Mystical Experiences: Amplifying the Divine Silence 3/3

Divine Silence

. . . Divine silence might just be an expression of God’s preferred mode of interaction, and that we need not experience his silence as absence … if we live out our lives in the conviction that God is ever present with us, and if we seek something more like communion with God rather than just communication. [Michael Rea, Divine Hiddenness, Divine Silence].

Silencing our thoughts is not easy. Our intellect is always mumbling — muttering something, indistinctly yet loud enough to keeps us distracted, diverting us from the Divine. stress2

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “… whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, should speak what is good or keep silent.” [Sahih al-Bukhari].

Spiritual Monologues

Often we hear ourselves explaining to others what we, ourselves, don’t really understand. Even more disgraceful is our intellectual efforts to convince ourselves of what we really don’t believe.

A (person) may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent; that is, he says nothing that is not profitable. [Abba Poemen, 27].

Immersed in our spiritual monologues and self-centered introspection, we forget what inner silence sounds like. Even while acknowledging our inability to comprehend, we continue quoting ourselves and rewording our shallow worldviews.

There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence. [John Calvin].

Divine Language

Humans have convinced themselves that the rational mode of expression is the highest form of communication. We reason that God should express Himself in our language of reason and logic. We even demand that He be available for examination and submit to our academic interrogation.

Hence, do not utter falsehoods by letting your tongues determine [at your own discretion], “This is lawful and that is forbidden,” thus attributing your own lying inventions to God: for, behold, they who attribute their own lying inventions to God will never attain to a happy state! [Quran 16:116].

Prayer is not a conversation you can dominate or monopolize. We must come to God in submission as obedient servants, dedicated devotees and diligent students. The hallowed space we enter when we surrender our will to our Lord echoes the Divine silence.creek2

Words stand between silence and silence: between the silence of things and the silence of our own being, between the silence of the world and the silence of God. When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other men, nor from God, nor from ourselves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality.  [Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, p. 83].

Amplifying the Divine Silence

By silencing our thoughts, we amplify the Divine silence that calls us to spiritual attentiveness. Dissonant thoughts become infused with pious apprehension as we muffle our mind and quiet our desires.

There is hardly ever a complete silence in our soul. God is whispering to us well-nigh incessantly. Whenever the sounds of the world die out in the soul, or sink low, then we hear these whisperings of God. He is always whispering to us, only we do not always hear, because of the noise, hurry, and distraction which life causes as it rushes on. [Frederick W. Faber, Spiritual Conferences, p. 408].

In mystical terms, Divine silence does not refer to the absence of God’s presence, nor to a silent or hidden God. It describes a sacred state which we cultivate to amplify our spiritual consciousness.buddhist-monk2

Divine silence is the medium in which communion is possible, it is the liquid in which our soul swims, the vacuum in which our spirit orbits.

We know well enough how to keep outward silence, and to hush our spoken words, but we know little of interior silence. It consists in hushing our idle, restless, wandering imagination, in quieting the promptings of our worldly minds, and in suppressing the crowd of unprofitable thoughts which excite and disturb the soul. [François Fénelon, Selections from Fénelon, p. 107].

When St. John of the Cross explains that “the knowledge of God is received in divine silence,” [St. John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, #26], he is not referring to the absence a response from God. He is describing the condition that prevails during Divine communion.

The spirit needs to be so free and so completely annihilated that any thought or meditation which the soul in this state might desire, or any pleasure to which it may conceive an attachment, would impede and disturb it and would introduce noise into the deep silence which it is meet that the soul should observe so that it may hear the deep and delicate voice of God which speaks to the heart in this secret place. [St. John of the Cross, Living Flame of Love, Stanza 3].

Tuned In to Divine Silence

“Tuned in,” we respond to the signs of God by our conversion to Divine servitude, to holy obedience, to the natural order established by God and the essence of contemplative communion.Colorado fall

We need the prayers of words, yes; the words are the path to contemplation; but the deepest communion with God is beyond words, on the other side of silence. [Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water].

