Sunday, November 17, 2013

Mystical tests

My class on contemplation is discussing mysticism these days.  We've read John of the Cross and Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī; Margery Kempe and anonymous Carthusians -- not to mention William James.  Along with the classic literature, we've been reading modern psychology papers that try to quantify and characterize mysticism. Can you identify mystics using various scales?  How can a mystical experience be assessed?  

We used the Hood mysticism scale to assess various of the mystics we read (citing evidence from their writings).  But can you circumscribe, qualitatively or quantitatively, what is by definition an indescribable experience?  Can you eff the ineffable?  Along the way we ran across a paper (which we were surprised and delighted to find was co-authored by Patient Spiritual Director) which used the Hood scale, along with scales about narcissism and ego-grasping, to discriminate between psychosis and mystical experiences.  

We had a terrific conversation on Wednesday with psychologist Sidney Callahan, a Bryn Mawr alum and the author of Women Who Hear Voices:  The Challenge of Religious Experience (and 11 other books) about the interplay between mysticism and psychopathology.  Can you have a mystical experience that is apart from a religious tradition?  What role does priming and expectancy bias play? And perhaps for me the most interesting question she raised was, are we hard wired to be contemplatives? Thomas Merton rather thought so, or at least he thought it was part of the standard toolbox of the prayerful.  

Today I found this quiz for figuring out your "spiritual type" — I, and it seems everyone I know, is a mystic.  Maybe Merton is right, we are all mystics.


  1. I was a sage.


  2. Me, I'm a lover! Go figure!

    Sydney Callahan - wonderful. Her work has always interested me.

    1. She was a wonderful dinner companion! And yes, Fran, you have a big heart!!