Experience is a word often associated with mysticism and mystical spirituality.
Take, for example, popular spiritual writer Richard Rohr. In his book The Naked Now, Rohr defines a mystic as someone “who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience” — in other words, an inner experience of God.
He’s not alone. In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg describes mystics as “people who have vivid and typically frequent experiences of God.” And this isn’t just some new idea — as far back as 1925, Evelyn Underhill wrote in The Mystics of the Church, “Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, is the direct intuition or experience of God; and a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience—one whose religion and life are centred, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which he regards as first-hand personal knowledge.”
On his “Sacred Structures” website, blogger Jim Baker offers this perspective: “Christian Mysticism is a complex spiritual topic and defies easy definition. Historically, mysticism is defined as hidden, unspeakable, can’t be put into words, an awareness and experience of the reality of God beyond ritual, doctrine, and dogma.” He is expressing a point of view that I have run into again and again: not only that mysticism entails the experience of God, but that it is therefore better and more important than religious doctrine or dogma. According to this viewpoint, religion supposedly represents the attempt to control people’s understanding of God — as opposed to experiencing God for themselves.
Anyone interested in mysticism may sooner or later face questions like this: what does it mean to have an experience of God? What is the nature of such experience? How can we tell the difference between a “real” mystical experience, and an illusory or imaginary experience? What about people who don’t have such experiences?
The Art of Mysticism
Evelyn Underhill describes mysticism as an “art” — the “art of union with Reality.” We can quibble with her use of the word “Reality” instead of God, and we can also debate what the word “union” means — but what stands out to me is her use of the word “ART.” Mysticism is an art — which means, it’s not a science. My apologies to any engineers reading this, but mysticism has more in common with love poetry than with technical manuals. And just like you can’t reduce art to some sort of objective criteria that can be measured and quantified, the same can be said of mysticism — and mystical experience. Mysticism invites us to discover our relationship with God on the inside.
It’s easy to tell if someone has been baptized or not, or if they have received a Master of Divinity Degree. But having an experience of God? There’s no way to measure it. We simply have to take people at their word, and decide if the witness to such an inner experience is someone we can trust — or not.
And to complicate matters further, mystics (Christian or otherwise) are a diverse group of folks. As it has been said more than once, “the mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic.” This means everyone experiences God in their own unique way.
Some mystics are visionaries, reporting extraordinary or even perhaps supernatural encounters with God in their hearts and minds;
Some mystics are philosophers, who experience God through intellectual speculation and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
Still others are lovers, devotional followers of Christ who encounter the divine presence through the intimacy they feel in their hearts.
Other mystics are writers, poets and memoirists, or artists or musicians, who experience God through the joy and beauty of their creative work.
Some find their experience of God by helping others, being of service to others, from feeding the hungry to mentoring the young. And others find it by doing prophetic work, immersed in the struggle to build a more beautiful and just world.
And finally, there are those extraordinary souls who seem to encounter God in ways that cannot be put into words, but that represent a kind of non-dual, heightened consciousness, where they truly seem to experience not only the presence of God, but indeed union with God.
Is the experience of God an emotional event — a feeling of tremendous joy, or bliss, or reverie? Is it some sort of intuitive knowing, a confidence that seems beyond what can be explained on a rational level? Is there a numinous or even supernatural quality of insight that simply cannot be put into words?
So if the experience of God comes in many shapes and sizes, perhaps the most important question is not “how do mystics experience God,” but rather, how do you experience God? Perhaps a mystical experience is ultimately a profoundly subjective matter, and the question is not so much what makes for an “authentic” experience (like a scientific measuring of what is true versus what is false), but rather what makes for a meaningful experience — where the person having the experience is able to say, “yes, I encountered God in that experience.”
But this leads to even more questions. If I have a “mystical experience” and it leaves me with a sense of self-importance or even arrogance, is that the same thing as another person whose experience leads to a sense of deep humility and quiet gratitude? Certainly, not all mystical experiences are equal, so how do we discern which ones are truly life-giving, as opposed to other “experiences” that may just be elaborate tricks of the ego? And then there’s the reality that not everyone reports having mystical experiences. Does this mean not everyone “gets to be” a mystic? What if, despite sincere desire for a sense of God’s presence in one’s life, a person simply never has an experience that they interpret as being an experience of God? What does that mean?
Mysticism, Experience, and Hiddenness
To explore these important questions, let’s go back to the quality of hiddenness that is encoded in the very word mysticism itself. Mysticism is related to mystery — it comes from a Greek root-word that means an “initiate of a mystery religion.” In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah declares that God is a God who hides (Isaiah 45:15). So is it any surprise that, throughout history, there have been mystics and contemplatives who insist that the most mystical encounter with God actually is not something we experience at all?
According to this way of thinking, God operates in our hearts, minds and bodies at a level deeper than our thoughts and feelings or conscious awareness. Christian spirituality is based on the premise that God wants a relationship with us, wants to heal our hearts and transform our minds — but it could be that God doesn’t require us to have ecstatic or extraordinary experiences in order for this to happen.
This is not to say it’s bad to have a conscious experience of God — just not necessary, especially if we believe some of the great mystics, from Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite in the sixth century, to The Cloud of Unknowing in the fourteenth, to Maggie Ross in our own time.
This may be cold comfort to someone who desires a conscious experience of God — but that’s a slightly different issue. The point is, when we explore the wisdom of the mystics, we need to have as broad an understanding as possible of what it means to encounter God — which means an understanding that stretches beyond the limits of human experience, even beyond the capacity of our senses or the boundary of our minds.
I set out to define experience in the article, and realize I haven’t really done it. Instead, I’ve charted some of the difficulties that arise when we talk about mystical experience. Perhaps we need to take a step back and consider what a mainstream dictionary, like the website www.dictionary.com, has to say about experience:
(noun) a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something… the process or fact of personally observing, encountering, or undergoing something.
So experience has to do with observation, encounter, or undergoing something directly — as opposed to merely reading about it or learning about it from another source. And for our purposes, this may be all we need. Mysticism is a reminder that a relationship with God cannot be established vicariously. Whether your encounter with God is profoundly experiential or deeply intuitive and hidden, what matters is that it is your encounter. Whether your encounter with God ultimately helps you to be more like a saint, or distracts you into the traps of your ego, either way what matters here is that it’s your encounter.
Mysticism demands of us a personal commitment, a personal willingness to be engaged with the mystery that Christianity calls “God.” It’s not a spectator sport. Hopefully we can learn from one another so that we can avoid the traps of experience that is more about ego and narcissism than about truly becoming liberated in response to God’s love. But the fact that some experiences lead us astray, and that other ways of encountering God might not even involve conscious experience, is no reason to reject experience. Like anything else in the spiritual world, it needs to be subject to thoughtful and careful discernment — and a humble recognition that the mystery we call God is always bigger, and more unknowable, than any experience we might have. That, it seems to me, is necessary to keep mystical experience in proper perspective.