Mystical Musings

For about a half hour every night, after I’ve completed an outline of what needs to be covered during studies with my daughter for the following day, I pick up Carl McColman’s The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and settle in for a very enjoyable and informative read.

I’ve kept up with Carl’s blog off and on for over 5 years and can’t say I always agree with his views, but I certainly respect and appreciate them.  That’s been true of The Big Book of Mysticism, too.  Carl’s writing style is easy to follow, organized, informative and gracious.  I always feel like I am reading the thoughts of an extremely kind, gentle soul when I read his writing.  I appreciate his spiritual perspectives, but I do not agree with his view of mysticism.  It seems to me as though he is trying to define it in order to “sell” it and that makes me uncomfortable because I don’t think mysticism is something that can be bought and sold.  It is certainly an experience that can be shared with others, but not in a coercive, manipulative marketing sort of way.

Robert Bly was once asked if he hoped to make poetry mainstream.  He said that was not at all his goal because once something becomes mainstream, it loses its power.  Professional marketers are aware of this.  Once you discover that cutting edge thing that resonates “cool” and market it to the masses, it almost immediately loses its “cool” so you have to go off looking for the next cutting edge thing to market.   Bringing something into the mainstream does not give it power, it takes it away because the mainstream always demands that the ineffable be made concrete.

The way I see it, mysticism is to religion what poetry is to literature.  In order to sell it to the masses, you have to reduce it to labels and catch phrases that turn it into something far less significant than what it actually is.

Granted, I’m only 75 pages into the book and my intellectual understanding of Christian mysticism is admittedly somewhat limited.  It’s not non-existent, but I know I don’t have Carl’s knowledge.  I had a significant mystical experience in my youth that has provided my primary understanding of mysticism.  Everything gets checked against that experience which is what made me interested in Christian mysticism in the first place.  It resonated with my experience.  Beyond that, I attended a dozen or so Franciscan and Jesuit retreats and conferences during the 8 years I was Catholic.  Most of these were silent retreats and a few were specifically based upon a study of the Christian mystics.  More recently, I’ve made a fairly extensive study of The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and a few others.  But my knowledge of Christian mysticism, in general, is somewhat lacking.  I know very little about the Celtic influence on Christian wisdom, for example.  I’ve made an in depth study of Church history, but I have not made an in depth study of many of the Christian thinkers themselves.  So undoubtedly Carl has far more knowledge than me.  But I’m still uncomfortable about his desire to nail mysticism down so concretely.  What is the point of doing this?  To gain converts?

Carl says that he can’t guarantee that he will win anyone over to his point of view.  Fair enough.  But doesn’t mysticism have more to do with helping people enlarge their perspective from their own point of view rather than trying to get them to adopt someone elses’ point of view?  Carl very clearly says that his goal is to inspire and encourage us to make Christian mysticism a part of our lives.  His selling point is that Christian mysticism “promises” to make our lives better.  This is also the standard selling point of Christianity which has all but become a “brand” these days.  (Well, maybe it IS a “brand”!!)

Carl says that a central “goal” of Christian mysticism is experiencing the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.  This doesn’t seem right to me.  I think it would be more accurate to say that mysticism is the experience of the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.  To claim mysticism has “goals” makes me cringe.  Perhaps it was Paul’s goal, but that doesn’t mean Christian mysticism has goals.

Carl writes:

Paul promises that the mystery of Christ leads to a glorious end that so many mystics since have described – union with God, beatific vision, communion with the Holy Trinity, deification, to be filled with the utter fullness of God.

I have a problem with the word choice here, specifically the word “end”.  Is union with God, etc. an end result?  If so, an end result of what?  Doing what Christian mysticism says we should do?  Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems highly problematic to assign “end results” to mysticism.  Goals that create end results have a lot to do with the modern striving for achievement and marketing tactics (as in growing a church), but very little to do with mysticism as I understand it.

Carl writes, “For example, many forms of non-Christian mysticism are anchored in the idea that human beings are (or can become) identical with God.  Christianity denies this and Christian mysticism concurs.” Mysticism concurs? With what exactly?  I wish Carl had provided specific examples here, because these sorts of blanket statements made by Christians are what I find to be the most detrimental of all.

