In Speechless Ecstasy

Seppälä, Serafim 2003. In Speechless Ecstasy: Expression and Interpretation of Mystical Experience in Classical Syriac and Sufi Literature. Helsinki: Finnish Oriental Society.

According to the hypothesis underlying this study, Syriac and Sufi texts refer repeatedly to and deal with something "mystical" which is obviously non-linguistic in nature, yet is expressed linguistically under the conditions and restrictions of natural language; this something is an important factor constituting the character of the discourse, but it does not submit to being an object of research. For this reason, we must place it in brackets and content ourselves with the documented process of expression and interpretation. (Seppälä 2003: 1)
The case is not all that different from verbal descriptions of nonverbal behaviour. The bodily movements themselves are not accessible, but the linguistic expressions are.
Jewish sectarian believers in Christ have left no literature of their own, but some traces of their heritace have been found, perhaps surprisingly, in the most important, and almost the oldest, Syriac book: the Bible. In his detailed study M. P. Weizman showed convincingly that the Syriac Old Testament is the product of a non-rabbinical Jewish sect in the Edessan region c. 150 A.D. With slight textual changes the translators introduced into the text aspect examples (poverty, celibacy), and spiritual ideals (prayer instead of sacrifice); occasionally there are signs of a hostile attitude towards ritual. Presumably the members of the sect behind the translation converted to Christianity and introduced their Bible to the Aramaic-speaking Church in the late 2nd century. (Seppälä 2003: 5)
Well, now I have an idea where and when the Old Testament came to be incorporated into Christianity.
The Manichaean religion also had its own monasticism in the Syrian Orient from the third century on. The presence of Manichaean monks offered a psychological stimulus for ascetic zeal, creating a kind of competition (albeit an unconscious one). There were also several semi-Christian groups (Marcionists, Gnostics) that all shared the same ascetic ideals, and largely the same literature (AT and other apocrypha). For those who wished to devote themselves to their religion and take it as seriously as possible, the religious atmosphere did not in fact offer any alternative ideals than asceticism.
The Syrian ascetic movement rapidly expanded during the last quarter of the fourth century. According to Vööbus, the number of inhabitants of towns and villages even declined as a consequence of the thousands who retired to the desert, or rather, the mountain communities of hermits or monks. Disciples gathered spontaneously around the most charistmatic fathers. The increasing number of hermits demanded co-operation and organisational principles so that the development towards fixed monasticism was inevitable. On the other hand, erecting earthly buildings and creating hierarchies was seen by some to be more or less incompatible with their spiritual ideals. In any case, there soon emerged communities of about 400 members possessing gardens and cultivations. The buildings were often constructed with the support of donations from the wealthy newcomers. (Seppälä 2003: 6)
And now I know what is meant my "desert fathers" in Christian tradition.
Eating was to be restricted to a minimum, which might mean only one vegetarian meal a day (served after the ninth hour, i.e. 3 p.m.). Despite the possible growth of collective wealth, poverty was real on the personal level. The monks' cells were small and contained hardly anything. Their hair and beards were left unshaven, and dirt was preferable to washing. Meeting and seeing the opposite sex was avoided - sometimes even beardless men were forbidden to enter the monastery. Castration did occur. Both quantity and quality of sleep were reduced to a minimum; some kept themselves awake through the night by means of ropes. The ideal posture was to spend the night sitting, facing east, leaning on a stone wall. Some exchanged their woollen clothing for coarser materials or secretly kept chains under their cloak. Some tiem themselves up in a barrel hanging from a tree or otherwise used their imagination in building private torture chambers. The final phase of ascetic life was total seclusion in a cell that might be roofless or completely walled up with bricks, or so small that it did not allow a person to stand or move. (Seppälä 2003: 7)
All of these sound like means to make your body and mind suffer, so as to induce an ecstatic experience. Even without there being a religious subtext, there are youth today who keep themselves awake for extended periods of time for similar reasons - having hallucinations, having borderline experiences.
Intellectual life in the monasteries was strongly promoted by the reading, copying, and interpretation of the Scriptures. Practically all the known Syriac authors - perhaps 150 are known by name - may be considered products of monastic thought. Several West Syrian monasteries became central of translation and learning, whereas the East Syrian Church continued the tradition of the school of Edessa by establishing academies for diverse study, functioning on a highly asceting basis, and they served as the model for Islamic academies, which in turn set an example for the European universities. (Seppälä 2003: 9)
Thus, studying in an European university, I am in some sense continuing the tradition of reading, copying and interpretation began by these desert fathers. The image of an ascetic monk also vibes well with modern doctoral students who have cooped up in their dormes so long as to become unable to communicate with normal people.
Obviously, the ascetic ideal and practice of the Christians gave birth to both counter-reaction and imitation among the early Muslim faithful. The monks' way of praying - recitation, repetitions, postures, prostrations, lifting the hands - was the devotional model for the Islamic conception and practice of prayer. The endless prostrations of Syrian monks were modified in Islam into a fixed and moderate set of prayer movements. The corresponding mechanism may be seen behind the evolution of the Islamic practice of fasting: the constant denial of the hermits was offered to every believer in the form of Ramadan, the model of which must have been the Great Lent of the Eastern churches. (Seppälä 2003: 20)
This is very interesting. I wish to know more. Have there been studies on this? Surely there must be.
