Asceticism and Mysticism: The Two are Linked
The point of all efforts to change and grow is happiness. Happiness involves becoming more and more conscious of who we are, what we want and need, and how to get these. A lot of life is spent exploring all of this. We enjoy ourselves and suffer in the journey to try things out, learn new skills, problem solve, experiment. We also react to phenomena,and defend and harm ourselves and others at times. In the midst of this we learn to distinguish between gains and satisfactions that are short term vs. long term and things that may feel good and are helpful and things that feel good and are toxic. I may love ice cream but if I eat a lot of it I may trade away my joy because it can make me sick.
Identifying how I feel when I do things is important. If I feel peaceful when I make a decision, the decision is probably going to be beneficial. If I feel uncomfortable when I make a decision but decide to do the activity or acquire the commodity anyway, the end will probably be harmful for me. If I do something out of fear it probably will ultimately harm me – i.e. marrying someone so I will not be alone is not a good reason to marry someone. Taking a job one loaths because the money is needed is something one should only do as a last resort. It would be wise to ransack one’s soul, talk to every friend, pray and brainstorm about any weird angle on jobs before just settling for a terrible job. It is often the case that our lives are forcing us to look at possibilities that up to this point we have had a closed mind about. These interior markers are very reliable if one learns the art of discernment and is also given the grace of discernment. The famous historian of religion, Joseph Campbell, was asked by Bill Moyers if he had a sense that he was guided when he made decisions. Campbell replied that he felt the helping hands of many beings when he had the courage to do what he knew was right.
So, making a commitment to live an honest, non-addictive life – a life in which I can be my true self – requires the skills to discern the right path for me. That kind of life is surrendered to the truth. It is a life that is not grasping, fearful or egotistical. It can be a life that is loving, just, courageous. This is not an easy thing. From the Catholic point of view, it is impossible unless one is empowered by a love that keeps one from despair. The more one seeks love and justice, the more one also sees insensitivity and selfishness. We also become acutely aware of our own entanglement in fear, loneliness, pain, anger and disappointment. We want to feel safe but we want to be creative and compassionate. How to do that?
If people are connected to a reality that is larger than themselves – a community or a transcendent being – that person can go beyond his/her fears and trust. The ability to do this has to be rooted in experience. Faith/trust in life cannot be totally blind. It has to be based on an encounter with goodness/love. In the Catholic context people have experiences all the time of peace, the presence of the Sacred, being blessed and guided. No one can prove the existence of God. Experts of all stripes can reduce religious belief to a projection of one’s neurons or psychology. The scientific method can be paraded out and empiricism presented as the only acceptable measure of whether the spiritual is real. In the end all of those super respectable criteria are a chimera. We don’t have to accept the idea that our reality fits itself into an instrument of measurement that we have created if the reality we want to define is greater than the instrument – i.e. if God is infinite yet personal, that Sacred Reality is well beyond the physics of our situation as we know it.
In the normal committed spiritual life people educate themselves and have important insights and growth. But, within the context of meditation and a reflected upon life people also have periodic religious experiences. These experiences sustain and guide them. They are not addictive but energizing, healing and challenging. These experiences are not just for the Saints. And, becoming closer to God is not a “crutch.” It is a break through to the way reality is. Asceticism and mysticism are brother and sister. I wouldn’t have it any other way.