Tuesday 6 March 2012

The perils of mysticism and magic


The Eastern Orthodox tradition regards mysticism as easy - all too easy – but as strongly tending towards demonic and not divine influence.


(If you doubt the easy-ness and deceptiveness of mystical experience, talk with some of the users of psychedelic drugs: they are often convinced that the chemical has yielded esoteric insights of great value. And they believe that that those who have not had the drug experience cannot recognise the truth and validity of what they know. The cost of this 'enlightenment'? just a few micrograms of LSD. Why bother with prayer, fasting and meditation when 'truth' is so cheap... This condition of near-invincible, un-refutable self-regard is termed spiritual pride or delusion - prelest in Russian - and is the major hazard of spiritual striving for Christians because pride is cutting oneself off from God; and is thus the worst of sins.)


As fallen men in a corrupt world, most people will go into a search for spirituality and religious experiences with mixed motivations, or frankly bad motivations – from spiritual pride, sensation-seeking, or seeking knowledge to use for power.

Or, they may seek healing - for themselves (in their alienation), or for others (as in shamanic practices), or for society. This motivation is not so bad, but is yet corrupt - since it aims to use communion with God to achieve worldly ends - and the desire for healing is easily corrupted into the desire for happiness, for thrills.


(Like Faust or Paracelsus or Renaissance magicians generally – people who seek to use spiritual knowledge/ magic to manipulate the world, especially other people. Or like Charles Williams - who used magical and tantric techniques to fuel his poetic creativity. Most of us are more or less like this.)


The Orthodox belief is that in this world the mystic will quite possibly be given what he seeks - spiritual experiences, knowledge, signs, powers – but arising from encounters with demons (fallen angels) rather than God and therefore tending towards deception, damnation and working against the Good.

So the elaborate structures of monasteries, elders, startsy, Saints and so on is more a method of supervision (rather than apprenticeship) – to try and prevent the ascetic mystic from being corrupted by spiritual experiences (rather than training people to attain such experiences).


I think our age desperately needs the mystical dimension of Christianity, yet we lack the elaborate structures of supervision by advanced Holy persons.

The hazards of mysticism are thus greater for us than for past Christians.

And the desire for Christian mystical experience can be satisfied only if the hazards are appreciated.


And there is no safety in the path of outright rejection of mysticism, because the mystical hunger will come back in another form. Protestants have generally rejected monasticism and ascetic mysticism because of the kind of hazards described above.

Yet mysticism has returned to Protestantism in the Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations, which represent (supposedly) the fastest growing group of Christians in the world.

In some of these, mystical experiences are all-but mandatory and timetabled and apparently regarded (in practice) as necessarily Good and wholesome. Indeed, the mystical experience may be regarded as the necessary conversion experience.

Here there are all the hazards of monasticism - but in a more vulnerable context of Christian 'beginners' and recent converts, without the ascetic disciplines, without the supervision, without even the awareness that for fallen men in a corrupt world it is most likely that mystical experiences will be demonic than divine.


What to do?

The same as always. In the words of St Paul: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. That is with humility, and self-doubt.



CorkyAgain said...

Thank you for this.

As we used to say back in the days when I sat with the Quakers, it speaks to my condition.

Gyan said...

What is mysticism actually?

And how it is relevant to a Christian life
that should be focused on loving one's neighbors?>

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - if you search 'mysticism' on this blog, you should be able to see what is meant.

I agree that mysticism is certainly not a core necessity of Christianity, if that is what you are implying.

As a brief definition, Christian mysticism is a significant part of that for which monastics are (or ought to be) striving.

Although not necessary to salvation, mysticism is part of the *fullness*, the highest development, of Christianity: in the sense that the highest levels of Orthodox Christian societies are higher in sanctity/ Holiness/ further advanced in theosis than the highest level of Protestant societies.

Kristor said...

I would say that mysticism is the focused, disciplined attempt to follow the first great commandment: to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, mind, soul and body. It is the attempt to put the First Thing really first.

Amazingly hard to do. In practice, one can't do it; all one can do is stop loving other things as if they were First, and wait patiently.

Mystical experiences - of bliss, satori, enlightenment, joy, knowledge, complete comprehension, theosis, and so forth - are often, but not always, the concomitants of such love. They are not, however, goal of mysticism. Mystics run into (one sort of trouble) when they focus on attaining the experience, rather than on loving the love.

Teresa of Calcutta was a mystic. She was denied any mystical experience for decades; yet she persisted in love. It's the love that is the main thing.

It was Teresa's love of the Lord that enabled her wonderful love for the poor. If she had started to make the poor the primary focus of her attention, that too would have been an error.

PatrickH said...

I did have “mystical” experiences on hallucinogenic drugs, and the only value of those experiences was the discovery that “there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in [my] philosophy”. The clenched jaw, the visual “tracking” of movements, the collapse of short-term memory, the general sense of chemical intrusiveness—none of these was the real thing. And, oh, there was nothing of love in the experience.
It has taken me decades to begin to undo the damage of the “revelations” of LSD and psilocybin. Those experiences were insidious, and upon reflection, they were evil.

Colleen said...

Thank you for posting this.

I am in great difficulty because I sense the divine everywhere, so intensely that I am bewildered sometimes, but by itself this ecstatic feeling provides little behavioral guidance. I have started going to church again (Catholic) after many years of hiatus and it's going OK so far, but I am disappointed that there's no real conversation in the Church today about mysticism.

