30 January, 2012

On the Mystical Expeirence

Iamblichus, in his discussion of theurgy in De Mysteriis, talks about three different kinds of theurgic practice, each fitting for different kinds of people. The first level is the physical theurgy, or theurgic rituals using physical symbols for an anagogic purpose. The third level is non-physical theurgy, the theuryg of silence, that uses nothing physical as its purpose to contact the hypercosmic gods or divine thoughts. There is, of course, a median, one that combines, in varying ways, material and non-material theurgy and works as a transition from the lowest level to the highest. There is, I think, a direct connection between these modes of theurgic praxis and mysticism.

Typically, when one thinks of a "mystical experience," we think of the epiphanal moment. The blinding flash of light that changes everything. A review of the lives of various mystics demonstrates that such things do happen, but that they are also not what defines their lives or experiences as mystics. I suggest that, much as there are three modes of theurgic practice, there are three modes of mystical experience. Further, just as each mode has its proper time and place, so do the varieties of mystical experience. Finally, I suggest that each mode/experience is of equal importance within the context they occur.

One of the difficulties of discussing mystical experiences is the language which we use. English, for example, is an excellent quantitative language. It is somewhat horrific when it comes to the qualitative. The use of the word "experience" is an example. Part of what I will discuss as a "mystical experience" will bare almost no relation to what is commonly understood by an "experience." It is simply the only word I have to use.

The first kind of mystical experience correlates well to material theurgy. We might even call it "material mysticism," but that sounds less than poetic, so how about everyday mysticism? Or, if we want to engage a little more in a mystical style of language, "mundane mysticism," which is nicely contradictory. In De Mysteriis, Iamblichus discusses what are called symbolon (symbols), sunthemata (tokens or signatures), and a host of other things. These signatures are imprinted directly into physical reality by the gods and Demiurgos so that we may use them to go back to the gods and, ultimately, the One. The tokens are the means through which theurgy work because the tokens are objective divine symbols, not subjective human symbols. And they are everywhere and we can learn to see them and understand them for what they are. Through this way of thinking about the cosmos we can bring ourselves closer to the purposes of creation and the forces that are behind it, which is, ultimately, God. It is the beginning of the theurgy and demiurgy. But it is physical and so, though based on non-physical, divine and objective reality, subject to our subjective experiences and discursive reasoning. So, mundane mysticism is both objective and subjective, just as material theurgy is, as it a human performance of divine rites.

What is most interesting about mundane mysticism is that, first, it is learnable. We can learn to see the divine signatures and engage in them as diving signatures, not simply natural or scriptural phenomena. Second, an ephiphanal experience is not necessary to do this. Finally, reading the autobiographies of mystics suggests they spend most of their time in this objective/subjective mode. This mode is spiral in form. It is circular in that the mundane mystical experience informs the everyday life of the mystic, but is also informed by that everyday life. They are dependent upon one another. But this mode is not simply circular. The continued mundane mystical experience moves our interpretation and lives not so much forward as upward, closer to the divine. Our interpretations refine the experience and the experience enriches the interpretation and the spirit is moved.

The third mode (I'll keep to traditional Iamblichean writing style here and discuss the extremes before the median) is more difficult. It does not consist of an experience, per se, because experiences require bodies and minds and thoughts and this mode goes beyond that. It is henosis, union with the divine. The divine, however, at least within Neoplatonism, and within classical Gnosticism, exists beyond the level of Nous, Intellect (please insert here a lengthy discussion on the intelligible triad of Being/Life/Intellect common to Neoplatonism and at least Sethian Gnosticism that is otherwise off topic). By Nous I mean the divine mind or intellect, which is the lowest part of the mental world. Above it are the Platonic forms, the gods (or Aeons in Gnostic terminology), the pre-essential Demiurgos (in the Neoplatonic sense) and then the Good/One (i.e., God).

Henosis is a hyper-intellectual "experience." Yes, there's that word, "experience." Henosis isn't experience, per se, as it exists beyond the thing we usually mean when we talk about having those experiences. Henosis occurs beyond the soul (which is a product of Nous) and beyond even the divine intellect, occurring at the level of divine ideas . . . which is a little strange. How do ideas exist prior to the mind? Plato held that the contents of the mind pre-exist the thinking of them: our minds are not blank slates and learning is in fact remembering (this took me some time to understand, as Plato says the second part but doesn't really directly say the first). This level of the noetic realm reflects that ideology. The divine thoughts, the gods or Aeons, exist before the mind that experiences them. When henosis occurs it does so outside of time and space and material reality and, ultimately, we, the subjective human creature, may be entirely unaware of it occurring.*

The second kind of mystical experience is perhaps closer to what we generally think of when we hear the word "mysticism." This is the ecstatic moment, the ephiphany, the ah ha! But remember, this is a median mode. This is what we might call theosis, becoming god-like. Neoplatonically, we might say this level corresponds to a kind of union with the material gods, symbolized by the seven classical planets, but existing far beyond them. It can even include the soul's union with its source, Nous and a glimpsing of the the noetic realm or pleroma. It is a combination of gnosis on the one hand, and an dealing with that gnosis in the phsycial realm on the other. Gnosis might be liked to a complete, intuitive knowing. Gnosis, like henosis has its origins beyond the intellect. It does not require thought or discursive reasoning. It is simply knowing. But because it is experiential, because the conscious human being in a material body can have gnosis, maybe we should think of gnosis as a byproduct of henosis or its experiential component that falls to the level of Intellect, if not intellect.

