Does Mysticism need Community? If so, what kind?

Do mystics withdraw from all community to a solitary and independent life, or do they find deep oneness in community? What kind of community?

My short answer is yes, I think it does.

I think it is because at a fundamental level the mystic realizes that they are not separate from one and all, but that all are ultimately in union as One. They realize they are that comm-unity, in comm-union, in comm-unication, and it is comm-unal, having all things in comm-on(e). The word is comm=together and unity=one, or com=with and munus=service/obligation. We are “together as One,” and thus “serving (with) each other.”

Mystics discover that we are deeply interdependent and interconnected beings, and we simply cannot exist in isolation, in separation, no matter how hard we try to refuse the One. Separateness is recognized as opposition or “sin” to God or the Divine. Alienation is the opposite of God’s Love which makes us at-One. But I think the way this community can take shape in the life of the mystic can vary widely. It need not be exclusively religious, or even for a Christian mystic exclusively Christian.

I’m writing about this because of an article that was shared with me from some friends, written by another friend, Christian mystic, blogger, and author, Carl McColman, with the title “Is it possible to be a “Do It Yourself” Christian Mystic? Evelyn Underhill would say “No” — and I agree with her.” McColman discusses whether Christian mysticism can exist outside of a Christian denomination, apart from a formal Christian structure, church, or organized religious community. Carl McColman agrees with Evelyn Underhill, a prominent Christian mystic, that it cannot. But I have a different point of view.

One approach when looking at questions like these about Christian mysticism to return to the man who started it—Jesus. And first we need to acknowledge that Jesus was not, himself, strictly a Christian. He was a Jew, a life-long Jew, devoted to the Jewish religion and Jewish scripture, and even focusing (intentionally it would seem) most of his teaching only among the Jews. He was very much of the tradition of Judaism. It’s somewhat ironic then to say that a Christian mystic cannot be such a mystic outside of a Christian church when he who many call “the Christ” was not himself technically a part of any Christian church. He was aligned most closely with the Jewish denomination. Christianity as an institution, formally housed in churches, only arose later, emerging from his teachings, and the traditions that developed after his death.

If we grant that Jesus was a Jew, he was at least a devout member of the Jewish church and denomination, right? He was a devoted Jew, attending weekly meetings at the synagogue, working on Jewish service projects, serving as a priest in the Jewish temple (Herod’s temple) in Jerusalem, basically a good rabbi. Right? No. It seems to me he wasn’t.

Jesus was on the edges of Judaism, on the fringes, perhaps taught by an “outsider,” a strangely dressed prophet in the wilderness, John the Baptist, baptizing on the banks of the Jordan, perhaps of a fringe messianic movement, perhaps associated with the semi-ascetic Essenes sect, etc. It seems Jesus was not a mainstream Jew, and it seems he was not following the formal Jewish elite, serving at their feet, or worshiping at their temple. On the contrary, it seems Jesus had quite a few harsh words for the Jewish authorities, he served at and washed commoners’ feet, and he threatened to destroy the Jerusalem temple. It seems he was anything but a loyal Jew. It appears he was much more of a renegade, an iconoclast, a reformer, a radical mystic, a charismatic healer, an itinerant preacher in the outskirts, living in the lands surrounding Jerusalem, but rarely in the central city itself, the heart of Judaism. He was often thrown out of the synagogues, nearly stoned by the Jewish authorities and their devout followers, and he had to often duck and hide to escape the masses. He was not embedded with formal Judaism or their community.

So Jesus himself was not a loyal follower or nominal participant of his own religious denomination, and yet I do think he was a profound mystic. He discovered community, and made community, in many other ways than in the traditional religious arrangement, which perhaps in many ways had grown sterile and lifeless, moralistic, legalistic, and ritualistic. It had lost the Spirit, and the direct awareness of Spirit within each individual.

