Tuesday, May 25, 2010

ECM, Day 9: (St.) Augustine of Hippo

Augustine has never been one of my favorites, and I almost feel bad about it. While he lived, though, from 354 - 430 A.D., he was really prolific and hugely influential on the development of Christianity.

In this part of the book, McGinn relays and writes about Augustine's meditation on the Psalms. In essence, Augustine writes about a deep and beautiful longing for God.

"Seeking my God in visible and corporeal things, I did not find him. Seeking his substance in myself, as if he were something like me, I also did not find him. I am aware that my God is something above my soul, and therefore, so that I may touch him, 'I thought on these things and poured out my soul above myself' (Ps 41.5)" (22-23). Here Augustine writes and preaches beautifully about his devotion to the divine. His language makes it clear that God is far above Augustine. Later in the same passage Augustine writes that if his soul stayed within himself, he would look around himself and only be aware of himself. Reaching beyond the self and being open to God's majesty is the only way to grow. After this, Augustine uses very personal, loving, and rhetorically moving language to talk about the ways in which God cares for Augustine as an individual and the ways in which God affects his life.

In part 9 of Augustine's excerpt found in this book, Augustine moves beyond his personal relationship with God to talk about the importance of the church, citing verses from the Psalms on the "tabernacle." The church seemed to bring Augustine great joy and peace. [To those of you who know his work better than I do, this is perhaps a huge understatement.] To my mind, it is the community that makes a church beautiful and powerful and transformational. The traditions of the Catholic Church have their own beauty, but there are many other churches out there. "Where two are three are gathered in my name," says Scripture. Even if I don't embrace every aspect of some of the more traditional faiths, I can embrace community. I personally try to take steps every day to keep myself open to new encounters and relationships with people, to respect and really love other people, and to constantly view the world around me and the people in it as a big ol' community that needs some unifying.

Augustine would make a great preacher today, and I'm sure he'd back this message as well. Sure, some of his other writings talk about his hang-ups with his body and sin. Without being a scholar on the man, I might even argue that he was sort of Gnostic about body as evil and soul as good.

It's been too long since I've posted, or at least it feels that way. I haven't read ahead for the next post, either. That post will be another exploration of Song of Songs, this time from the perspective of mystic Bernard of Clairvaux. I'm intrigued and excited to read Bernard, because McGinn says that Bernard is not a theorist and that his 86 sermons on the Songs span almost 20 years. McGinn says he approached these sermons with "contemplative leisure" (27). I'm excited to see what that means. I'd like to make "contemplative leisure" an integral part of my life as well, but right now I'm fervent about so many things. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

ECM, Day 8: Gregory of Nyssa on God's AWESOMEness

Gregory of Nyssa, 335-294

"For Gregory the God-man [Jesus the Christ being both man and God] is the source of all real knowledge of God" (13).

He doesn't use the word "prototype," but he does seem to draw some parallels between Moses and Jesus. At the very least, Gregory clearly talks about three theophanies, or "divine manifestations," that we maybe realize from the story of Moses in Exodus. These are lessons we can learn from the Old Testament and apply to a deeper understanding of the Gospel. The theophanies:
  1. God is infinite, as we see through the burning bush, and God is inexhaustible to us.
  2. There is a "negative aspect" of God shown at Sinai when God is talked about in terms of clouds and darkness.
  3. We are encouraged to engage in epektasis, "the constant pursuit of God that is also paradoxically the enjoyment of his presence (see Phil 3:13)" (14).
The first theophany (like a theological epiphany?) as Gregory describes it requires that individuals first prepare themselves for the infinite by removing their shoes and, analogously, all of their/our worldly desires. The translation of Gregory that McGinn offers then reads, "In my opinion the definition of truth is 'being free from error about the nature of reality'" (14). I'm not sure how I feel about the binary aspect of this. Or maybe it's just the negative spin on it that I'm not so keen on. Truth is instead realizing the nature of reality? After this point Gregory takes an interesting, and very mystical, turn. He writes that "neither those things grasped by sense, nor those that the mind can understand, have a real existence" (15). Here I believe he is speaking to the ineffability of God - God's infinite inexhaustibility, for starters. This way of thinking is very freeing in some ways, and it reminds me very much of Buddhism and especially Taoism. It's not wrong to try to understand God and the truth. On the contrary, one should always pursue the truth using one's heart and mind. But to grasp too tightly to any thing or perception is to miss the wonder and mystery of the bigger picture. Thoughts?

