Seeking the Real in Mysticism (part 2)
by Herbert Mason
I

Many people experience moments in their lives when they actually pray to God unselfishly for something on which no value can be placed. It doesn't matter what brings such moments into being, They occur and we ask a basically unknown Presence for a gift without reference to our merit or, consciously at least, to our need.

The request and he answer given over time may lead us utterly out of competition in worldly terms and determine us as anomalies of sorts. For what we ask Is of an immediately insubstantial nature: we wish that something immaterial but transformative be granted us. We may ask this when we have seen much of the world and are no longer beguiled by it, or we may have been convinced as young people by the glimpses we've already seen. If we are unattracted to superficiality or are even frightened of its eroding our hope, we may ask tire Presence for the gift of profundity or of nothing that could be an object of pursuit. Truthfulness could also be a request. Each, in any case, is immaterial when prayed for.

Such prayers are the mode by which we move away from our conditioned assumption of what is real; that is, from everyday things sensed as present when we attend to them. We may need to speak of this in the ineffable context of mysticism because this 'Real' has no recognized place in any context familiar to discussion, Mysticism thus used is defined as involving a relationship with a sensed but largely unknown presence that over time or extension may prove transformative; the relationship begins with a prayer for something that many mystics, west and east, like to call 'useless'.

Mysticism thus defined does not enable us to have it both ways, but rather its experience redirects our choices so that we have it clearly one way and not the other, it being success. We have to begin to recognize nothing in one way, something of no interest in the other. Some guides would suggest in the context of their spiritual advancement that nothing is to be recognized in both, only on different planes. We must seek nothing in mysticism and we must find nothing. Nothing intervenes between us and the unknown presence to whom or to which we pray, that is, the personal or impersonal presence.

What we gradually know of the Real is not knowledge of it in itself, not a grasp of its essence, but the familiarity of our relationship to it. The Real (al-Haqq) is beyond our understanding in either abstract or concrete terms, but our relationship is not beyond our experience. Some mystics seek intimacy with the unknowable and in order to remain human and undeformed of heart embrace suffering in union with suffering humanity really, and know no other route to actual union than by the suffering they receive from their prayer for it. This suffering, some say, is the Real itself. They are witnesses in some precipitous sense of Hell; and some may even desire to witness the Real only through those whose cries of Hell have reached them in their lives in the ordinary everyday world. Such is the witness of some of the so-called 'great mystics' (Hallaj, Rumi, St. Francis of Assisi, St. John of the Cross, and many others in the classical religious traditions) who sacrificed themselves as nothing through whom to radiate compassion to others, not to call for imitation of themselves but to reveal the nature of intimacy with the Real, to clarify the Real apart from the unreal, to testily to the distinction between the two realities in human experience. And at the height of suffering they claim to experience joy. They do not understand the essence of the Source any more than do those not as 'great' whose prayer is only for relationship to it. And the great become so only insofar as their witness remains the practice of that relationship. Romanticism of suffering is the destruction of compassion.

What is the character of that .relationship that is understood only through the simplicity of daily life? In one sense, it is not dependent on a. dramatic shift in self-awareness, but it does require a shift in awareness of others and of self. One continues to be who one is; it is not a rescue from failure to be who one isn't. Painfully, it is a reminder of failure, not a motivation for success. It is a relationship that grows gradually into the open, yet its essence, which is as is said God's gift of Himself to humanity, remains hidden. Change is wrought by quiet, obscure repetition. Desire for it may be stimulated by external intervention that produces anxiety, but anxiety cannot be one's guide to such simplicity.

The satanic spirit is known to both the great and the ordinary witnesses of the relationship. Compassion, if it is authentic, brings the satanic on to us. Hearing souls in private hells and experiencing transference of suffering is a form of intimacy denied by the satanic spirit acting as knower and prior witness of the Source.

Goethe understood this much: that the human spirit craving release from the limitation of its ordinary knowledge is vulnerable to destruction by its very nobility of aspiration for transcendence. In fact, release cannot be fully realized in itself through experience, which is 'all', without risking that destruction. Satan would teach us how to realize in order to guide us to self-destruction.

