views updated May 18 2018


Mysticism is the attempt of humans to attain ultimate knowledge of the true reality of things and to achieve communion with a hierarchy of spiritual beings and with God, not through the ordinary religious paths, but by means of personal revelation and interaction with the divine. Whereas the major religions teach submission of the individual will and adherence to various creeds and dogmas, the mystic desires to realize a union with the Supreme Being free of all ecclesiasticisms and physical limitations. While the faithful member of the orthodox religious bodies seeks to walk the doctrinal spiritual path and obey the will of God according to accepted dogma, the mystic wishes to become one with the Divine Essence itself.

In other words, for the conventional, unquestioning member of a religious faith, revealed truths come from an external source, such as God and his selected prophets and teachers. For the mystic, however, truth comes from the god-self within and with the union of the human mind and the Divine.

Many mystics speak of having received "cosmic consciousness," or illumination, a sense of oneness with all-that-is. In his classic study of the experience, Dr. Raymond Bucke (183792) studied a number of individuals whom he considered recipients of cosmic consciousness, such as Gautama the Buddha (c. 563 b.c.e.c. 483 b.c.e.), Jesus the Christ (6 b.c.e.c. 30 c.e.), Paul (?c. 62 c.e.), Plotinus (205 c.e.270 c.e.), Muhammed (570632), Dante (12651321), Moses (c. 1400 b.c.e.), Isaiah, Emanuel Swedenborg (16881772), Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882), and Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Bucke concluded that the recipient of such illumination must be a person of high intellectual, moral, and physical attainment and express a "warm heart, courage, and strong and religious feeling." He considered the approximate age of 36 as the most propitious time in one's life to achieve this elevated state of consciousness.

In Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) William James (18421910) cites four features that he feels may distinguish a mystical state of consciousness from other states of consciousness:

  1. Ineffability. When one receives an illumination experience, James comments, it defies expression; "no adequate report of its contents can be given in words." The mystical experience, he suggests, must be directly experienced; "it cannot be imparted or transferred to others." Mystical states are, therefore, more like states of feeling. "Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly," James writes, "and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment."
  2. Noetic quality. Although the mystical states are similar to states of feeling, to those who experience them they seem also to be states of knowledge. "They are states of insight into depths of truth" that evade the intellect; they are revelations "full of significance and importance" that carry with them a "curious sense of authority."
  3. Transiency. James observes that mystical states cannot be sustained for lengthy periods of time. "Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized."
  4. Passivity. Although the onset of a mystical state may be facilitated by entering a self-induced state of meditation or trance, James comments that once the "characteristic sort of consciousness" has set in, "the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance.Mystical statesare never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance."

In a chapter on "Basic Mystical Experience" in his Watcher on the Hills (1959), Dr. Raynor C. Johnson, Master of Queens College, University of Melbourne, lists seven characteristics of illumination:

  1. The appearance of light. "This observation is uniformly made, and may be regarded as a criterion of the contact of soul and Spirit."
  2. Ecstasy, love, bliss. "Directly or by implication, almost all the accounts refer to the supreme emotional tones of the experience."
  3. The approach to one-ness. "In the union of soul with Spirit, the former acquires a sense of unity with all things."
  4. Insights given.
  5. Effect on health and vitality.
  6. Sense of time obscured.
  7. Effects on living. Johnson quotes a recipient of the illumination experience who said: "Its significance for me has been incalculable and has helped me through sorrows and stresses which, I feel, would have caused shipwreck in my life without the clearly remembered refreshment and undying certainty of this one experience."

The British marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy (18961985), D.Sc., Emeritus Professor at Oxford, came to believe that the nonmaterial side of life was of extreme importance in providing science with a complete account of the evolutionary process. Contending that spiritual experiences could be subject to scientific scrutiny, Hardy established the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College in England. "A biology based upon an acceptance of the mechanistic hypothesis is a marvelous extension of chemistry and physics," Hardy remarked. "But to call it an entire science of life is a pretense. I cannot help feeling that much of man's unrest today is due to the widespread intellectual acceptance of this mechanistic superstition when the common sense of his intuition cries out that it is false."

