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A good, penetrating article about mysticism, insanity, and a possible socio-cultural connection

The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight. – Joseph Campbell

This Joseph Campbell quote comes from the tweeted article, above. Campbell was a great popularizer of mythology whose work was, for the most part, in line with Jungian psychology. But in my view neither of these men fully understood Christian mysticism. Sure, they talked about numinosity and the experience of grace. And Jung talked about relationships as being somewhat “alchemical,” meaning that different personalities interact a lot like two chemical substances. On contact both are transformed.

However, there is a lot more to Christian mysticism than a mere mingling of elements. At best, Christian mysticism and the interpersonal dynamic that goes with it entails an inner ascent. But it’s an ascent that is not without its pitfalls, stumbling and backward steps.

St. John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church.

St. John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church. He wrote about the “dark night of the soul.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to what the Campbell quote seems to imply, Christian mystics are not always free from suffering. In fact, suffering – and even momentary confusion – can be part of the purification process.

So to say that mystics “swim with delight” is only partially true. And this is not really a great metaphor because any graces that the Christian enjoys come to him or her. He or she doesn’t induce or control them, as a swimmer would consciously jump into a lake and take purposeful strokes.

As the dedicated mystic goes deeper and deeper, all they can really control, to varying degrees, is their reaction to what God subjects them to, which is usually a mix of wonderful and difficult internal states and external situations.

Unlike the psychotic, however, the Christian mystic does have an overall sense of personal meaning that can be grasped by qualified others. If she or he is genuine and not fooling themselves, the overall logic and coherence of their quest should become apparent to, again, qualified others. So in Catholicism, we have the spiritual director.

The genuine mystic rarely goes it entirely alone. There is often another person who can understand what they are going through to some extent and suggest so-called course corrections. And this makes genuine mysticism to some degree a social phenomenon.

However, the notion of a spiritual director has its own difficulties. Possibly we have two or more insane people who share the same delusions. Alternately, in Catholicism we have the possibility of immature or even corrupt priests unable to understand a true mystic because their minds are so darkened by sin and worldliness.

Some see the medical psychiatrist as the answer. However, the last I checked, the psychiatric manual tends to recognize major religious beliefs but not so much individualized spiritual paths. So there’s a potentially significant problem there too (unless I’ve missed something present in the latest DSM update).

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sociologically, we can say that psychiatry remains in a monolithic stage of institutional development, not unlike the Medieval Church. Licensed practitioners who dissent within or deviate from APA norms could find themselves under professional review and, perhaps, lose their legal right to practice.

Seeds of discontent are out there. But still, the power and, in many countries, the legal power of the APA continues to dominate the hearts and minds of many.

This might change, not unlike how Protestants split away from the Catholic powerhouse, as it were, back in the days of Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. Or possibly things might not change so dramatically and the future will evolve into, for better or for worse, an increased state of ideological homogeneity.

Philosophically, we can ask: Do some people see or hear things that simply do not exist in the way they believe they do? With this question, it seems that the issue of mysticism and madness cannot be fully resolved through a mere socio-cultural lens. Some folks might really be insane, and no sociological theorizing about “cultural relativity” or “observer bias” will change that fact.

If genuine insanity does exist in some individuals, its causes probably involve an interplay of physiological, psychological, social and, in some cases, negative spiritual influences. This last aspect is often overlooked in Western culture. And I think that’s a serious mistake, one born of ignorance and spiritual immaturity.

I apologize if my writing here is a bit technical and not as accessible as in other places. This is an area I’ve been thinking and writing about since my undergraduate days at university. And it would be too time consuming to dumb things down and maintain the necessary level of detail. Simple sentences may leap off the page but they rarely do a topic justice.🙂


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Vacation over — Oh well, I enjoy writing about psychology, spirituality and religion

Last night I was pooped and went to bed unusually early. Waking up unusually early, I felt it was a good time to update earthpages.ca. I enjoyed working on the above. As I research and revise these entries, I’m not only brushing up on my general knowledge but also on my ability to (hopefully) communicate fresh ideas to as many people as possible.


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Tit for Tat – One silly scientific claim gets an amorphous religious response

Many scientists do not seem realize that they are influenced by a tremendous bias having to do with two related ideas: The principle of parsimony and  Occam’s razor. Basically, the bias prevalent among scientists today is: If something can be explained with less, this is better than using more.

