Osama bin Laden and a Return to a Perennial Theory of Mystical Union
(by Jens Söring)
If Osama bin Laden can watch satellite TV in his current cave, he must be the happiest man in the world. His wildest dreams have become reality! The seed of the 9/11 terrorist attacks bore fruit of the most spectacular kind in "Operation Iraqi Freedom"?in effect, a weeks-long infomercial for the great war between Islam and Judeo-Christianity. Thanks to al-Jazeera, the world's one billion Muslims have now been sold the idea that Arabs and Americans can only communicate by means of cruise missiles and suicide bombers.
Of course not all causes of this clash of civilizations are of a religious nature. On one side there is poverty and political disenfranchisement, and on the other we have?let us be honest?just a little isolationist ignorance and cultural arrogance. Differences like these can be attenuated, however, if Iraqis learn to vote and Americans come to appreciate the beauty of Babylonian ziggurats. Where building bridges will be much harder is precisely in matters of faith, because each side believes the other is fundamentally wrong.
No Christian considers Mohammed a true prophet of God on the order of John the Baptist, and no Muslim thinks Allah took on the flesh of a Palestinian Jew named Jesus. Moreover, just as 9/11 persuaded the West that violence is somehow an integral part of Islam, so has the recent gulf war convinced Arabs that Christians will always be crusaders at heart. Thus on one level Osama bin Laden is correct in framing this conflict in religious terms, cross versus crescent. We are divided by our most cherished beliefs and by our deepest fears.
Historically, wars of religion only end when one side is completely subjugated by the other, or when both collapse from their mutual bloodletting: witness Cromwell's Protectorate and the Thirty Years' War. If these options seem unappealing today, then perhaps it is not too early to look for some common ground from which Muslims, Christians and even Jews might work together to end the fighting. The lives we save may be our own, or our children's.
Any cease-fire we might negotiate must, of course, be of a religious nature, since our divergent belief systems lie at the heart of our strife. But the three great pillars of any religion?ritual, theology and morality?offer no room for ecumenical compromise: the prostrations toward Mecca, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the primacy of the Law (Torah) are simply nonnegotiable. So we shall have to examine less obvious elements of our three faiths for possible commonalities.
This essay proposes that one religious experience Muslims, Christians and Jews can at least potentially share is the mystical union of a believer's soul with Allah, God or YHWH. Whether this spiritual phenomenon can serve as a practical basis for ending the violent conflict between our faiths is another matter; time may or may not tell. What is certain, however, is that sooner or later we must develop some such areas of mutual agreement between our religions. If nothing else, this essay may inspire wiser heads than mine to search for more suitable Archimedean points from which to move our fractured world toward peace.
Of course the experience of mystical union in contemplative prayer can only function as a common basis for religious armistice talks if Muslim fana', Christian unio mystica, and Jewish devekut indeed all refer to the same ultimate spiritual Reality. Early modern scholars of mysticism such as Evelyn Underhill held precisely this view, which became known as perennialism: "[w]hatever be the theological formula under which [mystical union] is understood, ... [it expresses] the innate tendency of the human spirit toward complete harmony with the transcendental order."1 In the second half of the twentieth century, however, "our awareness of the specific quality of each religion has increased" and revealed the perennial theory to be "erroneously simplistic," according to Yale University's Louis Dupré. Indeed, advocates of Underhill's position are said to be "rapidly dwindling" in today's universities.2
What scholars like Dupré and Robert K. C. Forman have done is, in essence, to apply the familiar Kantian interpretative scheme to ancient, medieval and modern texts describing mystical union. The underlying assumption is that all experiences are mediated: we do not encounter reality itself in our minds, but an image of reality which has been filtered and indeed re-formed by our physical, psychological and cultural apparatus. Thus every single object that presents itself to our consciousness is a mixed creation, consisting in part of sensory input and in part of our (unconscious) interpretation and reshaping of that input.
All of the above is common intellectual fare, of course; the question is whether this analytical framework can properly be applied to mystical union. If yes, then a Muslim's experience of fana' is at its very heart entirely unlike a Christian's experience of unio mystica, because the Islamic conceptual grid of the former actually created a different reality than the filtering system of the latter. But if no?if I can show that Kant has no business with, say, St. John of the Cross and al-Ghazzali?then Muslims, Christians and Jews would have at least one point of true, and truly profound agreement.
