Mysticism and Spirituality: A Christian Perspective
“Man does not live by bread alone”. This was the response of Jesus to the Tempter trying to lead him into the ego’s illusory world of self-sufficiency and materialism. All religious traditions from the beginning express an awareness of this ‘something more’ than bread alone that we need, not only to survive but to flourish. A human being’s first instinct is survival but when this is assured we are restless, as St Augustine said, until we find our rest in God, in what we find to be both our source and goal, our true centre and meaning. Spirituality is the way we seek God when we realize that the truth is more than an answer or a formulaic response but rather a lived experience of what simply is.
The Neolithic burial site in County Meath, Ireland, called New Grange long puzzled early archeologists because of a narrow aperture above the entrance which led through a narrow tunnel into the dark and airless centre of the tomb. It is now known that the aperture is so accurately positioned that it lets in the first rays of the new sun on December 21st each year and fills the inner chamber with light for about thirteen minutes. We do not know the belief systems of our Neolithic ancestors but clearly they had an understanding of death as a mystery that informed their whole sense of life and what we would call their axiological concerns. Aborigines still cling to a 40,000 year old spirituality called dadirri, a deep inner listening and quiet still awareness which resonates with our idea of contemplation and which they also saw as the capacity to listen truly to each other. All civilizations at some stage of sophistication generate a minority form of life corresponding to what we call monastic, which focuses on this dimension of human experience even by excluding other valuable dimensions such as family, art, commerce and politics.
In response to the request of the organizers of the Marakech forum to write on the Christian perspective of mysticism and spirituality in our time, I would like to begin by acknowledging these ancient, atavistic aspects of human history. They remind us that what we are struggling to understand today – in the face of unprecedented contemporary challenges to our sense of what humanity means – is part of a common identity stretching back into the pre-conceptual and pre-verbal stages of human development. Our challenge is not to regress to these earlier periods – that is the most superficial kind of some contemporary new age spirituality – but to know ourselves in novel ways that integrate the past and prepare us for our next stage of evolution.
Language is necessary for this journey into conscious silence, though it is abandoned early in the actual work of contemplation. Language is not a conceptual algebra, however, and using it to describe the mystical and spiritual dimensions easily leads to confusion or conflict. It is even more sensitive an instrument when it is used to explore the differences of belief between or even within traditions. Language is a system of symbols and the deepest religious experience uses symbols not algebra to express their insights. Clearly a new kind of language is needed in our time to accommodate to the seismic shifts in ways of understanding and forms of knowledge that are comparable to the movement of tectonic plates that gave us the continents as we see them today. Heidegger felt that philosophy was made redundant by ‘technicity’ and its place taken by cybernetics. But a new language is not invented. It is born from experience considered and shared in new circumstances. What is new about our time is not only the economic, demographic, intellectual and planetary crises but – and perhaps this hold the key to the whole present tipping-point – the relationship of religious traditions to each other. This involves the traditions, as in all relationships, each seeing themselves in a new light. Inter- and intra-religious dialogue are both inseparable and power each other.
Heidegger famously said that we are waiting for ‘a god’ to appear to make sense of our present situation. Perhaps though it is not a god but a new way of courageously facing our own individual and collective problems. God manifests in that act of courage which is also an aspect of faith, which I will return to later. The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre surveying the wasteland of contemporary moral awareness thought that it was not a god but a ‘new and doubtless quite different St Benedict’ who could help us to rebuild a sense of human community within which the traditional virtues and arts of civilization, from politics and culture combined, could once again be practiced. Christianity and the other religions have a major contribution to make to this endeavour and the re-appropriation of forgotten meanings and wisdom will be integral to this. Understanding again what mysticism is and what spirituality means in our contemporary situation is a foundational project.
The terms ‘mysticism’ and ‘spirituality’ are revered expressions in Christian vocabulary. Generally, they indicate respectively a more abstract, conceptual approach to wisdom and a more practical, personally transformative application of what is learned in order to learn more. The mystical is usually seen to involve a small minority of gifted or specialized individuals who are prone to exceptional kinds of experiences and states of mind. Often this abnormality of experience leads to confusion. St Teresa of Avila clearly had developed some unwanted yogic gifts, such as levitation, which she found irritating and embarrassing and asked God to remove, but which others took as signs of her sanctity. The Christian mystical tradition – like others, such as the sannyasa path as opposed to the yogic and even the Sufi tradition with its celebration of ecstasy – is skeptical about these kinds of ‘mystical experiences’. John of the Cross, a friend and advisor to Teresa, represents an entirely different form of mystical experience marked by the ‘dark night” and way of ‘unknowing’ rather than imaginative or ecstatic dramatics.