The second theophany is also interesting. The closer an individual gets to contemplation, "so much the more [...] aware of the unavailability of the divine nature to human knowledge" the individual gets (16). It's sort of along the lines of the adage, "You don't know what you don't know." Except semi-actualized people (I made that up) realize that they are a lot less aware of things than they would perhaps like to be. Gregory gets even deeper: "What the divine word above all inhibits is human assimilation of the divine to anything that we know. Every thought and every defining conception which aims to encompass and grasp the divine nature is only forming an idol of God, without declaring him as he truly is" (17). So, uh, know your limits and don't buy completely into any religious system that claims to know exactly what God is. This theophany is really very closely tied to the first one, as I understand them. The "negative aspect" is, basically, the unknown, or hidden aspect of God. It's not hidden from us becasue God doesn't love us; it is hidden because we're not even capable of understanding God completely in our present form.

The third theophany is super cool as well. There's so much to quote here!
  • "When the soul is moved towards what is naturally lovely, it seems to me that this is the sort of passionate desire with which it is moved." This is what I believe Einstein was talking about when he said he didn't buy into a theory unless it was beautiful. Maybe my definition of 'beautiful' is different than others' definitions, but I think that the aesthetic and the holy can (but are not always) related. That's a sticky subject. "Beginning with the loveliness it [the soul] sees, it is drawn upwards to what is transcendent. The soul is forever inflaming its desire for what is hidden, by means of what it has already grasped. For this reason, the ardent lover of beauty understands what is seen as an image of what he desires, and yearns to be filled with the actual substance of the archetype. This is what underlies the bold and excessive desire of him who desires to see no longer 'through mirrors and reflections, but instead to enjoy beauty face to face' (1 Cor 13:12)" (17). 
  • Also "We ought always to look through the things that we can see and still be on fire with the desire to see more" (18). This is all very anti-Buddhist, as I very limitedly understand it. God is the object (though God is never an object as such. Rather, God is Infinite Subject) of our unquenchable desire. We will never be satisfied but will always be delighted. This is what I believe C.S. Lewis meant when he defined "joy" in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy - that wonderful, not fully attainable, holy thing. 
  • There was something else at the end of this passage that encouraged me to write down "'On Eagles Wings,' deconsctruction (literary criticism)" in my personal notes, but I don't think it's important anymore for the purposes of this "essay" (which comes from the French for "to try," so I don't feel quite so affectedly erudite to use the term).

To sum up what I've delighted in so far in this exploration of McGinn's edition of this collection:
  1. McGinn always has interesting ways of looking at things and teaching me things;
  2. Origen is important but not the mystic I'd recommend to people like myself; and
  3. Gregory of Nyssa is cool. He's new to me as of this reading. This was my first pass at him, and I hope it won't be my last.
  4. I hope you'll read Gregory yourself ;-)
Thank you again if you've stuck with me so far! I haven't started reading for my next post yet, but next in the book is Augustine of Hippo!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

ECM, Day 7: Biblical Interpretation and Origen's thoughts on Song of Songs

'Biblical Interpretation' has to do with finding the hidden truths the mystical religious believe are in the Bible. McGinn stresses in his preamble to this section that "interpretation was not arbitrary, but was governed by" two criteria:
  1. "the usefulness of the reading for encouraging deeper contact with God"
  2. "the reading's coherence with the faith of the community" (4)
Of the six pieces McGinn selected for this section, three are about the deliciously mystical Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), one is about Moses's Exodus, one is on the Psalms, and one, by Eckhart, is an exposition on a single sentence from Luke's Gospel.

