Some wonderful commentary to my post yesterday on Mysticism and Esotericism. Consider these words from Fr. Aidan, who is speculating on why esoteric movements (like the Rosicrucians) have flourished over the years:
As you suggested … there is a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has had both official distrust and fear from the Church against various mystics and mysticism in general … and the fear and distrust of the common masses or even one’s fellow parishioners against people, like myself, who have felt a life directed toward inner work of any kind, except maybe the modern science of Psychology and therapy.
Although, as you say, a “developmental map of Christian mystical consciousness — that takes us all the way to the nondual — has yet to be written,” there has been work by such notables as Ken Wilber which describe the changing states of Consciousness from the Mythological level of religious consciousness where the average practitioner remains to various advances in levels and stages of consciousness of the practicing mystic. Unfortunately, for the average Christian following the mystic path there has been little assistance until more recently to aide those of us living outside of monastic communities.
So, there has been distrust from both the institutional side of church, fellow parishioner, and fear from the “Elite” monastic mystics to make their secret knowledge more available in guiding the average person in contemplative prayer, which can drive people underground in their practice and sharing of such information for fear of being seen as weird, occultic or heretical. It can make them feel isolated from the common mass of believer who are not at that level of awareness or direction. If that is true today, it may have been even more true in ancient times. This is just a personal speculation or empathy for such people, as I have often felt during my journey.
Alas, his words are too true. One only has to make the briefest of visits to polished, and presumably well-funded, websites like Lighthouse Trails Research and Apprising Ministries to recognize that Christian hostility toward mysticism is alive and well. When I was a teenager someone told me my interest in mysticism was dangerous, because mysticism “begins in mist, ends in schism, and has not God, but I, at the center.”
I’m afraid that this tension between mysticism and institutional religion is pretty much built in to the nature of things. Mysticism celebrates and encourages the authority of personal experience. While orthodox Christian mysticism seeks to balance personal experience with the received authority of scripture and tradition, what is one to do when one’s experience challenges or ignores such external markers of authority? The church, like any other human organization, will defend itself against such challenges. So the individual is faced with the choice of either denying his or her own experience in order to fit in with the church, trying to find some sort of creative way to hold personal authority and ecclesial authority in creative tension, or to simply leave the church. In some settings, the third option may not be possible, and I assume that for most people with authentic spiritual experience, neither is the first.
So mystics have the unenviable task of trying to figure out how to integrate their experience with a faith community that (see above) is often suspicious of who they are and what they’ve experienced. Clearly, one response has been the esoteric route: engaging in secret work, beneath the ecclesial radar, so to speak. Such work may be more or less divergent from official church teaching, and so some of the most renowned of esoteric movements (the gnostics, the Rosicrucians, Dion Fortune’s Society of the Inner Light) may often be viewed as heterodox or even heretical by mainstream Christians. But another strategy to hold personal experience in tandem with the authority of the church has been the monastic journey, or, for that matter, the charismatic experience: in other words, to enter into a highly structured environment where spiritual experience is valued, but historically has often been rather tightly controlled. Indeed, for most of Christian history, its greatest mystics have also been monks.
If we consider the names of the great Christian mystics, we find both those honored as saints (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Catherine of Siena) and those denounced as heretics (Origen, Evagrius, Marguerite Porete, Meister Eckhart, Madame Guyon) on the list. This process is still at work in our own time: Thérèse of Lisieux and Faustina Kowalska have made the “saint” list, while Teilhard de Chardin and, I fear, even Thomas Merton seem destined to be marginalized by the institutional church as heretics or, at best, dangerous.
Ultimately, each of us must forge our own path. I think I gravitate more toward the monastic/orthodox end of the mystical swimming pool, and away from the esoteric/heterodox end, for a number of reasons. Having logged in a number of years in the neopagan camp, I’ve had my fill of heterodoxy. I believe that mysticism is ultimately not given for individual enlightenment, but for the nurturing of love, both God-human love and love amongst the human family. With this in mind, I feel more comfortable in the orthodox world, even though there tends to be greater suspicion toward altered or transformed states of consciousness within the institution. I’d rather work with a greater emphasis on love and justice, and less of a relationship on transformed consciousness, than the other way around. For that matter, trying to function within a community setting seems, to me, a better opportunity for “giving mysticism away,” by offering encouragement and companionship to others (within the church) who may be feeling called to a deeper silence, but are unsure of where to turn (thanks, in no small part, to the historical animosity between the church and her mystics).
Fr. Aidan rightly notes that ours is the age of the emerging reality of lay contemplatives. Contemplation has been liberated from the monasteries, thanks to the pioneering work of folks like Evelyn Underhill and the towering achievement of Thomas Merton, who although he was a monastic, had an epiphany in 1958 (ten years before he died) that revealed to him that all people, not just those in the cloister, were called to the mystical life. Others have followed his lead, including John Main, Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, etc. Meanwhile, laypersons are not only discovering the riches that have traditionally been hidden away in the monasteries, but are also encountering the profound mystical wisdom of other traditions, from the eastern religions to Sufism and Kabbalah. Indeed, when we consider the history of centering prayer (it began, essentially, as a Christianized alternative to transcendental meditation), we are reminded that the liberation of Christian contemplation from the monasteries has come about in no small part because of the increasing access that lay Christians enjoy to the wisdom of the world. If Christianity does not disseminate its own indigenous wisdom, then it will experience a “brain drain” as those who are drawn to contemplation and mysticism will increasingly abandon the church for other, more congenial, traditions (this, of course, is already happening, but it would be even more dramatic if it weren’t for the work of folks like Keating and Rohr).
I do think that even a fully embraced Christian mystical practice, drawing deeply on the wisdom of Eckhart, Ruusbroec, Palamas, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and the other “great” contemplatives, still has some catching up to do with the wisdom of all the other contemplative traditions. It is telling that, when Ken Wilber maps the stages of mystical consciousness as he does in his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, he offers no examples of Christians at the nondual stage (although Meister Eckhart is his example of a causal mystic, and Teresa of Avila at the subtle stage). Perhaps this is because no true nondual Christian mystic has ever bothered to write about her or his experience. Or it may be that Christianity simply has not yet produced a contemplative at the level of, say, Ramana Maharshi (that I doubt, but it is a question). At any rate, one of the challenges for Christian contemplatives in our day is to maintain our practice, while immersing ourselves in the wisdom both of our own tradition but also the best that the wisdom of the entire planet has to offer us. And then we need to consider points of convergence, resonance, and harmony. I write this, feeling like I am a kindergartner telling my friends that there is such a thing called graduate school. I know I lack both the contemplative experience and the knowledge to truly map the path to Christian nonduality. But somebody needs to do this, and somebody will do it. And perhaps that person is reading these words, right now.