The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
The resemblance between the words "mystery" and "mysticism" may be mere coincidence to us, but, as Chesterton put it, it is a coincidence that really does coincide.
This is the fifth post in a series. Here are links for Part I (the introduction), Part II (wisdom’s relationships to simplicity and to virtue), Part III (wisdom and cunning), and Part IV (wisdom and romance).
The next type of wisdom on our list takes us into the realm of religious experience and theology. In a word, we have here to deal with mysticism—but we must immediately stop for some definitions. Ideally, the first definition would be of the word mysticism. Unluckily, thanks to its “selling power,” the term has become seriously muddied. We may recall that various people are lumped in a box labeled “the mystics”: the Buddha, St. Hildegard, Isaac Luria, William Blake, Simone Weil*; it is something else entirely to say what, if anything, is the distinctive character of mysticism—which, the reader may agree, is a little ironic.
6. Wisdom is divine illumination.
Most forms of mysticism that have influenced our history have been either monotheistic or pantheistic, and have come from the two chief “families” of world religions, the Abrahamic and the Dharmic.** The Abrahamic religions all originate in the Middle East, advocate the worship of a monotheistic God, and revere the figure of Abraham, hence the name. Their main representatives are Christianity and Islam, along with less numerous traditions such as Bahá’í and Judaism. The Dharmic religions hail from India, and range from monotheism to pantheism to monism; they are named for the Sanskrit word धर्म (dharma), meaning “support, foundation; law; righteousness.” Their most-shared belief is probably in reincarnation. Buddhism and Hinduism are prominent Dharmic faiths, again alongside smaller religions, like Sikhism. (Not all these traditions believe in a monotheistic or personal deity, so in this post, which must deal with things fairly generally, it will be convenient to use the broad term the divine rather than “God.”)
Those who study mysticism academically tend to identify three common stages on its “way,” each with its own traits and trials: purgation, illumination, and union. Obviously the second stage suggests wisdom as light imparted to the mystic by the divine. As a formal stage in asceticism, illumination is rather more specific than what we’re discussing; however, in writing about how this stage often moves into the next, one of the most famous mystics in history furnishes us with a valuable image for it.
You have likely read or heard the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” It comes from a poem of the same name, written by the Spanish Carmelite† friar St. John of the Cross (a friend and ally of St. Teresa). In his commentary on this poem, he explains that “the dark night of the soul” refers to a transitional phase between illumination and union; its darkness, he says, is in truth not darkness, but a divine light so overwhelming that the “eyes” of the soul are temporarily dazzled. It is uncertain whether Milton had read The Dark Night of the Soul, but he does express the same motif in Book III of Paradise Lost: “Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear, / Yet dazzle heaven, that brightest Seraphim / Approach not, but with both wings veil their eyes.”
This dark with excessive bright motif is characteristic of mysticism in the broader sense: the idea that, in the words of Isaiah, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” The New Testament is woven throughout with the same topsy-turvy logic. An ancient hymn attributed to the Virgin Mary, the Magnificat,‡ is an excellent example. It is also a recurring theme in the Pauline corpus:
The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? … We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.
—I Corinthians 1.18-27
This is by no means exclusive to Christianity. Paradox is a hallmark of mysticism in the broader sense of the term we are discussing; it occurs in most religions, and indeed in many non-religious belief systems. The Bhagavad Gītā contains such counterintuitive teachings as that the visible world is a kind of illusion or play, and that the wise mourn neither the living nor the dead, because all things that happen are the will of God. Zen Buddhism, which professes to be a path to enlightenment, is from an outsider’s perspective so full of riddles and non sequiturs, its baffling logic is proverbial. One Hindu school teaches that union with God is achieved by constant meditation upon him, and passes on this story to illustrate it: there was once an atheist, obsessively impious, who never did anything without reminding himself that God does not exist. At work or at leisure, by night and by day, he would mutter to himself, “There is no God, there is no God, there is no God”—right up until his death. And at that moment, because the thought of the deity had never been out of his mind, he was of course immediately united with God.
As this charming tale suggests, mystical wisdom does not only pertain to understanding the divine. “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7.17): though we had cause back in Part III to insist on the distinction between the kind of wisdom there concerned and any kind of conduct, the same distinction will not serve here. All its advocates invariably state that mystical wisdom is inseparable from practice. But to do justice to this portion of the topic, we must wait for next week.
The Bhagavad Gītā
The Gospel According to St. John
Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī, The Revival of the Religious Sciences
St. Teresa of Ávila, The Interior Castle
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Huston Smith, The World’s Religions
*The Buddha is a title meaning “the Awakened,” traditionally used for Siddartha Gautama (563-483 BC?), an Indian prince and the founder of Buddhism. St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German Catholic nun and polymath. Isaac Luria (1534-1572), also known as Ha’ARI or “the Lion,” was a rabbi in the Ottoman Empire and founded an important school of Kabbalist Judaism. William Blake (1757-1827) was a heterodox English Christian and a proto-Romantic poet. Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French scholar, leftist, and veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
**The canny reader may have guessed, even this is an oversimplification! Alas, we have no space for anything more. However, please note that we are here addressing the chief types of mysticism that have impacted Western thought—not giving a complete taxonomy of religion as such.
†The Carmelites are a Catholic religious order founded on Mount Carmel, the site of Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal; they look to Elijah and the Virgin Mary as their prototypes. The Carmelites have many saints and mystics in their history, the best known being Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Edith Stein.
‡The text is to be found in Luke 1.46-55; the name Magnificat comes from the first word of the hymn in Latin. It forms a standard part of the liturgy of the hours, a collection of set prayers and Scriptural readings used by clergy and monastics in many Christian traditions.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, and is a proud uncle of seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
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Published on 13th October, 2023.