We'll start with Origen's 'Commentary on the Song of Songs.' Origen (180-254 AD/CE) was one of the first mystics. He's certainly not one of my favorites, but it's important to look at his work and see how it affected both mystical Christianity and mainstream Christianity.

To Origen, the Song was not just about
groom :: bride ::: Christ :: the Church but also
Christ :: each loving soul

In other words, he took the ideas that eventually became one of the major analogies for the Catholic Church and pushed it a step further. According to McGinn, the selection he picked from Origen did four things (through its four parts):
  1. it characterized the Song as a "dramatic account of the process of salvation" (7)
  2. it showed how Origen's dual understanding of human nature (inner verses outer person) allowed him to translate the sensual language of the Song into a message about the spiritual senses: "the powers of inner perception lost in sin but gradually restored to the soul through the action of grace"
  3. there is no difference between eros and agape (at least insofar as the language of the Song goes... I personally have some issue with this)
  4. the three books of Solomon (who was a sort of prototype for Christ) form the basis for a biblical paideia, or 'total education,' by which we are brought back to God
My thoughts on the matter follow:
  1. I can see how the passage from Origen says that you have to be of the right mindset to absorb something 'properly.' I'm personally conflicted by the idea of people trying to achieve 'arcane' hidden knowledge. I do believe that one has to be open in a certain way to receive such revelation, but I don't necessarily believe that this is something humans can always work toward. There are certain behaviors and paths which are virtuous, but there's a certain measure of grace involved as well.
  2. Here I expound on Origen's message that there are two men in each of us. The book of Genesis offers two stories of man's creation. In the first, humanity was created in the image and likeness of God.  This would be our inner, holy self. The second creation story talks about us being created from slime or dust - very earthly things. I don't know about the connotation of slime, but I can see where somebody might wonder the hidden meaning in Torah behind two separate creation stories. I struggle again with the dual nature Origen suggests here. I don't, for example, believe that the body is 'evil.' Instead, it is a beautiful tool, something we should respect and delight in (without worshiping it). 
  3. Eros is passionate love and Agape is a more detached, universal love. Within myself I am wrestling with the different kinds of love that exist. I want to love everybody, and part of me really dislikes the passion, either in friendship or romantic love, that sets my love for individuals apart from my love for humanity. Does that make sense? What are your thoughts on that?
  4. The three books of Solomon Origen talks about are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song. He sees these as books on moral precepts, the natural law, and a more inspective or philosophical way of thinking. I simplified these to mean dogma, science, and philosophy. I *think* Origen implies that these books are put in the proper order. You have to behave properly before you understand why. For example, we teach children how to act before we expect them to understand cause and effect. Then we move on to a more scientific understanding of the way the world works. We learn more about cause and effect, the laws of physics and the other -ologies. Then and only then, if we follow the logic of this implication, can we begin to think about the meaning behind it all and the purpose for our moral behaviors.
This last part reminds me a little bit of a conversation I had with my boss a couple of days ago. He was talking about the way that managers relate with different levels of people. Visually, he showed me this hierarchy:

/l\ delegate
 l  collaborate
 l  selling
 l  telling

At the bottom, you have to tell people what to do procedurally. You train new workers on what tasks they should perform (as you tell children what's appropriate and what's not). In the next phase of development, you try to sell your workers on why they're doing what they're doing it, explaining your reasoning and appealing to higher order thinking to make them understand the process. Once they understand that better, you can collaborate with them. (This breaks down a little bit in the teenage years of development as adolescents think they know it all and want to change the rules too fast.) Employees start challenging the status quo, asking good questions, and sometimes they're right. Finally, there's delegating. My boss and I didn't discuss exactly what this means, but I interpret it to mean that at this point in development, your workers are ready to teach other people. It's sort of pyramid scheme-ish, but it's the way any teacher-student relationship works. In the realm of education, one of the best ways to assess that a student has learned something is to see if they can teach it to somebody else. On a personal note, I have been talking with a friend of mine lately about sustainability (and it's starting to seep into my blog posts). At first he confronts people with facts. Then he shows them why they should care about those facts. Eventually he seeks feedback (or his friends start to offer it on their own, which is delightful). Finally, he encourages people to start their own conversations, to spread the word. It really is an interesting way to look at the process.

