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Most of us think about consciousness and unconsciousness are the two states our mind can be in. But in religious and spiritual contexts, there is also a transcendent state of consciousness that is harder to define and achieve.

I was reading about William James (1842–1910), the psychologist and philosopher who wrote about this in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.

He believed that the transcendent state of consciousness had several features as experiences in order to qualify as such.

One feature he called “ineffability.” That is a tricky feature because it means that “it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.” In other words, it would be an experience that must be directly experienced and could not be explained adequately to others.

He also believed this experience would have a “noetic quality.” He meant that these mystical states are also states of knowledge with insight into depths of truth, illuminations and revelations “full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.” These parts can be explained to others and can be used for creating art and practical solutions.

Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. He found that they had “transiency.” His observation ws that they usually lasted half an hour, or at most an hour or two. Beyond that, they fade. He wrote that “Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.”

His final quality of the transcendent consciousness is “passivity.” Though he noted that the initiation of these altered states may be from voluntary operations, when the transcendent state occurs, the mystic feels as if his own will were “in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”

William James listed initiating practices such as fixing the attention, and going through certain bodily performances from the fasting and abuse found in some religious rituals, to deep meditative practices.

James drew some of these conclusions from being not only a reader and philosopher but, empiricist that he was, from using his own body-mind as a laboratory. In his case, he used nitrous oxide, also known as  “laughing gas,” which produces a euphoric effects. As a mild hallucinogen, the nitrous oxide gave him a new perspective on own consciousness. He did not claim that it gave him a mystical, or transcendent, experience, but it allowed him to understand those states.

He separated some of the reported transcendent experiences of his time such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, and the trances of mediums. Without saying they were faked, he noted that because there was no recollection of the phenomenon later and they seemed to have no significance for the subject’s inner life, they were not mystical states. True mystical states are retained at least somewhat in memory, and remain as a profoundly important event that modifies the inner life of the subject.

 

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Teresa of Ávila s a young woman by François Gérard, 1826

Last March 28, I saw on a website that it was the birthday of St. Teresa of Ávila. I’m not a “religious” person these days in the sense of an organized religion, but I have an odd relationship with St. Teresa.

It started when I was 13 and attended “Sunday school” at St. Leo’s Church in Irvington, New Jersey . The year I was 13 I had for my class a young and kind nun. Those two qualities set Sister Teresa Avila apart from all the other nuns.

I knew nothing about the real Saint Teresa of Ávila whom she was named after until many years later. The Saint Teresa (28 March 1515 – 4 October 1582), was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun and author during the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer.

Teresa grew up in a wealthy household in the province of Ávila, Spain. She was a beautiful and social girl who loved her privileged life, perfume, jewelry, and elegant clothes. Her mother died when she was 14, and her father sent her to convent school to protect his beautiful daughter.

Perhaps surprisingly, she found the religious training very appealing and she decided to become a nun.

After twenty increasingly important years, she established her own monastery, She then traveled around Spain on a donkey, setting up 16 new monasteries for women. She also wrote several books, including The Way of Perfection (1566) and The Interior Castle (1580).

One day in my thirteenth year, I had forgotten a homework assignment for Sunday school catechism class. Sister Teresa told me to go home, get the assignment, bring it to the convent and ask for her. The nun who answered my knock at the convent door went to get Sister Teresa.

When Sister Teresa Avila appeared she was not wearing her nun’s habit. I can only imagine how my face must have looked.

She was beautiful. She had long, dark, shiny hair. She asked me for my assignment which was in my hand. I was frozen. It probably took me a few seconds to respond but it felt like a lot longer.

I was in love with her in the way that a boy of 13 can be in love with an adult woman. I don’t know in what way a boy can be in love with a nun.

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini , 1652

In college I took a course about religion in literature and although it was taught by a religion professor, it was the most influential literature course I took as an English major. Along with novels, we read religious works including The Wisdom of the Sufis, The Dark Night of the Soul  by Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa’s The Interior Castle.

The Interior Castle was inspired by a Saint Teresa’s mystical vision of a crystal castle with seven chambers, each representing a different stage in spiritual development. She immediately wrote her book which is divided into seven parts (also called mansions, dwelling places or chambers) Each level brings you closer to God.

Entrance into the first three mansions is achieved by prayer and meditation. The fourth through seventh mansions are considered to be mystical or contemplative prayer. The soul achieves clarity in prayer and a spiritual marriage with God in the seventh mansions.

Of course, as I read the book my thoughts often returned to Sister Teresa rather than Saint Teresa. The two have remained blurred in my mind. I imagine Sister Teresa before she took the veil as a beautiful young girl much like the Teresa of Avila in 1529.

 

Over the years, both Teresa’s have been in my thoughts and have been alluded to in other works. Simone de Beauvoir writes about Teresa as a woman who lived her life for herself in her book The Second Sex. George Eliot compared the character Dorothea to St. Teresa in Middlemarch. Thomas Hardy took Teresa as the inspiration for much of the heroine Tess (Teresa) in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a character who in one scene lies in a field and senses her soul ecstatically above her.

Saint Teresa appears in a few contemporary songs: “Theresa’s Sound-World” by Sonic Youth  and in “Saint Teresa” by Joan Osborne.

But none of those allusions have had as much of an impact on me as reading The Interior Castle through the lens of a 13 year-old boy discovering another kind of love.

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