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Mysticism & Space

Our challenge is to show that human beings are truly involved in activities that transcend the restrictions of space, time, and matter, that we do accomplish things that are spiritual, and that therefore we are spiritual as well as material beings.—Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, Soul and the Transcendence of the Human Person

“The concept of mysticism,” the author of Mysticism and Space, Carmel Bendon Davis, warns us “is not straightforward.” Consequently, Davis provides the essential meaning of the word in her seminal study: Christian mysticism is the product of pseudo-Dionysius whose work, Theologia Mystica, perceives mysticism as the secret knowledge of God, a definition pregnant with the possibility of Gnostic distortions. That the author is not derailed because of the Gnostic possibilities indicates that her work is neither eristic nor philodoxical, but rather an example of existential consciousness analyzing the revelatory process.

Further, Davis, in quoting the scholar David Knowles, does the great service of noting that “(M)ystical theology is thus distinguished from what is called natural theology and from dogmatic and speculative theology.”

The author has touched upon a dilemma facing Christianity identified by the mystical philosopher, Eric Voegelin, in his essay, “The Gospel and Culture”,

In the historical drama of revelation, the Unknown god ultimately becomes the God known through his presence in Christ. This drama, though it has been alive in the consciousness of the New Testament writers, is far from alive in the Christianity of the churches today, for the history of Christianity is characterized by what is commonly called the separation of school theology from mystical or experiential theology which formed an apparently inseparable unit still in the work of Origen.

The challenge confronting the church is not how to adapt various philosophical and theological distortions to orthodoxy but rather to render the epiphany of Jesus Christ as experientially “alive in the consciousness” of modern man. Davis’s book is an effort to address this crisis by means of an erudite analysis of the noetic, pneumatic, and spatial components occurring in human time and divine timelessness.

The academic debate encompassing mystical or “meditative” and “contemplative” experience exists in the tension between the poles of the “socially constructed phenomenon,” and “the authentic experiences that they represent,” where the latter represents a “closed existence” and the former an “open existence” in the question of non-existent realities.

One of Davis’s unique contributions is her application of the concept of space, a response to Michel Foucault, that explicates the “multiple levels” of the mystic’s “physical and social environment, as well as their individual mystical experiences and the elaboration of those experiences in textual form.” Here, in a rather significant example of a pneumatic irruption, Davis applies the French literary device, mise en abime, to the mystical experience as “successive, perhaps concentric, layers of space as analogous to the various strata of experience that are constitutive of mystical space.” The mise en abime, reconceptualized by the author to apply to the problem of mystical space, then acts to explicate God as intrinsic to the human psyche, the noetic pull phenomenon experienced in the tension of existence, as well as “the image of God as the container of all humanity…”

The exegetical brilliance of Davis’s work incorporates elements of Henri Lefebvre’s theory of space including his discussion of social space as inclusive of spatial practice, representations of space, and representational spaces; Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus, the unconscious “understanding of the way in which societal structures predispose societal members…toward certain social practices;” Foucault’s heterotopias, which are places “outside of all place, even though it might be possible to indicate their location in reality…a sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of space in which we live;” and Mikail Bkhtin’s grotesquerealism which formulates the concept of “the fruitful earth and womb. It is always conceiving,” though the author is utilizing the reversal of this theme in reference to the mystical life. All of these concepts, then, are utilized in “decrypting” the texts of three mystics of the fourteenth century: Richard Rolle, the Cloud author, and Julian of Norwich.

The work is further differentiated by penetrating examinations of physical space and cosmology, the “ways in which the mystics valued their society,” the textual insights that illustrate God as inherent within the psyche/soul and “the containment of humanity within God,” and finally, the “individual mystical spaces” of the three medieval contemplatives.

Mysticism and Space is then a brilliant apologetics for a largely ignored, mystical Christianity richly imbued and bolstered with the primary experiences of the medieval contemplatives. It is a work that answers the deformations inherent in the Hegelian synthesis responsible for the second realities of the postmodern age, explores the nature and structure of the metaleptic event, and successfully recovers the symbols of the tension of existence that are translucent within the reality experienced in the drama of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the epilogue, the author tells her readers that “the texts point beyond time and history to an experience that is beyond material containment,” which correlates with Voegelin’s comment in his essay, “Immortality”, that “Man, while existing in time, experiences himself as participating in the timeless.” Davis’s contribution is her remarkable exegesis of the nature and effects of spatiality within the metaleptic event, where being exists in existential philia, and where “the openness of existence is raised to consciousness.”

