Mystical or Not at All

Throughout history, some men and women have been opened morefully than others to the mystery of creation, to a deeper knowing that is beyond words or images. They have had glimpses of a deeper reality, of the way that things can and are meant to be. These mystics have appeared within all major religious traditions and outside of them. Some mystics have been the inspiration for or founders of a new religion, sect, or order—Lao Tzu, Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, Jelaluddin Rumi, or George Fox, among many examples. Others have been artists, poets, philosophers, humanitarians, politicians, and scientists—Plato, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Dag Hammarskjold. Many have been simple, ordinary people who are not widely known, and there are many living among us today.

The essential message of the mystics has been remarkably consistent. St. Martin of Tours, a fourth-century monk and pioneer of Western monasticism, commented that "all mystics come from the same country and speak the same language." At a core level, their message transcends theology and time. It comes with a certainty, a depth, and a passion that does not waver. Unfortunately, the world has largely not heard their message. Or, when heard, it has often been dismissed as impractical, illogical, or irrational. Even when it has been heard, over time it has typically been distorted or covered with so much dogma that the true essence has been almost lost. Unfortunately, our world has now reached a critical state where I believe we must pay serious attention to that message. I believe that it offers us the only real hope of saving our Earth and life as we know it.

In A Treasury of Trueness, Vernon Howard, a 20th-century mystic, is quoted as saying, "A billion times you have sought your own answers. Do you want to go into the second billion?" I don’t think we have the luxury of trying the old ways a billion times more—they have not worked in the past and will not work in the future. Our Earth and its incredible variety of life are faced with overwhelming problems. Time is running out. Some project that unless a major restructuring of our social, economic, and political structures takes place in the next decade or two, it will be too late—the damage will be beyond repair.

I believe that at the core of all these problems is the lack of a deep spiritual foundation. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, remarked that the fundamental problem for all his patients over age 35 was, at its core, a spiritual problem. In The Confessions of St. Augustine we read, "Our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you." Restless hearts seek comfort in a wide variety of ways. They may seek it through eating, drugs or alcohol, shopping, unhealthy relationships, money, or power. But in the end, none of these things bring that peace—there is still a restlessness. Hearts that are not at peace are not sensitive to the sacredness of all life, to the horrible destruction of our beautiful Earth. They are not truly compassionate to the great needs of so many fellow human beings, not appalled by the cavernous gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Is there another way? Is it perhaps time to honestly open ourselves to what the mystics have been urgently telling us? I truly believe that anything less will simply result in more of the same. Andre Malraux, a French writer, historian, and politician, said, "The 21st century will have to be mystical or not at all." This prophetic statement, I believe, points to the need to develop a mystical sense of this evolving cosmos we are part of. We need to live from a deeper sense of awe and gratefulness that "I am." We need to realize more fully that all of creation is interconnected in a beautiful but fragile web. Only from this deeper consciousness will we be able to find ways to solve the many problems we face and ways to come into harmony with the dance of creation.

What is this message? First, some caveats. The mystics consistently caution us that the ultimate answer is not one that we can know in the usual way; it cannot be fully conveyed by words or images; it cannot be known through intellect or logic. At best, words can point us in the right direction. I like the image of "fingers pointing to the moon": the goal is not to analyze the fingers in great depth, but to see the moon.

Another sense of this dilemma is conveyed by a story that I have encountered in several forms. My hybrid version goes like this: There is a frog who lived in a puddle. One day a frog from the ocean came by. The puddle frog asked, "What is your ocean like? Is it as big as this puddle? Can you swim around in it and jump across it? How deep is it?" The ocean frog replied, "You wouldn’t understand," adding, "But if you are really interested, I will lead you there." The mystics are the ocean frogs and their words give us a whiff of ocean air—a glimpse of the vastness, power, and variety of the ocean. The trip is not only worth it but, I believe, essential at this time in history.

I don’t pretend to be an expert about the mystics; these observations simply represent my "what canst thou say" based on my experience of their words and images. From that experience, I feel that the following basic ideas can serve to guide us:

Intellect and logic are not the source of the answers that we need. The Tao Te Ching says, "Not-knowing is true knowledge." The contemplative classic The Cloud of Unknowing states, "He may well be loved, but He may not be thought. He may be reached and held close by means of love, but never by means of thought." We are asked to enter the place of "unknowing" where true knowing begins.

There is an interconnectedness, a oneness, an interrelationship of all life. We are not separate, isolated beings, but are all part of the great mystery of creation. It is interesting to note that modern scientific thinking in many ways points to a similar understanding. One example of this is Bell’s Theorem, which is sometimes referred to as the "butterfly effect." It holds that the beating of a butterfly’s wings can have an influence on events far away, even on the opposite side of the Earth.

The answers are not "out there," but are within each of us. Finding the right job, the right partner, being a success, having enough money, security or a better place to live are not where we will find true peace. How often have we hoped that a new president or a new political party in power would bring us meaningful change, only to be disappointed again! Instead, we need to begin by looking deeply within ourselves. In Your Sacred Self, Wayne Dyer, a contemporary teacher of spirituality, writes about turning our gaze around and looking inward, and I find that image helpful. Jesus’ metaphor of first taking the log out of your own eye before removing the sliver from your neighbor’s eye conveys a similar theme. From this inward looking, we will come to realize the divinity within us and within all creation.

