Unitarian Universalist Theologies: Mysticism
The Reverend Dr. Linda Anderson
When my son was seven years old we sat together in Roy Rogers, eating french fries, and he told me that he was learning to count in a foreign language - Spanish. Would I teach him some words in another language? The language I know best after English is Greek, so I said, parakalw, which in Greek means please. He repeated it perfectly. Tell me another. I said eucaristw, thank you in Greek. He repeated that perfectly too. We looked into each other's eyes and for a moment, just a moment, I didn't know who was looking back at me. I felt that Matthew and I were not mother and child, but comrades in some sort of Greek universe. That we had know each other before, spoken Greek to one another before. Then the moment passed and the seven year old returned to his eyes, and I suppose the mother returned to mine, and we resumed eating the french fries.
When those experiences of knowing come “ we cannot say how or why “ and we see the world as a much bigger place and we see ourselves as deeply connected, they remain with us. They seem like a glimpse of something very important, even though we know not what. Let's call these experiences mystical. Mysticism, a word that comes from the Greek and relates to the word mystery, according to Wikipedia, is the pursuit of achieving communion or identity with, or conscious awareness of, ultimate reality, the divine, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, or insight; and the belief that such experience is an important source of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. . . . A common theme in mysticism is that the mystic and all of reality are One. The purpose of mystical practices is to achieve that oneness in experience, to transcend limited identity and re-identify with the all that is. This is the second in our series of explorations of theologies that have and continue to influence Unitarian Universalism. Mysticism, you might ask? We UU's pride ourselves on the use of reason. Yes, and . . . In our statement of Principles and Purposes we identify as the first source of our living tradition. Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.We're talking about mysticism here. Direct experience of that mystery and wonder which opens us to the forces creating life. How many of us in this room have had what we would call direct experience or intuition of ultimate reality, truth, God, or whatever we may call it? We define ourselves according to rationalism. It is instructive that we can also define ourselves according to mysticism. And not in an either-or fashion, but rather as a both-and. We are a people who claim the freedom to construct our own beliefs and who, at the same time, insist that the way we live be congruent with what we say we believe. By necessity mysticism is part of our heritage because such freedom, cast within the bonds of ethical living, demands that the beliefs claimed by each one of us must be authentic to us, and personal. Authentic beliefs do not arise from the mind only, or even from the heart only. If we search deeply enough for what we believe, we will find that which our intuitive experience tells us.
People can tend to dismiss mysticism as wu-wu, or suspect in some way. People who have mystical experiences hesitate toshare them for fear of appearing strange. But mysticism is another way of knowing. It is part of the UU tradition. Mystics of the world, arise and claim your place! My friend Susan Law says that one of the functions of religion is to give a context to the messages we get from our own and the human unconscious. Mystical experiences, then, are ways that we tell ourselves something; find meaning; connect with that which is greater than us.
Human beings have never been content to stay put and believe what they are told. We have always wanted to explore further, to push the envelope, to experience for ourselves. We have always recognized multiple ways of knowing. Sometimes we explore with our minds. Sometimes we push with our bodies. Sometimes we need to name the personal, direct experiences we have that go beyond mind and body.
The 14th century Indian mystic poet Kabir wrote The Swing:
Between the conscious and the unconscious, the mind has put up a swing:
all earth creatures, even the supernovas, sway between these two trees,
and it never winds down.
Angels, animals, humans, insects by the million, also the wheeling sun and
ages go by, and it goes on.
Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.
Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life. Most major religions contain a mystical component. Judaism has the Kabbalah. Martin Buber understood Hasidism, which began in Europe in the 17th century, as striving for a life lived in the unconditional presence of God, with no separation between the mundane and the profound divine. Sufis, who hold the mystical piece of Islam, dance in an effort to find another state of being, in which they become one with Allah. Christian mystics have abounded throughout the centuries, from Thomas Aquinas to Julian of Norwich to Teresa of Avila to William Blake to Rainer Maria Rilke to Thomas Merton. Nor does mysticism only occur in a religious context. Both William James and Ken Wilbur point out that . . . transcendent experiences may happen to anyone, regardless of religious training or inclinations. Such experiences can occur unbidden and without preparation at any time, and might not be understood as religious experiences at all. A momentary unity may be experienced by the artist or athlete as a perceived interconnection with existence or a loss of self accompanied by feelings of euphoria, by the scientist as a spontaneous ecstatic inspiration, by a prophet as an open channel of knowledge or even dismissed as psychological disturbances in modern times. (Wikipedia) Anyone who lived through the 60's might know first hand that, for many, mystical experiences also occurred through drugs.
Unitarian Universalism has a mystical history. In 1937 the President of the American Unitarian Association, Louis Cornish, declared that "We belong among the mystics." Historically, Ralph Waldo Emerson emerges as our most articulate mystic. In his essays Emerson describes the characteristics of mysticism. First, mystical knowledge is mysterious and not within our power to completely grasp. Emerson said "Man is a stream whose source is hidden." Second, mysticism involves some sense of knowing or joining with an ultimate reality, whether God as we understand that word, or whether connection with another person. The consciousness of such an experience changes us. In his essay The Over-Soul Emerson celebrates the human soul as "part and particle" with the eternal One, the unity of the universe. As part and particle, we commonly get glimpses, or revelations of the One, although such moments are brief, but these revelations can transform our minds and hearts. Thirdly, we cannot create mystical experiences or bring them about. They come in their own time.
As Emerson saw it, the task was to be present to the possibility of moments of revelation, these deepest secrets of nature. He suggested we might experience hints of the reality of the active soul when we are in conversation, revery, remorse, passion, surprise and dreams. (Richard Geldard, The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson) I would add that meditation, prayer, contemplation, asceticism, chanting, dancing, running, drugs, nature are also venues through which the mystical arrives. Of experiences with his Transcendentalist friends Emerson wrote: "In excited conversation we have glimpses of the Universe, hints of power native to the soul, far-darting lights and shadows of an Andes landscape, such as we can hardly attain in lone meditation. Here are oracles sometimes profusely given, to which the memory goes back in barren hours." (The Over-Soul) Mysticism does not require solitude. Mystical experiences come unbidden to most people, although some make conscious attempts to have them, with various levels of success. Unless one is highly evolved spiritually, one cannot explain them or understand them fully. We can only remain open to their coming. From the essay Circles, "Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being." Of lower states, “ of acts of routine and sense, “ we can tell somewhat; but the masterpieces of God, the total growths and universal movements of the soul, he hideth; they are incalculable. I can know that truth is divine and helpful; but how it shall help me I can have no guess for so to be is the sole inlet of so to know. Unless we re in that mystical flow we cannot know it. In The Over-Soul Emerson writes " We know the truth when we see it, let skeptic and scoffer say what they choose. Foolish people ask you, when you have spoken what they do not wish to hear, " How do you know it is the truth, and not an error of your own?" We know the truth when we see it, from opinion, as we know when we are awake that we are awake.
Hmmm. Mystical experiences are personal. How do we determine the mystical from the delusional, from the psychotic? Emerson himself expressed wariness and was, as Richard Geldard so charmingly puts it, a spokesman for sanity in matters of the spirit. Beware of the man who says, "I am on the eve of a revelation." How do we beware? Anyone's mystical revelations have to be accounted for in relation to community traditions, morality, consensus. UU minister Mark Belletini points out that". . . mysticism can be the moving force in prophecy (social action), ancient and modern. For the authority of the prophet comes from within, from the "still, small voice" (which nonetheless necessarily speaks the dialect of a particular culture)." (In What Unitarian Universalists Believe: Living Principles for a Living Faith.) You might know of the prophet Elijah, who stood upon Mount Horeb and "behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice." (I Kings 19:11-12) And when Elijah heard it, he left the mountain and went on his way as a prophet. The prophet's fidelity to the authentically empowering nature of his/her direct, subjective experience of reality is within the balancing context of a critical/supportive community. This is mysticism?'s internal gyroscope, the balance pole for the wire-walker.
