Part 1. Boundaries
Words are an ancient magic. It is a magic that comes into the world through the contact with humans, the way a spark comes into the world through contact between granite and flint. And much like act of striking special stones to create fire has been learned and taught, so too has the performance of word magic been passed on through our human ancestors, its integrity preserved across millennia in the form of storytelling.
In magic there is a power. If what gives our words and storytelling power is their ability to reveal, then what makes their performance magical is the manner in which they simultaneously conceal. Magic requires this boundary: between revelation and concealment. That which is revealed must keep its origins hidden from view or else risks becoming an act of banality, counted among the ordinary and non-magical.
Magic needs a boundary that we can provide. Our words and stories create boundaries, and in so doing we provide a particularly wide aperture for magic to enter the world. Through language we draw a line. In this singular act we create two sides: inside and outside. On the inside appears a “something,” which is somewhere and somewhen—positive space. If the appearance of positive space is the ground for revelation, then it is negative space where the disappearance and concealment occurs. The contrast to the interior “something” is an outside that is the domain of “nothing,” which is nowhere and nowhen.
Through our storytelling we turn a continuous flow into a sequence of events, placing boundaries to create a foreground narrative and hide away an invisible background, separating the world into the meaningful and meaningless. No matter what is revealed through our words and what meaning we create in our stories, something will always be left unsaid, unseen, and out of reach. On the inside of the boundary, we cultivate the familiar and known, but on the other side lurks the unknown, shading into the increasingly dark, unfamiliar, and foreign, the outermost boundaries of which we name the unknowable.
Revealing and making “something” visible has the inevitable consequence of concealment and making “no-thing” invisible. The two sides of the boundary are not created in a sequence but at once—opposites come into the world together. The world does not create sticks with only one end. Break one end of a stick off and you will still have two ends (also, two shorter sticks). If you want to take part in word magic, you cannot have one side of the boundary without the other. This should tell us that if ever we encounter one, then there will always already be the other. This existential link between the two sides of the boundary means that change on one side cannot help but inversely alter the other. Our words change the boundary of our experience in as much as we change the boundary of their form and meaning—we define each other. This is also the relationship between humans and culture, the storyteller and their story: we create culture and culture creates us; we use language to express our experience and what we experience is affected by the manner of our storytelling. Magic does not lay on one side or the other of the boundary, nor does is come from the mere fact of the opposition. Magic is created in the movement between.
The success of our word magic in creating so-many “somethings” has made possible the belief that we humans possess language, as though words are like those special rocks used to make sparks—objects we can hold and give us power. But as our attention is captured by the firelight and what has been revealed, the concealment happens behind our backs, in the blurry darkened edges beyond our field of view. That which has been revealed can be held, manipulated, and is prevented from surprising us, but that which is beyond our reach has the power to hold and shape and surprise us. We have forgotten that we don’t just possess language and use it as a tool to control the physical world; we are also possessed by language and in some sense, we live in an environment that is narrative in its structure as much as it is physical. In ways that are superficial and deeply hidden, we live inside of a story, one with its own mysterious origin.
Here we will explore what happens when we make the flip and allow that which is hidden away by our word to become revealed and restore the magic. Is there a way to open a portal to the mystery that lines the boundary of the known self we believe to be inside, and the unknown self of the world we have understood to be out there? How do we become more aware of the bigger stories we are living within? Is there a way to learn the greater story, the Story? Or if we take a page from Jeffrey Kripal’s book, we might ask how can we become authors of our own impossible story, a Super Story?
Words themselves tell stories and form paths that, if followed far enough, can bring us to an edge, the mysterious meeting place between known and unknown. We will begin the journey with the word “mystery,” whose ancestral story is most commonly set within Ancient Greece, and the secretive practices and religious rites enacted through festivals known as Mystêria, which we now know as the Greek Mysteries.
Part 2. The Mysteries
At the root of our word “mystery” is a Greek verb, muo, which simply means to close the eyes or lips. This verb is the same root from which we get “mute.” Notice that pronouncing the word requires we begin by closing our lips. Add to the silence of this mouth gesture the insistence on secrecy implied in our contemporary phrase “my lips are sealed,” and we will be ready for an introduction to a family of related terms derived from that same root, all of which are associated with the Greek Mysteries: mysterion (the secret rites enacted in the Mysteries), mystes (the ones initiated into the Mysteries), and mystikos (an adjective referring to something connected to the Mysteries but also something that is generically private and secret).
