It was a fabulous idea for a discussion- "The Role of Mysticism in Reconstructionist Religions," and it's one of those talks which has really been sticking with me this last week. I'm glad that someone brought it up. They seem like two such different states of mind, two radically different approaches- and they are, and yet I would argue that both of them are essential for a functional spiritual life in most of the modern pagan or heathen reconstructionist faiths. Let me explain.
First, to define mysticism- this is not easy, and to my mind it was one of the most confusing parts of the panel; I don't think that all of the panelists were necessarily working from the same definition. To me, mysticism refers to an understanding of a divine entity which comes from something other than the canonically accepted written directives and mythology from Its tradition. I welcome your thoughts on this definition- especially as this essay is meant as an exploration into this subject rather than the definitive last word on it- but this is the understanding which I will be using of the subject throughout this entry.
As mentioned by one of the panelists, when one hears of Mysticism (with a capital M) it is usually framed within one of the Abrahamic religions- I suspect this is because those religions are so thoroughly Religions Of The Book that for them, a departure from the written scriptures is a really big deal. I think that the reason why one does not hear about Mysticism so much within the Pagan traditions is not because it is underdeveloped or overlooked here, I think it is rather because we often take it for granted in our culture. We don't have any single Book which is revered to the point of the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran, and so it is much more natural to us to go straight to the deity or spirit, have a personal encounter, and derive our own understanding of the religion from that. I have met some Pagans, in fact, who are so saturated in a Mystical communion with their deities that their understandings of Them are rooted in very little else; they sometimes have difficulty relating with the rest of the community, or even with articulating their beliefs to others. The more extreme among these people are often classified among the various types of "fluffy" Pagans, or described as being "out there," perhaps to the point of living in a fantasy world.
These days there is a growing tendency toward the reconstructionist religions- perhaps in part as a reaction to the aforementioned "Mystics." While none of us have, as yet, a Book of codified teachings, we do place a great deal of value on specific kinds of written resources. Archeology and academia are revered for the framework which they offer- a solid foundation of practices and their cultural context, from which we draw to build a bridge between ourselves and the gods Whom we wish to honor and from Whom we wish to learn. And yet there is a danger here, too- I have heard of Pagans who became so enmeshed in their books, footnotes, and cross-references that their spiritual lives were as dry as a desert dig site, with all the inspirational qualities of the dissertation upon which their ritual was based.
There is a crossroads here, a meeting of the ways. I propose that both experiences of the religion are vital- and present in many of our practices. The key is to be able to distinguish them from one another, and recognize each one's merits and limitations. From our research, we get a framework- a skeleton upon which to hang the flesh and blood of our personal experience. Without that enfleshment, a skeleton can not move- it can not live. But without a place to attach, a muscle can not move either- it can only lie quivering and pulsing on the floor, a weird and shapeless thing with limited biological viability. It is important to understand how each of us arrived at our current set of beliefs and values, and to communicate with one another about which of these two camps we are drawing from when we discuss our practices. It is especially important when we are discussing these subjects with people who are new to our path, because they do not know enough to make the distinction themselves. We will do them no favors if we allow them to base the framework of their spirituality on our mystical encounters, and it all comes crashing down around them if or when that personal, mystical experience doesn't hold up under the experiences which they are trying to hang on it. Nor will we be doing them any favors if we insist that every detail of their spiritual lives requires a stamp of approval from a PhD.
There will always be those who chose the flesh over the framework, and vice versa- and I am not one to argue with them, they must follow their own counsel. But in my view, in my practices, I see these two sides of approach as being indispensable. I am a Kemetic Reconstructionist, and I find strength and wisdom in the rich cultural heritage of ancient Egypt. I find a complexity of symbolism, layers of meaning, and an awesome intricacy of purpose in the cults of the gods- power in the words to be spoken which have been passed down over centuries, even millennia, of connection and use. I tend to lean heavily toward the reconstructionist side of things because I find great strength in it. However, I am also a child of the gods- having a personal relationship with and understanding of Them. I will do my best to distinguish between the gifts which both of these identities bestow upon me, to celebrate their differences and their strengths, and to avoid the misunderstandings which can threaten to devalue either one of them.