William Blake (1757-1827) was an English engraver, painter, poet and mystic born in London.
Like visionaries from most world religions, Blake believed that a spiritual light exists behind the world of appearances. His writings and art mostly refer to philosophical, mythological and biblical themes.
Unlike artists who use abstraction to hint at a perceived yet normally unseen reality, Blake’s imagery is quite direct as he attempts to portray his perception of inner light, according to his own vision.
He differs from mainstream Christianity by emphasizing the importance of spontaneous, unguided and unchecked spiritual experience. At times his work is reminiscent of Gnosticism, especially when saying the self and the Godhead may be one. Blake’s beliefs differ from both Catholicism and Gnosticism, however, in that he seems to imply that good and evil are relative ideas constructed by the regimented mind.
This relativistic view is especially apparent in his so-called ‘minor prophecy’, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1791), an arguably grandiose work of undisciplined introspection that leans towards a nebulous, incomplete kind of Buddhism. While not without its literary merit, and also containing a few worthwhile critiques of religious hypocrisy, Heaven and Hell seems to reflect Blake’s personal quest and, perhaps, limited degree of spiritual understanding. Whether it contains any universal, salvific value is a matter of debate. Some might say it’s a useful signpost along the road of spiritual formation while nonetheless incomplete. Others might say it’s misleading.
William Blake (1757-1827) was an English engraver, painter, poet and mystic born in London.
Blake’s best-known paintings are The Canterbury Pilgrims and Jacob’s Dream. He also illustrated Young’s Night Thoughts (1797), Linnell’s The Book of Job (1826), Dante’s Divine Comedy and did imaginative engravings for his own writing.
Other works include Poetical Sketches (1783), Songs of Innocence (1789), Songs of Experience (1794) which include ‘The Tyger’, and the prophetic poem ‘Jerusalem’ (1804-20).
Most of the notables around him thought he was a flake, and his work and ideas were largely unrecognized. Near the end of his life he lived in poverty, spurred on by a band of youthful admirers.
- The Tyger – William Blake (mitchellcharman.wordpress.com)
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While many New Age believers cite the belief in chakras as a surefire science of body and spirit, they usually don’t realize that chakra theories vary significantly among different Asian religious traditions.
Texts and teachings present different numbers of chakras. Also different physical structures are considered chakras. David Gordon White thus emphasizes:
The chakras are, in the most general sense, ‘wheels’ or alleged centers of power located along the spine, beginning at the anus/base and ending at the crown of the head.
Spiritual energy is said to travel in a channel (nadi) upward along the spine, homogenizing at each chakra much like floors along an elevator route. Individuals at various stages of spiritual development focus on and identify their consciousness with respectively different chakras (energy centers). The anus/base chakra is said to contain the lowest and crudest of spiritual energies, while the crown/top chakra is associated with ultimate spiritual awareness, beyond the confines of desire, the body, space and time, etc.
In this regard, Hinduism outlines a variety of spiritual tantras (rules, disciplines, theories). Although those outlined in the Kubjikamata Tantra became more or less standardized, with chakras specified at the anus, reproductive organs, navel, heart, throat, between the eyes and the ‘thousand-petalled lotus’ at the crown of the head.
In Hindu mythic belief raw power (Shakti) resides at the anus/base. Once awakened she rises, serpent-like, energizing each chakra as she passes upward, ultimately to unite with Siva at the crown chakra. At this point the aspirant allegedly experiences absolute bliss by virtue of linking personal consciousness with absolute reality or God.
By way of contrast, some Buddhist Tantras mention only four chakras, located at the navel, heart, throat and between the eyes/crown of the head.
Again, some people seem to accept one chakra theory as the gospel truth. In reality, however, there are many competing theories. The tendency for some to hold fast to a single chakra theory might have something to do with the human desire to understand and control. Rather than humbly acknowledging our human limitations concerning ultimate reality, some suppose they’ve got it all figured out with a manmade theory. Ironically, this narrow-minded, closed off attitude may hinder an experience of the mystery and grace of God.
Another sad possibility is that vulnerable people with a bit of money but not much knowledge are hoodwinked by manipulative, sham gurus and cheesy New Age teachers who’ll do anything they can to keep their wealthy clients on the hook.
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Several religious traditions regard celibacy as a requirement for advanced spiritual progress and healthy premarital relationships. And married seekers primarily concerned with God realization are often counseled to practice celibacy or, depending on their psychological makeup and related calling, sexual moderation.
In contrast to Sigmund Freud‘s theories about so-called normal psychosexual development¹ and C. G. Jung‘s advocacy of a mind/body holism, some celibates claim that unspent sexual energy is transmuted to higher forms of psycho-spiritual awareness.
