Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Do Mystics Belong to a Spiritual Elite?

Are mystics by definition better, more evolved, than ordinary spiritual people? Do their visions, saintly acts, unceasing prayer, fasting, charitable acts, or constant remembrance of the One bring them nearer to the One in this life or any other?

Not necessarily, says Ghazali. He recounts a story in The Path of the Worshipful Servants to the Garden of the Lord of All the Worlds of a series of servants who performed some or all these acts during their lifetimes and are turned back at the garden gate by the angels. Why? One engaged in backbiting, another was motivated by worldly gain, another treated those "beneath" him with arrogance, one was conceited about his spiritual prowess, one was not merciful and gloated over others' misfortunes, and another was guilty of spiritual ostentation. The last of the servants the angels let pass through the gate, for that one seems beautiful, inside as well as out, a true mystic. But the One bars that servant from the garden too, for the One who sees what is hidden sees that this servant's devotion was not absolutely sincere, that every act was intended for someone or something not the One.

The poor person watching all this, Mu'adh, then trembles and asks, "O Messenger of God, who is capable of these virtues?"

And he replied: "O Mu'adh, what I have described fro you is easy for someone, if God makes it easy for him. All that you need is to like for other people what you like for yourself, and to dislike for them what you dislike for yourself, for then you will have been saved and delivered." (106)

Sound familiar? It is very much like the summary of the law and the prophets that the prophet Mcah gave, that Jesus gave, and that Hillel and Akiva gave. We'll look at all their summaries side by side in a later post. But for now, listening to this distillation of the life of true devotion to the One tells me this: the task of a mystic is simply the task of every other human being--to become truly human, that is to say, to become a reflection of the divine in the world. And what does the divine look like that we should reflect? Someone who desires for others all that she desires for herself or himself, someone who does not desire harm or any ill for others that he or she would not want for themselves. That's all.

That's all and that is the most difficult for our conflicted, ego-driven, constricting hearts. Who has been given the grace of this purity of heart? It is a long and strenuous journey to reach that gift, to be able to receive it. And to whomever enjoys that gift of living as a truly human being all things are added. This is the fountain out of which all other acts of prayer, fasting, charity, visioning, and remembering God, flow--pure water from a pure well.

And in this a "great mystic"--whatever that might mean--is no different from an ordinary believer: It is the purity of the heart that determines whether they are truly human and near to the divine, whether they will enjoy the presence of the Lord walking together in the garden.

"Purify our hearts to serve you in truth," the Psalmist writes. That is the goal not only of mystics but every person of faith--for every thought and act to flow out of a purified heart.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What is a mystic anyway?

Like many people, I absorbed many cultural and religious prejudices against mystics and mysticism. I thought mystics were irrational, soft-headed, escapist, concerned more with their individual souls than the body and the world we share with others, fanatical--even to the point of crossing the boundaries of morality.  But over the years, each one of these lies about mystics and mysticism was worn away by my encounter with mystics' writing and my own experiences and encounters. From Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, nature, and other mystics,  I discovered the incredible variety and depth of mystic experiences.  And I discovered how close their way of being in the world is to all passionate people of faith, regardless of which tradition they stand in or whether or not they think of themselves as "mystics."

Because "mysticism" is such a "weasel word" (to crib from William James on the word "experience," you can find more definitions of it than there are flowers that bloom. Not all are accurate, not all are useful.  In the coming weeks, I will explore definitions of mysticism, on the way to forming my own.

For now, this is my working definition:  A mystic is any person who trusts radically in the One, who keeps turning toward the One, and who therefore experiences ongoing revolution of the heart.