Mystic practises, and their outcome of common truths,
are still relevant to all major religions –
from Buddhism to Christianity –
pantheist or monotheist.
Mysticism itself is usually based on meditative practises, where one’s mind is used to theoretically gain religious insight and/or commune with God.
In most cases, mind stilling techniques, such as chanting (aloud or silently) or concentrating on one’s breath, are applied to allow the mind itself to open to what is normally clouded by the buzz of everyday thought processes. In essence, many mystics believe that we are tied to our everyday apprehension of reality, maybe even ‘blinded’, by what we experience through our senses. They consider then, that mysticism can allow us to escape the hold over our minds that our everyday senses possess. Some mystics are fortunate enough to have the capacity to spontaneously enter the desired state of mind.
If applied effectively, mystics believe that their techniques will inevitably lead to a state of altered consciousness where ‘ultimate’ knowledge can be gained, or union with ‘the’ supreme being can occur. Although progress towards this state of mind is normally even and gradual, the actual shift into it is abrupt and dramatic.
Mystics are to be found within most religions. Although more prominent within pantheist religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, they are also to be found within the monotheist religions of Christianity and Islam. To get an understanding of how religions both overlap and differ please read the article, “So what is God.” The two religious groupings, monotheism and pantheism, are explained there.
2. PANTHEIST MYSTICISM
The connection between mysticism and pantheist religions, particularly in Asia, is fairly well known. Pantheist mystics approach their practises with the primary goal of gaining knowledge of our sacred Universe (i.e. through ‘enlightenment’). Indeed, much of the theory of pantheist religions is based on the experiences of their mystics.
Please see the article, “Analysing mysticism” for my own analysis of mysticism and its outcomes.
Their desire to be ‘enlightened’ can be driven by factors such as the human sensing of mortality, and the need to understand our interrelationship with whatever underpins our existences. I am writing about that which is, unlike us, imperishable or eternal, i.e. God. There is no doubting that the inquisitive nature of humankind also plays a major role in motivating these mystics. Indeed, our inherent inquisitive nature raises a question that is discussed in another article on this website, “Life, the universe and everything.” It can be found there under the heading “Complexities of life on Earth” in that article.
In some schools of pantheism, deeper and deeper states of altered consciousness are targets. The practises become a veritable science. Within other schools, intuiting knowledge from experiences after the mystical event is the objective. There are considerable differences in approach between, and even within, individual pantheist religions.
During their experiences, pantheist mystics generally attest to a loss of physical individuality, a sense of profound timelessness, and a sensation of one-ness with all things.
3. MONOTHEIST MYSTICISM
Despite a lack of publicity, Christianity has also had its fair share of mystics over the past two thousand years. The (Egyptian) Desert Fathers of the fourth century, St Augustine of the fifth century, St Gregory of the sixth century, St Romuald of the tenth century, St Bruno of the eleventh century, St Anselm of the twelfth century, Nun Gertrude of the thirteenth century, St Gertrude the Great of the fourteenth century, Julian of Norwich of the fifteenth century, St John of the Cross and St Theresa of Avila of the sixteenth century, Gertrude More of the seventeenth century, William Blake of the nineteenth century and Thomas Merton in the twentieth century, are just a few widespread historical examples of Christian mystics.
The other great monotheist religions, Judaism and Islam, have also had a long history of mysticism. Like Christianity, it has influenced their theology over the centuries.
3.1 Describing monotheist experiences
The writings of many Christian mystics are still available for reading by those interested. And their assertions, see examples below from St Theresa1 and Meister Eckhart2, often indicated that God that was truly immanent (i.e. an all pervading God) as well as transcendent of course.
1 “I understood how our Lord was in all things and how He was in the soul.”
2 “God is nearer to me than I am to myself, He is just as near to wood and stone, but they do not know it.”
Incidentally, St Theresa’s photo is placed at the top of this article. Her statue is located in the church of St Peter in Vatican city. Clearly the statue depicts her in an ecstatic mystical state.
Some monotheist mystics (Christian included) have really ‘pushed the edges’, when it comes to explaining how close they think the relationship of God and human is. The following example from a Muslim Sufi mystic is indeed as close as a monotheist can get to pantheist without actually crossing the line:
“To conceive one’s self as separate from God is an error: yet only when one sees oneself as separate from God, can one reach out to God.”
And from Meister Eckhart once again:
” … the eye that I see God with is the eye that God sees me with.”
These monotheist mystics are referring to God as the “Ground of Being”. That concept was revitalised in the twentieth century Christian theology (termed,“Panentheism”) of Paul Tillich and John Macquarrie.
There are indeed Biblical scriptures that indicate our closeness to God. For example, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” [Acts 17:28 extract.] I believe it is that recognition of being immersed in the creative presence of God that led to the experiences of St Theresa , Meister Eckhart and that un-named Sufi mystic.
3.2 Differing goals for monotheist mystics
It is also worth noting that monotheist mystics approach their practises from a different perspective to pantheist mystics. Monotheist adherents have normally had faith, and belief, in God prior to starting their practises. The primary aim of these mystics is to deepen their relationships with God. They seek ‘union’ with the God they already believe exists.
With regards to Christian mystics in particular, love of God is normally the motivator for union. Accordingly, their practises often make use of the emotion of love itself. As Catherine of Sienna put it, “the feet carry the body as affection carries the soul.” A quick look at the basics of Christianity shows why she had that view.
The knowledge gained, by monotheist mystics, of God’s ‘personal’ depths and his empowering relationship towards reality itself eventuated as a by-product of that union. Many of them did come to consider that God was the “Ground of Being” just as pantheist mystics do. But, of course, they also accepted that God was transcendent and capable of having personal relationships with each and every one of us (which pantheist mystics do not).
Monks, friars and nuns within some Christian orders still practise mysticism today. However, there is generally limited organised practise for lay people in Christian mysticism/ meditation.
Like faith in God itself, the outcomes of mysticism, cannot be appreciated without putting it into practise; trialling it.
If you wish to pursue the discipline yourself, in a Christian sense, then a number of websites exist to provide a better understanding.
I have provided a further overview of mysticism’s influence on our human understanding of God’s being in my article “So, what is God?” in this section of the website.
If on the other hand you are searching for a way of knowing whether God exists, then three sections of this website is dedicated to explaining how. We can prove for ourselves beyond reasonable doubt that God does in fact exist. In effect, this is achieved by recognising his presence within our individual lives and the Church itself. The Bible is there to guide us. We do not need mysticism to do it.
The final section of this website explains the simple basis of Christianity.
Join in please. Ask questions. Leave a comment. Etc.