Sunday, November 13, 2011

On memory and mysticism

Mysticism has gotten a bad press. Too many people associate it with something vaguely mystifying or occult. Although it is a term impossible to define, I am convinced that all of us have mystical moments in which we are able to step out of ourselves and feel a brief sense of union with something greater than ourselves. Often this happens when time seems to stand still and we are struck with wonder and awe at creation.

It seems that much great art and music, like contemplative silence, has this capacity to give us a sense of the timeless present, a taste of eternity in the here and now. Many writers have tried to describe such transcendent experiences. One was C. S. Lewis recalling a moment from childhood and overcome by a desire "from a depth not of years but of centuries."

In his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, Lewis says he tried to find words to convey the strength of his sensation, which was a feeling of desire so brief that it was gone "before I knew what I desired." Then the "world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing which had just ceased."

How many of us have had such moments "in and out of time," as Eliot calls them? In the first part of his Four Quartets ("Burnt Norton"), T. S. Eliot explores the relation between time and the timeless, specifically the way memory can give hints of transcendence, evoking half-forgotten childhood moments in what he called the rose garden, which represents both some memory of an unfulfilled desire and a place of spiritual fulfillment, a hint of eternity.

Recalling the "unheard music" of ghost-like presences hidden in the shubbery of a childhood garden, he describes, or tries to describe, a vision glittering like Dante's vision of heaven with its "heart of light." This is not an easy poem, as the poet recognizes when he mentions the struggle with language that all mysticism involves. The mystic wants to describe his or her vision yet words strain, "Crack and sometimes break."

Reading all this again, I was reminded of one or two moments in which time and place seemed to give way to a sense of something that could be called eternal--one in my childhood, one in my 20s, when I found myself enjoying a picture-perfect day in a park in St. Louis, looking at ordinary trees and grass and sky yet feeling, almost like Thomas Merton in his famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, a moment or two of longing that seemed to transport me briefly into an unknown part of my childhood. I felt safe and removed from the ordinary reality of my daily life, as if in a corner of the garden of Eden.

In somewhat the same way, an old song from the 1940s can pull me out of the present into an era I hardly knew, evoking scenes with couples dancing to such music in formal ballrooms somewhere. What's interesting is the way several levels of memory come together with imagination, since the music brings with it a visual sense, never experienced but only dreamed of or half-remembered from old films.

I find I am having the usual difficulty of trying to describe the ineffable, if that is not too grand a term for the rich sense we have of a reality beyond time, bits of which come to us when we're open to receiving them. It seems that we all have such mystical experiences. If we are lucky, we remember them; if we are talented, we can write them with enough clarity to make them memorable again.

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