I am thankful for the synchronicity of seeing this lesson in Origen, whom I thought I didn't like much, in the teachings of my very philosophical (and obviously MBA-trained) boss, and in productive conversations with good friends.

Tomorrow (or next time) I have a lot to share concerning Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote very interestingly about Moses's experiences with God and how they can be read on multiple levels for greater personal insight.

Many thanks to you if you're still reading :-)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

ECM, Day 6: The End of the Beginning

Mystical experiences should be transformational. Hell, worship should be transformational, according to a sermon I heard nine days ago. God does not change, but God can change you, you can change yourself, and you can help change one another.

McGinn on Transformation, p. xvii:
"One thing that stands out in the accounts of all the Christian mystics is that their encounter with God transforms their minds and their lives. God changes the muystics and invites, even compels, them to encourage others by their teaching to open themselves to a similar process of transformation."

Okay, we're finally to a point where we can outline the content of McGinn's book. The introduction was interesting enough, but it's time to get into specifics.

Overview of ze book:
Part One: Foundations of Mystical Practice
- 5 key themes concerning the preparation for the encounter with God
Part Two: Aspects of Mystical Consciousness
- 8 essential ways mystics have spoken about their meetings with God
Part Three: Implications of Mystical Life
- "two important effects of mystical consciousness"

McGinn adds the caveat that this list is not exhaustive and the texts in his book do not represent the complete gamut of Christian mystical experience.

Personally, I am interested in the aspects of mystical consciousness and curious about what the implications might be. We'll get there.

To close his Introduction, McGinn quotes part of a poem, "The Dry Salvages," by T.S. Eliot, and I really like it, so I thought I'd transcribe it here. Please feel free to comment on it. It would be interesting to discuss more deeply, but I don't even know where to start, and at least for now I don't want to influence your reading of the poem snippet.

                                    But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for a saint -
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.

Tomorrow we'll dig into Biblical Interpretation as a theme of preparation, and I'll actually lay out a piece by Origen. He's not one of my favorite mystics, but he's sort of necessary from a foundational standpoint, and it's really interesting to see how much of what we take for granted in even the most standard sects of Christianity is influenced by him.

Monday, May 17, 2010

ECM, Day 5: Preaching from Experience

So I took the weekend off :-). It was a great time for rejuvination. Friday night I talked with three good friends of mine, and Saturday I drove through some of the beauty that is Texas and met with some other friends of mine, with whom I hope to share some more time in the future.

The weekend did help to put some things into perspective. I started understanding our connections more. As I wrote on my other blog today, I heard this in church:
"Spirituality is awareness of our infinite interrelatedness." ~ Felix Adler
People, land, experiences - all connected. Which brings me (mostly logically) to today's topic: experience.  McGinn writes:

"Experience, at least in the minds of many, may suggest a view of mysticism that takes it to be a particular form of feeling or sensible perception easily separable from the higher mental activities of understanding, judging, willing, and loving that form the full range of the conscious life of subjects as subjects, that is, creatures defined by their ability to know and love. [...] [P]erceiving outer and inner data, attempting to understand and make a judgment about reality, and then loving and living on the basis of this decision are all part of an integrated series of conscious acts. Hence, the word consciousness as employed here is meant to stress that mysticism (as the mystics have insisted) is more than a matter of unusual sensations, but essentially comprises new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts, not as an object to be grasped, but as the direct and transforming center of life."