Before I attempt to peel apart the experience of mystical union, however, I think it would be useful to introduce a few first-hand descriptions of this phenomenon, to serve as a basis for subsequent discussion. Of course the following textual excerpts cannot be said to be truly representative of the mystical literature of several faiths across two millenia. Also, I have chosen to focus only on accounts of the "gold standard" of mysticism: introvertive union without affect, a unitive experience that occurs during contemplative prayer or its equivalent and lacks any strong emotional component.
(In addition to this type of union, scholars speak of: 1. introvertive union with affect, which again takes place in contemplation but is marked by powerful feelings of love, awe or joy; 2. extrovertive union, which may or may not happen during prayer and consists of seeing God shining through the physical world, including people; 3. the "pure consciousness event," in which the contemplative briefly enters a trance that he/she only becomes aware of immediately afterward. No doubt these other types of mystical experiences involve some sort of genuine and profound union between the practitioner and his/her God; but the first two clearly include elements of the mystic's personality and thus are subject to mediation. The third is somewhat disputed both among scholars and contemplatives: some do not distinguish between it and introvertive union without affect, others do not mention the "pure consciousness event" at all, and still others appear to dismiss its spiritual value.)
Let us begin, then, with a twentieth-century American Christian mystic who underwent an introvertive union without affect (unio mystica) during contemplative prayer.
A door opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall through it into immense depths which, although they are infinite, are all accessible to us; all eternity seems to have become our in this one placid and breathless contact.
God touches us with a touch that is emptiness and empties us. ... Our mind swims in the air of an understanding, a reality that is dark and serene and includes in itself everything. Nothing more is desired..
You seem to be the same person and you are the same person that you have always been: in fact you are more yourself than you have ever been before. ... You feel as if you were at last fully born. ... Now you have come out into your element. And yet now you have become nothing. You have sunk to the center of your own poverty, and there you have felt the doors fly open into infinite freedom, into a wealth which is perfect because none of it is yours and yet it all belongs to you.
And now you are free to go in and out of infinity.
[T]he depths of wide-open darkness that have yawned inside you ... are not a place, not an extent, they are a huge, smooth activity. These depths, they are Love. And in the midst of you they form a wide, impregnable country.3
Our second excerpt comes from the same faith, Christianity, but from an entirely different era and country: fourteenth-century Germany.
The great wastes to be found in this divine ground have neither image nor form nor condition, for they are neither here nor there. They are like unto a fathomless Abyss, bottomless and floating in itself. Even as water ebbs and flows, up and down, ... so does it come to pass in this Abyss. This, truly, is much more God's dwelling place than heaven or man. A man who verily desired to enter will surely find God here, and himself simply in God; for God never separates himself from this ground. ... There is no past nor present here, and no created light can reach or shine into this divine ground. ...
He who is truly conscious of this ground, which shone into the powers of his soul, ... must diligently examine himself, and remain alone, listening to the voice which cries in the wilderness of this ground. This ground is so desert and bare that no thought can enter there. ... For it is so close and yet so far off, and so far beyond all things, that it has neither time nor place. It is a simple and unchanging condition. A man who really and truly enters, feels as though he had been here throughout eternity, and as if he were one therewith.4
In the next few passages we remain in roughly the same time period?the Middle Ages?but move on to Islam's mystical branch, Sufism.
The end of Sufism is total absorption in God. That is at least the relative end of that part of their doctrine which I am free to reveal and describe. But in reality, it is but the beginning of the Sufi life, for those intuitions and other things which precede it are, so to speak, but the porch by which they enter. ... In this state, some have imagined themselves to be amalgamated with God, others to be identical with him, others again to be associated with him: but all this is sin.5
"[A]11 this is sin" because those who feel themselves to be "amalgamated, ... identical, ... [or] associated" with God wrongly imagine that they have been raised to God's level. But as we saw in our first (Christian) excerpt, the essence of mystical union is that "you have become nothing. You have sunk to the center of your own poverty, and there you have felt the doors fly open to infinite freedom." The same holds for Muslim fana ' (literally: passing away), in which the self and its egocentric concerns are said to be "annihilated" in the immensity of God.
Then [Allah] unveiled over me an overwhelming vision and clear manifestation. He annihilated me in generating me, as he had originally generated me in the state of my annihilation. I cannot designate him because he leaves no sign, and I cannot tell of him because he is the master of all telling. 6
According to Sufi tradition, the prophet Mohammed himself experienced an "overwhelming vision" of this type, passing away out of the self and into the ineffable divine.
