Dancing with the Mystery
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 28, 2001
Francis Greenwood Peabody served for many years as a distinguished professor of world religions at that most acclaimed institution of theological education, the Harvard Divinity School. Prior to that, Peabody had attended Harvard College, then had done graduate work at the University of Halle in Germany. On his arrival at Halle, he had attended a reception for incoming students where he met the "learned and saintly" (as Peabody describes him) Dr. Gustav Tholuk, one of Halle's most renowned scholars.
As the two conversed, Tholuk asked the young Peabody about his background--Where was he from? To which religious denomination did he belong?
"I am a Unitarian," Peabody replied, "the son of a Unitarian minister, in fact."
"Ah," replied the great German scholar, "Unitarians. Now, they are great mystics!"
It was hardly the reply that Peabody had expected--or that any of us would expect should we introduce ourselves to a stranger as Unitarian Universalists. We don't usually think of our Unitarian (or Universalist) forbears in the light of mysticism. Quite the contrary, on the Unitarian side especially, we tend to think of them as a rather intellectual and rational (maybe even cold) sort; as men and women of action--of social responsibility and reform, perhaps--and not as deeply spiritual mystical sorts. Nor do we usually look upon our contemporary religious faith, modern Unitarian Universalism, as a deeply mystical one, either: By and large, we believe religion should make sense. We believe in freedom of thought, in theological exploration; we celebrate the magnificent diversity of the human race, the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and lots of other good stuff--But mystics--us? We don't usually think of ourselves that way.
But maybe Herr Professor Tholuk wasn't as far off the mark as it might seem. You see, he was familiar with a strand in the Unitarian tradition which, by the time he and Peabody found themselves together at that reception in northern Germany, most remaining Unitarians either didn't remember themselves, or were content on ignoring. If we just listen a little beneath the surface, we, too, will be able to hear that there are clear and deep mystical voices calling out to us from out of our religious heritage:
The Transcendentalist movement of the 19th Century was perhaps the most important and dynamic cultural force ever spawned from within an American religious body. It was a movement which finally overflowed the bounds of Unitarianism and came to influence so much of the American cultural scene (especially the literature) of its own day.
But Transcendentalism originated as an intellectual movement within American Unitarianism. Its original aim was to bring more spirituality into Unitarian churches which some religious liberals believed had grown (in Emerson's words) "corpse cold" in their approach to religion.
Even before the rise of the Transcendentalists, William Ellery Channing, one of the founders of American Unitarianism, had written of what he called "the one sublime idea" that takes possession of the human mind--that is, the greatness of the soul, its inherent divinity, and its "union with God", as Channing wrote. Channing's "one sublime idea"--"the union [of humanity] with God"--is the ultimate description of a classical mystical experience.
In the works of Emerson, the seeds of mysticism come to full flower. "Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul," Emerson wrote. In his essay Nature, he gives perhaps his clearest expression of this mystical experience:
Emerson is echoed, too, in the words of the 13th century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart:
Echoed, too, in words of Mechtild of Magdeburg, another 13th century mystic:
"All things in God and God in all things." / "Part or particle of God"--that's the heart of deep mystical experience, whether in medieval Christian spirituality, 19th century Unitarianism, or our contemporary UU faith which affirms, as the very first source in its statement of purposes and principles: "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."
An affirmation of mystical experience is right there--at the very foundation of our living tradition. Old Herr Doktor Tholuk was not that far auf dem Mauern ("off the wall", but it sounds so much more scholarly in German, don't you think?).
To many people, of course, any mention of "mysticism" smacks of the occult, the paranormal--indeed, the abnormal, the downright weird. It seems to deal with phenomena completely detached from everyday life and the "real world". To suggest that our religion should embrace mysticism strikes many people--maybe even many of you--as a preposterous, inane idea.
Maybe this is because whenever we speak of mystical religion, there's a lot of baggage--a lot of misconceptions from past history--that have to be cleared away before we can come face-to-face with a clearer face of mysticism.
In German, for instance, there are two different words which we translate into English as "mysticism". On the one hand, there is Mysticismus, which means the occult and the abnormal; on the other hand, there isMystik, which stands for the idea that God and human beings are involved in a reciprocal relationship. As you can see, those are two rather different ideas.
Likewise, our English word "mysticism" comes from the Greek mystikos, which also seems to have two different meanings. On the one hand, mystikos can mean "to shut down one's senses"; yet, it may also be translated as "to enter the mysteries". Within the Christian tradition, there always seems to have been two different currents, two different trends--one favoring the first of these approaches (shutting down one's senses), the other favoring the second (entering into the mystery).
The ascetic tradition--or, as the former-Dominican, now Episcopalian scholar Matthew Fox calls it, the "Fall/Redemption" tradition within Christianity--has tended to favor a mysticism which relies heavily on shutting of the senses. This is often called the "mortification of the senses", to "put to death" the senses).
