members who wore woollen shirt like those of the Christian hermits.
Their doctrine does not conflict with Islam but shows Christian, Gnostic, Neoplatonic and Buddhist influences. Their mystical poetry is original and unique and their writings speak of love of God, of man, and of the world. The Sufi Path to God has seven ascetic “stages”: repentance, abstinence, renunciation, poverty, patience, trust in God and satisfaction. It also has ten spiritual-psychological “states”: meditation, nearness to God, love, fear, hope, longing, intimacy, tranquillity, contemplation and certainty. After passing through these stages and states the Sufi man may then enter the higher states of mystical consciousness in which Divine Union is possible.
Mysticism in the West
The main difference between eastern and western religions is the degree of emphasis placed on the individual. Some authors say that none of the biblical texts are Mystical especially those of the pre-Christian era. According to them Judaism is anti-mystical as it is only concerned by the transcendent holiness of God, his independence of the material world, and man’s nothingness in face of Him. However the visions of the prophets are mystical experiences. Also if we define a mystic as “one who seeks or attains direct contact with God” then the patriarchs who saw and walked with God were definitely mystics. Throughout all Jewish mysticism there is the desire for Union with God but there is nowhere the idea of man’s identity with the Divine. God is creator and sustainer of the Universe, and man is part of God’s creation. He is absolutely not part of God. This difference with God is what is found in Christian mysticism. God is by necessity both transcendent and immanent at the same time, and man’s final goal is Divine Union while remaining a human being. St. Paul is one of the first and more important Christian mystics. He had visions and revelations from the Lord but, as he said, these experiences were sacred and he was not allowed to speak about them.
The Rebirth of Mysticism
The rebirth of classical learning during the Renaissance was accompanied by a revival of religion that led to religious and political upheaval in the 16th century and to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Spiritual life was active again on both sides of the new divide but it was in Catholic Spain that mysticism reached its new high with St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St John of the Cross (1542-1591). Teresa was a passionate mystic, given to vivid imagery and extravagant language. In her powerful and effective writings she describes her visions and her experiences of the mystical state. She was not seeking exaltation but she was subjected to spiritual impulses and thought that she was carried to Heaven during her experiences. St John of the Cross was different. He chose to live an ascetic life and the unreformed Carmelites imprisoned him; he was an inspired spiritual director and a good writer of mystical poetry. He suggested both active and passive ways of entering into the mystic life. He concluded that the ultimate attainment of the Divine Union rests on a life of utter detachment, which is a dark, difficult, and solitary path, but a path of Love. Divine Union, the final goal of the mystics, was seen as the purpose of the spiritual life by Protestants and Catholics, however the Protestant mystics do not indulge in emotive speech, preferring the dry language of theology. Their experiences, however, are similar to those of the Catholic mystics. In the 17th century, mysticism declined together with religious vocations and religious observance decayed into religiosity.
Mystics are not necessarily religious persons. However, whereas the mystical experiences of religious people are generally sought it is not always the case of non-religious people. In this latter cases the mystical experiences may be an elation of the spirit that can result as a reaction to a beautiful sight, a work of art, some music, a book or the consequence of being in love.
The esoteric mystics follow the way of the Secret Tradition that is the “immemorial knowledge concerning man’s way of return from where he came by a method of the inward life”. These people know that man has lost his awareness of the primeval paradise but, they also know that there are ways to regain entry to it through methods described in old “secrets documents” that are only understandable by the people initiated in these secrets. This knowledge provides a way to exaltation of the Spirit and to personal Union with the Divine by non-religious means. The Orthodox churches reject and condemn these practises.
Mystical experiences have generally a certain effect on human beings. The inner changes in consciousness are reflected by neuro-psychological changes and in the external behaviour of the persons concerned. The changes may be small and not perceptible to an ordinary observer -although the mystic would probably notice them. Sometimes, however, they are very important (trances, convulsions, etc.) and require medical intervention. Some mystics admitted to have had some disturbances following their mystical experiences. St Teresa of Avila experienced trances, raptures, dreams, visions and internal stigmata. Most religious leaders admit the existence of these physical phenomena but they believe that they are the result of internal processes within the mystic rather that the result of divine intervention.
The nature of the mystical Experience
Some people say that mystical experience is ineffable, that is, it cannot be communicated due to its nature. This does not seem to be true although they can only be described by similes, metaphor and paradox. It is not really as important to know where mystical experiences originate, as it is to understand the changes they bring to the brain of the mystics. The history of mysticism records that all the great mystics who have described their experiences, only women -with the exception of St Ignatius Loyola- have also been visionaries.
Communicating the Mystical Experience
The mystic knows and remembers that he has had a mystical experience such as Divine Union and he also knows that he should describe his experience to others. If his memory is filled with ecstatic feelings, these are more probably a response to the event, a way to enable him to retain the memory of it, and not necessarily a part of it. Describing a mystical event in a meaningful way is difficult, to say the least. Although some do relate their experience, most mystics cannot do it in ordinary language and are left to do it, as well as they can, using poetry and paradox. The mystical messages that reach us is often deformed, first by the way the mystic records it, then in the way he communicates it to us (orally or in writing) and, if it is the case, by its translation from one language to another. The listener or reader’s own receptivity can also be the cause of some distortions.
The Way to Attain
It can be said that “Mystics are born, not made”, and as a result, not everybody has mystical experience, independently of what he or she wishes or strive for. Of course, as the Old Mystery Schools have shown, one must master the techniques and have the necessary enthusiasm and dedication if one really wants to go through this kind of experience. Initiation had this aim in the past and is still required today even if the rituals are different and more adapted to our present knowledge and way of life. Many techniques and many ways have been proposed to reach this Divine Union but all have the same aim: to get a direct, personal awareness, in vision or in union, of God whatever he is for each of us.