The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Mysticism: A Four Letter Word

Or.... The Truth Is OUTSIDE of You

I am a very cheap person. And by cheap, I mean CHEAP. I will not buy things I absolutely need until the last minute, and even when I do I spend a lot of time looking for the best deal. (When you see those people in the supermarket staring for a long time at two exactly identical boxes of toothpaste wondering which one is the best bargain, that's me.)

So I had nothing to do last night, and I am on a tight budget. Being a student, I can get a lot of cool discounts on concert tickets. I had been looking at posters for an event that the student Sufi association put on last night, and when I saw that student admission was only five dollars AND they were serving refreshments, how could I say no? Besides, there would be music and poetry involved. Who could beat that?

Being the eclectic person that I am, I have of course superficially studied Sufisim , especially through the poetry of Rumi and other Sufi masters. I also know that one of the main functions of Sufisim in Islam was to convert Christians through aping of certain aspects Christian thought (although one can say that both have their roots in Neoplatonism and Far Eastern religions, but that is another story). Sufism, while a part of Islam, is very irenic in many of its teachings, soft-peddling many teachings of Muslim theology and emphasizing self-realization, love, and union with the One.

I have to admit, when I went to yesterday's event, I thought it would be full of granola-eating New Age hippies and bearded Muslim clerics. To my suprise, it was one big Iranian get-together. (And now I know why they cover up their women, since Iranian women are FINE!!!!....but that is neither here nor there. Needless to say, these women had moderninzed and moved past the veil.) The actual event itself had the feeling of "the First Presbyterian Church does Islamic mysticism": smiling girls in modern outfits, guitars, and lots of cheesy sound and light effects. The music was good and very traditional, and the poetry was passible. There was lots love talk and how we must find the truth within us. There was even a rather riduculous meditation exercise where we were encourged to "pick a tulip from our heart", and how this could help us "realize our potential".

The real smoking gun of the night was one Sufi story re-told in a rather dramatic fashion. In the story, a group of moths was flying at night and saw a candle through a window. The head moth sent one of the other moths toward the flame, but the moth did not get past the window and flew back. The head moth told the reluctant moth that he knew nothing about the flame. He sent another moth, and that one got a little closer, but he also ended up flying back only having barely felt the warmth of the flame. Again, the head moth said that his underling knew nothing of the flame. Finally, he sent another moth, and that moth flew right into the flame and was incinerated. The head moth, having seen his brother consumed in the flame, said that it was that dead moth who had true knowledge of the flame. In summary, the man said that that is how we must approach God; and this to the point that our identities, our very selves, are destroyed in the inferno of Divine Love.

That all sounds very pretty, but it is a load of rubbish. Union with God doesn't destory who you are. Indeed, that in truth is the real mystery of the Holy Trinity, the One and the Many, the Body and Its Members. Union does not mean obliteration, but it does in Sufism. In fact, I once read that a Sufi mystic said that the greatest sin of all things is to not be God. On the contrary, it is our greatest glory, since we will be united with Him, but never be Him. (See my absent Palamite footnote that I will not write.)

Aside from this obvious error, there was a greater one that came to mind throughout the night and it is this: Christianity is not mystical. At least not in the sense that other religions are mystical. In fact, it would be best that we get rid of that word altogether in the context of our postmodern intellectual wasteland. Christianity is all about communion, that is, community. While there are obviously bridal images in the Scriptures, they are primarily addressed to the Church as the New Jerusalem, the Israel of God. That is, the community is the Bride of Christ, bone of His bone, and flesh of His flesh. Since religion has become "all about me" in this day and age, mysticism fits modern self-centeredness just fine. All of this talk of spiritual techniques, self-realization, perfection, and ecstasy is extremely counter-productive to the Gospel. There exist people who can read St. John of the Cross, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and the Desert Fathers and not be able to get through a passage of the Gospel without balking at it.

Is it not possible to say that mysticism, mystical techniques, and poetic language are really just products of an over-active "spiritual" (or rather, ghostly) imagination? Why else would many claim that "in their mystical elements, all religions speak the same language"? Why? Because these things are all-too-human. That's why a St. John of the Cross can sometimes sound like a Zen master. What makes the former better than the latter is his faith in Jesus Christ. Without it, he would simply not be worth reading.

The most powerful metaphor that God uses in condescending to our created language is one of the least "mystical" of all: "Pater imon o en dees ouranees..." "Our Father"..... what can be less esoteric than that? He tells us merely to cry out, "Daddy, Abba Pater". There is no special trick, there is no mystical ecstasy in that. It is the most familiar thing we know, and we do it before we can even think and speak. Christianity is about life, real life, ordinary life. I sometimes think that people should not pray with downcast eyes, especially these days. In order to really pray, you have to have a real sense of wonder, like when a child enters a large, beautiful room. Without that sense of wonder, you can try and go into yourself, to seek "the truth within", but all you will find is an empty dark closet. The Truth is outside of you, in a meadow, in a tree branch, and in your neighbor. I am not the answer. I am merely the question, even if I am a darn good (and precious) one.

After the performance, they gave out some Persian treats, which were really good and worth well over the five dollars I paid for the whole experience. I was still hungry (it was nine o'clock, and I had not eaten supper yet) so I went to a Korean barbeque place close by that my roomate recommended. I got there and the crew working there were all Mexicans. "You can't escape us," I thought, "resistance is futile." I listened to their norteƱa music while I ate my carnitas con kimchi (only in California). Real life can be stranger than the most elevated ecstatic visions sometimes.


At 11:20 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

The Kingdom of God is within you.

At 1:20 PM, Blogger D. I. Dalrymple said...

This is a really excellent post, Arturo. Really excellent.

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Thanks. I do try my best sometimes.

At 5:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have frequently had this experience in the Bay Area - leaving an event full of high-minded spiritualizing and going and riding the bus or eating someplace and being completely struck with wonder and amazement at the world outside, the real world, full of human faces, the experience that is so easy to have if you just stop thinking about your own interesting condition for one second and look outside, but the habitues of those kinds of Bay Area events seem to have such a hard time with.

At 8:47 PM, Blogger Mr. G. Z. T. said...

indeed, the encounter with the flame is like the bush of old which burned without being consumed.

At 1:59 AM, Blogger axegrinder said...


I love how you concluded this post with the anecdote about the Korean restaurant run by Mexicans. I think it ties ere'thing together nicely.

Mysticism fails because it turns the one away from the many and in on himself in pursuit of the Three. Each one encounters the Three in relation to the many.

Jason Kranzusch

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