Dr Kaye Gersch PhD.  
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Couples therapist
Clinical Supervisor

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Mysticism as the Feminine Divine 

Mysticism and the numinous are evidence of direct, unmediated spiritual experience, not contained by belief or dogma. I propose that this is the feminine aspect of divinity, available to men and women, and accessible right now, by activating our non-rational capacities.

Introduction:

This paper is based on a chapter of my doctoral thesis, The Feminine in Body, Language and Spirituality. 

         

I approach feminine divine mystery through and as mysticism. This requires a definition of mysticism and the numinous, which are both key concepts in this discussion. Then I will define spiritual experience, and proceed to discuss what ‘God-in-the-feminine’ might look or be like. I equate a feminine mystical spirituality with libido as defined by Jung, in contrast with the masculine or logos spirituality of credo. Libido is lived, credo is believed. This will become clearer as we proceed.


I contrast the possibility of a feminine divine apprehended and experienced in the mystical with a masculine divine enclosed within the Symbolic and codified in religious dogma/theory. I equates a feminine mystical spirituality with libidinal energy, in contrast with the masculine spirituality of credo/belief.  I draw upon the work of Jung, as well as contemporary feminist thinkers such as Luce Irigaray.


If mysticism is manifestation of the feminine divine, various questions must be asked. Is experience of the feminine divine available to men as well as to women?  Is this question parallel to asking if the masculine divine is available to women as well as men?  Are male and female divine then, to be drawn on gender lines?  If not, what other differentiations are adequate to the notions of a male and female divine, and is this even necessary? Do men need to become “feminine” in order to access mystical experience?


The body and the words of mystics reflect a direct personal relation to the divine, a primary experience, which is independent of, and therefore not mediated by, religious structures. From a contemporary perspective, this offers a protest against dogmatic theology, but also a female critique of male-dominated religion. Don Cupitt says, “mysticism is what saves us from religion.” Why do we need to be saved from religion?


I emphasise that an idea (idol) of ‘God’ (or ‘Goddess’) is a projection of the divine, while mysticism is a realization of the divine.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on the way.  On a quiet day I can hear her breathing”.  Arundhati Roy

An invitation:

I invite both men and women to this discussion.  It is about the "breathing" that Arundhati Roy mentions here. This discussion is about listening to that “breathing”.  And learning to “breathe” with “her”.  In invite you to immerse yourselves in ways of thinking and being that challenge commonly held notions of spirituality and divinity.


Through various exercises and discussions of the work of Jung and others, I will guide you to court the feminine divine as an immediate, accessible, numinous experience.  And this experience has the potential to inform and radically change you.


In our exploration together, I aim for a new relation with the divine. By a new relation with the divine, I specifically mean with a feminine divine, that is, a divine that we will need to find outside of the masculine religious framework. The masculine divine is a framework that relies on duality, such as heaven and earth, masculine and feminine, God and Goddess. By a new relation to the divine, I mean a connection through experience, rather than belief, dogma, doctrine and structure.


In our exploration together, I aim for a new relation with the divine. By a new relation with the divine, I specifically mean with a feminine divine, that is, a divine that we will need to find outside of the masculine religious framework. The masculine divine is a framework that relies on duality, such as heaven and earth, masculine and feminine, God and Goddess. By a new relation to the divine, I mean a connection through experience, rather than belief, dogma, doctrine and structure.

Maitreya Buddha (Sanskrit),  is regarded as a future Buddha of this world in the Buddhist tradition.   Maitreya is considered to be a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth in the future, achieve complete enlightenment, and teach the pure dharma. He is know as the "coming Buddha who has already come." This is in a similar vein to referring to Christ as "The coming Saviour, who has already come. This enigmatic phrase takes us away from literalism to an inner or sol reality. In other words, Maitreya could well have already come, to or for those who embody the teaching. This is a mystical hint, with the flavour of luminosity, which lives parallel to the outer more literal teachings.


All religions have an exoteric structure that is essentially masculine, framed in tenets, dogmas, beliefs and heresies. Those same religions have an esoteric aspect that is inside the form, based on numinous experience; this is the feminine aspect.


Here, already, we see a challenge to duality. Our experience of Maitreya, or Christ, can simultaneously be both inner an outer.  It does not have to be an either/or.

