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Mysticism In Religion: Three Ways to View the Sunset

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Three men stood by the ocean, looking at the same sunset.

One man saw the immense physical beauty and enjoyed the event in itself. This man was the "sensate" type who, like 80 percent of the world, deals with what he can see, feel, touch, move, and fix. This was enough reality for him, for he had little interest in larger ideas, intuitions, or the grand scheme of things. He saw with his first eye, which was good.

A second man saw the sunset. He enjoyed all the beauty that the first man did. Like all lovers of coherent thought, technology, and science, he also enjoyed his power to make sense of the universe and explain what he discovered. He thought about the cyclical rotations of planets and stars. Through imagination, intuition, and reason, he saw with his second eye, which was even better.

The third man saw the sunset, knowing and enjoying all that the first and the second men did. But in his ability to progress from seeing to explaining to "tasting," he also remained in awe before an underlying mystery, coherence, and spaciousness that connected him with everything else. He used his third eye, which is the full goal of all seeing and all knowing. This was the best.

The Urgent Need For Contemplative Seeing

Third-eye seeing is the way the mystics see. They do not reject the first eye; the senses matter to them, but they know there is more. Nor do they reject the second eye; but they know not to confuse knowledge with depth or mere correct information with the transformation of consciousness itself.¹ The mystical gaze builds upon the first two eyes -- and yet goes further. It happens whenever, by some wondrous "coincidence," our heart space, our mind space, and our body awareness are all simultaneously open and nonresistant. I like to call it presence. It is experienced as a moment of deep inner connection, and it always pulls you, intensely satisfied, into the naked and undefended now, which can involve both profound joy and profound sadness. At that point, you either want to write poetry, pray, or be utterly silent.

In the early medieval period, two Christian philosophers at the monastery of St. Victor in Paris had names for these three ways of seeing, and these names had a great influence on scholars and seekers in the Western tradition. Hugh of St. Victor (1078-1141) and Richard of St. Victor (1123-1173) wrote that humanity was given three different sets of eyes, each building on the previous one. The first eye was the eye of the flesh (thought or sight), the second was the eye of reason (meditation or reflection), and the third eye was the eye of true understanding (contemplation).²

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the separation and loss of these three necessary eyes is the basis of much of the short-sight-edness and religious crises of the Western world. Lacking such wisdom, it is very difficult for churches, governments, and leaders to move beyond ego, the desire for control, and public posturing. Everything divides into oppositions such as liberal vs. conservative, with vested interests pulling against one another. Truth is no longer possible at this level of conversation. Even theology becomes more a quest for power than a search for God and Mystery.

One wonders how far spiritual and political leaders can genuinely lead us without some degree of mystical seeing and action. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that "us-and-them" seeing, and the dualistic thinking that results, is the foundation of almost all discontent and violence in the world.³ It allows heads of religion and state to avoid their own founders, their own national ideals, and their own better instincts. Lacking the contemplative gaze, such leaders will remain mere functionaries and technicians, without any big picture to guide them for the long term. The world and the churches are filled with such people, often using God language as a cover for their own lack of certainty or depth.

The third-eye person has always been the saint, the seer, the poet, the metaphysician, or the authentic mystic who grasped the whole picture. There is more to the mystical gaze, however, than having "ecstatic visions." If people have ignored the first and the second eyes, their hold on the third eye is often temporary, shallow, and incapable of being shared with anybody else. We need true mystics who see with all three sets of eyes, not eccentrics, fanatics, or rebels. The true mystic is always both humble and compassionate, for she knows that she does not know.

What It Means To Be A Mystic

Now do not let the word "mystic" scare you off. It simply means one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience. All spiritual traditions agree that such a movement is possible, desirable, and available to everyone. In fact, Jesus seems to say that this is the whole point! (See, for example, John 10:19-38.)

Some call this movement conversion, some call it enlightenment, some transformation, and some holiness. It is Paul's "third heaven," where he "heard things that must not and cannot be put into human language" (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4). Consciously or not, far too much organized religion has a vested interest in keeping you in the first or second heaven, where all can be put into proper language and deemed certain. This keeps you coming back to church, and it keeps us clergy in business.

This is not usually the result of ill will on anybody's part; it's just that you can lead people only as far as you yourself have gone. Transformed people transform people. From the way they talk so glibly about what is always Mystery, it's clear that many clergy have never enjoyed the third heaven themselves, and they cannot teach what they do not know. Theological training without spiritual experience is deadly.

We are ready to see and taste the full sunset now and no longer need to prove it or even describe it. We just enjoy it -- and much more!

1. Richard of St. Victor, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), De Sacramentis, I,X,ii, and The Mystical Ark (Benjamin Major), III-IV.

2. See David Berreby, Us and Them: The Science of Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

3. Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper, 1945), 294-95.

Three Ways to View the Sunset," Chapter Three of The Naked Now: Learning to See as The Mystics See, by Richard Rohr, copyright © Richard Rohr 2009, (The Crossroad Publishing Company 2009), was published in the October-December 2009, Volume 22, Number 4 of 'Radical Grace', with permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.

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