By Suma Varughese
Little is known of Christian mysticism. Yet there has always been a coterie of adepts whose abundant enthusiasm for the God experience not only yielded profound mystical states but also renewed and revitalized the Christian spirit
I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed, it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love; for I could not express it any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God…
…No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love… I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart.
(From William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience)
The above narration could have come from a kundalini yoga practitioner experiencing an opening of his chakras. It is instead a Christian’s experience of the Holy Spirit.
Christianity and a direct intimate experience of God, which is the heart of all mysticism, may seem at first to share a distant relationship. After all, Christianity is better known for its organizational strengths, and not for Christian mysticism. A hierarchy of clerics orchestrates the laity’s religious impulses along the lines of a predetermined creed. Belief in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost could be seen to discourage the sense of exploration so necessary for the flowering of the mystical spirit.
Nevertheless, despite the creed’s limitations and the supremacy of belief over experience, there has always flourished a coterie of adepts whose boundless enthusiasm for the God experience has not just led them into mystical states, but has strengthened the Christian spirit and inspired millions of lay people.
Many Christian mystics, such as St Francis of Assisi, St Ignatius of Loyola, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, and John Wesley, set up independent sects that renewed the concept of Christianity. Some, like St Ignatius, even devised a series of spiritual exercises designed to help a novice find his way to God. Great mystical classics such as The Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous author, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and The Way of the Pilgrim, again by an anonymous writer, have guided many a spiritual aspirant.
Others, such as the great 16th century mystics St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, have left behind inspiring poetry and insights based on their own spiritual experiences. Here is St Teresa’s account of the state of union with God: ‘In the orison of union, the soul is fully awake as regards God, but wholly asleep as regards things of this world and in respect of herself. During the short time the union lasts, she is… deprived of every feeling, and even if she would, she could not think of any single thing… God established himself in the interior of the soul in such a way that when she returns to herself, it is impossible for her to doubt that she has been in God and God in her.’
What sage experiencing samadhi could put it better?
And the ecstatic murmurings of St John of the Cross can compare with the best of Bhakti poetry:
O night, my guide!
O night, more friendly than dawn!
O tender night that tied
Lover and the loved one,
Loved one in lover fused as one!
Although mystics there were in Christendom, the price they paid for their spiritual individuality, within a church that exacted fidelity to the Pope and the creed, was high. Martin Luther, founder of Lutherism, was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church and tried for heresy. John Huss, a Bohemian professor and rector who spoke out against the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church, was killed for heresy. Consider too the case of George Fox, the founder of the Quaker sect whose direct revelations from God led him and his followers to defy social customs such as doffing their hats to their betters, leading to persecution.
The annals of Christian mysticism are full of the most astonishing experiences and transformations. As a youth, St Francis of Assisi, born Francesca Bernardone, was extravagant and rebellious. Disillusioned with the constant warfare in his region, he searched for peace. Then he fell ill, and as he lay down, he saw life from a different perspective—the sky, the birds and the trees exuding peace while his own species scurried about chasing ephemeral dreams. Struck with the grand interconnection of the universe, he forever more became the gentle saint of Assisi with boundless love for all that lived. The particular prayer for which he is justly famous goes thus:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Or consider Emmanuel Swedenberg, an incorrigible scientist and discoverer, whose mind one day suddenly opened up like an eggshell, and he received revelations of the other world. His insights are as profound as any rishi’s. The physical, he discovered, was only a symbol for the spiritual. The human body is clothing for the soul, for it is only in the physical plane that the spirit can be made manifest. This is why God became human: to prove His divinity to man. The creation of the world is a continual process, orchestrated and vivified by the spiritual world. And wisdom and love are the material of life.
If the experiences and revelations of the Christian mystics are like that of mystics elsewhere, what are their special defining points?
The first, of course, is an allegiance to Jesus Christ. Christ is the Lord they all unite with and serve with passionate love. And their spiritual foundation is based on the Bible, particularly Christ’s teachings. One anonymous convert reveals in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experiences that he was sitting in his room one afternoon when he read the following lines from the Bible: ‘He that hath the Son hath life eternal, he that hath not the Son hath not life.’ He says: ‘I had read this scores of times before, but this made all the difference. I was now in God’s presence and my attention was ‘soldered’ on to this verse, and I was not allowed to proceed till I had fairly considered what these words really involved. Only then was I allowed to proceed, feeling all the while that there was another being in my bedroom, though not seen by me.’
The Bible has been a source of revelation to all Christian mystics. For instance, Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, received a revelation that was based on the Bible. According to legend, the angel Moroni descended from heaven to his bedside with a message from God telling him that in the fourth century, the Lost Tribe of Israel had migrated to America and prepared a Bible for Americans of the 19th century. The Bible was inscribed in Egyptian characters on plates of gold, in Manchester, New York. Sure enough, Joseph found it exactly as described. He also found a pair of ‘spiritual spectacles’, Urim and Thummim which, when he put them on, helped him translate the Egyptian characters into English.
Another characteristic of early Christian mysticism were its ascetic and self-mortifying practices. Here, for instance, is what St John of the Cross recommends:
Let your soul therefore turn always:
Not to what is most easy, but to what is hardest;
Not to what tastes best, but to what is most distasteful;
Not to what most pleases, but to what disgusts;
Not to matters of consolation, but to matter for desolation rather.
