I Don’t Want to be a Mystic!

July 26, 2012

Sam Gill

for Meghan Zibby

It was a pause that left a trace really, just one of those moments that sometimes surprise us when, in the midst of reading, a word speaks emotional volumes to us even when we aren’t altogether all that sure that we know why or even what the word means.  This time, in the midst of reading a novel, the word was “mystic” and it was used to identify a man who in his maturity was handling a situation with confidence and grace and wisdom and wonder and enthusiasm and charm.  Another character, his official superior, quietly watching him in awe identified him as a mystic.  Never mind that this guy was a Jesuit priest, the word struck me powerfully and personally.  At this point in my life (why have I waited so long?) I’m eager to cultivate qualities that will allow me to live with grace and quiet (hmm? maybe not) confidence, giving of myself in such a way that is delicate and genuine and generous.  I’ve been musing about how to go about doing this when at my age (seems this is more a concern to me than I thought) there is such a draw to grief and loss and regret and depression if not also moments of pure desperation.  I’ve been thinking of it as an age or stage of life thing, but when I give it a little more thought I can’t really see why it should be anything other than a life thing.

But then here’s the rub for me; while there is something about the word “mystic” that I’m greatly attracted to—the mysterious, the inexplicable, the transcendent, even the esoteric in some senses, the weird, and the magical perhaps—I frankly think that all of the common uses of this term are completely unacceptable to me—contemplation, self-surrender, unity with abstraction (deity or absolute), otherworldly, spiritual, ethereal—all terms that simply make my skin crawl and my body convulse.

I’ve tried to think about my compulsive reaction and to come to some alternatives to the term and I believe that my objection comes down to the dualist assumptions behind the power and force of the reality of the so-called mystic and how the duality is managed—that is, the very notion that mystic depends on understanding the world as comprised/divided of things seen and unseen, visible and invisible, relative and absolute, human and deity, mind/thought that supports contemplation and body/senses associated with the relative, the subjective, the offensive.  Mystic transcendence identifies the valued hierarchy of this dualist view and the desire to leave behind, by transcending it, the untoward nastiness of body, experience, visible, relative, human.  The mystic is so damned mysterious because it is simply dumbfounding that one can retain body, humanity, existence, visibility, sensuality having gained unity with an absolute, a deity.  A mystic is a category anomaly; in biological terms a mystic is a monster, the identity of two things that simply cannot be conjoined.

So the mystic is revered and sought because from this superior (that is, having transcended) unified and undivided (having become one with the absolute) state, there can hardly be the play of existence, of experience, of the divisiveness of oppositions; there is a lot of fixedness about terms like “absolute” and “one” and “unified;” oh, and another term to come up in a bit “truth.”  At this moment I’m confounded by why we believe these terms designate something desirable, something to seek; seems someone has sold us a bill of goods. Playing this little scenario out it is difficult for me to come to terms with why I found engaging or for that matter even interesting the labeling as a mystic of this story character; my personal sensitivities and interests are surely quite the opposite, as I’ll attempt to ponder.

But first what was my attraction to the character?  I think I liked his sense of self-confidence in action and living while embracing the unknowable, the confoundable, the unpredictable, the inexplicable, the adventure and the full range of emotions that go with this varied terrain.  As a priest he was nonetheless seeking, while also doubting and most of the time being pissed off at, god.  He never knew what god wanted yet he kept at the tasks.  I suppose what interested me was his style (and we don’t pay enough attention to style, of this I’m sure); he was quiet yet humorous and clever and energetic; he was extremely intelligent but didn’t dismiss the associated power by espousing a bunch of cockamamie theological beliefs; he was deeply drawn to people (service, friendships, languages, anthropology) while being somehow always alone  (not lonely; alone in some sense necessary to his character); he gave of himself extensively and deeply, but in no way that one would consider sacrificial; he was active and energetic yet controlled and calm; he was sexual and sex-conflicted, yet somehow not sex-determined or sex-driven.  All of these attributes seem important and desirable to me.  They don’t seem to me to be adequately identified by the term “mystic” although I suppose that, given the religious context and the identity of the man as a priest, a bystander who is also a priest might have seen him in these terms.  Clearly at the point he was seen as a mystic, he himself identified the fullness of his experience with a connection with his god.

As I look back over these character traits that I like, that I ambitiously desire to cultivate in myself, it seems the most telling and important word in my poor efforts to articulate qualities is the word “yet” or its equivalent.  This list certainly attests to a dualist world of oppositional categories, a world of distinctions and differences.  The difference however is that for this character this list of traits, the dualities are not to be overcome in some moment of vertical transcendence into oneness and absoluteness; some leaving behind, rising above, what is undesirable and limiting to gain unity with some superior (both in position and valuation) level where there is no question, no doubt, no waffling, no relativity, no sensuality.  To be a mystic seems to be sort of like achieving the grand prize: contemplate until you rise above.  Isn’t it meaningless to even think of mystical experience, since it points to the goal of contemplation which itself is a reflection more than an experience.  It seems to me that if the mystic affirmed the reality of the mystic, he or she (though in the absolute and in unity, gender is surely irrelevant) would upon transcendence simply disappear in a poof of mystical glitter.  The mystery surely is then in the residue (I see a vague body shape in a floating glitter cloud) of what is left behind.  Mystics one would think are more like holograms rather than bodied beings.