God is another Subject, another self, the Supreme Self, really - that/Who from which/Whom all things and creatures flow. (Yes, I realize I'm preaching a theology here.) It is important on the one hand to recognize the power that God can have in our lives as individuals, to listen and to experience as we can through grace.

But it is equally important to see other people, and all other entities in creation - from dwindling oil reserves to trees to whales - as selves. Sure, a tree may not be conscious in the same way we are conscious, but it is part of this creation (or evolution - I don't see the difference, except that evolution allows for a much bigger scope) and it deserves our respect. Hell, a tree isn't really conscious at all... which leads me to talk about how because we as humans are conscious, we have a responsibility to care for the rest of creation. As it says in Genesis, we are to be stewards of the earth. I don't know about the translation of the term "dominion over the animals," but something inside me tells me that we are not supposed to consume, consume, consume all the resources without paying attention to the way the rest of the world will be affected by our actions. What is the counter-argument? I guess some Christians focus on the End Times and how we don't need to worry about climate change and depleted resources now because we won't be here much longer.

I guess I'll bring it back to the beginning now. We should truly experience our creation. We shouldn't just judge it or use it as we would any old object (do non-sacred tools even exist?). We *should* (and again I realize I'm preaching) be mindful, receptive, and loving in the way we deal with everything. It's not an easy thing to do, and I'm certainly guilty of thinking selfishly, but despite the impossibility of achieving this goal all the time, I still think it's a worthy one.
Love God (or, to step back, some power or entity bigger than you are).
Love one another. 
Respect our resources.

Friday, May 14, 2010

ECM, Day 4: How do we experience the Divine?

"God does not become present to human consciousness in the way that an object in the concrete world is said to be present. Encountering God is much more like meeting a friend or loved one, and many Christian mystics have used intensely personal language in their writings, especially in their descriptions of their relation to Jesus."

This is one of the big differences I personally see between Catholicism and Protestantism. The structure of Catholicism seems to lend itself to hierarchy. People can pray through the saints and through Mary (who is, of course, a saint herself). People get absolution from God but through a priest. Instead of a direct relationship with Jesus (or maybe in addition to that relationship), Catholics have an apostolic line. Personally, I can see this issue from two sides. On the one hand, it's hugely comforting for individuals to know their place within the structure. It's nice to know that if you go to Mass anywhere in the world, you're gonna get the same liturgy and the same Eucharist. You 'do the same moves' and know how it's going to go, more or less. On the other hand, I can see where some people find the whole thing very ... derivative. Yes, Jesus is supposed to be present in the Eucharist, but if everything else is the same, what makes this so transformational? Let's take it one step further. Even from a psychological point of view, I can see it both ways. On the one hand, things that are novel tend to attract our attention. They're more real and visceral for us, in a sense. On the other hand, studies have shown that repeated behaviors can affect the ways in which individuals thing. Practice acting holy (sixty or more Masses a year) and maybe the Divine Way will sink in? What are your thoughts on this? Back to McGinn...


"But God is not just another person - 'person' as a limited category of the created world cannot contain or define the God who is both the source of the cosmos and infinitely beyond it. This is why speaking of God's presence is at bottom another strategy for saying the unsayable - and why many mystics have wrestled the paradox that God is found in absence and negation more than in presence, at least as we conceive and experience it."

Two things here:
  1. God is ineffable. I love this word - ineffable - incapable of being described in words. It carries a connotation of something huge and complex, overwhelming. Some dictionaries even define it as taboo. I don't like this particular sense of the definition, but I can see where it comes from. God is bigger than us, and any time we try to limit him in words, we have to acknowledge that we're not complete in our understanding.
  2. There are differences in mysticism between 'presence' and 'negation.' I'm sure we'll get more into these as we delve into the mystics themselves. Many of us look to St. Francis as an example of an extraordinary man. But many of us - myself, at least - kind of romanticize his devotion to Christ. We see how much he loved animals, how he wore scratchy clothing, how he lived in poverty and physically built a church, how he received, quite visibly, the stigmata. These are all external, "cataphatic" signs of his experience. They are things we can see. The "negative," or "apophatic," way is a bit different. It's hidden and mysterious. It has to do with emptying the self of all things self-ish. St. John of the Cross describes the Dark Night of the Soul as something like a Void, an Emptiness, even a Loneliness. In this vein of mysticism, one must be empty before the Divine can fill you up again.
Today's short quotations come from page xv. Slowly, surely, there will be more to come. Comments welcome!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

