Testis Gratis of Ad Calvarium makes a thought-provoking case for a revival of Christian mysticism as a corrective against a long-standing onslaught of faux-Buddhism, New Age “spirituality”, and “yoga” stripped of its original purpose and intent (which most Westerners would scarcely be able to comprehend, and would resoundingly reject if they did) and dumbed down to mere physical exercise. These commodified mass-market religion-surrogates, according to Testis, exist because they fill a void created by a pervasive modern tradition of misunderstood “rationalism” in which the rational and the mystical are supposed to be radically antagonistic to one another where prior tradition held them to be complementary:

Many of the scholastics were contemplatives (monks and canons), yet they saw no contradiction in undertaking intellectual exercises; the mind and reason are gifts from God. Both natural and mystical theology grant us an understanding of God, of the mysteries of faith, of the sacraments, of Christ’s life and humanity, of virtue.

Before the stranglehold of liberalism, these insights had been recognized. This false dichotomy of rationalism and mysticism has only been present in modernity. Similarly, both reason and spirituality have been separated from religion, which is how we have both materialist empiricists and fools who parody Eastern religions because they’re “exotic” and “spiritual.” The idea of a European “aligning chakras” or “practicing yoga” is an absolute joke; yet another reason of why we need look to and salvage our own traditions. They look elsewhere only because they do not know their own history.

The various ersatz yogic practices, chakra alignments, and so on at once appear to fill the liberal-rationalist void and, in their superficiality, prevent the modern Westerner from actually confronting it in any really meaningful way. This, in turn, allows a congenitally anti-intellectualistic culture that extols action and deprecates deep thought to pretend to have its spiritual cake and avoid eating it, too- at the cost of retarding actual spiritual growth, notwithstanding the value this very same culture assigns to the idea of self-improvement.

My own thoughts: I understand mystical practice as the pursuit of knowledge beyond the point where rationalistic methodologies reach their limiting-case and knowledge can advance further only by abandoning analytic method altogether in search of an immediate inner intuition of a boundless totality or unity of being. This intuition can accordingly never be formally explicated or inter-subjectively communicated with full adequacy, but only alluded to, and in a way that is always, necessarily, and notoriously difficult, since any such allusion will strain at the limits of what rational thought is capable of.

The intellectual line of least resistance here is to communicate the intuition of the ineffable and boundless unity of being in terms of a singularity of being. Since any and all distinctions between different things arrived at on a rationalistic basis are necessarily inadequate to the ultimate reality given in the mystical intuition, the easiest thing for the human mind to do is to conclude that there are no ontological distinctions between things, that everything is actually one and the same thing, in their apparent diversity actually so many phenomenal manifestations and emanations of the primordial ontological One, and that any distinctions we may draw between ontologically heterogeneous classes of things are merely man-made and arbitrary fiat constructs. Hence the mystic characteristically claims to be able to see the entire universe in a bean or a reed.

This nominalist ontology of singularity, superficially plausible but wrong, doesn’t seem to pose any serious problems for e.g. many Eastern religions, and in fact helps solve the problems that come up when these religions characteristically attempt to juggle traditional polytheistic cultism and philosophically monotheistic tendencies (e.g. all the gods of the cults are so many emanations of the one God, etc.). It does, however, run into serious problems with Christianity and other Abrahamic faith traditions that insist on a personal God, since ontologically, the distinction between Creator and creation becomes blurred to the point of being effaced altogether. If all creation in its diversity is ontologically resolved into the singularity of God, then, mutatis mutandisGod is at once ontologically dissolved into the diversity of creation. In other words, in a singularist ontology, God and his emanations are interchangeable: God=Creation=God. A descent into pantheism is thus set into motion, which is all the more easy on the mind to go down in that God, from the mystical point of view, is ineffable anyways- and this mystic ineffability is most readily alluded to in intellectual terms in the pantheist conception of God as nothing more than the invisible principle of singularity of the visible world of material nature in its diversity, a radical immanentism in which God exists as that world, and as its principle of motion (e.g. the “arc of history”), but has no distinct personality or even existence apart from it, at least as far as the intellect and ordinary senses can discern. The personality of God is thus annihilated into the boundlessly vast mystical singularity right along with that of the mystic; in the extreme case, He can no longer even be named as such.

This position, of course, is practically interchangeable with atheism- which probably explains the present popularity of Buddhist and other Oriental imports over and above their exotic allure, and how they sit comfortably alongside the most aggressive forms of philosophical materialism.

It takes an enormous amount of philosophical acumen and erudition, and an intellectual self-discipline rigorous enough to be an ascetic practice in its own right, to steer clear of this sort of thinking, which while intuitively plausible and very attractive is a disaster-area on many levels. The best thing for the Christian mystic to do is to punctiliously avoid trying to intellectualize the mystical intuition or otherwise communicate it to others. Reason and mysticism, while complementary, are not the same thing, and the distinction between them- in particular, the intrinsic insurmountable inadequacy of the former to the latter- should always be borne in mind and respected. Instead of trying to communicate his insight to others, the Christian mystic ought to insist on its exclusively non-intersubjective and esoteric character; instead of trying to explain it to others, he ought to invite them to experience it for themselves.




2 thoughts on “The Universe in a Bean: Christianity, Mysticism, Ontology

  1. There are mystic intellectuals who’ve triumphed over the pantheistic “nihilism” and whose written work has been useful for the greater Church. Just look at St. Bonaventure, St. Albert, the Victorines, etc. There’s also a more direct synthesis of Thomism and mysticism with Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. I would say that it is necessary for the great mystics to offer their methods and explain the usefulness of mystical prayer, though that obviously won’t be geared toward the masses. Other contemplatives will at least need guidelines to some extent. However, I’d agree that divine visions (which certainly don’t occur in the vast majority of those who practice mysticism to any degree) ought not to be intellectually explained and made public, unless God Himself commands such a thing like with the prophets. Such matters should be between the mystic and their spiritual director/advisor if they have one. In fact, I’m not even sure if they could be intellectualized. The famous words of St. Thomas Aquinas come to mind; all of his great intellectual work seemed “like straw” compared to the vision he had. Writing on the mingling of mysticism and reason should be left to the masters (especially those who can prove their orthodoxy).

    Anyway, my point was that the West has its own mystical traditions to look to, which is relevant for both the sorts of intellectuals in our sphere and the all too common typically middle class individuals who want to “be spiritual.” There is no need to look to the Far East. A sort of “mysticism-lite,” if you will, can re-enter society through Christianity without contradicting our (supposed) preference for intellectualism. Simple forms of meditation and contemplation will be beneficial for your average layman, and there are works like The Imitation of Christ that are pretty accessible. I am not at all saying that mystical theology should become mainstream or anything ridiculous like that. That’s a quick road to mass heresy.


    1. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the various monastic orders had all sorts of entry-level mystical-type practices. Maybe the Church could devise and implement some kind of program to give the lay population some kind of exposure to them, under suitable spiritual direction, in the form of retreats or different things like that.

      I’d also love to see some sort of truly serious effort to harness the power of music towards directing the mind to contemplation of the sublime and the mystical. There have, in fact, been currents and sub-genres of rock/metal that have been trying to do this for decades now, albeit in a haphazard, disorganized, and, unfortunately, often deranged way (pagan/occult lyrical content, etc.).


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