II

"The conversion of a sinner," Huysmans believed, "is not a cure but a convalescence" (En Route). Or put homeopathically, the shock that is experienced is realistically diffused and extended over time in the form of a gradual transformation. One experiences the need of conversion before one knows its validation. And one connects conversion with mysticism only after a greater period of 'convalescence'. "With conversion one may believe one is immediately in touch with God, but one has only begun the process of adaptation to the revision of oneself and of one's relation to others and to God. One has only begun to consider God as the Real through slow ritual preparation. Intimacy is far off. Only devilish presumption is near at hand. It is not that God allows Satan his season of temptation with us. Rather we allow ourselves to imagine we have stepped beyond our natures through conversion. People may mock us, old friends may doubt our sincerity or our capacity to change, but the authentic satanic angel has no interest in us at this stage. We have all we need in ourselves to bring about our destruction. Satan is riveted to his contemplation of God the Only Real Presence; his virtues include steadfastness to his concept of God and to his monomaniacal devotion. We encounter him only when we reach the threshold of his perception of Reality, at which point he may become our teacher, not before when we are merely entangled in revision of ourselves.

As our teacher of fidelity to the Real alone and of the possibility of our aligning our perception of reality with God's, we discover the full terror of Satan's damnation. We are almost afraid to fail him in his guidance. Satan is not a grotesque beast, a libertarian politician, or a guileful companion. We are capable through our own behaviors of being each of these. Rather he is a witness of mystic solitude for whom God's absence has become his only understanding of compassion. He is not and cannot be understood by the epithets of psychiatry. He is a rational self-guided contemplative who believes his self-guidance is in perfect harmony with the One, God's original intent; namely, to create only contemplative creatures who can conform to His purist intentions. He teaches this steadfastly, and in that sense he is 'frozen', rebellious at change in God, and companionable in bitterness to us. He is unknown to most of us, however, as converts who have not been conditioned from birth, either compassionately or brutally, to direct our prayers, our consciences, and our sense of the Real, only to God.

Before conversion, as adults especially, we may experience an inner hollowness some refer to as 'nothingness', even as a falling into nothing, an ultimate seizure of acrophobia, that pulls us back from an edge, making us realize sharply, suddenly what lies ahead of us if we continue as we are. We may be in a more or less agreeable setting, personally and professionally and socially, when unexpectedly we sense ourselves inwardly vulnerable to fallingЧnot falling, but literally falling into, to us, real empty space Ч into our felt mortality. For some, conversion hinges on a grasp of how it feels to discover death as real. And for these, spiritual development relates continuously to an unforgettable sense of mortality. Spirituality may even feel as deep as grief, as loss of another than oneself; indeed as a sense of loss that decenters us from ourselves and centers us on others. For a long time our conversion may be understood as a gradual healing of our fear of loss or someone else and by extension of the Real. We have not known and so we have in effect lost the Real, or so we deeply fear and accommodate that fear by transforming it into a dark belief by which we live, that is, prior to conversion. For these, conversion is an end to such melancholy self-transformation ('convalescence') of us from our fear of recognized mortality. It may seem unheroic to accept such conversion, especially if we have no clear understanding of the ennobling authority of the Real and only yearn for rescue from the experience of facing death. As young or aging 'heroes' we might argue that we don't need the Real to live life to the fullest; we don't need 'salvation', as one of the old heresies proclaimed. Conversion is preceded by a recognition of whatever heresy it is by which we live. Satan is not the source of this heresy; he knows we need salvation that only God can give. His heresy is that belief which proclaims we are unworthy of salvation. That we don't need it is adolescent unrealism maintained into age with presumptive steadfastness.

All of this to most who believe in their own self-fulfilling opportunities being realized in the world seems nonsense and irrelevant and they have no patience for it. Such is a given and not a cause for discouragement or despair.

If and when we reach a stage in our conversion when we seem to share Satan's disgust with humanity and aspire longingly for intimacy with God alone, his teaching and his example become crucial to our spiritual understanding. We must face the severity of his denigration of us as seekers in order to recognize the higher acrophobic perils when they come. He hates our nature as many very refined and erudite teachers hate their students, including their students resort to would-be satanic flattery. The intimate relationship of teacher/student is based on power not affection; it doesn't depend on sincerity to be effective, but only on control and continuous mastery of a subject kept just beyond the student's reach. The student must believe and professionally need the teacher's judgment to be authoritative. Much of the brutalization by educated people is due to this simple control and manipulation. It is they who teach us the nature of created Hell. Their minds are not abstracting our reality, but very concretely are maneuvering the freedom of those with less specific knowledge than they profess. Some are bent on substituting others for themselves as victims of the Hell they know they can create and can be created for them by others. Such are perverted thinkers and are anti-mystical inevitably, depending as they do on a betrayal of God's gift of freedom to humanity. Freedom is humanity's possession that is most vulnerable to theft, a vulnerability that is most readily betrayed by trust in possession of our thought by others.

