Ineffability

One of the salient characteristics of true mysticism is its ineffability. In other words, part of what puts the “mystic” into “mysticism” is the impossibility to truly capture the mystical experience, mystical perception, or mystical truth, within the impoverished limitations of language. Mysticism is, by definition, trans-lingual, just as it also trans-rational and trans-logical.

Why, then, have mystics down the ages sought to capture their experience in writing? From the desert fathers and Pseudo-Dionysius down to present-day contemplatives like Matta El Meskeen (who died last month at the age of 86), the heart of western mysticism has been the quest to wrap finite, human language around the infinite experience of encounter between the Divine and the mortal.

But if it’s impossible, then why does every generation yield new mystics, new contemplatives, new writers who embark on this impossible quest? I think the answer lies encoded in the very nature of the human spirit, particularly the creative or artistic impuse. It has been said (sorry, I can’t recall or locate the source) that an artist creates a new work of art because s/he was dissatisfied with their previous work. I think this is true for the mystic as well. No one has ever captured the mystical experience in words, obviously enough. But it does seem that a few geniuses (Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Plotinus) have scaled at least partway up the mountain. But as luminous and beautiful as every work of mystical genius may be, it’s always incomplete, partial, ultimately dissatisfying — not only to the writer, but to the student as well. So a mystic writes about the mystical life because he or she is not only dissatisfied with his or her own ability to recount the ineffable, but also dissatisfied with the incomplete nature of the tradition as a whole.
Entering the life of a spiritual writer is like being shown a mountain and then told, “No one has ever made it to the top, or at least has never  been able to talk about it if they have. And most are convinced that you either can’t get to the summit, or if you can, it’s impossible to share it with anyone else. In other words, by all earthy and human standards, if you set out on this quest you will most certainly fail. But here’s your equipment. You’re welcome to try.”

Why does the climber scale the mountain? Because it’s there. Why does the mystic immerse his or her life into the unspeakable mysteries of God, and then try, ever unsuccessfully, to describe that immersion to others? Because it’s there…


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