About "breathing."

To return to Arundhati Roy's expression of "breathing," let's move to The Beatitudes, from Payers of the Cosmos, which have been translated from the Aramaic by Neil Douglas-Klutz. 


"Happy and aligned with the One are those who find their home in their breathing; to them belong the inner kingdom and queendom".


The breath incorporates both heaven and earth so to speak, our body and “breath” as spiritual and physical substance.

A radical change of perspective:

To demonstrate how far away the masculine and feminine divine are away from each other -  and how close - follow this guided mediation.


Sit comfortably in the usual way, close your eyes.  Or, even better, lie down on your back. Yes, really, close your eyes and follow your breath, just watching your breathing pattern for 5 or 6 breaths. Then imagine that you are lying on your back, comfortably cushioned by soft grass.  You are looking UP at the night sky.  It is a beautiful clear night, and there are many stars. Take some more breaths as you enjoy looking up at the night sky. 


Then, quite suddenly, imagine that you are looking DOWN at the night sky. It helps if someone can speak these instruction to you, so you are not expecting the change in perspective.


What happens in that moment?


We have spent a lifetime believing that when we look at the night sky we are looking UP. But it is a construct, a belief, a convenient convention. So it is with the masculine divine.  It is a construct, a belief, a convenient convention. Through this belief we have oriented to the world through it, even if we do not adhere to that belief, that is have no spiritual orientation.

Jung and "the Feminine"

“Eternal Feminine”, for Jung, is “the ultimate principle of the unconscious” (C. G. Jung, 1977, vol. 18, §237), and a prenatal realm of “immemorial archetypal possibilities” (C. G. Jung, 1977, vol. 5, §508). Jung has more to say; for him, integrating this prenatal realm is a way of bypassing dominance of the ego/culture in one’s conscious personality, a way of evading logocentrism. He deems this process necessary for both men and women.


Yet he still confuses the carrier of this principal with women themselves.


“At a certain level, therefore, woman appears as the true carrier of the longed-for wholeness and redemption” (C. G. Jung, 1977, vol. 14, §500). Here we see a confusion of eternal, unconscious properties attributed to, or projected upon, women.

Feminine Divine and Divine Feminine:

The terms “feminine divine” and “divine feminine” are often used interchangeably, as if they are referring to the same thing. I blithely did this myself. But I was put straight on this terminology when I did my PhD in the School of Philosophy at the University of Queensland. There are two distinct issues here; one is a concept of the divine feminine, meaning a particular spirituality for women. The other issue is a divinity which is feminine, the feminine divine. I got mightily confused by the two.


The divine feminine is a particular spirituality for women, which women cultivate specifically in conjunction with being the carnal feminine, so to speak. The divine feminine is something only women can have. (Men have the divine masculine.)

The feminine divine is a  divinity which is feminine, God-in or as-the-feminine, or the feminine face of God. This is in contrast to God-in-the-masculine. The Feminine Divine is available to both men and women.

Approaching the Feminine Divine

In this discussion, I approach feminine divine through and as mysticism. This requires a definition of mysticism and the numinous, which are both key concepts in this discussion. Then I will define spiritual experience, and proceed to discuss what ‘God-in-the-feminine’ might look or be like. 


I equate a feminine mystical spirituality with libido as defined by Jung, in contrast with the masculine or logos spirituality of credo. Libido is lived, credo is believed. This will become clearer as we proceed.


The mystical

Eric Neumann was an associate of Jung’s. This is his assessment of mystical experience:


“The mystical man [sic] may be designated as religious, since all his life he consciously or unconsciously confronts the numinous: but he need not necessarily be a believer in God.”

 

Neumann then goes on to name different forms of mysticism.

But”, he says, “all mystical forms have in common the intensity of experience, the revolutionary, dynamic impetus of a psychological event, which takes the ego out of the structure of consciousness; and … the numinous appears as the antithesis of consciousness. Mysticism, he adds, is not a religious experience as such”(Neumann, 1969) p 381.

 

That’s worth noting: “Mysticism is not a religious experience as such”. Yet mysticism is actively cultivated in the esoteric aspects of most, if not all, religious systems. The Sufis, for instance, constitute the esoteric branch of Islam. According to John Sanford, who uses a Jungian framework to discuss mysticism, “certain deep elements of the psyche can only be known … through experiences through which the ego, paradoxically, ‘loses’ its usual self in order to know its deeper Self”(Sanford, 1995)page 108. Once we have “lost” the ego, we “find” a deeper self. In Jungian terms we could say that mysticism is simply a direct experience of the Self. Or the Self provides an aperture to the Infinite.

The numinous

When Rudolph Otto, (1869-1937) German philosopher and historian of religion, wrote of the numinosum, (from numen, spirit) he was referring to a particular aspect of experience, which “entrances the soul”. 


According to Otto, the mysterium tremendum is one of the forms which the numinous takes, and it is the non-rational encounter that is “beyond conception or understanding, extraordinary and unfamiliar”, which causes astonishment, awe, and sometimes fear. In Otto’s view the numinous was ‘wholly other’ and experienced by affect, that is feeling, rather than intellect; for him “the nature of the numinous can only be suggested by means of the special way in which it is reflected in terms of feeling”. That is, the numinosum is experienced, rather than thought (Otto, 2004)pp 12,13,26,42.


The numinous is undoubtedly difficult to discuss, primarily because it resists both logos and rationality. It is useful to remember that it renders us without thoughts, words and concepts.


A fundamental question is whether numinosity is a quality of interiority or whether it is something external to one’s-self. So, is the numinous something that we discover about ourselves, and then presume the source to be outside ourselves? Is the numinous interior, which we then project onto an external object or person outside ourselves? 


When we say ‘interior’, do we mean inside the specific psychic confines of an individual, or do we mean interior as a quality of life that requires a particular attitude of mind - interiorly-oriented – in order to perceive? My view is that ‘interiority’ is a way of perceiving, and as such neither interior nor exterior to that person, but both.

The feminine at the crossroads of non-duality:

The French feminist philosopher and psychoanalyst, Julia Kristeva asks “does a specifically feminine sacred exist?” (Julia Kristeva in the Preface, Clément & Kristeva, 2001, pp. 148, my emphasis). She places an experience - the sacred - at a crossroads of non-duality, an inclusive category, which contains the body and sexuality and thought and meaning.

The body itself as numinous

Many feminist theologians emphasize women's experience of the holy in their fleshly embodiment. My emphasis is that feminine experience of the numinous is indeed through the flesh; Cedrus Monte proposes flesh itself as numen (Monte, 2005). She believes that matter can be a source of the numinous experience. This recalls the notion of two streams of mysticism, the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

Mystic and religion

It is Don Cupitt who stated that mysticism is what saves us from religion (Cupitt, 1998). 


I rephrase this and say “mysticism as feminine divine removes us from the sphere of influence presumed by patriarchal religion”. If we equate established religion with patriarchal logos-dependent forms, then mysticism is what ‘saves’ us from this. Mysticism, then, is a feminine spiritual position that is outside the patriarchal assumptions or masculine hegemony. Mysticism, then, gives us access, through the numinous, to the feminine divine. It is libido that saves us from credo. So the place, horizon and experience of the feminine divine, is achieved in mysticism, where the numinous, the threshold of that which is yet to be symbolized, is accessed.


I have already alluded to the idea that it is mysticism that saves us from religion. Patriarchal belief-systems can be replaced with the perspective of the mystic, for both men and women. Mystical transcendent realities have, however, been marginalized within monotheisms, and mystics persecuted, because their expression calls for “a language of personal transcendence foreign to monotheism”. 


As mysticism is a direct response or access to the numinous, necessarily this is a means by which women and men can avoid the constructs of meaning within which we are enclosed. The power of the church would be severely threatened if it acknowledged that access to divine authority was possible outside its confines. 


Since the body and the words of mystics reflect a direct personal relation to the divine, their experience cannot be mediated by ecclesiastical structures.

Mysticism is a direct experience, unmediated by symbols such as language:

Mysticism and the numinous presume a direct experience, unmediated by previous understanding or symbolising. 


Take, for example, a tree. I want you to imagine a tree you actually know in real life, a specific tree. I’m chosing a tree because I have a great fondness for trees. You might know this tree of yours as a eucalypt, of this or that specific classification. That is the tree known through the symbols we have for it. 


Imagine, now, that you knew nothing of classifications, and that you are approaching the tree for the very first time in wonder, with beginners mind. You are encountering treeness without even the idea of the word “tree”. You experience tree. You touch tree, you feel tree you wonder about the nature of tree, but you can’t just dash of a name, because the name means nothing when you are experiencing tree. The name tree distances us from the experience of tree.

Mysticism, the Real and the Symbolic

The experience of embodied spirituality is conferred through the authenticity, autonomy, and authority of one’s own experience, not by religion; mysticism and the numinous are not religious in the first instance, because they consist of direct rather than mediated or interpreted experience. 


The psychoanalytic philosopher Jaques Lacan refers to the ecstasy of St Teresa, and says unequivocally that this is an expression of 'coming’, or orgasm, of sexual bliss. To him sexuality and mystical ecstasy are related; that is, mysticism is the site of a jouissance that goes beyond symbolic representation (Lacan, 1982, p. 47).


The notion of jouissance does not need a religious setting, but bypasses it entirely. Therefore, Jacques Lacan would say that the jouissance of the female mystic is an experience of the Real, rather than the interpreted world of the Symbolic. Inevitably, mysticism, direct knowledge and unmediated experience are threatening to the notion that the symbolic and logocentricity are the only source of knowledge. The Real is that which is ultimately authentic, an unchangeable truth. It precedes or exceeds, language. It consists in a realm that can never be symbolised.


Prohibitions against pronouncing the name of God, YHNH and the like, I believe are redirecting us back to the Real, unmediated experience of God. A name creates symbolic order, or a system of knowledge.

The God of monotheism:

I consider that monotheism - the father God - is a very limited lens through which our spirituality might be viewed, or through which we might view our spirituality. 


Our Western religious monotheism is a specific archetype of spiritual life, which is by no means universal. For a proper understanding of the spiritual life and the nature of, and possibilities for men and women’s spirituality, we need a broader language of the spiritual than monotheism can provide. 


“The Feminine” must employ the paradigms of wholeness, not those that imply opposition or separation.

Five spiritual archetypes:

We can identify five different modalities of the spirit, five different archetypal forms:


Goddess polytheism

Warrior Polytheism

(Abrahamic) Monotheism

Unitive/Transcendent

Mystical/Shamanic.


All archetypes have historic foundations and are present in our psyches today.


This is based on the work of Mike King, “Cutting “God” down to size.

Consciousness without an object?

Is there such a thing as consciousness without an object? The mystic and philosopher Simone Weil believed so.  She said “we have to go down to the root of our desire in order to tear the energy from its object. That is where the desires are true in so far as they are energy. But there is an unspeakable wrench in the soul at the separation of a desire from its object” (Weil, 1995, p. 20).

Weil is saying that the desire itself is the important thing - not the object of desire. As I said earlier, mystical experiences of numinosity do not require an object. This is in direct contrast to having something or someone to pray to, or devote ones self to. It is a surrender.


The feminine divine is not found in an object, but rather as an experience, a space, a horizon, an attitude, a way of seeing.

A word from Meister Eckhart:

Meister Eckhart: “So therefore let us pray to God that we may be free from ‘God.” (Eckhart, 1981, p. 200). Or Goddess.
In any case, God/ess is a projection, not a realization.

Eckhart, Meister. (1981). The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense (Edmund Colledge & Bernard McGinn, Trans.). New York: Paulist Press. Page 200

What, then, could be an experience of the divine?

“The future Christian (spiritual seeker) will be a mystic or he or she will not exist at all, if by mysticism we mean…a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence”.


(Karl Rahner, in Lehmann & Raffelt, 1986)

Conclusion -  silence filled with numinosity.

My idea is that the feminine divine as mysticism, as direct access to the numinous, constitutes a return to our roots. The removal of the “pathology of logocentrism would entail the rewriting of the Gospels, or thinking about them differently. “In the beginning” could no longer be the Word. “In the beginning would be the silence of the nothing from which the Word and the world proceed and in whom they continue to dwell”, as John Dourley writes. 


Thus the beginning, here described by Dourley as ‘silence’ could be experienced as the numinous, rather than logos (Dourley, 2006, p. 177). This silence enables the return to the pre-logos numinous and a feminine divine, rather than the Sky-Father Gods, which have characterized Western religion.

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