Posts Tagged ‘mysticism’

PSALM 24

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
    and established it on the rivers.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
    who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
    and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
    and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him,
    who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

Lift up your heads, O gates!
    and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
    that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
    The Lord, strong and mighty,
    the Lord, mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
    and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
    that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory?
    The Lord of hosts,
    he is the King of glory.

David’s personal experience of God as the expansive mystery beneath and behind everything also had a deeply moral dimension, which must be true of all genuine religion as well. Since God is our name for that which energizes and supports existence itself, there is a recognition in all true religion that our human approach to that mystery requires a sufficient combination of mindfulness, reverence, and moral rectitude.

This is not to say that only perfect people qualify for an experience of God, for that would make the experience a reward for what is sometimes called a “works righteousness.” David is not suggesting that living right earns us a place in God’s favor and accumulates merit for ourselves. Those “who have clean hands and pure hearts” are the ones whose actions (hands) and intentions (hearts) are united in love for God and others.

The reason such persons “receive blessing from the Lord” has to do with the fact that they are the ones whose existence is grounded in a grateful awareness that opens them more fully to the overflowing generosity of reality. In truth, blessings are continuously pouring forth, and God/Love is that in which “we live and move and have our being,” as Paul says. But to see them we need an attention sufficiently liberated from foreground distractions and scattered urgencies. By the path of reverent awareness and wholesome lives we “ascend the hill of the Lord.”

PSALM 22:25-31

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
    my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
    May your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
    and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
    shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the Lord,
    and he rules over the nations.

29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
    and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
    saying that he has done it.

“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the story from Acts 8 was the external and ritual demonstration of an inner event of spiritual rebirth. Going under and emerging out of the water symbolized the death of the old self and the coming to life of the new. Whether this process of transformation was ritualized or not, a deep and universal belief among the religions is that salvation necessarily entails a break with the “old order” with all its habits and beliefs, so that life can find release and fulfillment at a higher level.

The psalmist envisions the day when all the peoples of Earth will repent (“turn around,” make a break) and come back to the one true God. It’s interesting that this turning is pictured as coming after a remembering, as if to say that our new life in God is not new at all but is rather something we once enjoyed, a long time ago.

The mystical traditions would go a step further and say that this communion with the Divine is the truth of our existence even now, as it always has been and will be. As our lives take us into the far-flung reaches of the world, our roots remain anchored in God as the ground of our being.

PSALM 114

1 When Israel went out from Egypt,
    the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
2 Judah became God’s sanctuary,
    Israel his dominion.

3 The sea looked and fled;
    Jordan turned back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams,
    the hills like lambs.

5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
    O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams?
    O hills, like lambs?

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
    at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water,
    the flint into a spring of water.

Parting the Red Sea and Jordan River are mythological references to the story of when the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt and later given possession of the Promised Land. These images resonate with our universal human condition, delivered as we are in our birth, wandering through the wilderness of this world, and hoping for passage to a better place on the other side – either the other side of what we are currently up against, or on the other side of the Dark Gate.

The mountains skipping like rams and the hills like lambs are obvious metaphors (technically similes). Water from rock is another link into the national myth of the Hebrews, recalling the time when a whack from the staff of Moses brought forth refreshment for the mutinous assembly at Mount Horeb (Exodus 17:1-7).

But let’s not stop there.

“The Lord” is also a metaphorical reference to a supreme power and intention behind all things, personified on the model of a high magistrate or land owner. Is God literally a sovereign ruler sitting on a throne somewhere, or the deed owner of the universe? No, not literally. These titles and associations are being used elliptically, as it were, to speak of something that cannot be directly named or known.

Those who seek after an unmediated experience of the supreme reality are known as mystics, and they are unanimous in cautioning the rest of us against taking our names and concepts of God too seriously. Is the deepest mystery a skipping ram? No, not literally. A sovereign lord? Again, not in the literal sense. What about a being “up there” or “out there” in some straightforward way? Not even that.