At a certain level of knowledge, based on need of expertise, based on disciplined development, and based on surrender to a master, we come in contact inevitably with the satanic spirit as our teacher, capable of advancing or of nullifying us through our acceptance of his guidance. This is the point at which the potentially satanic is also reminded of choice and the capacity for redemption through self-diminishment in deference to the student's freedom to develop further than oneself. But if the teacher is habitually a betrayer of others' freedom there is no hope of redemption for him and only danger for the undiscerning and unwary student whose only hope depends on learning through vigilant detachment. Hell is inhabited by Satan and those who are habituated to the power of their own betrayals and can only crave more of the same singly, steadfastly.

The content of knowledge possessed and withheld can be anything at all, and the action of a teacher's exercise of power over a student may or may not include sexual interference. The more satanic is the asexual who avoids making himself vulnerable through unnatural or inappropriate advancements and need of affection. He exercises power in pure detachment and is indifferent as to whether or not he puts the student at risk by being prematurely drawn into esoteric knowledge. This instruction is particularly dangerous on the mystical level. Both concupiscence and irascibility, on the other hand, seem to give off their own odors that warn the even normally trusting student to be careful.

Is Satan himself passionate or passionless, is his nature of fire, as Hallaj says, or of ice, as Dante says? Can he be of a mixture, an irreconcilable duality: passionately devoted, contemplatively calm. Is the satanic spirit born of irreconcilable duality, hence the Medieval heresiographers' link of Satan with Manichaeanism? Does Satan thrive on the continuation of irreconcilables? Why, if he is truly a faithful contemplative and lover of God, is he born of irreconcilable dualities and thriving on their continuation? What went wrong? What crept in to undermine his fidelity? Did God become to Satan the irreconcilable duality he formerly contemplated as One? Was it not the singularity of God that Hallaj learned from Satan's teaching but despair from frustration with opposites? God proclaimed such and such as Law yet inspired gratuitously outside the Law, thus confusing Satan who couldn't obey any apparent contradiction. Was he frightened, as some teachers can be, of contraction in himself, and then insisted on God's Oneness to the extreme point of denying Him the capability of deepening His own Law? Or of evolving it further beyond our and Satan's present understanding? Is the danger of extreme monotheism the danger of losing God's connection with reality and His Presence as the Real? The result of Satan's monomania for the Unique God is the stripping of His attributes, especially those manifested in humanity: of wiping out freedom, compassion, provision, etc., leaving only Uniqueness, Power, and Transcendent Knowledge as distinctly beyond human capacity, though each is aspired to by humans, but at the height of their embrace of each, they meet themselves falling and embrace only their own tragedy of tiying to reconcile in themselves what can't be reconciled by them in God. Hallaj embraced God's attribute of Truth, of Reality (al-Haqq) at the height of his tragedy. The satanic teacher, on the other hand, teaches all of God's attributes as unattainable. Satan as a failed lover, in Hallaj's depiction of him, doesn't teach us how to love, but how we fail to love as God loves: freely, compassionately, fruitfully.

Through such satanic teaching we encounter that nothing into which our former singular faith in ourselves drifts away from us. He taught us our unworthiness, which he knew from die beginning through our naive trust in him as a teacher. Once having thoroughly encountered our capacity for self-deception and tragedy, we move to another level where we begin to enter intimacy with God to the point of recognizing Him as the Real.

III

With the realization of that capacity for falling, the intimation of which led to our conversion, we enter the passion of our relationship with God that leads to intimacy. Satan seems to withdraw from us, as is said, for a season. His role will be different when he returns. He will be a mocker arousing others against us. One's sense of the satanic depends entirely on the segment of our lives in which we ourselves recognize his and our story together as an allegory: childhood loss (as the serpent), adolescent alienation and dependency on friendship (as fate and intrusive social forces), adult introspection and ciuest (as teacher), protective of experience (as absent for a season), weakened in age yet spiritually determined (as mocker), until he disappears from thought through our realization of intimacy with God. The role varies according to one's own configuration of momentary hints of the Presence of God and the attendance of Satan as one's examiner. In his withdrawal phase, there is a kind of false but welcome calm, a foreshadowing perhaps of hoped for and eventual forgetfulness. One may meet him casually, but his power appears transparently specialised and small and his control is gone. He may even reverse himself and claim some pride, even credit, for one's triumph over his cross-examination. One's triumph of course is due solely to one's gift one refused to abandon as he demanded and not to his examination of it. But such is a characteristic of satanic pedagogical pride and folly and helps explain why rivals, even rival villains, can at their procedural breaks and pauses appear convivial and even act like friends. Both fallen humans and fallen angels, however, resume the roles, almost jobs, of their falls, hence rest is only temporary and deceptive.

