I’ve been a student of mysticism ever since first reading Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness back in 1979, right after I graduated from high school. Nearly three decades have gone by and I’m no closer than ever to being able to define mysticism.
Sure, I know all the basic definitions: it is the experience of union with God. It’s a form of spirituality grounded in ecstatic and altered states of consciousness. It’s the interior, personal, and even esoteric dimension of religion. It’s a dangerous tendency to adulterate Christianity with alien philosophical or religious ideas, like Neoplatonism or Vedanta. It’s a way of seeing, in which the presence of God is discerned in the Bible or in the sacramental life of the church. It’s another name for deification. And on and on it goes.
I guess it goes without saying that I reject the critical and negative ways of understanding mysticism. I don’t see it as a narcissistic or antinomian spirituality which undermines religious authority (although I believe authentic mysticism naturally challenges inauthentic religion); nor do I see it as an anti-intellectual or regressively pre-rational flight from reason and responsibility. And I certainly eschew the “adulteration” critique: mysticism is deeply comfortable with interreligious and interfaith forms of spirituality, but the tradition generally is clear about the need to be grounded in one’s own faith before seeking to interact constructively with others. To the extent that the mystical openness to interreligious dialogue and even practice can be contrasted with the barriers between religions that are erected by fundamentalism: well, count me among the mystics.
Once we are comfortable answering mysticism’s critics and using their questions and concerns to help identify some boundaries between what mysticism is and isn’t (it is a project for experiencing the presence of God, but it isn’t a threat to normal religious identity), then I think what remains is the need to find a way of understanding mysticism that is truly inclusive: inclusive of pure mystical experience, of the written and artistic efforts to interpret such experience, of the traditional ways of understanding mysticism particularly as found in Greek philosophy and the Christian faith, and of the exciting new ways of understanding mysticism and contemplation that are emerging in the postmodern world and that allow us to see the history of mysticism with new eyes.
Okay, now, as a writer who wants to share mysticism with as many people as possible, how do I express all of the above in a way that won’t put most people to sleep?