Out of my childhood were mystical memories of dreamy imagined worlds whose characters cast magical spells in the shadows of the giant hypnotic eucalypts which grew in the tranquil peaceful bush land setting behind our family home. At night my bedroom glass window louvers shimmered in the pale light and rattled to the sounds of wind or rain as I listened to the incessant buzz of cicadas or the more strident cry of - “mowpoke! , mowpoke!" of the mowpoke owl before drifting off into sleep.
Although I would consider myself as a more practical and skeptical type person that mystical dreamy imaginative sense has also stayed with me to emerge in later life, prior to any feelings about religiosity, in the form of a recurring day dreaming state from which I imagined nothing whatsoever existed; after a time when the feeling became uncomfortable I would return to my everyday perception.
In Australia over several decades we have seen a minor renaissance in spirituality in contrast to declining church attendances as increased environmental awareness generates more interest in the wisdom streams of ancient societies. Many older cultures although beholden to magic and lacking scientific knowledge nevertheless were more attuned to harmonious co-existence with nature as a consequence of mystic wisdom streams.
But firstly I should define mysticism which is, according to the definition of my Oxford dictionary:
1. Chiefly the Christian church, the beliefs or mental tendencies characteristic of mystics; belief in the possibility of the union with or absorption into GOD by means of contemplation and self surrender; belief in or reliance on the possibility of spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect.
2. Religious belief characterized by self delusion or dreamy confusion of thought; belief based on the assumptions on occult qualities or mysterious agencies.
In our oldest known continuous culture of the Australian aborigines’ the ancestral origins of mysticism reside in the dreamtime creation where all living things were believed to be made co-dependant and reactive to one another in one inseparable land.
So it was in the beginning the dreamtime was to dominate every facet of their rich life; in mythical creation stories, ceremonial art, music, ritualistic practice; initiation rites into adulthood; and in the repository of knowledge of the law handed down from one generation to another. Within the tribal system adolescents were isolated away from the rest of the tribe under the control of elders who provided tutelage on all matters of their law until they were sufficiently aware to make the positive transition to adulthood which carried with it the responsibility towards their tribe and the environment upon which they were dependant - Charles P Mountford – The Dawn of time.
As a child just before the time of the record –breaking floods which were to submerge our family home in raging floodwater I recall the inexplicable death of the Aborigine named Kinjika from bone pointing for tribal transgressions. Speculation was that his extreme fear caused his untimely death just five days after admission to hospital as medical authorities were unable to find any injury, poison, disease or medical condition that could be held responsible.
Eugene Stockton is a priest who has spent many years with the aboriginals and talks about their tribes gathered around the campfires at night experiencing a mystical oneness with the environment. To read the full article entitled 'Mysticism in the Australian environment: Calls to a new consciousness' click here .
Like many religions aboriginals were interested in the meaning of dreams which unlike other cultures were perceived as a mystical return to the past rather than to interpret the future.
Aboriginal people often interpret dreams as being the memory of things that happened during this Creation Period. Dreams were important because they were considered the time when one was transformed back into prior ancestral time. This linking of dreams to the Creation Period has led people to adopt the general term “The Dreamtime” in order to describe the time of creation in their religion. The term “Dreamtime” in Aboriginal mythology is not really about a person having a dream, but rather, a reference to this Creation Period.
To read more about aboriginal culture and religion click here
Ineffable mysticism and reverence for life
In modern day terms the divide between mysticism in religion and philosophy has become blurred for although the experiences of mysticism may be claimed to be ineffable (Incapable of being expressed; indescribable or unutterable), nevertheless for those traditions to take root and be successfully handed down from one generation to the next required a teacher able to coherently convey what is meant to ensure a future survival.
In the Taoist religion “The Tao” was considered with such reverence that any references made could no longer be considered the true Tao-Lao Tzu (Taoist), since such supremacy in spirit is also ineffable.
For more on the philosopher Lao Tzu click here
GOD was also ineffable in early Judaism
In early Judaism coherency in teachings was described by reference to GOD’S ways or actions in the mystical stories of the Old Testament. The Jewish approach to mysticism is complicated but generally it is agreed the mystics are to be interpreted in terms of allegory and imagination, a not dissimilar view held by scholars today in relation to the parables contained in the New Testament.
In the end any inherent complexity must become mundane for its future survival, as the old story goes of the student and his understanding of the various contemplative mysteries of the mountain whose enlightened state reveals it is a mountain.
In more recent times the definition of mysticism has also tended to be expanded to include the ecstatic experience of oneness found in Indian religions such as Hinduism or Sufism in Islam which aims at unity or absorption of the divine.
In turn the idea of a oneness has also influenced other philosophers such as Albert Schweitzer who said the “Brahmins, taught as a great secret the mysticism of the identity of the souls of all beings and all things with the Universal Soul. According to this mysticism all that is of the nature of soul belongs to the Universal Soul. Man carries the Universal Soul within him. And because the Universal Soul dwells in all Being, it finds its own self again in all Being, in the life of plants as in the life of gods. This is the meaning of the famous Tat twam asi (That thou art thyself) of the Upanishads."
