Ordinary Mysticism

The other day somebody at work paid me a compliment, and told me that I was a natural storyteller.

Last night Fran and I had dinner with a couple, relatively new friends whom we’re still getting to know. The subject of “how we met” came up, and Fran and I began to weave our complicated tale: meeting at a pagan gathering, the dance of flirtation and ignoring each other… the story involved a sweatlodge, and all-night conversation by a bonfire, and, eventually, my meeting Rhiannon and her own little efforts to ply me with her charms (she was six years old at the time). Everyone at the table was laughing. Yeah, I guess we (not just me) are natural storytellers.

But that may be true for all of us, you know. I think storytelling is like kissing. Everybody can do it, some folks are more confident, or have more of a swagger about it, or a larger “vocabulary” (!). It’s fun, it’s human, it connects us. Sure, some people might be “better” kissers than others, but you know, unless a kiss has been adulterated by fear or anger or possessiveness or inappropriate lust, it’s almost always a really good experience.

So just like we all need lots of hugs and kisses in our lives, so also we all need good stories. And we get these not from a book so much as from each other. And our stories need to be about nothing more dramatic than our lives. How did you meet your spouse? When did you first comprehend that you really truly believed in God (or, didn’t believe)? What is your deepest, darkest fear, and what do you do to inject hope into that fearful place? And on and on the possibilities go.

I called this post “ordinary mysticism” because I believe that, with eyes to see and ears to hear, even the most mundane stories can become luminous with mystery — mystery revealed and mystery concealed. Just as when Fran and I told our friends last night about how we met, and at one point I looked at her and said “Should I tell them about…” and before I could even finish the sentence she said “Let’s not go there!” Every story has mystery, and I think that’s true even when we tell it all. Mystery is something deeper than secrets, although secrets often can be the place where mystery lurks. One of the big differences between Christianity and the pagan mystery cults of the Greco-Roman world is that Christianity, at some point, went “open source” with its secrets. In the early years you had to be baptized before you could even witness the Communion rite. Nowadays anyone can watch. It’s no longer a secret. But it’s still a profound mystery, and perhaps the openness just serves to deepen the mystery.

I think that’s true with our storytelling, too. We talk about meeting someone special whom we would eventually marry, and the mystery of love lights on us like a butterfly in a spring garden. We recount our health woes, and there is the mystery of suffering. We take a closer look at our spiritual lives, and the mystery of Divine presence becomes manifest. Mystery happens. It is the foundational building block, the necessary amino acid, for mysticism. Let’s do all we can to share it with one another. And that means, let’s tell our stories.

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  • Al Jordan

    Yes, indeed, you are a good story teller. Carl. I’ve known quite a few good story tellers including my wife, a former high school English teacher. I tend to be more the go to the point, philosophical and often too intellectual sort of person, but it is always the story tellers who leave me with what I feel is a genuine appreciation for and encounter with life and the mystery of life. You know, it would be interesting to develop a workshop on the spirituality of listening and story telling. Just a thought.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    It’s been argued that once the illusory “I” or “I-self” has become transparent, our personal narratives should be dropped because they define the past and take our attention away from the whole. Eckhart Tolle, for example, has famously said he never thinks about the past, which I find difficult to believe considering how many of his words are devoted to relating his own story, and attending to ourselves (though obviously not constantly) would seem pretty important. If we don’t take time on a regular basis to “remove the beam from our own eye”, as it were, how can we see clearly to attend the speck in others’?

    I’m none too sure about this one. It’s our personal narratives that define our experience, allow others to see what we have seen transpire both within and without, experience what we’ve experienced, know us as we truly are and commune with one another. Though one can easily discern how false self-images might be and are established and propagated all too easily as a result of the human propensity for personal narratives, being known and accepted as we truly are also would appear to be one of our most deeply felt longings. In our “Culture of Narcissism”, people tend to assume who and how we are based on some previous experience or a shadow projection. Ergo, dropping our personal narratives has practical considerations in relating to others, but to do so altogether would not seem to me all that wise when what’s imperative is not to become attached to or identified with them on a permanent basis.

    It’s been further argued that no one is “unique” because the individual is itself an illusion. There is no “one”. As Jean Houston expresses it, however, “we’re not flakey, we’re snowflakey”, so it might also be considered a celebration of diversity to revel in our differences as much as our sameness.

    A Sufi story proclaims that when one knocks upon a door and hears “Who’s there?”, the unenlightened will answer, “Me” while the enlightened will answer, “Thou” and, in fact, many of our parents instilled in us the imperative always to “look for the good in people” early on. “Seeing” and consistently focusing on the go(o)d in others is one of the most demanding tasks of the spiritual walk, but as Buber suggested, a co-arising universe is the co-creation of I and Thou and I’m reminded of recent conversations on the subject of integrating “interior and exterior”, “introverted and extroverted”, etc. The “mystical” and phenomenal has been separated far too long.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I suppose the difference between mysticism that is grounded in story and mysticism that requires letting go of all stories, is, in essence, the distinction between cataphatic and apophatic forms of spirituality. But what’s interesting there is how even the great apophatic mystics: Pseudo-Dionysius, The Cloud author, John of the Cross — all were writers, which is to say, all told the story of their storyless mysticism. The first time I met Peter Rollins he told me he was most interested in the kind of mysticism that subverted mystical experience. It seems to me that the apophatic way always subverts the cataphatic. I know some folks who therefore assume that the apophatic is a “higher” or “purer” spirituality. But I think this is a trap. For as soon as we start judging the apophatic (even judging it well), we’ve fallen back into the realm of images, languages, concepts. It simply needs to be. As does the cataphatic, which, of course, more readily emerges from the stories we tell.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    Very well said.

    As to one being a subversion of the other, the term “subversion” itself carries two very disparate meanings. On the one hand it can be taken in the sense of “subset” while on the other, it can be taken in the sense of “overthrow”, but the distinction between apophatic and cataphatic does not seem to me one so much of discrimination between them as of direction.

    In moments of solitude, the apophatic is perhaps the most natural form of spirituality. Deepak Chopra “tweeted” the other day that “loneliness is separation; solitude is unity”, and that’s true. Slightly different subject though it may address, it’s in solitude that nondual unity is most keenly felt and experienced. Where we appear most often to fall short as a species is in translating apophatic experience into cataphatic stories that resonate all along “The Great Chain of Being” that is “Indra’s Net” regardless of our philosophical, all-in-the-head differences. In other words, establishing heart to heart communication as well as communion.

    The dictionary defines “cataphatic” as “relating to the religious belief that God can be known to humans positively or affirmatively” and, of course, the mystic rejects the notion that God can be “known” by the mind at all as God is beyond all human attempts to conceptualize. Many traditions therefore, have no such conceptualization. So, we appear to have quite the conundrum on our hands.

    Or do we?

    If there’s anything the mystic attempts to subvert in the sense of overthrow, it’s the arbitrary, hierarchal power structures that various traditions’ spiritual “leadership” tend to build, a condition that obviously need not be in the first place considering the ubiquitous notion that the “Tree of Life” is preferable and nourishing in comparison to the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”. I suppose the question is whether we consider such Matrices temporal. “Subversion” in the sense of inwardly directing outward expression is more akin to over-coming than overthrowing and it would appear the resolution of that particular duality is perhaps the most challenging hurdle we now face as global community.