Posts tagged ‘Karen Armstrong’

My Stage 3: An Ordinary Mystic ll Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA

September 11, 2018
My Stage 3: An Ordinary Mystic
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

     On a misty, chilly early January morning, I stood transfixed along the craggy seashore of Scotland’s Isle of Skye, mesmerized by the power of the wind and the waves slamming up against the weathered boulders jutting out from the coastline, defining the edge of that vast ocean spread out before me, while shorebirds dipped and swayed, riding the currents.

     As a non-religious college freshman, I had scrimped and saved to join a university-organized trip to the UK between fall and spring semesters. While others used these valuable three weeks to earn university credits, I journeyed alone throughout England and Scotland.

     In last month’s blog, I wrote of the three stages of spiritual development, based on the writings of Friedrich von Hügel and Gerard Hughes. Both authors write of the importance in our spiritual institutions of a mystical element, corresponding to the adult stage of human development—Stage 3.  By this time in our lives we’ve experienced life’s pains and contradictions, and easy answers don’t fit anymore.

     Stage 3 challenges our Reality that living only by our intellects offer, which Evelyn Underhill says, provides “none of the peculiar qualities of life … but only a ‘practical simplification of reality’ made by that well-trained sorting machine in the interests of our daily needs” (Note 1, pg. 17).

And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself? Rumi

     I began life as a Catholic, denounced it at age 13, joined the Jesus Movement in my late teens, and stayed with it even as it morphed into patriarchal authoritarianism under the cover of evangelicalism. And then more than 25 years ago, my faith shifted, most evident when I moved with my family to Peshawar, Pakistan, to work with Afghan refugees. Not having read von Hügel or Hughes, I didn’t know I had moved from Stage 2 to Stage 3. Nothing made any sense. My prayers bounced off the ceiling—if they went that far. Not knowing what was happening, I worked harder at my evangelical spiritual disciplines to no avail. I attributed it to culture shock, but three years later I could no longer use that excuse.

     My husband also was experiencing spiritual angst. Fortunately, we were in contact with Ray, a wonderful British pastor. While visiting him in the States, he handed us two publishers’ catalogs of the world’s great mystics. As in all such catalogs, included with the small picture of each publication was a two-to-three sentence description of the books’ contents. His advice to us?

     “Take these catalogs. Just read the book descriptions slowly. When something resonates within you, stop. Read it over several times, and ponder just those sentences.”

     And while we both included meditation in our spiritual practices, we were unversed in the mystics.

     Within a few days of our meeting with Ray, we returned to Peshawar.  We had an unexpected layover in Lahore, Pakistan, where the Catholic Archdiocese included a bookstore. By that time, the blurbs on John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul had grabbed my attention.

     I found a lifeline in that bookstore of predominately Urdu language books: an English version of My Only Friend is Darkness. Living the Night of Faith with St. John of the Cross, by Barbara Dent.

     Stage 3 life includes what Underhill calls the push within our psyches for the transcendent, for a connection with something more than our material world. Contrasting von Hügel’s Stage 2 with its “crystalizing tendencies of thought”, she says this of mystics:

      “Only by direct contact with life in its wholeness can we hope to discern its drift, to feel the pulsations of its mighty rhythm; and this we can never contrive save by the help of those who by loyal service and ever-renewed effort have vanquished the crystallizing tendencies of thought and attained an immediate if imperfect communion with Reality—‘that race of divine men who through a more excellent power and with piercing eyes acutely perceive the supernal light’—the artists, the poets, the prophets, the seers; the happy owners of unspoilt perceptions; the possessors of that ‘intuition’ which alone is able to touch upon absolute things. Thanks to their disinterested attitude toward life . . . these do not wear the mental blinkers which keep the attention of the average man focused on one narrow, useful path” (Note 1, pg. 17-18).

Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.
― Meister Eckhart

     John’s dark nights were my introduction into the mystical element that became my structure to support my Stage 3 life: “The land of the spirit is a land without ways,” says John of the Cross. Over time, as I continually found myself returning to and sinking into this lifeline, the transcendent began to penetrate my protective ego.

     Definitions abound, and while Eerdmans’ Handbook to The World’s Religions has no definition for mystical, it includes these:

Mystic: One who seeks direct personal experience of the divine. He [sic] may use prayer, meditation or various ascetic practices to concentrate his [sic] experience.

Mysticism: The search for direct personal experience of the divine. There is a distinction between seeing mysticism as leading to identification with God (as is common in Hinduism) and as leading to a union with God’s love and will (as in Islam, Judaism and Christianity).

     All major world religions encourage their adherents to develop a mystical component in their spiritual disciplines.

We should pay attention to such a point that we no longer have the choice.
Simone WeilGravity and Grace

     Is there an opposite to mysticism? I am crudely summarizing, but Iris Murdoch juxtaposes mysticism with practical reason, the latter emphasizing rationality, and through the use of our will, choosing duty—primarily an outward pressure. Mysticism consists of vision, gazing, and attention to our inner lives, with its emphases on waiting and attention. Simone Weil, a religiously unaligned mystic, says, “We should pay attention to such a point that we no longer have the choice” (Note 3, page 159).  

     The first step, therefore, as you enter Stage 3, is to grow in awareness and consciousness of the undercurrents of your psyche, or your spirit—however you prefer to name that great current of life that flows within you, that bubbles up, that’s capable of sensing the Divine, that breaks through our ego, through our focus on the “one narrow, useful path.”

     Of course it isn’t an either/or situation but and/both. I will choose to stay faithful to my familial commitments. But Western religions tend to emphasize duty over paying attention to our inner lives.

     Thomas Moore says mysticism “involves a constructive loss of self and a feeling of being connected to the whole.” And while a consistent loss of ego and absorption with the divine may not be your regular experience, he says anyone can be an ordinary mystic. That was my Isle of Skye experience: A sense of unity when I felt connected to something so much greater than myself. Moore calls it a “moment of bliss”—such as what you may experience in parenting, gardening, artwork, music, yoga, or nature. He says to take these moments and “weave into your thinking, feeling, and relating so they become part of your life and your identity” (Note 4, pages 41-42). We need this weaving to navigate the waters of Stage 3. I experience moments of bliss in nature—and in baltering with my husband on the dance floor to fun music (balter: to dance with minimal skill but with great joy and enthusiasm).

     Mysticism includes an ethical component. After all, if you are experiencing one with all creation, you would feel the pain and suffering due to injustices inflicted on not just humanity, but also on our planet’s animal and plant kingdoms. Based on one’s personality, abilities, and inclinations, the trajectory of your ethical component is determined by paying attention to where your energy goes, your emotions—in short, what grabs your attention. What values and subsequent choices will guide you in this next stage of your life?

I perceived the universe as in some way conscious.  ―Karen Armstrong

Contemporary spiritual author Karen Armstrong says:

     “Mysticism is one such spirituality, found in all religions and is a startling example of this deep unity of the religious vision. Mystics often have different beliefs which inevitably affect their experience. They will describe their interior journeys in terms of the orthodox traditions of their faith: Jews, Christians and Muslims, for example, believe in a personal God while Buddhists feel that this is an unreligious idea and prefer to speak of an ultimate but indescribable Reality.

     But the actual experience of all mystics is strikingly similar: all encounter a reality in the depths of the self, which is, paradoxically, Other and irrevocable separate from us. All emphasize that this ultimate reality, which gives meaning and value to human life, is ineffable, transcending our limited words and concepts. . . . They feel that they have transcended the confines of their limited and isolated egos and also feel that they have been somehow absorbed into the ultimate truth and are at one with the world.” (Note 5).

     If you feel the pull of Stage 3, seek out what these insightful authors have to say about this instinctual need for the transcendent in your life. Don’t push it away, but welcome it as “normal.” Mindfully sit with anything that resonates with you. And if necessary, pick up a publisher’s catalog!


Notes & Sources:

1. Underhill, Evelyn. The Mystic Way, Ariel Press. 1992. First published in 1913, it remains a central authority in the role of mysticism in Christian life.

2. Eerdmans’ Handbook to the World’s Religions. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1982. Page 417.

3. Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics. Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Penguin Books. 1997.

4. Moore, Thomas. A Religion of One’s Own. Gotham Books. 2014.

5. Armstrong, Karen. The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century. Kyle Cathie. 1991.


About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her People House “tribe” and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation

Light and Dark: Living a Seasonal Mythos ll Mary Coday Edwards

Blog 21
Light & Dark: Living a Seasonal Mythos
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA

     Like a light dusting of snow covering a bleak industrial landscape, our religious leaders cloak crass and frenetic Christmas consumerism with a barren literal religiosity, embedding the Christ mythos into the Santa mythos in order to sanctify our materialistic voraciousness.

     For those of you who barely endure this season, can you scrape off that corrosive disdain and turn your gaze to a mythos of promise, perhaps through your own faith? Or instead mythologize these days through contemplation of the long nights and the returning of the sun/light, a mythos that gave succor to our ancient ancestors?

“If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythological lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role.” Karen Armstrong

     A beautiful word, mythos, and infuses our lives with significance when understood in its original meaning. Myth is rooted in mythos, but it has come to mean a lie, a falsehood, or an untrue story.

     As defined in Karen Armstrong book, A Short History of Myth, myths contain universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives. They provide narratives that remind us of what it is to be human, narratives that are reinforced through ritual. Our Western, enlightened society asks, “Did that actually happen?” while pre-Modern cultures were more concerned with what an event meant.

     Physicist-turned-theologian Ian Barbour in his Myths, Models and Paradigms, says a myth provides a worldview or world picture by endorsing particular ways of ordering experience and acting in daily life.

     We are a meaning-seeking species. At some point in their lives, most people will engage in mythological thinking: “It just wasn’t my time,” someone says, after barely escaping a calamity, not quite sure who or what might be controlling what’s going on behind the scenes, but only seeking to make sense of that avoided tragedy.

