• brucepaynejohnston

Mystery and its Absence

Mystery is not much engaged in modern culture. One could almost say that a major public thrust of the last five hundred years has been to banish mystery from public and personal life outside of that which is useful to the state. A brief survey of the treatment of mystical sects like Sufis, Kabbalists and Gnostic Christians by the three major Abrahamic religions, as well as orthodox Hindus and Buddhists, does not show encouraging things. Even in the USA, a land with a good deal more religious freedom than most countries - and, might I add, where it means more because so much of the population actually is religious - remained entirely suspicious of homegrown modern saints and mystics like Peace Pilgrim and Joseph Campbell throughout their lives.

This is a great shame and a very negative development. Without the capacity and desire to engage and live with mystery in the world, one becomes what we have become: a tyrannical people largely dedicated to comfort and distraction, equally terrified of death and life. What is worse, we miss the ‘main event’ of life – its delicious, utterly wild, and beautiful song, unfolding moment to moment, utterly beyond any attempt at or desire for quantification or analysis. We are primarily sad because we long to sing, yet can find few to sing with, and even fewer who will encourage us. We have to fight to find space for mystery in our lives, despite the fact that it is ever-present if we know how to feel it.

If you want to resist this trend, it’s not always an easy thing to do. You have to behave in a countercultural way a good deal of the time, and paying real attention to life in the present takes every bit as much discipline and determination as learning mathematics, playing music, or developing one’s athletic capacity. Not many people are going to understand why you do what you do, or why you aren’t tempted by the baubles of consumerism or scraps of connection offered in the business world. In a way, those with fewer resources financially are blessed in endeavors like these, because they know all too well that the dreams offered up by commerce and government aren’t made for them.

In the words of my teacher Martin Prechtel, we’re not here to rule the world, to get our way, or to prove ourselves superior to the rest of life. We’re here to be beautiful. And we’re most beautiful when we’re really here, when we sing along with and to life rather than keep an intellectualized distance from it.

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