EXPLORING THE MYSTERY of MYSTICISM – Jill Marshall reports on the 2017 Quaker Universalist Conference

We are grateful for the kind permission of Jill Marshall and the ‘Friend’ to print this report on the 2017 QUG Conference ‘Exploring the Mystery of Mysticism’


Jill Marshall reports on the Quaker Universalist Conference

The Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, where birdsong overpowers the sound of traffic from the nearby main road, was again the setting for the annual conference of the Quaker Universalist Group. The theme chosen for the gathering, held between 5-7 May, was Exploring the Mystery of Mysticism and this was looked at from the perspective of different faith traditions.

John Linton’s time in India and his experience of meetings in which Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians worshipped together in silence convinced him that that no one religion had a monopoly of truth. In 1987, together with other Friends, he founded the Quaker Universalist Group (QUG). Today the QUG provides an open forum for the exploration of our own and other people’s spiritual awareness, whether Quaker or not.

Rex Ambler, who is well known for his varied writings and an approach to meditation, Experiment with Light, based on the practice of early Friends, spoke on the theme of Mind the Oneness: a Quaker Approach. He maintained that mysticism is inherently difficult to understand. We are not going to find answers, he said, because the answer is beyond words and ultimately Quaker reality is not something you can express in words. The mystery is disclosed in the life of Jesus Christ: the kingdom of God is within you. Formal statements by the Church are the opposite of the quiet, contemplative mystery implicit in the Bible and sacraments and do not give due recognition to experience. Quakerism offered a new way.

What made the Quaker way possible? A turbulent period in British history came to a head because of the English civil war, a time when George Fox expressed his own anxiety and had the courage to face it. In 1647 he wrote: And when all my hopes … in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. He heard the voice inside himself and that experience is fundamentally the only thing we can rely on today. Early Quakers saw that of God in everyone and interpreted the world in terms of their own experience. The ultimate aim of the mystic is to discover the life in the world.

Christopher Cook, from Durham University, is both a psychiatrist and an ordained Anglican priest. His subject was Christian Mystical Experience: Theological and Psychiatric Perspectives. Christian mysticism, he explained, is about finding God – the visual seeing and the experience of God’s immediate presence. He gave particular examples of medieval visionaries: Elizabeth of Schönau and Hildegard of Bingen saw visions of angels; Julian of Norwich recounts her experiences in her book The Revelations of Divine Love, which is thought to be the first extant book in English written by a woman; and another visionary was Margery Kempe.

Hearing voices is not uncommon. Up to twenty percent of the population hear voices, not necessarily of a religious nature. Sometimes these voices can be linked with early trauma. The question arose: how far are religious experiences related to mental health? The suggestion that if you have a mental illness God won’t talk to you is itself deeply problematic. Our culture influences our religious experience. We should be self-critical, compassionate and open to the possibility we may be wrong. Chris ended with a quotation: There is more of God I don’t know than I do know. If I grasped it, it cannot be God.

The next speaker was Jan Arriens, a Quaker who is perhaps best known for his involvement with prisoners on death row. A book in progress is entitled Head and Heart, which wrestles with the conflict between rational scepticism and personal experience. So, the title of his talk, Mysticism – between head and heart, is of the moment.

Quakers strip religion down to concentrate on the essence. George Fox said, This I knew experimentally. What matters is being tuned to an illuminating experience, in sympathy with the essence of what these experiences are about in so far as they can be put into words. From the outset Quakers knew mystical experiences. The conventional scientific view sees consciousness as stemming solely from brain activity and tends to dismiss contrary evidence saying it is distorted, misremembered or a coincidence, or that science will one day be able to explain it. But if science does find an explanation it will be around the interconnectedness of all things. For Jan the mystical experience is about awareness, ideally carried with us at all times. He ended by quoting Albert Einstein: The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science….

One of the most satisfying dimensions of the Universalist conference is the range and depth of speakers. This year was no exception. Alinda Damsma is a Christian and a lecturer at a reformed liberal Jewish college where she teaches Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, the Targumim and Jewish mysticism. The title of her talk was: Is the unio mystica present in Jewish mysticism? There is no generally recognized definition of mysticism.

Alinda Damsma’s working definition was: The aspiration and sometimes the achievement of a direct experiential relationship with God, seeking union with the divine. Three elements are crucial. First, the experience; second, the unio mystica, the idea of a mystical union with God; and third the via mystica, the way by which the mystic seeks the union with God, the divine presence. There is no shortcut: the mystical road is long, hard and can be dangerous.

The strand of Jewish mysticism chosen was from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 1. Only the wisest sages were able to contemplate this while the rabbis tried to restrict its reading. However, this chapter became central to Jewish mysticism; it became the Merkabah chapter and Merkabah literature became important. What these works describe is the accession of the mystic through the heavens; the mystic goes on a heavenly journey and overcomes many obstacles and if he or she completes the journey they will have a vision of God seated on the throne. The extent to which this detailed journey is a metaphor is not known even though the Bible depends heavily on metaphor.

The final speaker was Sharada Sugirtharajah, from the University of Birmingham who has researched Hinduism in colonial and post-colonial writings. Sharada said the word mysticism refers to religious experience that cannot be explained rationally. The term yoga is closest and means union with the divine, the true union of our will with the will of God. The earliest Hindu writings said that the sages heard the truth; they heard it as a divine word in the form of a mantra. The mantra is an eternal or primordial sound from which all sounds have emerged; every prayer begins with a sound.

The ultimate cannot be perceived other than by saying It is. The sages would say if you discover your true self then you know you cannot talk about it, or, as Rex has said, you go into silent mode.

Jill is from St Andrews Meeting