He saw no place, direction, intellect or perception;
No throne, no ground, no earthen sphere.
He saw the non-place without soul and body?
He saw himself concealed there.7
The "annihilation" of the limited individual self?the apparent disappearance or "conceal[ment]" of "soul and body," "intellect or perception"?must not be understood as a negative experience, however.
The self in the final station drowns in its love to the point that it has no more feeling of itself or even of its love. The lover arrives at a station in which he says: I am my beloved. My beloved is I.8
When our first (Christian) writer transcended the bounds of personality and reached such a
se fless union with his "beloved," he "felt the doors fly open into infinite freedom, into a wealth which is perfect"; and so it is with Sufi mystics in fana'.
This is Love: to fly heavenward,
To rend, every instant, a hundred veils.
The first moment, to renounce life;
The last step, to fare without feet.
To regard this world as invisible,
Not to see what appears to oneself.9
Medieval Jewish mystics also wrote of reaching spiritual states "where you do not speak, nor can you speak, ... [where] that which is within will manifest itself without, ... [where] one sees that his inmost being is something outside of himself."10 The predominant view among modern scholars like Gershom Scholem is that such descriptions of devekut, or "cleaving to" YHWH in prayer, do not in fact refer to a union with the divine, but this thesis has recently been challenged by Moshe Idel and others.11 Certainly come medieval rabbis detailed at length how the mystic in devekut "is comprised in [YHWH ], blessed be He, out of the annihilation of his whole individuality and his whole vitality."12 For our purposes we need not take sides in this scholarly dispute but may content ourselves with the following early kabbalistic passage.
"Ben Azzai looked and died." He gazed at the radiance of the Shekhinah, like a man
with weak eyes who gazes into the full light of the sun, and his eyes are dimmed, and at times he becomes blinded, because of the intensity of the light which overwhelms him. Thus it happened to Ben Azzai: the light overwhelmed him, and he gazed at it because of his great desire to cleave to it and to enjoy it without interruption; and after he cleaved to it, he did not wish to be separated from the sweet radiance, and he remained immersed and hidden within it. And his soul was crowned and adorned by that very radiance and brightness to which no man may cling and afterwards live, as it is said: "for no man shall see Me and live."13
As we near the end of our collection of data points on mystical union, let us take a brief detour?if indeed it is a detour?to a twentieth century account of Zen satori. In Buddhism there is no "soul" that might be "united" with a "God," of course, but there are nevertheless interesting echoes coming from the East.
One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words with which I thought and stayed in quietude. I felt a little queer?as if I were being carried into something, as if I were touching some power unknown to me ... and Ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words had lost their meaning. I saw people coming toward me, but all were the same man. All were myself. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr. Sasaki existed.14
And finally, to round out our circle, as it were, we have a twenty-first century description of mystical union during prayer by a Christian contemplative who once was a practicing Buddhist:
There was an almost physical sensation of running face-on into a liquid wall?or, more accurately, being sucked into a liquid wall. ... [M]y head and chest made a circular impact-wave that flowed away from me quickly. ... At that point, I also knew very powerfully that I had suddenly gained enormous clarity of vision. I cannot say what I saw; I would tend to say I saw nothing; but I saw this nothing with an amazing sharpness. The nothing had become totally transparent to me all at once, so that I could see very deeply into the nothing. ... [T]he whole event seemed very right and good to me, though not in any exciting way. I did not feel scared, or happy, or curious, or bored; I simply felt at home in the nothing. More precisely, I did not feel as if I had arrived home from some other place, but simply that I was (and perhaps had been all along?) in the place I belonged.15
And that concludes our not-so-quick review of some primary source material on mystical union. Our original question remains: do these accounts of Christian unio mystica, Muslim fana', Jewish devekut and possibly even Zen satori all describe the same ultimate spiritual Reality? Or did each of these mystics' conceptual grid?his psychological make-up, his belief system, etc.?play such a central, formational role in the experience of union that the Christian monk's encounter with divine "love" during contemplation was fundamentally different from the Sufi poet's? If the former, we may have a starting point, however small, for eventual reconciliation between cross and crescent and Star of David; if the latter, we probably need to expand the cruise missile factories.