God is a metaphor and means very different things within different religions.  Mystical Jainism is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a non-Christian religion that believes human beings can become “identical” to God.  But to compare the God of the Jains with the God of the Christians is completely inappropriate.  The Jains do not believe that there is a beginning or end as far as the universe goes so they do not believe in a creator God.  For the Jains, God is perfect Being.  When Jains say that human beings have the ability to become identical with God, they do not mean that they have the ability to become identical with a creator God.  What they mean is that human beings have the the potential to achieve perfect Being. Of the Christian mystics I’m familiar with, I’m fairly certain that this idea would not pose a problem.  Some may not agree with it, but at worst, it would be a non-issue.  (Note: We’ve warped Augustine’s “Original Sin” beyond all recognition since Descartes!!)  Buddhists don’t maintain a belief in God at all.  There are something like 330 million gods in Hinduism.  All of these gods represent the one Supreme absolute called Brahman.  Each god is an aspect of Brahman who is formless and beyond human conception – human beings do not become “identical” to Brahman.

Carl says that the Christian idea of God as a Trinity is a unique idea.  That’s not necessarily true.  Hinduism is far older than Christianity and maintains a triumverage -Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva.  Brahman (Creator) is “Being”; Vishnu (Preserver) is “Thatness”; and Shiva (Destroyer) is the holy word or holy spirit.  The Christian trinity is Father (God), Son and Holy Spirit.  I don’t see a huge difference here. God is “the Ground of Being”, Son is “Thatness” (God on earth; the Word made Flesh); and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit.  Each aspect of the Christian trinity, like the Hindu trinity, contains and includes the others.

In Wicca, the Goddess is understood as a trinity: Mother (preserver), Maiden (creator), Crone (destroyer).  Look at it this way…

  • Maiden (Creator) – innocence, continual new beginnings, the youthful enthusiasm of infinite potential.  In Hinduism, Brahman is the Creator and is also known as “Being”. Paul Tillich called God (the Father) the “Ground of Being”.  Dostoevsky said God was “a field of infinite potential”.
  • Mother (Nurturer and Sustainer) –  fertility, sexuality, fulfillment, stability, life.  In Hinduism, Vishnu is the Preserver and also “Thatness”.  Thatness is the ineffable thingness of stuff.  Human sensual experience.  Thisness/Isness is Brahman/God.  Thatness is based on human experience.  This is the individual experience of infinite potential.  God made flesh.  The Son.  God’s way of experiencing Himself. (In Christianity in the form of Jesus who represents all of humanity.)
  • Crone (Destroyer) – wisdom, repose, death, endings.  In Hinduism, Shiva is the Destroyer.  Shiva is also considered to be the holy word/spirit.  In Christianity, it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to new perspectives which means the death of old ones.  It is the Holy Spirit that undoes the ego so that we can hear God.  It is the communication mechanism between Isness and Thatness.

I think Carl was a Celtic Pagan before becoming Christian. There is a trinity within Celtic paganism, too.  The Trinity exists everywhere.  It is NOT unique to Christianity.  Why would it be?

Also, Christian pantheism is not unknown.  Paul said, “For in him we live, move and have our being”.  What is that if not pantheistic??  Carl writes:

A corollary of this principle is the Christian insistence that mysticism does not lead to a pantheistic merging of you and God, but rather culminates in a loving communion, where mystical unity with God occurs as a loving embrace.

Mystical unity?  To me, there is ultimately very little difference between pantheism and panentheism.  Personally, I think panentheism is a pantheism because the definition of pantheism is broad enough to embrace it.  Perhaps some pantheists insist upon a merging of “you and God”.  But come on!!  God is a metaphor.  We don’t understand metaphor anymore!  If we did, the idea of merging “you and God” wouldn’t make any sense at all!  It’s total nonsense, not pantheism.

I don’t mean to imply that I dislike everything about Carl’s book.  My discomfort with his view of mysticism is nothing new, I have voiced it several times on his blog and he is always very gracious.  I always enjoy reading his blog despite my discomfort and look forward to having time to read his book.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll change my mind as I make my way deeper into it.