The fact that the practice of dhikr was accompanied by corporeal movement resulted in the development of ecstatic dances, probably the most famous aspect of Sufism. The historical roots of Sufi dance have been seen in the dances of Arab warriors, the techniques of hatha-yoga (naqšbandiyya) and the folk dances of the Near East (Rumi and mawlawiyya). (Seppälä 2003: 29)
About this I know a little through Gurdjieff.
Besides reading the meaning from the text, a certais aspect of the meaning must be read into the text as well. In this process we need not only grammatical knowledge and contextual understanding, i.e. as to how the synchronic discourse in the text itself functions, but the use of subtextual reference as well: how the subtexts penetrate and contribute to the semantics of the expression. A basic dilemma of semantics is that every reader has his own subtexts constituting what he considers to be a "meaning". This means that the closer the subtexts are to the text in question, the closer the understanding is to the original meaning. For the same reason the concept of "corpus" in a semantic analysis is a flexible one: the existence of different "sub-corpora" causes some variation in the process of understanding. (Seppälä 2003: 38-39)
Pertinent things to consider in my own concursive project as well.
The theoretical perspective of this study might be called "philosophical", or to find something more exact, "deconstructive" in the literal sense of the word. This is not a reference to Derrida's famous deconstruction (which is not a method) where there is no need for pre-linguistic immediate experience, the mycelium of linguistic references being able to uphold itself. In my approach, however, the inner experience is supposed as the actual centre and starting-point, even though the difference between the experience and the language used is emphasised. The aim is to first outline a general model, idealistic in nature, in which all the possible stages and different components of the mystical discourse are disassembled and deconstructed apart from each other in order to outline the logical deep-structure of the discourse. With the concept of deep-structure I refer to the intentions and functions of the particular expressions. In the process of reconstruction, however, special care must be taken that the logical structure is not forced to possess more logic than the components of the discourse actually do. This means that if the original discourse contains a certain illogicality, the reasons and outcomes of this illogicality must be analised without automatically transforming all the illogical parts into a system. (Seppälä 2003: 42-43)
Likewise, I have body movements at my centre of interest, although I may deal with linguistic material.
It is often stated that because mystical experience is ineffable, mystical doctrine is approximate, and mystical language is allusive. Ineffability, however, is a relative concept. An object is ineffable if it cannot be described. Yet mystical experiences are extensively described by mystics and non-mystics alike. And besides, is not all language approximate and allusive? (Seppälä 2003: 47)
Not all, no - technical language can be quite exact. But as a philosophical tenet, sure.
In order to analyse the meaning of an expression it is necessary to understand what is a meaning, or to be more exact, how a meaning functions. Generally speaking, the answer is quadripartite. In linguistics a basic way of approaching the concept of meaning is to differentiate between the aspects of referential (denotative) meaning that operate in relation to the external world, affective (expressive) meaning in relation to the mental state of the speaker, cognitive (ideational) meaning in relation to intellectual aspects, and contextual (situational) meanings in relation to extralinguistic situations. The mystical parole seems to be active in the category of affective meaning with some dispersion to the latter two varieties of meanings. Nevertheless, we can be sure that any mystic would not hesitate to add to our list a fifth category, probably calling it spiritual meaning. This illustrates the unique nature of our topic: the mystic's demand is that the meaning of his parole refers to a dimension beyond ordinary mental phenomena. (Seppälä 2003: 48)
The footnote refers to: Crystal, D. 1992. Introducing Linguistics. London: Penguin English. - Although it is clear that this has a very obvious Jakobsonian feel to it (though the latter sums up referential, cognitive and contextual meanings into one semantic function).
Many religious and mystical traditions in fact consider the language of their worship sacred. Syrian authors believed that Syriac was the first language spoken in Paradise and indeed by God Himself, and the Sufis attribute the same status to Arabic. (Seppälä 2003: 49)
Nukhuh. According to Olev Remsu's Kurbmäng Paabelis, God speaks Estonian.
Nevertheless, if we examine the concept of interpretation closely, it is possible to maintain that experience and interpretation are not even in principle mutually exclusive epistemological categories. P. Moore has differentiated four theoretically distinct elements in the process of interpretation that penetrate deeply into the area of expression and continue further towards the process of experience itself:
  1. Retrospective interpretation - i.e. references to doctrinal interpretations formulated after the experience is over.
  2. Reflexive interpretation - references to interpretation spontaneously formulated either during the experience itself or immediately afterwards.
  3. Incorporated interpretation - references to features of experience which have been caused or conditioned by a mystic's prior beliefs, expectations and intentions. This may be (a) reflected interpretation: ideas and images reflected in an experience in the form of visions and locutions and so forth, or (b) assimilated interpretation: features of experience moulded into what might be termed phenomenological analogues of a belief or doctrine.
  4. Raw experience - references to features of experience unaffected by the mystic's prior beliefs, expectations, or intentions.