The building of our relationship with God, at this point, may involve reading lives of other 'friends of God' or 'saints' who built their lives of intimacy with the Friend, and also reading hearts of others not just of oneself. One discovers a gift one didn't know one had: perception that turns outward rather than inward. The lives one reads serve now as the guides to the hearts one comes to love. One reads in the community of saints and practices the science of hearts. It is in this stage that Hallaj receives his name 'reader of hearts'. One knows now one is not alone, one is thoroughly linked to others which may arouse jealousy in some who can't read but believe in their perceptions. The intimacy with God is veiled now within His Compassion. It is a mutual veiling. It is no longer a veiling by a self separating itself from God. It is now as if one weren't there; in fact, much of the time one doesn't wonder where one is, it doesn't matter, it could be anywhere. One sees, one is no longer conscious of being seen. The 'text' matters, one is only its reader. One is not a teacher but a compassionate observer, even if one's profession may be pedagogical or bureaucratic or traveling or whatever, it doesn't matter. One can't manipulate or possess in any way the lives and hearts one reads or one will instantly lose one's gift in an undertow of already rejected self-consciousness. One immerses oneself in reading. One is invisible in a sense, as many mystical traditions demonstrate. It is a stage God allows the aspiring heart for knowing Him more intimately as He is.

IV

What are the implications of intimacy with God as the Real? The word 'real' itself suggests and gives the answer in repeated clarifications of what one already knows imperfectly and is afraid to understand perfectly. Everything we are and do and wish for is revealed to us in relation to the Real Ч to Reality itself, to what simply is. There is no illusion or illusioning. Our imagination serves recognition of the truth and its embrace. No longer is it drawn to fantasizing, escapism, denial, false expectation, self-deception, manipulation of others, etc. Its atmosphere exposes what was secretive and self-protective. Nothing is hidden, though everything is veiled to all that is outside the intimacy with the Real Who is conditioning one to His Reality. It is like a journey to another country where one has stayed a long time, learning another language and culture and set of painful truths and antagonisms and conspiracies but without paranoia regarding the Real. One is in the wrong country and on the wrong journey if one at this level is still afraid of the world as one discovers it. If one is in the realm of intimacy one is nourished by the Truth and by knowing the causes of one's fear, for God is Compassionate and Merciful and Providing of grace in which one knows no fear nor grieves. Intimacy is healing. It is the substitution of grace for falling. It is the end of 'convalescence' and the beginning of one's life of truthful-ness without fear. It is the desire fulfilled by mutual embrace. It is the end of anger and anguish and apparent irreconcilability. It is the essence of true mystical experience.

We cannot say how we came to it or where we found it or where anyone should go to look for it. We can only say it is here, which is, as Hallaj says, beyond die Where. It crackles with excitement, its old boards with sounds unheard by us before we came. It is inhabited, not haunted. And there is a rush of words and cries that aren't recordable or decipherable even in silence. No stone bears the key to understanding the experience, though all has been written on stone that led one to this place, this anywhere of what is of the Real. When one says, "I am here," one doesn't know where here is, and it doesn't matter. One doesn't sense time passing, only the loving disappearance of oneself. One doesn't even say who is embracing. It isn't in one's power or need to name, as Rumi indicates. Even the name 'the Real' disappears when one is here.

V

But being human means we are also somewhere, and where we are is also revealed more fully and painfully to us by the Real. We have come somewhere not to meet the Real but where the Real has met us irrespective of the place. We have discovered that there is no place we can go to where we can find the Real. Because we didn't find Him there, where we were, only suggests there is somewhere else to go. The going becomes the start of our allegory, the returning is the pain of disappointment at possessing nothing. If we are physically able, we physically set forth; if we are not, we mentally set forth. In either case, we risk disappointment if we think we'll find the Real by going somewhere else. The Real finds us. We can only know when we are found not where to find Him. And this is true, though it isn't understood by conversion in which we expect to do and to achieve on a renewed and better plane. In some sense our expectation is correct: what we desire makes us more recognizable to the Real than if we only possess what is desirable. Recognizable and thus able to be found. But conversion is not a mystical embrace but only the beginning of the realistic diminishment of what one thinks one has or can be or is. We are always returning to where we thought we were. Our actions send us back. In mysticism we only seem to return; however, the Real keeps us now from such returning, even if we appear to be there again.

