TAG | Mysticism
As much as I may grumble about the Economist’s snooty and irritating Davos/Brussels liberalism, it still remains an invaluable resource, not least its Christmas issue. This year’s included a haunting, terrifically written piece on the 19th Century war that nearly destroyed Paraguay (trust me on this: as a tale of folly and horror, it’s difficult to match), and then this tale:
A century ago next year, one of the most extraordinary events in the modern history of Christianity took place there. In the summer of 1913 the Aegean was penetrated not by pleasure-craft, but by the navy of the Russian tsar. A gunboat and later two transporters, complete with a party of marines, sailed up to a giant monastic house. A Russian archbishop tried negotiating with a bitterly divided community. When that failed, the troops opened up with a water-cannon, directed at the cells of monks on the losing side in a theological argument. Eventually, hundreds of bedraggled monks, defeated but defiant, were bundled onto ships. Opinion differs on whether anybody was killed, but the monks were certainly treated brutally: over the next two weeks, more than 800 of them were dragged away and transported to Odessa, where about 40 were jailed and most of them were stripped of their robes and sent on their way.
The story is fascinating in its own right, but then there are passages like this:
In the 14th century, as Byzantium dissolved into civil and theological war and the Ottoman conquest loomed, yet another dispute over the boundaries between Earth and Heaven raged, both on Athos and in the imperial court. The terms of the argument sound obscure to most modern ears. When Jesus Christ appeared on a mountain bathed in light, were the rays that emanated from his body created or divine? But behind the question was that recurring dilemma in monotheism. How, if at all, can the all-powerful, transcendent Creator and the created world come into contact with one another, and what does that imply for human destiny? The view that prevailed was a subtle one. God was both an inaccessible “essence” and an infinite variety of “energies” that could be experienced on earth. Humans could both perceive the light emanating from their Lord and become re-transmitters of that light themselves—and all this could happen during their earthly lives. Ilarion’s treatise sparked yet another version of this debate.
It’s on reading about controversies like that I realize yet again that I am just never going to get theology.
No great loss, I suspect.
There’s a piece by Mark Oppenheimer in today’s New York Times about the transformation of Blondie’s (ah, those were the days) bassist into a popular writer about religion. Harmless enough stuff, but this passage caught my eye:
Mr. Lachman moved to London and began to write about mysticism and the occult. He has since written books about Carl Jung, the educator Rudolf Steiner, and now Swedenborg: all figures with powerfully rational minds who nevertheless speculated in the irrational. They might be seen as the thinking person’s mystics.
Swedenborg, for example, could be easily dismissed as a crank. Many people today would be dubious of the story, which Swedenborg promoted, that he had flabbergasted the queen of Sweden by relaying a message from her deceased brother. They would be even more skeptical of Swedenborg’s claims that he could visit souls in heaven. There, he said, he could see angels performing domestic chores, or ask about their sex lives.
But Swedenborg also had a rigorous scientific mind. He predicted the advent of airplanes and cars, he discovered the central canal of the spinal cord, and he recognized the existence of neurons. His keen curiosity about the relationship between mind and body fueled his interest in dreams — he went through a period of vivid, ecstatic dreams — and his interpretations presaged the work of Freud and Jung.
Right now, Mr. Lachman, who is single but has two sons, does not follow the spiritual practices of any guru, teacher or historical figure. “I consider all the reading and research and contemplating a spiritual practice, not to sound pompous.”
It does not sound pompous. The idea that research can be a spiritual discipline — and spirituality the subject of rigorous research — has been a commonplace among theologians at least since Thomas Aquinas…
Fair enough, but I suspect that that “rigorous research” should have plenty of room for a psychiatric explanation of what Swedenborg ‘saw’.
Today’s New York Times op-ed by Ross Douthat begins on a note (sort of) of hope:
“Mysticism is dying…Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea…”
But it was too good to last. A little later Ross continues with these glum tidings:
“Yet by some measures, mysticism’s place in contemporary religious life looks more secure than ever.”
Oh well. As always with Ross the piece is intriguing and well worth reading, not least in this case for the rather vivid description of what mysticism is said to involve:
“[T]he quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul. “
And then, of course, there is the part that mysticism is meant to play in “what’s supposed to be the deep promise of religious practice:”
“[T]hat at any time, in any place, it’s possible to encounter the divine, the revolutionary and the impossible — and have your life completely shattered and remade.”
Promise? Sounds more like a threat to me.