“I was suddenly made aware of another world of beauty and mystery such as I had never imagined to exist, except in poetry. . . . The song of the birds, the shape of the trees, the colours of the sunset, were so many signs of this presence, which seemed to be drawing me to itself.” So explains Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk writing during the mid-2oth century. His first spiritual autobiography, The Golden String, offers a rich backdrop to the discussion of Western mysticism in the 20th century, an epoch marred by war, genocide, horrific weaponry, extensive industrialization, and the marginalized suffering that haunts globalization. To embrace mysticism among these specters is to grapple with the very nature of divine love, justice, and relationship. And it is for this reason that studying the works of western mystics of the 20th century can yield much fruit for contemplatives today.
Rudolf Otto’s exquisite The Idea of the Holy provides a preliminary framework for the discussion of modern—and post-modern—mysticism. A philosopher of religion as well as a devout Lutheran, Otto’s work describes the mystical experience as an encountering of the divine characterized by a loss of self and a glimpsing of the transcendent. Beautifully translated by John W. Harvey, this influential work merits a read for any interested in the non-rational side of spiritual experience.
Emerging from the framework that The Idea of the Holy articulates, three works that subsequently point toward the universal accessibility (and value) of mysticism are Simone Weil’s Waiting for God, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu. Though each text manifests a unique philosophical rationale for arousing awareness of the mystical in daily life, they all braid together to create a systematic methodology for the would-be mystic or the empathetic seeker.
Simone Weil accentuates the importance of attention in every aspect of one’s daily life. Although certainly formed by her interactions with Catholicism, Weil maintains a staunch outsider-looking-in perspective towards the institution. Her brand of mysticism jointly pursues daily loss of self to the transcendent in prayer as well as an all-encompassing brand of solidarity with those who are marginalized by inhumane social structures. The book, a synthesis of letters to her friends and essays regarding spiritual practices, provides readers with a dabbling of rich reflections from this outsider’s saint.
In I and Thou, Martin Buber—an anthropologist, philosopher, and Jewish leader—formulates a philosophy that places the individual into loving relationship with the entire physical and metaphysical realm. Buber proposes that it is humanity’s tendency to treat all external entitites as objects (“Its”) that undermines the universal relationship that we are innately meant to experience. By transforming our interactions from “I-It” to “I-You,” we more fully embrace everything, and thereby more fully love the divine. Buber’s enjoyable lyric style harkens back to Pascal’s Pensées and Kierkegaad’s Fear and Trembling, and Walter Kaufman’s admirable translation makes this philosophical text a poetic and enjoyable read.
Jesuit, biologist, and priest, Pierre Teillard de Chardin employs The Divine Milieu as a capstone to unite the material and spiritual dimensions of life. Building out from a discussion of the personal dignity of every individual, The Divine Milieu reveals how each interaction—each breath—draws the individual into deeper awareness of his or her relationship with the transcendent reality of God. The text is suffused with urgency and excitement; it savors of a man’s final testimony to the goodness of life and the hope of life eternal. Though strongly rooted in its Catholic worldview and translated with disregard for gender neutrality, this magnificent work sings with the richness of Mozart.
One could argue many other texts belong on this list—and that many other traditions deserve a mention. I raise these as a first glimpse of a genre of literature so deep and rich that it spills outward to mark the humanity in each and every soul. These five mystical philosophers, unique though they are, speak to a thrum of interconnection that resonates across centuries, societies, and religions. And they present for us touchstones in our own quests towards the shared experiences that make us turn eyes to pages and put pen to paper. May they be your guides as they have been mine.
M. H. Rubin (nee, Hubele) is a freelance editor and writing specialist out of the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in more than a dozen domestic and international forums, including America, U.S. Catholic, and BDC Magazine. With a background in comparative theology and creative writing, she spends her free time contemplating what binds and divides communities. She is currently at work on a novel.