In the late 19th century, Francis Greenwood Peabody, who was on the faculty of the Harvard Divinity School, went abroad to study at the University of Halle in Germany. He was greeted by the then famous German Professor Tholuck, who when he learned that Peabody was a Unitarian, and the son of a Unitarian minister, declared, "Ah, you are an American Unitarian. They are the true mystics."
Professor Tholuck, no doubt, was referring to the pervasive influence that New England Transcendentalism had upon Unitarian thought and leaders in America. Emerson, who had been haled as the first true American philosopher, advocated a kind of nature mysticism based in part on the writings of Hindu and Buddhist mystics. His concept of the Oversoul is indistinguishable from the Hindu notion of the human soul, or Atman, being one with the divine soul of the universe, or Brahman. He talked about becoming "a transparent eyeball" to the currents of the Universal Being manifest in nature and in the human mind. The Transcendentalists were among the first Westerners either in Europe or America to read and translate the sacred writings of the East. Unitarian minister, James Freeman Clark, is purported to have organized and taught the first known course in the Western world on Oriental Religions at Harvard in the late 1860s. Even Henry David Thoreau, a nature mystic in his own right, was enamored with Eastern thought. In his essay on Walden Pond he made the following notation:
In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmological philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! There I meet the servant of Brahma come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.
"Ah, you are an American Unitarian. They are the true mystics." What would you think if someone said that to you today? Would you be comfortable owning the label of a true mystic? Can a Unitarian Universalist today be a mystic? Can a mystic be a Unitarian Universalist? I certainly hope so because I have considered myself a UU mystic throughout the more than 30 years of my ministry. Yes, but arent Unitarians, at least, the old Universalists may be an exception, too wedded to a rational approach to religion to be taken in by the nonrational unproved claims of the mystics? Not necessarily, because, you see, there are many types of mysticism. By no means are they all contrary to a rational understanding of the world.
There is virtually no religious system that does not include a mystical tradition--the Kabalah in Judaism, Sufism in Islam, Hindu yoga, Buddhist meditation, Gregorian chant, Quaker silence, shamanic journeying, native vision quests, and U.U. Transcendentalist philosophy. Mysticism takes many forms and expressions--nature mysticism, soul-mysticism, ethical-mysticism, God-mysticism, the mysticism of love and service, knowledge and understanding. Most mystics speak a common language of personal experience and union with the divine, the all, or the holy.
A few years ago I took a walk in the woods by a stream not far from my house out behind the Fogg estate. It was a beautiful fall day and I lingered for awhile by the stream and let its flow evoke the following thoughts which I later put on paper. Here is what I said:
I watch clear clean bubbles on the surface of the stream flow gently by. Some gather around the edges and cluster together for comfort and venture downstream to new places yet unexplored. Near or far it is the same stream. I am reminded of Tagore's great poem: "The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death, in ebb and in flow." I think of the bubbles on the surface of the water as individual points of consciousness on the great flowing stream of life. That is in some sense what we are. Bubbles of light on the flowing stream of consciousness that is life. We flow out onto the surface, downstream for a time, and then the bubble bursts--plink! --and we are one again with the universal stream of being-becoming which we are.
I could imagine each one of those bubbles thinking that it alone truly had being, existence and consciousness, that there was no other bubble quite like it anywhere, and that when it was gone there would be no more consciousness, at least not for itself. And every bubble both wondered and feared what would happen when it burst, not realizing that each bubble came from the great universal stream of consciousness, was that stream, even while it danced on the surface of the water and lived the illusion of being separate from the ground of its being, and would continue to be that flowing stream of consciousness-energy even after the bubble had burst and all rivers and streams had returned home to the ocean. See the sunlight shining through the trees and reflecting on the surface of the water. Each bubble touched by the light refracts into a rainbow of dancing colors. It is true--there is no bubble quite like any other anywhere--each wholly unique--yet each blending with others in the endless symphony of being, life, and consciousness which we are.
My experience and reflection is what could be called a mystical experience, a sense of oneness with nature and with ultimate reality. I am more than sure that my experience is not alien to a good many Unitarian Universalists, rational and otherwise. I mention it because of my own interest in mysticism and the fact that this summer Judy Campbell and I will be leading a Psi Symposium conference at Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine, July 17-23, on the topic of "Mysticism in Human Experience." A third colleague, the Rev. Elaine Bomford, from Ashby, will be joining us as we explore the many facets of mysticism in human experience--from the Jewish Kabalah to the making of mandalas and Tree of Life emblems, to the Christian nature mysticism of Hildegard of Bingen and the Islamic mystical poetry of Rumi and Sufi dances of universal peace. Come and discover the UU mystic in you. Believe me there is one. After all we are the true mystics! To date we have a dozen registrants signed up for the conference, including our former Religious Education Director, Karen Brown and her husband and daughter, Phil and Becky, and two members of First Parish Norwell. Wed love to have you join us. Ferry Beach is a fun place and a great spot to soak up the sun and have a mystical experience of your own if you havent had one yet. Even if you have theres nothing wrong with having another and yet another.