Schweitzer whilst in the midst of a calm river setting in Africa gazing at a grazing hippopotamus, experienced his mystical insight into the principle of reverence for life, which proved to be ‘ manna from heaven’ for a war ravaged weary world, striking a chord that subsequently led to his Nobel peace prize in 1952.
A similar theme is evident In Tathagatagarbha Buddhism to proffer the idea of an enlightened indestructible nature for all beings, obscured by moral and mental contamination but whose enlightened essence is the Buddha Nature, present also in Tibetan Buddhist texts and traditions. Nothingness does not mean an absence of anything but rather the enlightened state from which attachments bringing moral and mental contamination are removed.
Turning to Christian mysticism we find an amazing labyrinth of different strands from the medieval Christian mystics included St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Teresa of Avilia and Meister Eckhart and all of the other successors.
But by far the greatest of all of the Christian mystics is the apostle St Paul whose 13 letters make up half of the New Testament, although most scholars contend that only 7 were actually written or under the direction of Paul. Paul was a scholar, sail maker and mystic whose epic journeys established Christendom throughout the Mediterranean and ensured its spread throughout the world. Paul was seen as an apostle for the gentile’s yet in typical Judaist tradition frequently uses allegory by way of Old Testament references in his letters to the recently established infant communities.
Paul remains an enigmatically unique character – virtually unknown in a historical sense other than to be remembered in Jewish disagreements amongst followers, but one who professes to be willing to understand all things and become ‘as one’ to all men to further the cause of being “in Christ” which arose from his mystical experience on the road to Damascus. I think this factor had led many to interpret his work in a more complicated manner than need be the case.
The phrase ‘In Christ” has prompted many different interpretations and Schweitzer in his work ‘The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle’ on page 380 provides his view
"For him [Paul], believers are redeemed by entering already, through the union with Christ, by means of a mystical dying and rising again with him during the continuance of the natural world-era into a supernatural state of existence, this state being that which they are to possess in the kingdom of God. Through Christ we are removed out of this world and transferred into the state of existence proper to the kingdom of God, notwithstanding the fact that it has not yet appeared. “
Much has been made of the abstract nature of Pauline theology as a bridge from the more individualistic Judaism into Christianity with the idea of justification by faith but I think the primary aim of Paul was one of universal freedom from the law under the Jewish covenant about which he disagreed with Peter. His letters are best read simply as letters, not necessarily to be held as always Paul’s specific views but more to be understood as an encouragement and call to the fledgling communities to co-exist with love and respect for one another without the need for the prior ritualistic imposition of Jewish law.
St Paul is of significant interest to secular philosophers because his ideas carry with them the idea of a universal unencumbered system of unity which presupposes through grace existential philosophical aspects to life; to hold our life existence as sacred, to ascertain and acknowledge ones gifts for the benefit of the whole community, to joyfully exist in a state of grace without fear of death, to be free and remain free from guilt, to share in all things and to place love and affection ahead of all other known things. In the process Paul acknowledges our humanity and the imperfect cradle of existence which will continue to see communities straddle the idealism that is encapsulated in their new understanding and freedom from their law only to fall prey to the usual earthly failings.
In the same way as Schweitzer was to say he knew only Jesus of Nazareth; Paul sends his letters of encouragement and hope in the expectation that the experience of freedom from the law will bring joy to existential living to transcend earthly suffering and sorrow.
From a letter written by Albert Schweitzer to his future wife Helene, dated May 1, 1904, "Sometimes it seems to me as if I had arrived beyond the clouds and the stars, and could see the world in the most wonderful clarity, and therefore have the right to be a heretic. To know only Jesus of Nazareth; to continue his work as the only religion, not to have to bear anymore what Christianity has absorbed over the years in vulgarity. Not to be afraid of hell, not to strive for the joys of heaven, not to live in false fear, and the false submission that has become an essential part of our religion--and yet to understand the one Great One, and to know that one is his disciple."
Mystical experiences have been crucial in providing the creative imagination which helps shape our philosophies and give us that sense of self that gives rise to our humanity.
What is strikingly apparent from many of the mystics is the similarity in ideas about oneness and interdependence for all living things. Another is the wonderful philosophies which are suggested, through grace, as being available to all regardless of belief, to be simply experienced by engagement in mind and spirit. To find your own meaning to life (as opposed to seeking a meaning for life) as I see it in the use of one’s gifts in the way that was intended for a more complete and energised happy life for oneself and community. In that respect secular philosophers’ views often unintentionally reflect religiosity just as the more skeptical views of some religious commentators can be more secular than religious.
In another sense, in a more generalized universal viewpoint my personal philosophy leads me to believe that all life is sacred. We can learn from the mystics but ultimately we all determine what philosophy and life meaning we personally adopt. If you agree with me that all life is sacred then a call to arms must always be viewed with suspicion except in extraordinary circumstances.
Sunday, January 24
Walking in the shadows of the mystics.