Those of us who find rationalism a bit too constricting sometimes find solace in mysticism. My reading of late, which is mostly research for Nightmares with the Bible, frequently touches on mystics of the past. This isn’t a new fascination. All the way back in college, as a religion major, I mentioned to one of my professors that I found it appealing. A frown settled across his academic face. “Mysticism is dangerous,” he said. He went on to explain that churches (he was Presbyterian, and I Methodist) had belief systems into which mystics—those who experience the divine directly—didn’t fit. A direct experience of the divine could cast doubt on church doctrine and nothing, as you might guess, is more important to true believers than dogma.
That discussion at such an impressionable age set me aback. Here as we enter (for the non-orthodox) the Triduum, or “Great Three Days” the faithful are hoping for some kind of divine experience, I expect. Many of us will spend two-thirds of it working. In any case, if nothing mystical happens why do we bother? Mysticism is equally deplored by science since it suggests something that doesn’t fit into rationalism’s toy box. A universe where the unexplained—and oh so subjective!—direct experience with naked reality threatens to undo all the neat columns and tidy formulas that describe the entirety of existence. Conventional churches tend to agree because you never know what God might do if you open that box.
There are religions that welcome mysticism. They recognize that human-built systems are only approximations—Platonic shadows, if you will, cast upon the cave wall. Mystics are those who, temporarily unchained, dare to turn around and face the fire directly. Who knows? They might even catch a glimpse of the sun itself. More conventional religions are run like businesses. You come to a certain building at a certain time. You perform prescribed actions on cue. You place your money in this specific receptacle at this specific time. Leave and forget it all until next week. Our younger generations don’t find this engaging, just as they see through the lie of the inherent fairness of capitalism. I can still see the frown of my theology professor. The old systems are falling apart even as those not too weary after work will head to Maundy Thursday services for a slip of bread and a sip of wine. The mystic, however, doesn’t know what might happen next.