We tend to think of science and spiritual experience as strangers, if not enemies. What’s curious is this: the men and women who have traveled in space — many of whom do not regard themselves as people of faith — describe the experience in terms reminiscent of the ancient mystical tradition. Naturally they don’t use the rigid, stale religious lexicon that straitjackets our religious discourse and drives people out of temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, and sacred places. We could almost say that space travelers are anonymous mystics, to paraphrase an idea developed by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner.
Edgar Mitchell, who walked on the moon for over nine hours during the Apollo 14 mission, says he was changed completely by the new view of his home planet…“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it,” he told People in 1974. “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’.”
Generally speaking, mystics are regarded with suspicion by religious authority. By having a direct spiritual experience, instead of one mediated through the hierarchical authorities (or the approved scriptures or the community of peers, depending on the tradition), they stand outside the realm of the normal and that’s a dangerous thing for the community, as religious communities rely on authority and need some level of order to function well. In the Catholic tradition, mystics like John of the Cross or Catherine of Siena could be co-opted to serve the agenda of the Church’s hierarchy so they were endorsed by the Church. But others like Meister Eckart or Julian of Norwich would remain largely at the periphery.
Mystical experience is life-changing and consciousness-altering but not always pleasant. In fact, quite often mystical experience is frightening and traumatic. What seems to us fantasy is reality to the mystic. What seems to us impossible is possible to the mystic. What seems to us doubtful is certain to the mystic. But the reverse can also be true: our certainties and realities appear as sad delusions to the mystic.
Mystics can be difficult people to live with. In the language of today’s world, we might say they frequently show signs of PTSD. They have known transformational experiences that people like you and me can hardly understand — and once they cross the threshold, they can’t go back to life as it was before.
Most of us are too bogged down in the minutiae of our small, small lives. We desperately need mystics today — whether they’re nuns in remote forest monasteries, activists in Latin American slums, or astronauts who can truly see the bigger picture.
March 12, 2017