First published in The Huffington Post
What is mysticism? How is it different to spirituality? And why is mysticism important at this moment in time?
The spiritual journey can be most simply described as a way to access the light of our soul — the beautiful light with which we came into the world. On this journey we make an inner relationship with this light of our divine nature — the spirit that is within each of us. Through this relationship we come to know our true self and be nourished by the deeper meaning of our soul.
Spiritual paths and teachings give us access to the tools and guidance to do this inner work. For example, the practice of meditation can help to still the mind so that we are no longer distracted by its continual chatter. Psychological inner work can free us from the traumas, anger, anxiety and other feelings that may cover our light. Gradually we come to know more of our true nature, learn to live in the light of our real self. It is said that the goal of every spiritual path is to live a guided life, guided by that within us which is eternal.
The mystical journey may begin with making a relationship with one's inner light, but the mystic is drawn on a deeper journey toward love's greatest secret: that within the heart we are one with the divine. The fire of mystical love is a burning which destroys all sense of a separate self, until nothing is left but love Itself. While the spiritual seeker is drawn to the light of this fire, the mystic is the moth consumed by its flames. Rumi, love's greatest mystical poet, summed up his whole life in two lines:
And the result is not more than these three words:
I burnt, and burnt, and burnt.
The mystical path takes us into the center of the heart where this mystery of love takes place. Initially this love is often experienced as longing, a deep desire for God, the Beloved, Divine Truth, or simply an unexplained ache in the heart. Mystics are lovers who are drawn toward a love in which there is no you or me, but only the oneness of love Itself. And they are prepared to pay the ultimate price to realize this truth: the price of themselves. In the words of the 13th-century Christian mystic Hadewych of Antwerp:
Those who were two, at first,
are made one by the pain of love.
Gradually we discover that this love and longing slowly and often painfully destroy all our outer and inner attachments, all the images we may have of our self. The Sufis call this process being taken into the tavern of ruin, through which we are eventually made empty of all except divine love, divine presence.
This is an ancient journey in which the heart is awakened to the wonder and beauty, as well as the terror, of divine love. It is celebrated in the Bible in the Song of Songs: "He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love." And over the centuries mystics of all faiths have written their love stories. Some mystics have been persecuted, like the Sufi al-Hallaj who was crucified for publically proclaiming the secret of divine oneness, "I am the Truth." Known as the prince of lovers, he expressed the mystical reality: "I am He whom I love, He whom I love is me."
Mystics may be drawn inward, but the oneness of the divine also embraces the outer world. When the eye of the heart is open all of creation reveals its divine nature; everything is seen as an expression, a manifestation of the One Being. Mystics are also involved in the demands of everyday life. One of Christianity's most loved mystics, St. Teresa of Avila, worked tirelessly founding nunneries and looking after her nuns, while at the same time mystical prayer took her into ever deepening states of inner absorption, oneness and ecstasy. Mysticism does not mean to retire from life, but to live the unitive life. "God," St. Teresa would say, "lives also among the pots and pans."
The truth of mystical love is one of humanity's great heritages. It should not be confused with its cousin, spiritual life. The spiritual journey is a wonderful way to come closer to what is sacred. It a way to live in the light of our divine nature, to be nourished by the mystery and meaning of the soul. It opens the door to what really belongs to us as sacred beings. But mysticism is quite different. The moth who feels the warmth of the fire is on a very different journey to the moth drawn into the flames themselves. This is the ancient journey from separation back to union, from our own self back to a state of oneness with God. Step by step we walk along the path of love until finally we are taken by love into love; we are taken by God to God, and there is no going back, only a deepening and deepening of this love affair of the soul.
Even if we are not all drawn to tread the path of the mystic, we need to be reminded that this note of divine love belongs to all of us. In a time of so much division in the world, it is important to reclaim this primal truth that belongs to our heritage: this great song of the soul that celebrates the oneness that is within the heart of each of us and underlies all of creation. This has particular relevance when we confront our present ecological crisis. We can no longer afford to think of the environment as something separate, outside of us. We need an awareness of the "oneness of being" of which we are all a part, and actions that come from this awareness. This awareness of unity is one of the most important contributions of the mystic at this moment in time.
Within the heart of each of us, within the heart of humanity, is this song of mystical love. It has been present for millennia celebrating the divine unity that is our real nature, and the deepest secret of our relationship with God. Hearing the many voices that today so easily consume our attention, it is easy for us to forget this quiet voice of divine love. And yet it is one of the great secrets of humanity, passed down from lover to lover, needing to be embraced, to be known, to be lived.