Furthermore, whatever I experience, mystically speaking, is not to be taken as THE TRUTH, but rather as my truth. It may or may not speak to anyone beyond myself. If, in any tradition, mystical experiences share common traits, then a particular community or tradition might assign a larger than personal understanding to them. Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, for instance, contains much mysticism and that tradition has articulated shared meanings for mysticism. How one recognizes the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama for instance. Mysticism is another way of knowing. It's a way of telling ourselves something; a way of finding meaning; of connecting with that which is ultimate. Mystical experiences are mysterious and not fully understandable; they come unbidden and they transform us because the sense of connection they offer makes an indelible impression. One cannot claim ultimate truth for one's mystical experiences, unless a consensus exists within the community about the meaning of such experiences. The mystic is counter-balanced by the norms and ethics and beliefs of his/her community.
Such experiences can change your life. Let me share with you my most significant mystical experience. I was on a retreat with an interfaith group of people and we began a guided meditation. As the leader's voice faded into my meditation, I became aware of two figures, with faces shrouded by dark or grey robes, standing at either end of me. One at my head, one at my feet, with arms outstretched, as if ready to catch me, as if I were being born. They beckoned or something and I began to rise out of my body and go with them. We passed through the clouds into a place of bright, luminous light. This picture by Georgia O'Keefe, The Sky Above the Clouds, which I found after the experience, depicts that light pretty well. Like when , in an airplane, you ascend past the clouds and all of a sudden the bright light surrounds you. Well, I went there. The feeling in that place was happy and peaceful and safe and powerful. I mean, truly, this was good, incredible. I can neither understand this nor fully describe it, except to say that I wanted to stay. While I was there I felt a wonderful unity with whatever it was. It was brilliant. By that time I had almost completely left my body, except for one foot. I became conscious of that and I wondered what would happen if I totally left. It didn't seem the thing to do so I slowly descended back into my body. The light faded, the sense of untiy faded. I arrived just as the guided meditation was ending. I do not know why this happened when it did. To my knowledge I did nothing to bring it on, although a week of meditation had perhaps opened me to the possibility. It is my intention to remain open to such experiences.
Now I can't help but wonder what you're thinking. In any case, that experience gave me a new spiritual understanding which has greatly helped me. I call it the sky above the clouds. The sky above the clouds is peace and strength and I can't say what else, especially when the weather below that sky gets stormy and frightening. When life becomes chaotic and difficult, I know there's a sky above the clouds. When life becomes sunny, I know the sky above the clouds is even better. Just knowing the sky above the clouds is there allows me to draw upon it, to gain perspective and a greater equanimity. I know this. I can connect with that intuitive knowing when I remember it. That's how I stay open to it.
One can open oneself to mystical experiences if one believes they exist and if one is willing. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote Is My Soul Asleep?
Is my soul asleep?
Have those beehives that work
In the night stopped? And the water-
wheel of thought, is it
going around now, cups
empty, carrying only shadows?
No, my soul is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
It neither sleeps nor dreams, but watches,
its eyes wide open
far-off things, and listens
at the shores of the great silence.
May your soul be awake, whether it takes a mystical journey or not. May you listen well and find your ways of knowing and allow what you learn to transform you. As the 14c mystic, Lalla, wrote, "Your way of knowing is a private herb garden. Enclose it with a hedge of meditation, and self-discipline, and helpfulness to others." And now, as every exploration of mysticism tends when words no longer do it justice, we move into silence. May it be so.
Closing words by Walt Whitman "I Am the Poet"
I am the poet of reality
I say the earth is not an echo
Nor man an apparition;
But that all the things seen are real,
The witness and albic dawn of things equally real
I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed of the
And went down to reconnoitre there a long time,
And bring back a report,
And I understand that those are positive and dense every one
And that what they seem to the child they are
(And that the world is not a joke,
Nor any part of it a sham).