“Divine darkness!” Um, what?
‘Divine darkness?’ I used that image last week (The point of peace) and offered a quote from Bede Griffiths to help illustrate. But what does the expression indicate? This week we’ll begin unpacking the history of just what that phrase means. We’ll see that far from some ethereal, esoteric, altered-state woo-woo, rather, mysticism is quite practical and immediately accessible.
You are a mystic! Everyone is a mystic. It’s just that rarely has anyone ever told us that, much less, taught us how to awaken to our intrinsic connection with the Divine. —I note: Please see the daily meditation of Franciscan monk, Friar Richard Rohr (here: CAC); of late he’s been teaching on the mysticism topic specifically (week one summary here) (and week two summery here).
The earliest use of the term mystical was offered by Pseudo-Dionysius (5th or 6th century CE) [also denoted as Pseudo-Denys]. He first wrote of ‘divine darkness’ in The Mystical Theology. Chapter One begins with poetry:
What is the divine darkness?
Trinity!! … where the mysteries of God’s Word lie simple, absolute and unchangeable in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence. … Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen they completely fill our sightless minds with treasures beyond all beauty.
“Darkness.” “Hidden silence.” Sightless minds.” Pseudo-Dionysius’ way of negation shows that union with the Divine involves laying every thing, thought, and image aside and approaching the majesty of G-d with hands and minds that are absolutely empty of all things, material and non-material. Pseudo-Denys invites us to think of a sculptor removing everything but the desired form, e.g., the Divine.
In a profound sense, mysticism is an intuitive manner of reverse engineering. Action, contemplation, and the practices of mystical spirituality lead the pilgrim to the goal of union of the soul in Love with the Divine. [Spoiler alert], the rich spiritual irony is, you are already in union with the Divine. You always have been and always will be—always already.
Carmelite friar, priest, and mystical Doctor of the Church, Saint John of the Cross [SJotC](1542-1591) expounded beautifully on divine darkness. Drawing on the negative theology stream of Pseudo-Denys, SJotC charted the course to Divine union in Love with God.
Last week I quoted Bede Griffiths as he was talking about transcending sense and reason in one’s spiritual approach to G-d. SJotC‘s, The Dark Night of the Soul [TDNotS] is mystical poetry and its exposition. The first stanza of TDNofS poetically grounds Griffiths’ claim:
On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
‘On a dark night, … My house now being at rest.” and “Divine darkness.” “…transcending sense and reason in one’s spiritual approach.” Union by way of negation.
I’ve written previously that Mystical = Experiential. The currency of mysticism is experience. This key distinction stands in stark contrast with what is generally more conventional, dogmatic, institutionally religious approaches to spirituality. In a time when our cultural zeitgeist’s reliance on institutional dogma and religious (and all) authority is in disfavor/decline, and lived experience is taken as more genuine and authentic, the institutional church must take note. In the words (with regard to being Christian) of a well renowned twentieth century mystical theologian:
“In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” —Karl Rahner
Educator and church leader, Leonard Sweet, has offered a relevant acronym regarding our times: E.P.I.C., with the ‘E‘ signifying we are now very ‘experiential’ oriented, and the “P” to remind us of our ‘participatory’ nature. The zeitgeist has also been referred to as V.U.C.A.—that is, volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. (here)
“The crises we find ourselves in as a species require that as a species we shake up all our institutions—including our religious ones—and reinvent them. Change is necessary for our survival, and we often turn to the mystics at critical times like this.” —Matthew Fox (here)
Next time we will continue unpacking ‘divine darkness’ through consideration of other renowned mystics who have lived and written, from within their contexts, about their journeys with G-d. We will also see that not all mystics take the (apophatic) way of negation. We’ll begin to explore the myriad other ways that mystics describe their paths to the experience of union in Love with the Divine. Finally, and most significantly, we’ll begin a brief examination of how the Bible and Jesus fit into mystical spirituality.
Next week: “Jesus, the mystic.”
I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?