Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mystical territories and necessary maps

'Meister Eckhart: Mystic as Theologian' by Robert K.C. Forman is a wholly admirable exploration of Eckhart as a 'leader of souls' and addresses the question: "Were I a friar or a nun under your tutelage, Meister Eckhart, what might I be expected to experience, and what significance would it have?"

Though it predates much contemporary discussion of the nature of medieval mysticism, it reads like a healthy rejoinder to that discussion.

The target of that discussion was the notion of 'mystical experience' and suggesting that it was a 'foreign', because modern, category of thinking to medieval writers. Medieval mystical writing is first and foremost theology and aimed at describing the nature of things as a whole. It is aimed at explicating how we come to understand anything at all through how we are and come to be in relationship to God. It does not dwell on 'discrete experiences' that any particular person might have that are different from other kinds of experience. The trail that William James set out on in studying the 'Varieties of Religious Experience' was a false one especially when applied to medieval patterns of thought and expression.

Like much thinking this was, within certain limits, a healthy correction. It is indeed true that what is important in the mystical life is not 'discrete experiences' or 'states of mind' as these can become, as Eckhart acknowledges, simply new sources of attachment with which our fallen self can become anxiously engaged. But it simply is not true to assume that what medieval writers were principally interested in was an 'analytical' account of how the world (and especially the human person) is related to God. They were also critically engaged as curer of souls in how that relationship might be restored and what would that look like in the embodied living of each and every person restored to their true status as made in 'the image and likeness of God'.

Analysis and phenomenology are inter-related informing each other, as Forman shows, the unfolding pattern of experience made available by a progressive development in the states of our consciousness is both describable in theological terms (and context) and informs that context; and, neither is being reduced to the other - theology is not simply becoming psychology, or vice versa.

Forman trace the path of development from temporary ecstatic insight through an habitual way of being in the unity that is God to a way of being that sees all things enfolded in that unity and acts into the world from that beholding and helps explain certain difficulties with Eckhart on the way.

One, that is most helpful, and not only for Eckhart, is a distinction between mystical authors who were illuminated and then think about how they got there and authors who by following a specific path arrived at illumination. The first, like Eckhart, can be inspirational (and help you understand the territory that you have arrived at if you finally get even close) but it is the second kind you most need if you are to follow along. Eckhart, Forman suggests, is like a man who is driven to say San Francisco and deposited there but who, because he was not driving, only has the haziest notion of how he got there. I would indeed add that because Christianity is so 'grace orientated' many Christian authors fit into this first category, as would, say, the Hindu sage, Ramana Maharishi. Whereas many Buddhist authors would fit into the second as they are often painstaking students of the road atlas and the driving manual! The emphasis in Buddhism is on 'self-effort'. This, no doubt, accounts for the interest of many Christian students of contemplation in Buddhist paths (and Hans urs von Balthasar's suggestion that the early Church Father, Evagrius, is 'Buddhist' in orientation because of his focus on the 'how' of the spiritual life).

And Eckhart is undoubtedly inspirational:

"God gives to all things equally, and as they flow forth from God they are equal: angels, men and all creatures proceed alike from God in their first emanation. To take things in their primal emanation would be to take them all alike...If you could take a fly in God, it is in God far nobler than the highest angel in himself. Now all things are equal in God and are God Himself. Here God delights so in this likeness that He pours out His whole nature and being in this equality in Himself."

Imagine what potential for charity and justice flows from seeing every particularity in the world from the perspective of that unity and a perspective that is not simply 'a thought' I or you have but the fundamental way our being and way seeing spontaneously arises!

Back to the road map, driving manual and arduous practice - and the hope of grace...

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