One way to answer our question is to apply the highly refined tools of modern academic scholarship to texts like our excerpts above. We can ask: how did Abulafia's Jewish definition of "annihilation" differ from Junayd's Muslim one? How did other writers of the same period use the term in each tradition? How did Abulafia's and Junayd's respective students interpret these passages? What do modern scholars in Jerusalem and Cairo have to tell us on this subject? And so on.
Through such an analysis of primary sources, we can certainly develop a very detailed understanding of areas of historical religious study such as theology, which centers on the evolution and progressive refinement of verbally expressed concepts. Here there is a close and clear relationship between words and the ideas to which they refer. But it is far from obvious to me, at least, that such a strong nexus between terms and their referents exists when it comes to descriptions to mystical union, virtually all of which mention in some way the ineffability of the experience: "I cannot designate him because he leaves no sign," one of our medieval Sufis tells us, while our twenty-first century Christian author admits that "I cannot say what I saw." And if indeed "you do not speak nor can you speak" of such things, then we must question whether the historico-critical method can actually help us to understand the experience of union itself, as opposed to the texts and their fumbling attempts to put the inexpressible into words.
Of course such doubts about the suitability and usefulness of the usual philological tools?in this one case at least?are unlikely to arise among scholars who have spent their professional lives working successfully with these tools in other areas. After all, if we do not study the written accounts of mystical union, what exactly are we supposed to study? Mystical union itself?
Well ... why not?
This is, in essence, what I have done?or, to be more precise, what God allowed me to do: the last of the descriptions of mystical union above is mine. By visiting "the non-place without soul and body" myself, I gained?among many, many other things?some insight both into the actual nature of Christian unio mystica, and into the degree of separation between the experience itself and its verbal expressions. My hope and belief is that "field experiments" like mine can provide new approaches to the question of whether a perennial theory of mystical union is to be preferred over the currently predominant theory.
Now, I realize very well that my claim to have undergone unio mystica is likely to be greeted with bemusement at best and derision at worst. Since the experience was entirely internal, I can offer no indisputable proof that it did indeed take place. Thus I will have to devote the next few paragraphs to providing some minimal basis for believing me, whereupon we shall return to the subject at hand.
First of all, it may help you to know that I did not wake up one morning and decide to have a little mystical union later that day, at tea-time perhaps. Even God himself needed just about seventeen years to prepare me, as I have detailed at length elsewhere.16 For those interested in such things, I can provide the dates of the classical stages of my mystical journey: purgation of worldly, physical attachments (1986-1994); illumination, with both a transcendent, "intellectual," gnosis-based facet and an immanent, "emotional," agape-based one (1994); "dark night, " with one primarily emotional and another predominantly existential phase (1994-2000; 2000-2003); and finally union (February 19, 2003, 10:31 to 11:07 a.m.). In any event, I have certainly paid my dues.
Secondly, I think it significant that I myself was completely surprised by this experience. Until February 19, 2003, I believed that descriptions of mystical union like those excerpted earlier were essentially the product of overwrought medieval imaginations. Quite frankly, I thought myself above such things?too skilled in the proper, ascetical techniques of contemplative prayer. Thus I cannot be accused of seeking a spiritual experience I half disbelieved and half disdained.
And finally, I can confirm that the union of February 19, 2003, has indeed produced those changes in my life and outlook which contemplative masters like St. Teresa of Avila describe as signs or proofs of its genuineness. In fact, it took me several weeks just to overcome the shock and develop some perspective on what happened to me. As I write this essay roughly two months after the event, I am only beginning to work out the implications?including the possible relevance of mystical union to issues like the clash of cultures between Islam and Christianity. (Here too my life appears to be echoing, however faintly, those of great contemplatives like St. Catherine of Siena and Fr. Thomas Merton, who also developed a strong interest in the politics of their ages. Whether that "counts" as another "proof" of the authenticity of my experience, I leave to you.)
Knowing no further ways to establish my bona fides, I will now return to our central question: is mystical union perennial?universally the same across all cultures and ages? Or are there as many fundamentally different unions as there are religions?or possibly even practitioners? What I believe and hope to show is that those scholars who hold the latter view were led into error by a misunderstanding of what mystical union actually is.