In April 2001, research funded by the Alister Hardy Trust being conducted at the University of Wales revealed that Christians, Muslims, and Jews have similar mystical experiences in which they describe intense light and a sense of encompassing love. Since 1969, the trust has collected accounts of 6,000 religious experiences from people of all ages and backgrounds. Christians most often described the light as an encounter with Jesus or an angel, and Muslims also often interpreted the light to be an angel. Jews perceived it as a sign of inspiration or an experience of God.

Writing in Fields Within Fields (1971), Reza Arasteh, a transcultural developmental psychologist and author of Final Integration in the Adult Personality, speaks of the role that mysticism has played in all major cultures by permitting individuals to transcend cultural reality. Whether one examines Judaic, Christian, or Muslim mysticism in the Near East; humanism and modern psychoanalysis in the West; or Zen Buddhism and Taoism in Far Eastern cultures, "the interesting point is that all these mechanisms have come to us as a 'path' rather than as logic, as experience rather than rationality." Regardless of language or cultural or temporal differences, Arasteh says, "all these styles of life have adopted the same goal of experiencing man in his totality, and the reality of all is cosmic reality." The common denominator of mystical experience "comes with encounter and inner motivation, and the result is inner freedom for a cosmic trip and outer security for the release of unbound energy for future creativity. "The Cosmic Self," he states, "is the manifestation of transcending the earthly and cultural self."

Although there are many schools of mysticism associated with the major world religions, the kind of mystic who focuses upon establishing a meaningful relationship with spirits and the afterlife is also a person who is likely to incorporate the secret teachings of ancient brotherhoods, mysterious mahatmas and masters from secret monasteries in hidden cities, and even tutelary entities from Atlantis and other lost civilizations. While such mystics as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (18311891), Alice Bailey (18801949), Annie Besant (18471933), Rudolf Steiner (18611925), and Emanuel Swedenborg (16881772) may have seemed out of touch with reality to those members of their societies who judged them as mad, they believed themselves to be exercising the power of their intellects to establish a truer connection with the actual powers of the universe than their contemporary scholars and clergy could ever hope to achieve. For those professors and scientists who assessed the claimed ability of Swedenborg to communicate with angels and spirits as heresy at worst and insanity at best, he barely noticed such criticism and continued to write book after book and do God's work as it was specially revealed to him. While critics of Steiner were astonished by the depths of his scholarship, they were appalled by his belief in Atlantis and his suggestions that the seeds of the giants of old are ripening in certain modern humans, and that he went on to establish a model of scholastic education that thrives to this day. When Blavatsky, Bailey, and Besant insisted that their wisdom was being astrally communicated to them by great mahatmas and masters in India, they ignored the psychical researchers who cried fraud, and continued to build the Theosophical Society, which still flourishes today.

In his Mystics as a Force for Change (1981), Dr. Sisirkumar Ghose writes that the mystic's real service to humankind is not so much to help people solve material problems as it is to show them how to "transcend secular and humanistic values, to transfigure them in the light of the spiritual ideal or the will of God. The mystic brings not peace, but the sword of discrimination and a sense of the holy.The mystics have played an important part in the making ofcivilization. Most early civilizations owe a good deal to this creative minority.The early mystics would also be among the priests and medicine men of the tribe."

Delving Deeper

Bach, Marcus. The Inner Ecstasy. New York-Cleveland: World Publishing, 1969.

Bancroft, Anne. Twentieth Century Mystics and Sages. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1976.

James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience. Garden City, N.Y.: Masterworks Program, 1963.

Johnson, Raynor C. The Imprisoned Splendour. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953.

Otto, Rudolf. Mysticism East and West. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

Stace, Walter T. The Teachings of the Mystics. New York: New American Library 1960.

Steiger, Brad. Revelation: The Divine Fire. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Talbot, Michael. Mysticism and the New Physics. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1961.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (18311891)

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Movement, was born in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk), in the Ukraine, on July 30, 1831, the daughter of Colonel Peter Hahn. As a child, she loved mystery and fantasy and claimed supernatural companions that kept her safe from harm. She appeared to demonstrate this paranormal protection when she fell from the saddle while horseback riding and caught her foot in the stirrup. According to young Helena, she would surely have been dragged to death before the horse was stopped if it weren't for the unseen entities that kept her from falling to the ground.