ECM, Day 3: Varieties of Religious Experience

Warning: Today's post gets really random and rambly. I will not edit it (yet). Ideas are welcome. So are your stories of your own mystical experiences (whatever you take that to mean).

Ways, according to McGinn, in which mystics have spoken about "their special connection with God":
  • contemplation
  • vision
  • ecstasy
  • deification
  • birthing
  • endless desire
  • pursuit (xv)
I wish I could tell you at this point which mystics like what. I'll tell you a little bit about what I do know before we dig into individual mystics, I guess. Thomas Merton wrote about "Contemplative Prayer" specifically. The way I think about the Tao (no pun intended), even though to talk about Tao is like talking about Fight Club - it's sort of off limits - is that it's very contemplative. [For Tao it's off limits because talking about Tao limits it; it's sort of ineffable. I digress.] Except it's also not, because it's more about being, emptying the self.  Taoism is not part of Christianity, though, so I'm not sure it applies.

Many mystics have seen visions or felt ecstasies, and it is these sensory types of experiences which I think most easily come to mind when people try to think about mysticism. Pentecostals' speaking in tongues can be thought of as a sort of ecstasy. Rhythmic dancing, either solo or as part of a communal worship service, also falls in the same category in my mind. I've had at least two mystical experiences to speak of, and the first one of these, when I was in high school, falls under the "ecstasy" sort of experience. I had been writing in a journal, I think, and all of a sudden I felt a clarity and then a frenzy of excitement to put it all down in some kind of creative medium (poetry). I put too much of my Self into the moment then, though, and I lost it. I haven't been able to contextualize that experience for myself very well. What I draw from it now is that it was a real experience and I believe that it was rooted in the Divine.  And that's what matters to me at this point. [See William James on the validity of different people's experiences.]

Moving on.  Deification and Birthing are both, to me, clearly Meister Eckhart categories. Eckhart has been accused of what some more contemporary thinkers have called "panentheism." We all have a spark of God inside us; thus we are all part of God. This borders on the heretical, though. When we get to Eckhart's writings and sermons, we can explore the nuances of what he actually said and maybe explore different options about what he meant.  His thoughts about birthing are similarly enlightening, refreshing, and potentially heretical. If I were to guess which Gospel was Eckhart's favorite, I'd say it was John, hands down. In that Gospel, Christ the divine is emphasized more than Jesus the man. In Eckhart's lovely metaphor, the Word [Logos, Christ] is born in each of us all the time if we are prepared to accept his/His grace. It's a pretty cool concept.

Endless desire you'll find in mystics like Teresa of Avila and other women (and men, I'm sure) who use sexual language to describe their mystical experiences with the divine. It's weird, but in my experience it's not terribly creepy somehow. From what I know (but, again, we'll discuss it further when we get to the specifics), after all, the Church is described as the bride of Christ. The gorgeous, sensual poetry of Song of Songs/Song of Solomon follows the same trope, too.

Finally, pursuit.... I'm not sure which mystics do the pursuit thing, although St. John of the Cross sort of comes to mind maybe. Instead, I think of C.S. Lewis's "Surprised by Joy," part of his autobiography in which he describes his conversion from atheism to not only theism but full-fledged Christianity.  I'll be the first to admit that the leap from atheism to Christianity is not well-explained or explored in this book.  But the way he describes his longing for some higher power makes the jump from atheism to belieiving in *some* sort of God or divine spark makes perfect sense to me.  For Lewis, "Joy" is synonymous with that delicious longing for something bigger, that expectant feeling some of us sometimes get.  It's certainly something I can identify with.  It's a romantic notion to some, but it's what I used to call a sort of backward nostalgic, a longing for something past or future that is a little bit beyond my comprehension. New Age types might think of this concept as tapping into the Universal Mind or attempting to grok. Indeed, people employ all sorts of different language to describe the way some of us pursue presence.


