Thoughts about Mystical Experience
Updated: Oct 22, 2019
Marisa Guerin, Ph.D. - March 19, 2019
(Dear readers, this post is in the “personal” series rather than one of my professional posts, and involves reflections on faith and religion. Please feel free to skip it if not your interest.)
I don’t think I personally am a “mystic”… although I may be on my way to becoming a contemplative. But as I find myself traversing the second half of life, I regularly read works of theology and spirituality and I find myself drawn to know more about mystical awareness.
Now, you may ask, why would I attempt to write anything at all about what wise persons have called the experience of Oneness, of Ultimate Reality -- a profound religious question? It’s clearly a task that is well “above my pay grade”! I’m not a theologian or a spiritual director.
The straightforward reason is that for several months now I have been reflecting on how to fulfill my commitment to my friend Patricia Pearce to write something about her book, “Beyond Jesus: My Spiritual Odyssey” (She Writes Press: 2018).
It’s a moving and intensely personal book, a beautifully-written memoir of her journey through Peace Corps work, seminary and ordination, pastoral leadership in UCC and Presbyterian congregations, and the spiritual transformation that led her ultimately out of institutional ministry in the Christian church to her current vocation of writing, teaching, and service. The core of the book, woven throughout this story of her life journey, is the raw, intimate narrative of Patricia’s accompaniment of a good friend through terminal illness and death, and the powerful spiritual experiences that opened up for her grieving self and totally transformed her view of life.
I was absorbed and deeply moved by her story. It’s the first time I’ve read a book written in the first person, by someone more or less like me, who is living in our current reality, who shares how her life has carried her along in her spiritual path through experiences that the world would call “mystical”. The story-telling, like Patricia, is gentle and humble. But the conclusions, also like Patricia, are confident and strong… they are especially challenging for Christians. She focuses in particular on the way in which her spiritual experiences changed her understanding of Jesus. Writing for those with similar Protestant upbringings, she writes:
“Jesus has become an obstacle to our spiritual evolution – not because of who he is, but because of who we have made him out to be……Jesus was able to be a conduit for divine purposes because he himself had moved beyond Jesus.”
The excitement and passion that Patricia discovered in her life journey is the energy that suffuses her from the other side of these life-changing experiences. In truth, I can’t actually enter her own experience just from reading about it and I don’t necessarily draw all the same conclusions, but the story makes it possible for me to understand how one can be touched by grace... And her clarity about the essential oneness of our world, beyond individual egoic reality, resonates deeply with my own spiritual path.
In my ruminations these months, I have been struck by the fact that Patricia’s personal journey provides a specific illustration, I believe, of what other writers are describing about the mystical dimension of faith. Namely, that authentic religion is more than a message about moral behavior, more than a set of things to believe, more than a set of practices – in addition to these elements, a spiritual life includes the direct experience of the love of the Creator and unity with all Creation.
A whole lot of unfortunate and mistaken theology over the years has gotten in the way of such a healing religious experience for many people. Stuck within models of a punitive and cold deity who rigidly weighs our worth, one either stays trapped on the inside of a strict religious tradition, or – as many do -- one simply walks away from belief in a mean and actually violent God.
The path Patricia’s story illustrates is similar to what I think I am understanding in the writing of Alan Watts and Richard Rohr and others – what she means by going “beyond Jesus” is, I think, the same as taking in an understanding of the much bigger, cosmic, meaning of the Holy Mystery.
For example, from “Behold the Spirit” by Alan Watts (Vintage Books: 1947 / 1971),
“The God of mystical experience may not be the ethically obstreperous and precisely defined autocrat beloved of religious authoritarians; but as an experience, not concept, as vividly real as indefinable, this God does not violate the intellectual conscience, the aesthetic imagination, or the religious intuition.”
“We now know beyond doubt that large and widely scattered numbers of otherwise sane and sober people have had experiences of “cosmic consciousness” in which the sense of life becomes perfectly clear. The antagonisms of good and evil, life and death, being and nothing, self and other are felt as the poles or undulations of a single eternal and harmonious energy – exuding a sense of joy and love. …it comes upon us with the same startling independence of wishing and willing as a flash of lightning.”