At the age of 17 she married Nicephore Blavatsky, a Russian official in Caucasia, who was 40 years older than she. She separated from her husband after three months and spent over a year traveling in Texas, Mexico, Canada, and India. All the time she was wandering, she was developing her mediumistic abilities, secure in the confidence that her phantom protector watched over her. Twice she attempted to enter Tibet, and on one occasion she managed to cross its frontier in disguise, but she lost her way and after various adventures was found by horsemen and escorted out of the country.

Blavatsky described the 10-year period between 1848 and 1858 as the "veiled" time in her life, refusing to divulge anything specific that happened to her during that period, but making mysterious allusions to spiritual retreats in Tibet or in the Himalayas. In 1847, shortly after she had "escaped" from her husband, she fled to Egypt, where she said that she became adept in the art of snake-charming and was initiated in the secrets of Oriental magic by a Coptic magician. In 1851, according to her account, she was in New Orleans, studying the rites and mysteries of voodoo. She traveled to Paris in 1858 and was introduced to the internationally famous medium Daniel Dunglas Home (18331886) and was so impressed by his paranormal abilities that she became a Spiritualist. When Blavatsky, in turn, sought to impress him with her own mediumistic talents, Home ignored her and informed her that she was a cheat.

In 1858 she returned to Russia, where she soon gained fame as a spirit medium. Always a mesmerizing storyteller, Blavatsky claimed to have disguised herself as a man and fought under Garibaldi during the battle of Mentana when she was wounded and left for dead. After about five years spent perfecting her mediumship in Russia, Blavatsky entered another "veiled" period in her life when, from 1863 to1870, she was allegedly in retreat in Tibet, studying with the mahatmas Koot Hoomi and Morya, and a secret brotherhood of adepts.

In 1870, back in Europe, Blavatsky was en route to Greece when the vessel on which she was traveling exploded, and she lost all her earthly possessions, including whatever money she had managed to save. Rescued at sea and brought to Cairo, she supported herself through her mediumship, and in 1871, she founded the Spirit Society, which was quickly disbanded after accusations of fraud.

In 1873, after two months in Paris, she traveled to the United States and settled in New York, where she remained for six years and, according to some accounts, became a naturalized citizen. She resumed the practice of her mediumship in association with the brothers William (18321932) and Horatio Eddy (18421922), two well-known materialization mediums. As she became more prominent in Spiritualist circles in America, Blavatsky came to the attention of Henry Steel Olcott (18321907), a journalist, who established a study group around her unique style of mediumship, a blend of Spiritualism and Buddhistic legends about Tibetan sages. She professed to have direct spiritual contact with two Tibetan mahatmas, Koot Humi and Morya, who communicated with her on the astral plane and who provided her with wonderful teachings of wisdom and knowledge.

On November 17, 1875, with the aid of Henry Olcott and William Q. Judge (18511896), an attorney, Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York. The threefold purpose of the society was: 1) to form a universal brotherhood of man; 2) to study and make known the ancient religions, philosophies, and sciences; 3) to investigate the laws of nature and develop the divine powers latent in humankind. Theosophy (divine wisdom) is a vigorous blend of many earlier philosophies, all of which claim to have been handed down to modern students of the occult by disciples of ancient wisdom. Theosophy combines teachings from Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, the Kabbalah, and numerous other philosophies.

Sometime during that same year, (1875), Blavatsky entered into a brief marriage of two or three months with a merchant in Philadelphia named M. C. Betanelly. At about the same time, she was partially responsible for breaking up the marriage of Olcott, who left his wife and children for her.

Disappointed by Blavatsky's lack of enthusiasm for the day-to-day administration of a growing movement, Olcott became responsible for the management of the Theosophical Society. In 1877, he began to speak of moving the headquarters of the society to India, where they might be closer to the mahatmas, the occult brotherhood, and sincere practicing Hindu adepts. A year later, Olcott, Blavatsky, and a handful of the faithful left New York for India because the masters wished them to do so. By 1879, the central headquarters of the society had been established in Adyar, India, and an amalgamation with the Arya Samaj sect founded by Swami Dayanand Saraswati had also been accomplished. By April 1882, however, the swami realized that he had been exploited by the leaders of the Theosophists and he denounced the group.

