MARKS OF AN INTER-RELIGIOUS MYSTICISM
Going back to its etymology, the word mysticism comes from myein: which means to close the eyes or the lips. A “mystic” is a person who lives the experience of a mystery; mystic is the person who is the subject of an experience which has Mystery as its object. From the beginning the word mystikós has been used as an adjective and it is only since the 17 the century that it has become accepted as a substantive.1 It’s from then on that we begin to speak of mystical language as a unique new language. In Christian usage, mysticism was used to designate a different way of coming to know God, a way different from common knowing, a way marked by the force of a Presence beyond our capacity of expressing. Down through history different definitions have been given to this experience: Thomas Aquinas called it cognitio Dei experimentalis “experiential knowledge of God”; Angelus Silesius spoke about it as the “interior union of God with the soul”; for John of the Cross it was “a loving listening to God” as for Jacques Maritain “a joyful experience of the Absolute.”
It’s worth while pointing out the force involved in two essential terms implied in this extraordinary direct or immediate access to Mystery and Reality: these words are “experience” and “presence.” In his sermons based on the biblical Song of Songs, Bernard of Clarivoux points out that it is by means of the book of “experience” that we can reach the mystery of God. From his point of view it is through “experience” that human intelligence is able to delve into the deepest fields of understanding.2 Mystics of different religious traditions give us important testimony about the force of this experience. The French intellectual Simone Weil, in an autobiographical letter describes the sharp experience of God that she experienced in Solemes in the year 1938: “Christ himself came down and possessed me.”3 Likewise the Nicaraguan mystic Ernesto Cardenal wrote: “You also swiftly entered into me while my defenseless soul was seeking to hide its shame.”4 We can also mention the “experience of God” found in the beautiful history of Theresa of Avila:
“Sometimes it happened to me, as I have said, although it was over briefly, the beginning of what I will speak now: it happened to me in this fantasy that I placed myself next to Christ, as I have said, and even at times reading, unexpectedly there came upon me the feeling that I was in no way able to doubt that the presence of God was within me and I completely wrapped up in Him. This was not as it were in a vision; I believe they call it theological mysticism. The soul is, as it were, suspended so that everything seems to be outside of oneself: the will loves, the memory seems to be almost lost, the understanding seems not to function but is not lost; rather as I say, it does not function but instead seems as though it becomes frightened by the amount it does understand since God wants it understood that nothing should be understood about the way His Majesty is represented.”5
Mystics of all traditions very clearly recognize that the abysmally inaccessible mystery in its totality, pierces through and goes beyond the experience. Despite efforts to express the experience, the tongue is poor and deficient in translating the richness that has been experienced. What often happens is that mystics have to “mangle words” and “murder the language” in order to describe even in a limited manner, the force of an illuminating presence.
Without denying the singularity and specific weight which distinguish the different religious traditions, we must recognize the presence of “great similarities and analogies in religious experience.”5 They are resemblances that do not annul differences but rather reserve space for an experience which is always unique. Likewise in the realm of spiritual depth it is always necessary to share with the other. This is the reason for the great difficulty in judging the spiritual experiences of others, so as not to relativize or degrade them as inferior. It’s extremely complicated attempting to interpret a certain religious or mystical experience without being in syntonic perfection with it. One must use tremendous spiritual delicacy to be able to approach a distinct religious experience. This holds good also for judging different rituals. These always make reference to a “pristine experience” and its re-actualization. They are rituals that do not transmit simply knowledge but rather and above all an experience. As Amaladoss correctly noted, “anyone who has not had the experience and is now capturing the tradition from outside, very possibly will not be able to reach an authentic interpretation of it.”7
Simone Weil was strongly questioned by certain Catholic theologians for having affirmed that “mystics of almost all traditions are almost in identical accord”.8 Opposing the author and also the defenders of a “philosophy for all times” who are trying to give support to “the transcendental unity of religions” the theologian Henri de Lubac tried to give strength to the idea of “the qualitative difference that separates other religious traditions from the Christian tradition”.9 In his classical work on Catholicism, De Lubac admits that even outside Christianity, humanity has - “as exceptions” - been able to reach spiritual heights. Nevertheless by the force of his “theology of consummation” he brings into question the love of the Buddhists and the mysticism of the Hindus. In his vision, the most beautiful and powerful human efforts have to be “fertilized by Christianity in order to produce fruits for eternity.”10
It’s impossible to deny the differences among religious traditions, as likewise the peculiarities that distinguish the experience and the interpretation of the Mystery developed by mystics of the different religions. Therefore it’s necessary to recover the “hidden equivalences” and underline the “profound similarities” that join in brotherhood the mystics on their path searching for Reality. To recognize differences does not mean to belittle the “intense confraternity” underlying these deep personal experiences. This is the great challenge that animates those who believe that mysticism is alike and that there is the possibility of an inter-religious mysticism or even a mysticism that goes beyond religions.