Love is the answer. Like the waves from a pebble thrown into a pond, love ripples out into the world in ways beyond our imagination. The two great commandments in the Bible point to this—we are to love God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul; and our neighbor as ourself. This love is not the same type of love that is often the focus in our culture. Not eros, romantic/sexual love, nor even philia, or love between friends and family, but agape, the love for everyone: an unconditional, sacrificial love, even for those we may not particularly like. This is the love that the mystics talk about.

Letting go, emptying out, or "dying" is necessary in order to find true peace, in order to find real answers. This is not a physical death, but a surrendering to the great mystery that underlies our very existence. This is key if we truly want to open to the mystic way. We are not to settle for a halfway, part-time commitment. Buddhist guides sometimes talk about becoming totally empty vessels. Jesus was asked to take the ultimate step, death on the cross. I believe we are asked to go all the way, to the point where we can say, as John Woolman did in his Journal, "John Woolman is dead," representing the death of his ego. In a similar vein, Thomas Kelly, in The Eternal Promise, spoke about the "totalitarian claims of the Gospel." This is not a case where balance or moderation is called for.

All things are possible if we open ourselves to this other way of being. The Bible tells us, "faith can move mountains" or, in Thomas Kelly’s words, if a handful of us open ourselves fully to the spirit, it "will shake the countryside for ten miles around." These are more than metaphors; they are references to the power and clarity of God’s spirit working through us.

This process is not necessarily easy, but there is no price that is too great to "pay" for it. It means looking at our shadow side, facing our brokenness, our limitations. Like the caterpillar going into the cocoon, the process requires a major transformation, but the result is beyond our imagination. This is about the "pearl of great price" in Jesus’ parable. We are told to sell all that we have to obtain that pearl—but that pearl is of infinite, eternal value. It is like paying a penny to have everything you could ever want or need. This process will be difficult, but necessary. Thomas Keating, the Cistercian monk who founded the Centering Prayer movement, tells us in his book, Intimacy With God, that the "Divine Therapist" will be there with us in the midst of the journey.

This is not just about my transformation, my salvation, my enlightenment. Instead, as I am changed, I become a clear channel for God’s transforming work in the world. I become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Any peace that I might find for myself would be like a grain of sand if it were only for my benefit and it left me unaware of the world’s suffering. However, as I come into harmony with the great mystery of creation, I contribute in my unique way to that mystery and become a tool in the hands of God. My unique way may not be spectacular or worthy of a lot of accolades, but it is important that it be the way that God desires for me. Caroline Myss, a contemporary writer and teacher about spirituality, observes in a tape entitled Spiritual Madness that we may claim that we want to follow God’s will, but suppose God asks us to "just" be a peaceful presence in our daily lives in our neighborhood? Many of us may have expected a much more impressive job description.

Silence is an important medium through which to connect with the divine. It is in silence that we can best hear what we are called to be. Thomas Keating said that "silence is the language of God, and anything else is a poor translation." If we aren’t consistently listening to God, aware of God’s constant presence, then we will not be in harmony with God—we will not hear what God is telling us. We must also strive to live from the silence, to take it with us wherever we go so that it is at the core of whatever we do or do not do.

Simplicity is another theme that seems to be a consistent part of the message. Although the way is not easy, it is not complex. In The Confessions of St. Augustine, we are told, "Love God and do as you will." Thomas à Kempis begins his classic Imitation of Christ with, "Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except loving God and serving him only." In The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, the 19th-century French saint tells us, "The closer I come to God the more simple I become." The two great commandments cited above convey a similar simplicity. Unfortunately, as humans, it seems that we can make things very complicated.

I believe it is extremely important that we open ourselves to this mystic vision. We must listen, not with the ears on our head, but with the ears of our soul. We must give up our usual ways of trying to find peace or happiness and commit ourselves to another way. Instead of believing that we know anything, we must open ourselves to the mystery of creation. We must look deeply within ourselves to find the divinity within us and within all that is. Through this opening, we will come to realize our true destiny. This destiny does not have a place for all of the ways we separate ourselves—by race, religion, nationality, gender, level of wealth, level of intelligence, age, occupation, and so many others. Father Bede Griffiths, a 20th-century monk who spent many years in India integrating the Christian and Hindu traditions, describes this destiny as being "one with God in a unity which transcends all distinctions, and yet in which each individual being is found in his or her integral wholeness."

It is easy to dismiss this mystic vision as a nice ideal that is not suited to the real world. However, our so-called "realistic" ways certainly have not worked in the past, although we have tried them billions of times. I believe that it is now imperative that we try the way that the mystics have been pointing to for thousands of years.

Richard W. Siebels

Richard W. Siebels, a long-term attender of Radnor (Pa.) Meeting, completed the program "On Being a Spiritual Nurturer" offered by the School of the Spirit. © 2002 Richard W. Siebels