Richard Rohr on The Evolution of Mystic Consciousness

Let’s take a look at the history of mysticism to find our roots and see how we had it, how and why we largely lost it, and to recognize that now we are in the midst of a rediscovery and new appreciation for the mystical, nondual, or contemplative mind (use whichever word you prefer; they are all pointing in the same direction).

Before 800 BC, it seems most people experienced their union with the Divine and Reality through myth, poetry, dance, music, fertility, and nature. Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) called this Pre-axial Consciousness. Although living in an often-violent world and focusing on survival, people still knew that they belonged to something cosmic and meaningful. They inherently participated in an utterly enchanted universe where the “supernatural” was everywhere. This was the pre-existent “church that existed since Abel,” spoken of by St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, and the Second Vatican Council. Owen Barfield (1898-1997) called this state of mind “original participation.” [1] It is reflected in most of the indigenous religions to this day. As Pope John Paul II said, Native Americans have known from the beginning what it’s taking us Catholics a long time to realize: that the Great Spirit has always been available and loveable in the natural world. [2]

What Jaspers calls Axial Consciousness [3] emerged worldwide with the Eastern sages, the Jewish prophets, and the Greek philosophers, all coalescing around 500 BC. This consciousness laid the foundations of all the world’s religions and major philosophies. It was the birth of systematic and conceptual thought. In the East, it often took the form of holistic thinking—found in Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism—which allowed people to experience forms of participation with reality, themselves, and the divine. In the West, the Greek genius gave us a kind of mediated participation through thought, reason, and philosophy. Many people seemed to have enjoyed very real unity with the Divine on many levels. “The Presence” has been with us since “the Spirit hovered over the void” (Genesis 1:1). There is little evidence that God took a vacation from Creation anytime afterward.

Among the people called Israel there was a growing and dramatic realization, perhaps as early as 1200 BC, of intimate union and even group participation with God. They recognized enlightened persons like Moses or Isaiah, but they did something more. Many Hebrew prophets widened the notion of participation to the Jewish group and beyond. The people as a whole were being drawn into this “Divine Espousal”; participation was historical and communal, not just individual. Only the whole could hold and maintain the realization of union with the divine. It is, and always has been, too much for an isolated individual. Yet during recent centuries, we have constricted God and ourselves to a path for personal salvation, with tragic results.

Both the Hebrew Scriptures and experience created a matrix into which a new awareness could be communicated. Jesus soon offered the world full and final participation: union with God, union with neighbor, union with creation, union with oneself, and even union with enemy. The net and sweep of participation was total. Given this, it is so sad and strange that we created a Christian religion with many separate denominations; we are too often known for elitism, boundary-keeping, shaming, and exclusion. We have not been well practiced in union, yet it was meant to be our art form!

References:

[1] Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), chapter 6.
[2] See “Address of His Holiness John Paul II to the People of Phoenix and the American Southwest,” September 14, 1987, w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1987/september/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19870914_fedeli-phoenix.html.
[3] Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, trans. Michael Bullock (New York: Routledge, 2010, ©1953), 2-6.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 112-114; and
Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate: Seeing God in All Things, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010), CD, DVD, MP3 download.

See a timeline of Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers throughout history (PDF).

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