Sunday, June 7, 2009

Spiritual but not Mystical

I often work at night, alone, and I usually listen to a book on tape when I do this. Since picking up a book to listen to involves almost no effort, I routinely listen to books that I would never actually read. Sometimes this allows me an insight into what people who differ from me think (e.g. “Suicide of the West,” by James Burnham), sometimes I find hidden gems that I never knew existed (e.g. “Down and Out in Paris and London,” by George Orwell), sometimes this allows me to read classics that I never seemed to have the time for (e.g. “House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton), and sometimes it simply allows me to say “Yes, I read that, and it’s a piece of crap!” (e.g. [and especially] “Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand, and “Left Behind” by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, possibly the two most incompetent works of fiction and wrong-headed philosophical outlooks ever to get into print). Other times, is just gets me thinking.

“Tuesdays With Morrie” is a book by Mitch Albom describing his visits with Morrie Schwartz, his favorite professor in college, as he is dying of ALS. It was hugely popular and is held to be a work of great insight and wisdom. The dying Morrie lays stress on “human” values, like love, family, compassion, he bears up cheerfully in the face of death, which indicates his inner peace, and he counsels his student not to spend so much time pursuing transient successes like money, career, or fame. The trick here, is that fairly obvious insights are lent weight by the gravity of their coming from a dying man. If it were merely thin broth, then it would have bothered me no more than the uninspired sort of homily one gets at Old Saint Pat’s, that poster of the cat saying “hang in there,” or a mirror painted with the words of the “footsteps prayer.” But this book bugged me, and I thought about it for days.

The obvious short-coming was that it was “spiritual without being religious,” by which I suppose I mean it dealt with matters of the spirit outside of any fixed system of spiritual duties. So I asked my son, Xeno, (who had to read the book for class) if the “spiritual without being religious” thing bothered him as well. He told me that he didn’t like the book either but that I didn’t really have the problem by the tail. “After all,” he said, “Your friend Karl is as spiritual a guy as there is, and he’s not religious.”

This was an excellent point. My buddy Karl the Anarchist left the Church years ago, isn’t really sure if there is a God or what sort of nature a god might have, yet he was profoundly spiritual. Every fiber of Karl’s being is devoted to working out his vocation in life, to social justice, to sanctifying mankind. He is a mystic.

By mystic, I mean he has a personal knowledge of God. I know this by how he walks the earth without fear or violence. By his refusal to value earthly things as much as by his complete practically in dealing with the world. I know this as much by his compassion as by his sense of humor. He spoke to my son once about the first time he was in prison (he has been imprisoned many times for civil disobedience). He was eighteen when he met Dorothy Day on a park bench and she talked him into joining her in refusing to participate in an air raid drill. They were both arrested and he was sent to Ryker’s Island to await trial. Immediately he was set upon by toughs who said, “I’m going to have your shit on my dick or your blood on my knife.” He thought for a moment, realized that no knife could ever touch his spirit, and told them to go ahead and do what they would. He was left alone, just as he has been in the dozens of times he has been jailed since, and the months he spent in federal prison for refusing to pay war taxes. You cannot intimidate a mystic because the world does not matter to them.

Reflecting on this, I realized that the problem with Morrie Schwartz’s “wisdom” was not that it was “spiritual without being religious,” but that it was “spiritual without being mystical.” In fact, this is almost always the problem with what we might call “secular spirituality.” Karl is just about the only person I’ve ever met who is mystical without being religious. And Schwartz is not a mystic.

[How do I know? Because I am a mystic. You will forgive me for this arrogant boast, but it is the only valid claim to knowing anything about mysticism. I have long resisted writing about mysticism, as it would involve divulging my own mysticism, and I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of
bodhisattva or something. I’m just a regular guy, who’s had the mystical experience. I’m not nearly the better person I ought to be for this either, so it probably counts against me in the scheme of things.]

It doesn’t take long to tell when you are talking to a mystic and not just a dying man with equanimity. Mystical detachment is simple (think of Descarte’s melting wax, or B
ridget of Sweden looking into Christ’s palm) yet its impact is beyond profound (think of Saint Teresa of Ávila saying how the love of God pierced her heart “like a flaming arrow.”). A real mystic never dwells on why the world doesn’t matter, he takes that as his starting point. A real mystic never tells you to work less, he tells you to find your vocation. A real mystic never tells you to “simplify your life,” he tells you to embrace mortification. A mystic never speaks of family as a “support system,” of marriage as a “partnership,” nor does he dwell upon “being a good person.” For just as faith without works are dead, so too is charity without love, for it will not do your soul a bit of good to give a hungry man a bowl of soup unless you love him. The mystic cares not for the accidents of this world.

So must a genuine spirituality always be mystical? No, and this is where religion comes in. Religion is there to allow the ordinary, un-mystical person, to live like a mystic. It demands that you do things out of duty that a mystic would do out of communion with God. Genuine religion demands that you forego the consolations of the world and focus on the spirit. Genuine religion demands that you spend time in prayer, time that a mystic might spend in direct communion with God. Genuine religion demands that you cherish your spouse as your own flesh, that you receive the Holy Spirit, that you act always out love, that you look for God’s hand in everything — and no mystic needs to be told any of those things!

“Tuesdays With Morrie,” however well-meaning it might be, is yet another attempt to give spiritual succor to those without either religion or mysticism. As such, it is a fraud.

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