While his advice is necessary for all pursuers of inner growth, sometimes the practices took on a self-punitive and self-hating tinge. The life of the 14th-century German mystic, Soso, makes for hard reading. For a long time he wore a hair shirt and an iron chain that caused him to bleed so much that he eventually had to leave it.
While mystical experience is above theology, it can be helped along by theology’s underlying philosophy. In Christianity, the concept of being saved from sins by the sacrifice of Christ helps one move faster towards surrender, the penultimate stage of all spiritual experiences. Says William James: ‘In the extreme of melancholy the self that consciously is can do nothing. It is bankrupt and without resource…Redemption from such subjective conditions must be a free gift…grace through Christ’s accomplished sacrifice is such a gift.’
Another distinguishing feature of the Christian mystics, according to William James, is a passionate happiness and love for God. He quotes Thomas a Kempis: ‘I had rather be poor for thy sake than rich without thee. Where thou art, there is heaven; and where thou art not, behold there death and hell.’
We in India would say that the favored path of the mystics is Bhakti Yoga, forging an ecstatic union with divinity. Swami Siddheswarananda, in his book Hindu Thought and Carmelite Mysticism, draws a distinction between the spiritual goal of the Hindu and that of the Christian mystic. Using the verses of St John of the Cross as his text, he points out that ‘St John does not renounce the joys of heaven… In the other life, the pleasure of enjoying the goods, which the soul possesses, is ‘perfect’. It seems that the soul seeks here a new state of existence and does not get out of the frame of maya. To remove that state of divine beatitude would be, for the Christian, a negation of spirituality.’
Unlike the Hindu mystic, the Christian does not seek liberation from his personality and the cycle of birth and death. Such a concept does not exist in the Bible, and none of the mystics appear to have moved in that direction. It follows also that despite the occasional attempt to organize and orchestrate the spiritual path there still is no credible system like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra or the Buddha’s eight-fold path. Mysticism is still an individual calling, which one must pursue despite the Church.
One’s best guides are the spiritual texts earlier mentioned. The best-known among them is The Cloud of Unknowing. The tenor of the book, essentially a guide to self-realization, is gentle and concerned. The author urges us to focus single-handedly on God. ‘This is what you are to do: lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring Him for His own sake and not for His gifts. Centre all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart.’
The author calls the region of mystery that lies between us and God the Cloud of Unknowing; and the whole purpose of the contemplative exercise he proposes is to penetrate this cloud. To do this he suggests that we interpose a cloud of forgetting under ourselves and our thoughts. ‘Just as the cloud of unknowing lies above you, between you and your God, so you must fashion a cloud of forgetting beneath you, between you and every created thing. The cloud of unknowing will perhaps leave you with the feeling that you are far from God. But if it is authentic, only the absence of a cloud of forgetting keeps you from Him.’
Stripped of the unusual terminology, it’s your standard meditation practice, which is to go beyond all thought. The author even suggests the use of a mantra. ‘If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as ‘God’ or ‘love’ is best.’
The author also distinguishes between the contemplative work he recommends and the active life by calling one Mary’s part and the other Martha’s (this relates to the two sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. When Christ and his disciples came to visit, Martha was busy in the kitchen, while Mary hung to his every word. When Martha complained to Christ, he told her: ‘Mary has chosen the best part which shall never be taken away from her.’). Says the author, ‘Mary represents the contemplative life and all contemplative persons ought to model their lives on hers. Martha represents the active life and all active persons should take her as their guide.’
The Way of the Pilgrim is another old favorite. This involves an anonymous Russian pilgrim seeking to find out what St Paul meant when he recommended that we pray ceaselessly. Eventually, he is told that the objective could be met by the nonstop utterance of the following prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Another version of the Naam Jap, the result is the same—descent into one’s true self
While the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had a certain grand ruggedness about them, the pursuit of spirituality has received a fresh impetus among Christians in recent times. Many have sought answers in Indian spirituality. Others have tried to find a synthesis between western thought and Indian spirituality. Bede Griffiths, a British Benedictine monk who came to India in 1956, is an outstanding example of the latter. Griffiths set up the Kurusumala ashram in Kerala, India, and later took over the Shantivanam Ashram in Tamil Nadu, which practices a fine blend of Christian and Hindu spirituality. ‘In India we need a Christian Vedanta and a Christian Yoga, that is a system of theology which makes use not only of the terms and concepts of the whole structure of the Vedanta…but of the great systems of Karma, Bhakti and Jnana Yoga,’ he observed.
In India the Christian community is being increasingly penetrated by the spiritual currents of Hindu practice. Many, particularly those belonging to the Catholic clergy, practice vipassana meditation and support an increasing Indianization of the liturgy, which goes by the term ‘inculturation’. Most seminaries have courses on Indian philosophy. Some institutions like the Fr Agnel ashram in Pune, India, will not ordain priests unless they take a vipassana course.
As spirituality curls out of India into the West, the concept of mysticism is creeping out of monastic cells of yore into everyday life. Soon, Christian mysticism will no longer be an exotic study of exceptions: it will be the practice of the common man.
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