Okay, so in the next post or two, I'll get back to Mcginn's own language and try to reground us (me) in study. Here I was throwing things out there, making random connections (inside and entirely outside of Christianity). We'll focus soon. Thanks for sticking around.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

ECM, Day 2: What IS Mysticism and Why do we care?

The following comes straight from McGinn's book.  I do *not* intend to transcribe everything in the book, but this Introduction is a beautiful blend of passionate, detailed, and concise.

"Attraction to mysticism, both in Christianity and in other world religions, has been on the rise in recent decades. But what is mysticism? For many the word brings to mind something strange and uncanny, even bizarre. Others see mysticism as the hidden core at the heart of all religions. Both these understandings reflect aspects of the different ways in which the word has been used, but mysticism, at least in Christianity, presents a long tradition with a more precise meaning than these vague negative and positive senses suggest.

"The roots of the current mysticism defy easy characterization. Such a widespread revival across many religious traditions is a complex phenomenon. At least one factor in this upsurge is the way in which the mystics invite us to imagine and even to explore an inner transformation of the self based on a new understanding of the human relation to God. For some mystics this understanding is rooted in extraordinary forms of consciousness, such as visions and ecstasies, which most of their readers will not have shared. Other mystics, however, insist that such special experiences are only preparatory and peripheral, and perhaps even harmful if one confuses them with the core of mysticism understood as inner transformation. For believers the writings of the mystics present ideals and models for thir own deepest aspirations; but even for nonbelieivers, as is evident from recent concern of post-modern philosophers and cultural critics with mysticism, mystical texts have a fascination that resides in their ability to manifest important aspects of the human condition. Like great poets and great artists, the great mystics are examples of extraordinary human achievement who challenge and inspire even those who many not share their commitments. Reading the mystics puts us in touch with some of the most profound mysteries of the human spirit" (xiii-xiv).

I could easily continue to transcribe McGinn's own words, but I will try now to summarize some of his thoughts and ideas.

a McGinn definition of mysticism: "an element of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of [...] a direct and transformational presence of God"

Implications (according to McGinn - sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don't):
  1. At least until recently (~ 150 years ago), mysticism has always been part of concrete historical religions and not a religion unto itself. 
  2. Mysticism is not the common denominator of all religions [as much as Emily would sometimes like it to be].
  3. Thus it is important to understand mysticism in the context of "the whole religious complex in which it comes to expression."
  4. Mysticism is "essentially a process, an itinerary or journey to God, not just a moment or brief state of what is often called mystical union, important as such moments may be."
  5. As such, it's important to look at how "mystics have prepared for God's intervention in their lives and the effect that divine action has had upon the mystic and those to whom [mystics have] communicated the message."
  6. Today mysticism is sort of seen as being concerned with "union" with God. As much as Emily loves this aspect of mysticism, it's limiting, as far as McGinn is concerned.  St. Augustine, for example, avoided unitive language. McGinn prefers "presence" to "union" (xiv-xv).
Maybe this is a good place to stop for today. I want to talk more tomorrow about what is meant by "presence" and explore (or at least list) some of the other ways that mystics have in the past or possibly can presently feel union with or in the presence of the Divine. No, I'm not writing a tutorial, a how-to for gettin' your mystical experience on. I'm no priest or guru. But accounts of individuals' "real" experiences fascinate me, and I hope to share some of those with you in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Exploring Christian Mysticism, Day 1

Warning: My next several posts will be about religion, spirituality, mysticism. I'm going to try not to preach, but I'm not going to hold back how excited I get about this topic. If religion offends you, come back later :-)

I must also warn the few of you who are still here that my ideas on this subject are not yet formed. You're not likely to get any eloquence out of me for a few days. In fact, for the next couple of days after today, I'll be stealing directly from and quoting my favorite mystical scholar. (Yes, I totally have a favorite scholar of mysticism.)


