“The friendship of the ‘beyond, above’ with the ‘in the midst’ is at issue in turning to God and mysticism”

The pure trust, the true “yes” lies buried deep in the determinacies of finite life. It surfaces episodically through life, coming through and receding, on and off, visiting and gypsy, like a wayward love. One cannot just will it, though one must be willing. This is the willingness before will. But one can woo it. The devotion of the mystic, and the discipline, witness the courtship of this woo.

We misunderstand God’s transcendence beyond the whole if we dualistically oppose it to divine immanence in the finite whole. The “meta” is not only “beyond, above,” but also “in the midst.” The friendship of the “beyond, above” with the “in the midst” is at issue in turning to God and mysticism. This is again an extraordinarily plurivocal matter. Not only is it difficult to pin mysticism down definitively with univocally fixed markers, it shows a fluid latitude of variability, depending on different traditions shaping its expression, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, archaic religions. We come once more to the idiocy of the divine, the intimacy. At the beginning the Tao is said to be as an unborn baby, but as we move through the middle, in the end we are to become as the child again, and speak its sacred “yes,” whether, say, with Jesus or Nietzsche we need not now say. We pass from idiocy to idiocy. At the beginning of our quest, idiocy is not dissolved but rather intensified towards the end, especially with respect to the absolute singularity of the God who is not the whole. Our passage through life takes firm form, but our passing makes fluid again the forms, and the abiding porosity prior to form and beyond form offers again its never closed off chance: chance of ultimate communication between us and the ultimate. Mysticism has to do with the chance of the divine woo.

The woo is furthered through meditative practices, contemplative prayer, the retraction of untoward attachments. Drugs, we know, can artificially induce a sense of intimacy with the porosity, (en)force a chemical patience, making the doors of perception seem purged. The body being bruised to pleasure the porosity, this is not the patience of the true “yes.” The porosity too must be purged. Breathing with measure – this can help begin the emptying of mind of determinate contents. Sensory deprivation: closing the eyes, retracting into floating darkness – this awakens the idiotic prior to the aesthetic. Woo: we close our eyes on darkness when we kiss or are kissed. (Mystic comes from muein. Muein: to shut the eyes, to stop the mouth.) There can be mystical tinges to certain intense physical activities: dervish dances; long-distance running – not alone the body, but the soul too might get its second wind – breaking through the barrier of pain into another zone, effortless in full effort, calm in absorbed agitation, beyond suffering in suffering.

William Desmond

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5 Responses to “The friendship of the ‘beyond, above’ with the ‘in the midst’ is at issue in turning to God and mysticism”

  1. AKA says:

    I don’t think you could get this kind of writing, with its streaming collections of associative musings, in an age any less relativistic or more logical than ours. Although at first glance it takes the form of declarative sentences – propositions – the relentlessness of the present tense and the complete lack of ‘therefore’ to connect sentence to sentence lets us know that every phrase is a referred thought, like a description of the action in a book or movie.

    In this way, phrase can be piled on phrase without the author’s having to bare his fallibility to the reader’s gaze, to risk any suggestion of conviction which might prove embarrassing later. He is merely the watcher, describing the movements of other writer’s minds. If they have written in the same manner, you might go back quite a few steps before you find anyone declaring anything.

    This must be comforting to those who resist definition. For me, it palls. It’s like thought with half the thinking subtracted.

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  2. brian says:

    “I cannot now dwell on the complicated and important issue of the nature of philosophical language . . . I will say that there are no a priori limits on the character of this language. To insist on such limits is already to give expression to a secret will to conceptual domination . . . If someone should insist: this is not how philosophy should speak, one must reply: Who says so? . . . our choice is not just between the frozen clarity of univocity and the flux-like confusion of equivocity. Dialectical logos is already richer and more complex than either of these two alternatives. We must expect as much from, indeed more from, the plurivocal thought that answers to the metaxological sense of being.”

    — William Desmond, from the Introduction to Philosophy and Its Others


    • Petrus says:

      To offer a different response, some of us seek to find a place to rest, and philosophy — if it cannot provide such a place — does not, simply because it cannot prevent itself from further philosophising. What might appear intolerable as a “conceptual domination” to some might be a welcome refuge from an endless agonistic preoccupation for others. Even in climbing any mountain, one eventually will have to be content with the particular peak reached, before one descends once again, seeking further terrain… But: happy the man who finds his plateau.


  3. brian says:

    Well, Petrus, I cannot really agree with you. Norris Clarke used to talk about the natural dynamism of the mind. We are ontologically ordered towards the infinite, so I resist your suggeston that philosophy is either optional or somehow defective if it does not provide the consolation of rest. There is something ambiguous about home. It has a strangeness as well as intimacy. It calls for further discovery, even while providing a welcoming refuge — and if it does not, there is something ersatz in it. Desmond argues for the importance of philosophical unease. Here’s a longish quote:

    “One of the nobilities of philosophical thought is its willingness to risk questions it may not be able to answer definitively. Why should this be a nobility? Surely it shows an inability to live with the truth of things, which again and again returns us to our finite place. Better to ask only those questions that can be formulated determinately and answered definitely. Speculative philosophy is a wild goose chase, and not even a noble one at that. It is a folly of excess. The metaphysician who thinks he is homesick for eternity is a mere malingerer before finitude. Better to consent to that finitude and cease the torment of the unanswerable. So speaks critical caution. And speculative weariness. Would that one could sleep the slumber of satisfied finitude. There are philosophers who suffer from insomnia here. They find themselves opportuned by questions which will not go away, all prudent rationalizations of finite thinking notwithstanding. These are questions which voice an essential perplexity: a perplexity we cannot suppress, a perplexity we cannot entirely answer, a perplexity to which we must return again and again. Such perplexity rises up relative to the enigma of ultimacy” (Perplexity and Ultimacy, p. 167).

    There is a necessary torment that is part of being status viator, a pilgrim on the way. Yet even eternity, if one follows Gregory of Nyssa, is a joyful progress of ever deepening journey into the divine infinitude, so I’d rather say happy is the man who does not find his plateau.


    • Petrus says:

      Well Brian, I am certainly no match for Desmond (nor you). What I will say in closing is that theology or philosophy, while each providing a rich entree into measureless realms of wisdom, still offer a kind of endless doing and therefore, seemingly, a choice moving towards further becoming rather than an attainment of Being. On the other hand, the attainment of the latter might involve praxis to a certain degree, yet suggests more acquiescence.

      Thus, while I am less impressed than overhwhelmed by the scope of what Aquinas appears to have achieved, I readily admit relief to recall that, at the end of his life, he had some realization that allowed him to declare: “I can write no more. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” It’s also heartening to hear that on his deathbed, Augustine asked for a copy of, not the gospels, but his beloved Plotinus. Hence, while Gregory of Nyssa may have much to offer on the joyful journey, I am somehow instead drawn to take up an Evagrian ascent (God willing). Evagrius’ alternation between activity (psalmody or hesychasm), and his release into an “imageless prayer” ascent, suggests something of the logion in the Thomas gospel in which Jesus tells those present that if “they ask what is the sign of the Father in you, say: it is movement and it repose.”


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