“…what is mysticism? There is, of course, no one absolute answer but here are two attempts by two of this century’s best known mystics, the first a British Anglican and the second an American Quaker:
Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.
–Evelyn Underwood, Practical Mysticism
The essential characteristic of it is the attainment of a personal conviction by an individual that the human spirit and the divine Spirit have met, have found each other, and are in mutual and reciprocal correspondence as spirit with Spirit.
–Rufus M. Jones, The Trail of Life in the Middle Years
Equally valid definitions may range from those of St. John of the Cross to Zen Buddhism. All of which, together, can probably more easily confuse than clarify. Most such definitions tend to give an impression that the self is negated as in the definition by Evelyn Underwood. Yet, when looking at Jones’s definition, one notices that there is not a negation of the individual but a rather an intercommunion with the divine Spirit or God. Perhaps this perspective is in keeping with the traditional Christian reply to ‘what is the purpose of man?’ as ‘being to worship God.’
“The affirmation mystic,” Rufus Jones declared in Social Law in the Spiritual World, “seeks union with God, but not through loss of personality.” On the contrary, his personality is fulfilled in God. St. Paul’s statement, “It is no longer I that live but Christ liveth in me,” Rufus Jones understood as “no negation of personality but a triumphant type of immensely expanded personality.”
At the same time, Jones readily acknowledge the negation of self with mysticism He was fond of quoting in this connection the lines,
“Whatever your mind comes at,
I tell you flat
God is not that!”
Jones often lectured on the God of the negation mystic, the “nameless Nothing” of Eckhart, the “Divine Dark” of Dionysius the Areopagite, the “fathomless Nothingness” of Tauler, Rufus Jones characterized as the “Abstract Infinite.” He once wrote, “The long struggle of man’s mind with the stem Compulsions of this abstract infinite is, I think, one of the major intellectual tragedies of human life . . . It is easy to see how that theory of the abstract [i.e. characterless] infinite would lead the mind of a mystic to expect his experience of God to terminate in a mental blank, an everlasting Nay.”
While recognizing that presence of God is closer to oneself than one’s ego, the affirmative mystics value the role of the self in relationship with a personal God. Rufus Jones traced this affirmative type of mysticism first to St. John and St. Paul, who, he said, had been often disqualified as mystics by New Testament scholars who assumed that mysticism meant withdrawal from all that is finite and temporal.
“The focal idea of this new type of mysticism,” Jones wrote, “is the glowing faith that there is something divine in man which under right influences and responses can become the dominant feature of a person’s whole life. The favorite text of the exponents of the affirmation mysticism was that noble oracular fragment in Proverbs already quoted: ‘The Spirit of man is a candle of the Lord.’ This line of thought goes back for its pedigree, without much doubt, to the humanism of the Renaissance.”
More than 300 years ago Friends (and many others before and since) have affirmed both the inherent goodness of human beings and their communion with a personal God.
Although Rufus Jones insisted upon the distinction between affirmative and negative mystics, he declared with equal emphasis that there were both affirmative and negative elements in both types of mysticism. The difference between the two types was a relative difference. “There have been no negation mystics who were not also affirmative, and there neither are nor will be any important affirmation mystics who do not tread at some point the via negativa, – the hard and dolorous road.”
Denial of self can easily lead to a denial of a personal God. One may argue whether such a denial is of critical importance. Yet, I would suggest that form of denial can often lead to a less full experience of a mystic not only in terms of a relationship with the divine Spirit but possibly of a less active and influential radiance in society. Mysticism ideally should not be a withdrawal but an enhancement of the individual in all facets of life.”
(For more on Rufus Jones and his spiritual path, please refer to Elizabeth Gray Vining’s Friend of Life – A Biography of Rufus M. Jones.)