We have to listen carefully to hear the Divine silence. It is an intimate tranquility easily disturbed by the clamor of daily existence.

Immersed in Divine silence, we no longer hear clanging desires. Disengaged from profane phenomena, we are invited into the private chambers reserved for servants of God.

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, The Life of St. Teresa, p. 267].

Divine Frequency 

Through the Divine silence that prevails in our longing heart, anxious thoughts become still and we begin to hear in accordance with the amplitude, pulse and frequency of Divine communion.

Real prayer is communion with God, so that there will be common thoughts between His mind and ours. What is needed is for Him to fill our hearts with His thoughts, and then His desires will become our desires flowing back to Him. [A.W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God].

These mystical moments of Divine silence are beyond our comprehension. However, when they recur, each is uniquely recognizable by the Divine signature that authenticates their broadcast.

This involuntary nature of the mystical experience highlights our submission, requiring that God remain our only path to true perception.

[God has said] … when I love him [devotee], then I shall be his ears with which he listens, his eyes with which he sees, his tongue with which he speaks, and his hands with which he holds; if he calls Me, I shall answer him, and if he asks Me, I shall give him. [al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi].

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Mystical Experience: The Divine Presence 2/3

Divine Presence

So a man must be penetrated with the divine presence, and be shaped through and through with the shape of the God he loves, and be present in him, so that God’s presence may shine out to him without any effort. [Meister Eckhart].

The term “Divine Presence” is metaphorically Divine Presenceapplied to the manifestation of God in some place, or in some object, or within ourselves. It describes the sacredness of a place, (e.g., Mecca), the sanctity of an object (e.g., the Ark of the Covenant), or the overwhelming peace that at certain times fills the heart of a believer.

And God spoke thus:] “O Moses! Verily I alone am God, the Almighty, the Wise!” 27:10 [And then He said:] “Now throw down thy staff!” But when he saw it move rapidly, as if it were a serpent, he drew back [in terror], and did not [dare to] return. [And God spoke to him again:] O Moses! Fear not – for, behold, no fear need the message-bearers have in My Presence … [Quran 27:9-10].

“And the glory of the Lord abode” (Exod. xxiv. 16); “And I will dwell among the children of Israel” (Exod. xxix. 45); “And for the goodwill of him that dwelt in the bush” (Deut. xxxiii. 16). Whenever the term is applied to the Almighty, it must be taken consistently with the context in the sense either as referring to the Presence of His Shechinah (i.e., of His light that was created for the purpose) in a certain place, or of the continuance of His Providence protecting a certain object. [Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Ch. XXV].

… God bestowed from on high His [gift of] inner peace upon His Apostle and the believers, and bound them to the spirit of God-consciousness: for they were most worthy of this [divine gift], and deserved it well. And God has full knowledge of all things. [Quran 48:26].

Entering the Divine Presence

We are given little knowledge of how these mystical transmissions and inspired thoughts function. Nevertheless, what is important is that we can establish an intimate connection with this Divine Presence and that we can enter into sacred communion with God.

Enter then, enter, my daughters, into your interior; pass beyond the thought of your own petty works, which are no more, nor even as much, as Christians are bound to perform: let it suffice that you are God’s servants, do not pursue so much as to catch nothing. Think of the saints, who have entered the Divine Presence, and you will see the difference between them and ourselves. [St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, Ch 1.10].

Our initial contact with the Divine can be established by faithful worship, but how do we generate the spiritual energy that clearly perceives the Divine Presence?Prayer

For the sun meets not the springing bud that stretches towards him with half that certainty as God, the source of all good, communicates Himself to the soul that longs to partake of Him. [Selected Mystical Writings of William Law, p. 68].

How do we remove layers of secular interference distorting the Divine transmission? How do we purify ourselves to be able to receive such holy communion with the Divine Presence?

We pursue the sacred because a longing within us seeks to connect with and experience the Divine Presence. It is this impulse toward our Creator, often prompted by despair and grief, that ultimately produces change and corrects our lives.