On the other hand, it must also be noted that the reality of experience does not logically imply that it should be veridical: the subject may become directly aware of something "objective" which may in fact be radically different from what the subject supposes it to be. (Seppälä 2003: 53-54)
This is extremely useful, as most of these types of interpretations, if not all, can be reexamined in light of interpreting nonverbal behaviour.
However, conditioning also means that the experience is not less real in its interpreted form; the doctrinal elements are indeed able to mediate information about the phenomenological character of the experience. An Islamic experience is Islamic because of its Islamic components, and without these perhaps nothing would be left. Those who tend to see the doctrinal conditioning as simply a restraining element, should consider whether it would be at all possible to have a case of "pure" mystical experience produced in "universalistic" laboratory conditions without particular religious traditions and their "restricting" doctrines (that usually have a firm connection with the enabling cause)! Doctrinal connections, therefore, may be seen as keys to the understanding of experience rather than doors which keep outsiders away from it. And for the mystic himself, doctrinal concepts facilitate not only the understanding and description of the experience but they may even help him to penetrate into dimensions of experience which would otherwise remain at the margin of consciousness. (Seppälä 2003: 55)
I have an inkling that the case is similar for older literary fiction in a newly literary language, like Estonian, which has borrowed many images and expressions from Biblical scripture.
4. A specification of how the object appeared to the subject, what the subject experienced the object as, i.e. modes of appearance. (Seppälä 2003: 57)
The phenomenological question.
Seclusion in complete solitude can be perpetual or temporary. In the East Syrian tradition a period of seven weeks was favoured. The character of the exprcise is shown by the recommendation by Dadišo' of Qatar that a beginner (aḥḥā šārōyā) undertaking the period of solitude of seven weexs "should never go out of the door of his cell, even one step, from the beginning of his solitude till its end, and should never converse with anybody."
Since fasting and seclusion are not exctly methods but rather characteristics of ascetic life, they function as the basis from which the mystical attitude grows. The texutal material in fact gives the impression that solitude is a basis that unavoidably causes one to reach the sphere of mystical experience. Indeed, the silent eremite life (šalyūtā) is said naturally (keyānā 'īt) to raise impulses in the soul that cause it to remain in wondrous ecstasy (temhā). (Seppälä 2003: 62-63)
It is doubtful if solitude by itself is the cause of mystical ecstasy. Rather, it must go together with fasting, contemplation and perhaps inactivity - when the mind has nothing else to do, it reaches for fantasy.
John of Apamea proposes 'ecstasy of silence' (tahrā de-šetqā) as the highest and purest form of consciousness, and he even declares that "God is silent". (Seppälä 2003: 64)
This I can get with, as it is nonverbalistic. And it would probably vibe with Augustine's vision of God as the inspector of everything (which makes worded prayer pointless)
How did the signs of 'wonder' actually end up signifying mystical experiences? The semantic history of the words temhā and tahrā in classical Syriac is discussed in more detail in Appendix 1 (p. 331-341), resulting in two answers. On the one hand there seems to be a semantic borrowing from Greek, where the word ἔκστασις has an equivalent double meaning, and on the other hand, there is an intra-Syriac development that can be illustrated with the aid of the poetry of St. Ephrem. (Seppälä 2003: 78)
Semantic history apparently traces the chronological development of a single term. For example, there is a whole book about the history of the term dharma.
Syriac theology enjoys a reputation for "symbolic thinking", which has often been contrasted with the "philosophical thinking" of Greek theology. The most outstanding early Syriac theologians St. Ephrem, Jacob of Serugh and Narsai, were in fact poets. Symbolic language is a general Semitic phenomenon, abundant in the Hebrew OT itself, and the Syriac authors derived many of their images from the Syriac Bible. The Divinity as 'fire', the incarnation as 'clothing', anthropomorhisms and images of 'light', 'eye' and 'mirror' are common themes in Syriac literature. Brock, in his articles on the thought of St. Ephrem, speaks about 'divine descent' by a 'ladder of symbols'. (Seppälä 2003: 86-87)
The images of light, eye and mirror are exactly the ones I am most interested in in Christian theology, as these have the most to do with nonverbal communication (e.g. the saying "the eyes are the light of the soul", which purportedly begat the saying "eyes are the mirror of the soul").
The totality of the experience is often expressed with the symbolism of light: "And all my body together with my soul was one strong light." (Seppälä 2003: 92)
Tlk "Ja mu keha koos mu hingega oli üks ere valgus."
The more exotic the symbols become, the more difficult it is to retain the connection with the original experience, the result being a variety of possibilities as to how to interpret the images. The more extraordinary the symbol is, the more the signification of the expression is the product of a subjective interpretation. One might argue that not all of the above expressions have a mystical experience as their reference. The images in question, however, are in their conetxt spiritual objects that are aimed at and yearned for by the authors. In this case the definition given above - "a symbol is an exact allusion to something indefinite" - is particularly true: mystical experience is at least as wide and elastic an entity as the heterogonic language that refers to it. Moreover, there is also a difference as to whether a symbol has as its reference a single mystical experience or the concept of mystical experience in general, and this is not necessarily reflected in the level of significance. (Seppälä 2003: 95)
In my own work I have designated this problem as the one of "ambiguous description" - when the relevant words are so general as to make it difficult to grasp the details of the behaviour in question.
