A Lutheran pastor once told me that most people don’t have mystical experiences, and the Quaker expectation that they would is elitist. Taking communion, singing hymns and listening to a sermon, though, those are things that everyone can participate in. That is truly democratic, she said. 

A Protestant friend of my husband once came along to Quaker meeting. It was a “covered meeting” with a very powerful experience of the presence of the Spirit. As they left Meeting, my husband’s friend said, “Oh my God, I don’t know if I could stand that kind of intensity every Sunday!”

In my series on Liberal Quaker heresies, I want to turn my attention to the claim that Quakerism is a mystical religion. I fear that claim may make us guilty of the heresy of creating a hierarchy of religious experience. 

Many Quakers have mystical experiences and many mystics feel drawn to Quaker worship because it provides a space for those kinds of experiences to happen. Once again, I need to confess that I define my own faith as being of the mystical variety and that if indeed we Quakers are committing a sin, I am as guilty as anyone else. Now, there is nothing wrong with mystical experience in and of itself. It only becomes a heresy if we claim that it is the only authentic experience, expression, or practice of faith, or that it is somehow superior to others.  

I don’t want to look at technical definitions of this because that is not my style of doing theology. Whether or not I or others understand the technical definitions of mysticism is not important. My style is the applied theology approach: I want to look at what actual people mean when we say that Quakerism is mystical and what this statement means for those who don’t identify themselves as having had mystical experiences.

Liberal Quakers like to think that unprogrammed silent worship levels the playing field and creates the opportunity for everyone to encounter God in their own way. We may think that is true, but what if others don’t see it that way? Many of the people I come into contact with as a spiritual director or chaplain or just conversation partner don’t claim to have had mystical experiences. Those who don’t identify themselves as having had mystical experiences tell me this in hushed tones, almost like a guilty confession. If they are Quakers, they often seem to feel like 2nd class citizens among Friends, or they express a sense of inferiority compared to Friends’ mystical faith. It is especially painful to me if they express a sense that I must be something special because of the  mystical experiences I have had.

When that happens, I know that – whatever the reason – the person I am talking with has been subject to the heresy that mystical experiences are somehow superior, and they have most likely been exposed to someone who has sinned by claiming superiority. I hope that someone wasn’t me.

I am convinced that God does not create some ways of practising faith than are better than others – provided we are engaged wholeheartedly in faithful living. I am convinced that God has not created a hierarchy of prayer and faithful living so that we might fight about the superiority of one over another – again, provided we are engaged wholeheartedly in faithful living. 

So how might we talk about mysticism in ways that make it just one among many other forms of faith, all of equal value? Isn’t the Quaker message fundamentally that faith is not a one-size-fits-all proposal? That would be my statement about Quakerism: It is a faith that recognizes the wide variety of ways in which we can know God.

I have already looked at issues of power gained by those who get to do the defining, see this post, so I won’t say more on that topic here, except to state that whether we want it to be that way or not, we can’t be naive about the fact that mystical experience has historically been defined as superior. We each need to examine our souls in prayer and be sure that we aren’t making use of an historical injustice in ways that feed our own egos. 

Let’s question the often unstated belief that spontaneous mystical experience is superior. Here follow some other ways of looking at mystical experience that I have found helpful to my own consideration. Some of these thoughts may make it sound as though mystical experiences are inferior, and I want to let you know that my intention is not start an argument about which is best. My intention is to say things that will give us pause, things to make us less sure of what we know to be true, and perhaps to come to a place of relinquishing evaluations of good-better-best to God, if they need to be done at all. My goal is to confuse my own and your intellect.  

Jesus said to the man we call Doubting Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Paul defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” My own understanding of my mystical experiences is that my atheism was so firmly entrenched that God knew I needed something radical to believe anything at all, and so God gave me a solid mystical “whack over the head” in a Meeting for worship I happened to be attending. In general, I would say that I have a hard time trusting in things unseen, though I am getting better at it. But I have a lot of respect for people who believe and commit to God without having been given that loving whack over the head.

My understanding is that open worship is for the purpose of allowing the Spirit to lead, not for us to expect something such as a mystical experience. We engage in idolatry if we set expectations that we expect God to fulfill. Then we have tried to put ourselves in God’s place.

Many faith development models hold that focus on the delight of spiritual experience often is a characteristic of a new or immature faith. These models see mystical experiences merely as the lure that God uses to draw us deeper into relationship. Mature faith, however, is about commitment and obedience.

The previous point about lure and delight makes me wonder whether we sometimes confuse delightful feelings with mystical experience? One of the things I know as a spiritual director is that a deeper relationship with God often frees and increases our range of feelings and our physical sensory range as well. Is it possible that we sometimes confuse our emotional and sensory experiences with mystical experiences?

Jesus did not say “feel me” or “experience my presence”, he said things like “sell all your belonging and follow me”.

Queries for prayerful consideration:

Do Quakers say directly or indirectly that mystical experience is the only authentic experience, expression, or practice of faith, or that it is somehow superior to others? When Quakers talk about mysticism in relationship to Quakerism, are we sensitive to the perception many people have of mystical experience as superior to others? When we talk about mystical experience in worship, are we sure we are distinguishing between mystical experience and delightful feelings? Am I sure I do not denigrate other forms of worhip, prayer, and faith commitment?