The Real Alternative

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Mysticism needs a reality check

This is one of the better articles on mysticism I’ve seen in a while. Not only does it gently rebuke those Christian fundamentalists who proclaim that mysticism is “of the devil.” But it also mentions how Evelyn Underhill, one of my favorite writers on mysticism, points out as far back in 1914 that the word mysticism means different things to different people.

To a Zen monk, mysticism might mean stopping one’s thoughts and living in the moment. To a Hindu, it might mean feeling a psychological expansion, making the ego and worldly affairs appear trivial.

Most conventional Catholics interested in or claiming to be mystics seem to frame their approach, experiences and understanding within some – but usually not all – of their Catholic teachings, legends and practices.

Over the years I’ve heard some pretty questionable claims from some self-proclaimed Catholic mystics. One element that unconfirmed mystics seem to have in common is that they believe they have no need for dialog or spiritual direction. In their minds, they are right about practically everything.

English: Evelyn Underhill. Author given as Wil...

Evelyn Underhill via Wikipedia

But who among us is without some kind of human limitation?

Because we are all limited, I believe it is essential for budding mystics to receive some kind of direction from another person or persons. I don’t believe a Catholic must necessarily see a Catholic spiritual director. That may help in traditional situations where everyone shares the same beliefs without question. In common parlance, if it’s a good fit, why change it?

But for Catholics uncomfortable with aspects of the greater Catholic culture, guides and critics from other traditions and with different perspectives might be more appropriate in keeping them real.

This reminds me of another type of mystic I have encountered. I call these creative souls “wildflowers.” Unlike the well cared for “hothouse flowers” of traditional Catholicism, the wildflowers are just out there. I’ve found them in the most unusual places, each different but definitely tuned in.

One had pink hair and worked in a record store, another was a ‘normal’ looking man who owned a milk store. And yet another lived in my apartment building back in my student days. These wildflowers seem to be able to access subtle, interior insights without really having to go to any kind of church or temple.

Sometimes I wish I was more like the wildflowers. But it seems I am something of a hybrid between a wild and a hothouse flower. I need the Catholic Eucharist to stay on top of things. However, I do approach my religion in my own way. I don’t do this to be rebellious. On the contrary, I feel it’s important to approach one’s religion by the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

~ 2 Corinthians 3:6

This is a basic Christian teaching that sadly, I think many Catholics have forgotten with the rules, regulations and hypocrisy that might be turning so many thinking people away from discovering something truly glorious.

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Another (questionable) side of Carl Jung… and Freud too

Jung…was physically large, selfish, bullying and loud of voice; he cheated at games, had a vile temper and appalling table manners; he thought men should be polygamous but that Emma [his wife] should be his alone. He was also narcissistic and unbalanced, coming from a family with severe mental health problems.¹

English: Group photo in front of Clark Univers...

Group photo in front of Clark University Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung; Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi. Photo taken for Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts publication. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Whew! That’s what my father would have called a “hatchet job.”

Q: Is this a fair assessment of Carl Jung, the psychologist who has inspired many by trying to bridge the gap between psychology and spirituality?

A: I think the tweeted article is important to read, even if definitely slanted. Always good to hear both sides. And, come to think of it, I recall Carl Jung’s son saying much the same thing—that Jung Sr. wasn’t the greatest dad in the world. Also, having studied Jung for several years, I knew about his polygamy. But I hadn’t fully considered – nor heard – that he demanded monogamy from his wife.

While reading the tweeted story I began to think about something I’ve been considering for a while now: Are insights, theories or moral teachings invalidated by the less than admirable behavior of those advancing them?

In the Bible story, if I remember right, Jesus tells others to do what corrupt preachers say but not what they actually do. Jesus is not condemning their good teaching but rather their bad example. I think this is an important distinction to keep in mind. It doesn’t get someone off the hook for being creepy. But it does suggest that, since we’re all ethically imperfect, a realistic and arguably effective approach to life demands a nuanced understanding of how most human beings actually work.


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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 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.


Can we escape interpreting the holy books – or anything else?

