Excerpts from a very interesting article by David Steindl-Rast on mysticism.




"Mysticism has been democratized in our day. Not so long ago, "real" mystics were those who had visions, levitations, and bilocations and, most important, were those who had lived in the past; any contemporary mystic was surely a fake (if not a witch). Today, we realize that extraordinary mystical phenomena have little to do with the essence of mysticism. (Of course, genuine mystics had told us this all along; we just wouldn't listen.) We've come to understand mysticism as the experience of communion with Ultimate Reality (i.e., with "God," if you feel comfortable with this time-honored, but also time-distorted term).

Many of us experience a sense of communion with Ultimate Reality once in a while. In our best, most alive moments, we feel somehow one with that fundamental whatever-it-is that keeps us all going. Even psychological research suggests that the experience of communion with Ultimate Reality is nearly universal among humans. So we find ourselves officially recognized as bona fide mystics. Some of us even sense the challenge to translate the bliss of universal communion into the nitty-gritty of human community in daily living. That's certainly a step forward.

Like every step forward in life, however, the discovery of mysticism as everyone's inalienable right brings with it a puzzling tension. Those who feel this tension most keenly are people who have long been members of an established religion, with its doctrines, ethical precepts, and rites. They may discover the mystical reality inside the religious establishment or outside of it: either in church or on a mountaintop, while listening to Bach's B-Minor Mass, or while watching a sunset. In any case, but especially out in nature, those who taste mystical ecstasy may begin to sense a discrepancy between this undeniably religious experience and the forms that normally pass as religious. If the religious pursuit is essentially the human quest for meaning, then these most meaningful moments of human existence must certainly be called "religious." They are, in fact, quickly recognized as the very heart of religion, especially by people who have the good fortune of feeling at home in a religious tradition. And yet, the body of religion doesn't always accept its heart. This can happen in any religious tradition, Eastern or Western."

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This is the point where mysticism clashes with the institution. We need religious institutions. If they weren't there, we would create them. Life creates structures. Think of the ingenious constructions life invents to protect its seeds, of all those husks and hulls and pods, the shucks and burrs and capsules found in an autumn hedgerow. Come spring, the new life within cracks these containers (even walnut shells!) and bursts forth. Crust, rind, and chaff split open and are discarded. Our social structures, however, have a tendency to perpetuate themselves. Religious institutions are less likely than seed pods to yield to the new life stirring within. And although life (over and over again) creates structures, structures do not create life.

Those who are closest to the life that created the structures will have the greatest respect for them; they will also be the first ones, however, to demand that structures that no longer support but encumber life must be changed. Those closest to the mystical core of religion will often be uncomfortable agitators within the system. How genuine they are will show itself by their compassionate understanding for those whom they must oppose; after all, mystics come from a realm where "we" and "they" are one."