The fictive character I’ve been considering conjoined without resolution; linked without fixing; connected with play; struggled to comprehend without cheap tricks of doctrine or avowed (rather than felt) beliefs; sensed that self-surrender and the other-worldly are silly impossibles, cheap resolutions; embraced endless process as more vitalizing than endlessly defending avowed permanent truths.  His transcendence, and indeed I think it was transcendence, was horizontal, not vertical, joining oppositions while allowing the very difference to open the space for life and vitality and movement.

Certainly one of the most disturbing things to me is that this man somehow lived his life in a religious community.  My sense is (rather embarrassing that after being a religion scholar for over 40 years it remains only a “sense;” but I’ll live with it) that religions tend to be structured more along the lines that make mystics and mysticism laudable/desirable.  It is in some sense difficult to even grasp a notion of religion these days that wouldn’t rest somehow on the avowed belief in a range of impossibles set forth as absolute capital “t” Truths.  And the religionization of politics and society in American and perhaps throughout much of the world amounts to the same life(less) strategy which, surely oversimplified but maybe not by much, is the endless defense of avowed permanent truths; the uncompromising defense of the oneness of “my avowed beliefs.”

One of the great insights I’ve been delighted to experience recently has accompanied the effort to comprehend philosophically, but also neurobiologically and experientially (duh!), movement.  We have the practice of considering movement primarily in terms of its effect; we see movement in terms of aftermovement effect, that is, the impact of objects moving through space and time.  Movement is gridified and grafted and backfilled and vectored and patterned and measured, but, as movement philosophers work to demonstrate, this isn’t movement itself (living movement, self-movement), but rather the aftermovement effects, dregs, tracings.  The grand example of this is the recent “discovery” of the Higgs Boson Particle (interestingly referred to as the “god particle”) that is documented by the hints of shadows of traces it leaves behind sorted out of a chaos of other traces.  Central to insight about movement is that movement is never “in” any place in either space or time.  We might begin to grasp (yikes, how we desire to stop things!) this just a bit if we consider that to place movement at any point in space/time requires that we take the moving qualities of movement from it, making it hold still so that we can grasp or hold or describe it.  We can do this only after movement has expired in an accounting of the effects or behavior of movement already done moving.  Movement becomes subject of contemplation, yet when this occurs the life is wrung out of moving.  This points to the vital flaw of the contemplative method of mystics doesn’t it?  Moving is the process of getting from this point to the next and can’t be grasped until it has ceased to move, yet we most certainly can experience, feel, know movement as surely as we know life—same thing.  Human experience may then be the most magical and powerful detector, maybe even the only one, of movement as movement.

Okay, so we can make our brains hurt a little trying to grasp (not!) movement; it requires some sort of transcendence in our thinking from things and fixed points in time and space to process, to becoming, to vitalizing, to living.  And I think this shift (a regression really from a looking back to experiencing the awareness of being, of moving) is important, essential even in getting to this life strategy of my priest I find so interesting.  Movement is enabled and occurs not in points, but between points, in gaps, in synapses, in conjunctions, in juxtapositions, in comparisons, in metaphors, in conundrums, in play, in chiasm, in oscillation, in problems, in complexities, in portals, in openings, in paradoxes; that is, in the “yets” and the “buts” that I’ve identified in my priest’s lifestyle.

So, remembering Derrida on play at this point, it seems initially that we have the choice on styles or strategies.  The first, the typical (sorry for my inappropriate generalization) religious one, is to seek through contemplation, self-surrender, avowal of belief, and a host of other methods to close the gap between the hierarchical planes of the duality.  The shape and character of the duality is an avowed, rather than experienced, position; it is the given underlying the obligatory strategy designed to achieve transcendence (the rising above the lower odious category) in order to achieve unity with the superior category, a state identified as absolute, god, ethereal, spiritual.  The “poof strategy.”  Another strategy affirms that everything is endlessly irresolvable and problematic (a favorite strategy of graduate students who quickly learn that grades correlate with the degree they are able to problematize) and meaningless and one simply allows the interplay to continue endlessly without goal or judgment or end.  Religious folks detest this as relativism, thus wholly unacceptable.  In some sense I agree.  Surely neither of these strategies is laudable.

It seems here the priest in my example is valuable as an example once again.  He desperately wants to achieve some sort of vertical transcendence, to know at least what god has in mind for him (or finally even to know that god gives a shit about anything) and to try to give god credit for some general direction, yet he somehow always knows that there can be no certainty, no finality, nothing definite.  That the play will always go on; that the gap is always and endless opening and seducing; that the problems and mysteries and paradoxes open endlessly and somehow there isn’t anything anyone can do other than to adopt a style of dealing with this process and experience (or “suffer” to use a religious term) the consequences of doing so.

His style is to struggle without hysteria (well maybe occasional hysteria); to embrace value to the extent that one’s life depends on it, yet knowing full well it is somehow relative and limited; to pursue resolution while celebrating that any gain simply opens more gaps.  The style is to choose vitality and movement and process (which demand direction and hope and desire, but also frustration and uncertainty and grief) rather than truth and law and certainty; and to do so in the face of endless and undeniable evidence/experience of meaninglessness and despair.

Note:  the example I use is from Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) with my thanks to Meghan Zibby who loaned me her copy and encouraged me to read it; I’m glad I finally did.

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