These kinds of "obscure" images, however, do not actually describe experience as an incident, but rather interpret it as a phenomenon by connecting it as part of a wider religious system of thought. (Seppälä 2003: 97)
This would be the "thesis" type of concourse, e.g. the conceptual level of Thirdness.
If we try to reconstruct the semantic process of the formation of meanings behind the signs, the development might be illustrated as follows:
In this semantic process the character of the experience is first recognized by the subject as something refreshing (A). The mind then searches for analogies for such experience in the natural world and finds one in the physiological experience of drinking. The object of the process of drinking, a drink, serves as an analogy for the spiritual experience. The signs of different drinks (A1, A2) may then be adopted into the discourse, and these in turn produce through associations new images that lead the discourse in further directions. For example, sign 1 milk causes an association with the biblical images of 'milk and honey'. It also opens another connection towards the feminine imagery of God. Sign 2 water opens new water-like images, such as sprinkling or dew. In this way the discourse, all the time dependent on the subtextual capacity of the poet, develops towards its final form. This associative process, semiosis, plays a dominant role, especially in poetical discourse. (Seppälä 2003: 99-100)
Semiosis? After learning that Peirce himself used the term in 2 or 3 occasions in total, it now feels odd to see it in unexpected places. But the process of poetic image generation seems well thought-through, and the corresponding scheme is commendable.
One of the striking features of OS is a certain inconsistency in the narrative. The subject of a verse is often problematic to define; the possibilities remain manifold even after the vocabulary is grammatically analysed. This had led scholars to divide some odes into sections where "Christ speaks" and others where "the Odist speaks". With this kind of simplification, however, something is lost from the general impression. This 'something' could be called "the beauty of obscurity".
The obscurity of the subject, moreover, does not seem to be a consequence of clumsiness of style but an intentional effect. This functional poetic device has not been recognised by many western scholars who have tried to force the Odes into strict "either-or" logic in a very unfruitful way. (Seppälä 2003: 108)
The beauty of obscurity is very much to my liking. Likewise, the beauty of abstruseness and the beauty of obnubilation - but all in moderation.
In the verbal field it is completely possible, and presumably not infrequent, that the interpretation is inspired by the symbol itself, regardless of its original reference in the mental dimension. The concept of fountain, for example, is a very fruitful one for interpretation, since it implies a certain notion of creativity and vitality; God Himself is often designated the source of life, the 'spring of all worlds' (mabbō'ā de-kul 'ālmē). John of Dalyatha pulls these strings together by declaring that "I stupefy myself (tāhar bī enā and exult spiritually, for in me there is a source of life (neb'ā de-ḥayyē)". He considers this to be the ultimate end of the incorporeal world. (Seppälä 2003: 118)
E.g. God is in everyone. This is a motto I've come to enjoy in the song "Three Metamorphoses" by the Christian band A Toothless Life. In an emotionally powerful breakdown the vocalist chants: "God is you, God is everyone else."
The bolderst Syrian seer is surely the author of The Book of the Holy Hierotheos, who declared that he had seen Paradise and the Tree of Life with his own eyes. Still even he, among all the other metatheologians, considers shapeless experiences to belong on a higher grade. For the same reason, however, it is also possible that the Parole on the visions of Paradise does not signify a concrete visionary experience; seeing in the physical sense is not considered necessary, since it cannot offer greater certainty than inner intuition (or whatever it is called). In other words, when claiming to have 'seen' something the author may have simply meant 'being certain'. (Seppälä 2003: 120)
E.g. "I have seeeeen the mountain-top."
Syrian metatheologians are not especially fond of producing systematic classifications. Authors acquainted with the thought of Evagrius could relate the experiences into divisions arising from the Evagrian system. In the basic scheme of John of Dalyatha the world of experience is divided into three spheres: purity, serenity and the third one, each being symbolised by a cosmological image. The first is that of 'impassible purity of soul' (dakyūtā de-lā ḥāšōūtā de-nafšā) which is characterised by the contemplation of the corporeal beings and symbolised byt he light of the moon. The sphere of serenity (atrā de-šafyūtā), or the sphere of 'serenity of the intellect' (šafyūtā de-madde'ā), is characterised by the contemplation of the incorporeal and symbolised by the stars; in it the workings of Grace are manifold. The third one seems to lack an actual name, being referred to only as 'the one above both'; it is characterised by the vision of the Light of the Holy Trinity and symbolised by the light of the sun. In biblical language, according to the allegorical interpretation, it is the 'Promised Land'. The experiences are related to this model so that in the first sphere the mind (hawnā) appears clothed in shapeless light, in the second sphere the vision is a fiery one, and in the third sphere the vision is of crystal light. (Seppälä 2003: 122)
This is relevant for my analysis of Powys's sonnet. Kuu võib sümboliseerida hinge puhtust.
