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Posted August 3, 2005

Book: Spirituality as Insight: Mystical Texts and Theological Reflection
Author: Frans Maas
Peeters, Leuven – Paris – Dudley, MA, pp.176

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

The climbing of a mountain is a common image for spiritual growth. This growth brings with it a corresponding increase in quality of life. By using the term quality of life I am pointing to the working out of spirituality and mysticism in our concrete, everyday existence.

Something as indefinable as “Quality” has a central place in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, the bestseller from the nineteen-seventies. At one point the book is concerned with mountain climbing. The author, Robert M. Pirsig, tells how he was on a climbing expedition together with his young son. The exertion of climbing made the boy irritable; he was overdoing it. As the father reflected on this he realized that this was the result of the same kind of attitude that his son had recently learnt in a youth camp. There you had to show that you were a man. Through a sequence of physical accomplishments in swimming, tying knots, running and so on you could show what your worth was. Perhaps this is good when you are young, thought the father. Or, in any case, it would at least make the boys a lot more enthusiastic if they were involved in an ego contest. But in the long run such motivation is fatal. For the one who climbs a mountain in order to show how fit he is achieves an empty victory. He displays an image of himself that he has to maintain time and time again, constantly plagued by fear of losing face. This unnatural image, the pressure to maintain it, and the fear of being unmasked – that cannot be the way. That much was also obvious from the fatigued moodiness of his son.

Then the father remembered his own similar experience when, together with others, he made a pilgrimage to the holy mountain Kailas, home of Shiva, high in the Himalayas. This experience brought him to insight. He wrote about it as follows in the third person.

“He never reached the mountain. After the third day he gave up, exhausted, and the pilgrimage went on without him. He said he had the physical strength but that physical strength wasn’t enough. He had the intellectual motivation but that wasn’t enough either. He didn’t think he had been arrogant but thought that he was undertaking the pilgrimage to broaden his experience, to gain understanding for himself. He was trying to use the mountain for his own purposes and the pilgrimage too. He regarded himself as the fixed entity, not the pilgrimage or the mountain, and thus wasn’t ready for it. He speculated that the other pilgrims, the ones who reached the mountain, probably sense the holiness of the mountain so intensely that each footstep was an act of devotion, an act of submission to this holiness. The holiness of the mountain infused into their own spirits enabled them to endure far more than anything he, with his greater physical strength, could take.”

Here we see someone coming to insight. This sheds light on what he sees in his son’s plodding. He recognizes that as long as one wants to achieve out one’s own self-interest – albeit on a spiritual level – one is dependent on the power of one’s own ego. However great that may be it always remains limited and so one will never tap the infinite power that surrounds and carries one. The other pilgrims may have had less psychological motivation and less physical fitness, but their motivation was different. They did not climb for themselves. Through their commitment to the mountain and their surrender to the pilgrimage process they tapped a power that they could not get simply through their own ability or through mutual encouragement. They were not worn out by their own limitations. For it is the mountain itself that feeds those who proceed in this manner.

This nourishment does not consist of extraordinary phenomena but is found in the ordinary things that one easily overlooks. Such people will not miss a ray of sunlight between the trees. They rest when their bodies tell them so. They have not desire to be further than they are. Each moment and each point on the mountain path is good and they have peace with it. They do not hurry, they do not chase themselves along, they do not drive away the possibilities of the here and now. The goal of the mountain pilgrimage is certainly not to be grasped but it is nevertheless always present in a certain sense. It does not lie far away; it is not outside themselves. Such people become selfless climbers, in contrast to ego climbers. In the midst of their own efforts they are fed and find release.

. . . This book is concerned with mystical texts and theological reflection with reference to spiritual insight. In the first place I will show, with reference to two great figures in the Christian mystical tradition – Meiter Eckhart and John of the Cross – how coming to insight involves a three-fold rhythm: being touched, losing one’s sight and the finding of insight as this relates to quality of life. Following this I will discuss texts from three other authors: Therese of Lisieux, Etty Hillesum and Dag Hammarskjold. They were themselves readers of mystical literature: Therese knew John of the Cross, Etty Hillesum read Echkart and Hammarskjold knew both of them. These three authors stand closer to us in time. Current questions of meaning, especially as it relates to suffering, influence the framework in which they viewed quality of life. While the last two are from Jewish and Lutheran backgrounds respectively they too can be seen as representative of the mystical tradition. In their writings one can see an unmistakable growth to an extraordinarily intensive experience of God which enables them to face life with a more than ordinary power and inspiration.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Hammarskjold learnt humility and friendship — two things that were extremely difficult for him – from others.

. . . “Goodness is something so simple: always to live for others, never to seek one’s own advantage”

“To be free, to be able to stand up and leave everything behind – without looking back. To say Yes —“

“If only I may grow: firmer, simpler — quieter, warmer”

“Your position never gives you the right to command. It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others can receive your orders without being humiliated.”

Table of Contents:


Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross
Guides for a mystical orientation

Dag Hammarskjold
‘The dissolution of the self in pure light’

St. Therese of Lisieux
‘I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth’

Etty Hillesum
‘In me is the earth and in me is heaven’

Beauty and religion

Venturing and working

Kierkegaard and Eckhart