By that time, the influence of the swami in India was no longer required, for in 1880, Blavatsky had visited northern India and observed phenomena manifested especially for her by the mahatmas. It was also at this time that she met A. P. Sinnett, journalist and editor of The Pioneer, and Allen O. Hume, of the Indian Civil Service, her two most important converts in India. Shortly after reports had spread of the wondrous phenomena the masters had created for her benefit in northern India, Theosophy began to attract students and followers from around the world who came to observe for themselves the miracles centered around the spiritual teachings of Morya and Koot Hoomi as channeled through Blavatsky's mediumship.

In order to gain converts to Theosophy, Blavatsky felt obliged to perform such miraculous manifestations as the written letters from Koot Hoomi and Morya that would materialize in midair. Eventually such reports reached the attention of England's Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which dispatched Dr. Richard Hodgson (18551905), one of its most formidable researchers, to investigate. It didn't take long for Hodgson to assess the followers of Theosophy to be extremely gullible men and women who had arrived in India with expectations of finding in Blavatsky a modern miracle worker. The psychical researcher quite easily detected the sliding panels, the dummy head and shoulders of Koot Hoomi, and the cracks in the ceiling from which the letters from Mahatmas Koot Hoomi and Morya dropped down from "midair" to the astonishment of the true believers assembled around the medium. The script in which these documents was written were shown to be an amateurish attempt on the part of Blavatsky to disguise her handwriting.

Regardless of the expose published by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Theosophy continued to grow to become a worldwide movement. In 1877, Blavatsky published Isis Unveiled, and in 1887, her monumental The Secret Doctrine, which was alleged to have been written in an altered state of consciousness while attuned to higher powers. In spite of a barrage of attacks and exposures, Blavatsky's commanding personality secured a large following, and when she died in 1891 she was at the head of a large body of believers, numbering about 100,000 persons. Annie Besant (18471933) became her successor and actively preached the wisdom and insights provided in The Secret Doctrine and shepherded the movement into steadily larger growth.

Delving Deeper

Blavatsky, H. P. Collected Writings. 16 vols. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 19501985.

Harris, Iverson L. Mme. Blavatsky Defended. Santa Fe Springs, Calif.: Stockton Trade Press, 1971.

Meade, Marion. Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1980.

Murphet, Howard. When Daylight Comes: A Biography of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1975.

Rudolf Steiner (18611925)

Rudolf Steiner was born in Krajevec Austria-Hungary (now Yugoslavia), on February 27, 1861, the son of a minor railway official. By the age of eight, Steiner had experienced the unseen worlds, the invisible reality within the everyday world. Once he even perceived the apparition of a deceased relative. Because of his tendencies toward the spiritual aspects of life, it was thought for a time that Steiner might become a clergyman; but his freethinking father argued that he was a bright boy, and he envisioned him following a more practical and materially rewarding occupation as a railway engineer.

When he was 15, Steiner met Felix Kotgutski, an herbalist and metaphysician, who, when Steiner was 19, introduced him to an adept in the occult to whom Steiner referred only as "the Master." Steiner never revealed the man's identity, in keeping with occult tradition. The Master informed him of his spiritual mission in life and foretold that Steiner would develop a system of knowledge that would blend science and religion.

Wishing to please his father, Steiner took a degree in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, from the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, but he wrote his doctoral thesis, "Truth and Science," at the University of Rostock in 1891. In 1894, he published the book The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, which he described as "a biographical account of how one human soul made the difficult ascent to freedom." In the work, Steiner sought to help others discover the reality of spiritual experience and demonstrate how it could function side by side with the world of ordinary thought and experience. In his worldview, it was possible to have a spiritual science that would be an outgrowth of the true spirit of natural science.

In his thirties, Steiner awakened to an inner recognition of what he believed was the turning point in time in human spiritual historythe incarnation of the Divine Being known as the Christ. In his "Tenth Lecture on the Gospel of St. Luke," he reflects that just as a plant cannot unfold its blossom immediately after the seed has been sown, so has humankind had to progress from stage to stage until the right knowledge could be brought to maturity at the right time. Steiner is among those mystics who state that in the twentieth century humankind began to enter the "fullness" time when the Christ principle, cosmic consciousness, might once again become manifest. "Christ consciousness" is defined as a transformative energy that transcends orthodox Christianity. According to Steiner, the Master Jesus became "christed" and thereby presented humankind with an example of what it means to achieve a complete activation of the spiritual seed within all souls.