On the other hand, John also discusses the spheres that have no actual names, for instance "the sphere that is presented from alien perception". The lack of a name indicates a certain lack of artificiality in the discourse, which is not directed by the vocabulary. (Seppälä 2003: 123)
E.g. if there were a strict name for the sphere, it would be artificial in the sense that it would be borne from the linguistic code, rather from experience. In this sense most verbal descriptions of bodily behaviour, for example, are to a degree artificial, for a non-artificial description would necessitate the use of common (more simpler) words to attempt to capture the behaviour. If I were to construct a thorough concursive typology, this aspect should definitely be considered.
The parole on causa efficiens helps us to recognise in the discourse the entities deserving to be included within the concept of mystical experience. If an abstract entity X is reputed to have been "suddenly given by God", teh most plausible interpretation is that X is an "experience" because it appears suddenly, and "mystical" since it is interpreted as being of divine origin. (The psychological accurateness of the reference is not our actual concern, since we are dealing with the parlance only.) (Seppälä 2003: 135)
Huh. Would I similarly dismiss physiological accurateness?
The encounter with of the world to come in the ecstatic experience can also be depicted in very concrete, even visionary terms, like those employed by 'Abdišo' the Seer when enumerating the consequences of ecstasy (temhā) as follows:
mingling (āultānā) with spiritual orders (tegmē), vision (ḥazzetā) of the souls of the holy ones, vision of Paradise, eating from its tree of life, and intimacy ('enyānā) with the holy ones who dwell in it, together with other ineffable things.
If we reverse the perspective, this position also means that the world to come is more or less co-equal to the state of total ecstasy. Isaac of Nineveh stresses that the ecstatic states are entirely free of memories of wordly thoughts, and accordingly, the state of being in the world to come is free of passionate psychological movements andeven memories of the past world. The result actually comes close to a Christian version of Nirvana, yet the distinction of personalities remains. "The holy ones do not pray prayer in the new world. When the mind has been engulfed by the Spirit, they dwell in ecstasy (temhā) in that delightful glory." Yet the idea of the world to come as a non-verbal entity is well in line with Ephrem's non-physical Paradise and its immaterial pleasures that cannot be accurately described employing the concepts of this world. Moreover, Isaac states that the heavenly mansions promised in John 14:2 are not locations but different spiritual levels, according to which the inhabitants enjoy their portion of glory. (Seppälä 2003: 143)
There is something distinctly distasteful for me in the idea of an afterlife where you are not you, but an immaterial Spirit in what amounts to an endless orgasm. What would be the point of that? Besides eathly wish-fulfilment, I mean?
According to Isaac of Nineveh, the tears of sorrow caused by sin must be experienced first. They make the body lean and burning with heat, and they often cause pain in the marrow. Tears of grace, on the contrary, "make the body fat" (a Semitic expression of welfare), they flow spontaneously, moistening the whole face, and change the aspect of the face due to happiness. These tears of joy are "sweeter than honey". On the importance of these "given" tears Isaac notes that they are the only physical manifestation that one should request. (Seppälä 2003: 151)
The "aspect" of the face?
The external manifestations of mystical experiences are so interesting a topic that their occasional mention in the texts usually raises more new questions than it provides satisfactory answers. One of the basic problems is how to determine when a phenomenon is mentioned because it is typical, and when because iof its exceptional nature? (Seppälä 2003: 152)
This is equally relevant for concourse. E.g. is kurekrõnks an exceptional or typical descriptor?
The Syriac mystical tradition places stress on the silent, non-verbal character of the experience to the extent there seems to be no room whatsoever for verbal manifestation. Isaac of Nineveh, for example, mentions as a sign of 'enlightenment of the mind' that "the tongue stands still and his heart becomes silent". Consequently, we find no Syriac equivalents for the "ecstatic utterances" familiar from Sufism (if we do not interpret the loose reference to the lifting up of the voice, mentioned in the previous chapter, as such). (Seppälä 2003: 154)
I have an inherent bias towards the nonverbal, but in my opinion prayer in language, whatever language, is artificial and contrived because mystical experience is presumably something that has characterized human religious exprience for millenia, and may characterize the experience of other mammals as well (we don't know yet), but adding a linguistic superstructure to it seems to make it an unpure enterprise. If there is a God then s/he surely takes no preference to language, not even Estonian.
According to Barhebraeus, in the highest stages voices and words pass away, and the mind deals only with spiritual meanings. While still moving upwards one must enter the 'divive cloud'. The note on the 'divine cloud' seems to reflect a subtext from the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus, referrinc to the ascent towards the Deity as described there. (Seppälä 2003: 161)
This sounds a little like cue reduction, which is also evident in the Buddhist canon - when meditating on something or other, one passes from words to non-words while retaining the meaning. In other words, the association becomes so entrenched that words are no longer necessary.
In early Chrisitanity to follow Christ meant to suffer, the possibility of actual martyrdom being frequently present in a cultural context that was non-Christian and sometimes anti-Christian. Persecutions ceased but the ideals did not change; they only took different forms. Since Syrian Christianity is largely an outgrowth of the Antiochene tradition, it is appropriate to quote here Ignatius of Antioch, who crystallised the ideal of martyrdom in his Letter to the Magnesians in the solemn words: "unless we willingly choose to die through him in his passion (πάθος), his life is not in us." The bishop of Syria", as he was wont to call himself, prepared for his own martyrdom in Rome (c. 110) by writing his Epistle to the Romans, famous for its yearning for death.
