Mysticism: Its History and Challenge

Mysticism: Its History and Challenge

by Bruno Borchert
Samuel Weiser, lnc., York Beach, Maine, 1994; paper, 456 pages.

This is a fine new book on mysticism, written by Bruno Borchert, a member of the Carmelite Order and senior researcher on art and mysticism at the Titus Brandsma Instituut in Holland. Borchert discusses the nature and history of mystical experience and considers its relevance in our scientific and rational age.

He states at the outset that the phenomenon of mysticism "seems to occur in all religions and cultures; it is different in external form, but in essence everywhere it is the same: it is the experimental knowledge that, in one way or another, everything is interconnected, that all Things have a single source" (his italics)

That realization is the underlying idea of this journal and of the Theosophical Society from which this journal has sprung.

One may arrive intellectually at the concept, but the mystic experiences the realization. It typically happens in moments of insight and can be quite overwhelming as experience. Often the mystic has a compulsion to try to describe the experience, but encounters great difficulty in doing so. Many mystics find the experience so overwhelming that they thereafter fall into silence, feeling they cannot possibly communicate what they have experienced.

In the first part of the book Borchert describes the phenomenon of mysticism. He writes:

Mysticism involves not only an experience of short duration which always has the same characteristics, but also a person who is trying to assimilate this experience into his or her life. What is more, mystics include both the stolid and the emotional types, both the balanced and the unstable, the physically strong and the frail. Also, a balance between two worlds is involved, especially in Western mysticism: one that is flawless, complete, gladdening, and seen in one lucid moment, and another that has to be coped with daily, full of violence, evil, problems and opposition. Between these two worlds the borders are fairly blurred: the borders between daydream and hard reality, between fantastic imagery and true vision, between spiritual and physical impressions (47-48).

Borchert speaks of the need at times to daydream in a problem-free environment, to muse in quiet surroundings, to read light fiction or the latest gossip column. Drugs, dancing, and music are all ways in which people seek respite from the difficult pressures of life.

The striving for ecstatic experience carries risks, Borchert points out, because the border between the dreamworld and reality may disappeal; there is the risk of madness and indeed history is filled with individuals who seem to have passed over the line from ecstasy to madness.

The second and much longer section of the book provides an overview of the history of mysticism, from its apparent origin in shamanism through India, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Hellenistic and medieval times.

In the final section of his book, Borchelt considers the modern mysticism he sees growing from the challenges of scientific, rational, and technical Western culture. He refers to the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin, David Bohm, Fritjof Capra, Marilyn Ferguson, and others.

He speaks 011 behalf of a kind of democratization of mysticism for our times. In the final analysis, referring to J. Krishnamurti, he notes that while there are many books and many methods and techniques to offer guidance on the mystical path, nevertheless each of us must choose our own way. "Each case has its own direction, limitations, and possibilities," he declares. "The mystical process has an internal compass, which can be consulted once the way itself is clearly seen, and [which] can help you find your bearings in the maze of life" (364).

Along the way, Borchert's book can serve as a helpful guide to understanding the mystic path and its possibilities and pitfalls.


Spring 1995