The Way of the Mystic

By Roy Hanu Hart, M.D., aka Doctor Faith on October 29, 2010

Recently, I found myself absorbed in reading Father Benedict Groeschel’s Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development (Crosswell Publishing Co., New York, 1983, 210 pp., paperback). Given my interest in the life of the mystic, I thought I would jot down some thoughts about entering into the mystic’s world. 
First off, it should be noted that Spiritual Passages, my main source for this exposition,  is more than a book; it’s actually a course. That is,  Spiritual Passages is to be studied, not merely read. In fact, your local university could conceivably catalog it as a 3-semester-credit course entitled “The Psychology of Spiritual Development.”

By the time you have digested the book’s contents, you will have met an array of fascinating figures from Abi’l-Khayr to Zoroaster, all while exploring the psychology of spiritual development.

Few in the Western world have heard of the Muslim mystic Abi’l-Khayr (d. 1049 CE). Fr. Groeschel quotes a penentrating passage of his on finding peace and joy in both the material and spiritual life.

You will come across some of the renowned mystics of Christianity in the pages of Spiritual Passages – Teresa of Avila (author of a classic spiritual guide to union with God, Interior Castle), John of the Cross (poet of Dark Night of the Soul), Gregory of Nyssa (little known and appreciated in the Christian West), Bonaventure (author ofJourney of the Mind into God) — just to name a few, as well as Rabi’a al-Basri, in addition to Abi’l-Khayr, from the Muslim tradition.

Concerning Rabi’a al-Basri (c.717-801 CE), she was the first female Sufi saint, remembered especially for introducing Divine Love into Islam. Her biographer, the revered Persian poet and Sufi known by his pen names, Farid ud-Din and Attar, recorded that people spoke of her “as a second spotless Mary.”

Once when asked where she was from, she replied, “From that other world.” “And where are you going?” To this she answered, “To that other world.” Somewhat similarly, Christians speak of themselves as being in the world but not of the world.

Rabi’a was about as close to what can be considered the Christian “Holy Ones” as anyone from another tradition can get. For Jungians, she looms as an archetypal figure, as does Mary.

Readers are encouraged, by this writer, to flesh out the above-mentioned names for themselves. For example, and to be brief here, the 4th-century Gregory of Nyssa, one of the 3 Cappadocian Fathers, was an important figure in the history of apophatic theology and spirituality, but he is not the household name he ought to be to Christians for his many notable contributions to the faith. He was, for instance, the first Christian to consider God as infinite and beyond our comprehension, but knowable through His manifestations in the world.

Care for a little test? Who were the other two Cappadocian Fathers and where was Cappadocia? What is apophatic theology? Have you figured out who the Sufis are? What is a Jungian archetype? And is it worth your time to read Margaret Smith’s The Way of the Mystics: The Early Christian Mystics and the Rise of the Sufis, where you can learn about the life of Rabi’a al-Basri?

For those not familiar with Fr. Benedict (“Abba Baruch” in Hebrew) Groeschel, he is a Ph.D. psychologist as well as a man of the cloth. Who else could discuss psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and Teresa of Avila and her protege John of the Cross in the same paragraph?

A few readers, perhaps more than a few, may be concerned that without any formal grounding in psychology they won’t be able to follow Fr. G’s discussion of the psychological stages of development, which constitutes a large chunk of Part I  of Spiritual Passages.

Not to worry. Gail Sheey’s Passages, a 1976 best seller, introduced the subject of psychological staging to the general public. Sheey, a journalist, picked the brains of psychiatrist Roger V.Gould (Transformations) and psychologist Daniel J. Levinson (Seasons of a Man’s Life) to gather up material for Passages.

Sheey’s book was described as “a road map of adult life.” Decades before she appeared on the scene, the “professionals” — Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, et cetera — had worked out human developmental outlines, which Fr. G explores at length in Spiritual Passages.

But Spiritual Passages is about the spiritual life, which the author defines as “the sum total of responses which one makes to what is perceived as the inner call of God.” St. Augustine contributed interiority, or inwardness, to advance the spiritual life. In The True Religion, he wrote: “In our interior the truth resides. Go inside, where the light of reason is illumined.” Rabi’a al-Basri and Teresa of Avila withdrew to that interior life in order to gain a better understanding of themselves and of God.

Fr. G asks, “Is psychology a help in understanding spirituality?” He answers his own question not unexpectedly in the affirmative. After all, he points out, spirituality is a phase of human growth and development — but not without “the impetus of grace, a help that comes from beyond any human source.”

Just as life goes better with a sound mind in a sound body, so it is with the spirit and the mind, which is why Fr. G  devotes so much ink to the stages of psychological development. When the spirit and the mind are in sync, then you are ready to consider the spiritual lfe.

Part II of Spiritual Passages is introduced with the caption: “A Psychological Understanding of the Three Ways.” The author divides the pursuit of the spiritual life into three stages: purgation, the illuminative way, and the unitive way, spreading the material out over 93 pages.

As an interjection, the 3-fold path to the spiritual life is generic, that is, found elsewhere in Christianity and other religions. In the Christian East, there is the aforementioned Gregory of Nyssa with his system of spiritual progression divided into 3 stages: an initial stage of darkness or ignorance, followed by spiritual illumination, and then a difficult or trying stage, spoken of as divine darkness of the mind while absorbed in contemplation of the incomprehensible God.

It is not my purpose here to lead potential readers of Spiritual Passages through the three stages of spiritual development as laid out by Fr. G, but to whet their appetite sufficiently so that they may be motivated to sit down in a quiet place with a copy of the book and begin their mystical exploration.

The author points out early in Spiritual Passages that we “are created with a capacity to seek and find God.” From the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, we have that familiar line: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” An equally valid translation reads: “Even the longest journey must begin from where you are standing.” In other words, nothing gets done until a body at rest begins to move; that is, it takes action. Who among those reading this account are prepared to take the first step in the mystic journey that leads to God?

A word of caution, though, for those who think their way to God will be a cakewalk. After sloshing my way through Part II, I had to wonder if even a talented teacher could cover Spiritual Passages adequately in one semester. Spiritual Passages, as stated earlier, is not to be read like a novel but studied like the Torah.

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