Following the example of the Master Jesus, Steiner told his students that the rest of humanity must now in imitation of Christ gradually develop "what was present for thirty-three years on the Earth in one single personality." Jesus, the Christed One, was able to implant into humanity a seed which must now unfold and grow. To Steiner, the Christ energy is the catalyst that germinates the seed that great spirit beings implanted within their human offspring. The physical seeds of male and female intermingled to produce the whole human being, but Steiner believed there was also something within each human that did not arise from the blending of the two physical seeds: a "virgin birth," something ineffable, which somehow flowed into the process of germination from a different source.

Steiner also claimed to be able to read the Akashic Records, from which he had been able to ascertain the true history of human evolution. He set forth the hypothesis that the people of prehistory, the Atlanteans, had been largely guided and directed by a higher order of beings who interacted and communicated with certain humansthe smartest, the strongest, the most intellectually flexible. Eventually, these select humans produced what might be called demigods, semidivine human beings, who, in turn, could relay instructions from higher intelligences. In effect, Steiner may have presented another definition of the children of humans and the "sons of God" referred to in the book of Genesis, the hybrids that the ancient Hebrews named "Nephilim," which does, in fact, mean demigods, men of "great renown."

Steiner went on to speculate that within the larger evolving human race were the descendents of those divine-human hybrid beings, men and women who are animated by higher ideals, who regard themselves as children of a divine, universal power. He also believed that within what he termed the emerging "Sixth Post-Atlantean Race" would be children of the divine universal power who could be able to initiate those men and women who have developed their facility of thought so that they might better unite themselves with the divine. The children of the divine universal power, those who have the "seed" within them, would be able to initiate the more advanced members of humankind. People so initiated would be able to receive revelations and perform what others would consider miracles. The initiates would go on to become the mediators between humankind and the higher intelligences. The whole point of the efforts of these higher intelligences was to enable humankind to become more independent, more able to stand on its own feet without having to rely on the higher order of beings that directed humans in ancient times.

In 1902, Steiner became the general secretary of the German Section of the Theosophical Society. His lectures had found great reception among Theosophical audiences, so Steiner felt confident that he would be comfortable joining the movement. It wasn't long, however, before he became disappointed with the society's emphasis on Eastern mysticism, for he had become convinced that the passive Eastern doctrines were incapable of satisfying the spiritual needs of the Western consciousness. Steiner also believed that its founders had distorted a number of basic metaphysical and occult truths and did not place enough emphasis on the role of the Christ and the Christian Church in humankind's spiritual evolution. In 1913, Steiner left the Theosophists and formed his own group, the Anthroposophical Society, dedicated to constructing a path for spiritual growth established on four levels of human naturethe senses, imagination, inspiration, and intuition.

In 1914, Steiner married Marie von Sievers, an actress, who had been secretary of the German Section of the Theosophical Society. His first marriage, to Anna Eunicke, had ended in divorce some years previously. Between 1910 and 1914, he had written four mystery plays and he intended to stage these, together with the dramas of Goethe, in the Goetheanum, a school for esoteric research that he founded in Dornach, near Basel, Switzerland. Together with the talents of his wife, Steiner began to develop new approaches to speech and drama, which led to the beginnings of "eurythmy," an art of movement that makes visible those inner forms of language and music formerly revealed only in the unseen levels of artistic expression. After the First World War, an international group of volunteers, together with local craftsmen, constructed the unique building designed by Steiner. The Goetheanum was opened in 1920, to serve the "awareness of one's humanity" and to support the developing work of anthroposophy. On December 31, 1922, an arsonist burned the wooden building to the ground. A new building was designed and constructed in 1923, which still serves as the international headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society.

Among Steiner's greatest legacies is his work in education and the establishment of the Waldorf School Movement, which originated from a request made by Emil Molt, director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, for a school to which his employees could send their children. Steiner died on March 30, 1925, in Dornach.

Delving Deeper

McDermott, Robert A., ed. The Essential Steiner. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

Shepherd, A. P. Rudolf Steiner: Scientist of the Invisible. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 1983.

