Episode 96: What Mysticism can tell us about the search for the Divine

Many of us feel a sense that there is more to Life than meets the eye.  Perhaps we call it God. Perhaps we consider it a Force that pervades all life.  Perhaps we don’t even bother to name it. But at times we feel a yearning to know it, to experience its vast spaciousness.  This is the realm of Mysticism — the search to experience union with the Divine.

In this essay on ‘Mysticism and Logic’, philosopher Bertrand Russell writes of two competing human impulses: “the one urging men towards mysticism, the other urging them towards science.”

“But the greatest of men,” Russell claims, “who have been philosophers have felt the need both of science and mysticism: the attempt to harmonise the two was what made their life.”


This week Clay and Sarah discuss what Mysticism can tell us about the human search for the Divine.


In this episode:

  • Bertrand Russell’s distinction between our urge towards science and/or mysticism
  • Clay’s experience in the Church, hearing people speak in tongues and how this sparked his interest in mysticism
  • Sarah’s introduction to mysticism during a trip to Rome, encountering Bernini’s sculpture ‘Ecstasy of St Teresa’
  • Commonality of all mystic traditions (Christian, Sufi, Kabbalah etc.)
  • Mystic description of how to prepare the body/mind for the experience of the divine
  • Doubt – the dark side of mysticism
  • The Return – before enlightenment wash dishes, chop wood. After enlightenment wash dishes, chop wood.


What calls us to mysticism?

People of all religious traditions throughout the centuries seem to yearn for a similar experiential knowledge of the divine or the force the pervades all life.  And one of the things I find most intriguing is that, despite coming from very different spiritual and cultural traditions, people who describe having mystical experiences often say similar things about them.

For instance, they describe the experience of sudden, penetrating insight of another reality behind the world of appearances.  This reality, which most find difficult to put into words, they describe as spacious, vast, filled with love and a sense of the underlying unity of all things.

This suddenly flash of insight, however, typically follows a long period of spiritual practice or training.  St. John of the Cross, a 16th Century Christian mystic, wrote his famous Dark Night of the Soul to describe “the method followed by the soul in its journey upon the spiritual road to the attainment of the perfect union of love with God, to the extent that is possible in this life.”

This suggestion that training or preparation is needed to withstand the experience of union with the divine force hints at what we might consider the ‘negative side’ of mysticism — the doubt that comes with realising that our assumptions about life and the world around us are not actually true.  Bertrand Russell describes “the strange feeling of unreality in common objects, the loss of contact with daily things, in which the solidity of the outer world is lost.”


According to mysticism, this period of doubt, though painful, is an essential stage in preparation for the reception of higher wisdom.  It is described as a kind of purification, as a wiping clean the slate of perception so that we can take on a new perspective.


My own introduction to mysticism was through a sculpture of the Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome.

St Teresa, a 16th century Spanish nun, describes her mystic experience thus:

Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form… He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire… In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times … and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical, but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it-even a considerable share…”


There is much more to say about Mysticism, including mysticism in different spiritual traditions and how it might be incorporated into contemporary life… but we’ll leave it there for now.  Hope you enjoy the discussion!  And don’t forget to share your thoughts!