We will meet people, friends and strangers, who say: aren't you glad to be back again in the greatest country, and it doesn't matter. Anger still frightens, jealousy still breeds violence, stress abounds, etc., etc. Such is the custom of countries to which one always returns. Much is obvious, much is masked. How does one return? As what? As nothing to oneself. As clarification not yet or perhaps never to be decipherable to others. In fact, one seems the same. But one knows it wasn't to a country one has been, yet one has gone. Returning knows a gauntlet and some bruises to the body, mind and soul. It feels as if one has been cast away from intimacy for nothing. But one has become habituated to this nothing and, if one is companion to the Real in mysticism, one knows the feeling of abandonment Ч this time is part of nothing. Satan hasn't returned to one. One is alone with the Unique;, we are still veiled together wherever we are. Our transparency is what is seen in us. We are not struggling with polarities, Protagonist and antagonist are one in reconciliation in ourselves. We are moving but we do not move. Our flame is lowered. We are not frozen in or out of time or space. We may go on and on for months and years like this, it doesn't matter.

VI

The sea is calmer but not glazed. The sea is the Real and we are, as is said by mystics, immersed in it. We live in the colors of light on earth and water, fire colors, not pure white, rather the attributes in all their variations and coordinations. We are dressed for contemplation. We are without awareness that we have crossed the sea and experienced its calling to immersion. The friends of the Real shall know no fear nor shall they grieve. Nor shall they be conscious of themselves. Such is their realization.

Satan returns as one returns to wherever one was. He returns as a mocker and inciter to mockery. One sees him now as self-mocking, as a caricature of his former self, as deformed, as grotesque, perhaps even assuming the form of someone extremely irascible, self-hating, snide, bizarrely laughing at everything especially himself, demolishing through waswasa (temptation) what he once pretended to like and promote, perhaps even dyeing his hair a strange henna color that turns orange under neon light. He is no longer the lover of anything nor the perceiving contemplative. He is solely a destroyer, yet he is still faintly intrigued when youth comes to him to study what he no longer has interest in teaching. At least one sees him that way, defused in his wiles and his enthusiasms, though one hears of his waswasa about oneself from others, and it doesn't matter. His hold is broken, not by one's strength or cunning, but by the experience of intimacy; and his sole interest in returning to one is the energizing feeling he gets from the challenge to prevent one from becoming an influence upon others. One must be destroyed not in oneself but in other's eyes to prevent others from imagining they can experience intimacy as the end of their journeys. He sends them to the old gods, to poignant ruins, to luscious scenery, to tastes of the forbidden, on travels through nostalgia, through past human adventures, through sensual pleasure beyond their imaginations, through old betrayals of innocents, through the tragedy of Faust's Gretchen, on which he is an expert, even, one might say, a genius of evocation. He knows the world he hates.

His power lingers, though he himself has disappeared from the one who knows intimacy with God. It lingers enough to arouse others to negate what has returned with oneself: one's ordinary skills, one's face, one's old performances, one's reputation, one's qualifications, etc., all the things one might've in earlier times felt crushed to see assaulted, and that were seized upon once by the satanic who saw them leading elsewhere than to intimacy with God. The appearance of aspiration for worldly success was once protection from satanic mockery. Now there is no such appearance nor protection. One is exposed like a Hallaj, for what one is; and what one is, is no longer viable in Satan's terms politically, yet one is back, it seems to him, as if one were. There is no role the experience!- of intimacy can play in the world of the jealously ambitious. One can only leave and, tailing that, be driven out, as Satan's last act, without a trace. Such is the worldly denouement of the search for the Real in mysticism. One finds the Real only when one is found by it, but realism is summoned by the collector of residues and refuse, Satan, to carry off to the dumping ground what's left of what one seemed to be and what proved finally useless to one's search. One accepts things as they are on one's return. One doesn't try to challenge Satan for the security of one's former things, one doesn't reach out to one's spoiled hopes, which no longer matter. One remains in the intimacy of God Whose will guides one through the world of one's return.

On one's return it is crucial to forget Satan, to cease trying to cajole him and parry his wiles, to end all imaginings about his intentions, all paranoia, to die extent that he ceases to exist for one and to one. But such forgetfulness was unrealistic before, for the nature of Satan is emblematic of our perception of worldliness Ч and more, of deviousness and real danger. One cannot continue to be naive. Here, one must be as wise as the serpent, as cunning and gentle as the lamb Ч indeed more so. One is free from Satan to follow the guidance of God, but one is not free to be stupid. Compassion abhors passivity, as nature abhors a vacuum.



ISSUE NUMBER 32/
Seeking the Real in Mysticism (part 1)
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