What’s the difference between religious spirituality and mystical spirituality? I think it might be compared to the difference between reading the menu at a restaurant, and tasting and eating the meal, respectively, an analogy that I believe was used by Alan Watts at times, and perhaps others.
Reading the menu can get our taste buds going, saliva producing, stomach growling, memories remembering. We can talk with our friends or family about this or that entrée, judging what we think would be better than another. We can read about the chef who makes them. We can compare and contrast options. We can look at the prices and evaluate our budget and bank account. We can weigh our choices. We can consider our diet and health goals. We can look at the array of ingredients in each selection, perhaps sourced from all around the world, considering each discrete ingredient separately. We can project into the future and imagine ourselves eating it, and think of what it would taste like. We can even envision ourselves eating it, what it would be like to take each savory or sweet bite, chewing it in our mouth. We can evaluate how we might feel after we eat it. We can think so so much about it. But is that satisfying? Do our taste buds get the actual experience? Will that activity stop our stomach from growling? Will that be nutritious for our body? Will we gain the nutrients we need by merely reading the menu in this way? No.
When we actually receive the meal at our table we can immediately smell it, the scents whirling up in the steam to our olfactory organs in our nasal cavity. We can directly see the delicious food on our plate with our eyes, how the light reflects off its slippery or textured undulating surfaces and the rainbow of different colors and how they interact and complement each other. And then we get to touch it, we get to slide our fork or spoon onto the food itself, twirling it on our fork, or scooping it onto the silver, selecting how large of a bite we want. Then we place the morsel in our mouth and directly onto our tongue, and our taste buds begin a fireworks show of pleasurable sensations. We might roll back our eyes in heavenly bliss as we sense the orchestra of flavors reach our consciousness. With each chew, the scrumptiousness, the deliciousness, the savory or sweet goodness is now ours. We have encountered the meal itself. We have seen it. We know it. Our saliva goes to work on it beginning to break it down. And when we swallow, the nutrients in that food enter us, and become us, delivering their minerals, vitamins, and raw materials and energy to our bodily organs. Now we are satisfied. Now we know. Now we have become what we eat.
That doesn’t mean there is no place for religion in our lives. It serves a communal purpose, a community in communion, that together we may be One. And it can help support and guide us towards the meal of ultimate union in that One. We often need the menu to help get us to the meal. But it does not necessarily help us realize that One directly. We don’t eat the menu. The religious menu can actually stand between us and the Divine food on our plate, veiling it from our perception, from our olfactory senses, from the gustatory experience itself. We can’t see the meal as long as we are holding the menu in our hands. For that we must go beyond all the religious forms to their Source. We must directly contact that One that religion talks about. We must merge ourselves with it, uniting our bodies with it. We must eat the meal, becoming that One, realizing we are that One.
This bread is my body, which is broken for you. Eat it, and remember me. This wine is my blood, which is the new witness. Drink it, that you may be filled with me.-Jesus, quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, earliest known reference to the Last Supper
The influential early Christian theologian and Neoplatonic philosopher Saint Augustine of Hippo described his tasting of the mystical meal of God in his autobiographical work Confessions:
Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.-St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions