Schleiermacher: “Study yourselves with unswerving attention, put aside all that is not self, proceed with the sense ever more closely directed to the purely inward. The more you pass by all foreign elements, making your personality appear diminished almost to the vanishing point, the clearer the Universe stands before you, and the more gloriously the terror of annihilating the fleeting is rewarded by the feeling of the eternal.”
Taking the images of religious art and mythology at face value – and we should include the more abstract images of theology as well – promotes the misunderstanding that the ultimate object of religion is, well, an object. Something out there, over there, up there. It’s important to remember that all these artistic images, sacred stories, and more heady conceptions of what we call God have been produced out of our creative imagination, not “caught on tape” or encountered just so.
A favorite metaphor of mystics worldwide and across the ages for the “ultimate concern” of human spirituality is ground, or the ground of being. As with all metaphors, this one can be misunderstood if we take it literally, as referring only to something outside and beneath us. It is beneath us, but only metaphorically, as the deeper support and primal source of our existence itself.
You won’t find this ground separate from yourself, except as shining through and indirectly represented in the countless forms round about. From a mystical vantage-point, all things exist only as embodiments of the one ground. As thus lit up from within, as it were, the entire universe is a turning mystery of epiphany.
But many religious people don’t see things from a mystical vantage-point. Instead they are metaphysical realists and mythological literalists, convinced that their god is really just as the stories depict him/her. Scholarly studies take off from this point and seek to examine and explain the nature of god in big words and thick volumes of systematic theology. As most true believers don’t have the time or patience to wade through this complicated web of arguments, they simply accept the assumptions and profess the conclusions as their own articles of faith.
My personal experience while an ordained pastor in Christian ministry revealed time and again how suspicious orthodox religion is of a mystical spirituality. Mystics tend to hold on loosely to the doctrines of theology, insisting that the real mystery of presence is not something that can be boxed up and codified, or even labeled except with metaphors drawn from our everyday experience.
As we might expect, this reluctance to even speak of the mystery, let alone their persistent suspicion of any attempt to reduce it to doctrines, has resulted in mystics being unwelcome in most churches and frequently persecuted by the custodians of orthodoxy.
In an attempt to put mystics on the defensive, true believers will occasionally accuse them of being fixated on themselves – with all this “study yourselves with unswerving attention.” Proper piety, they insist, must be self-negating, even self-reproachful. Self – and they really mean ego in this sense – is the enemy of god, the ultimate damnable distraction that keeps us from devoted attention to the proper object of our worship. By turning inward, mystics are guilty of sin; and their guilt is multiplied to the degree that they successfully seduce others to their path.
Fundamentalism in religion betrays itself by the nervous insecurity, narrow-mindedness, and propensity for violence that eventually show up in its business. Out of allegiance to the tribe and for the promise of a heavenly reward, true believers across the religions have willingly – even earnestly – committed violence against other human beings, against nature, and against themselves. Ironically they end up behaving in ways that utterly contradict their founder’s teachings, and then justify themselves in his/her name!
The true mystical path does not involve self-infatuation. In fact, obsession with ego identity and personal destiny is typically an outstanding feature of religious orthodoxy, not mysticism. I need to fit in. I need to be right. I need my reward. I need to live forever.
In order to directly experience the ground of being, you must release your hold on concerns of identity. As nothing more than a construct of social conventions, ego is not what you are but only who you are as conditioned and defined by your tribe. What you are is much deeper. It’s your authentic self, the being that you are, rather than your constructed self, the roles that you play. Letting go is often described by mystics as stepping out of the costumes and slipping off the masks that hold your place in society.
The self that is left after all this disrobing is not some metaphysical and immortal soul, but simply you, right now, as you really are. Real presence.
Because ego looks out through filters, your grasp on reality is superficial and highly selective. As you “pass by all foreign elements” – all the add-ons and attachments that qualify who you are – your experience of reality is increasingly direct, singular, and unified. This is what Schleiermacher means by “universe”: the single turning mystery of being in which your existence is rooted.
Inward contemplation is not about gazing upon your true self or reveling in your indestructible nature, but rather sinking past yourself altogether, into a inner space where all is one. Not a jigsaw of oneness but pure and essential oneness. Without specific content yet containing all there is. Obviously descriptive words and word-heavy theories won’t stick to this mystery, so it’s best to remain quiet and just be there.
And this – letting go and finding your ground, sinking past all your titles and achievements, all your honor and shame, past your first word and your last defense – this is faith.