1 Mysticism as an experience of Reality
“Mysticism as an experience of Reality” comes up as highly helpful in the search for a positive path to reach an understanding of an inter-religious mysticism or concept of Reality. The author who appears here as a light for reflection is Raimon Panikkar, the Catalonian theologian and mystic who has contributed a lot to the development of an enriching debate in the inter-religious field. In a work of his published in 2005, Panikkar notes that mysticism is not a specialization but rather an “anthropological dimension” that accompanies a person during all his existential trajectory.11 The human being is potentially empowered to discover the Mystery that inhabits reality and then to irradiate this experience to others just as waves wash up on the shore of a lake. Mysticism describes this as “the experience of the ultimate reality”, as “the complete experience of reality.”12 The category “reality” (or “Reality”) is chosen because of its greater neutrality and for its macro-ecumenical potential. Reality is the symbol chosen to translate the All, (to holon). In this way mystical experience is an integral experience which makes possible access to integral reality which can be designated in different forms: God, All, Nothing, Being, etc. We’re not talking about something superficial or merely passing but rather an in-depth insertion into the very interiority of the experimented object. And all this does not mean accepting pantheism since mystical experience barely touches reality on the edge and then only contingently. The Mystery keeps on burning. Divinity envelopes all reality but it passes through it infinitely.
Because of the influence of the Christian Orthodox tradition, and also of the Indian advaita spirituality, Panikkar has recourse to the “cosmo-theo-andric intuition” in order to express the three dimensions of reality: divine, human and cosmic. These are three dimensions that interpenetrate each other and reveal the fundamental enigma of the relation.13 This advaita (aduality) vision favors a perception of reality which supersedes both monism and dualism and gives birth to a harmony of relation and integration of the transcendent with the immanent. For Panikkar, “the advaita intuition does not consist in affirming the unity nor negating the duality, but rather precisely by means of vision that transcends intellection and recognizes the absence of duality in the base of a reality which in itself lacks duality”.14 The very structure of reality is dialogic and harmonic. The human being participates in an “adventure of reality” which involves the transcendent and the immanent which is at the same time divine, human and material.
The great challenge consists in awakening this reality, catching the diaphanous state of the other world that permeates this world, picking up the little signals and lights which shine forth from the very interior of things. It’s necessary to tune the ear to present time, undertake a “poetical listening” to the entire cosmos. The essence of the gift of contemplation as Thomas Merton points out, is to awaken the “infinite Reality that exists within everything that is real.”15 Its an experience that involves permanent tranquility and attention. Its not something that is limited to a few virtuous people, but rather it’s open to everyone who is disposed to pay attention to the occasion with sensibility and transparency. From his rich experience with spiritual direction of the Trappist novices at Gethsemany (USA) Thomas Merton points out the intimate relation between contemplative and active life. For him, the exercise of the contemplative life was nothing complicated, but rather a gift for living simply, for feeling life flowing, for advancing into the depths of the great mystery that lives in time. In his reflections for the novices he said that contemplative life “was simply to live like a fish in water.”16
In his attentive observation of the dawn, Merton managed to distinguish “a virginal point” between darkness and light which expresses the ineffable secrete of the encompassing presence of the mystery. In the contemplation of night, a bit before light peopled the dawn, while the birds were still initiating their first songs and “creation in its innocence solicited permission to “exist” again”, the Trappist mystic discovered the presence of that “soft, blind point” which lives in the very center of being and which he identified as the presence of God’s pure glory.”17 What is meant is the irreducible secrete center of the heart. For Merton, that point of simplicity of inexpressible innocence reveals the sacredness of the self-conscience , liberty and peace. It’s a point of unveiling the “immense open secret which lies there for everybody, which is completely gratuitous and to which nobody pays any attention.”18 The inspiration of this image of the “virgin point” (point-vierge) comes from the influence of the French oriental expert Louis Massignon, deeply learned in sufi mysticism. In the mystic psychology of Islam, and especially in the thought of al-Hallaj, the “primordial luminous point” suggests the profound mysticism of the knowledge of “Reality” (al-Haqq). This point represents the “neurological center of the sphere of tawhid (unity)”19 In the point of view of Hallaj, the organic principle of everything which expresses the nucleus of the original light, is that luminous point (nuqta). It is interesting to know that some Muslim teachers learned in the Koran, place their concentration on the importance of the diacritical point that marks the letter ba in Arabic. The book of the Koran begins with the letter b: Basmala (“In the name of Allah”). The sufi teachers hold as the base for esoteric symbolism that the contents of the entire Koran are concentrated in that diacritical point of the b found at the beginning of Basmala.
2. All names of The Reality
In one of his beautiful homilies on the Song of Song, Gregory of Nissa, one of the three great Capadotians of the IV century, speaks about water which hides beneath the spring. If someone approaches a spring he is astounded at the abundance of water that constantly gushes up. But there is no access to “all the water”, which mysteriously remains hidden in the bosom of the earth. And this water that never ceases to flow, permanently stirs the desire of the thirsty person.20 Reality is like the “spring of the source” in its ceaseless movement of generosity and gratuity.
Just as “all the water” of the spring can not be seen, likewise Reality always remains hidden. The reason for choosing the word Reality to express the Ultimate Mystery, is due to his use of language of certain religious traditions. In the Jewish-Christian tradition God is spoken of “He Who is.” (Ex 3,14); the Sanskrit language of the Hindu tradition uses the expression sat; in Arabic al Haqq. These are corresponding expressions that despite imprecise and frail human language try to translate the greatest mystery that has no name. The Buddhist tradition opts for “God’s Silence”, which absolutely does not mean atheism. The negation serves as a “sign of the transcendence”. Velasco has pointed out that “God’s Silence” practiced by Buddha “is the most radical form of preserving the mysterious condition of the ultimate, the supreme which is the focus of all religion.
The different names that are attributed to God or the Major Mystery do not apply to his essence which remain untouchable. The names always imply a state of determination and boundary. The “Spiritual Presence” which breaks through into all history becomes fragmentary when showing itself in time and space. The names or attributes of God are “miserable leftovers” that still give off “perfume of the divine nature” 22 ; they are an isthmus barzakh that serves as a bridge between the essence of the mystery and the cosmos. Mystics of different traditions indicate that Reality is beyond names: Master Eckhardt makes a distinction between God in her/his own self and the God of creatures. Gregory of Nissa makes a distinction between God in her/his essence and God in her/his attributes who carries out operations in history; Ibn ‘Arabi of the sufi tradition, distinguishes the Divine Absolute and the Divinity of dogmatic convictions “that is prisoner of limitations;” in the advaita of the Hindu tradition a distinction is made between God in Self and God of names and forms (n_maúpa). In the classical German sermon #2, Master Eckhardt speaks of the incandescent and burning force of God which flows without ceasing into the “intimate room” of the soul. But it’s a God who is “free of all names and stripped of all forms, totally unencumbered and in liberty.”23
The flow of self-revelation of the Mystery is always continual and never repeated. From here mystics like Ibn ‘Arabi pointed out as very important that searchers broaden out their beliefs in order to participate in and enjoy the numberless benefits that animate Reality. There is no way of placing limits on Reality. Beliefs in their turn are always fragmentary, they are chains or bonds that put limits on Reality. They are like the “numberless colors that persons impose on colorless light by means of their own limited existence.24 Religions and beliefs are really systems and symbols that refer to Reality, which is at one and the same time transcendent and immanent. But Reality is beyond that which we are able to grasp by means of symbols. Religions play an important role en anamnesis, that is the living, actualizing memory of the dynamic transforming power of Reality that instigates in persons a longing to practice ego-de-centralization and re-centering on the Mystery of the Other. As the theologian John Hick well indicated, Reality constitutes the essential starting point for human transformation: “It’s that reality in virtue of which, by means of our response to one or the other of its manifestations as figures of God or of the non-personal Absolutes we are able to reach the blessed state of ego decentralization which is our supreme good.”25
3. Reality and its fragrance
Being infinite and intangible, Reality is manifest in the depth of the human being, in the very heart of the heart. In one of his sermons, Eckhardt emphasizes that access to the “depth of God” is gained through the depth of the person who purifies the heart of all attachments and lives in humility pure receptivity for the gift of the Mystery. Eckhardt points out: “Those who know say that the stars pour out their powers into the depth of the earth, into nature and the earthly elements producing there the purest of gold. The more that the soul reaches the depth of the most intimate of its being, so much more the divine power is poured bountifully into her and acts in a hidden manner which reveals great works ...26 . In the depth of the heart is where is revealed the “great door of the mercy of God.” But there is necessary a permanent work of purification of the heart, of breaking the knots which impede the exercise of loving reception of the other and of spiritual delicacy. This idea of the heart as the mirror which reflects God was also given much emphasis by Gregory of Nissa. He has some beautiful reflections on “the pure of heart” commentating on Mat 5,8. Actually the pure of heart will see God, but for this to occur it is necessary that the mirror be well polished so that it might be able to reflect with tenderness and strength the unceasing rays of the Mystery of light.