Aspects of popular culture and many ordinary people tend to characterize celibacy as something odd or deviant but the devout monastic, saint or guru and many non-denominational spiritual persons say it’s essential not only for personal development but also for the universal work of spiritual ‘liberation’ or, depending one one’s path, ‘salvation.’
This spiritual work is said to be just that—work. But it’s not the kind of immediately visible work that everyone can easily understand. Rather, it’s arguably more subtle and inwardly demanding. The work of salvation is said to involve meditation, contemplation and intercession. These practices apparently facilitate others’ ability to recognize and respond to God as an active force of love in their lives.
In Catholic and Hindu mysticism, the transpersonal connecting principles are, respectively, the ‘taking of sin’ and ‘karma transfer.’
Celibacy combined with higher forms of contemplation is said to elevate all concerned individuals, but this is probably a best-case scenario. In actual practice it seems that some individuals react in a hostile manner toward deeply spiritual persons, this being a possible explanation for the well-known phenomena of religious persecution, scapegoating and martyrdom.
And while some contemplative celibates may seem like socially inept or repressed “losers” to those predominantly concerned with worldly rewards, the celibates themselves often say they are regularly in touch with helpful spiritual powers (e.g. The Holy Spirit, The Goddess), intermediaries (e.g. angels, deceased relatives and saints) and other saintly living people—i.e. those whose inner relationship with God invisibly reaches out to others.
For a discussion on the notion of healthy vs. unhealthy types of celibacy, see ”Celibacy, Sex and Spirituality.”
¹ From the entry “Cathexis” at earthpages.ca:
Freud never considers the possibility that pent up libidinal energy could be redirected to the spiritual life. On this score, many saints and mystics attest to the importance of celibacy. Without it, they say, their spiritual work (e.g. intercession) just can’t get done. Many go even further, describing chastity not as a kind of unavoidable necessity but as a great gift and virtue. This positive attitude lead St. Frances de Sales to say
Chastity is the lily among virtues and makes men almost equal to angels.
Sadly, many people still on a materialistic level of consciousness find this difficult to understand. As a result, some predominantly spiritual people may suffer ridicule and persecution, even by their apparently religious peers. Even more sad, it seems that some potential spiritual sensitives are, themselves, duped by the status quo viewpoint. So instead of flowering into sainthood, they may end up in psychiatric wards.
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The terms contemplation and meditation are often used synonymously. In Christian mysticism, however, contemplation is regarded as a higher and nobler activity than mere meditation. As the scholar of religion, Evelyn Underhill, puts it:
Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character.¹
This definition represents a developmental approach. Instead of being ‘this or that,’ as so many fundamentalists and conservatives tend to depict the world, meditation leads to contemplation. Along these lines, many Christians hope that those who don’t understand the unique beauty of their contemplative experience would come to realize it with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
Contemplation emphasizes and encourages an inner union of the individual with God, which, at some point, involves intercession. By way of contrast, meditation doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of the individual or God, as we find in most forms of Buddhism.
Some Buddhists, however, use the word contemplation within their own social and religious framework. Whether or not Buddhists entirely escape the cultural assumptions and obligations bound up within that religion, as so many claim to, seems highly debatable.
In Catholicism, contemplation (as intercession) is recognized as a type of work distinct from more visibly active works, such as teaching or ditch digging. However, not all Catholics – to include priests, monks and sisters – immediately recognize this type of work when present in saintly individuals. Some Catholics are arguably just too thick (or perverse) to see a holy person when they’re right in front of their eyes.
For instance, St. Faustina Kowalska is now hailed as a great contemplative saint within mainstream Catholicism. But in her Divine Mercy Diary she writes that she encountered harsh skepticism from some of her religious superiors who really should have known better.
Perhaps part of the difficulty in recognizing bona fide saints whose contemplation is, in fact, their main work has to do with cultural preconceptions and stereotypes about the idea of holiness. We tend to applaud people who make their good works highly visible. Imagine, for example, a churchgoer who’s having clandestine sex with her minister and cheating on her husband. As long as everyone thinks she’s a “good Christian,” organizing religious events and sitting on the boards of charities, she can fool almost everyone into thinking she’s a saint.
Aside from religious hypocrites who never try to improve their immoral behavior, as in the above scenario, many people expect a saint to be flawless and without sin. This too is misguided.
In addition, the psychologically injured or, perhaps, spiritually deceived among us might claim to be saints when they’re not. And then, if that’s not enough, there’s the reality of outright charlatans and hoaxers. Taken together, these pseudo and potential saints complicate the picture as to just what a saint is. At least, they do in the eyes of humanity.
At a Catholic Mass the following was written in the church bulletin. No mention is made of intercession, which arguably is crucial to the contemplative life. But this brief passage probably represents the average Catholic’s understanding of the idea of contemplation:
In contemplative prayer, we learn to create silence to allow God to transform us; to strive to create a peace which surpasses all understanding; and to heal the wounds of a lifetime.²
¹ Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (London, Dent: 1914), p. 46.