I’m not oblivious to the power of religious experience. When reading the Bible I’ve felt a tremendous sense of peace and certainty from time to time. But that doesn’t mean I agree with everything the Bible says. Or that I believe it all comes directly from the mind of God.

Call me irreverent if you like. But I just can’t wrap my head around the sexism, chauvinism, and violence advocated in a lot of holy books (the Bible included). True, the New Testament talks about love and peace. But at the same time it gives legitimacy to the Old Testament, which often runs counter to love and peace.

However, one thing I can say about the Bible. It’s realistic. It’s not some phony baloney sugarcoated gloss. All our human failings are found there. And maybe that’s partly why it has lasted so long. People can relate to it. It’s a human story. With God intervening and (apparently) showing us the way.

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Snippet – The Gospel of Thomas – uplifting or obscuring?

via Tumblr – Click for full article and image credit link

Never thought I’d be highlighting my own writing. But life always gives us the unexpected. The above is from an entry I wrote for this morning. The Gospel of Thomas.

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Time for “religion” and “spirituality” to bury the hatchet

When it comes to a God, religion speaks of a higher being that is distant from humanity, one that lives in what may be another world, such as heaven. Spirituality stresses that God is within all of us, and there is no separation between humanity and this greater being. (Source: Article in above tweet)

Every time I see this distinction I get the impression that the person making it doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.

For instance, during Catholic Mass it might seem that some people woodenly go through the motions. To an observer they might appear to mumble words and sit or stand from sheer force of habit.  But a mere observer has no idea what’s going on inside their souls.

Speaking for Catholics, some of my acquaintances tell me about their ongoing personal experiences with God, graces, and the spiritual intercession of saints. God is very close for these Catholic churchgoers. Also, the belief about the Eucharist, which many Catholics receive daily, is that the heavenly Christ appears in the flesh, right here on Earth. And for many, that is not just the belief but also the inner experience.

Sometimes when I’m going to Mass and see some unhappy looking passersby near the Church, I’m tempted to say, “Hey Jesus Christ is arriving here in about 10 minutes! Interested?” But I don’t, of course, because I have a pretty good idea what the answer would be.

I bet if a full person, replete with head, arms and legs were to appear out of nothing and broadcast his showtime later that day, the venue would be packed with crowds overflowing out on to the street.  But because the Eucharist is a miraculous and subtle transformation/presence of inner substance but not of gross outward form, only some appreciate it, for whatever reasons. And I get the impression that most non-Catholics, especially non-Christians, just think the whole idea is silly.

Anyhow, I digress. The point is, it does no good to make a black and white distinction between religion and spirituality. Not only is it theologically misinformed but from my experience and from talking with other believers, it is misinformed on an experiential level.

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Spirituality and Style – An oft overlooked dimension

Clothing in history

Clothing in history (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a college kid I didn’t take too much interest in clothes shopping. I mostly wore what was given to me. One day in a seminar everyone broke out laughing when I made a comment about “ivy league” types. I guess it was the colored cotton sweats and Lacoste (remember those alligators?) shirts that I used to wear. Pretty much all given to me.

Point is, I didn’t think about it too much. Sure, I knew they were “nice” shirts and that the poor didn’t wear them. (Let’s face it, clothes make all kinds of statements). But I also knew that I felt good in those clothes. That’s about as far as it went. I wasn’t consciously trying to elevate myself or put the less fortunate down.

As I got a little older I began to think about the connection between spiritual presence and clothes. Think of a judge, for instance, in all those elegant robes. Would she or he have the same effect if s/he just came to court wearing a pair of jeans? Well maybe, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

There clearly is some kind of spiritual connection between clothes and a person. I don’t think the presence is in the clothes, themselves. But it seems that wearing certain garments can bring on or be accompanied with a definite spiritual mark. And that can, as today’s tweet says, give us confidence or make us feel good.

So when the Bible says “care not what you wear” (paraphrase from the New Testament) I have to wonder just where that was coming from. And if it is entirely relevant to making it today. Also, it seems that women had more prohibitions than men.

Why am I not surprised? — MC