The first of the Mysteries began in the agrarian town of Eleusis where a cult was formed that worshipped Demeter, goddess of agriculture and the harvest, and mother to Persephone. The Eleusinian Mystery developed into a ritualized re-enactment of a story involving Demeter that later became memorialized as a Homeric hymn. In one telling of the story, Persephone is taken by Hades, king of the underworld, and in the wrath of Demeter’s search for her daughter and the grief of her loss, the crops cease to grow. Whether because of Demeter’s descent into the underworld as part of her search, or the commandment by Persephone’s father Zeus, who wished to prevent everyone from starving, Hades relents and there is a glorious reuniting of mother and daughter in the world above. In some versions there is a catch where Persephone eats pomegranate seeds during her stay in the underworld, an act that obligates her to return every year, perpetuating the cycle.
The Eleusinian Mystery was the most prominent and celebrated of the Mysteries. It’s observance persisted through Roman rule until AD 392. During it’s nearly 2000-year run, other Mystery cults formed, which were referred to either by a placename or the particular deity on which the rituals were based. Each of the more than a dozen Mysteries that developed in the Greco-Roman period served different social functions including safety at sea, well-being in the afterlife, and cures for madness.
This is the cultural setting that produced the language for the contemporary forms of sacred worship we know as mysticism. Some of these words masquerade in their secular and generic forms, but their secret legacy persists, nonetheless. The Romans, for example, translated Mystêria as initia, the derivation of “initiation,” whereas the Latin translation of mysticum is what becomes “mystery.” However, the question remains: What was the big secret? What was so important that the betrayal of this secret was punishable by death under Athenian law. And what allowed the Eleusinian Mysteries, in particular, to sustain its prominence in the lives and minds of the initiates?
In Brian Muraresku’s recent work on the Eleusinian Mysteries, The Immortality Key, he pursues answers to these very questions. In the book’s epigraph he hints at an answer, in Greek and English. It is a Greek saying inscribed into a wall at Saint Paul’s Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece, the translation of which reads: “If you die before you die, you won’t die when you die.” Muraresku is one of many scholars to emphasize the significance of the Mysteries, especially those practiced at Eleusis, in maintaining a relationship to the afterlife and keeping alive in our minds the concept of transformational renewal as a kind of cosmic habit, part of the natural order, part of us. A surface reading of what went on at the Eleusinian Mysteries would be to say, not wrongly, that people participated in a multi-day ritual that culminated in a climatic and ecstatic ceremony celebrating re-union and re-birth, which was inaugurated by a figurative death and symbolized through a story in which there is a descent below the surface, followed by an ascent, all of which coincides with the seasonal wheat harvest. The deeper reading requires us to stretch and imagine how in the movement between above and below, a secret was revealed: the “blessed sight and vision” and “holiest of Mysteries” that was celebrated in a “state of perfection,” in words of one initiate, namely Plato, who was among those initiated at Eleusis.
Muraresku’s work extends an academic tradition that asks whether the drink, kykeon, consumed as part of the Eleusinian Mystery ritual, was infused with ergot, a psychoactive fungus that commonly grows on wheat. This is the very same ergot whose derivatives Albert Hoffman had been experimenting with in 1938 that lead to his accidental discovery of LSD a few years later. In other words, the hypothesis in question is whether the initiations at Eleusis involved drinking a psychedelic potion, which would seem to connect a lot of dots. The evidence is compelling even if a few key dots needed to make some connections are missing, for now. But the overall ideas put forth in the pursuit of this particular question are the same as more general ones debated among Classical scholars. That question is whether the Mysteries were, ah, mystical, which is to say whether a mystical experience was the defining character or even a character of the Mysteries. A secondary question was whether part of the secretive nature of the whole affair was the revelation that occurred within that experience, which we have good reason to believe was connected with the cycle of death, rebirth, and notions of the immortal and perfected.
