When I teach a class on mysticism (like I’m currently doing through the Emory University Center for Lifelong Learning), I point out to my students that mysticism involves more than just a pure experience of God, or union, or transcendence, or whatever. First of all, it also involves the struggle to put that pure experience into words — a struggle I alluded to in my first sentence here. Does mysticism involve God, or some other spirit, or the “higher self” or merely an altered state of consciousness? Many mystics report that their experience is ineffable — beyond words — and yet they struggle to at least partially capture it in verbal ways. After the initial effort to ground mystical experience in language comes the attempt to interpret such experience: to understand it in context of religion, or philosophy, or morality, or community values. What does it mean to have an experience of union with God? What difference does it make? Why should I care? Should I try to have my own mystical experience? Why or why not? How can I tell if a mystical experience is authentic or genuine? How can I discern the difference between a true encounter with God and a hallucination? Does such a distinction even matter? Finally, this entire cluster of experience/language/meaning gets handed on to others. This can involve teaching, training, formation, and can be geared toward individuals with a specific religious commitment (priests, ministers, monks and nuns, trained spiritual directors) or toward the general laity. Either way, passing on the wisdom of mysticism is important for tilling the good earth so that the movement of the Spirit can erupt in new and fresh ways in generations to come.
So basically, there are four elements to mysticism.
- The pure experience of mysticism itself (whether this means a joyful encounter with God’s presence at the Eucharist, or a mind-blowing absorption into Divine Unity during deep contemplation, or any of a countless other ways of experiencing the Mystery);
- The struggle to wrap words around such pure experience (always doomed to at least partial failure, since by its very nature mystical experience is ineffable);
- The quest to invest such mystical language with meaning and relevance (interpreting the reports of mystical experience in terms of their religious, social, political, psychological and moral value, both to the individual and to the community in which the experience occurs);
- And finally, the effort to pass on the treasures of mystical wisdom, not only in written works such as the writings of the great mystics, but also in more informal ways such as individual spiritual direction and the formation process for monastics and oblates.
Here’s the tricky part. In my experience, when most people think of mysticism, they tend to think almost exclusively about the first element: the pure experience. All the writing, teaching, verbage that follows is seen almost as just an afterthought. By the same token, when we look to the mystical wisdom of the past, all we have is the verbal record. Even in our own lives, once we leave a mystical experience behind, all we have are our thoughts and feelings to help us “remember” the experience. And when it comes to mystics who are no longer with us — whether John the Evangelist who died 1900 years ago or Thomas Merton who died only 40 years ago — their written word is our only, priceless link to their mystical experience. So the quest for mysticism always involves two dynamic processes: trying to wrap words around the pure ineffable experience of mysticism when it occurs, and then trying to unpack the words of others to discern what their own encounter with the Mystery may have been like.