Steiner, Rudolf. An Autobiography. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1977.

Emanuel Swedenborg (16881772)

Emanuel Swedenborg was perhaps the last of the Renaissance menhe was fluent in nine languages, wrote 150 works in 17 sciences, was expert in numerous crafts, and was a musician, a politician, and an inventor with dozens of major contributions attributed to his name. When his name is recalled today, it is usually as a Swedish mystic and medium who courted angels and cursed demons. Swedenborg claimed daily communications with the inhabitants of the unseen world, and his manifestations of remarkable psychic phenomena are well documented.

Emanuel Swedberg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 29, 1688. His father was a professor of theology at the University of Upsala, who later became the Lutheran Bishop of Scara in spite of certain opinions which appeared to challenge orthodox religious views. Emanuel completed his university education at Upsala in 1710, then traveled abroad in England, Holland, France, and Germany. In 1715, he returned to Upsala and gained a solid reputation as an engineer, leading to his appointment by Charles XII to the Swedish Board of Mines in 1716. In addition to his engineering duties, Emanuel published numerous works on mathematics, as well as mechanical engineering. Shortly thereafter, he was elevated to the rank of nobility by Queen Ulrica, and changed his name to Swedenborg.

As he sat in the House of Nobles, Swedenborg was much admired for his political views. Some of his opinions were a bit unsettling to his royal benefactors, however, for Swedenborg was openly in favor of a democratic form of government. Hardly content to pontificate in the House of Nobles, he published works on the nature of the universe, as well as papers on geology, physics, anatomy, zoology, and astronomy which were decidedly ahead of their time. In 1734, he published Prodomus Philosophia Ratiocinatrio de Infinite, which explores the relationship of the finite to the infinite and of the soul to the body. In spite of his mastery of the material sciences and mechanical engineering, it was becoming obvious to all his readers that Swedenborg's concept of the supreme effort of humankind was an intense study of the spiritual and the divine.

In 1743, when he was 56, Swedenborg had a vision in which he believed that "Our Lord" initiated him into the deeper spiritual meaning of the scriptures. The Bible was the word of God, he was told, but its true meaning differed greatly from its more apparent teachings. Only Swedenborg, with the help of ministering angels, could translate the actual message of scripture. After a series of dreams and visions, Swedenborg abandoned his life of politics and science to spend all of his considerable energy delving into the mysteries of the spiritual world. He immediately resigned all of his appointments and retired at half his pension. Not only had God revealed himself and the true spiritual essence of the scriptures to him, but Swedenborg felt that God wanted him to develop a new church. Swedenborg said that he could hear the conversations of angelic beings and could even participate in such otherworldly discussions. In time, he was given visions of both heaven and hell, and he developed the habit of lying in trance for several days and nights. His arguments with the evil spirits, the fallen angels, terrified his servants, but the gentle conversations with the benign angelic beings soothed their fears.

In 1759, Swedenborg had the vision of the great fire at Stockholm, which has been recorded as one of the first completely documented cases of clairvoyance in history and which has become well known throughout the Western world. In September, at about four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, Swedenborg arrived in Gotenburg, Sweden, from England, and was invited by a friend to spend some time at his house before returning to his home in Stockholm. While there, Swedenborg became restless and went outside for about two hours. When he came back inside, he informed his host and other guests that a terrible fire had just broken out in Stockholm (which was about 300 miles from Gotenburg) and that it was spreading rapidly. His friends did not know how to respond to such news, for they had no idea how Swedenborg could possibly know that such a dreadful conflagration was occurring at such a distance away.

Swedenborg remained agitated and restless and went outside often that day, only to return with additional dire news, as if he were somehow viewing the disaster as it occurred. Alarmed, he told the company that the house of a friend was already in ashes and that the fire was fast approaching his own home. At eight o'clock in the evening, he came back inside to announce joyfully that the awful fire had been extinguishedand that it had been stopped just three doors away from his house.