But gnosis must be put into context. By "must" I mean we, as discursive creatures, do this, do it automatically and without necessarily realizing we are doing so (which, admittedly, is a poor use of one's discursive ability, a give from the Demiurgos, but that's a different post). We employ our moments of gnosis in practical and material ways. Our life experiences put help us put it in context and so make it "useful." When we read the writings of a mystic, even something like the difficult poetry of Rumi, this is what we're reading. It is an attempt to keep the gnosis as gnosis-like as possible while simultaneously attempting to come to terms with that gnosis in a way that makes sense. It is an attempt to understand the Universal in the mode of the particular.

Though the highest* form of mystical experience or mode of theurgy is the rarest, in some ways the median level is the most difficult. The highest mode is utterly ineffable. Not only is there no need to discuss it, there is no way to discuss it. But the median mode is with us, it is extreme, ecstatic and not only can be dealt with, it must be. This experience changes our lives even while being informed by our lives. By placing it in the genre of the particular the universal becomes understandable. But how the Universal comes to be understood is at least somewhat dependent upon who we are, where we live, how we grew up, i.e. our personal background. In order to mitigate this some mystical schools develop teachings to make sure everything moves in, what is for them, the right direction. Sufism created the doctrine of makamat, "spiritual stations," for this reason.

The key to surviving this, in my own humble estimation, is recourse to mundane mysticism, the most basic form of mystical endeavor, and so the foundation of an overall mystical praxis. And this is precisely what mystics in the past appear to have done.

*I fully understand that I am presenting mysticism and mystical modes in a very particular, largely Western, chronology, suggesting an ontological superiority of henosis over gnosis over mundane mysticism. I also fully understand that this reflect my personal experiences and Western, Neoplatonic and Kabbalistic background and is not meant to reflect a Truth or a Zaehnerian approach to mysticism.

27 January, 2012

The Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition Conference 2012 - Call for Abstracts

The Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition Conference 2012

July 14-15, Milwaukee, WI

Call for Abstracts:

Since 2001, the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition (JWMT) has worked to publish diverse perspectives on the occultisms, magical practices, mysticisms and esotericisms commonly known as the “Western Mystery Tradition.” The JWMT is expanding the work of the web journal through its first conference.

The JWMT conference is a two-day event open to scholars, students, practitioners, and the public. The keynote speaker is the Journal’s founder and publisher, Dr. Jeffrey S. Kupperman.

The study of western esoteric practices has risen greatly over the last decade, focusing on Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Modern magical practices and beliefs, outside of the realm of modern Paganisms and the New Age, have received little attention. Further, practitioners have had little opportunity to present their work, either as papers or in the form of ritual practice, outside of the internet or small groups. The focus of this conference is the movement of contemporary western esotericisms, loosely construed as the “western mysteries,” and their transition from the 20th to the 21st century. The Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition Conference 2012 is seeking abstracts for presentations, panels and practices centered on this broad subject.

Topics may include, but are not limited to:
Esoteric traditions such as Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Martinism and chivalric organizations,

Ritual magical practices from organizations such as the Golden Dawn and the Aurum Solis and modern initiatory Paganisms,

Esotericisms from earlier periods, such as alchemy, Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, the magical work of John Dee or the medieval grimoire traditions, and their re-emergence and relevancy to modern praxes,

Theoretical, paedogogical, and methodological approaches to the study of the western mysteries,

The relation of the esotericisms to orthodox and mainstream practices and society at large.
We welcome presentations, panels and practices focusing on methodological and theoretical issues in relation to the contemporary study and practice of the various western esoteric currents. The conference encourages an interdisciplinary approach and welcomes perspectives from the disciplines of religious studies, theology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, history, political science, as well as active practitioners. Papers should last 20 minutes, with time for questions and answers. Panels and practices will be scheduled for up to an hour, with time for questions and answers afterwards as necessary.

Please submit abstracts (approx. 200 words), proposals for a themed panel (with three presenters, moderator as necessary, and short description) or proposals for a ritual practice and discussion to Deadline for submissions is April 15, 2012.

