Monday, August 17, 2009

Reader Query

A reader suggests: "Write a blog [post] on what you mean when you say you dislike the terms "ministry", "spiritual direction", "formation", and "mysticism" What you would use in their place."

I will address the last term first, as it leads into the others.

The word "mysticism" has been spoiled beyond reclamation. It has been used with a wide variety of meanings, many of them contradictory. It has been associated not only with a realization of the desire for God but also with exotic states of consciousness, schizophrenia, and feel-good self-affirmation that resembles mistaking contentment after a good meal for divine favors.

"Mysticism" these days has a subtext of hierarchy, privilege, elitism and the spiritual marketplace, with its own brand, its own self-certifying celebrities, and its bazaar (bizarre) of trinkets. Worst of all, the word as it is used today often encourages people to watch themselves attempt to be "mystics," an effort that is entirely self-defeating.

Even Bernard McGinn's attempt to define the word in his useful multivolume series is problematic because of his use of "experience." All experience is interpretation, which reduces "mysticism" to subjective feeling and personal claims. Writing about such feelings puts the interpretation at yet another remove, or even two or three, because of the absolute abyss that lies between the interior life and the language in which it is described. Because this abyss is ignored, and understanding of the work of silence and its role in texts has been lost, a lot of time, paper and ink have been wasted on analyzing so-called mystical texts for what they might reveal about the psychological states of their authors, a process which has been about as useful as analyzing a metaphor about a flower for its DNA.

Associating the word "experience" with "mysticism" encourages people to seek experience about which they can make claims (much of Sara Maitland's recent book on silence is a good example), which is a process opposite to that of the spiritual life, which is about giving up experience and its claims. Maitland's book is not without its insights, however, the main one being that contemplation causes boundaries to crumble so that narrative becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Contemporary scholars are dropping the word "mysticism" and substituting the word "contemplation," which again, has a variety of meanings. When this word has been ruined it is hard to think of what we shall use next.


Anonymous dFish said...

This reminds me of Anthony de Mello's story (I guess storytelling remains the best tool for sharing what Heschel would label as the Ineffable):

The devil once went for a walk with a friend. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick up something from the ground. 'What did that man find?' asked the friend. "A piece of truth,' said the devil.

'Doesn't that disturb you?' asked the friend.

'No," said the devil. 'I shall let him make a belief out of it.'

1:58 am, August 18, 2009  
Blogger Bo said...

Thanks for this piece. I'd been wondering what you made of Maitland's book.

1:37 pm, August 20, 2009  

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