Thursday, July 29, 2010

‘Mythology and Mysticism’

Mythology Cafe, the New York City chapter of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, met for its monthly dinner-lecture last night, despite the disruption in the neighborhood caused by the visit of President Obama across the street. Our topic was “Mythology and Mysticism” in a conversation capably led by Morrin Bass, one of the principals of the New York Awareness Center.

The understanding of mysticism presented at Mythology Cafe causes me to concentrate especially intently to follow what is being said, as one might if conversing with a person whose primary language is foreign. It is a language barrier I encounter almost every time I attend these meetings. This is not because I’m any kind of ascetic follower of a messiah (I am far more interested in the messages than the messengers), but because I think I see the group’s terminology as the product of modern innovating; it is mostly a pastiche of Jungian psychology and what I can only call “New Age” self-improvement. I am not complaining – and it must be remembered we’re part of the Joseph Campbell Foundation! – but I always think there is a larger context that goes unmentioned or even missed.

In leading our discussion, Dr. Bass explained the purposes of mythology and mysticism, saying, in part, that both are necessary in the communication between the subconscious and the conscious, a process that is essential to those who want to change themselves, which she said is the essence of spirituality. Myths are stories that transcend space and time, using universal archetypes to reach each person on an individual level.

Mysticism, if I understood her correctly, offers a means to affect reality.

Tapping into a modern story to illustrate how transcending time and space can alter contemporary reality, she reminded us of the more serious implications of Back to the Future.

The very popular comedy is a fun movie, for sure, but also one that depicts a youth, with the aid of a wizard-figure, who journeys back through time to “tweak” the character of his father and reshape the present. “It’s up to us what to take as reality,” she said. “Our past can be our future. Our future could be our past.” Persephone, Orpheus, Beowulf, and others were cited as examples of ageless stories of transcending existence.

My own understanding of mysticism is best expressed by the great F.E. Peters, a favorite professor during my university days. From his book Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: The Works of the Spirit, excerpted:

Mysticism is sometimes taken as the esoteric understanding of God and His works given to a few chosen souls, or as the immediate apprehension of, and even identity with, God Himself. In either case, mysticism found a profound, if occasionally troubled, place in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The sources of the trouble are not far to seek. For one thing, such a privileged understanding seemed to create ‘a church within a church,’ an elite group of believers who, if they did not often trouble those latter members of the flock, certainly troubled their shepherds. And among some of the adepts, their special understanding, their ‘gnosis,’ which they at least thought was more profound, and perhaps even more authentic, than that possessed by the ordinary believer, had the effect of reducing what might be called ‘ordinary revelation’ to an inferior status and, as an occasional corollary, of freeing the adept from the ‘ordinary observance’ prescribed by that other, public revelation. And finally, the mystic’s intuitive leap into the neighborhood, or even the very bosom, of God seemed to violate one of the most profound and strongly held beliefs of the three monotheistic faiths, that in the utter transcendence, the absolute otherness, of God.

Professor Peters’ take on mysticism surely is not foreign to Freemasonry, certain avenues of which are traveled by brethren who discern in its rituals and symbols secrets they appropriate for themselves. I admit to being guilty of this to an extent, but the position held by myself and those like me is not necessarily of our own making. When a member of a private society that exists to explore morality, eschatology, and other adult concerns always is surrounded by fellow members who offer nothing but “kid tested, mother approved” frivolity, even his simple sincerity in studying the rituals and lectures can make him look like an isolated hermit by comparison. He may resign himself to that identity, or embrace it, but it is not entirely of his own creation.

If a man knows more than others,
he becomes lonely.
C.G. Jung

Everybody should be actuated by both an acknowledgement of a need for self-improvement, and by a strong desire to work toward and achieve that development. I have to do a better job of understanding that there are different methods and language others employ toward that end.

The next meeting of Mythology Cafe will take place Wednesday, August 11 at 7 p.m. at Ciao Stella, located on Sullivan Street, between Bleecker and Third. The topic will be “The Evolution of Religious Belief.” Click here for a description of the topic.


No comments: