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How do we speak of the unspeakable? What do we say about the unsayable? How can words and language help communicate our thoughts about things beyond thought?
The transcendent longing for the divine is timeless – it has no beginning and no end. We will never know God in this life, but we can fill our lives with the love of our Creator and the ceaseless search for this knowledge, as Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote: “I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee.”
This opening line of the short daily prayer is an encouragement, a mandate, an aspiration, a program, and a directional goal for everything that moves us spiritually as individuals and in community.
We may not reach the goal – the knowledge of God – until our earthly life inevitably changes into a second, divine life. This is how the mysticism of the Islamic Sufi describes it. Even more so, as all the mystical traditions put it: this transition is our becoming annihilated and our becoming one with the Godhead.
In Western thought and language, we always want to imagine a before and after, a cause and its subsequent effect. The Judeo-Christian scriptures speak of this duality in terms of the creation and the Creator, or one could also say of being and its primordial cause. Especially since the French thinker Descartes, there has been much talk in Western philosophy of a fundamental dualism, an opposition or duality between two poles, the spiritual-mental and the physical-material. The dichotomy of these terms seemed to make it easier to explain empirical reality, that is, what we experience in everyday life, in terms of such a vivid polar duality.
In personal prayer, humanity has addressed the numinous Ur-ground, our Creator, with a trusting “Thou” since time immemorial anyway. Mysticism wants to show us that we can think of reality also in a different way – namely as a truly spiritual participation, a unifying connectedness of all earthly with the one divine being.
The word “mystic” initially came from its root word Myo in Greek, which means “to close the eyes” – making mystikos the mysterious on the way to knowledge. Here sensual-material impressions are less important than holistic, non-material moments of experience.
In each cultural period, everywhere on our boundless little world, there have been mystics on this seeker’s path, whether in the Christian Occident or the Hindu world, whether in the Islamic Sufi or the East Asian Buddhist tradition. The Indian Vedanta school of thought revolves around the concept of Advaita, literally the non-duality, according to which the highest finding can only be that there is no duality, but only one reality. Meister Eckhart, the eminent mystic in the Christian Middle Ages, formulated this concept of oneness in the final verse of his poem “The Mustard Seed:”
If I flee from you, you will come to me.
If I lose myself, I will find you,
O supersubstantial good! (translation by the author)
For Eckhart, the “soul ground” is not created by God like everything else – but instead is divine and uncreated. In the soul ground the Godhead is always directly present. Such statements brought Eckhart an inquisition trial, and only his natural death saved him from an unnatural one by execution.
About a thousand years before Meister Eckhart, the Greek philosopher Plotinus, who lived in Alexandria, now Egypt, and Campania, now Southern Italy, dealt with the idea of unity. Starting from the transcendent and essentially divine world of the ideas of Plato, he names the “One” as the basic principle of all reality. His striving was aimed at the approach to this “One” up to the experience of our union with it.
Baha’u’llah was intensively engaged in mysticism, especially in the early period of his mission. He specifically sought retreat in the world of the Sufis in the Kurdish mountains at a time when he felt the vocation to be a messenger of God ever more strongly, and even before he publicly announced his station. This remarkable experience became formative for many of his texts, with which he laid the foundation for Baha’i mysticism, as in this passage from his mystical book The Hidden Words: “… Ascend unto My heaven, that thou mayest obtain the joy of reunion, and from the chalice of imperishable glory quaff the peerless wine.”
This kind of figurative language closely associated with spiritual concepts is characteristic of mystical expression. The comprehensible seeks to bring us closer to the incomprehensible. Reason will certainly not be able to provide us any final help in our search for this level of knowledge. Obviously, there is no physical “heaven” to ascend to, nor can reason ever conceptually explain an “imperishable glory.” Here, we go beyond the bounds of reason and venture into the world of pure spiritual significance.
Let us dare, then, to walk an un-reasonable path, a path beyond the reach of logic and duality, such as mysticism shows us. Let us dare to enter an unrealistic-imaginative world of thoughts, where words as bare tools of language open undreamt-of fields of meaning to us via images and metaphors. On this plane of understanding, ideas like the “reunion with God” become easier to perceive and imagine.
This article first appeared on the German language Baha’i-inspired site Perspektivenwechsel-Blog.