As an undergraduate student, I had the good fortune to take an elective on Mysticism. I was an English and psychology major, but religion, philosophy, and certain aspects of history have always fascinated me. In the class, we discussed Christian, Jewish, and Hindu mysticism from a few different perspectives. I fell in love with the varieties of religious experience (and with William James [brother of the less interesting Henry James, but that's another blotpost altogether], who wrote a book by that title) and wanted to know more. Bernard McGinn, a great scholar on the subject of mysticism, has written several books about mysticism in general and Christian mysticism in particular. Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Dominican monk and mystic of whom I am so fond, is a particular favorite of McGinn's. I was so taken with Eckhart in general and with McGinn's explorations of him that I took an ecumenical class through my church in Cleveland after I graduated. I was the youngest person by far in the small, not-for-credit seminar, but it helped challenge and enrich my understanding of my relationship with the divine. My first research paper in graduate school was about Eckhart as well. Unfortunately, I haven't read his work or written much about him since. Life changes have given me time to change my habits, though, and at least for now I'm devoting more time to such study. It's horribly trite, but I'm doing the whole personal renaissance thing.

I went to the library for one book this past Sunday and came home with four. Browsing the stacks is always a treat, and I think part of me knew what I was looking for. One of those four books is one I found while scanning the Dewey Decimals. It is the subject, or at least the resource, of the study I'm undertaking, and it's McGinn's 2006 Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. As of yet, I have only read his Introduction, but already I am eager to share with you some of his thoughts and words. I will probably be breaking his copyright to transcribe so much of what he has written, but I hope that if you're interested, many of you will go out and buy this book or at least pick it up from your library.

In his Introduction, McGinn talks about his definition of mysticism and how Christian mysticism has developed over the years. What does it mean? What is its relation to the Church (many churches)? How many different kinds of mysticism are there, and what do they have in common? Well, let's start.

First, here's what McGinn hopes for readers of this book: "that the collection will both provide a resource for those who have already tasted something of the spiritual wealth of Christian mysticism, as well as invite new readers to ponder the teachings of some of the most remarkable men and women of the Christian tradition" (xii). To that end, he arranges the book so that the first part gives the reader the foundations of mysticism, the second part lets us delve into some individual and very unique (but still rooted in something fundamental) flavors of mysticism, and the third part explores some implications of mysticism both for the mystics themselves and for contemporary readers and followers of these great people.

I'm totally biased. I don't consider myself a Christian anymore, but I've been steeped in Christianity, specifically Catholicism. I know amazing Catholics and respect a lot of their beliefs. And aside from some of the dogma that some of the mysticism comes out of, I identify with a lot of these mystical texts (especially Eckhart). I've gleaned a lot from them. I've been fed a lot of food for thought, for meditation, for dancing. It all sounds very romantic, but it's not limited to that. It's more than that. The 'high' of 'experience' that some people associate with mysticism is to some just a first step and to others a misleading precursor to the awesome void that comes with what some would call a more 'real' experience of the divine.

My hope for today was to transcribe the first part of McGinn's Introduction, but I realized I needed to write an introduction of my own to ease you into the subject. Tomorrow I - hopefully we - will explore McGinn's own beautiful, knowledgeable, and fervent introduction to mysticism. He can tell you better than I can what it is, why it's become so popular (relatively speaking) lately, and why it's important in the context of more orthodox faith traditions.

I hope my scattered introduction today is strong enough or at least excited enough to encourage you to come back tomorrow (or the next time I post) to begin the journey. Feel free to ask questions or even to argue (nicely) with me. It should be an exhilarating ride.