No attachments please; copy and paste your abstract or proposal in plain text into the body of the e-mail. Submissions are not limited to academics or professional scholars. Include a brief (no more than one page) CV listing any qualifications, academic or otherwise, relevant to your proposal.

The conference will be held at the Best Western Plus Milwaukee Airport Hotel and Conference Center. More information on the conference, registration, fees, accommodation, etc. is available at

02 January, 2012

A Feast of Light

(Yes, I know, I'm a little late with this.)

"The sun ... not only furnishes to those that see the power of visibility but it also provides for their generation and growth and nurture though it is not itself generation. ... In like manner, then ... the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the Good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it, though the Good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power." (The Republic, 509b, trans. Paul Shorey)

With the rapid approach of the winter solstice, at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere we are approaching with equal rapidity a grand Feast of Lights. Whether this is Christmas or Chanukah, Kwanza, Yule or some other variation on the theme is not, for just this moment, the point. The point is the return or birth of the Light into the world. It is perhaps tempting to put scare quotes around return and birth. We all know the sun is in no way born at this time of the year and in fact the earth begins to move away from the sun in its elliptical orbit. So it is in no way returning to us, either. We are all aware that these words are metaphors for something else. But let us resist the urge, again for just this moment. Instead let us understand that the sun is indeed once again born to the world. That it has returned to us.

Or, rather, that at this time of the year we return to it. Let’s come back to that in a moment.

In The Republic, in the portion just before what is known as the allegory of the cave, as well as in that allegory, Plato connects the sun to the Form or Idea of the Good, which is understood by the Neoplatonists as an aspect of the One, God. The sun is described as a symbol for the Good. As the above quotation tells us, both the sun and the Good give to that which is beneath them life and existence. At the same time, the sun and the Good are beyond that which they give. When we talk about the return of the sun, or Son, this is what we are talking about.

The Good is a selfless giver. It asks for nothing in return for what it gifts to us. The Good, the One, God, whatever you’d like to call this, needs nothing from us. We, however, need it and need it entirely, for the Good is the source of being and essence. Without the Good there is nothing at all.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being." – John 1:1-3

The quotation from John, which perhaps not coincidentally is my favorite quotation from the Gospels, describes this well enough. Everything that exists has existence because of the Good. Because that spiritual Sun shines upon us, loosing nothing of itself while granting everything to us. That we give gifts at this time of the year is then not at all surprising as the impulse to life in imitation of the Good is perhaps strengthened at this time.

If that is true, that especially at this time of the year we have a renewed desire to participate in the Good through our various religious and spiritual traditions then we have also come back to the beginning of this little missive. If this is true, then the sun, or the Sun, really is returning to us. Or we are really returning to it. God is always there, of course. Not just “out there” but “in here” as well. Always has been. Must be. For without the Good, without the Logos, we are nothing, without being or essence. So God hasn’t gone anywhere. This leaves us with the uncomfortable idea that we’re the ones who left. Probably without so much as a “be seeing you.” We likely didn’t realize we were drifting apart. And once we’ve spent time in the darkness, our eyes adjust and we think we’re seeing things clearly.

In the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite this is the very definition of “sin.” Sin is not some act of petty, let alone horrific evil. It is missing the mark due to our varying degrees of ignorance of the Good. Yes, we all want to do good, to be good, to participate in the Good. We all act with some good in mind. Even the worst demons, Dionysius tells us, act with a good in mind. But if we have hidden ourselves from the Light, our blinded vision is of no help to us, and so we wonder off the path, sometimes a little, sometimes more than a little.

The Good does not condemn us for this. God knows who and what we are, after all. According to Iamblichus we incarnate the first time because, though pure of sole, we cannot control our passions. God knows this already. It’s part of who we are and it’s part of why we’re here. There is no need for condemnation, just correction. That correction may take a long time to achieve, but it is never impossible. Because even though we may no longer see the Light, even though we may have hidden ourselves inside a cave to watch the flickering shadows, that cave and those shadows are also filled with God. Just as we are.

The truth is that the Light never ceases to shine upon us or in us. Our awareness of this fact, or lack thereof, doesn’t change this. It changes us. And so, once a year, we give ourselves a reminder. We light lights to remind ourselves that the Good loves us and is with us and that we can live in participation of that love and share it with others, which is also in imitation of that ceaseless love. And when we do that, when we once again become aware of that Light, it is born within us. It is a birth that has nothing to do with time and history as we commonly understand it, but a birth that exists within an eternal NOW. It is the Word being spoken for the first time and forever, not echoing throughout eternity but having full voice in a constant creative speech.

At this time of the beginning of the eternal Feast of Light I offer to you, my friends, my brothers and sisters, whatever blessings you would wish for yourselves, not just for the coming year but for now and eternity. For a Word spoken, just like the eternal Light and Love of God, never diminishes.

Peace to you.