Mysticism is surely one of the least understood types of religious experience. To have a mystical experienced is probably something totally foreign and even unimaginable to most of us. Or is it just that our spiritual practices have become so familiar and habitual that we are no longer capable of recognizing moments of mystical transcendence?
The literature by and about religious mystics testifies that certain privileged individuals have achieved their most intimate, powerful and life-transforming encounters with God in just this way—direct, face-to-face, as it were, and without the usual religious intermediaries or trappings. A mystical relationship with God or a higher power typically occurs beyond traditional spiritual beliefs and practices, and does not necessarily require knowledge of scripture, philosophy or dogma, or adherence to any code of behavior.
Some religious sects cultivate mental and physical exercises that can result in an other-worldly encounter with the divine through deep breathing, meditation, fasting, chanting, whirling, or sleep deprivation. Some achieve direct interaction with the non-physical, supra-personal realm by ingesting “sacred herbs” (peyote, mescaline, ayahuasca) either alone or as part of communal tribal rituals. Some of the most familiar accounts of mystical experience occur within the western Christian tradition, and these events typically strike nuns, monks, and lay people suddenly, without warning, in moments of solitude and silence, often while they are praying or meditating.
Whatever the source or circumstances, the characteristics of the mystical experience are amazingly similar. It is so deep, personal and other-worldly that it is typically described as, well, indescribable, ineffable, inexpressible, or unfathomable.
The mystic usually falls into something like a hypnotic trace in which she feels removed from the everyday world, loses her sense of selfhood and becomes totally immersed in union with the divine spirit. The feeling is one of rapture, ecstasy, bliss. The paradox of mysticism is that in trying to convey the experience, the mystic is forced to resort to the poetic language of metaphor and simile to describe the sensory aspects of the experience; thus she may experience a brilliant, blinding light, a physical warmth or burning sensation, ringing bells, angelic voices, or the smell of sweet, overpowering perfume.
Christian mystic Teresa of Avila left detailed accounts of her encounters with the divine. In one of them, she describes seeing an angel holding a spear with a tip of fire. “This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails.” “The pain was so great,” she continues, “that I screamed aloud; but at the same time I felt such infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last forever . . . It was the sweetest caressing of the soul by God.”
In descriptions of mystical experience, it is not uncommon to find this intermingling of pain with pleasure, along with a sense of submission and surrender, of being powerfully overcome, even ravished, at the peak moment of union with the divine beloved.
Which brings us to another paradox about mysticism: that is, how frequently spirit and flesh come together, clash, contradict and complicate each other. How often the body and soul seem to be struggling toward reconciliation through divine intervention.
Teresa’s Spanish compatriot, John of the Cross, uses the startling physical imagery of masculine lovers intertwined to describe a divine mystical encounter in his poem Dark Night:
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
And I caressed him . . .
Andrew Harvey has explored the issue of sexuality and mysticism, and specifically gay sexuality and mysticism, in two books: The Essential Mystics and The Essential Gay Mystics.
Harvey sees gay mysticism as involving a “marriage of the masculine and feminine within each one of us,” the result being a rejection of “the old separations between heaven and earth, body and spirit, heart and mind.” For Harvey, Walt Whitman is “the pivotal visionary in the history of gay mysticism.”
Harvey notes that “Many shamans were and are homosexual.” They were “accepted and even specially revered as priests, oracles, healers and diviners.” Furthermore, they “were seen as sacred—people who, by virtue of a mysterious fusion of feminine and masculine traits, participated with particular intensity in the life of the Source.”
In “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy,” Mircea Eliade reports that certain shamans who dress and behave like women “combine in their own person the feminine element (earth) and the masculine element (sky).” The ecstatic experience of the shaman, he continues, “re-establishes the primordial condition of all mankind,” and represents a “reversion to the mystical age of the lost paradise.”
In the past, there have been attempts to explain mystical experience by demonizing it. It has been called a form of madness, hysteria, even possession, a feature of deranged minds. More recently, scientists and medical professionals have probed the brain for a neurobiological explanation.
However we explain, or fail to explain, the mysteries of mysticism, it deserves our respect as a true variety of religious experience. In fact, in “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James concludes that mystical states are “gifts to our spirit” and may be “the truest of insights into the meaning of this life.”
Joseph Quinn is a retired technical writer and editor who lives in Center City. He volunteers with the William Way Community Center and the LGBT Elder Initiative (LGBTEI).