Yesterday morning I received quite an interesting comment, posted on my webpage about Walter Hilton, from a man who I believe has never commented on this blog or website before. It’s the kind of comment that reveals just how much diversity there can be among people who share a common interest in mysticism — for this person’s idea of what constitutes “real” mysticism differs significantly from my own views. His comments are rather provocative, and hopefully I’m not being too snarky in my response! But he does raise some interesting issues about mystical identity, and the nature of authentic mysticism, including the perennial question of whether mystical experience is, in essence, an elitist or “special” phenomenon. Read on to see both the comment and my response, but read at your own risk, for the snark-factor contained herein is a bit higher than normal for this blog.
His comment begins like this (remember, he is responding to my page in which I describe Walter Hilton as a 14th-century English mystic):
Although commonly thought of as belonging to the genre ‘Mysticism’, Walter Hilton’s ‘The Ladder of Perfection’ is strictly speaking not a work of mysticism at all. It more accurately belongs to the Contemplative-Homiletic genre, and its ‘systematic theology’ of the contemplative life is unfortunately so emeshed in the power systems of austere Augustinian religiosity and theology (hence Hilton’s obsession with ‘pride’) that it could even be described as belonging to an anti-mystical tradition. Ultimately, Hilton wants to control his ‘hot’ feelings towards God and Jesus; indeed, as a theological control freak, he wants to control everything (this was a pre-psychological age). True mystics don’t.
Ay yi yi.
This triggered me pretty thoroughly, not so much in terms of what was said, but rather how it was said. I think the debate of who “is” and “isn’t” a mystic can be quite a fun little head trip, a cerebral way to avoid praying and avoid the challenge of contemplative practice by distracting ourselves over useless debates over the meaning of words and limits of identity. It’s a very boyish thing to do, a kind of spiritual chest-thumping in which I get to show off how my knowledge of who is and isn’t in the mystical club is so much superior to your knowledge. Now, that being said, I’m genuinely interested in the question of mystical identity, and so find it interesting when someone makes a provocative statement (like “Walter Hilton does not deserve to be called a mystic.”) However (and this is where my getting triggered comes in), I think there’s wisdom in bringing a certain humility to such conversations. In other words, if you want to argue against Walter Hilton being considered a “true” mystic, say “I think we should reconsider Hilton’s identity as a mystic and here are my reasons why…” rather than just tossing off a more sweeping (and, dare I say, arrogant) statement like “Hilton’s writing is strictly speaking not mystical at all.” So, while my commenter is entitled to his opinion, I find myself pushing back against him not because he holds this opinion, but because of his manner of stating it. Too bad, because I think a thoughtful, carefully reasoned, but humble statement about why Hilton doesn’t make the mystical grade would be rather interesting to read.
But wait, it gets better. The commenter goes on to make some pretty sweeping statements about mysticism in general.
Moreover, mystic souls are not interested in ‘systematic theology’, and they are similarly not interested in scribbling cosy letters of instruction to others of the faith; what they are interested in is a one-on-one relationship with God, an intense - and sometimes sexually experienced (not mandatory) - relationship in which the mystic identifies with God-in-Jesus, and is emeshed only in a God-becoming process of total love which transcends the constraints of institutional religiosity and theology. They are God-destroyers as much as God-creators. They boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before, and are by no means timid when it comes to exploring the idea that the God ‘out there’ is one and the same with God ‘in here’. For them, this is the most blatantly obvious, and at the same time sublime, idea in the whole universe of human spirituality, which perhaps explains why most of us simply don’t make the grade…
I have a really hard time imagining Richard of St. Victor or Bernard of Clairvaux being uninterested in systematic theology, let alone most of the Orthodox mystics, John of the Cross, Thomas Aquinas, or even Thomas Merton. The fact that mystics may well see the limitations of systematic thought does not mean that they reject it as useless. And saying that mystics have no interest in providing guidance to others is even more absurd. From Clement of Alexandria to Richard Rohr, contemplatives and mystics in the Christian tradition have always engaged in writing texts designed to teach and to instruct.
But then the author of this comment reveals his true colors: he understands mysticism in a neoplatonic, flight-of-the-alone-to-the-alone sense: “a one-on-one relationship with God… which transcends the constraints of institutional religiosity and theology.” In other words, true mystics can’t be bothered with other people (or with messy human institutions), because they’re so busy grooving on their own special, quasi-erotic blissfest with God.
The whole point behind Christian mysticism is that it isn’t individualist, narcissistic, elitist, or otherwise “special.” Any kind of “mysticism” that leads toward such ends does not make the grade as a form of Christian spirituality. Christian spirituality is about humility and self-forgetfulness, community, relationship, and hospitality. As Julian of Norwich so elegantly pointed out, mystical experience is always given in service of others, not for self-aggrandizement or ego-definition. It’s one of the paradoxes of mysticism, but the experience of egolessness can actually be profoundly ego-enhancing if it is not embedded in community, love, and relatedness to others.
Now, I’m not saying that there’s no evidence of spiritual narcissism, or mystical elitism, within Christianity, because of course there is. Richard Rolle, who lived a generation before Walter Hilton, leaps to mind. But I believe that, taken as a whole, the Christian tradition generally eschews this kind of “mystics-are-special” rhetoric in favor of a more down-to-earth, grounded, humble, gentle, kind, hospitable spirituality of mysticism-embedded-in-relationship. This is why the archetype for western mysticism is not the solitary renunciate, but rather the monk, nun or friar whose spirituality is always embedded in some form of community.
The commenter’s adherence to neoplatonic solitary mysticism explains why he is so hostile to Hilton’s opposition to pride. If mysticism is only about my personal enlightenment, who cares if I’m proud or not?
There’s this widespread idea in popular spirituality that mysticism is the same, regardless of what religious or cultural milieu it occurs. I disagree with such a notion. I believe God is the same, but mysticism happens at the human level and thus is unavoidably colored by our thoughts, values, perspectives, beliefs, and subconscious assumptions. And this is why Christian mysticism is fundamentally different from other kinds of mysticism. I’m not trying to put down non-Christian forms of mysticism, and anyone who knows me knows how much I respect and admire all the world’s great wisdom traditions. But I believe that to truly respect and admire something, we should be honest about it. Mysticism is like language. It happens everywhere, but everywhere it is different.
Here’s how this comment ends:
Sorry for the note of bathos, but Hilton’s ‘mysticism’ isn’t. Try reading some of the works in the Italian mystical tradition. Some of the writings of the Italian mystics are the ‘real thing’.
I hope the author of the comment is reading this blog post, and even though he very well may pen a lengthy rejoinder to this blog post detailing all of my failings both as a writer and as a student of mysticism, I nevertheless want to hear from him which of the Italian mystics he thinks really are “the ‘real thing.’” Francis of Assisi? Catherine of Siena? Catherine of Genoa? Lorenzo Scupoli? or perhaps someone I’m missing? Must be, because I simply don’t see how any of these folks are any more “authentic” than boring old Walter Hilton. But then again, what do I know?