² From “Contemplative Prayer Workshop” in Bulletin (September 5, 2010), St. Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto, Canada.
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Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy containing many ideas previously existing in different forms and places within the ancient world. These unorthodox beliefs are mentioned in the New Testament by St. Paul, and were more systematically condemned by the Christian Church from the 2nd-century onward.
The Greek word gnosis means “knowledge.” In the context of gnosticism this isn’t bookish but experiential knowledge, supposedly of the divine.
Most gnostics believed that they fully understood the interconnected workings of the heavens, earth and hell and how this related to cosmic redemption. The gnostics’ chief aim was to gain spiritual knowledge and, in effect, become one with the Christ entity.
Some sects claimed that Christ did not die on the cross. Others envisioned him as a cosmic principle that incarnated to raise the world of matter to a higher level of love, awareness and compassion.
Among 49 Gnostic texts and versions of texts that have been unearthed in the early to mid-20th century, each claims to present the final truth about Christ and the nature of the cosmos. But ironically enough, these alleged truths differ considerably among Gnostic sects.
Possibly influenced by Manichaeism, Platonic and even Egyptian lore, Gnostic theories about ultimate reality are often intricate and esoteric. Only apparently ‘special’ people can understand and access elusive Gnostic truths.
By way of contrast, the New Testament is more concerned with universal salvation and less with complicated cosmological theories. Heaven is described in parables. No real attempt is made to ‘say it like it is,’ mainly because God’s creation is portrayed as far too great to be reduced to any human theory.
Hence, the New Testament’s clear and undoubtedly universal invitation: “Knock and the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9).
Gnosticism was effectively silenced by the Church Fathers but resurfaced in the Middle ages within Jewish mysticism. And the Gnostic idea of ‘knowing from direct experience’ flourishes today.
Religious studies scholars such as Wayne Meeks say that Gnosticism was particularly threatening to the early Church precisely because it had much in common with orthodox belief. Both say “You are gods” (Psalm 82:6 and John 10:34). And the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which some say was written by a twin brother of Jesus, contains sayings of Christ that coincide with those in the New Testament. Other points do differ, however, and virtually no events in the life of Christ are recorded in Thomas.
On the issue of the apparent exclusivity of Gnosticism in contrast to orthodox Christianity, some might say this difference is arguably one of degree. Not a few Christian mystical saints have been regarded as persons more loved by or special to God than, say, the rest of the clergy. Claims like this run throughout, for instance, The Divine Mercy Diary of Saint Kowalska.
More recently, Gnosticism is generally used to denote any kind of spirituality that involves relaxation, meditation or contemplation. The photo featured in this entry, for instance, has the tag line “Practicing zen gnosticism.”
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The German Lutheran scholar Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) describes The Holy in terms of a personal experience.
In The Idea of the Holy (1917) he borrows from the Latin word numen when introducing the term numinous, which refers to ”deeply felt religious experience.”
Experience of the numinous may derive from a monotheistic God or from many pagan gods. When originating from God, Otto says the numinous is endowed with “rationality, purpose, personality and morality.” Pagan numinosity, he suggests, is somehow inferior.
Otto makes a similar distinction between magic and religion. Not trying to be non-judgmental or politically correct, he says magic manifests a “dimmed” numinous, in contrast to the experience of God, which he describes as an awe-filled encounter, a mysterium tremendum and a majestus.
For Otto, the experience of God is the highest type of numinosity. It’s a personal experience of an omnipotent, omniscient power that’s worthy of utmost respect and which inspires not just awe, but also a healthy kind of fear.
The individual is urgently attracted to this power, but the experience of the Godhead may also frighten, humble and purify.
In addition, Otto notes that one would experience a sense of creaturely unworthiness and perhaps wretchedness, standing naked, as it were, in the face of such a great, powerful and “wholly other” Godhead.
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Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was a former bookseller and antiquary, born in Württemberg, who became an influential writer and friend of the Swiss psychiartrist Carl Jung.
Hesse’s themes are mostly about his understanding of psychological and spiritual development, outlining how intertwining individual paths play off against and influence one another.
His novels Steppenwolf and Demian deal with Jung’s idea of the shadow. Narcissus and Goldmund contrasts the creative free spirit with the structured cleric. Siddhartha is based on the life of the Buddha. The Glass Bead Game portrays a game in which parallel themes from mathematics, the arts and philosophy creatively connect.