Throughout this essay and elsewhere, I have followed the common usage and described mystical union as an experience. This term is, in fact, inappropriate to the subject and may be responsible for what I believe to be a fundamental mistake by scholars like Dupré. Simply put, "experience" implies an object: one has an experience of something, one experiences something (even if that thing is an emotional state like joy). But in mystical union, there is no thing that one is experiencing; there is only consciousness without any object.
If the above is true, then the familiar Kantian theory of mediated experience cannot be applied to mystical union. Mediation?the fundamentally creative re-shaping process of the mind, involving its various psychological and cultural filters?requires an object that is then mediated, filtered or re-shaped. But if mystical union is at its very core the absence of any object, any thing?if God is "pure nothing," as Meister Eckhart claimed in the fourteenth century?then the mind has no raw material to mold and form into a Christian unio mystica that is fundamentally different from Muslim fana '. What the mind cannot grasp, it cannot reconfigure.
Do I have any evidence to support this hypothesis? I could, of course, produce a long list of excerpts from apophatic mystics like Meister Eckhart and Johann Tauler, whose writings frequently describe God as "no-thing." But that approach only leads us back into what I suspect is a philological wild goose chase: trying to nail down precisely what Eckhart means by "nothing" without having any firm grasp ourselves of that term's referent. So instead I will introduce you, not to Eckhart's or Tauler's no-thing, but to "my" no-thing?the no-thing with which I underwent union on February 19, 2003?in order to give you some sense of why I believe this no-thing was not a mental object (or state) subject to the otherwise universal mediating process of the mind.
Fairly soon after embarking on a regular discipline of contemplative prayer, I became aware very occasionally of a Presence within. Other practitioners of contemplation and the vast literature of this field persuade me that this experience is common; indeed, the term "Presence" is not my own but has been borrowed from my fellow journeyers. What "Presence" aims to express is a definite awareness that there appears to be something foreign inside the mind?something that is entirely different from all the other mental objects or states in the field of one's consciousness. Unfortunately, this ... something ... is perceptible only so briefly and intermittently that one cannot determine any of its qualities, so one needs an indefinite, somewhat "spooky" term like "Presence" to capture this something's elusiveness and ineffability. Already, at the very beginning of one's contemplative career, one runs up against the limits of language to describe something that is undeniably real but somehow inaccessible to the mind's usual (verbal) tools!
Over the months and years, glimpses of this "Presence" within become more frequent; my prayer life could in fact be described as an often maddeningly frustrating trek toward a clearer and clearer view of the "Presence." As my familiarity with this phenomenon increased somewhat, it occurred to me?as it has occurred to many other practitioners and authors in the field?that this "Presence" could equally well be called an "Absence." And here we reach the key concept at the very heart of this essay's argument.
If the field of one's consciousness can be imagined as a circle, like the view through a telescope, then the "Presence/Absence" is an area within that circle that is dark, in the special sense of "not there." Imagine again a photograph shot through a telescope of a night sky; there will be some patches of pure blackness on that picture where there are no stars; but those patches of blackness are still of a kind, the same in nature as those sections of the photograph where there are stars. The "Presence/Absence," on the other hand, is like an area that has been cut out of the picture and replaced with black velvet.
Everywhere else on the surface of that photograph, both objects (stars) and absence of objects (night sky) have the same "feel" of the glossy paper's surface. The area of black velvet is no more and no less black than the night sky in the picture, but it has an entirely different "feel." It is not nothing, but no-thing?the no-thing beyond the usual dichotomy of something and nothing. Or, as our second (Christian) excerpt earlier put it, these depths "are neither here nor there"; they transcend duality.
Beyond the mere fact of this no-thing's existence, it appears to have only a very, very few attributes that I and other contemplatives have been able to detect. One is that the no-thing somehow gives the impression of immense vastness. Another is that it seems intensely alive; this is the source, I believe, of the recurring references to "dark light" in the literature.
Next, the no-thing somehow imparts a sense of peace to those who come near it in prayer, a sense that being with this Presence is good and right somehow. I use the word "sense" here because I do not want to suggest that this peace is an emotion. Instead, one is given a kind of foretaste of the still calmness, the true rest that becomes possible beyond "feeling good" and "feeling bad."
And finally, the no-thing very gently draws the practitioner closer to it. So subtle and soft is this attraction (most of the time) that the slightest distraction can defeat it; in other words, one has to actively cooperate in letting oneself be drawn closer. Christians would say that one has to "be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). But even a religion like Buddhism, which does not posit a divine intelligence behind the gently beckoning no-thing, is fully aware of its somehow magnetic quality, as we saw in the excerpt above. Theistic religions can more easily make the obvious metaphorical leap and call the no-thing "Love."
(Immense, alive, imparting a sense of secure calmness, and loving?the next metaphorical leap is also obvious. In some sense, the no-thing can be said to be like a father, even an Abba! Here we leave the real of observation, however, and engage in interpretation, where personal and cultural preconceptions are likely to be especially hazardous.)
All of the above can be learned through the regular practice of what Christians call contemplative prayer, without undergoing mystical union. Before February 19, 2003, I strongly suspected that there were no further steps on the contemplative ladder beyond visiting the nothing three times a day in prayer. Simply soaking in the "dark light's" metaphorical rays would gradually convey more and more of its wonderful, peaceful stillness to my soul?so I believed.
I was wrong, of course. It is possibly not only to observe the no-thing from the outside, as it were, with increasing clarity and at greater length; but it is also possible to be "sucked into" and actually enter the Abyss, as I wrote somewhat inelegantly in my earlier description. While this event changed me and my life in many ways, what matters for the purposes of this essay is that this union was not an experience of a mental object (or state) by a subject (me).
I think it may be possible to argue that a contemplative's awareness during prayer of a certain "area" of no-thing within a larger field of consciousness (which includes mental objects like self-chatter, or mental states like a feeling of bliss, etc.) may still constitute an experience of some thing?something subject to Kantian mediation. As a practitioner of contemplation, I am fully convinced such a view would be incorrect, but it is arguable. What cannot be argued is that union is a state (that is, a mental "object") within a larger field of mediating and mediable consciousness.
Union is, precisely, the temporary disappearance of all the usual processes of consciousness?the awareness of nothing but no-thing. For this reason, mystics universally describe union as the death (or even annihilation) of the self: "'Ben Azzai looked and died' [when he] gazed at the radiance of the Shekhinah," we read earlier. Awareness continues, as the great contemplatives and even I can confirm. But there is not even nothing to be aware of, only the no-thing beyond something and nothing.
With the total evaporation of any object being experienced, the subject doing the experiencing also disappears. That is union. Both terms of the equation vanish, leaving only the equal sign in the middle: an awareness of an infinite Abyss of Love.
Now, I realize very well that almost all readers of this essay have not been where I was taken on February 19, 2003, and thus for now you must accept on faith this report on my "field experiment" with mystical union. I will return to that problem in a moment. At this point, however, I think we should note that if my report above is accurate, then mystical union is not a mediated experience, and the perennial theory of mystical union is true. Thus Christian unio mystica, Muslim fana', Jewish devekut and quite probably Zen Buddhist satori all refer to the same one spiritual Reality. When it comes to religion, we may not agree on anything, but we can certainly agree on no-thing!
To say that mystical union is perennial is not to say that all religions are equal, of course. For my part, I am convinced that Catholicism offers a clearer view of the no-thing than, say, Judaism; but as a former Buddhist, I recognize the unique beauty of a different approach to the "dark light" within. It is also worth recalling that each of these world religions has many, many facets beyond personal mysticism, and differences in those areas neither can nor should be downplayed. If more Christians were to focus on unio mystica and more Muslims were to seek fana', however, we would inevitably discover that we cannot remain true to the one no-thing and go on killing each other over divergent doctrines and disagreements on ritual.
This essay's hypothesis on the universality of mystical union cries out for confirmation, of course, so I will now propose two possible avenues for developing further "evidence." Both are somewhat whimsical and impractical, in keeping with the whole tenor of this essay, perhaps. But if we must go tilting at windmills, we may as well do it on an improbable old nag like Rosinante!
First of all, a serious effort should be made to interview contemplatives from all faiths on the specific question of the perenniality of union, in view of their own and other religions' written descriptions of the phenomenon. We need the input of insiders, as it were. I find it interesting and suggestive, for instance, that Fr. Thomas Merton "in his earliest writings had said some very harsh things about non-Christian ways of prayer and meditation"17 but toward the end of his life wrote a Sufi scholar that "[m]y prayer tends very much to what you call fana."18 Certainly when I myself read Christian, Sufi, Jewish and Buddhist descriptions of mystical union, I often experience a strong sense of intimacy with those long-dead writers, as if I were reminiscing with a comrade-in-arms who had fought on the same jungle battlefield with me in our youths. Of course that may be no more than a case of projection on my part; but if many currently practicing contemplatives report the same "aha! at last!" reaction across centuries and cultures, then perhaps we are on to something here.
