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A "Mystic" in the Good Sense of the Word

John Elliott

            Next year much will be said and written about the "servant of the Lord Jesus Christ" as Swedenborg, born on 29 January 1688 (old style calendar), was to describe himself toward the end of his life. Many terms will be used to refer to different aspects of his personality and life, such as scholar, poet, civil servant, mining engineer, scientist, anatomist, philosopher, traveler, revelator, theologian, all of which are self-explanatory. But one description of the man which is sometimes heard-a mystic-may be puzzling, even unsettling to some, so let me comment on the expressions "mystic," "mystical," and "mysticism."

            These words, along with "mystery" and "mysterious" are sometimes used to mean that which is dark, occult, spooky, and frightening. But nothing of the sort is meant when Swedenborg-or others in history, such as Augustine, Eckhart, Boehme, various Quakers-is called a mystic. "Mysticism," says A Handbook of Christian Theology, "is a term that describes the condition of being overwhelmingly aware of the presence of the ultimately real." By the expression "ultimately real" is meant all that really exists outside the material world we can see and touch-what is nowadays called "the spiritual dimension." Our own personal spiritual dimension is, of course, our soul, spirit, or true self, which resides within the body and survives the death of the body. Swedenborg is called a mystic because the Lord put him in touch, in a unique way, with the ultimately real dimension and called him to make known his experiences of it. Mysticism must never be confused with other-worldliness. On the contrary, the true mystic may have his head in the clouds so to speak, being aware of things in another dimension and wrapt in awe and wonder of his God; but he is also one who has his feet firmly planted on the ground. This was clearly so in Swedenborg's case. After his spiritual eyes were opened in 1740s, making him aware of "the ultimately real," he did not become any less aware of the material world of space and time or of what was going on in it. He was never an absent-minded professor or a recluse. He continued to take decisions regarding his home in Stockholm and remained a keen gardener. He accepted invitations out to dinner and continued to take an interest in political issues. (In 1760, for example, he writes memoranda on certain monetary policies of the Swedish government, Swedenborg being a nobleman with a seat in the equivalent of our House of Lords.)

The fact that Swedenborg was equally a man of this world as of the next after the mid-1740s shows in his writings, in his painstaking attempts to describe ultimate realities in ways that people on earth can understand. His last published work, The True Christian Religion, the new translation of which will be published on 29 January 1988, is full of comparisons drawing on mythology, history, science, or everyday life, which are used to make the message clearer.

Let us not be frightened, then, but rather try to understand the term "mystic" when applied to Swedenborg, or "mystical" to the teachings given to the world through him. Indeed we are all invited to be mystics who, living full lives in this world, are becoming increasingly aware of the spiritual dimension behind our earthly existence.

            Tricentenary year will give us an opportunity to become more aware of, and show to others, how through the Word and in the Holy Supper we come closer to the Lord and also enjoy "mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won." It will enable us to share with those who wish to know in a richer and fuller way how marriage images, to quote The Book of Common Prayer, "the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church." Pray that 1988 may indeed be a year when we become "overwhelmingly aware of the presence of the ultimately real."


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Mystic in Good Sense

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