| Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal
or investigating mysticism, and also one that provides a better insight into thewritings o the mystics themselves. Ater briefy setting out some o the prob-lems concerning the use o mystical experience, Part I o the essay will lay outthe basic structure o a Lonergan-inspired theory o mystical consciousness,while Part II will illustrate this theory through a short investigation o three o the most noted Western Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas o Cusa,and St. John o the Cross.
Some ProblemS wIth myStIcal exPerIence
For more than a century, books and articles have been devoted to the analysis o mystical experience. Although the qualier
was long used by Chris-tians, and the word
in relation to encountering God achieved impor-tance in the twelth century, “mystical experience,” to the best o my knowl-edge, was not an expression used by mystics or students o mysticism beore thenineteenth century. What we call mystical experience, the mystics themselves,ollowing Dionysius, oten called “mystical theology.” As Teresa o Avila put itin her
: “When picturing Christ in the way I have mentioned, . . . I usedunexpectedly to experience a consciousness o the presence o God o sucha kind that I could not possibly doubt that he was within me or that I wastotally enguled in him. This was in no sense a vision. I believe that it is calledmystical theology.”
Because many mystics, at least over the past eight centuries, have spokenabout their own “experience,” scholars have oten taken it or granted that thestudy o the mystical element in religion should take mystical experience as acentral category. But did the mystics understand
in the same way asmodern investigators? And is experience really a sel-evident term? In
Expe-rience and its Modes
(1933), the philosopher Michael Oakeshott issued thesober warning: “‘Experience,’ o all the words in the philosophic vocabulary,is the most dicult to manage; and it must be the ambition o every writerreckless enough to use the word to escape the ambiguities it contains.”
Alltoo many writers who treat mystical experience seem to take experience as anunproblematic word, one scarcely in need o analysis because everyone knowswhat it means. Many writers on mysticism use mystical experience as theequivalent o a special orm o eeling and/or perception, one that is commonacross all religions and that exists independently o the theological construc-tions in which the mystics try to present it to others.
From this perspective,the study o mysticism seeks to ree mysticism rom theology as an intellectualenterprise, something that would have puzzled St. Teresa and many othermystics, who insisted that they were creating
, that is, a true discourseabout God, even i not an academic one.