I, a dirty peasant leaning on my rake, looked across the rocky shore and sea to a black square sitting on the horizon. That disturbing and angled square suggested that nature is more geometric than I first presumed. Perhaps, God was covering an embarrassment with a divine censor? It was a distant island – perfectly natural – and I could make out a small copse of trees sitting on the top of it. Or was it a building?
The cold halls echo with the sound of two flapping intruders. They are pigeons and they are in love. Behind a wooden door, a monk sits over his desk scribbling his thoughts. “For He can well be loved,” he writes, “but he cannot be thought. By love He can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held.”
He puts down his pen and rubs his eyes with his palms. He sighs and looks up in the top right corner of his simple room. “God,” he says, “God, God, God…” A patch of spring light from the grated window covers his hairy cheek as he rocks in his chair. “God, God, God…”
This is the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. For this man, the only way to communicate with God is through intentional denial of all knowledge. God, pure truth, was attained through a private experience of love. His prayer was the pursuit of an esoteric spiritual ecstasy.
This Christian monk was drunk on mysticism. His prayer, closer to Eastern meditation than Christian prayer, indicated his skepticism of language. His pursuit of Truth was an internal wordless journey, not an external realization of the only revealed Truth.
Hundreds of years later, the secular thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein searched for the perfect language. If a perfect language could be found, then humans could finally pierce “the cloud of unknowing” that hangs over all of us. Plato, finally, could talk about the forms as a material being!
His exploration turned up no results. He concluded his search with the famous words, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” These very words pierce to the core of cloudy mysticism. Mysticism is the belief that truth can be seen or experienced, but not described or stated.
Had God never interacted with His Creation, mysticism would be the most realistic model of the world. What would be the root of truth? Humans could only pursue truth sensually or through imperfect language. For this reason, mysticism is fundamentally empirical. Worse, it is frustrated empiricism. Mystics are obsessed with experience, but as soon as an explorer asks them a question, they blow smoke in their face.
Mystics do not believe that truth exists outside of abstraction. The Forms are the only truth, the Divine language, shrouding this concrete world in illusion and fruitlessness. Mystics are dragged into swirling hypocrisy! If truth only exists as a sensual experience, is truth not then rooted in a world of illusion? Death is their ultimate experience of truth. As dead spirits, at least we know what God has to say to us.
Mysticism unchecked by a physical body is a destructive hurricane. It draws in weak swimmers by its force and pulls them under the murky surface of soggy newspapers and spinning stop signs. They deeply experience the reality of truth, but they are unable to distinguish between truth and death.
They curve in on themselves, drawn deeper into their own minds, creating elusive worlds in place of the world that pulled them out. Instead of taking walks with friends and breathing, they drown in silence and the starvation of pleasure. The body is only weight for people who cannot swim.
Philosophers looking to tame mysticism defend that truth is partially rooted in the material. Undistilled mysticism is poison, so some want to theoretically balance it. The opposite theoretical perspective of mysticism is materialism. Materialism is the belief that truth can be described and stated perfectly.
This is a failed labor from the start. Materialism relies too heavily on the human intellect. It disregards the truth that language is frequently insufficient. Thinkers who swim in the stream of materialism rarely agree. Their work is frustrated by the unreliability of the only tool they rely on.
Truth is not a balance of these two extremes. A balance would merely be a human approximation of the truth. Furthermore, the materialistic response to mysticism does not understand what makes mysticism so dangerous.
Mysticism is not dangerous because it is theoretically false. Mysticism is dangerous because of what it makes people do. If people try to conjoin materialism with mysticism, the only thing diminished is the potency of truth. Both extreme positions are hypocrisy and cultivate further hypocrisy together.
The only perspective of truth that functions is a total mysticism with one exception. In order for mysticism to work, there must be at least one materialistic exception. The exception would have to be a truth that is seen that has a name. This truth would function as a holy anchor dropped onto this solid world. Creation and God are separated by a chasm of language, but this chasm is crossed.
It is impossible to say that God intervenes for us, if there is nothing to intervene over. Mysticism provides the gorge of darkness necessary for intercession.
Jesus of Nazareth is the response to mysticism.
Wittgenstein observed that the lynch-pin of truth was the perfect language. A perfect language would have to be the Divine language incarnated for human use. He searched for it like a hungry hound, but it was found in the “gibberish” religion he denied. Since he could not find it, he fell back on a sophisticated and clean Western mysticism. Ah, Ludwig my friend, how close but how far.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Christ is a direct satisfaction of the search for a perfect language.
A blind mystic, the most pitiful creature imaginable, would likely be unsatisfied by Christ. He might ask of Jesus, “What is truth,” hoping for a statement in the Divine language. Christ, however, did not bring propositional truths of Divine language. He brought Himself. By bringing Himself, He was able to use our own imperfect language perfectly. He spoke parables and sermons. And His words were hotly disputed, so much so that a group of skeptics conspired to assassinate Him. Only those who received the mystery understood His parables.
Christ answers mysticism, but He ultimately decried it as hopeless and blind without Him. A sensual experience of truth is possible, but what is it worth? Christ said:
‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing
you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people
have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their e-
-yes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with th-
-eir hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.’ But blessed
are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for
assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men
desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear
what you hear, and did not hear it.’
The mystic who sees truth and does not perceive it as Christ might as well not see anything.
You might ask, “Why retain the paradigm of mysticism at all?” We retain it, because mysticism acknowledges that truth is above us. Christian mysticism goes a step farther and acknowledges that truth came down to us. This has a profound practical implication in this life. It is the very response materialists fail to provide.
The monk who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing needed to be reminded that Jesus was a body who did things. The mystery is solved, the Word has been given, and it cannot any longer be pursued like the blind mystic. The mystery is that truth has a belly-button, can be kissed, hugged, whipped, and killed.
The calling of the mystic is to be fiercely alive, raw salted muscles to the beating sun. Also, we do not meditate. We pray. The distinction is made, because in prayer, we have someone to call as a witness. We use words, because our language is made perfect in the sight of God. We do not empty ourselves of knowledge, we gorge on it.
More importantly, we bring the knowledge to the world. Where mysticism was sterile, the Gospel is explosively reproductive. By the revelation of Christ, the mystery is made known to usand it is finally possible to communicate truth.
Christ said to His disciples, every mystic with sight, “‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.”
The square is lifted.