Suffer me to be food for the beasts, through whom I can attain God. I am God's wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts that they may become my tomb, and leave nothing of my body, so that when I fall asleep, I may be not burdensome to anyone. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not even see my body.
Now I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing of things seen or unseen envy me my attaining to Jesus Christ. Let there come to me fire, and the cross, and struggles with the wild beasts, cutting, and tearing asunder, rackings of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil, may I but attain to Jesus Christ.
This ideal remained the primus motor of Oriental Christianity for centuries, and metatheological thinking was based on this same tradition. (Seppälä 2003: 179)
In this light it is extremely odd and very un-Christ-like of modern Christians to take issue with "family values" and whatnot, when their true ideal should be to die for Christ through actual persecution, not by nitpicking on unthreatening wordly issues.
The most detailed description of the ritual samā' is to be found in Hujwiri's Kašf al-Maḥjūb. The principles of his rules run as follows: Firstly, one should not practice samā' habitually by custom, but only so seldom that one does not lose one's reverence for it. Secondly, samā' should not be set out according to one's own will, but instead it should be practiced when it comes by itself. (Seppälä 2003: 190)
This samā' is translated as 'hearing', e.g. "hearing to God as the individual's act" (related to a Sufi session of ecstatic music). What I like about it is the quality of inspiration - that it is not performed regularly out of compulsion, but seldom and not by one's own will.
Jilani has the same position. He lists eleven heretical sects, six of which attempt to reach ecstasy through dancing, singing, shouting or hand-clapping; some of them also claim that the state to be reached is beyond the jurisdiction of religious law, and still others practice gazing at beautiful faces, do not see any difference between the sexes or favour free sexual relations. (Seppälä 2003: 191)
Yeah, no, these sound like something else. By this standard, anything pleasurable can be ecstatic.
As we have seen before, there is no established, permanent vocabulary to express the ecstatic experience, and the creation of such terminology cannot take place without theorisation that is inevitably more or less incommensurable. The problem is definitely comprehended by the Sufis themselves. The following sayings are attributed to al-Makki:
Ecstasy does not admit to explanation, because it is a secret between God and the true believers. Let men seek to explain it as they will, their explanation is not that secret, inasmuch as all human power and effort is divorced from the Divine mysteries.
Ther is no explanation for the nature of ecstasy (kayfiyya al-wajd), for it is a secret of God among firm believers (al-mu'minin al-mūqinīn).
This is even more the case when the non-linguistic experience is silent in its manifestation and even in its methods. According to Hujwiri, the one who possesses a state (ḥāl), becomes silent in tongue, and its reality is proclaimed in his works instead. "To ask about ḥāl is absurd, since ḥāl is the annihilation of speech." (Seppälä 2003: 194)
The very same could be said about psychedelic experineces - there's no good way to describe it, nor to explain it. Yet it is not so much a secret between God and Man as it is a secret between conscious experience and perceptual awareness. And we are developing machines capable of unveiling that secret, whatever that is, by studying the brain.
Fortunately, the text is provided with a note, most likely by the translator himself, where we are given an analytical definition of the mystical experience that is expressed by ἔκστασις in Greek, temhā in Syriac, and sahw in Arabic:
it makes the person free from his thoughts which generally come to him; and it gathers all his thoughts, and snatches his mind, and he sees distant absent matters as though tehy are near and present. And this is like the absent-mindedness (sahw) which fell upon Adam and Abraham.
According to the definition, the experience consists of four characteristic features: (1) discharge of ordinary discursive mental activity, (2) a concentrating effect, (3) a sense of the more rapid, smoother motion of consciousness, as I see the basic idea of being snatched, and (4) the prophetic quality of clairvoyance. The definition is, of course, focused on the prophetic character of the particular experience in question (Acts 10:10). (Seppälä 2003: 196-197)
This reminds me of the flashes I get when I exercise too hard and stretch afterwards.
Symbols, however, are apt to be interpreted in diverse ways, which tends to direct the emphasis of the discourse towards refinement of the forms of expression, which more or less means departure from the actual experience in the mental reality towards even more colourful symbols that may, by gaining inherent value, occupy an independent position in the discourse. Then the discourse has moved to the category of interpretation. (Seppälä 2003: 207)
E.g. symbols may generatively develop from the Firstness of simple description to Secondness of further refinement and then Thirdness of inderent value.
Different authors use different terms in different ways. There varied usages give rise to meanings with different nuances that vary from author to author. This process reinforces itself: since the meanings are understood to be varied, the terms are, in turn, used in divergent ways. The varying meanings, however, are usually not to be understood as exclusive but rather as complementary in character. (Seppälä 2003: 227)
For this very reason, perhaps, symbols are said to be "general". Also, keep in mind the distinction between variant and invariant.