I think some of the difficulty may be found in the opening line of McColman’s post:

Nearly all Christian mystics maintain that an essential characteristic of Christian mysticism is participation in the Body of Christ, which is to say, in the Christian community of faith.

I agree that Christian mystics participate in the “Body of Christ,” but I don’t equate this strictly with a Christian community of faith. The Body of Christ, in my view, is simply all of humanity, all of life, all of being, all things in the entirety of the cosmos, what Richard Rohr refers to as the “universal Christ.” Making it strictly the Christian community of faith seems to make it an exclusive club, which seems to be what mystics realize true oneness is not. It is not any particular community of faith, but the whole of all people in them. I think this may be why we are now seeing many mystics adopt a more interspiritual perspective, and commune with groups of many other faith traditions.

Bede Griffiths (1906-1993), a Benedictine monk, is perhaps a great example of a Christian mystic who did not participate in a Christian community of faith for most of his adult life. In 1955, at about the age of 49, he went to India, and made it his home for the rest of his life. He became deeply embedded in Hindu community and tradition, not Christian, and wrote a dozen books comparing Hinduism and Christianity. He served as a key to dialogue between Eastern and Western spiritual thought. I think Griffiths recognized what he may have originally seen as the “Christ” was similarly present in the Hindu tradition, although they called it by a different name(s). At the end of his life Griffiths was also known as Swami Dayananda.

So my main difference with McColman is the requirement that a Christian mystic be a participant in a specifically Christian community, as he says, “to be a Christian mystic requires being positively and creatively engaged with Christian community.” I don’t think that is a necessary requirement. Any community will do, if one is embodying those deepest of insights that mystical practice brings to consciousness, including Christian insights, and expresses that within a community, whatever the religious or spiritual tradition it may be or not be.

I think McColman’s main point is that mysticism is essentially communal, it finds its fullest expression in community, and with that I very much agree. Even those mystics who went into the desert started communities there, monks and nuns form communities in their cloisters and convents and with their surrounding community, and even solitaries, anchorites, hermits, and renunciates must often rely on others for their sustenance. I think it is important that there are times for more solitude in contemplation, and then a return to action in the community. I think we can clearly see this pattern in Jesus’ life, going out into the wilderness to “pray” alone, and then back into the villages. Unfortunately, sometimes communities that evolve into heavily religious and formalized structures can become quite hostile to mystical practice and expression, as McColman notes:

But the problem here is not that all religious groups thwart mystical spirituality, but that religious groups which have lost their mystical heart do precisely that.

When Catholicism or other forms of Christianity are hostile to mysticism, the solution is not to reject community, but to reform it. The solution to anti-mystical religion is not rejecting religion, but embracing truly mystical religion — religion grounded in contemplative practice, in silence, and in a joyful engagement with the God who is radical love.

As he notes, one way to approach religion that has become hostile to mysticism is to change it, to reform it from the inside, to make it mystical once again. That is a legitimate approach. But I don’t think that is the only option for the mystic. Sometimes mysticism leads to deep antagonism with the status quo religion, with the powers that be in authority there, and eventually to a schism from the parent religion, so that the life and spiritual fire being expressed in the mystic can find new place in new community.

I think this may be what eventually happened with Jesus. Those who had followed Jesus eventually parted ways with Judaism to start their own new spiritual community, the “Christians.” It seems this may be the way many new spiritual communities start, from mystics who part ways with their parent religions and their communities, either by force or voluntarily because they are not accepted there. I think this may be what Jesus himself was getting at when he noted that new wine could not be put in old bottles, or it would break the bottles. Sometimes the radical fire of mysticism has to go someplace new where it is accepted, where hearts may be more soft and minds more open to embrace it afresh. “No prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Mark 6:4; Matt. 13:57; Luke 4:24; John 4:44).