When one gets down to the bottom line, the “defused perfume” of the Mystery is poured out and embraces all “names and forms.” In the depths it manages to grasp the dynamism proper to the heart which is permanent motion, oscillation and pulsation. At every moment the heart catches the different unforeseen forms of the mystery of Reality. The same thing happens when the faithful of different religious traditions make efforts to move deeply into religious experience by going down deeper into their own proper religion. In so far as they extend their efforts they begin to realize that the mystery that inhabits the experience can not be limited to just their own religion. The theologian Paul Tillich realized this very clearly: “In the depths of every living religion there is a point where religion as such looses its importance and the horizon towards which it sets its course permits it to supersede its particularity and raise itself to a spiritual liberty that makes possible a new overview of the presence of the divine in all expressions of the ultimate meaning of human life.
The value and richness of a religion is revealed in it potential for humanizing fragrance, or if you wish, visible fruits. For Gandhi, what proves the truth of a religion is its “fragrance” of love, spirituality and peace.28 In his letter to the Galatians, Paul speaks of the importance of the visible fruits inscribed by the Spirit: of “love, joy, peace, patience, amiability, goodness, faithfulness, modesty, and self control” (Gal 5, 22-23) The essential path is to follow these fruits of the Spirit. The great sufi mystic, Rúmi, expressed abundantly the centrality of these visible fruits in the very dynamic of salvation: “On the day of resurrection, men and women will appear pallid and trembling with fear at the final judgment. I will present this your love in my hands and I will say to You: interrogate this, this will respond”.29 The fragrance of spirituality does not appear only in religions. Human beings are capable of developing to a high degree special qualities of the spirit such as love, compassion, delicacy, courtesy, patience, hospitality, caring for othrs, etc. These virtues are not the exclusive property of religions.
An authentic inter-religious mysticism needs to recognize the irradiation of the Spiritual Presence, of the power of Reality which envelopes all the universe and soaks into all of history. We are talking about a presence that manifests itself in beliefs but radically transcends them. Nothing is more essential than the capacity to amplify one’s vision so as to be able to recognize the presence of Reality in all of its transcendent and immanent manifestations. It’s possible to take part in a profound vision of Reality only through the application of beliefs and strengthening the potential sensibility to be able to perceive the divine in every place. As the mystic Teilhard de Chardin used to say: “nothing is profane for the person who knows how to see.” And from this the fundamental importance for an “education of sight.” As Henri le Saux, another great searcher used to say, “it’s enough just to open up one’s eyes” in order to perceive the presence of the Grail. One of the most daring mystics of all times, Ibn ‘Arabi, recognizes as very few do, that the heart is the place most fitting for the mystical perception of Reality: a heart capable of grasping all the forms. He says in one of his poems: “People have the most varied beliefs regarding God; but I profess all of them; I believe in all beliefs.”31 In the mystery of the depths, one finds the key of really true spiritual delicacy, of a singular courtesy that makes it possible to perceive the dynamics of the manifestation of the divine in all particular forms. To fix oneself exclusively on the transcendent mission (tanzíh) in order to grasp the divine, is in itself a limitation, just as is to fix exclusively on the dimension of immanence (tasbíh). One must combine the two dimensions: transcendence and proximity in order to approach the Mystery which is and hides, a Mystery which is not only transcendence but also self-revelation for the world.
(Publicado em: José María Vigil (Ed). Toward a Planetary Theology. Along the Many Paths of God. Montreal: Dunamis Publishers, 2010, pp. 170-179)