There is, however, an analysis given by Qušayri concerning the source of khawāṭir, a broad concept including all kinds of ideas, thoughts, desires and inclinations that rise to the mind more or less unannounced. They may have four different kinds of origin. (1) Those caused by angels are called 'inspiration' (ilhām). (2) Those called by the self (nafs) are called 'ideas' (hawājis); these are usually connected with carnal desire or pride. (3) Those caused by Satan (šayṭan) are called 'temptations' (wasāṭir ḥaqq). These four are the basic varieties of causa efficiens of mystical experiences, three of them transcendent. (Seppälä 2003: 231)
It is curious that ideas originate in the self and are essentially selfish, as the classical idea of ideas is not so, having originated from the either or collective consciousness.
Niffari expresses the same idea in a slightly different way, indicating that the experiential states are a kind of participation in the existential state of the world to come. He proclaims: "Your body after death is in the place where your heart is before death." And moreover, Niffari adds one more perspective to the same theme by hinting that the mystical states follow one after death: "As you enter to me in prayer, so you will enter to me in your grave." (Seppälä 2003: 235)
This would support by belief that afterlife is nothing more than the random neuron firings at the time of death. In that sense, sure, your afterlife will be whatever you imagined it to be during your life.
When treating the perception of esoteric knowledge (samā'), Hujwiri starts with ordinary perception through the five senses. Of these, hearing is the most important, since it is crucial when embracing the religion. Similarly, the use of the sense of hearing involves more problems: Hujwiri gives a long analysis of characteristics and qualities of different types of hearing according to various schools. This was necessary because the use of music to achieve ecstasy had greatly increased among the Sufis, which in turn had divided opinions into various camps. According to one theory the temperaments of all living beings consist of sounds and melodies blended and harmonised. Therefore, for example, deer could be hunted by encircling them, "and singing until the deer are lulled to sleep by the delightful melody". On the other hand, this indicates universal musicality: "he who finds no pleasure in sounds and melodies [...] is outside of the category of men and beasts." Paradise is full of auditory enjoyment, for there is a different voice and melody coming from every tree. (Seppälä 2003: 247)
I'm fairly sure that music can be used to achieve ecstasy (I've had some experiences myself), but hunting game with music seems dubious.
Ecstatic experience poses a special problem for Islamic theology mainly because almost all the images used of it refer to some kind of unification with God. Since even to set something beside God is the worst possible heresy, it is clear that unification is a concept that causes counter-reactions among the Sufis themselves, not to mention Sunnite orthodoxy. Any possibility of "God being in the created" was judged in Orthodox dogmatics as an impossibility because it would imply three mistaken conclusions: (1) God would no longer be an absolute existent, (2) there would be two eternal beings, and (3) mixing with a concrete being would introduce separation in God. Ḥulūliyya, 'incarnationism', became a general term that has been used to label various dubious parties and groups.
Hujwiri states explicitly that it is impossible for God to become incarnate (ḥulūl), mix (imtizāj), unite (ittiḥād) or join (wuṣūl with man. According to him, wuṣūl means only that God appreciates men, and even 'nearness' (qurb) or 'neighbourhood' are not appropriate concepts to be applied to God. Nevertheless, in other contexts he does use qurb without problems or criticism. (Seppälä 2003: 255)
An atheist could easily object: God does not exist; (2) there is no eternal being; (3) there is no God from which something could separate. On the other hand, it seems odd to presume that anything is impossible for an omnipotent eternal being.
Moreover, during the ecstatic state one may become immune to fire, being unaware of what is happening an unable to relate it afterwards. Ibn 'Arabi witnessed many times how "a spiritual state overcome (Ahmad al-Šariši) and he fell into a fire, but the fire did not harm him.". (Seppälä 2003: 272)
I am reminded of the character of Daenerys Targaryen in A Game of Thrones, who is given the title of "Khaleesi" after she survives being set on fire in a funeral rite.
As might be expected, the hagiopraphic literature contains a multitude of stories concerning the miracles performed by the Sufis, and a good portion of the anecdotes are imbedded in our sources as well. The frequent topics include healings and clairvoyance, which may be based on hearing inner voices (hātif) or intuitive insight (firasāt), or occurring thoughts (khawāṭir). (The boundary between the latter two may be more or less arbitrary.) In addition to these we may encounter even more curious cases such as levitation, the power to walk on water, the ability to make fire without incendiaries, flying in the air, disapperaance (Tayy al-makān), magic (i.e. affecting other people's thoughts or causing things to take place from a distance), turning of urea into water for ritual purification and even an instance of "open sesame". It is noteworthy that Ibn 'Arabi, a brilliant mind, took these as evident facts and strongly criticised those (jurists) who did not believe in the existence of the spiritual degrees and miracles but instead assumed that all claims to this were fabrications and superstition. Kalabadhi also mentions talking with beasts and a case of "apport mediumship" (production of an object in another place) in his chapter on miracles, where he utilises a few authoritative miraculous traditions of the Prophet and other saits of old, and discusses the functions of miracles in the divine economy. (Seppälä 2003: 272-273)
Sellised tegelased nagu "Hatifnatid" (Hattifnattar) saavad selles valguses uue tähenduse kui "sisekõnehääled". Apport is "a material object produced supposedly by occult means, especially at a seance" - a word I was looking for for a long time in place of "duplication" (producing a copy of an object out of nothing).
