Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
— St. Teresa of Avila
My first acquaintance with mysticism was through reading works of the Spanish mystics, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. It was difficult for me to imagine someone praying so fervently that one would levitate as was reported of St. Teresa, or to think of a religious person performing self-mortification with whips or other instruments of torture in order to enter into a mystical trance like St. John of the Cross. How could a woman who seems to attain a consummate sense of tranquility in the prayer above plumb the depths of her soul to such an extent that she endured spiritual anguish and physical suffering?
However, pain and anguish are not necessarily the primary characteristics of mystical experiences. Shrader, tracing the work of others (e.g., William James) and his own, described seven characteristics, including:
- ineffability, which is the inability to describe the experience with common, everyday language.
- noetic quality, the feeling the individual has that mystical events reveal something to the individual or others which is otherwise unseen (such as the meaning of the Transfiguration of Christ for the disciples).
- transiency and passivity, two other characteristics, are echoed in the poem above by St. Teresa de Avila.
- unity of opposites, which is a sense of oneness of the universe. The poet William Blake captured this sensation in the following lines,
To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
- timelessness, the feeling that the mystical experience is beyond time.
- and a sense of encounter with the true self.
In an article that I wrote for the SENGVine (2013), I referred to mystical events as those in which we touch the mystery. I shared that gifted individuals are preoccupied with existential questions like, “Who am I?” Where did I come from?” “What will become of me?” Often, those times when we touch the mystery are moments that – although they may be intense and often painful, they don’t answer our existential questions necessarily. Nevertheless, if we are fortunate, we are left with a sense of peace and well-being, similar to what is described in the words of St. Teresa that begin this reflection. One of the beauties of elderhood is that we can both relish the memories of our mystical experiences and use those memories to come to terms with who we are – our true selves.
Have you experienced moments of mysticism in your life?
Auden, W. H. and Pearson, N. H. (Eds.). (1950). Poets of the English Language. New York, NY: Viking Press. Retrieved from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172906.
Navan, J.L. (2012, August). Touching the mystery: Spiritually gifted children. SENGVine. Retrieved from http://sengifted.org/archives/articles/touching-the-mystery-spiritually-gifted-children.
Shrader, D. W. (2008). Seven characteristics of mystical experiences. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities.
Photo by Hanna Grabowska on Flicker (https://goo.gl/JCV1FX) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).