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Mystical Experiences

This is the first part of my workshop, Invitations from the Mystics, to be given at this year's Association of Christian Counsellors' online conference (https://acc-uk.org/public/docs/page-pdfs/Events/ACC_Online_Conference_2023_Programme.pdf ).


My thanks to Abbey of the Arts for granting permission to use their dancing monk icons, which can be found here: https://abbeyofthearts.com/poetry|art|music/icons/ .

Here is Master Eckhart, 13th century German friar, priest, and renowned preacher and theologian, as well as a busy administrator for his Dominican Order.


The quote says: “The light will overflow your soul and dance with radiance in your life.”


And here is Nicholas Black Elk, born in 1863, a prominent Oglala Lakota medicine man who later converted to Catholicism. He played a crucial role in preserving and sharing the traditional beliefs and wisdom of his people during significant change and upheaval in Native American history.


The quote here says, “I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the Spirit.”


Mysticism firstly assumes ‘the dignity, and the reality, and the complexities of the human experience.’ (Finlay 2020).


Additionally, the mystics also seek to bear witness to a certain sort of human experience, illustrated by these quotes, with a certain sort of quality. Frederick Happold, author of Mysticisn: A study and An Anthology, describes this as the coming of ‘sudden moments of intuitive perception, elusive, fading quickly, but of deep significance, illuminations which they feel reveal [...] new facets of reality.’ (Happold 1963, 39).


How do we approach such experiences? How do our clients? Roxburgh and Evendale's (2016) research on those seeking counselling suggest four themes:

  • Before seeking help, there is a dilemma. Who do you go to if these experiences are an important part of your life but your mental health or relational problems feel too big? Who can help you understand and make sense of them both?

  • In the early stages of counselling, some clients feel afraid of being labelled or diagnosed. Often this fear stems from previous times of sharing their experiences and means they now keep those experiences private.

  • Some clients, after testing the waters, feel the door being shut, like their experiences are being dismissed, misinterpreted or misunderstood. This deepens a sense of isolation.

  • Finally, some clients experience an open-minded exploration of their experience, as well as helpful normalisation and validation.

One research participant quote struck me:


“It’s not mainstream, and you know I think my experience with the early counsellors really hit that home, that they didn’t have a clue what I was on about, and it made me feel that the world of counselling was a little narrower than I had expected.”


Perhaps the Mystics tell us about an important part of the human experience. But to encounter the mystic in our clients, we must first encounter, or maybe remember, the mystic in ourselves.

So we begin with a pause. Where are you as we start to approach the mystics? You may want to use this curiosity scale from Keith Duckett (Duckett 2022) on reflective practice and spirituality to locate yourself and wonder why you find yourself there.


Following this will be a series of quotes from literature describing experiences that could be said to be mystical. After each will be a pause and after the last, a silence.


“When all at once I experienced a feeling of being raised above myself, I felt the presence of God [...] as if his goodness and his power were penetrating me altogether. The throb of emotion was so violent [I] sat down on a stone, unable to stand any longer, and my eyes overflowed with tears.”

From William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In Happold F.C Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology


“I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hillside, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep - the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being answered by the unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone with Him who had made me and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation […] It was like the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony that leaves the listener conscious of nothing save that his soul is being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its own emotion. The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence.”


From William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In Happold F.C Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology


“As I was watching [the sunrise], suddenly, in a moment, a veil seemed to be lifted from my eyes. I found the world wrapt in an inexpressible glory with its waves of joy and beauty bursting and breaking on all sides. The thick cloud of sorrow that lay on my heart in many folds was pierced through and through by the light of the world, which was everywhere radiant […] There was nothing and no one whom I did not love at that moment […] I seemed to witness, in the wholeness of my vision, the movements of the body of all humanity, and to feel the beat of the music and the rhythm of a mystic dance.”

From C.F. Andrews, Letter to a Friend (Allen and Unwin).

In Happold F.C Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology


References


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