Sufi literature, oddly enough, does contain even the most absolute possible culmination for the category of manifestations, namely that of dying. Hujwiri presents several cases where the subject of the experience did actually die during his ecstasy. EVen more odd is the fact that such an objective thinker as Hujwiri neither considered it necessary to judge this phenomenon nor tries to justify it in any way.
A man cried out during samā'. His spiritual director bade him to quiet. He laid his head on his knee, and when they looked he was dead.
Some one laid his hand on the head of a dervish who was agitated during samā' and told him to sit down; he sat down and died on the spot.
(Seppälä 2003: 273-274)
Those people probably had heart attacks, which are known to produce anguishing pain (crying out loud) as well as agitation (panic and feeling of dread). Hujwiri perhaps didn't find these occurrences all that exceptional because they were common, but people simply didn't know what they were.
  1. "I shed my self (nafs) as a snake sheds its skin, then I looked at myself, and behold! I was He (anā huwa)."
    - Abu Yazid
  2. "I saw my Lord with the eye of the heart and I asked: 'Who are you?' (man anta) He answered: 'You' (anta)."
    - Hallaj
  3. "My spirit mixes with your spirit, in nearness and in distance, so that I am you, just as you are I."
    - Hallaj
(Seppälä 2003: 276)
"God is you, God is everyone else."
A theoretical basis for the intpretation of ecstatic utterances was developed by Ja'far al-Sadiq (d.765), the sixth imam of the Shiites, who produced a theory of divine speech. It is based on the exegesis of the phrase innī anā spoken by God to Moses, and explained by God Himself: "I am He who speaks and He who is spoken to, and you are a phantom (šabaḥ) between the two, in which (khiṭāb) takes place." Nwyia (1970) and Ernst (1985) agree that this is a precise explanation for Sufi ecstatic utterances. (Seppälä 2003: 278)
This seems more like a formula for inner speech.
Ghazali, in his classical work Iḥyā' 'ulūm al-dīn, distinguishes between two kinds of ecstatic utterances: (1) extravagant, exaggerated claims and (2) unintelligible babbling or otherwise misarticulated voices. Neither should be displayed in public, for the danger of misunderstanding is inevitable, and common folk would be misled by weird sayings. For that reason he even declares that "the killing of him who utters something of this kind is better in the religion of God than the resurrection of ten others." (Seppälä 2003: 279)
I presume glossolalia was not all that common in Sufi mysticism.
In the present corpora, the symbolical expression of 'touching' did not appear in the Christian sources, and 'eating' did not occur in the Sufi corpus. Touching is in fact avoided in both traditions, and eating seems to be more at home in the Christian context due to its sacramental connotations. Breathing the Spirit, which in the Christian context means to breathe God, appears to be a distinctively Chrisitan expression, but these differences would probably not remain if the corpus of the Sufi sources was sufficiently extensive. (Seppälä 2003: 288-289)
In the Greek orthodox tradition, at least Philotheos of Sinai (dating obscure) exhorts one to "breathe God always" (τὸυ Θεὸυ άυαπυέειυ, Filokalía 2, p. 284, § 30). The image arises from the attachment of the remembrance of God to one's breathing, and for that very reason the image is perfectly suitable in the Islamic context as well. Kadloubovsky's translation based on the Russian version has "call God with sighs" (Writings from the Philokalia, p. 336); the translation based on the Greek original has "always breathe God" (The Philokalia, p. 27). (Seppälä 2003: 289; footnote 6)
It seems very characteristically Russian to mistranslate it like that, e.g. not remembering God through one's breathing, but as making noise with one's breathing to call for God's help. I wonder if this has anything to do with why Russians are so noisy? (e.g. talking to themselves around people, vibrating their lips while exhaling to produce a blabbing sound, etc.).
It must be stressed also that the occurrence of more peculiar symbols is more dependent on the poetic talent of a single author than on the particular religious tradition and its postulates. There are naturally numerous single symbols that occur in the parlance of a single author. These are often interesting from the aesthetic point of view, but they do not affect the general nature of the discourse. (Seppälä 2003: 290)
Cf. the opposition of individual talent and tradition in T.S. Eliot.
It is essentially the same set of difficulties that thinkers in both traditions encountered in their effort to find a public language for their inner states, which cannot be assigned the criteria of identity from without. In practice this means that the same phenomenon may be referred to with divergent signs and the divergent phenomena with the same sign. Some authors were more concerned and more deeply aware of the problem than others. Practically all the authors make remarks on the ineffable and inexpressible character of the experience, and at least Isaac of Nineveh presents quite explicitly the idea of a generally prevailing free variation of the signs of inner states in the mystic discourse. (Seppälä 2003: 296)
The problem of private signs. This actually adds something useful to that conception: that public signs may become private, but remain ambiguous in their signification due to lack of external reference. I imagine this may be especially so when it comes to language about proprioceptive experiences.


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