How then do we generally distinguish between mysticism and spirituality? Let us say that mysticism is the wider knowledge and wisdom system that pertains to a deep interior experience of God and which proves its depth by a transformation of the surface levels of life. Spirituality is the personal practice of deep prayer that occurs within the mystical tradition whether the practitioner knows that tradition very well or not. It is beneficial to the practitioner to know the tradition they belong to because certain phases and experiences are better understood and travelled when they are related to the accretion of wisdom left by past practitioners. As the Dalai Lama frequently reminds his religiously uprooted western audiences it is better to stay and go deeper in your own tradition – but you are of course free (we live in the 21st century) to change your tradition.
From the beginning the Christian tradition has recognized the complementarity of two approaches to the path towards union with God with, in and through the glorified humanity of Jesus, in the ‘Mind of Christ’. On the one hand is the kataphatic. This corresponds to the left hand hemisphere of the brain or to Martha, the active and distracted sister in the Gospel story. Using this hand we use language, thought, images and actions to express or prepare for a deeper knowledge of God. Yet as the Eastern Christian tradition emphasizes more than the Latin West, this is bound to fall short of the goal. “God can never be known by thought,” says the anonymous English 14th century Cloud of Unknowing, ”but only by love.” Christian mystical thought is “catholic” – universally agreed – on this. Because God is ultimately mystery, unnamable and unknowable by the ordinary thinking mind, the apophatic dimension holds the edge. In this mode we abandon all thoughts words and images. We do the ‘work of silence’ because ‘there is nothing so much like God as silence’ (Meister Eckhart).
These two modalities correspond in some ways to the gunas of Indian thought as well as to the hemispheres of the brain. But, however distinct, they are not antagonistic zones of consciousness, just as there are countless and constant synaptic communications taking place between the brain’s two hemispheres. The danger of ‘mysticism’, taken out of the context of the applied personal work of spirituality, is that it forgets the dual human need to both distinguish and integrate and – instead – tends towards over-spiritualizing the spiritual quest, or even attempts to exclude the physical. In the past Christianity, even with its roots in the incarnation of the Word made flesh, has gone down this spiritual dead-end in some of its schools of spirituality. But this has always been shown up eventually by the healthiness of the greater tradition to be an aberration.
For centuries the Christian contemplative dimension was marginalized. From the 12th century with the rise of scholasticism theology became separated from prayer as the intellectual focus moved from monastery to university. After the Reformation Catholic hierarchy feared the dangerous personal dimension of mystical teaching and Protestants rejected it as too Catholic! The recovery from this damaging and absurd imbalance has been astonishingly rapid in our lifetime.
Since the Second Vatican Council – with its after-shock felt throughout the whole Christian world the Roman Catholic Church has initiated and encouraged a major rebalancing of these two dimensions. The recovery of the contemplative aspect in the mainstream of the Christian life, led notably by great monastic figures like Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, John Main and Thomas Keating but underpinned by theologians like Karl Rahner and Hans Urs Von Balthsasar, has led to a new contemplative spirituality in Christianity. This has penetrated all denominations and led to a new approach to relations with other faiths. It is also initiating a new way of understanding how Christian faith can contribute to the world in its major areas of contemporary concern, environment, mental health, education, social justice, business and politics. The idea that a “contemplative” means only a monk or a specialized form of life has rapidly yielded, in the modern mind – though not all minds today embrace modernity – to the sense that the Christian vocation to holiness is universal and that a contemplative practice, such as meditation, is necessary for everyone to reach their full flourishing.
The teaching of meditation to children in school is a powerful illustration reflecting this new way of understanding spirituality. We know that children can and like to meditate and the benefits are quickly apparent to parents and teachers. We know that children learning to meditate in the classroom will often choose to meditate on their own at other times. Understanding the full potential of the spirituality of children is a radical contribution to the new way of thinking and the new language of religion, mysticism and spirituality.
The study of mysticism allows a historical and social perspective of the spiritual journey. It can detect the constants as well as the self-correcting mechanisms in particular religions and also the invisible connections that unite them at deeper levels. This is important today, for example, as we face the rise of an aberrant form of ‘radical’ Islam. Recognizing this as a corruption of a great religious tradition does not imply that the whole tradition is corrupt. However it also challenges Islam to an internal dialogue with its own mystical tradition which has been alienated from its mainstream institutions. Persecution of Sufi groups for example is still common. The inter-religious dialogue of Islam with other faiths, even though this is largely occurring at the academic or hierarchical levels, may stimulate this internal correction.
The mystical dimension of religion has commonly been an essential part of the self-correcting function within religions. Without it religion tends towards exclusivism and intolerance if not outright persecution of other faiths. Lacking a sufficiently high level of contemplative awareness religion easily collapses into its own power structures, rivalries and internal politics.
Knowledge of mysticism within one’s own and other traditions has a profound impact on the form of spirituality that is practiced.
All religions reflect huge differentials between the sophisticated and the popular levels of understanding and practice. A Catholic priest asked to bless a house in the Philippines notices a trail of blood around the house showing that the witchdoctor from the village was there before him sacrificing a chicken. In some remote parts of Syria there are places of worship in which many religious traditions are represented – tactfully – by the same minister. In the early Church bishops were constantly recalling their flocks from regressive infidelity with pagan rituals, so this popular syncretism is nothing new.
