The poem by Juan de la Cruz, ‘On a Dark Night,’ recently posted, gives a picture, as well as words can express such a subject, of a mystical experience: a departure from the ‘house’ in the dead of night by a ‘secret stair,’ led by the light of the heart to a blissful union with God. Many people find the poetry of this 16th C. Spanish Carmelite deeply moving, for he speaks with tenderness, delicacy and certainty of the inner life. What is more, unlike many poets, he offers explanation of his poems; in his book “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel,” he carefully unfolds every verse, so that the reader need be in no doubt as to his meaning.
There are, of course, a number of different opinions about the possibility of such a union. There are some who feel that a human being is such a small, limited creature, filled with faults and imperfections, (some would say, ‘sinful by nature’) that to claim any kind of direct experience of God is foolish at best, and may be dangerously heretical. Amongst Sufis, the story of Mansur al Hallaj is well known: in a moment of mystical realisation he said, “Ana-al Haqq!” meaning, “I am the Truth.” As ‘al Haqq’ is one name of the Divine in Islam, the religious authorities accused him of claiming that he was God, and in the end al Hallaj paid for his unguarded exclamation with his life. (It is not for nothing that the wise always counsel, ‘do not speak of your experiences’!)
Others teach that union is possible, but only through the aid or intercession of some illuminated being, a prophet or saint or teacher or avatar who can lift us above our limitations to glimpse the divine reality. In this case, it is our devotion that earns the attention of the agent of grace. Many of the Christian saints who report some experience of union describe coming to that state by the help and compassion of Jesus.
A third point of view is that even to speak of union is meaningless, not because it can never be achieved but because God, the Real, is One and Indivisible; therefore there can never be a separation. In his “Garden of Mystery” [tr. Robert Abdul Hayy Darr] Mahmud Shabistari writes,
The Exalted Presence of the Real has no duality.
In that Presence there is no me, you or we.
Me, you and we are but one and the same thing
since in the Unity there’s no distinguishing.
In this understanding, the feeling of separation is sustained by our attachment to the illusion of our own identity. When we let that false claim drop, there may be a feeling of ‘merging’ with the Divine, but it might be more descriptive to say there is a recognition that we were never absent from that for which we had been seeking for so long.
For most seekers, this recognition comes not all at once but in stages, expressed very beautifully in these verses from Hazrat Inayat Khan’s Vadan :
When Thou didst sit upon Thy throne, with a crown upon Thy head,
I did prostrate myself upon the ground and called Thee my Lord.
When Thou didst stretch out Thy hands in blessing over me,
I knelt and called Thee my Master.
When Thou didst raise me from the ground, holding me with Thine arms,
I drew closer to Thee and called Thee my Beloved.
But when Thy caressing hands held my head next to Thy glowing heart and Thou didst kiss me,
I smiled and called Thee myself.
Such a progression comes in its own time, according to the wisdom of destiny and the generosity of divine grace, but we could learn this lesson from the Vadan: prostration and kneeling are preparations for the divine union. If we claim to love the Divine, but our knees are too stiff to bend before His creatures, then perhaps we have not cast off as many veils as we think.