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.

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