Some of the same themes engaged in the pursuit of questions related to the Greek Mysteries are also found in the broader discourse on the origins of religion. In the work of people like Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, who surveyed and made links, real or imagined, among a diverse set of cultures and myths, embodied in both the deceased ancestors of antiquity and the living descendants in whom the practices and symbolic language are still observed. Across this span of cultural time and space they saw many commonalities from which we cannot exclude the Greek Mysteries: a relationship to and incorporation of the non-human world in ceremony; participation in initiation rites; experiences and descriptions of dismemberment and travel into non-physical worlds or underworlds; and resurrection or return with a retrieved soul, healing, blessing, curse, prophecy, and the possession of magical powers.
Human culture is a story of continuity—whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, we cannot help but be a product of our past, the whole past. This has always been the case as it was for the Greeks and the many streams in human consciousness whose confluence they represented. Today, it is not difficult to draw a circle around all of this and name it mystical. That circle forms a lens and gives us the hindsight of history. With the themes of death, transformative re-birth, and immortality—not dying when we die—it is also easy to see the way in which the Greek lens began to be shaped by Christian ideas and language. A calendar is all we need to see the influence. It was in AD 525 that the Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus memorialized (but infamously miscalculated) the mythic birth of Jesus Christ as AD 1, not even bothering to acknowledge anything that came before. The further we get from our pagan past, the more that past becomes translated into new terms, literally and figuratively. And such was the case with the Mysteries in the millennia that followed.
Bernard McGinn is an endearing and accomplished theologian. Perhaps more than any other in recent generations, he has dedicated himself to the scholarship of Christian mysticism. Through McGinn’s telling of the tradition’s history in his many books and lectures, we learn that mystikos was one of the Greek terms adopted by Christians in the second century. These early Christians used this word to describe the depth dimension in sacred texts and the hidden aspects of their beliefs, practices, and rites, all of which reflect or invoke mystery, in this case the mystery of God whose concealment was revealed through Jesus to the saints. By the late fourth and early fifth century, mystikos is still used descriptively but now in the context of the mystical union with God. Not until the seventeenth century do we encounter the nouns “mystic” and “mysticism,” which McGinn reminds us, comes out of a tradition not of mystics practicing mysticism, as such, but by what was known (in the Latin) as contemplatsio, the contemplative life, whose practitioners were referred to as contemplativi or contemplatives.
Mysticism becomes incorporated into the technical vocabulary used by religious scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The terms “mystical” and “spiritual,” as they are known in popular culture today, are likewise recent conventions that developed in the twentieth century. Due in large part to figures like William James, the idea of mystical experience took hold in academic discourse and then became increasingly incorporated into the American vernacular, a tradition many of us now live within and refer to as “spiritual but not religious.”
Lest we believe Christianity the only religion with a mystical tradition, Judaism and Islam maintained their own mystical elements, the former known as Kabbalah, the latter through Sufism and the concept of Hikmah. This is also not to mention the Eastern religious forms of mysticism or those implicit in the culture of First Nations and so-called indigenous people the world-round. But in so much as the vocabulary of mysticism come to us through American English, the Greek and Christian ancestry offer one way to place ourselves in history by looking at what is hiding under the surface of our everyday speech.
Understanding the etymology for something as simple as “mystery” helps us to restore the dignity and cultural significance of contemporary spiritual practice by many names. It reminds us that the world given to and disclosed to us through language is inherited. By placing our language within a historical context, we discovery the ways in which our story is already inside of a larger narrative and, in so doing, we widen the aperture needed to make sense of our own experiences. And in an even more mysterious sense, we also teach the mystical impulse itself—the Divine—how to speak in the language of our day. This is how we continue the legacy. The continuation requires only that we look beyond the boundaries created by our words.
Gregory the Great was born almost 150 years after the last time the secret rites were observed at Eleusis. He wrote and read in what we have come to refer to as a mystical tradition. During his tenure as pope, he said of the “diving word,” by which he meant the sacred texts of his day, that they were “like a river that is smooth and deep, in which both a lamb may wade, and an elephant may swim.” Words gives us surface and depth. Let us now move into deeper waters. Let our reading be with eyes that look for the divine word in the boundary between the surface and the mystery below, from which our ears and heart may hear a quiet calling, one that whispers back another passage of the Super Story.