Orthodoxy is in perpetual tension with mysticism in every religion. The dogmatists want to define and legislate our representations of God, while the mystics are trying to penetrate past our need for concepts altogether. One defends explanations while the other cultivates an experience. Together they embody the dynamic poles of a creative rhythm: control/release, certainty/openness, verbosity/silence, belief/faith, and meaning/presence.

Dogmatists push religion outward into greater divergence, as all religions differ in the way they make sense of God. Mystics, on the other hand, pull religion inward toward a deeper convergence, where holy books are respectfully set aside and words are finally surrendered to ineffable communion with the divine mystery.

Somewhere in this rhythm the rest of us work out our salvation, on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land.

ISAIAH 9:1-4

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.

A prophet is one who is able to look beyond the conditions of current reality through a vision of future possibilities. Abraham Heschel has characterized the prophets of the Bible as individuals gifted with “depth perception,” where the envisioned possibilities of the future are in fact the concealed potentialities of the present. In other words, the prophet is able to discern the underground movement of history and seeks to bring this awareness to his or her contemporaries in parables of warning, consolation, and hope.

The eighth-century prophet Isaiah flourished during the rise of Assyria to world power, and his basic message was concerning the holiness (divine otherness) of God and the need for Israel to resist the temptation to protect herself against the Assyrian threat by building up her Department of Defense and forming alliances with neighboring nations.

To put her faith in such investments and strategies would amount to abandoning confidence and trust in God. “Pull yourselves together,” Isaiah urged, “and return to the faith you once had.”

It wasn’t a going back to some distant apostolic age that the prophet was advising, but a going within to the inner ground of spiritual power. Don’t misunderstand: neither was this a world-renouncing withdrawal into some sectarian fortress of ascetic practice or dogmatic fundamentalism. Instead it was a call to connect with the God who is the very ground and hope of existence itself.

                                                                                                  

Isaiah’s confidence in God, even in spite of his guarded optimism over the likelihood of his generation returning to faith, made him hopeful for Israel’s future. He was sure that God had brought this nation out of bondage and onto the world stage for a purpose, and that this purpose had not yet been fully realized.

This purpose would achieve greater clarity and focus through the ministry of Isaiah’s successor, the so-called Second Isaiah who took up the prophet’s main themes and transformed them for the situation of exile a century-and-a-half later.

One of the dominant themes of this tradition is that of light, explored for its attributes of radiance and warmth as well as its power to purify. Used poetically, light is also a metaphor for awareness and higher knowledge (fittingly called enlightenment).

The prophet looked with expectancy to the time when God’s truth would dispel the dark shroud of ignorance that blankets the collective consciousness of the world. His “land of deep darkness” is a poetic reference to the global conditions of spiritual confusion and dogmatic blindness, along with the violence, oppression, and suffering that spin out of these.

The thing about such prophet-mystics is that they know, because they’ve seen it, that the holy light of truth is already there beyond the veil of ignorance, shining in all the fullness of power. Now the veil just needs to be pulled aside.

JOHN 1:1-18

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

This hymn to the Divine Logos, the creative Word of God, comes directly out of the mystical stream of New Testament spirituality. If we should try to interpret its meaning using the binary logic of orthodoxy we will be thrown onto the rocks of paradox – for how can the Word be both with (alongside and separate from) God and identified as God?

Admirably, orthodox Trinitarian theology has respected the paradox by refusing to resolve the apparent contradiction in the language. But when we listen from the place of a more mystical spirituality this poem moves us into the farthest reaches of space and time, and into the essential depths of being itself.

One of the astonishing claims of the poem is that this Divine Logos is inherent to the very structure of existence itself. The idea is not simply that God spoke this Word ages ago, but that God is speaking it now. To continue in being, the cosmos must be brought forth constantly from the Void by the generative will and intelligence of the Divine.

This metaphor and analogy have a deep history in the wisdom tradition of the Bible, and we find them throughout the cultures from Asia to Africa, from ancient Greece and Old Europe to the Americas and Australian subcontinent. What we find in this perennial and universal contemplative philosophy is a sustained and imaginative reflection on the cosmic order, the mystery of time, and the harmony of existence.