Do you think there is a practical solution to the lack of an institutionalized mystical tradition? Is this something that should be left up to priests, monks, and nuns, or is there some way that laypeople can agitate for more discussion and guidance concerning this issue?

Gyan said...

You are trying to quantify the unquantifiable.
We have no access to any means by which to assess the levels of theosis on any level higher than an individual

Your defn is useful first step.The dictionary meaning given in Webster 1913 are:
Mys"ti*cism (?), n. [Cf. F. mysticisme.]

1. Obscurity of doctrine.

2. (Eccl. Hist.) The doctrine of the Mystics, who professed a pure, sublime, and wholly disinterested devotion, and maintained that they had direct intercourse with the divine Spirit, and aquired a knowledge of God and of spiritual things unattainable by the natural intellect, and such as can not be analyzed or explained.

3. (Philos.) The doctrine that the ultimate elements or principles of knowledge or belief are gained by an act or process akin to feeling or faith.

So the sense seems to be Mysticism is something that can not be explained, only experienced.
This is exactly what Yogis say. The bliss that follows Yogic practices is beyond Reason.

So an emphasis of mysticism runs the danger of turning Christianity into an Eastern cult. The Christian mysticism must be balanced by Christian theology.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - 'we' as individuals do not evaluate on our own - there is the Church, tradition, the consesus of those of advanced and 'proven' sanctity. The Church 'decides' who was a Saint, for example.

One of the most important aspects of the mystical tradition is to clarify and extrapolate and fill in gaps in the scriptural revelation. This has been a major role of the Holy Fathers in the Orthodox Church.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Colleen - your predicament is exactly the problem.

You ideally need to be 'supervised' (and in obedience to) a Holy Elder, but it is not at all obvious that there are any such individuals to be found (Indeed, Father Seraphim Rose, who died in 1982, said that there were none in the West) - although there are plenty of frauds.

Therefore you have to do you best with - instead of supervision - advice.

I believe the best advice (which both recognises the importance of mysticism and its hazards) is from the Eastern Orthodox tradition (which does not mean you need to leave the Roman Church, but that you expand your reading). I would suggest you read Fr Seraphim Rose and the authors which he recommends.

You could start by looking at the essays linked here - on the Left side.


And the biography by Hieromonk Damascene.

Kristor said...

Colleen, you might want to consult with your parish priest about the possibility of finding a spiritual director somewhere within your local diocese. My experience is that there are in almost any sizable and sufficiently ancient religious organization at least a few persons of advanced sanctity. By nature, such people do not tend to make themselves known as such. They tend to keep quiet about it. You are most likely to find them among the religious orders. They may even be laymen, like yourself. They might not be holy elders of the degree that Seraphim Rose would like to have had available, but nevertheless they can be fairly far along the path - far ahead of you, at any rate.

And, based on what you say, I think that you could use some wise old counsel. Indeed, I think it may be a matter of some urgency. The bewilderment and distress you are feeling at your intense apprehensions of the divine are quite reasonable responses, for you stand at the crossroads of great opportunity, and, therefore, of great hazard. There is a substantial risk that you will be tempted off the strait and narrow path by some apparently quite genuine and good apprehension of a spiritual reality that seems altogether good, but is not. There is also the even greater danger that, not knowing what to do next, you will retreat from the high mountain to which you have already climbed, back to the lowlands.

That would be a sad outcome, because you have already been granted a rare and precious gift: the door has been opened unto you, at least a crack. You have been blessed. Persist properly, and you may pass through.

A good spiritual director will provide you with structure, reading, and discipline that will help you keep at the way, step by patient step. There's no magic to it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - I think that it is unlikely that a spiritual *director* can be found, a wise and safe *adviser* may be the best that can be hoped for.

But I am less optimistic than you that a random parish priest would be likely to know of such.

This is one of the hard aspects of living in the End Times. What is most needed is harder to get and more perilous than in the past.

Bruce Charlton said...

I should perhaps make clear that the *main* path of mysticism for most people (the main but not exclusive emphasis) is the Via Positiva, Positive Way, the path of Love of 'neighbour' (of God's creations and creatures rather than of God direct) which is (again mostly) via the sacraments of Marriage and family and the mysteries vouchsafed thereof.

Wurmbrand said...


I'm a Lutheran in the tradition of the Lutheran Confessions.

Perhaps Lutherans who adhere to their Confessions emphasize the *preaching of God's requirements (Law) and His sheer gift of grace (Gospel), and *Baptism, *Confession and Absolution, and *Holy Communion too much, from the point of view of some more mystically inclined Christians.

But I find myself wanting to recommend these as basic to the apostolic Way. The early Christians, we read in Acts 42:2,

--continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine

--continued in the apostles' fellowship [this includes the churchly discipline whereby Communion is given to the instructed and prepared baptized Faithful, but not to the uninstructed, the unprepared, the not yet baptized, those of other faiths, etc.]

--continued in the breaking of bread, i.e. Holy Communion

--continued in the prayers [some Bible translations have it just "continued in... prayer," but the Greek is "the prayers," i.e. set prayers, i.e. Liturgy]

Of course they also prayed as individuals.

Whatever mystical experiences may have been going on among the Faithful were in the context of this apostolic, corporate life.

As Dr. Charlton's comments suggest, to some degree we may have to seek awareness of this kind of life through written records: above all the New Testament, but also early Fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, and the ancient liturgies.