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Experiential Knowledge

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


Experiential Knowledge
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The most unfortunate thing about the concept of mysticism is that the word itself has become mystified and relegated to a “misty” and distant realm that implies it is only available to a very few. For me, the word simply means experiential knowledge of spiritual things, as opposed to book knowledge, secondhand knowledge, seminary or church knowledge.

Most of organized religion has actually discouraged us from taking the mystical path by telling us almost exclusively to trust outer authority (Scripture, Tradition, or various kinds of experts) instead of telling us the value and importance of inner experience itself. In fact, most of us were strongly warned against ever trusting ourselves. Roman Catholics were told to trust the church hierarchy first and last, while Protestants were often warned that inner experience was dangerous, unscriptural, or even unnecessary. Some Evangelicals actually call any non-noisy prayer “diabolical.” Talk about fear of the soul!

These were ways of discouraging actual experience of God and created passive (and often passive aggressive) people. Sadly, many people concluded there was no God to be experienced. We were taught to mistrust our own souls—and thus the Holy Spirit! Contrast this with Jesus’ common phrase, “Go in peace, your faith has made you whole” (see, for example, Luke 7:50). He said this to people who had made no dogmatic affirmations, did not think he was “God,” did not pass any moral checklist, and often did not belong to the “correct” group. They simply trustfully affirmed, with open hearts, the grace of their own hungry experience—in that moment—and believed that God could care about it! This is really quite amazing.

Pentecostals and charismatics are a significant modern-era exception to this avoidance of experience; I believe their “baptism in the Spirit” is a true and valid example of initial mystical encounter. The only things they often lack, which keeps them from maturity, are some good theology, developmental psychology, and social concerns to keep their feet in this incarnate world. Without these, their ego-inflating experiences have frequently led to superficial and falsely conservative theology and right-wing politics. (By “false conservativism” I am referring to the lazy default position which so many people rely upon because they don’t seriously study Scripture and Tradition.) But the core value and transformative truth of initial God experience is still there, right beneath the surface, in many people who were “baptized in both fire and Spirit,” which is Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:11b) as distinguished from John’s mere water baptism. If we would be honest, many Christians belong to the ritual and moral religion of John more than the fire religion of Jesus, which is based in living experience.

Gateway to Silence:
Awaken me to Love this day.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 1-3.

Image credit: Stigmatizzazionedi San Francesco (fresco detail), 1297-1300, Legend of St. Francis, Giotto di Bondone, Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy.
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