In his essay, Hunger in the Pews, Father Benedict Auer O.S.B. observes how many people in our post-modern religious milieu continue to “file into churches throughout this country hungering for the Word of God or even an inspirational word or two… in the face of almost endless disappointment hoping beyond hope that they may get something to take back home with them to help them through their week.” Despite America being unique among the industrialized world in the emphasized role of religion in daily life, most Americans tend to be representative of a phenomena of people who, in Auer’s words, “a whole generation of Catholic illiterates.” Sadly, this is not only true of American Catholics – it can equally apply across the board of many major and minor Christian denominations – it is also true of those who, having left their pews, have turned to the mystical path hoping to find some kind of recourse (or counter-point) to the spirituality of their youth.
Since the New Age phenomenon of the 1960’s, many millions of people have turned to mysticism as the answer to their problems with exoteric religious teachings, paying thousands of dollars sometimes for seminars on meditation, creative visualization, empowered prayer, etc. The majority of these people, unfortunately, become quickly when they realize that the mystical life is not a “feel good” pursuit as many gurus or authors (misre-) present it but is, as many have accurately noted, a path beset with many external and internal dangers and trials. The high failure, or drop-out, rate for those who pursue the mystical life comes primarily from the lack of qualified instructors or peers in one’s spiritual community as well as the unfortunate severing of the mystical in post-Enlightenment era academic and philosophical inquiry. Among those who are fortunate enough to find sound resources (mostly in the form of literature, though sometimes mentors) toward understanding the mystical experience, this often solitary path can still lead the student astray if they are unable to find an appropriate peer or group to act as a sounding board resulting in the accumulations of various aggrandizements, delusions, or misperceptions.
Amongst those in esoteric religious groups, the above dangers can be especially potent. Anyone with some experience or involvement in contemporary, alternative religious movements likely have some experience or another with individuals (or themselves) undergoing some kind of spiritual crisis. In her essay, Magusitis: A Hydra in Sheep’s Clothing, Nadine Drisseq examines the pitfalls of transcendence: “Some very common examples of archetypal intoxication are: the Wiccan who thinks he is the martyr of the goddess, or the Thelemite who thinks she is the reincarnation of Aleister Crowley. Whilst transcendental states are useful, enjoyable and provide experience of the Numinons, they too have their baggage.” She further breaks down the stages of “infection” amongst those whose mystical pursuit has gone awry:
“PRIMARY STAGE: The magician is immuno-magickally compromised since all the necessary and underlying basis for infection are present. This stage is a latency period where the magician exhibits behavior of talking big to make himself feel better, gloating at people who are magickally less experienced, and general feelings of personal insecurity. Instances of paranoia are common, and the magician feels isolated if these issues are not brought out and dealt with.
SECONDARY STAGE: The magician starts to believe that others are out to get her. She feuds with others, often curses people or groups of people (since cursing makes her feel more powerful and confident). She gloats when others have misfortune as it makes her feel more powerful compared to them (her perceived enemies). She takes the slightest comment the wrong way. She gets upset when she does not win an argument, and this can be combined with the childish mechanisms of sulking (which sometimes gets results through guilt tripping the person she is sulking at). Childish spats of anger and foot stomping are also not uncommon. These behaviors may not be quite so obvious but are translations of these childish idiosyncrasies.
TERTIARY STAGE: The magician really starts to lose it. Tertiary stage is rarely observed by the magickal culture at large because by this time the magician is so enraged / paranoid / sulky / paranoid that she withdraws from from public or community interaction. I have also heard of instances of the magician putting on a lot of weight along with this stage, although this may be a parallel and not a symptom.”
Replace “magician” with “seeker”, “student” or “practitioner”, and it can be illustrated that this problem can arise across most, if not all, spiritual boards. For those of us whose mystical experience comes through the lens of Christianity (in particular Christian Gnosticism), there are fortunately some avenues for those to “check themselves” as they progress along the inward, or mystical, path.
It is highly advisable that one attracted to Christian mysticism have at least some understanding of scriptural study and prayer practice. For Catholics, this is easily obtained through undergoing courses such as the Rite of Christian Initiation in Adults; for others joining a Bible study group may also be of some benefit as well. In addition to this, attending interfaith prayer meetings such as Taizé or even some Quaker meetings might be of some help as well – especially for those who are disaffected by conventional churchmanship. For many self-identified Gnostics, finding and attending a church may be somewhat difficult depending on what part of the country in which one lives; here, participating in online social networking sites such as Facebook may be their only connection to other Gnostics, in particular Gnostic clergy. Finding members of churches such as Ecclesia Gnostica, the Apostolic Johannite Church, Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum or the Alexandrian Gnostic Church should be fairly easy and participation on interest pages can yield some great results where one can meet new people and peers.
If possible, the potential mystic should also engage in a thorough study of classical literature on mysticism. Anthologies such as the Philokalia, the Classics of Western Spirituality through Paulist Press, and the writings of Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart should provide a valuable background. These should be read slowly and ideally with a friend who is either familiar with the material or can read along with you and with whom you can exchange notes and reflections. Auditing religious studies courses, in particular medieval religion or attending monastic retreats is another possibility that should not be overlooked. Throughout the entire process, keeping a journal is also highly advisable as a way of storing and reexamining one’s comprehension of what you are studying. Setting aside regular time for prayer, study and reflection by this point should become a part of daily experience.
After about six months to a year of regular study and practice, one should by this point attempt to find a peer or member of clergy with pastoral experience with whom they can discuss their experiences and discuss their growth either by phone or in person. It’s a common misconception that the mystical life must be a solitary experience. Most Gnostic and esoteric communities are largely led by members who lead secular lives in addition to their participation in religious life and do not offer (at this point) cloistered monastic groups. How this may or may not change in the future is yet to be seen. In absence of being able to find a spiritual guide, finding a good counselor who is open to discussing spirituality is an option that should not be overlooked.
The mystical life, while often a solitary experience, does not need to be a lonely experience. After nearly fifteen years in pursuit of mystical and contemplative life and falling into some of the above pitfalls along the way, I have been fortunate enough to have support along the way by people who have been able to provide me the advice I have given and wish to share it with those who have the discipline to follow through on this very rewarding approach to understanding the divine in its manifold splendor. Keeping balance is (no pun intended) the fulcrum of any healthy spirituality – keeping things in perspective, keeping a fit body and mind, and being constantly devoted to the practice will yield many years of fulfillment. Enlightenment, however, is up to you.