Cartoon about a fortune teller contacting the ...

Cartoon about a fortune teller contacting the other side. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a way I can understand this. Consider the sham fortune teller who is dead wrong with his or her prediction so creates all sorts of ad hoc explanations to try to explain their goof. But in another way, I think this reductive bias can lead to problems, especially in the area of mental health.

I have discussed the topic of science elsewhere and really don’t feel like going into it all again. A lot of effort usually gets met with blank stares. So I’ll just link to my entry about science at earthpages.ca and add the following quote which doesn’t really solve the problem of making religious experience scientific, but does point out that the current scientific attitude is based more on fashion than fact.

The medieval formula ‘philosophy the handmaid of theology’ and the associated idea of theology as ‘the queen of the sciences’ are seldom taken seriously today…Yet neither philosophy nor science have ever refuted the claim during the past seven hundred years. It has been dismissed by fashion, not by reason. If God is, and is our ultimate end, then the science of God must indeed be the queen of the sciences.¹

¹ Source, and a few more paragraphs explaining what this quote is about: https://javipena.com/2015/04/29/theology-the-noblest-science-thomas-aquinas/


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Seekers’ reality check – We all need one

Looking back on my life I see a funny dynamic. Many times I thought I’d found “the answer,” either through a partner, a job, a scholarship, a religious affiliation. And usually when I have found the apparent “answer” I’ve become a bit full of myself and maybe overly enthusiastic about my new path. God and life, however, have this way of auto-correcting. Stuff happens… and what a great way to regain humility.

Deep thought

Deep thought (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I’m thinking it’s nice that I don’t take myself as seriously as I once did. Yes, if someone steps on my toes I will still let them know. I don’t believe God wants us to be doormats.

But at the same time, getting older means that I can appreciate all the twists and turns my life has taken, and just as importantly, how everyone else is just as “valid” as me. Are just as valid as me? Whatever. I don’t feel like checking out Grammar Girl right now.🙂

The tweeted article spells out some of the reflections I’ve had over the past few years in this area. I think it does a good job.


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JPMorgan bans Christian group at workplace


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Crisis what Crisis?

Crisis? What Crisis?

Crisis? What Crisis? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some of you might recognize the header for this post as coming from an album by the classic rock band, Supertramp.

The album cover captured, like the best of Supertramp, the irony and alienation of the 1970s. True, the 70s had a fun and optimistic side. But there was also this nagging sense that the world was messed up and there was no turning back.

Pollution, social problems and spiritual angst are nothing new. They’ve been with us in various forms throughout history.

For me, the best approach is to try to understand our somewhat tarnished world and to not judge. The only person I can really judge is myself. And I suspect that God’s standards and expectations differ from person to person.

All fine and dandy. But as Archbishop Sheen suggests, if we just go on blindly ignoring problems, how will the world ever get better?

And this is the crux of the matter. Where should the Christian dictum of do not judge end and the modern idea of social responsibility begin?

Again, each must find his or her own solution. Some of us pray. Some of us write. And some do a bit of both.


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So I guess I’m “uneducated” for believing in spiritual powers?

I usually don’t like the Huffington Post too much. The articles often seem sort of safe, mainstream and politically correct. But this article, well, I don’t know where to begin. Maybe it’s mostly about promoting a film, I’m not sure. If so, it’s a film I admittedly haven’t seen. So my comments are based solely on the article.

When I read articles like this I usually think skip it, it would take too long to critique. Too many reservations. And how much good will it do to write down my opinions, anyhow?

English: A Roman Catholic priest baptizes an i...

A Roman Catholic priest baptizes an infant as his parents look on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So maybe I’ll just leave it at that. And if anyone wants to discuss this through the comments area, please feel free to do so. Every now and then I get tired of trying to dismantle a thick, brick wall.

If people want to believe that mental unwellness is predominantly some kind of medical ailment, let it be. I wonder, however, how many folks adhering to that belief will really get better. As one Catholic priest I discussed this with once said, “Satan likes to use psychiatry.”

Not that I want to get caught up in a polarized discussion between materialist psychology on the other hand, and uncritical Catholic orthodoxy, on the other hand. I think both perspectives could learn from each other. But unless I have totally misunderstood the intent of this Huff article, it seems to give emphasis to one side of the debate, which for me is inadequate.

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