BOOK REVIEW: ORDINARY PEOPLE AS MONKS AND MYSTICS by Dr Marsha Sinetar (Paulist Press)

Dr Sinetar made a scientific study of individuals who have had the Mystical Experience of Reality. She does not go into the greater consequences of this phenomena, which turns all historical, religious, scientific and scholarly experience of human existence on its head. She concentrates on the Experience itself, and its effects on her subjects and, through them, society. It is a seminal book that should be on your library shelves, as I think you will agree, along with Williams James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, Aldous Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy”, Evelyn Underwood’s edition of “The Cloud of Unknowing”,  Dr.Richard Maurice Bucke’s “Cosmic Consciousness”, and “What is Self”, by former nun Bernadette Roberts, all seminal works.

Marsha Sinetar coverIt is a very readable book and has been a best seller since 1986. Dr Sinetar is an educator, organisational psychologist and mediator. Her research and writings have focused on the characteristics, thinking, and work styles of gifted leaders, creative entrepreneurs and the whole, actualised person.

However, as you will see from the last few paragraphs of this review, Dr Sinetar seems to imply you can have the Transcendent Experience (M.E.R.) by your own efforts. That was not how my Experiences happened to me, nor have I seen any evidence in this book or anywhere else that the phenomenon is anything other than purely spontaneous. They are completely outside human experience or human ability to generate, in my experience. Nor does the Experience come to make us better human beings. The M.E.R. is about much more than mere humanity, to which, in fact, it seems indifferent.

Here is a gist of the book, in the words of the book itself:

“Mystics are the ones who hunger and thirst after righteousness .. the ones who yearn for continued or increased union with the other reality they themselves feel is the real reality – the real reality which heals and makes all things new again. Their yearning is their most distinctive mark and has been called by some ‘a deep and burning wound’, because it propels them towards the transcendent nature of life much as a lover is drawn toward the objective of love.

“Anyone who answers the yearning of the inner self is called, has a vocation, in the original sense of that word, which was ‘to be addressed by a voice’. The clearest of such vocations can, of course, be found in those who have a religious calling, or who are driven to express some form of genius. But I believe that the word vocation should have a broader interpretation. Those who are called to find the law of their own being, for example, who answer the call obediently, even if hesitatingly, have a vocation. Those who sacrifice the things of this world, the conventional way of living or perceiving things, have a vocation. Anyone can be called – not just the religiously inclined or the great gifted ones, since many of these may not, in fact, be true to themselves as individuals.

“In order to know what within is true and of most value, whenever these sorts of instincts come, the individual detaches experientially from the rules, customs, belief systems, conventions and various idols of the external world. Social transcendence is a way to answer this inner call – be it a physical response (such as moving one’s home, moving away from a home-town, or changing jobs etc.) or just an emotional detachment from societal conventions and expectations as with a woman, let’s say, who decides not to marry, not to have children, even though that’s what she sees her friends doing and knows that that is what her family expects her to do. These kinds of detachment may be signs that an individual has begun the process of actualisation.

“Fortunately, as time goes by, the demands of the Self are easier to hear.

“It is through hearing – and obeying – the demand to make a life-adjustment that the ability to face oneself grows.

“Thomas Merton: ‘The paradox that one must face, if he really takes the truth seriously, is the pragmatic fact that sincerity means insecurity.’

“It is this individual who ultimately overcomes the feelings of separation, fear and anxiety which are symptoms of powerlessness and an underdeveloped character structure.

“The person can feel inordinately sad, vulnerable or moved. He can be touched instantly by waves of strong emotion at little or no provocation. One person in this study told me that during a meeting, for no apparent reason, some heroic quality in a colleague so moved him that he had to fight back tears.

“… when an individual starts to grow within himself, starts to develop his intuitive, transpersonal self, he may find it necessary to pull back, to learn how to be alone.

“It is often difficult for the true mystic to find rapport with (religious organisations), his own heightened sensitivities to God made profane by the mundane perceptions of those who want to hear about – but who themselves do not experience – the sacred reverence and humility of the Transcendent.

“The remarks of the study participants may lead some readers to think that a physical break with conventional life is necessary in order to become actualised. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Detachment from the world’s idea of what is good or proper is an absolute requisite in order to be one’s own person. But detachment does not mean withdrawal. Nor does it mean those most common types of non-conformity people use to protest society’s falsehoods: vain little adjustments of dress or diet, neurotic self-involvement and self pity, the psychosomatic inability to function, or, worse, the psychotic, perhaps even criminal, antisocial or insane outlet which so negatively poisons everything it touches.

“Anyone, of any age and any culture, having the sincerity of heart and the strength of intention to identify and express for what for him is true and good, can be whole.

“Three distinct skills of the study participants (are that they are) autonomous and authentic persons; adaptable; intuitive.

“If we cannot make it without old habits, toxic relationships, our addictions – whatever they might be – we are not free to choose our good.

“What we seek, seeks us. The goal of our life – whatever we want to call it – is within us, always present as the very life-source in us. All we need is to recognise, perhaps at first through faith, that inside is a profound, mysterious power which pervades our existence and which can heal, guide and inspire us.

“The inner journey, whatever it costs, and whatever form it may take, is necessary for anybody who wishes to embody in thought, word and action all that he truly loves. In this way, he comes to know and to be his really balanced, most wholesome and generous self: his Highest Self.”

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