The other day a woman named Diane Stranz posted a lengthy comment to my Contemporary Mystical Experience page, in which I quote the passage from my book The Aspiring Mystic describing an extraordinary experience I received as a teenager while attending a Lutheran youth weekend. In the passage, I go on to mention that, at a later date, I experimented with psychedelics. Ms. Stranz has some interesting thoughts in response to my experience, and I quote her in part:
It is my belief, and the belief of many like-minded others, that no one who has had a genuine mystical experience of God’s presence would decide thereafter to try drugs for any reason. God’s presence cleanses us, sets our feet on a path towards union with Him, and provides us with the strength to engage only in activities of His choosing . . . and doing drugs is not on that list. … To be honest, Carl, the fact that you later tried LSD is one indicator amongst many that the supernatural experience of ‘glowing presence’ you describe in this blog post was not a genuine mystical experience, but, instead, a chimeric illusion. Deceptive supernatural presences — be they rogue elements within the collective unconscious, per Jung, or spirits acting in rebellion to God per classic Judeo-Christian belief — ABOUND in the world, and they LOVE to induce feel-good experiences of light, warmth and peace. These comforting experiences lull individuals into thinking God loves them just the way they are and there is no need for self-examination, the confession of sin, contrition, or attempts to conform to a higher standard of conduct and attitude. New Age literature is full of testimonies similar to the one you recount here, and none of them advance one’s spiritual evolution towards union with God.
Okay, I’ll try not to get defensive here. But please forgive me if I fail. I suppose the interesting question here is not about me — it’s not about whether my own experience was chimerical or not; in the larger scheme of things, I suppose vindicating (or dismissing) something that happened to me over thirty years ago doesn’t really matter. But what does matter is the theology that lies beneath the logic that would dismiss my experience because of a subsequent choice I made. What Ms. Stranz appears to be saying is this: a genuine mystical experience will result in immutable, lasting changes in consciousness and behavior that will, among other things, result in a permanent fast from mind-altering substances. Logically, therefore, anyone who undergoes an extraordinary or mystical experience who does partake in mind-altering substances must have had a deceptive, rather than enlightening, experience, arising either from their own ego or from a malevolent spirit.
Several things bother me about this line of thinking. First of all, it seems to suggest that an experience is equivalent to grace. Christian theology holds that it is only by grace that we are able to make healthy, holy, life-affirming choices, whether such choices entail repenting of our sin or refraining from engaging in sin to begin with (I should also mention that while I do not support the use of drugs as a means of engineering mystical experience, neither am I persuaded that the use of LSD or other psychedelics is necessarily a sin. But for the sake of the argument at hand, I’ll let that one go for now). But grace is an ontological gift from God, not an experience (mystical or otherwise) that humans undergo. For example, grace is imparted to us through baptism, yet no one experiences anything different for being baptized — except maybe the experience of getting wet! Just as we do not necessarily have a particular conscious experience in order to receive grace, likewise having a conscious experience (such as that of union with God) is not in itself a necessary means of grace. If it were, then we could say, for example, that Peter, having experienced the Transfiguration, would have been incapable of denying Christ afterward. But he did indeed deny Christ afterward, so obviously whatever good he gained by being party to the Transfiguration did not extend to preventing him from making mistakes in the future.
Which leads to my second point. Let us suppose that mystical experience is, in fact, sacramental — in other words, a means of grace. Frankly, I’m inclined to believe that mystical experience is at least possibly such a means. But even so, grace does not negate free will — or, for that matter, the inclination to sin. Grace may make us less likely to sin, and hopefully could lead us to a state of sinlessness or near sinlessness — but in practice, this is not what happens. Peter followed the Transfiguration with spectacular, repeated denials of Christ. Paul complained of a “thorn in his side” — perhaps a besetting sin of some sort — that God refused to remove from him, subsequent to his Damascus Road experience. Martin Luther’s experience of grace was so profound that he risked his life to challenge the religious authorities of his day — but this didn’t stop him from penning some of the most despicable anti-Semitic writings of his day. Thomas Merton followed up his Louisville Epiphany by having (or very nearly having) an affair with a nurse. Christians sin even after they experience grace — which is why the catholic traditions offer the sacramental rite of reconciliation. And just as Christians in general fall even after making a commitment to Christ, so too will mystics continue to fall. Experiencing union with God does not exempt us from the messy imperfections of our life. A Christian mystic has been given a tremendous gift, but that gift does not extend to a future guaranteed to be free from sin.