Mystical experience is often associated in the popular mind with the irrational or fanciful and not connected with the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mystical experience has to do with a sense of unity and connection with reality--with nature, with people, with the web of life, with the soul, and with God. Nothing could be more natural than the experience of oneness with all that is. Science tells us we are part and parcel of nature through an evolutionary process manifest in natural law. Mysticism tells us that we are one with the whole of being and that our separateness is a transitory illusion. Science uncovers the truth of our connection with the natural world through reason and analysis. Mysticism comes to the truth of our interconnectedness through intuition and experience. They are two sides of the one coin of reality--the outer and the inner. The mystical and the rational are one. Reason, we should remember is both analytical and synthetic. We analyze, decipher and test the reality we encounter in order to figure out how it all hangs together. Its like drawing a picture by first deciphering the dots of reality, and then we take the next step by connecting the dots. Both the scientist and the mystic are engaged in the business of trying to connect the dots of reality, the first from within, the latter from without.
Lawrence LeShan, a contemporary psychologist, wrote a book a number of years ago, on The Medium, Mystic and the Physicist. What LeShan set out to do, he thought, was to debunk the former and enhance the latter. What he found instead was that mediums and psychics and physicists (at least the so-called new physicists) speak a common language when it comes to describing the connections between human consciousness and the ultimate field reality or ground of being that links each to all. In fact he collected statements from mediums, mystics and physicists and asked them to describe reality as they felt and intuited it to be. What he found was that they speak a common language of unity and connection between human subjects and the world at large.
Human beings, LeShan says, are capable of functioning in three modes or systems of realitySensory Reality, Clairvoyant Reality, and Transpsychic Reality. Sensory Reality is the world of discrete entities and the separation of subject and object. We are all distinct from one another and never the twain shall meet. In the Clairvoyant Reality we intuit and sense our connection to one another and can feel the life force, the prana, the Tao, the chi, that flows within us and between us. It can be used and channeled to foster healing and to restore balance and harmony to body and soul. In the Transpsychic Reality all distinctions cease and we are one with one another and all that is.
Years ago, Harvard Professor, William James, wrote a classic study on the Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he stated that the deeper levels of human consciousness made manifest in mystical and telepathic states "forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. No account of the universe in its totality", he concluded, "can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness disregarded." James insights are being claimed anew by those who seek to link the notion of a Unified Field Theory of reality, put forward by modern physicists, with the concept of Cosmic Consciousness described in varying ways by the mystics of the world. Cosmic Consciousness is the apprehension through intuition of the entire universe as one elemental field of Being, from which all things derive and are interconnected. Or as Emerson put it, we are part and parcel of God, though we do not always know it or sense it.
Everything hinges on whether you buy the bag of skin theory of human nature. Do we extend beyond our skins, and if so, to what degree? Or as the Father of parapsychology, Dr. J. B. Rhine once put it, "How much of a human being is transphysical?" The parapsychologist, W. G. Roll reflects, "If the borders between self and environment can be made to disappear, this is likely to have profound effects on our attitude to our environment, both social and physical. If the self is experienced as actually embracing other people, self-consciousness becomes social consciousness." And social consciousness, we might add, embraces social and political structures and relationships. This means that a true social prophetic conscience is grounded in a mystical experience of our connection to one another and the realization that what we do to others and to our environment we ultimately do to ourselves. We are the stewards and keepers of the Garden, the sanctuary of all life on this fragile green earth. And we are our brothers and sisters keepers, because our brothers and sisters are our larger-self writ large.
Mystics have often been the heretics and even revolutionaries of their respective religious traditions. Thomas Munzer the Protestant Reformer and mystic became a revolutionary to his time and society in that he advocated an "aristocracy of the Spirit" to replace the "aristocracy of blood and class" that was still characteristic of European social structures. He would have been much happier on American soil where his revolutionary mysticism would have been welcomed. Meister Eckhardt walked a thin line between heresy and orthodoxy during his lifetime. He was called on the carpet and challenged for his views on more than one occasion. After his death his writings were declared heretical because he implied that the human soul and God at their core were one. The Islamic Sufi mystic, Al-Hallaj, was tried for heresy and executed because he said and wrote in a state of mystical ecstasy, that he and God were one. Did not Jesus say as much when he declared, "I and the Father are one."?
As classical heretics of our Protestant Christian tradition we Unitarian Universalists should pay close attention to anyone who has been labeled a heretic by someone else. We just might have something in common with them. Heresy means to choose for oneself and that has always been a hallmark of our religious tradition. There is a kind of universalism of the spirit that mystics both feel and seek to articulate. Aldous Huxley called this mystic impulse "the perennial philosophy." Mystics declare in one way or another that revelation is not sealed, that the discovery of truth and the encounter with ultimate reality is a continuing process. Walt Whitman, Americas poet of the soul, put it this way: "I do not say that Bibles and religions are not divine. I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still. It is not they who give the life. It is you who give the life."
If we do extend beyond our skins, if we can function in both Sensory Reality and Clairvoyant Reality (and clairvoyance means "clear seeing"), then maybe we are at the point of beginning to understand the unities and universals of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Unitarianism says we are all one (because God is One and we are part and parcel of God), while Universalism says we are all linked to a universal reality from which we can never be separated (because God is Love and salvation and wholeness are forever and always available to all).
Unitarian Universalism is grounded in a mystical sense of connection of each to all, and all to each. Our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes refers to "the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part", and then goes on to talk about the "direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life." If that is not a mystical statement then I do not know what is. The old German Professor Tholuck was right. We are the true mystics. It is time for us to reclaim and own our Transcendentalist mystical heritage. It is both the source of our sense of connection to the whole of being, and of our social conscience that recognizes our connection to one another in justice and love, and our responsibility to the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.