I have had the domain name mysticjohnculbertson for almost ten years now. During the whole time I’ve had that name I’ve given classes and workshops, have advised many, and have composed my first books and blog posts. Yet, I’ve never once ventured into the reason I chose that name.
Though I’m sure some out there in our world feels it was purely a gimmick, the truth is that I do consider myself to be a mystic. Oh sure, I know I’m not on par with say the likes of Thomas Merton, but I have been exploring mysticism and having mystical experiences since I was five years old. Those experiences and revelations, however, are topics for future writings.
In today’s blog post I’m going to take a look at what a mystic is and what mystical experiences may be. First, however, I want everyone to ponder a quote by the famous Rosicrucian Ralph M. Lewis. I consider it one of the most beautiful and profound quotes which puts into layman terms what a mystic is.
“If you would know a mystic, do not confine your search to monasteries and temples, but look also on the highways and byways, in towns, hamlets, and in the hustle and bustle of the great cosmopolitan centers of the world. When you find someone who is industrious, studious, compassionate, loved by friends, and neighbors, tolerant in religious views, and who can point out to you the magnificence and efficacy of God in the simplest of things, you have found a mystic. With these qualities, whether one is attired in sacerdotal robe or in the overalls of a mechanic, one is none the less a mystic.” – Ralph M. Lewis
From Misunderstanding to Basic Understanding
The concept of mysticism and that of the mystic are, unfortunately, greatly misunderstood in our day and age. This is especially true in the Western part of the world such as the United States.
Mysticism is not theological, at least not in the classic sense of theology, Even though many people tend to think about and even have their first experience with mysticism by virtue of Christian theology, the truth is that mysticism need not have a theological backing.
I realize this may be complicated to some. After all, for a great many years mystics were considered to be mostly Christian or Buddhist Monks. A person has never and will never need not be a monk to be a mystic or have mystical experiences.
Despite the fact one need not follow a particular religion to engage in mysticism, any sort of theology will, however, help one to sometimes better grasp and understand some of the insights and experiences that can be held through the virtue of the mystery of the Higher Power.
Mysticism is about connecting with God – whatever your name for that Higher Power to be. You can call it God, Yahweh, Alla, Enlightenment, Bramah, the Goddess, Father Sky, Universal Consciousness, or by any other name for the same energy of the Universe. Mysticism is having a personal, inner, intimate, connection to that. It is what the Catholic Christian Jean Gerson defines as “an experiential knowledge of God that comes through the embrace of unitive love.” (1).
The great psychologist William James also weighed in on mysticism and what it is. According to James there are four components that make up a mystical experience. These are Ineffability, Noetic quality, Transiency, and Passivity. In reading William Jame’s work it is discovered that of these four, only the first two are true requirements of mysticism. The other two, though they may also occur and usually are found, are not necessary for an experience to be considered mystical.
James indicates that Ineffability “defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.” (2)
He also indicates that noetic quality is about direct experience. He says “mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.” (2)
On the Tolerance of the Spiritual Development of Others
In our modern era, many people are starting to move away from organized religion (at least in practice) and are more interested in the spiritual. At the very least, they want to maintain their traditional religious heritage while seeking out alternative paths to exploring their own personal connection to the Higher Power. In the process of pursuing the spiritual, especially on one’s own, more and more people are going to be having what Gerson and James consider to be mystical experiences.
It is important that people learn to approach the subject of personal mystical experiences with these individuals in a very tolerant and understanding manner. The whole point of understanding mysticism is to foster a deeper understanding of the methods and ways in which people, for eons, of many different faiths, have come to personally know their Higher Power.”
Perhaps one should work to adopt the idea that your experience may not be my experience, but that doesn’t mean your experience doesn’t hold value or truth for you. Just as William James would say, many of us may feel that other people’s experiences don’t hold any authority over ourselves, that doesn’t mean those experiences are not awe inspiring, authoritarian, and valid to the one having it.
But What is Mysticism?
So what is mysticism? It is the internal experience one has which allows them unification with the Power to Be and in which, as a subset, may bring with it unique experiences not always understood or accepted by the average person. These experiences may include, but for most people usually won’t include: ecstatic trances, levitation during prayer, strange visions, heavenly voices, miracles, fortunetelling, prophecy, and communicating with the dead.
Most importantly, however, is the fact that anyone is capable of being a mystic and having their own personal mystical experiences and revelations. Most people just need to learn to search, listen, and be more intimately aware of the presence of the divine in all components of life.
1. William Harmless. S.J., “A Theology Called Mystical: Jean Gerson and William James,” in Mysticis. (New York: Oxford University Press 2008), 5.
2. William James., The Varieties of Religious Experience. (http://web.archive.org/web/20110221111441/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=JamVari.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=11&division=div1), 371.