“Counterfeit” Mysticism and Oppositional Consciousness

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.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://wishawishawisha.blogspot.com Sue

    I so adore you, Mr McColman.

  • http://www.anchormast.com Tess

    You put this far better than I would, and I agree with you completely. Spiritual life – Christian and otherwise, mystical experiences or not – is falling down and getting up again. I think much of the fear we experience is around the possibiiity that the time will come when we will be unable to get up again.
    I had an intense mystical experience of the presence of God as a young child, which I cannot believe was anything other than genuine because of my age and lack of ego agenda. Sadly, it hasn’t prevented me in any way from leading a life that has been horribly shabby at times. But the memory of it helps me get up again.

  • http://www.anchormast.com Tess

    PS: Sue’s comment is better!! ;-)

  • http://www.westernmysteries.com Peregrin

    Thanks Carl for your wonderful post here. I agree with pretty much all you say. My tradition teaches that discrimination is one of the first virtrues we require on an esoteric path. In this physical, mundane temporal world we do need to be able to discern, though not pass judgement as that is the role of God not humanity. We discern every day in love, work and play, when we drive and shop. I think we are also required to be able to discern between healthy and unhealthy spiritual activities. How can we do that? All authentic traditions say the same thing, put simply and clearly by Fr Matthew Fox, “The test of a spirituality is in its justice making; does it create justice?”

  • http://thepollinatrix.blogspot.com The Pollinatrix

    I agree with what you say here, and a couple of Bible verses come to mind: The one about not judging others – how can anyone know if someone else’s experience is “real” anyway???

    And also Paul’s statement that all things work together for good for those who love God. LOVING GOD seems to me to be the operative concept here. If an experience brings one deeper into loving God, then it’s good. Period. And any experience can do that.

  • Rob

    Hi Carl~

    Diane writes,

    “It is my belief, and the belief of many like-minded others..”

    this says it all.
    there will always be others trying
    to deny the validity of our individual
    experiences…..it doesn’t matter.

    what a waste of Diane’s ‘belief’ to be so
    concerned about the experiences of other people……

    love your writing

  • http://brazenbird.wordpress.com brazenbird

    Carl – excellent post. I am telling you, it’s like you’re writing specifically for me. Just recently I became aware of an opportunity to worship with a group of people who use a sacrament which has DMT in it. It’s not the right time for me but I did give it a consideration for many reasons that I won’t go into here. But I think it’s the either/or, black and white thinking that I’ve left behind more than anything else that sheds light on whether or not my mystical experiences have been truly of God or not.

    I appreciate it when brothers and sisters in Christ are concerned about my well being, spiritual or otherwise. And yes, there seems to be a walking of the fine line between concern and judgment. You make excellent points that hopefully some will read and be able to learn the difference.

  • http://brazenbird.wordpress.com brazenbird

    Also wanted to point out that we need to be very careful to not apply our American-centric point of view onto the whole of spirituality and mysticism which transcends national borders and land boundaries.

  • http://sophianature.gaia.com/blog Burl Hall

    I couldn’t agree more with those comments above. I did acid (LSD) as a 17 year old and learned much from it. Spiritually, it was that experience in relation to visions of a woman that I had at 5 and whom I ultimately named Sophia in my 40′s alongside various dreams that led to my coming to mystical Christianity and the writing of my own book, “Sophia’s Web.” Thanks for all your work. Burl

  • http://thinkunity.com soma

    The Ways of God are as many as the breaths of Human beings. Traditional Sufi Saying

  • http://zionmystic.livejournal.com BlackBirdie

    to Ms. Stranz: yes, we all need to examine ourselves and confess when we do wrong, but God *does* love us the way we are.

  • Lisa

    Thank you so much for your wonderful words about this issue. Some years ago during prayer I had an experience that I perceived as receiving a message from God about something that was troubling me, but since then I have been trying to discern to what extent it was ‘real,’ since the message was essentially what I had wanted to hear. It is very helpful to me to hear your suggestion that although we should approach these questions with caution, God may be working through even a ‘false’ experience, and the real test is whether the experience brings one to grow in love.

  • http://desertfishing.wordpress.com dFish

    I’m blessed by the discourse…

  • Karen

    thanks Carl …

    I think doubt leading to discernment is the most powerful and the most personal response to a spiritual experience. And while one is doubting there is no question in my mind that we slip and slide and wonder and despair .. drugs? even caffeine and nicotine (and chocolate – can’t forget that) can be drugs in that situation.

    Whoever said the spiritual life became easy with time and experience? As complex as it gets the more simple it gets the more complex it gets.

    blessings to you all!

  • Clare


  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yewtree

    I have experienced the Divine in Anglican communion services, Eastern Orthodox liturgy, Sufi dhikr, Wiccan ritual and Unitarian services. The Divine is everywhere and doesn’t mind what religion you approach it through.

    That said, discernment is necessary, because “(a) God/dess told me to do X” needs to be checked against one’s conscience and values.

    I think you have addressed this issue with great discernment. I also think that only you and the Divine can know whether any of your mystical experiences were genuine, but I also agree with Peregrin’s quote from Matthew Fox, “The test of a spirituality is in its justice making; does it create justice?” Or as Jesus put it, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The fruit of your inclusive attitude is greater tolerance and understanding. The fruit of an exclusive attitude is to make people feel inadequate and excluded.

  • Al Jordan

    Thank you, Yewtree. Your comment was spot on. While we can make it more complicated, it needn’t be. Often, the Truth comes to us in the simplest of forms.

  • Cindy

    Well done, Carl. To respond with thoroughness, thoughtfulness, humility and honesty is a testament to the depth of the spiritual practice you practice.

    And a beacon of light in a world that seems to get darker the more people log on to the Internet to declare their “Truth” as it relates to others.

  • Maggie Daly

    To quote from a friend, a now sober crack addict, in response to someone’s surprise that she went to church stoned: “Why wouldn’t I? Do you pretend that God was not present then too?”

  • Rob

    An excellent article, thank you. This line summed it up for me

    “Experiencing union with God does not exempt us from the messy imperfections of our life.”

    It is within the parameters of the beautifully imperfect world that the spiritual journey unfolds. Beginning, middle and end.

  • http://grote-beer.be Rob VD

    Returning from a mystical experience can leave people utterly confused and longing to relive that experience. A longing so deep that people would do anything to have another experience while at the same time ordinary life seems gray, narrow, unfulfilling. Taking drugs, restless wandering and searching etc… are understandable responses. God is in that searching and longing too.

  • Jann

    Salutations. Years ago i had a “Born again” experience during meditation at a Native American seminar. I became the personification of
    physical and mental health. I did compassionate, loving, moral, things ,because of grace. DURING the time it lasted I would look at a
    stranger and think ” this is my brother”. It lasted about a year and then i returned to pretty much normal.
    I made bad decisions, I cussed, I had to work at not giving the finger to bad drivers. I was the same as before, but now I have a pict-
    ure of what it can be, once I have done the work to find the philosophers stone. I have been on the path since then and have a lot of
    work to do. It’s like peeling an onion or spiraling up the mountain and at times I have almost reached my breaking point, but the me
    mory of my short awakening helps me go on, and i am very grateful for that. You don’t have to justify yourself to anyone but yourself
    dude, hang in there……….thanks