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Throughout human existence there has been a yearning to extend past our physical plane into something much more, much greater than ourselves. Men and women have simplified their complexities to ferret out something of the divine and communicate their deepest longings. Some have walled themselves up inside brick cells, others have lived the hermit life amongst caves and many have set about strict community rules in which they have together sought divinity and prayed for the world’s salvation. In the world others have struggled in the midst of injustices to discern God’s action to right the scales of power and move society toward mercy. It is in the center of these traditions that today’s study of mysticism finds inspiration.
Post-modern is a perplexing term that threatens to evaporate as soon as any definition is forced upon it. Yet, in our era it is clear that structures have been analyzed, psychologies have been exposed, the limits of economics have been pondered, the optimism of utopia has been banished, meta-narratives have been abandoned, and authority has been lampooned. Yet, even within this seemingly endless game of parlor tricks, ingenious word/play and mirror games there has been a reverent maintenance of wisdom and the irrepressible flickering of the divine.
Even with the survival of spirituality it has taken odd and unhelpful turns in our context. Self-help has been a clarion call amongst secularized seekers whose effective habits and individuated actualization have only left its participants wading in shallow eddies of thought and growth. It is an ascent to the victory of personal and corporate happiness over and above stable existence and full being. This can only be the positivistic astrology’s and fortune cookie cliches of our present age. They represent the illusion of feeling good at the expense of deeper, substantive spiritual connection. These must be abandoned as spiritually wanting.
In the past there was a center of practices and common belief that characterized interior movement. It was seen as climbing to the mountain bit by bit that would lead an individual or a community’s communion with the divine. There where steps or rules taken in ascending the rudders of this ladder. Each was an essential principle in one’s movement closer to the divine. In our era we find that there is no longer a ladder. We are left with fragmentary notes from a long lost symphony. We are left with only pieces of the story and must use wisdom to arrange them in no particular order.
Neither the less rigorous current pseudo-psychological quest for autonomy or the rigidly idealism of monkish hermeticism seem completely helpful in a post-modern ethos. On one hand we question the unhindered optimism for human social evolution where self-help only begins. On the other hand we know too much about the multiplicity of human experience to believe that any one way is much more than a wise trajectory and not an assumed set of practices. Also, in both cases we get the whiff of utopianism that was long ago placed at Auschwitz’s gate, in the ashes of Hiroshima and at the end of a Hutu machete. We have seen too much to become too optimistic about human agency, but know that realism is our only recourse inside of our particular contexts.
So, it is in the center of a possibly fragmentary revelation that we see our faith as through a glass darkly. We are still God fearer outside the temple, assured that the words and signs we see point in the direction in which we would gladly sojourn. Neither the failures of “religion” nor the hypocrisies of the “holy” have completely extinguished our desire to experience God and to live transformation. This is the mystical spark still flickering within our individual lives and the tribes we inhabit. It is the hushed whisper of expectation, the breathless prayer in wonder’s grasp and the silent listening for still, small voices. It is the beginning in our experience with the divine.
Evelyn Underhill makes the shockingly simple yet staggeringly daunting definition of mysticism by saying:
Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, is the direct intuition or experience of God; and a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience–one whose relation and life are centered, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which he [she] regards as first-hand person knowledge. Pg. 9-10 The Mystics of The Church
It is as Dorothee Soelle has pointed out a “democratization of mysticism” that permeates our landscape in this type of access. In this understanding the mystical experience is available to any breathing, thinking and feeling human.
Yet, there is a danger in imbedded in democratization. It’s equal access can be deluded into thinking it lacks boundaries, responsibility and practice. Democratization has become too intertwined with pop commercialization and capitalism to be left without explanation. Mystical communion with the divine is not a right, but an anthropological responsibility. At the root of that responsibility is response itself. An active movement toward the divine. It’s experience is not the same as instant gratification that comes when choosing soap amongst a multitude of choices to ponder. Active response includes (but is not limited to) joy, separation, pain, fear, trial, healing, suffering, tears, silence, praise, humility and sacrifice.
In other words, experiencing the divine requires a steadfast cultivation of more and more presence in our all too easily escapist world. It means listening harder for the divine’s voice in a cacophony of distracting noise. In many ways deconstructing beloved structures, remembering forgotten heritages, listening to a diversity of perspectives and including new voices makes the mystic’s task in the post-modern era more challenging. Truths are multitude and perspectives on even God can be observed from many extreme perches.
Instead of decrying the property of post-modern spiritual exploration it is incumbent upon a generation of mystics to become pickers of the divine. Sifting through the junk to find the truth. We will need a people of discernment who can determine the valuable antique in the immense array of trash.
Those valuables are our map’s key. They show us roads, paths, typography and danger toward regions we seek beyond any map. They will give us peeks into kingdoms greater than power and life eternal. In no particular order let us dig into the divine one word and concept at a time. We will continue to do this so that we might experience the one that nourishes our longing for communion and find ourselves home.
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