When we have stripped off those features which some mystics accept and others reject … what do we find as the necessary, abiding and essential character of all true mystical experience? … [T]he central fact of the mystic’s experience … is an overwhelming consciousness of God, and of his own soul: a consciousness which absorbs or eclipses all other centres of interest. [Evelyn Underhill, The Essentials of Mysticism].
We manifest the mentality of an addict when it comes to such things as eating, sleeping, warmth, love, etc. We have to get a dose or we are at a loss. Our compulsive desire for survival depends on satisfying these basic life functions.
Such addictions come as part of a mortal existence. We accept them as natural components of life. Of course, we distinguish such healthy needs from abusive dependence on narcotics and from destructive habits.
A mystical experience is a moment in the life when the emotion of Divine awareness peaks. A single experience can provide such joy that the soul is forever addicted to its delights.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man —whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows — was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. [2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (NIV)].
Spiritual addiction to a transcendent reality, to breaking forth from earthly existence into a relationship with the Divine, is also a natural component of life, as natural as our need for air.
The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. [St. Teresa of Ávila].
Understanding the Unseen
Though the mystical experience may be enjoyed while wholly conscious, rational understanding is not within reach. Such moments are immune to intellectual scrutiny.
Yet the amazing experiences of the mystics leave a permanent residue, a God-subdued, a God-possessed will. States of consciousness are fluctuating. The vision fades. But holy and listening and alert obedience remains, as the core and kernel of a God-intoxicated life, as the abiding pattern of sober, workaday living. [Thomas R. Kelly, Holy Obedience].
As natural events occurring within the normal course of existence, mystical experiences are beyond our control. They are not subject to willful repetition. No experimental procedures can verify them. The very nature of a mystical experience depends on extraordinary circumstances, far beyond artificial contrivance.
Hence that dread and amazement with which as Scripture uniformly relates holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God. Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance until they have. [John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ch.1.3].
The descriptions of mystical experiences are as varied as our personal conditions and needs. We cannot share our ecstatic moments, even when in the company of others having the same mystical experience. When we are thirsty, no one can drink for us, nor can anyone else appreciate the satisfaction of quenching our thirst.
The very pure spirit does not bother about the regard of others or human respect, but communes inwardly with God, alone and in solitude as to all forms, and with delightful tranquility, for the knowledge of God is received in divine silence. [St. John of the Cross].
A mystical experience cannot be easily characterized. Each religion surrounds transcendence, encounters with other realities, union with the Divine, and similar phenomena, with esoteric symbolism that describes but does define or explain. Their common thread is the intoxicating quality they possess.
. . . his soul was caught up in ecstasy, whether in the body or out of the body, and he saw and heard what no tongue can tell. It was without form or mode, and yet it contained within itself the entrancing delightfulness of all forms and modes. His heart was athirst, and yet satisfied; his mind was joyous and blooming; wishes were stilled in him, and desires had departed. He did but gaze fixedly on the dazzling effulgence, in which he found oblivion of himself and all things. [Henry Suso].
Many moments of mystical experience may come, but each is uniquely different. They are subjective and are not available to all in the same form.
The involuntary nature of the mystical experience further underscores our inadequacy before the Divine. All one can do is pray that God again bestows this gift. This reinforces our submission and reminds us that only God’s mercy and beneficence can fulfill our yearning.
Let thy desire be the vision of God, thy fear the loss of Him, thy sorrow His absence, and thy joy in that which may take thee to Him; and thy life shall be in great peace. [St. Teresa of Avila].
Our spiritual addiction can become one of fear and of hope, reflecting a binary worship of thanking and repenting. Our hunger is satisfied only when our longing finds rest in Divine communion.
The person of the gnostic (‘arif) is with the people, while his heart is with Allah [God]. If his heart were to forget Allah [God]for the time it takes to blink an eye, he would die of yearning for Him … He has no intimate except Allah [God], nor any speech, gesture or breath except by Allah [God], with Allah [God], and from Allah, for he frequents the garden of His sanctity and is enriched by His subtlest favours to him … [Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, Lantern of the Path, Section 91 Gnosis (ma ‘rifah)].