“What does mysticism really mean? It means the way to attain knowledge. It’s close to philosophy, except in philosophy you go horizontally while in mysticism you go vertically.” – Elie Wiesel
Why do we search for ways to leave the ground, and what do we find once we arrive “up there”?
During times of extended channel surfing, I usually regret stopping for a moment to watch religious cable. I always seem to catch it right in the middle of a worship-athon. It’s that typical scene- an uncomfortably large auditorium full of people with their hands desperately stretched out, and eyes squeezed shut as if God is a genie just waiting to be willed into the room. Some are searching desperately for a sign.
What is so enticing about these experiences?
As I see it, there is a huge risk to leaving our thoughts behind as we travel upward. Once a person enters an undirected moment, the participant might actually discover nothing (other than the temporary bliss associated with it), and still decide to sanctify the experience. Such an event might become an addiction for the one who worships pleasure, or demands connection and belonging, and distinguishes this spiritual version from drinking lots of alcohol or any other heightened episode only because they have proclaimed the former to be ethereal. Is there a backbone of consistency or truth during these episodes, or are we free to determine the value of whims and interpret the warmth as we please?
If what we find in mystical moments is just us giving orders (or a pat on the back) to ourselves, then the experience is of limited value in my opinion, and maybe even harmful. I have always wondered- what good is faith-based belief if it doesn’t change you? How powerful is any experience if you return to it often, and only to have it confirm what you already knew. That applies to spiritual nomads as well as fundamentalists of all kinds, from Christians to gnostics and atheists. If we seek enlightenment or heightened knowledge just to recite the line “I told you so” both to ourselves and to others, then we’re probably on pretty shaky ground. At that point, discovery is out the window. Of course there is health in encouragement and reinforcement, but it’s a lopsided diet to be eating just that.
Regardless of the foundation, any effort towards a seductive experience is dangerous because a person might then be living for the thrill of the high and not for the God above it all. Either that, or we might quietly believe, by way of these journeys, that we are close enough to Deity on our own, and from that point-scour to find ways “up” so that we can remind ourselves. Self deception is a daily possibility for us all, and mysticism might be one of the easier ways to find it.
“Liking money like I like it, is nothing less than mysticism. Money is a glory.”- Salvador Dali
I see his point. Isn’t a reaction to everything from nature to the ballet something like a lower-grade mystical experience? It seems like any moment or response that surpasses what we’d consider average might reasonably qualify. If that’s true, then even joy would be a sort of minor mysticism because, though the reaction may or may not have a cause, it is still of the elevated kind. That’s the bright side of daily mysticism should we accept the broader definition.
I don’t think Dali’s quote is addressing life’s childlike joys, but he’s getting at something worth discussing further. Does our culture love pleasure and power (and their cousin- enlightened experiences) more than truth? Perhaps a group-think has spread and we’re now influenced to continually chase those darker lower-grade mystical experiences without any urgent desire to attach lasting truth to it. If that is the chosen course of faith (we all put faith in our beliefs), and the journey has been tuned to seek out only personal transcendence- warmth, comfort, importance and excitement or a brief soul stirring (or worse), then I’d say faith is doomed. At that point, isn’t it likely to become just as pliable as other vices? The need for continual and increasing pleasure will make slaves of everything intended for joy through moderate use.
(article continues below photo)
So the risks of mysticism have been stated, but I don’t want to ignore the potential for reward. I mentioned pastor Earl Palmer in the previous installment. During the discussion I attended (on C. S. Lewis and mysticism), he made a point that has lingered in my mind ever since. Palmer said he doesn’t like to regulate people’s journey, and would rather encourage exploration. Despite all of my reservations about mysticism, I have to admit that I really like his perspective. Nothing is authentic if we’re told to accept it before we’ve done our own investigation.
C.S. Lewis said “some men are above all intellectual, others are rational, others imaginative.” We are clearly created with differences and embedded strengths and weaknesses. The rational thinker might be wrong to try to persuade the imaginative mind away from a fascination with higher visions and abstractions, in the same way that the imaginative person might be encouraging fraud for the intellectual who’s told to “just feel.”