M is for Mysticism

 

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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? 

Reference:

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 experiencesProceedings 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).

 This post is part of the Blogging from A to Z (2016)  Challenge. Click here. to see all of the blogs in the A to Z Challenge

2 thoughts on “M is for Mysticism

  1. As a teen I started with big questions, but now, I just try to be truly present in the moment, every moment, so that I’m completely involved in the moments of life, to complete concentrate and give everything that moment requires. This is a new phase. I feels different, calmer, both closer to everything and yet more removed than I’ve ever been. It’s trippy.

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  2. Thanks for this. To answer that last question, Joy–a resounding YES. However, I spent the first 50+ years of my life as a strict rational-materialist who considered any such reports that fly in the face of what science can investigate and account for to be imagination, superstition or madness. No, I take that back–not 50+ but 45+–because between birth and 5 I had experiences that I now, thanks to Michael Piechowski’s work on spiritual giftedness in children, recognize as having been mystical or “imaginal” as opposed to imaginary. By the age of 5 or 6 [school] the weight of the world’s insistence that it was all “only your imagination” and not REAL, shut the experiences down entirely. After high school I quit identifying myself as Christian or religious in any way and became a super rational, logical agnostic (as befit a highly gifted intellectual). But thanks to many things that happened in my life and the discovery of the powerful and well documented evidence of happenings and experiences that don’t fit the rational-materialist point of view, my mind got opened for me. Fully against my will at first! Those nonrational realities I both witnessed and experienced stayed “anomalies” for a long time. Just wanted to point out that mystics are not always appreciated in their own religions. But the experiences listed in your blog are the experiences of Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and other mystics. They are deeply similar across humanity’s religions–and indigenous peoples. Discoveries in quantum physics are creeping in that direction but it is slow going.

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