The Mystic Quest
By the Rev. Ernest O. Martin
May 11, 2008
[reprinted from Our Daily Bread, Sunday, March 12, 2000]
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. And if the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn't life more important than food, and the body more important than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?
And why do you worry about clothing? See how the lilies of the field grow; they do not labor or spin, yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, "What will we eat?" or "What will we drink?" or "What will we wear?" For the nations run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:19 -33)
The world was stunned in September 1961 at news of the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the United Nations. An immediate investigation was called for, to look into the cause of his death. In October 1963, the mystery assumed new proportions with the publication in Swedish of the Hammarskjold Diary, entitled Markings. The diary entries begin in 1925 when Hammarskjold was 20 years old, and end on August 24, 1961, a few weeks before his death. They reveal the inner life of an extraordinary man--of his struggle with himself and his God. They trace the development of a mystical sense within the public servant and statesman.
Reactions to the diary were extreme. An American religious leader said, "This work is the noblest self-disclosure of spiritual struggle and triumph, perhaps the greatest testament of personal devotion, published in this century." Another reviewer wrote, "Some consider it with embarrassment, not knowing what to make of so gratuitous an example of discrepancy, unreason, and excess, and the more they liked the man the more they wish it had never appeared."
Dag Hammarskjold the world statesman and public servant was respected as one of the great men of the twentieth century. Dag Hammarskjold the mystic is viewed with alarm--the object of much suspicion and distrust.
About 250 years ago, another son of Sweden was received with the same doubt and suspicion. Emanuel Swedenborg achieved an enviable record in the field of science, mastering the knowledge of his day and pioneering in the areas of engineering, mathematics, metallurgy, and physiology, among others. In 1939, a reviewer of Swedenborg's work on the brain was sincerely puzzled as to how he had found out something "worthy of a Nobel prize" without the necessary modern microscope. Swedenborg the scientist is honored and respected. Swedenborg the mystic is dismissed by many as a madman. And even among his followers, there is a reluctance to speak of the man as a mystic.
One reason is a confusion about terms. The word "mysticism" is popularly used in a variety of loose and inaccurate ways. Sometimes, anything that is misty, foggy, or vague is called "mystical." We usually think of a mystic as a weird sort of person who has gone off the deep end religiously. He is in a world of his own, where he has visions or hallucinations, and hears voices that aren't there. He is a kind of fanatic who has lost touch with reality.
Dean Inge, in his classic study of Christian mysticism, defines mysticism as
"a consciousness of a realm or dimension beyond that revealed by our physical senses."
The Quaker Rufus Jones speaks of the mystic as
"possessing a peculiar gift of sensitivity for the deeper environment of the soul."
This language is especially meaningful to the student of Swedenborg, since Swedenborg's greatest contribution to religious thought was his testimony to the reality of the world of spirit--a dimension of life that goes beyond what is perceived by our physical senses. For nearly thirty years, Swedenborg was conscious each day of the reality of this realm of the spirit.
Yet he was no escapist, retreating into a world of dreams and fantasies. He taught that life is one; the natural world and the spiritual world are not two distinct, separate existences that have no relationship. We are spirits, and from the day of our conception we are citizens of the spiritual world. Love, understanding, loyalty, friendship, patience, mercy, are spiritual realities which the Lord seeks to instill into our lives here and now. The natural world is but the outer expression of our spirits. It is the theater in which our spirits operate and develop and grow. It is here that our loves and attitudes and desires are molded and find expression.
Swedenborg's emphasis on the harmony of life's natural and spiritual dimensions is in keeping with the traditions of Christian mysticism. Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century mystic, wrote:
Many persons imagine that there is creaturely being here and divine being yonder. That is not so. A man beholds God in this life in the same perfection, and is blessed in the exactly same way, as in the afterlife.
Eckhart is confident that there can be a birth into all the fullness of the life of God here and now.
The mystic is often thought of as being removed from the concerns of life--of being otherworldly. This is not borne out by a study of the lives of the Christian mystics. Swedenborg the mystic was also Swedenborg the scientist. He viewed his mystical experiences with the detachment and objectivity of the scientist, and was always concerned with the relationship of the natural and the spiritual.
Swedenborg said that all of religion relates to life, and that our spiritual life is formed through an active life in the world. Mystics through the ages have shared this same conviction. Jacob Boehme, the mystic-shoemaker of Silesia, was dominated by two absorbing interests: he was a fervent lover of nature and a devout worshiper of God. He attempted to reconcile a this-world life with an other-world attitude, without diminishing the value of either.
Meister Eckhart tells us that if a person were in mystical ecstasy and knew of a poor man who needed his help, he should leave his ecstasy in order to go and serve the poor man. The Christian mystics, especially, have always emphasized that mystical union with God brings with it an intense and burning love of God, which must needs overflow into the world in the form of love for our fellowmen. And this must show itself in deeds of charity, mercy, and self-sacrifice--not merely in words.
In his lectures on Representative Men, Ralph Waldo Emerson chose Emanuel Swedenborg as his representative mystic. When Marcus Bach was asked to speak about American mysticism, he chose Helen Keller. Miss Keller showed herself to be a twentieth century mystic with feet solidly on the ground. She displayed a remarkable ability to combine an active life in the world with the development of her inner life or spirit. At the close of her book My Religion (now re-edited and published as Light in my Darkness), she wrote:
I plunge my hands into my large Braille volumes containing Swedenborg's teachings, and withdraw them full of the secrets of the spiritual world. The inner or "mystic" sense, if you like, gives me vision of the unseen. My mystic world is lovely with trees and clouds and stars and eddying streams I have never "seen." I am often conscious of beautiful flowers and birds and laughing children where to my seeing associates there is nothing. They skeptically declare that I see "light that never was on sea or land." But I know that their mystic sense is dormant, and that is why there are so many barren places in their lives.
Miss Keller suggests that every one of us has a mystic sense, but that in most of us it lies dormant or undeveloped. We're so concerned about getting ahead in the world or pursuing happiness that we are caught up in an eternal rat race. Paul Tillich declared that the decisive element in the predicament of Western man in our period is the loss of the dimension of depth--which is the mystical dimension.
The words of the Lord ring in our ears: "Seek first the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6:33). He bids us seek a quality of life that is worth nurturing and developing to eternity. He tells us that there is more to life than food, clothing, and shelter. There is a whole realm of being that is not tangible, but is more real than anything we can touch or taste or smell or see or hear. It is the realm of love, mercy, kindness, patience, sympathy, integrity, and justice. It is spiritual reality, which the mystic comes to experience as the basic reality and substance of the universe.
In his poem "Birches," Robert Frost expresses our longing for something beyond the world we see and touch and hear:
So was I once myself a swinger of birches,
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
retired in 1999
as founding director of the Temenos
Conference and Retreat Center
in West Chester, Pennsylvania,
and as pastor of the
Swedenborgian Church at Temenos.
O Lord and Creator of us all, so often we go about our worldly business focusing only on food, clothing, shelter, and our own pleasure. And then we stop and climb a tree to look around, and notice the barren places in our lives. Open up the deeper, mystical sense within us, as you have done with so many great men and women who came before us, so that we may see the spiritual richness beyond our material barrenness. Show us the vast realms of your kingdom, and send us on our journey with a clear vision of the beauties and blessings that you have in store for us. Amen.