Human happiness and well-being, according to this Great Tradition, is a function of living by an elevated awareness of how all things fit, flow, and flourish in the one Community of Being.

                                                                                               

So where does Jesus fit into all of this? Although it may seem a minor point to us at first, the author is careful not to draw a simple equation between Jesus of Nazareth and the Divine Logos of eternity. The technical distinction is between the essence or inner reality (the Logos) and its expression in temporal form (the man Jesus).

It’s not that Jesus is accidental to the central revelation of Christianity. Indeed, without the humanity of Jesus there would not have been a revelation to speak of. As clearly as we can manage to put it, Jesus was the manifestation in flesh of the Divine Logos that is the creative power and organizing principle within all things. The individual personality of Jesus became sufficiently transparent so as to reveal the inner reality of our human existence, of existence as such, and, beneath even that, of the very mind of God.

This myth of the Incarnation would later be developed into a full-blown doctrine of such abstraction that one might wonder whether its original insight has been all but lost on the orthodox dogma. It can often sound as if Jesus descended into this world from somewhere else, “put on” the disguise of a human appearance, did whatever he came to do, and then returned to the heavenly realm from which he came.

More consistent with John’s Gospel, and with the wisdom tradition in which he stands, it is rather that Jesus became such a clear window into the deeper mystery of being itself, such a pure voice for the primordial Word of God behind all things, and such a perfect manifestation of God’s will for the human being, that everything was seen to turn around him.

EPHESIANS 1:3-14

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 

7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 

11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

The real challenge at the threshold between trimesters two and three is to let go of all the conclusions of orthodoxy (level 2) in order to plunge into the present mystery of God. This can seem like an abandonment of the tradition theology, and we may even be made to feel as if we are forsaking God and salvation entirely. But this is only because we are, in fact, needing to progress beyond the limits drawn by the conventional doctrine of God.

If our community and its tradition is overly anxious over its orthodox definitions, we will experience its influence not as support and assistance, but as resistance and condemnation. Tragically, countless thousands have had their spiritual growth arrested and all but uprooted by the violent backlash of one dogmatic orthodoxy or other.

One misunderstanding that unnecessarily complicates an otherwise successful spiritual journey is the expectation that the mysticism of the third trimester will bring with it an esoteric, overly philosophical, or “impersonal” experience. It is assumed, for instance, that any sense of God as a dynamic reality and personal presence will need to be relinquished – and no one wants that!

But this simply isn’t an accurate rendering of the actual experience of an initiate to the deeper mystery of God. Indeed it is more frequently the very opposite: the one who releases all to the gracious ground and holy presence of God experiences the breakthrough of an unprecedented revelation. All things in God!

                                                                                                

The realization of God’s will in and through the life of a Christian need not generate an exclusionary mindset, where the purposes of God in other systems of belief, devotion, and practice are categorically denied. As we’ve already seen, this is the dangerous tendency of the second major stage of spiritual formation (orthodoxy).

With the penetration of faith into the essential mystery of God in stage three (mysticism), the need to defend an ideology has vanished – for the simple reason that truth at this point is revealed as transcending all theological systems, and as surpassing even the mind itself.

Now the experience of apotheosis, the suffusion of the whole personality with the divine, becomes the singular aspiration of the soul. It is now theoretically impossible to exclude any aspect of existence from the holy presence of God, since God is nothing less than the vibrant ground of being itself.

For the Christian whose spiritual journey has attained this level of mystical insight, Jesus Christ represents and names that long time trajectory of self-realization whereby God enters into the creation process. In Christ, the will and purpose of God have been made flesh (incarnated) and have overcome the obstacles of human ignorance, fear, and hostility.

Even now God is gathering up all things in Christ, so that nothing is left outside his redeeming love. As we die to ourselves (release the ego) and surrender to God, Christ is resurrected within us, revealed now as the truth of what we really are.