This is a cheap trick of the charlatan, but it is used because it works: Forget everything you think you know about “mysticism.” Let’s refresh our understanding.
A mystic is a person – you or I could be a mystic. You might also call someone a winner, or a loser. You might call them blessed or cursed. You might call them a mystic, or a muggle.
Now, these pairs have been chosen because they relate to experiences a person has had. No one is a “winner” until he wins; no one is a “loser” until he fails. A person must experience blessings before we call her blessed, and must endure afflictions before we call her cursed.
One might now object: “Muggle” sounds more like an innate property of a person, rather than an experience that person has had. This would miss the point!
Alas, one may not speak anymore without a preponderance of intellectual speed bumps and stumbling blocks! Say this about modernity – it is awfully tedious.
No, muggle, I was only being colorful. I will now be technical: You have your mystic, and you have your naturalist.
What, then, is the experience which the mystic has had, which the naturalist (at least according to his philosophy) has not?
For the Christian, it is really quite simple: It is an encounter with the living God, directly or indirectly.
In the details, the curious naturalist can get confused, skeptical, even dismissive. Rightly so, given his intellectual commitments. But it really isn’t so confusing, and while skepticism is often a virtue, it is careless to be completely dismissive of mystical experiences.
On at least one front, I tend to line up with the naturalist. I do not buy as mystical any kind of experience which is reliably induced, which fits neatly into a preconceived system of belief, or else which is described by terms meant to be profound, which have no clear meaning (e.g. “thoughts of light”).
Behold – my earlier complete dismissal of contemporary Christian music!
Now let the speed bump appear: Ah, but it was not good to be completely dismissive. Very well – I have learned.
While I do not necessarily endorse every song or effort from such bands, I have come to appreciate Jars of Clay. I would commend to you certain songs from Third Day and Hillsong United. And I would commend David Crowder Band.
Please note, I do not hereby commend the videos or comments to you. Probably best just to listen. Nor do I commend them as musically exceptional. They are not, as far as I can tell, especially innovative or challenging.
What I see in them I recently noticed while listening to “How He Loves” from David Crowder Band (linked above). I said to myself, “He’s had a mystical experience.”
What one notices in “How He Loves” is a concerted, desperate effort – like a man trying to paint a picture of his deceased wife – to express and thus, to share, his encounter with God.
The true naturalist can hardly guess at this. It may seem to him that, because the mystic uses words which are intelligible to him, such an experience must not be so extraordinary. Indeed, consider:
He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy
When all of the sudden
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I see just how beautiful You are
And how great Your affections are for me
To the naturalist – let us presume a humble naturalist – this is perhaps a little strange, as it suggests a powerful encounter with a non-existent entity. The lyrics themselves, from the mouth of David Crowder, seem to be authentic and are perhaps charming in their style, though not what we might expect from a master of the English language. The humble naturalist might back up my claim – contemporary Christian music is not all terrible.
Such a review is (quite precisely) condescending, but who can fault the reviewer? Such a person imagines himself above the song because he can’t imagine himself in it. After all, he has not had a mystical experience.
A fellow mystic, however, might find herself weeping at these humble lyrics. For her, they are not merely charming, but evocative. They call out, from the fogginess of memory and doubt, her own encounter with the Everlasting, with Love Himself.
She is not especially caught up in the literary value of the words. She knows their authenticity is better gauged by their insufficiency, though they strive for all of the beauty and grandeur they can convey. She knows that words will never be enough; one evokes the oceans because there is nothing else which is so vast and yet so immanent. The sky is likewise vast, but out of reach; the ocean can touch every inch of her body, and swallow her whole. (Says David Crowder: “If His grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking“).
The mystic understands how God is like an ocean. More importantly, she understands how God surpasses the ocean, and this is why she weeps.
Allow me one more note: What about the one who is not a naturalist, nor a mystic? Let’s take an “ordinary” believer, who simply thinks Christianity is true, but has not experienced the presence of God in any direct or astonishing way. (This could be extended, in a way, to people of other faiths, but there is not space for that here).
Though I have asked the question, I reject the premise – there are only mystics. It is the true naturalist who is illusory, established on a false view of reality. No one is really a pure naturalist.
Perhaps not, you might say, but they would deny any encounter with God.
True enough, and now we venture close to that deeply troubled position of reading others’ minds. I have no interest in that.
Rather, with respect to their minds, I invite them to consider these things. Only consider the parts of your experience which defy physical explanation: Why do you think anything is good? (Is love good?) Why is truth so valuable that you respect people who will sacrifice for it? Why do you trust logic to sort out truth from falsehood? (Does it matter whether a thing is true or not?)
Why do you wish to pour yourself out into the water when you gaze out over the ocean at night? Why do you wish you could walk on water, or run without growing tired, or live forever? Why is it that you can imagine sharing something better than sex with a person, but you can’t say what it is?
Loosen your restraint – follow for a moment, and see where the questions lead.
The longing is sincere, and ubiquitous. A direct encounter with God is not required, only an answer: Is there anything which satisfies these longings, or not?
The mystics answer in the affirmative; some have even tasted and seen.