Mystical Insight And Petrified Religions
After days of rain and weeks of inclement weather, the morning brought clear skies, bright sun and warm temperatures. The creek is high and clear, and the grass green and thick in the unmanicured park.
T-shirts were de rigueur for people walking or biking along the paths and pedestrian roads in the park. The only downside was the emergence of mosquitoes, which seemed to come in swarms.
From the minute I took my seat at streamside, there was an ephemeral, ethereal quality, which emanated from neither inside or outside, but both. The beauty of the earth produced a slight pressure in the head, which only intensified as the mind completely quieted with attentiveness.
The stream flowed by like a small river at one’s feet. Time ended with thought. One saw that life is a river that begins in emptiness and ends in emptiness, coming from nothing and going nowhere.
It’s a tremendous paradox, but communion with the ever-present actuality of death is communion with God – if by God one means ineffable immanence.
What does it mean to have a spiritual life? An inner life is a core human requirement for a human being, second only to the necessity for food, clothing and shelter. Does it have anything to do with organized religion, or do all religions “begin with mysticism and end up in politics?”
Clearly, an inner life has nothing to do with organized religion, anymore than it does with politics, despite contorted and contradictory attempts to link mystical insight with organized religion.
The best and worst example of the attempt to conjoin mystical insight with organized religion is an essay by a Benedictine priest, Brother David Steindl-Rast. In “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion,” Br. David makes a valiant attempt to combine mystical insight and organized religion.
His obvious intention in the essay is to uphold organized religion. But he unwittingly offers a fitting metaphor for the fire of meditative insight, and how it becomes petrified with organized religion. (Petrified in both senses of the word – ossified and terrified.)
Brother David writes, “The beginnings of the great religions were like the eruptions of a volcano. There was fire, there was heat, there was light: the light of mystical insight, freshly spelled out in a new teaching. But as that stream of lava flowed down the sides of the mountain, it began to cool off. The farther it got from its origins, the less it looked like fire; it turned to rock.”
That’s a compelling metaphor. But does it elucidate the relationship between mystical insight and organized religion, or confirm how organized religions are the calcification of mystical experiencing?
Br. David undermines his own thesis when he says things like, “Sad as it is, religion left to itself turns irreligious.”
Obviously as a priest, he’s more than inclined to blur the distinction between the religious mind and organized religion, in his need to uphold “the great religions.”
“Religions can be purified and renewed whenever a faithful heart recognizes, in spite of all distortions, the original light,” Brother David intones. “Thus the believer’s mysticism becomes one with the Founder’s.”
That simply isn’t so. Religions imply dogma, and dogma calcifies into dogmatism. Religions require conformity to one degree or another, and conformity is inimical to the freedom essential for mystical experiencing. Finally, religions require authority, and authority induces fear, and fear produces violence and corruption.
With respect to Catholicism and Christianity, Jesus is considered the Founder. But given the revelations of pedophilia by priests all over the world, and the cover-ups by bishops and the Vatican, does anyone actually believe that Jesus, upon his long-awaited Second Coming, would have anything do with the Roman Catholic Church?
Brother David cleverly states the old arguments by priests and pastors against mystical experiencing:
“The established religion asks: Why is there a need for absorption in the Cloud of Unknowing when we have spelled out everything so clearly? And isn’t that emphasis on personal experience a bit egocentric? Who can be sure that people standing on their own feet won’t go their own way? These suspicions gave rise to the famous saying that “myst-i-cism begins with mist, puts the I in the center, and ends in schism.”
Jumping from one side of an unbridgeable chasm to another, he provides an excellent response to the first question: “Once the response of the heart expresses itself in thinking, the original wholeness of the response is refracted, or broken.”
With regard to the second question, yes, there is the danger of egocentrism in going one’s own way inwardly, but what bishop doesn’t conceal his ego underneath his priestly cloak?
And as for schism, why should we care about organized religions splitting up in this age of rampaging fragmentation of the earth and humanity, when they are the leading cause of division?
Br. David ends on a contradictory, if not disingenuous note: “Thus, doctrine, ethics, and ritual bear the mark of our shortcomings, even in these earliest buds of religion. Yet, they fulfill a most important function: they keep us connected, no matter how imperfectly, with the truth, goodness, and beauty that once overwhelmed us. That is the glory of every religion.”
That falsehood makes mystics recoil in outrage, for religions do not “keep us connected with the truth, goodness and beauty,” but impede and destroy our capacity for directly experiencing these things in the moment.
With regard to the world as actually is organized by organized religions, here’s a edict from hell out of the mouth of Israel’s national security minister and religious zealot Itamar Ben-Gvir:
“We must encourage voluntary migration. Let them leave. We have to return home to Gaza and the West Bank because that is the Torah, that is morality, that is historic justice, that is logic and that is the right thing.”
That’s how organized religion produces nearly 30,000 dead, mostly children and women, in few months. That’s how religions are inherently separative, divisive and inexorably lead to conflict, war and slaughter.