Mysticism and Space is a remarkably illuminating book that illustrates the need for the Christian church to return to an existential theology that recognizes “the mystery of divine presence in existence.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This article originally appeared on Metapsychology Online Reviews and is reprinted with the gracious permission of the author.

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7 replies to this post
  1. This book sounds like a good companion to Eliot. Julian of Norwich is of course famously quoted in Little Gidding….

  2. I think one of the greatest tragedies of modernity is the loss of gnosis in the Christian tradition. All too often, gnosis is demonized as the handmaiden of heretical gnosticism. They are not equivalent terms. The reigning worldview of the contemporary age, scientific materialism, is the root cause of a tremendous spiritual hunger felt in the world, particularly in the West. And unfortunately, many people conclude that Christianity is not the place to go to fill this spiritual void. The desire for numinous experience is simply sought out elsewhere, in the New Age, Buddhism, and other religious traditions. What is ironic about this is that Christianity was, in its origin, a mysticism universalized, called upon to save a civilization. Perhaps, it can do it again.

  3. For Mr. Huber, the author, Dr. Davis, provides and intriguing definition of ‘space.’ “Through the ages, space has been broadly understood as being either (or both) a receptacle for things or an attribute of the things contained.” Her book expands greatly on this definition and, I believe, you would find it of interest.
    Mr. Cassiodorus, I eagerly await your essay on ‘gnosis’ (the good kind, not the bad), and I quite agree with your analysis concerning the loss of meaning in Christianity coinciding with the loss of the mystical. Re: “Gnosticism”, I’m beginning to believe that since it represents, what Voegelin refers to as a generic “state of alienation from reality”, and infects ideologies in general and in various ways it, that Gnosticism is grounded on evil.
    Mark, this book is an excellent source to begin the process of recapturing what “Cassiodorus” indicates we’ve lost. And, I believe he’s right.
    Thantks, Peter, for the kind words.

  4. Cheeks,

    I don’t know if you’ll get an essay out of me, but here is a brief answer to your comment. Gnosis, broadly understood, refers to spiritual “knowledge” or “insight” or “intuition”- religious experience or sense of the sacred. In this sense, gnosis is the heart of religion. Gnosticism, on the other hand., points to the dualistic heretical mythologies of late antiquity. It is true that gnosis was central to the “gnostic” perspective (and these groups were certainly by no means homogeneous), but they clashed with Orthodoxy in their metaphysics and their theology.

    With regards to Voeglin, I have nothing but respect for this towering intellectual figure. Nevertheless, I think he used the word “gnostic” in a much too elastic way and (seemingly) forever maligned those who claim gnosis. The Church Fathers often talked about a “false gnosis”- there can be doubt that they had a true gnosis in mind by way of comparison. I suppose one can talk about orthodox and unorthodox mystical theology.

    My prior post was inspired by the all too common statement that one hears today that religion is about “belief ” whereas spirituality is about ” experience”. Unfortunately, many people (as I had said) have concluded that Christianity is only or predominantly about the former. And this is the case because I think the Tradition has lost its fundamentally “gnostic” or mystical character.

  5. Mr. C., I’ve been “Cheeks” all my life. Re: your analysis of gnosticism, I agree in toto and hope you might expand the points made here in a broader essay. Re: Voegelin, I was impressed that he would publicly announce his error re: Gnosticsm but that ‘search for order and knowledge’ was what he was about. When I read his account I agreed with him. Now, however, as I grow older, I’m not so sure that ‘gnosticsm’ isn’t the ground for the rebellion against God. I should like to differentiate that a bit and maybe an essay???

    This from my old college roommate. Forgive me for not listing his name but following his work with the “X-Files” he went on to work on state-secret projects at the Argonne Nat’l Labs in Illinois.He’s a very bright fellow, and a Kingston Trio fan. Here are his preliminary comments:

    “Good morning Bob. Just book marked your article. Up early at Starbucks killing time before today’s service. Have not read it yet but I believe the basic premise is we are more than just physical beings in a mufti-dimensional construct of space-time. (Many more dimensions than the usual 4 give the state of particle physics). One of the most intriguing aspects of quantum mechanics is entanglement. This is evidenced by simultaneously creating two particles with (for example) opposite states. No matter how far they travel apart changing the state of one particle from “1” to “0” (just using symbols) automatically and instantly changes the state of the other particle so the balance remains, e.g. opposite states. Since the change cannot be communicated via energy (speed of light limitation) something else is happening that is part of the fabric of the universe. Even particles (condensed energy / matter to be precise) are part of something bigger than themselves, more than just the sum of the part so to speak. Have a great Sunday.”

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