     In my late teens I let a rock star define my mythos. I lived out Paul Simon’s lyrics: “I am a rock, I am an island. I touch no one and no one touches me.”

     As an 18-year-old freshman at university I ate soybeans as a paid experimental guinea pig for a month so I could travel alone to the UK for three weeks: “I don’t need people,” I told myself.  Navigating a new culture at 18 where strangers compassionately came to my rescue more often than I cared to admit, I was lonelier and more miserable than at any other time in my life. I returned chastened.

     I took Simon’s song literally and isolated myself, whereas Simon’s universal truth/myth relates to being grounded inwardly in who we are, vs. being tossed about like a rudderless ship based on our perceived notion of others’ opinions of us—and therefore being under their control. One hour we’re up—“She said nice things about me! I’m so together!” and the next hour we’re down: “No one ‘liked’ my Facebook post. I am such a loser.”

     Unknown to me at the time, that traveling and insecure 18-year-old was living out other universal and timeless truths/myths, which Joseph Campbell names in his hero/heroine’s journey (Note 1).

     As an initiation from childhood to adulthood, the protagonist leaves the comfortable nest, experiences the road of trials with its tests, enemies, and unexpected allies, and returns wiser.

     I did return wiser: humans function best living in community. But because I was miserable, I wrongly concluded that I was incapable of making good decisions and jettisoned the entire adulthood effort and crawled back into childhood. I joined the Jesus Movement which soon morphed into an authoritarian hierarchy controlled by the patriarchy.  I regressed to the “father” controlling my life.

     And because—for those of who are mentally capable—adulthood/maturity is our destination, this mythos, too, would be rearranged. But that’s a story for another day.

What mythos informs your holiday season?

     When celebrating this season, many find themselves around the middle on a continuum with “Everything Non-Religious” on one end, and “Everything Religious” on the opposite—which this year includes Christianity, Judaism, and Paganism/Wiccan.

     Jesus may be ONE of the reasons for the season—but not THE reason. December 25? Fake news: Pope Julius 1 in the 4th Century officially designated it as Jesus’ birthday in order to Christianize the Pagan festivities already occurring around the Winter Solstice, OR the god Saturnalia, OR Mithra’s birthday the Iranian god of Light, OR the unconquered sun god of the Romans Sol Invictus, OR Egypt’s god Ra—take your pick. Most Christian historians and scholars believe Jesus could not have been born in the winter months of December, but MAY have been born in March. But look deeper: What’s the mythos embedded in this story? Titled the light of the world, Jesus calls us to be imitators of him. For those who follow Jesus, what does that look like for you?

     This year Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, began Tuesday, Dec. 12 and ends Wednesday, Dec. 20. Hanukkah centers around the lighting of the nine branches of the menorah, commemorating the successful Jewish revolt against their Greek-Syrian rulers in the second century B.C. The story goes that in rededicating the Jewish temple by lighting the traditional seven-lamp menorah, they found only enough uncontaminated ritual oil for one day. The one-day oil lasted for eight—thus Hanukah’s eight-day celebration. The menorah itself stands for light, wisdom, and Divine inspiration.

     Unlike other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Jewish scriptures.  Is this mythos? Not necessarily an untrue story, but a story based in an actual event which contains universal truths for how Jews make sense of their world, truths that give meaning to their lives.

     Pagan and Wiccan celebrations of the Northern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice remind us that the sun will return. It’s the promise of light returning to the world. Pre-Christ astronomers observed that at a certain point the days began to get longer—the season of starvation and pestilence was winding down. To ward off death and disease, centuries before Christianity the Scandinavian Vikings believed their sun god Balder particularly favored evergreens and hung them up to court his favor, while other Pagan cultures believed evergreens warded off evil spirits. Festivities sprung up, honoring what’s now called Winter Solstice.

     Advent means the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. Pagan cultures prepared for their Advent—the return of the sun—by honoring the night, a time of rest and restoration for the land and its many creatures. Of course, minimal resources to spend on candles or torches encouraged this withdrawal into their caves—and perhaps into themselves, where stories, songs and poems spring from.

     During this season of Advent peace settles over me as I sink into the deep rhythms of nature and that transcendent Energy flowing through all life.

     Can the seasonal drift toward the coming light infuse your spirit with hope?  What symbols within your mythos resonate within you? Can you lift beauty from the core mystery of what remains? Can you be a light-bringer to those around you? Can you sit with the dark, the night—symbolic often for suffering—and contemplate what life holds for you?

     If any words in this blog pinged your psyche/spirit, sit with them mindfully: paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and nonjudgmentally (Note 3).

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Notes & Sources:

1.) On myth: Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Carl Jung’s map of the soul, Clarissa Pinkola-Estes work on fairy tales, and Ian Barbour and John Polkinghorne on the intersections of science and religion.

2.) “Where did Christmas Come From?” https://biblethingsinbibleways.wordpress.com/tag/winter-solstice/; the author uses excerpts from various documents.

3.) Kabat-Zinn, Jon. The founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, calls this practice mindfulness.

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About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her People House “tribe” and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation

Here is a list of the other blog Mary has written for People House:

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth