Life as a Mystic (c) JAT 2015: always drawn to the path less travelled

Life as a Mystic: always drawn to the path less travelled. Photo credit JAT 2015.

A: Sayings 18a and 18b in the Gospel of Thomas have some interesting things to say about our relationship to time — to beginnings and endings. Stevan Davies’s translation says this: “The disciples asked Jesus: Tell us about our end. What will it be? Jesus replied: Have you found the Beginning so that you now seek the end? The place of the Beginning will be the place of the end [18a]. Blessed is anyone who will stand up in the Beginning and thereby know the end and never die [18b].” Your makarisms — your beatitudes — don’t sound much like the makarisms from the Jewish Wisdom thinkers who wrote books like Proverbs and Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon. Why is that?

J (shrugging): I was a mystic, not a Wisdom teacher. I believed in logic, but I believed more in Divine Love. My understanding of happiness was founded in my personal mystical experience. When people asked me how I could be so happy despite all the personal suffering I’d experienced in my life, I told them. They didn’t believe me, but I kept telling them anyway.

A: People today don’t think of you as a mystic. They may think of you as a rabbi or as a wandering Cynic philosopher or as a political revolutionary or even as a shaman-like fellow wandering around Palestine in a severe dissociative state.* But none of the well-respected biblical scholars I’ve read have described you as a mystic. Why not?

J: There’s nothing so poorly understood in the history of religion as mysticism. Having said that, the form of mysticism I practised has been rare in the annals of religious mysticism. I was neither an apophatic mystic nor an anagogic mystic. I was an endogenous mystic.

A: You’re going to have to explain that.

J: Mystical experiences from different cultures can be categorized. And should be categorized. Unfortunately, they’re usually lumped together in one big pot. They’re assumed to be roughly equivalent to each other. But they’re not. For instance, mystics who claim to have had an experience of timeless, transcendent oneness or union with the Divine come away from the experience with the belief that “less is more.” These are the apophatic mystics, from the Greek word meaning “negative speaking” or “unspeaking.” Apophatic mystics believe you can only experience union with God through the constant practise of mystical contemplation. This practice allows you to first “unknow” or “unspeak” yourself, to escape your frail human senses so you can become a proper empty vessel. If you do it correctly, goes the theory, you find yourself in a transcendent state where you no longer think of yourself as “you.” In other words, the path to knowing God is eradication of the self.

A: The opposite of what you taught.

J: Yes. Another thing I taught was the futility of the anagogic path — the vertical or upward path of spiritual ascent that’s been taught so many times by so many different teachers over the centuries. Anagogic mystics may or may not also be apophatic mystics, just to make things more confusing. Basically an anagogic mystic is somebody who believes that the only way to know God is to achieve perfection by following a rigorous step-by-step set of instructions or laws in the correct order. This takes you one step at a time up the spiritual ladder. The ladder of perfection takes you closer to God and farther away from your sinful neighbours. It sets you above and apart from your neighbours. Benedict, the founder of the Christian monasteries and the monastic Rule that bear his name, was teaching his monks a form of anagogic mysticism.

A: Again, not what you taught. So explain what you mean by endogenous mysticism.

J: It’s a term I’ve coined to suggest an experience of intense mysticism that’s hardwired into a person’s DNA rather than being imposed from the outside on an unwilling religious acolyte. True mystics are born, not made. Just as true engineers or true musicians are born, not made. An endogenous mystic is somebody who was born with a particular set of talents and communication skills aimed in the directions of philosophy, language, music, mediation (that’s mediation, not meditation), and what I’m going to call for lack of a better term “the geek factor.” True mystics are more interested than most people in offbeat stories and unusual phenomena. They show a life-long interest in stories and experiences that are somewhat unconventional. Not too weird, but a bit weird. You wouldn’t find a mystic teaching an M.B.A. course. But you might find a mystic teaching a Creative Writing course. Most true mystics don’t even know they’re true mystics. Most often they end up as writers. Writers need more solitary time than most people, as mystics do. They need the solitary time so they can pull up from somewhere inside themselves the emotions and the insights they long to express. They’re not being unfriendly or rude or hostile. They just need the quiet time so they can hear themselves think. This is true for both writers and mystics.