By Sunday morning, word had spread of Swedenborg's remarkable vision, and he was summoned to the governor, who questioned him about the disaster. The seer described the fire precisely, telling exactly how it had begun and precisely how it had at last been squelched. On Monday evening, a messenger dispatched by the Board of Trade during the time of the fire arrived in Gotenburg. In letters the courier had brought with him, the fire was described exactly as stated by Swedenborg, and the next morning the news was further confirmed by messages brought to the governor by royal courier. As the seer had proclaimed, the fire had been extinguished at exactly eight o'clock in the evening.

Swedenborg's conversations with the angels and spirits of the dead had informed him that humans possess two receptacles for the containment of Godthe will for divine love and the understanding for divine wisdom. Before the Fall, the flow of these virtues from God into the human spirit was perfect, but the intervention of evil and the sins of humankind itself had interrupted this once-perfect communion. The purpose of religion is to accomplish good and to establish a connection between God and the human spirit. Swedenborg came to recognize that even though he had become an apostle of God for whom no mysteries were hidden, it was not necessary for him to form a new church. All sincere members of all existing religious systems were connected as one in a spiritual sense. In spite of this apparent change of focus, Swedenborgianism did become a religion, with churches established in England in 1778 and in the United States in 1792.

Swedenborg believed strongly in what he termed the Doctrine of Correspondence: that everything in the visible, material world has a counterpart in the unseen, nonmaterial world. To those who questioned the validity of his journeys and conversations in the spiritual world, Swedenborg responded firmly that his observations of these other dimensions had been recorded as strictly as any man of science among his detractors. It had been given to him, as a scientist and as a man of spirit, to be able to reach into two worldsone of spirit, the other of matter.

From the time he was 55 until his death, Swedenborg spoke to spirits of the deceased and to angelic beings. According to his constant dialogues with such entities, he said that the spirit world was comprised of a number of concentric spheres, each with its own density and inhabitants. The existence of the spirits was quite similar to that of Earth, with houses, trees, parks, schools, and so forth. Those who died of disease or old age regained their youth and health in the spirit world. Everyone who arrived on those ethereal planes after death rested for a few days before regaining full consciousness. Because on Earth it takes a man and a woman to form a complete human unit, marriage continues to exist as a spiritual union on the other side. There is no such thing as hell or eternal punishment. Those spirits who find themselves in a hellish place after death can evolve toward a higher spiritual plane.

In spite of it being granted to him "to be constantly and uninterruptedly in company with spirits and angels," Swedenborg did issue a caution in regard to receiving counsel from just any spirit that might manifest with an alleged personal message. "When spirits begin to speak," he wrote in Miscellaneous Theological Works (1996), "care should be taken not to believe them, for nearly everything they say is made up by them.They love to feign. Whatever be the topic spoken of, they think they know it, and if man listens and believes, they insist, and in various ways deceive and seduce."

From 1747 onward, Swedenborg lived at various times in Stockholm, Holland, and London, where he died on March 29, 1772. He was first buried in the Swedish Church in Prince's Square, then, later, at the request of the Swedish government, his body was sent to Stockholm for reinterment.

Delving Deeper

Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Providence. New York: The Swedenborg Foundation, 1972.

. Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell. New York: Citadel Press, 1965.

Wilson, Colin. The Occult. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.


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Mystics are individuals who follow a path towards a final goal or sustained state that is understood as somehow transcending, moving beyond, or more deeply perceiving or intuiting the conventional world of names and forms experienced by ordinary human beings. Prominent mystics, representing various religious traditions, include: eighth century Tibetan mystic Yeshe Tsogyal; Abhinavagupta (tenth century); Muhammed Ibn 'Ali Ibn 'Arabi (1165-1240); Julian of Norwich (1342-1416); St. Birgitta of Sweden (1471-1528); Rabbi Nachman of Brazlav (1772-1816); Ramakrishna (1836-1886); and Thomas Merton (1915-1968). Mystical experience resists easy generalization because of the great variety in personal practices of individual mystics and the marked differences in the broader contextual narratives of individual mystical experiences. Nevertheless, mystics commonly experience unusual states of awareness, utilize poetry and song as vehicles of self-expression, and remind members of societies in which they find themselves, through the attitude of eschewing limits, of the boundaries sometimes imposed by conventional living. At the same time, many mystics recognize their deepest experiences of transcendence within the conventional world, thereby pointing to paradoxes embedded within the mystical life itself.

See also Mystical Experience; Mysticism

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