One might respond by saying that the ordinary ‘consumer’ is free to use the product he buys for whatever purpose he wishes, even if this is not the intention of the manufacturer. Religious freedom, however, is not compromised by the need for education or the responsibility of leaders to provide it. The more educated, the better able we are to understand what freedom means, what our choices are and even what place choice plays in the exercise of freedom.
The study of religion today needs always to take account of the spectrum on which religious belief and practice occur. Superstition and magical religion occur under the same roof of religion in which the higher contemplative life is also taught. This is an important but delicate distinction to explore because it is does not always denote a simple judgment about which is higher or lower. Forms of simple devotion practiced by the uneducated may be a form of spirituality that effectively leads them to deep contemplative experience. Simplicity is the key to making these kinds of judgments. Spiritual growth is itself nothing less than a process of simplification. (God is infinitely simple, as Thomas Aquinas said.) Yet if ordinary practitioners are not aware of the mystical dimension of their religion these same devotional practices may become magical, superstitious habits that keep them trapped them in realms of fear and ignorance.
True dialogue highlights identity rather than confusing or erasing it.
Many religious leaders, however, fear real dialogue because of the risk of syncretism or of losing members. This fear keeps dialogue at a superficial or merely diplomatic level and contributes nothing to the need to educate and inform the ordinary practitioner.
It is important to distinguish the various kinds of dialogue which leaders should encourage. There is the dialogue of scholars, in a rarefied but important realm of discourse. There is the dialogue of visiting each other’s sacred places and participating in each other’s rituals. These forms can have an immense effect on the people involved as they discover what the other faith is really like in practice. There is the dialogue of active collaboration in the relief of suffering and the promotion of peace and justice. There is also the simple exchange of visits and time spent getting to know each other personally and communally at the level of local church, mosque and temple.
Like all religions Christianity has influenced and been influenced by the religions around it and with which it shares the spiritual life of the human family. The pressing imperative of dialogue today has however taken the Church somewhat by surprise. There are some Christians who feel that dialogue itself is a betrayal of their faith. This kind of fearful exclusivism is found in all religions. For others dialogue is a prelude to conversion. Others feel that their evangelical responsibility is to communicate the message of Jesus, not to convert others. And for other Christians, especially with an openness to the contemplative aspects of their faith, it is what dialogue is meant to be: a way of sharing, listening and learning that depends on the risk of seeing reality as far as once is able from another’s point of view. Because these different approaches to dialogue – which are reflected in all traditions – are matters of perception, the kind of spirituality being practised is all-important.
A spirituality that resides primarily in the external, verbal and kataphatic will more jealously guard itself and fear intrusion from outside. A contemplative, apophatic spirituality, which sees the value of word and sacrament but does not stop there because it penetrates into the silence and the way of unknowing, will inevitably be better equipped to enter deeper dialogue.
Meditation, the imageless prayer of the heart in Christian understanding, is found in the contemplative spirituality of all traditions. It is the proper study of all mystical theology. It can only be understood in terms of the belief systems of those traditions; and the methods of meditation, although comparable, receive different emphases. However the challenges and the fruits of meditation alike are readily identified from one tradition to the other. A Christian meditator will recognize meditators in other traditions heart to heart and face to face, just as monks from different faiths immediately recognize each other as brothers.
The study of mysticism allows us to understand these similarities and differences more richly. Some spiritual practices and terms may be ‘borrowed’. We may also be reminded by our encounter with other paths of practices within our own tradition that we can usefully recover and restore. This is what happened when John Main recognized the teaching of meditation in the roots of his own monastic tradition long after he had first been introduced to meditation in the East. Meditating together is perhaps the simplest way we can enter into and negotiate the complex field of inter-religious dialogue. The study of human mysticism is clarified by this shared experience of silence.
To conclude, I would highlight three elements arising from my remarks. First the importance of not underestimating the capacity of simple people and children for profound spiritual practice. Secondly, the need to distinguish between theory and practice at all levels. Thirdly the responsibility of religious leaders to encourage the teaching of a contemplative practice, as a discipline, by the adherents of their faith
Mysticism and spirituality are rich and useful terms we must continuously refresh both with silence and discussion. The “contemplative” approach and practice may also be invoked as a way of applying the wisdom of these fields to the problems of our world. A contemplative approach to the environment or education, for example, is born of the practice of meditation. It is free from attachment to particular religious paths but is at home in all of them. At the same time it is detached and so free from absolutising any formula or interpretation, whether religious, scientific or political. This freedom of contemplation is the true freedom of the human spirit. It frees our creative forces and sets us free to face what the time we live in confronts us with. In this way we advance.
Laurence Freeman OSB
January 2, 2011