In my own former tradition of Mormonism, Joseph Smith and his family originally congregated with several different Protestant denominations, including the Methodists and Presbyterians. But after his own First Vision mystical experience, he was thoroughly rejected from those communities. They refused to accept that he had had a mystical experience, saying all such visions were nonsense today, which drove him away from them. He ended up establishing his own community of close friends and family who believed that he had had a vision, a new mystical revelation of God, and they established the LDS Church. And yet, even this community has now become many different denominations and traditions, many different communities that descended from Joseph Smith’s insight and teachings.

I have moved beyond the LDS Church, in large measure because of my mystical insight. I found many of the teachings in the church and community sorely lacking, even deeply conflicting and contradictory with what I saw as the true nature of reality (God), and at odds with my own contemplative practice and mystical experience. I did not find a community there that I felt at-one with, who I felt supported the mystical heart and direct divine communion. I could have stayed and tried to reform Mormonism, and there are those who are trying to do just that from the inside, which is good, but my path took me elsewhere. And I’m glad it did, because I don’t think I would have experienced many of the mystical insights I have if I had not stepped away. “For no man having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better” (Luke 5:39). I left that community and found new community, and ultimately expanded my community to a much larger and more inclusive universal sphere that includes Mormonism too. I’ve realized that ironically I had to leave Mormonism to see the truth in it, deeply in it, even at its core and origin. I could not see the forest for the trees, but now having taken a step back, I feel I can see the Amazon, and all spiritual traditions are a part of that One Great Whole.

I consider myself to be, in part, a Christian mystic, and yet I do not worship with a particularly or exclusively Christian congregation or community. But I very much value the communities that I have been in, those that I have organized, and those that I continue to discover. As I said in the beginning, comm-unity seems to be the very thing that the mystic comes to ultimately realize, that they are not a separate isolated individual, but at-One with the whole, of One heart and One mind with all other beings. All of them. And wherever we can find other people who we can harmonize with, and be at-One with, we find community. That may be in a formal organized religion, a mainstream Christian denomination, or many other spiritual communities, denominations, groups, or organizations where we can be One with others, where we can find that unity of mind and heart, where we find Love.

And perhaps some day we will find community in the All, the One in whom we are.


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4 thoughts on “Does Mysticism need Community? If so, what kind?

  1. Yes and no. For most people it is better to share in the spirit of oneness with others. Some may find it difficult to find like-minded people in their community. Going it alone seems to be their only option. In the Internet age, however, we are able to locate and correspond with those few who are true mystics. We must be cautious to avoid the many pretenders.

    1. Yes, sometimes mystical insight leads to loneliness, a feeling of extreme aloneness, that no one understands you. Yet I feel there is also a further movement, and that is union with all people wherever one may be, and a compassionate desire to help them awaken to Life and Love too by loving them. Mystics rarely hang out only with other mystics, but rather take the Bodhisattva path, the Christ path, descending from the mountaintop back into the world to relieve others of suffering, to bring liberation to one and all, to free minds. The community we find is perhaps not like-minded souls, but those who are not alike, who may be lost, who we may help bring to oneness.

  2. Thank you for this Bryce. My experience as an LDS currently stepping back from active participation is interwoven with my recovery from active alcoholism and full participation in the spiritual movement known as Alcoholics Anonymous. My AA home group is where I find deep unity with accidental mystics of many varieties. (I am elsewhere writing on how the three Legacies: Unity Service Recovery are patterned in other triads, etc) In AA, we try to follow a set of principles (the 12 steps) and a set of ideals (12 traditions). These are guides to progress – try enforcing them and be met with the realization that alcoholism doesn’t come in bottles but in the minds of men. Yet it is through our utter defeat that we are reborn and find a daily reprieve.

    1. Thank you. Yes, AA is a very good spiritual movement, and I think it does a lot of great work. I’ve written before about how Bill Wilson’s mystical experiences led him to found AA. He seemed to want to build AA so that it would provoke that kind of rebirth experience and discovering a new “resurrected” life, laying down the old creature and becoming a new being.

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