Secondly, it would seem helpful if more scholars of mystical union were to actually practice contemplation?if they were to encounter the spiritual Reality of which the texts speak so inadequately. Of course the idea of embarking on a discipline of contemplative prayer may seem a little threatening to minds that are more used to grappling with language than sinking into the wordless silence; but words alone simply will not do, in this particular field at least. Fortunately, there are many excellent modern books of instruction on Centering Prayer and the like.
Here I can offer some personal encouragement to doubters: if I can make progress on this path, then anyone can! I am a college drop-out with a menial, ill-paying job and no hope of advancement in this world. My (adult) life so far has been marked by poverty, danger and suffering; and frankly, it is likely to get worse. I am, quite literally, nobody! Yet God allowed me into his presence?a gift that was definitely worth a seventeen year wait?so why not you too?
Having you develop some first-hand acquaintance with the no-thing is necessary because I am in no position to do the research and writing required to persuade the academic community that the perennial theory of mystical union is true. My station in life prevents me from tilling those particular fields; again, I am nobody. But the matter at hand is really too important to let drop, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay.
Like it or not, we are in a religious war, and given the nature of that particular beast, the fighting will only get hotter over time. Ask yourself, the next time you purchase an airline ticket, whether the great clash between cross and crescent does not have a direct negative impact on your own life. And then ask yourself if you can really afford to stand aside and do nothing.
Not all of us need become contemplatives in order to make unio mystica/fana'/devekut a practical basis for peace. But a wider awareness of this phenomenon among the elites of both sides may in time reach a kind of "critical mass" where our leaders find it more politic to stop sending jihadists and G.I.'s into battle.
Is all of this a pipe dream? Maybe. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all founded by dreamers who left the safety of home for greater things: Abraham went out from Ur, Jesus from Nazareth, and Mohammed from Mecca. All three spent time in the desert before reaching their goals; and it is surely no coincidence that "the desert" became one of the most common metaphors for contemplative prayer in the mystical literature of all three religions. So perhaps in this age we are once again being called to follow in the footsteps of our faiths' founders and enter the inner desert of prayer.
Mystics of the world unite!
You have nothing to lose but your self... ...and you have no-thing to gain.
1 Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, Preface (London: Methuen, 1911).
2 Louis Dupre, ed., Light from Light, 2d. ed., Introduction (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001).
3 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 31 (Norfolk, Conn., and New York: New Directions, 1961).
4 Johann Tauler, Sermon on St. John the Baptist, trans. Hilton, A. W. (London: Library of Devotion, 1909).
5 Al-Ghazzali, Confessions, trans. Field, C. (London: Wisdom of the East Series, 1909).
6 Junayd, Kitab al-Mithaq, trans. Abdel-Kader, A. H., Personality and Writings of Junayd (E.W. Gibb Memorial,1976).
7 Farid al-Din Attar, Ilahi-name, trans. Schimmel, A., And Muhammed is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety (Chapel Hill: 1985).
8 Junayd, trans. Rosenthal, F., "A Judeo-Arabic Work under Sufi Influence," Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 15 (Cincinnati: 1940).
9 Jalalu d' Din, trans. Nicholson, R. A., Selected Poems from the Divan I Shamsi Tabriz (Cambridge, U.K.: 1898).
10 Gershom Sholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: 1946).
11 Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: 1988).
12 Rabbi Menahem Mendel, Sefer Peri Ha-Arez (Jerusalem: 1970).
13 Vatican M.S. 283, fol 71 b. See also Moshe Idel, The Mystical Experience in Abrahalm Abulafia (New York: 1988).
14 Sokei-an Sasaki, "The Transcendental World," Zen Notes, vol. 1, no. 5 (New York: First Zen Institute of America, 1954).
15 Jens Söring, The Way of the Prisoner, Intermezzo (New York: Lantern Books, 2003).
16 Söring, The Way, op cit; Jens Söring, "Damascus Road," This Rock, February 2003 (El Cajon, CA); Jens Söring, "From Buddhist to Papist," Pastoral Life, March 2003 (Canfield, OH).
17 Dupre, Light from Light, op. cit
18 William H. Shannon, ed., The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985).
October 31, 2018