The enfeeblement of my physical powers was such that the doctors, despairing of saving me, said, “The mischief is in the heart, and has communicated itself to the whole organism; there is no hope unless the cause of his grievous sadness be arrested.” Finally, conscious of my weakness and the prostration of my soul, I took refuge in God, as a man at the end of himself and without resources. “[Then God,] He who hears the wretched when they cry [Quran 27:63]” deigned to hear me. [Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, The Confessions of al-Ghazali].

We must recognize and welcome this impulse to seek refuge in God’s mercy and forgiveness. It is a spiritual urge, a Divine longing, that transforms the lustful into the faithful.deer-in-river2

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. [Psalm 42:1-2].

Communion with the Divine

Experiences have taught us that our receptivity to God is at its highest level when our emotions are passionately engaged. This happens when our feelings are painfully afflicted with fear, sorrow and suffering. “And when harm touches man, he invokes Us, lying on his side, or sitting or standing.” [Quran 10:12].

Communion with God is the one need of the soul beyond all other need: prayer is the beginning of that communion, and some need is the motive of that prayer … So begins a communion, a talking with God, a coming-to-one with Him, which is the sole end of prayer, yea, of existence itself in its infinite phases. [George Macdonald, “The Word of Jesus on Prayer”].

The Almighty Creator communicates with us in ways we do not fully comprehend. We can experience this communication as spiritual modulations, waves of inspiration that reach our deepest consciousness and produce the most sublime emotions.

After that thou shalt come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines; and it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a timbrel, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they will be prophesying. And the spirit of the LORD will come mightily upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man. [1 Samuel 10:5–6].

Without divinely inspired enthusiasm, intellectual efforts and religious observances are ineffective in satisfying our spiritual needs. Only the infinite and eternal mercy of God can transform us.

And if My servants ask thee about Me – behold, I am near; I respond to the call of him who calls, whenever he calls unto Me: let them, then, respond unto Me, and believe in Me, so that they might follow the right way. [Quran 2:186].


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Mystical Experience: The Scholars’ Perspective 1/3

Mystical Experience: Psychological and Philosophical Context

The term ‘mysticism,’ comes from the Greek μυω, meaning “to conceal.” In the Hellenistic world, ‘mystical’ referred to “secret” religious rituals. In early Christianity the term came to refer to “hidden” allegorical interpretations of Scriptures and to hidden presences, such as that of Jesus at the Eucharist. Only later did the term begin to denote “mystical theology,” that included direct experience of the divine … in general, ‘mysticism’ would best be thought of as a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions. [Gellman, Jerome, “Mysticism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy].

Mystical experiences are transcendent encounters with the Divine that, by definition, occur outside the normal course of human existence. They are subjectively reported to us by others, are not directly available to all and do not always take the same form.

The revealed and mystic literature of mankind bears ample testimony to the fact that religious experience has been too enduring and dominant in the history of mankind to be rejected as mere illusion. There seems to be no reason, then, to accept the normal level of human experience as fact and reject its other levels as mystical and emotional.” [Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction Of Religious Thought In Islam].

How do psychologists and philosophers describe the elements of a mystical experience? William-James2The summarized description below follows the four characteristics of mysticism set forth by Harvard University psychologist and philosopher, William James, in his 1902 classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature.

1. Ineffable — This characteristic defines the property of something that is inexpressible or incapable of description. Being indescribable and inexpressible, the mystical experience defies language and definition.

The contents of mystical experiences cannot be limited to words, for the state must be directly experienced and cannot be shared, only described and reported.

By means of this contemplation of heavenly forms and images they rise by degrees to heights which human language cannot reach, which one cannot even indicate without falling into great and inevitable errors. The degree of proximity to Deity which they attain is regarded by some as intermixture of being (haloul), by others as identification (ittihad), by others as intimate union (wasl). But all these expressions are wrong . . . Those who have reached that stage should confine themselves to repeating the verse — “What I experience I shall not try to say; Call me happy, but ask me no more.” [Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, The Confessions of al-Ghazali].

