To return to the original question of “Which Way is Up?”, this really seems quite relative. Think about it. We live on a sphere so up at the North Pole is always down at the South Pole. Not too tricky to understand this. Up and down are relative to one’s position on the globe.
But perhaps there’s another kind of “up” and “down” that isn’t relative. This kind of up and down derives not from geography, subatomic physics or abstract intellectual speculation. Rather, it comes from a very old source, that being mysticism.
By ‘mysticism’ I’m not talking about charlatans charging anywhere from 20 to 200 dollars for some trumped up ‘reading.’ I’m talking about sincere, sane and scrupulously self-critical individuals who claim to have analyzed different inner experiences which they believe are from God and, in some instances, the devil.
Pretty much across the board we find mystics talking about levels of consciousness from low to high. We hear about a hell, an underworld and also about heaven. This isn’t just something passed on in some fuzzy oral tradition. Mystics often write. And many have written carefully about their experiences. The reason this isn’t too well known is probably because not too many people are mystics and thus have little concern with the subject matter. It seems most people busy themselves with making a living, getting a date or planning where they’ll take the family for the holidays.
That’s all very nice and necessary. But I believe the world also needs genuine mystics to help maintain humanity’s spiritual balance. Through their contemplative prayer of intercession (or with some Shamans, more active forms of guidance) mystics from various world traditions usually say they help to prevent the less spiritually aware from taking wrong turns and thereby sinking even deeper into a state of spiritual ignorance. Mystics are subtle guides in the service of and answerable to God, so they say, assisting seekers and the lost through a wilderness of ignorance, delusion and sin.
These otherworldly guides usually don’t claim to be perfected souls. In facing the challenges of living in a world peopled with the full range of humanity, they’re given ample opportunity to reflect and improve on their own imperfections. True, some spiritual teachers claim to be perfectly enlightened and without error. But these, I think, are the cult leaders and crackpots who should be avoided at all costs.
Genuine mystics may own less things and seem to be relatively inactive to worldly folk. But this kind of judgment is made by those not having access to the genuine mystic’s inner experience and is probably severely flawed. Just think how the Christian saints suffered at the hands of imbeciles and incompetents who couldn’t begin to grasp their import. St. Joan of Arc, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Faustina Kowalska, to mention some of my favorite figures–they all suffered dearly in their own unique way and for the greater glory of God.
But this blog isn’t going to focus on saintly suffering. Instead, it’s about how contemplative mystics, and not only within Christianity, use the terms “up” and “down” to describe their inner experiences. Up is generally associated with ideas like “more loving and pure,” “sweeter graces,” “greater joy,” “brighter” and “closer to God, saints and angels in heaven,” whereas down generally denotes, “more hateful and impure,” “intolerable pain,” “greater torment,” “darker” or “closer to Satan, devils and souls in hell.” In other words, the words up and down connote the quality of the mystic’s inner experience. The poet Milton alludes to this kind of experiential distinction. Here we find the master devil, Satan, lamenting his loss after being cast out of heaven and plummeting down to hell.
Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light?
-John Milton, Paradise Lost
This passage illustrates a possible answer to the riddle of “Which Way is Up?” While we may not find answers from subatomic physics or contemporary philosophy, the legacy of the great saints and mystics seems to show the way.
Genuine mystics live in the world of matter/energy (or the “field”) but their lives are dedicated to so much more. For a mystic being ‘up’ isn’t just about enjoying a tasty meal, cheering at a sports stadium or having a fabulous night at the opera. Those are but passing pleasures for the mystic, soon to recede as mere shadows when compared to the bright light and pure love of God. The only thing that truly lasts, they say, is the lovelight of God and, for the unwise, the wrath and darkness of Satan.
Thus the truest sense of ‘up’ and ‘down’ is arguably based on the quality of one’s relationship with God. And while mystics may, indeed, help those seeking or stumbling through a spiritual wilderness, it’s ultimately up to us to make the right ethical choices that would, we hope and trust, lift us ‘up’ instead of drag us ‘down.’
THIS BLOG IS PART OF A SERIES: