Friday 15 May 2009

Hear the silent cry

"A mystical vein runs through our movement," Dutch Christian anarchist reverend Louis A. Bähler wrote around a century ago - about Christian anarchism. Crossing the edges of logic I might say to this: this is both true and untrue. The English title of Dorothee Sölle's book on mysticism and action expresses this logical non sequitur better still: The silent cry (Du stilles Geschrei - the original German subtitle, again, is ambivalent, meaning either "You silent cry" or "Hark the silent cry").

So you have not stopped reading already, impatiently shrugging? Chances are the word "mysticism" invokes for readers with a Christian background the burning of fragrant sticks, humming Om endlessly and all the other kinds of kitsch white Westerners like to shop for in areas which will really remain closed to them - the world Gita Mehta already summed up in her book title Karma cola.

Mysticism has been declared a closed area by many Christian theologians, starting from Tertullian right down to Karl Barth. On the other hand, a theologian as Karl Rahner thought that there would be no future for the Church if it did not turn (back) to mysticism. And Peter Maurin - another Christian anarchist - stresses that the workers are naturally mystical - and theirs is the future anyway.

The shortest description (I hesitate about using the word "definition" for reasons I will not get into now) of mysticism I know is given by Dutch priest André Zegveld:
Mysticism is the knowledge of God, based on experience.

This sounds rather rational. Is not there a feeling attached to it? Another compatriot of mine bursts out lyrically:

To understand the nature of mysticism you have to go back to your childhood and remember what it was like when you first fell in love. Can you remember the days at school when this undefinable thrill for the first time got hold of you? There you were, all of a sudden you had fallen in love with a girl that was in your eyes the favourite of the gods. She was so touched by divine grace that the picture of her could not leave your mind for a second. How smooth her skin and how beautiful her hair! What a gorgeous face! How delicate the rounding of her forearms! Her beautiful girlish hands, with the tender and fragile fingers, kept coming back to your mind all day. And if this mental picture, which you had chained to your soul with all the Gordian knots in the world, left your memory and the image of her went blank, then you felt a great loss, a tremendous pain of being bereft by something so precious that you would give up everything you owned to get it back. You remembered everything she said, what she did, the way she walked, the charm of her conversation. Especially on moments when you were alone this feeling was cherished. You wanted to be by yourself with this feeling and you locked yourself up in your room to think about her. It made your favourite music sound like it was played on Mount Parnassos by Apollo himself.

No, my friend - this is more or less how it felt the second time I fell in love, and certainly not exactly that way.
The first time was - now that I write it down it comes with some fear and trembling - meeting a girl whose name was the name she should have had, the immediate recogniton - "It is you", her answer: "Yes, and it is you" and the feeling of both certainty and confusion at the same time. What next?
Next was - she was married within weeks. With the father of the child she already was expecting.
She had to. Working towards a certain mystical experience. Bye bye.
(I have written a stage play about it, the rehearsals of which I called a halt to - still, writing a play is very different from condensing it to one paragraph.) [*) please see first note below]

Sorry for this interruption - anyway, the general feeling probably is expressed in the right way in the exalted story about this girl and her forearms (not a body part I particularly associate with roundings) - you might understand it even when you are a "straight" woman, a gay man or a lesbian - at least, I hope you recognize it since I do more or less. The anonymous writer on the site - as does Dorothee Sölle - stresses everybody has had mystical experiences in their life.

Frankly, I have no idea about the difference between metapsychic experience - such as my first encounter with love - and mysticism.
My intuition (ah! something else in this field) tells me the boundaries are uncertain. A very prominent anti-mystical theologian tells he was so frightened about a mystical experience that he got on the run for it - and apparently succeeded in shaking it off. I will not mention names but he has written on Anarchie et christianisme. It turned him into a religious man but an anti-mysticist too. More on that later.

And again, there is a contradiction. Can mysticism be studied rationally? Yes, it can be done, but you should have experience with mysticism yourself to study it. But haven't we all, then?

*) When I wrote the stage play the tragic aspect of it all was what had struck me most - as if meeting someone you have been waiting for and whose name you have known in advance and the mutual recognition - as if that would have been perfectly normal.
And maybe it is. At a younger age I probably took it for granted.
And yet it is frighteningly inexplicable - as yet. Since it is by its nature a one-time experience it is not open to experimental research. More on the ordinary of the miraculous and the miracle of the ordinary here as far as I am concerned.

[For the print edition of A pinch of salt I thought of starting a series on Adventures in Mysticism, but the article was shelved or replaced for something different - though on mysticism too. This might be the start of the online version of the series, this however is not what you might have seen on paper - that will be next...]