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.

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