The Chilean diplomat Miguel Serrano says that he, Carl Jung and Hermann Hesse belonged to an “inner circle” of Gnostic-style knowers.¹ If Serrano is implying, as seems to be the case, that only three people would belong to an exclusive “inner circle,” this would indicate a kind of underdeveloped, self-aggrandized mysticism. Surely the ordinary person can be just as, if not more, mystically inclined than these public men of letters.
Hesse, being German, had to deal with the Nazi scourge in one way or another. His initial approach was to detach himself from politics, but it’s clear that he was against the Nazis. His third wife was, in fact, Jewish. And he spoke out against the dark regime long before he married her. Hesse’s publications came to be banned by the Nazis.²
He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.
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St. John of the Cross (originally Juan de Yepes y Álvarez 1542-91) was a Spanish mystic born in Ávila.
As a Carmelite monk, he and St. Teresa of Ávila founded the Discalced Carmelites.
In Toledo he was imprisoned in 1577, but he escaped and became Vicar Provincial of Andalusia (1585-87).¹
Today, St. John of the Cross is best known in Catholic and contemplative Christian circles as the author of the Christian spiritual classic, Dark Night of the Soul.
In this introspective account St. John writes from personal experience about the delights and dejection involved in his own path of spiritual purification.
The work is reminiscent of another Christian classic, The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. And it is often cited by Jungians and other contemporary seekers as justification for long periods of feeling lousy, alienated and/or depressed (Carl Jung, himself, used an alchemical metaphor to describe depression as the nigredo—a stage of inner darkness).
While it seems that the spiritual life can involve initial periods of psycho-spiritual darkness and confusion, we should remember that, like St. John indicates, this is usually only a stage. With healthy-minded mysticism, as William James would have put it, some kind of inner “daylight” and meaning should emerge after a period of profound confusion, despair and seeming meaningless.
However, the two states may continue to alternate to some extent through the course of one’s new life. Christian seekers use another metaphor for the negative states, calling them periods of “dryness.” This comes from the idea that the Holy Spirit is experienced as a kind of pure and clean spiritual “water” from above.
St. John was canonized in 1726 and his feast day is on December 14th.
¹ This is well described at Wikipedia:
On the night of 2 December 1577, John was taken prisoner by his superiors in the calced Carmelites, who had launched a counter-program against John and Teresa’s reforms. John had refused an order to return to his original house, on the basis that his reform work had been approved by the Spanish Nuncio, a higher authority than John’s direct superiors in the calced Carmelites. John was jailed in Toledo, where he was kept under a brutal regimen that included public lashing before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell barely large enough for his body. He managed to escape nine months later, on 15 August 1578, through a small window in a room adjoining his cell. (He had managed to pry the cell door off its hinges earlier that day). In the meantime, he had composed a great part of his most famous poem Spiritual Canticle during this imprisonment; his harsh sufferings and spiritual endeavours are then reflected in all of his subsequent writings. The paper was passed to him by one of the friars guarding his cell.
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In Hinduism, jnana yoga [Sanskrit jnana: the path of spiritual knowledge] is the yoga of knowledge. But this isn’t just bookish, conceptual or intellectual knowledge. Instead, the goal of jnana yoga is to know the true self and, for believers in this path, its identity with the Godhead.
Not to say that Jnana yoga never involves erudition, or intellectual and conceptual knowledge. It certainly can. But these are seen as tools to achieve illumination instead of ends in themselves.
The dharma (sacred duty) of jnana yoga is about overcoming ignorance [Sanskrit: avidya] and clearing the path for true spiritual knowledge. And for believers, this kind of knowledge is nothing less than realizing that this changing world (and all the desires that go with it) are illusory. It also means realizing that the personal ego is not the true self.
When the aspirant reaches this stage of awareness, he or she may be confused and even wonder if they’ve gone insane (as did Sri Ramakrishna on occasion). But a healthy transition means that the seeker eventually understands that the atman and brahman are one and the same.
Traditionally associated with the Brahmin caste, the meaning of jnana-yoga would be closer to wisdom instead of erudition. But prominent figures like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Ramacharaka are both quite learned and (allegedly) illuminated.
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Jewish mysticism, as a means towards getting closer to God, has both orthodox and unorthodox strands.
The Jewish Bible tells of a series of prophets who’ve seen or received messages from God. This is a kind of mysticism, to be sure. But it differs from the more Gonstic influenced forms in that the Biblical prophet doesn’t necessarily earn a visionary experience (or spiritual knowledge) through self-discipline and purification.
When it comes to choosing prophets, the God of the Jewish Bible seems to choose whomever he pleases.
S. G. F. Brandon, suggests that “all the great figures in the history of religion were, basically, mystics.”¹
Martin Buber has been described as a modern representative of a heterodox form of Jewish mysticism called Hasidism. This was
¹ A Dictionary of Comparative Religion, S. G. F. Brandon ed., New York: Scribner, 1970, p. 463
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