A: Well, you can count me in on all scores there. I spent a lot of time indoors reading as a child. And drawing. And watching TV shows that had a science fiction or fantasy element. I loved the first Star Trek series when it first came out. Come to think of it, I still like it.

J: I was like that, too. I was fascinated by the Greek myths. As soon as I learned to read, I read the Iliad. Then the Odyssey. My strict Jewish mother wasn’t pleased. But what could she do? She was a widow with a big family to look after. As long as I stayed on the family property, where I couldn’t get in too much trouble, she put up with my unusual interest in books, books, and more books. I read everything I could get my hands on. I learned to write by studying the authors I most admired.

A: I’m thinkin’ that Plato probably wasn’t one of your favourite authors.

J: I liked plays, actually. I learned a lot by studying Greek poets and playwrights. I liked the comedies of the Greek playwright Menander. Much healthier than the doleful rantings of the Jewish prophets.

A: These aren’t the literary influences one would expect you to describe.

J: No. I had to learn to read and write from the sacred Jewish texts because my mother and my maternal grandfather insisted we be literate in our religious heritage. So I knew my Torah and my Proverbs. But I was a born mystic, and, like all mystics and mystics-in-writer’s-clothing, I was interested in — utterly fascinated by — the fine nuances of character and environment and insight. I wanted to know what made people tick. I wanted to hear how they spoke, how they phrased things, how they interacted with each other. I wanted to know why people fall in love, what they say, what they do. I wanted to absorb all the joys, all the nuances, of life and living.

A: As writers do.

J: Writers can’t help it. It’s what they do. They’re so attuned to the rhythms and patterns of language and dialogue and everyday speech and sensory input and colours and textures and movement and nature and choices and especially change. Mystics are like this, too. Deeply attuned to patterns of communication that other people don’t pay attention to at a conscious level. A mystic is somebody who’s hardwired to pay conscious attention to subtle, nuanced communications from the deepest levels of Creation. Sometimes these communications come from God. Sometimes they come from one’s own soul. Sometimes they come from somebody else’s soul. But basically it’s about conscious observation and understanding of specific kinds of communications. Mystics are tuned to certain bands on the divine radio, if you will. They can pick up stations that most other people aren’t interested in trying to pick up. These “mystical” stations aren’t better than other stations. They’re just . . . well, they’re just different. All the stations on the divine radio are good, because different styles of music are all inherently equal. They’re all inherently equal, but they don’t all sound the same. Because they’re not the same. They’re different but equal.

A: As souls are all different but equal.

J: Yes. A lot of people imagine it would be wonderful and exciting to give over their lives to mysticism. But being a mystic is only wonderful and exciting if you’re hardwired to be a mystic. If you’re like most people — born with intuition, but not born to be either a mystic or a writer — you would find it very isolating, frustrating, even depressing to live as a mystic — as many Christian nuns, monks, clerics, and mystics have discovered to their misfortune. The “Dark Night of the Soul” is not and should not be part of the journey to knowing God. At no time in my life as Jesus did I experience a Dark Night of the Soul. On the contrary, my experience as a mystic gave me only an ever deepening sense that I was in the right place doing the right thing with the right people for the right reasons. I trusted my “beginning.” As a result, I stopped worrying about my “ending.” I lived each day in a state of comfort, peace, trust, and love.

A: The journey was not about the end goal, but about finding your own beginning — knowing yourself as you really are, then going from there.

J: This is the only way to find the freedom that comes from knowing and loving your Divine Parents — to whom I would like to say, once again for the record, you both rock!

* In 1995, Stevan Davies, the same author who published the translation of the Gospel of Thomas I refer to, wrote a very puzzling book called Jesus the Healer (New York: Continuum, 1995) in which he claims that Jesus carried out healings during a trance state that can be called “holy spirit-possession.” He concludes, therefore, that Jesus was a “medium.” If you’ve read my comments on The Blonde Mystic blog about psychic powers and psychic mediums, you’ll be able to guess what I think of Davies’s spirit-possession thesis.

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