So I cannot accept Ms. Stranz’ theology, which appears to suggest that a life free of making mistakes is not only possible, but required of mystics. But I also take issue with the manner in which she approaches the importance of discernment — the question of how we distinguish between “authentic” and “chimerical” spiritual or mystical experience. She seems to be arguing that while mystical experiences are common, genuine mysticism is quite rare. And there may be some truth to what she is saying. Certainly, the human ego can manufacture all sorts of psychic experiences that do little more than to, well, bolster the ego. And likewise, we cannot discount the possibility that some experiences may have a malevolent transpersonal origin. As one mentor of mine is fond of saying, “Not every spirit is your friend.” So, then, how do we evaluate mystical experience and by what criteria do we separate the “good” from the “bad”?
First of all, I believe such discernment must be undertaken with fear and trembling. I think the issue here is that, as soon as we put ourselves in the position of judging spiritual experiences (especially the experience of others), we run the risk of getting ensnared in dualistic and oppositional levels of consciousness. In other words, the devil wants nothing more than for us to be obsessed with the devil. After all, he is greedy for nothing if not attention. The more we indulge in devil-hunting, the more we fate ourselves to think and see in oppositional ways; dividing the world into good and bad, holy and evil, Godly and demonic, authentic and chimerical. What this does is, sadly, bring about division and discord. It creates fault lines in the body of Christ and in God’s good creation. It invites us to break relationship with others because we deem them to be “outsiders” and not good enough for our fellowship. We begin to relate to others with an armored heart and a defensive mind, rather than seeking to be vulnerably present just as Christ was vulnerably present with those who came to him, whether Jew or Greek, righteous or wounded.
Furthermore, when we divide mysticism or spirituality into “authentic” or “counterfeit,” we are denying the possibility that God may be at work in ego-centric or even malevolent experiences. Many alcoholics can speak with wonder about how, after they sobered up, they were able to discern God’s grace silently at work in their lives, even as they were in the thrall of their addiction. Likewise, who are we to judge that God cannot use even “chimerical” experiences to his glory? Furthermore, we should also recognize that human ego-needs and sinfulness will adulterate even the most celestial of experiences. For example, Julian of Norwich admits to experiencing doubt even in the midst of her splendid mystical visions. Why would she choose to doubt, except that her own faith was weak, or her own ego was desperately trying to reassert control? Christians believe that no human being alive today is perfect. By that logic, no mystical experience can be perfect either. But this truth goes both ways: an “authentic” experience will not be perfectly good, and a “counterfeit” experience cannot be perfectly evil. There’s always breathing room for God to do surprising things, even in the hearts of those who are most decidedly set against him.
So, while I do believe that there is a difference between authentic and counterfeit mystical experience, or perhaps between Christian and non-Christian experience, I think a big healthy serving of humility is important here. Perhaps we need to remember the first verse of Matthew 7 and be slow to judge each other’s experience, looking not for a final assessment of whether this or that experience is “good” or “evil” but rather trying to discern the threads of God’s action and lavish grace, even in the most messy and ambiguous of situations. Frankly, this is where I think discernment is most helpful: not in passing a final verdict, but in assessing the intricate interplay of light and shadow, in all situations.
Mysticism is a dark and confusing world, where light can shine brilliantly but also dazzlingly and blindingly; and where often as not we are simply groping for the light in the dark night of the soul or the cloud of unknowing. I like Ms. Stranz’ insistence that we must carefully discern just how such experiences may or may not represent the action of the Holy Spirit. But I think we need to be careful to approach such discernment from a consciousness of unifying love rather than oppositional judgment.