The other branch of Christian spirituality, which Fox calls the "Creation-Centered" tradition, doesn't look too kindly on "putting to death" the senses. Rather, it recognizes the senses (and sensuality) as part and parcel of who we are, as part of the gift of life bestowed upon all of us at creation. There is no need in Creation-Centered mysticism to punish the body or to seek mastery over it. However, if we overwhelm ourselves (and our senses) with too much stimulation--too much noise, too much light, too much to do, too much busy-ness--e will make it all the more difficult to experience the mystical. Oftentimes, it is true that "the soul grows less by addition than by subtraction", as Eckhart said. Various spiritual disciplines (like prayer and meditation and silence and [even] fasting) are important tools to be utilized to help us "enter the mystery".
For too long, the predominant model we've had for mysticism in the West has been that of the ascetic, that of mortification of the senses. The mystic, in the popular mind, is the one who has retreated into his or her cloister, never to be seen or heard from again. The mystic is the one who has denied the importance of material reality, the strength of earthly relationships, and the demands of living in the world. In the popular mind in the West, one is either a mystic--off, alone in one's cell--or, one is active and involved in day-to-day living. You can't be both, so we've been told.
Now, I would agree that the human mind at work, at its best, can be a magnificent and wonderful thing to behold. And the question of the evolution of consciousness is one of those really profound questions that we human ones take such joy in marveling over. But as Joseph Campbell once reminded us, the human brain and the consciousness it represents is just one aspect of our whole person. The brain is a mere "secondary organ", Campbell pointed out, and great danger results when the brain tricks itself into thinking that it's "running the whole show"--controlling not only the individual human being in which it is house, but running as well the whole of reality. By relying completely upon our minds to guide us through life--by relying solely upon our human mind with its incessant need to rationalize, dissect, order, explain, label, control--we too often cut ourselves off from the rest of creation; we detach ourselves from our true, complete, whole selves; and ultimately, we cut ourselves off from the Spirit of Life which is, perhaps "running the whole show".
Joseph Campbell also often said that the breakdown of so many of the institutions in our society was caused by the fact that we have become, largely, a society without a deep and meaningful mythology binding us together. Nor do we have a mythology to bind our daily reality to the deeper mystery of the cosmos and all creation. The great Unitarian Universalist religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs once wrote that "The mysterious is the very heart of this natural existence of which we are a part." If we deny the mystery, then we deny the gift of Life itself.
Perhaps our ancient ancestors could hear the voices of their gods so clearly because they were so close to the natural world in which the powers they ascribed to the gods were so imminent and close at hand. To these ancient people, these powers weren't just intellectual constructs to be discussed and debated. They were, rather, one with them, part of who they were.
I don't want to trade places with the ancient cavemen, or with the Bushmen of Africa or so other simple tribe on our planet today. (Having just seen the movie Cast Away last night, I sure as heck know that I don't want to do that!) But I do still believe that a new age--a new consciousness--is coming to birth in our midst, and that we need to establish again a right relationship with our earth and with the universe. I think that an important part of establishing this new relationship will be a shift back toward a more mystical view of reality.
One of the things I find most enticing about so many of the great Christian mystics of the medieval period--figures like Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena--is the way in which their spirituality reflected both a deep, rich sense of mystery and wonder, as well as an active sense of engagement in the world of their own day. They were great souls precisely because their mysticism was empowered by a profound sense of compassion for the world and all of its creatures.
St. Catherine's words to a young widow, written around 1370, could be addressed to many of us, hungering pilgrims of a much later century:
We build both houses simultaneously; indeed, in time, the two houses become one and the same.
We may not hear the voices of our gods as clearly as those who came before us. But the Great Mystery is still there for us to feel and experience, and we must learn to dance with this mystery and wonder if we are to grow healthy and whole and holy. Though we often imprison ourselves within the confines of our own minds--though we often imprison ourselves behind the barricades of our own human-made power and artifice--we can hear the voices still, if we take the time to listen. The still, small voice of the God is so persistent that not even all the noise and tumult of our world can drown it out.
God cannot catch us
Unless we stay in the unconscious room
Of our hearts,
Patrick Kavanagh once wrote.
And biologist Brian Swimme reminds us:
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious," wrote the great scientist Albert Einstein. "It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed..."
Out of the eternal darkness
there arises the eternal beauty.
darkness into darkness
beauty into beauty
deep into deep
mystery to mystery
no part fragmented or separate
and it is all.
Here is the power of life
Here the divine embrace
Here the lover's kiss
from which all beauty flows.
There is nothing in us
that is apart from that mystery;
nothing apart from that love:
Feel the connection, glimpse the pattern,
and live life embracingly
Dance with the mystery,
and make it your home.
Build those two homes for thyself: one of the world and the other of the spirit. Live in both. Carry both with you wherever you go. Then, there will be times when you are all of a piece and all at peace--moments of grace, moments of joy, moments of transcendence--times when the two will become one, right before your eyes, right within your soul.