If we can, by God’s grace, turn ourselves entirely to Him, and put aside everything else in order to speak with Him and worship Him, this does not mean that we can always imagine Him or feel His presence. Neither imagination nor feeling are required for a full conversion of our whole being to God. Nor is intense concentration on an idea of God especially desirable. Hard as it is to convey in human language, there is a very real and very recognizable (but almost entirely undefinable) Presence of God, in which we confront Him in prayer knowing Him by Whom we are known, aware of Him Who is aware of us, loving Him by Whom we know ourselves to be loved. [Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude].

. . . 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].

2. Noetic — From the Greek noēsis / noētikos, noetic refers to inner wisdom, direct knowing, or subjective understanding. This characteristic relates to the rational and intellectual aspects of the mystical experience. Though indescribable and undefined,brain_2 mystical experiences provide significant and important knowledge.

Mystical experiences impart a prolonged sense of certainty and authority base on a relationship to the Divine. Despite being inarticulate, they are significant and importance, offering insight and illumination to the mind.

. . . in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with it that transcends all being and all knowledge. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of yourself and of all things you may be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the super-essential Radiance of the Divine Darkness. [Mystical Theology, Dionysius the Areopagite].

There is no doubt that great insights and revelations are profoundly felt in mystic or peak-experiences, and certainly some of these are, ipso facto, intrinsically valid as experiences. That is, one can and does learn from such experiences that, e.g., joy, ecstasy, and rapture do in fact exist and that they are in principle available for the experiencer, even if they never have been before. Thus the peaker learns surely and certainly that life can be worthwhile, that it can be beautiful and valuable. There are ends in life, i.e., experiences which are so precious in themselves as to prove that not everything is a means to some end other than itself.  [Abraham Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences].

All that I put down in my books is not the result of thinking or discursive reasoning. It is communicated to me through the breathing of the angel of revelation in my heart. All that I have written and what I am writing now is dictated to me through the breathing of the divine spirit into my spirit. This is my privilege as an heir not as an independent source; for the breathing of the spirit is a degree lower than the verbal inspiration. [Ibn ‘Arabi].

3. Transient — A mystical experience is rarely sustainable for long periods. However, though the experience is temporary and its memory my fade with time, a permanent mark remains. The individual that returns from a mystical nurexperience to a “normal” frame of mind is never the same person.

Moreover, mystical experiences are uniquely recognizable upon recurrence and can increase in their profound richness and importance.

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].

A believer longs after God – to come into His presence – to feel His love – to feel near to Him in secret – to feel in the crowd that he is nearer than all the creatures. Ah! dear brethren, have you ever tasted this blessedness? There is greater rest and solace to be found in the presence of God for one hour, than in an eternity of the presence of man. [Robert Murray M’Cheyne].

If ye keep watch over your hearts, and listen for the Voice of God and learn of Him, in one short hour ye can learn more from Him than ye could learn from Man in a thousand years. [John Tauler, The Inner Way, Sermon XV].

4. Passive —The oncoming of a mystical experience may be facilitated by prescribed techniques that aim at sublimation of the inner life. However, mystical experiences are rarely considered the result of physical effort or ascetic endeavors.Rumi2

In any event, once the mystical experience sets in, the mystic feels helpless, as if under a superior power.

And some are led into the state of complete obedience by this well-nigh passive route, wherein God alone seems to be the actor and we seem to be wholly acted upon. And our wills are melted and dissolved and made pliant, being firmly fixed in Him, and He wills in us. [Thomas R. Kelly, Holy Obedience].

You ask then how I knew He was present, when His ways can in no way be traced? He is life and power, and as soon as He enters in, He awakens my slumbering soul; He stirs and soothes and pierces my heart, for before it was hard as stone, and diseased. [Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 74].

When the soul has attained the experiential stage it will have achieved the condition of self-annihilation (fana) and will be able to perceive visually and experientially the unity of all things, the Creator and His creation, the visible and the invisible, the eternal and the temporal. Ibn ‘Arabi in Fakhry, A Short Introduction to Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Mysticism, p. 82.


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