Father Bede Griffith: On Religion in Conflict with Mysticism

We are discussing mysticism and our experiences of the divine.  Father Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk who pioneered interfaith or deep ecumenism from his ashram in southern India for over fifty years, warns about the struggle between religion and mysticism in the following passage:

“Портрет о. Беды Гриффитса ” (Father Bede Griffiths, OSB CAM) Image by Maria Zakharova. Wikipedia.

All religion derives from a mystical experience, transcending thought, and seeks to express this experience, to give it form, in language, ritual, and social organization.  Myth is the language of primitive religion; it is the poetic expression of a mystical experience.  Myths ….spring from the depths where man encounters the ultimate mystery of existence and interprets it in poetic form….In all [religious] systems the danger is that the logical structure and rational doctrine will obscure the mystical vision, so inherent is the tendency of the rational mind to seek to dominate the truth which it should serve.  This is the danger of all religion. 

It begins with a mystical experience, the experience of the seers of the Upanishads, of the Buddha under the bo tree, of the Hebrew prophets and the apostles at Pentecost, of Mahomet receiving the message of the Koran.  But this experience has to be put into words, it has to descend into the outer world and take the forms of human speech.  Already at this stage it is open to misinterpretation; the conflict between the letter and the spirit begins.  Then the logical and rational mind comes and creates systems of thought: heresies and sects spring up, and the Truth is divided.  This is due to the defect of the rational mind, imposing its narrow concepts and categories on the universal truth.  Yet it cannot be avoided because the Truth must be proclaimed.   

Aquinas’ two forms of revelation. Photo by FotoRieth on Pixabay.

Here Griffiths describes the split between spirituality and religion, a split that is dangerous, yet “cannot be avoided.”  The mystical experience is beyond words, yet humans have an intrinsic desire to share our truth. 

But the moment we put the experience into words, we start to fight over the words: “the conflict between the letter and the spirit begins.”  A “defect of the rational mind” robs the universal truth of its authenticity–and, we might add, sells its soul readily to powerful forces of empire, militarism, nationalism, etc.   A kind of idolatry takes over.      

Adapted From Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, pp. 260, 254
Bede Griffiths quote from Return to the Center, p. 105, 76.
Banner image: “The ruins of the church of St Dunstan-in-the-East in the heart of London” Photo © Chris White, Adobe Stock

Queries for Contemplation

Take a phrase or word from this meditation and be still with it, letting it wash over you and through and through you.  Repeat it as a mantra.  Be with the silence that follows.  Be with, be with…. 

From this place of stillness, consider the following questions:

How can we prevent this conflict?  How can we be on our toes to see this inherent danger of the rational mind?  Does this analysis help to explain why healthy mysticism is often lacking in seminary training and the rest, why mystical illiteracy so often reigns?

How can we preserve and honor mystical experience as a primary, universal truth?      

Recommended Reading

The 365 writings in Christian Mystics represent a wide-ranging sampling of these readings for modern-day seekers of all faiths — or no faith. The visionaries quoted range from Julian of Norwich to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Thomas Merton to Dorothee Soelle and Thomas Berry.

Responses are welcomed. To add your comment, please click HERE or scroll to the bottom of the page.

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4 thoughts on “Father Bede Griffith: On Religion in Conflict with Mysticism”

  1. Avatar

    EXCELLENT. And yes….the mystical experience is beyond words! I think it is in Moyers/ Campbell book “The power of the myth”, but Joseph Campbell makes a comment that mystics from ALL paths inherently understand one another!

  2. Avatar

    I think I understand the desire to share the experience. Maybe, there could be some encouragement to allowing plenty of time to pass before putting words to the experience, with the understanding that, as soon as words are written or spoken, there is something created that is certainly a reality distinct from what the words are meant to describe. So, no rush. Or maybe, use other expressions, like graphic art or dance or music, instead of words. Or, maybe, just silently let the experience manifest itself in some compassionate action. (Has it always got to be discussed?)

    1. Gail Ransom

      Thank you, Mark, for your thoughts. A mystical experience is possible to share, but not describe. Yesterday I tried to share a profound experience with my family. It felt like I was describing a recent road trip. No amount of superlatives could convey what had happened. I hope you find ways to advocate for staying with the after glow of a mystical experience as long as possible. It is very wise. Busy Westerners need to hear this.
      Gail Sofia Ransom

  3. Avatar

    Thanks Gail, for the words. One sense I have, is that there is an impulse (in me) to describe the experience so as to end it–to put a period there, or to enclose it, box it up. (The next thought in this sequence, is to keep it from getting too crazy.) I think I have learned this kind of response from our culture and I’m not sure it serves us well. Being this old, timid person that I am, I haven’t a clue really, about advocacy, but I certainly sense how good it could be, to respond with less fear. How could that be?

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