Part 3. Mystery Calls
For anyone today who considers themselves mystically inclined or finds themselves captured by a force that is beyond the reach of your words—the current boundary of your meaningful world—then this may be part of your origin story, your Super Story. “What we can grasp gives us knowledge. What grabs us gives us wisdom.” This is an expression of what grabbed Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, which then grabbed Brother David Steindl-Rast, who summarized the influence of his fellow mystic with those words.
We have been so successful at grabbing the world and delighted in what we have found, we forget the inevitable consequence that is the return to nothing, the force that is reaching and, in the end, will grab us. The Greek Mysteries remind us that nothing can be reborn if it does not die, the cycle requires the movement between, and we need only accept the invitation to the initiation. Endings, death by another name, refers not only to events marked on a calendar, just as the eternal is not just a lot of years—it is here and now, calling. The question is whether we are listening. Have we put ourselves in a position where we can be grabbed, or are we too busy with what is in our hands?
The mystical is an invitation, a beckoning, and the mystic a messenger and humble servant, trying to give whatever words and gestures of good faith they have to faithfully relay its message. We do this in full knowledge that such an act is a fool’s errand; for as to what we are invited, exactly, and the meaning of the message, we cannot really say. Rather, we can know and but somehow consistently fail to say, at least in any enduring way. In this failing, we can delight together, for in the mystery we recognize an un-nameable boundary that puts us all on the inside, effectively erasing any boundaries whatsoever. And it is from this unbounded inside that we persist and encourage each other in our folly. From the inside of the mystical vision, we can share in the frustration of seeing that behind the surface of the irresistibly inspirational is the essentially inexpressible and inexhaustible.
It is from this union of opposing forces that the artist and mystic are born, and, strangely, in having opened a space between these two realms, we can truly live because we have died before we died. In this afterlife we hear the calling more clearly and perhaps it is the proximity to this source that defines what it means to have aged, to have lived, regardless of how many birthdays we have celebrated. Perhaps in the years or decades prior to this transformation it is not so much that the calling was silent, just that it suffered a loss of fidelity, and so registered only as whispers. Do you hear it now? What is it saying? What is it asking? How will you answer? What question do you get in response? What life is called to be lived before our next death?
Life is spent trying to hear, and death is spent trying to speak. We are the space where the conversation has the briefest of moments to take place. We are the ground, both hallowed and cursed, where these two forces meet. We are the between. And it is in the direction of the between that we face for prayer. It is in this direction where the ancestors of the past and future gather, where the human and non-human converge but remain diverse, where self and other share a belly laugh, and where the bigness of an impossible universe meets the smallness of a quiet moment together, as two, as one, as none.
When we take the time to notice, we will see the boundary. And any doubt of its existence will be removed as we cross the boundary and see something we may have not even known was there get erased. The crossing is one in which things and events are undone in a way that they can never be re-done in quite the same way. This means the crossing only ever happens in one direction. It is the opening of a cave, where even light does not venture very far; it is the sandy shoreline between the solid rock of land and the salty breadth of the ocean extended to the horizon; it is the divide between the water’s rippled surface facing the sky and its receding depths facing the black underworld; it is the place where the airy skin of atmosphere around our planet gives way to the black expanse we call outer space; it is the event horizon of a blackhole to which matter and light and information are irresistibly drawn, but render any that cross its threshold silent and incapable of expressing the view from the other side. Once we reach the threshold of mystery, we need only let the gravity of the beyond take us. Then in our silence, it will speak, and we will we hear. In the hearing, we are dis-membered; in the being spoken through, we are re-membered; in the remembering, a universe is born, and we with it; in the birthing, a dying awaits; in the outer, the inner, and the between, there is Love. That is enough wisdom to live a good life and it is the breath with which all mystics speak, out loud and in the silence of their hearts. It is a path we are writing and reading together. It is our Super Story, which is a mystery even to its authors. But that is kind of the point: don’t be afraid to be in the mystery between.