Gandhi (1982)

Gandhi is a fantastic epic film about the life of Gandhi! It had a huge affect on me at the end of my teens. I watched it at time in my life when I was still struggling with the validity of religions other than Christianity and this film fully convinced me that Christianity did not hold a monopoly on the truth. It was a life changing film for me. I felt that Gandhi, as represented in the film, portrayed the embodiment of Christ. I still think that holds but it is certain that Ben Kingsley embodied Gandhi! He is a marvelous actor!

Non-violent resistance has always fascinated me – especially having grown up hearing stories about the civil rights movement and MLK Jrs. use of Gandhi’s strategies. It resonates with my deeper sense of Christianity and my understanding of Christ.

Richard Attenborough directed and produced the film and it supposedly took him more than 20 years to make. All of the actors he had chosen for the film when he first started making it had to be replaced by the time it was actually filmed.

In the funeral scene, there are something like 480,00 people. It was a somewhat dangerous film to make, but Attenborough and Kingsley were protected by Gandhi’s family and supporters who were in favor of making the film. It’s supposed to be an accurate portrayal, but there is debate over what got left out and what got put in. For instance, the beating Gandhi receives in the film for burning identity passes in South Africa did not happen.

Gandhi won Best Picture at the Academy Awards along with seven other Oscars, including an award for Kingsley as Best Actor.

From the Kena Upanishad

That which is not seen by the eye, but by which the eye is able to see: know that alone to be the Brahman, not this which people worship here.

That which cannot be heard by the ear, but by which the ear is able to hear: know that alone to be Brahman, not this which people worship here.

That which none breathes with the breath, but by which breath is in–breathed: know that alone to be the Brahman, not this which people worship here.

Kena Upanishad

Buried Divinity (an old Hindu Legend)

I love this…

According to an old Hindu legend, there was a time when all men were gods, but they so abused their divinity that Brahma, the chief god, decided to take it away from men and hide it where they would never again find it. Where to hide it became the big question.

When the lesser gods were called in council to consider this question, they said, “We will bury man’s divinity deep in the earth.” But Brahma said, “No, that will not do, for man will dig deep down into the earth and find it.” Then they said, “Well, we will sink his divinity into the deepest ocean.” But again Brahma replied, “No, not there, for man will learn to dive into the deepest waters, will search out the ocean bed, and will find it.”

Then the lesser gods said, “We will take it to the top of the highest mountain and there hide it.” But again Brahma replied, “No, for man will eventually climb every high mountain on earth. He will be sure some day to find it and take it up again for himself.” Then the lesser gods gave up and concluded, “We do not know where to hide it, for it seems there is no place on earth or in the sea that man will not eventually reach.”

Then Brahma said, “Here is what we will do with man’s divinity – We will hide it deep down in man himself, for he will never think to look for it there.” Ever since then, the legend concludes, man has been going up and down the earth, climbing, digging, diving, exploring, searching for something that is already in himself.

Two thousand years ago a man named Jesus found it and shared its secret; but in the movement that sprang up in His name, the Divinity in Man has been the best kept secret of the ages.

(From the prologue to Eric Butterworth’s book Discover the Power Within You)

The Namesake (2006)

My husband and I saw The Namesake yesterday. I thought it was very well-done.

It’s based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel by the same name and is about the cultural issues that occur between Bengali immigrants to the U.S. and their first generation US children. It is tradition for the Bengali Grandmother to name the first born which can sometimes take years. A young couple’s son is born in New York City, far away from their home in India, and they discover they cannot leave the hospital without a name. So without much thought, they choose Gogol. (Gogol has immense importance to the family – especially the father. But to explain that here would be giving too much away.)

“The Overcoat” is a short story by Nikolai Gogol. It is about a man whose job it is to hand-copy documents. He loves his job and is quite good at it. He is distracted however, by the younger clerks who tease him about his threadbare overcoat and so he creates a very strict budget on his meager salary in order to save for a new one. His expectations of buying the coat begin to take precedence over his enthusiasm for copying. To say anymore would be to spoil the story which you can read for yourself here. Suffice it to say Gogol’s “Overcoat” has several parallels for Gogol in The Namesake who wants to fit into the culture in New York City but is from a Bengali family who will not let go of their traditions. (The father claims that one day the son will understand that “They All Came Out of Gogol’s Overcoat” which is a saying attributed to Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy.)

