Where have all the mystics gone?
Charlie Brooker on existential angst | Comment is free | The Guardian: "Occasionally, late at night, while trying to sleep and failing...I'm aware of my entire body, the entire world, and the whole of reality itself. It's like waking from a dream, or a light going on, or a giant 'YOU ARE HERE' sign appearing in the sky. The mere fact that I'm actually real and actually breathing suddenly hits me in the head with a thwack. It leaves me giddy. It causes a brief surge of clammy, bubbling anxiety, like the opening stages of a panic attack. The moment soon passes, but while it lasts it's strangely terrifying. I asked around and discovered to my that relief I'm not the only one. Many of my friends have experienced something similar and have been equally spooked."
So far there are 166 comments on this piece, many by people describing various sorts of extraordinary experiences. Most don't have the language to describe their experiences and can't make sense of them. A few talk about existential angst. Not a one even suggests that these are the sorts of experiences which religious believers understand in religious terms.
Habitues on the Guardian's Comment is Free board have certainly heard of religion. Most are agin' it and threads on a number of topics are full of witticisms about flying spaghetti monsters and sky pixies. I should have expected at least a few derogatory remarks to the effect that some people in the bad old days might have described that sense of thrill and panic as the experience of the Mysterium Tremendum ("but of course we know better") or gone off on rants about how evil priests latched onto these experiences to persuade the gullible peasantry that the flying spaghetti monster was out to get them. But no one who's commented so far even seems to have made the connection between experiences like this and religious belief or practice.
What is depressing is not that these people are not religious believers or even that many are actively hostile to religious belief and practice, but that it simply doesn't occur to them that religion has, or ever had, any connection to such spooky, uncanny, scary or thrilling experiences. And that is the fault of the Church--the utter failure to get it across that enabling people to get these experiences and providing the language to describe them is part of the package, in fact (I believe) the most important part of the package.
Looking at the Church as it is it's no wonder that people don't get it. Look, and what do you see: a jolly little show, clean and boring, where people chat and shake hands, kiddies process in with their crafts projects, there's some singing, and an address in which the priest rehearses some old folk tales and tells people to be nice. What are they getting out of it? They go there to meet like-minded people: dull, puritanical people whose chief interest in life is stopping other people from having fun. But why would anyone want to go to such a thing in the first place? It would be like going to an exceptionally dull awards ceremony every week.
It's detestable: the Church turned itself into this, because it was embarrassed about metaphysics and imagined that this is the sort of crap people wanted. Christianity is a mystery religion--the mystery cult that happened to beat out Mithras and even more remarkably Isis. By its very origin, nature and essence it is supposed to be doing is delivering ecstatic mystical experiences and promising an eternity of the same for initiates. Around that there is a picturesque myth suitable for iconography. That is a mystery religion. The Church repudiated that, out of embarrassment and in the interests of pandering to a secular clientele. Of course they wouldn't really want that--they really want "community," the opportunity to feel useful, consolation, busywork...
And it was so unnecessary. If what they thought was that people wanted social contact and various other secular goods they could have simply done these things outside of the service. But they couldn't leave it at that. They extracted every bit of the numinous that they could squeeze out of the liturgy.