An especially accessible perspective informs the writing of Richard Rohr in his latest book, “The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We see, Hope For, and Believe” (Convergent: 2019), namely,
“Christ was the ‘first idea in the mind of God’, not an after-the-fact attempt to solve the problem of sin. The Gospel, I believe, teaches that grace is inherent to the universe from the moment of the ‘Big Bang’.”
He explains this key point this way,
“Two thousand years ago marks the Incarnation of God in Jesus, but before that there was the Incarnation through light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, fruit, birds, serpents, cattle, fish, and ‘every kind of wild beast’ according to the Genesis creation story. This is the ‘Cosmic Christ’ through which God has ‘let us know the mystery of God’s purpose, the hidden plan made from the beginning in Christ'. Christ is not Jesus’ last name but the title for his life’s purpose. Christ is our word for what Jesus came to personally reveal and validate – which is true all the time and everywhere.”
I don't know about you, but it's a major re-arrangement of my religious imagination to recognize Jesus the man as the personal embodiment of the Christ: the eternal, from-the beginning-through-to-the-end incarnation of God's life in all creation, the reality in which we all participate, the evolving whole of the universe.
Another book I found nourishing provides a wide sweep of description of mystical experience across many traditions - Christian, Jewish, Sufi, Buddhist, others -- uniting theological depth with social justice themes. It is “The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance” by Dorothee Soelle, 2001, Fortress Press.
Books like these provide a stronger, better container for spiritual hope and spiritual faith for the mature adult than what might have worked for the child we once were.
Back to my friend's story -- unlike Patricia, I personally have not (at least not yet) found myself being led out of the faith community to which I belong – Roman Catholicism; although heaven knows how broken and imperfect that human institution is, how scandalous and hurtful it can be. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that my connection to my Roman Catholic faith tradition is of a type that allows me to hold with equal reverence my relatedness to persons of all other faith traditions, and those of no faith traditions, because I believe in our essential unity, animated by the same Source. I hope, hope, hope for a universe that is powered by love, although I don’t fully understand what that means.
Patricia is clearly in the hopeful camp. In words that evoke Teilhard de Chardin and Ilia Delio,she writes,
“As the beliefs of a previous age dissolve and the structures and institutions spawned by those beliefs crumble, a new world will be become possible, one in which we take our place as co-creators in a cosmos awakening to itself.” She sees her book as “an offering to the emergence of that new world – to the great flowering of our spiritual potential that Jesus demonstrated and the promise it holds for our collective future.”
I don’t always feel that optimistic, truthfully. I’m quite sure of the reality of our unconscious and shadow selves, and of human society’s apparently endless capacity to psychologically “create” the hated other to protect the vulnerable self – a scapegoating from which flow racism, classism, sexism, violence, and desecration of the Earth. If there were a message about salvation that would be good news, it would be the salvation from the evil enabled by that wounded heart of our shared humanity.
Speaking personally, that is what I believe is revealed in the love-unto-death of Jesus of Nazareth, who was executed at the hands of state and religious powers (not because God required it -- our evil, not God’s) -- an innocent man who accepted the scapegoat role and in so doing turned hate into love*. I believe it's the message of God’s transforming love rising to new life “in Christ” – the from-the-beginning mystery I can’t begin to grasp other than to sense that it means that death doesn’t have the last word, that good comes from evil, that light comes after darkness, that all and everyone, no exceptions, are welcomed into that love that can heal our woundedness and imperfection. I think the awareness of this mystery is what Patricia refers to when she writes about "the beautiful and ecstatic experience of our own oneness with Ultimate Reality."
As far as I know, each great religion has a theological tradition that carries a similar core message of compassion, inclusion, forgiveness, and transformation. I take courage because this evolving goodness is already visible at some times, in some places and in great souls we are privileged to know -- the in-breaking light of love for others, freedom of heart, beauty, and creative joy, even when it exists at the same time as great suffering.
I’ll stop here; my time of reflection with Patricia’s life story has been fruitful, and I am grateful for her generosity in sharing it.
* For more on the scapegoat dynamic and human/societal violence, read anything by Rene Girard, esp "Violence and the Sacred" (Norton:1979).