The film is directed by Mira Nair who also did "Mississippi Masala", "Kama Sutra: a Tale of Love", and "Salaam Bombay." (I’ve seen the first two but haven’t seen Salaam Bombay which won an Oscar.) Jhumpa Lahiri makes an appearance in the film as Aunti Jhumpa.

Hinduism & Buddhism (Bill Moyers with Huston Smith)

In the first episode of The Wisdom of Faith, Bill Moyers asks Huston Smith what he means by: In India, art is religion, religion art.

Smith’s answer: Art was a spiritual technology until our current century. Art makes easy what otherwise would be difficult. What is otherwise difficult is to behave decently toward one another. Art transports us to a different state of consciousness from which the world looks very different. It makes us want to behave differently.

Nataraja, the Dancing Shiva, is a depiction of nature which is very different than the west’s idea of nature. The four arms indicate the prolificness of nature and the circle is about the constant change in nature. But the most important thing is play – divine play. The lower foot is planted on a dwarf which symbolizes the human ego: the noisy, clammering demand that we have things are way. Only when the ego is subdued, then our whole attitude toward the world can be changed from a blind mechanism into a dance of joy.

The claim of Hinduism is that you can have what you want. But the climax of this understanding is that we already have it.

Smith talks about his first encounter with the Tibetan Buddhists. For the first hour, they did an impressive chant but he claims he caught himself dozing off to it only to be awakened by something he had never heard before. He said it sounded like an angelic choir and he couldn’t figure out how it was accomplished. Then all stopped except for one boy and he realized that this one boy was producing a first, a third and a barely audible fifth out of a single larynx. He claims it was the holiest sound he had ever heard. His first thought was that the music director back at MIT will never believe him. Nobody in the west thought human beings were capable of doing this. So he recorded it and went back to MIT and was told to contact Kenneth Stevens who was amazed. Multi-phonic chanting was introduced into the dictionary of music after Smith introduced this to Stevens.

This is not art for arts sake. It is spiritual technology. The purpose of worship is to shift from peripheral awareness to focal awareness the mystery and wonder of the world. We sense it going on a lot, but we don’t have it in the focus of our attention. The purpose of worship is to move the peripheral to focal awareness. This is what the Tibetan monks do through multiphonic chanting. It is a form of worship. All distinction between deity, lama and self collapses and all there is, is that one tone Om.

The Buddha nature is the core of our being which is the Buddha. In his later years, people asked the Buddha what he was (not “who” he was) and he answered, “I am awake”. The face that is typically depicted of Buddha is a face that has clearly been through the ups and downs of life but that has not only registers acceptance but also affirmation.

Buddhism is the most psychological religion and we live in a psychological age. Psychologists claim they learn more about the mind in an intense three month Buddhist retreat than in all of the years of psychiatric training because in psychiatric training it is always about the “other” person, but in Buddhist meditation, the focus is upon the self.

Smith studied Zen Buddhism in Japan. He wanted to enter a Zen monastery to undergo the training of the Zen monks. But he didn’t realize what it was he was asking. The point of Zen is to cultivate a very rarified state of awareness and it is not easy to make it into these monasteries. To put a westerner into this is considered a major distraction for the monks. But Smith was accepted and at the beginning of his training, was given the third standard Koan:

A monk asked Joshu (a master back in China) does a dog have a Buddha nature? The master answered “Mu” (which means “no” in Japanese).

Smith had to go and contemplate this for 24 hours.

Every Buddhist would know that the Buddha said even grass has a Buddha nature. The dog is on a higher scale of being than grass. How can it be that the grass has a Buddha nature but a dog doesn’t? So Smith fiddled with the definition of Buddha nature and returned an answer based on this fiddling. And Smith was sent back for another 24 hours to come up with a better answer.

Smith said he came up with an even more ingenious answer, but was sent back for another 24 hours. And when he approached the Roshi for the third time, the Roshi bellowed at him before he even had a chance to get the answer out of his mouth: “you have the philosophers disease.” He softened a little bit and told Smith, “There is nothing wrong with philosophy. I have a masters degree in philosophy myself and from one of the better universities. But philosophy deals with reason and reason can only work with the experience that it has to work with. Now, you obviously have the reason. What you do not have is the experience. Put reason aside and go for the experience.”

The answers to these early Koans is not a verbal answer. It is an experience. Smith’s theory is that these are conundrums set up in such a way that they present you with a contradiction before which reason is helpless. It creates a mystical experience and makes you realize the limitations of reason.

Smith said he wasn’t allowed much sleep during this training – just 3 1/2 hours per night. He became furious about how inhumane the treatment of people were toward other human beings in this monastery. He was irrational and went storming into the Roshi and was ready to let him have it. He wasn’t going to just throw in the towel on the whole business but throw it right in his face. The Roshi asked him, “How is it going?” and Smith answered, “Terrible!!!!” The Roshi replied, “You think you are going to get sick, don’t you?” Smith yelled back, “Yes I think I’m going to get sick!!” He could hardly breathe. But then, in the most objective, silent voice you can imagine, the Roshi asked, “What is sickness? What is health? Put them both aside and go forward.” Immediately, Smith realized that he was right and upon this realization, Smith felt tranquility and peace. Smith claims that energy came into him when he acknowledged, “By God, he’s right!” When the Roshi made him understand that both sickness and health are irrelevant, they were collapsed into the same thing and Smith could see that they were identical. And he accomplished the union of opposites and bowed to the Roshi with the palms together which symbolizes the acceptance of the union of opposites.

The point of this training was to bring the “otherworld” into this world in the nitty gritty of everyday life. But the Roshi told him that all of the training and exercises he had just been through wasn’t Zen. Infinite gratitude toward all things past. Infinite service toward all things present. Infinite responsibility to all things future. That is Zen.

Water (2005)

Wow! What a beautiful film. Heavy but hopeful. My daughter and I watched this together and I’m so glad she watched it with me. Nice little education on the state of women in another part of the world due to religious fundamentalism.

In this case, it’s Hindu fundamentalism. Water is the third and last film in the Trilogy: Fire, Earth, Water directed by Deepa Mehta. She had a really hard time getting this movie to the screen because Hindu extremists made it impossible for her to film in India. She had thousands of people who would protest at the filming sites and she was finally shut down by the Indian Army because the protesters got out of hand.

The people believed the film was detrimental to Hinduism. This wasn’t true, of course. The extremists had pulled some isolated lines out of the screen play, some that weren’t even from the screen play for the movie, and taken them out of context to upset as many people as they could. It was an organized campaign of death threats, arson, riots to stop production. The Hindu fundamentalists won out.

This was in 2000. She waited 5 years and ended up filming in Sri Lanka. She had to completely recast after that amount of time because people had grown up or had become big stars and weren’t available or too expensive.

The film is about the plight of widows. There is a sacred text called Manu that was written 2000 years ago and it said that when a man dies, half of the woman dies with him so she is half corpse. She has three choices if her husband dies. She can throw herself on the funeral pyre and be burned with her husband’s corpse, she can live a life of strict ascetic “purity” with other widows, eating one meal a day and dressing in rags, or if the family allows it, she can remarry her dead husband’s younger brother.

In some Indian cultures, children are married at a very young age. It’s a means to carry on a family structure that has been in place for quite some time. They continue to live in their parents home until they are old enough to actually consummate the marriage. Sometimes these children are married off to older men.

This story takes place in India in 1938. It is about an 8 year old girl whose husband dies. She doesn’t remember her wedding or even realize that she is married. When she is told she is a widow, she asks her father, “for how long”? But she soon realizes that her family is taking her to live with other widows for the rest of her life to be “purified.” She becomes an untouchable. She’s not allowed to remarry or freely interact with society and must live a strict ascetic existence. The people believe in this law religiously – it’s a sin to not obey it. It’s roots were originally economic: it allowed for one less body for society to feed, shelter and clothe. It’s one of those ugly facts of religion that people take the scriptures of their traditions so literally that they are willing to devalue other individuals in the name of their religion.

That is all part of the first few minutes of the film so gives nothing away. What is brought up throughout the film are questions of how to resolve the issue of your conscience conflicting with your faith. Gandhi says that he once believed God is Truth. But now he knows Truth is God. The prophet Jeremiah said something similar in the Old Testament. He said that trust is the Lord. (He didn’t say, the Lord is trust.) Gandhi said that it is truth we should seek. Seeking God has no meaning unless we understand that Truth IS God and not the other way around.

Today, there are 34 million widows and many of them still follow the scriptures about widows in the sacred text of Manu to the letter.