Mystical Merging

Ecstacy of St. Theresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1647–1652

Ecstacy of St. Theresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1647–1652

Mystical Merging

In my teen years, I used often to thumb through a book my parents owned — a collection of one-page essays about holy persons, East and West, who had managed to attain oneness with God.   I forget the cast of characters now, but their experiences had lifted each man and woman far above the currents of ordinary existence.

They felt wholly enveloped and infused by a Love beyond anything that’s in play between the closest of friends, or parents and children, or even the truest of true lovers.

What is more, they perceived that ordinary human relations and workaday worries were illusory compared to this overpowering, heretofore-hidden Reality. Also, the dangers of ordinary life, its hostilities – the malice and the gossip – all that shrank to doll-sized proportions measured against the divine Love that disclosed the truth of existence.

I was very influenced by this compendium of saints. Whatever else I hoped to do or experience or be, this possibility –- of merger with the divine – remained an unstated, parallel aim. Besides, even if I had other ambitions, wouldn’t they be so much easier to realize if I were a bloomin’ saint first and foremost?

So my purpose had to do with God, but it was also a kind of Ur Ambition, one that put the others in the shade.

After the death of my parents, there was a point in my life when I felt under siege from every busybody, intrusive, grossly tactless yenta in New York. There must have been a target on my back, painted with raised gold letters that read,

please butt in; 

don’t stand on ceremony.

Possibly in reaction, I began to study Advaita Vedanta, the monistic school of Indian thought that holds the entire manifold of experience to be the One Divinity that is All in All. Along with other devotees, I practiced meditation, chanting, and other ancient techniques for moving the kundalini energy up from the base of the spine, chakra by chakra. If one could get it to climb to the highest chakra (energy center), the divine union of spirit and matter would result. This is the yogic form of the merger with God.

I’m not saying that it can’t be done. These are very ancient practices of a rich and sophisticated civilization. They would not be repeated generation after generation if they were ineffective. But I didn’t get very far with it.

At a certain stage of these efforts, I started to notice that this movement of people from every rank and corner of society, joined together with a lofty common goal, was becoming a cult. Lots of movements can morph into cults, so I don’t fault the yoga system for that. But, as I saw, if one’s belief system has no room in it for the reality of the human person (since the only reality in Advaita Vedanta is the One Divinity), then the individual person can’t be defended.

If you aren’t real, you aren’t defensible.

The guru represented the achieved merger of spirit and matter and was the titular head of this particular movement. She might not have been to blame for its corruption but she was, as I saw her, more trapped than I had been. As the human pinnacle of all this effortful striving, even had she wanted to step down, she had no worldview to replace the one she had embodied for her devotees for so long. Before you can step out of a theory, you need another one to step into.

For my part, I could step back — into a world where the creature and the creator principles were different — because I saw that only in such a world could a defense of the human person be mounted. It came to me that I didn’t have to merge with the Absolute to ward off the yentas. All I had to do was not return their calls.

All the same, the muffled desire to merge with the Absolute never quite left me. Till the other day!

I’m not asking anyone to share my vision, but what I saw, with a clarity that almost startled me, was that God does not share my ambition to merge! All of a sudden, the mystical aim seemed to me irrelevant to God’s actual purposes.

We are here – “on a darkling plain” to be sure — but here to do our best and to find out, with each rotation of the earth on its axis, how “our best” looks today, and whether we can still do it, with God’s help.

For the first time, I could see an analogy between the syndromes of insecurity in relations between human lovers and the mystic’s fervor to fuse with God. Do I ask my true love incessantly whether I please him, whether he still loves me, whether he’ll stay with me and never die or leave me? Of course not. It would be cloying and highly irritating. I’m not even tempted to be that kind of emotional nag. If I wouldn’t go for it, and Jerry wouldn’t care for it, why should God like it?

On the human level, that kind of romantic yearning, Sehnsucht as the Germans call it, gestates particularly where the lover is a tease, igniting passion with the covert aim of disappointing it. The one to whom you must put the question, in all its naked neediness — do you love me? will you be faithful? — is the Don Juan. The cad is the one you plead with, hopelessly, for reassurance, because he can’t possibly give it! You want to merge with him, to get Absolute Validation of your longing, lest he dump you. As you already know he will.

It now seems to me that God is not flattered by my desire to merge with Him, any more than a human lover would be. If God wants to contact me, or tell me something, He’ll find a way to make the divine intention discernible. If I’m cycling along, more or less on track, doing my best to go forward in a balanced way, keeping ears and eyes and heart open, I think, by this time …

the training wheels can come off.



About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Mystical Merging

  1. Ken Kaplan says:

    The wave on the ocean clearly exists. It is real and can absolutely knock you over. My body and soul are real and distinct too. I have been given consciousness and choice. I can and will defend my physical and spiritual self as well as the individuality of the wave. None can be denied.

    Still, the wave is a part of the ocean. It can not exist without the ocean, although clearly the ocean could care less about any of its infinite waves. In the end, the wave goes back from whence it came. As I suspect my body and soul shall as well.

    Somehow, at least for me, the divine intention is evident although shrouded. God can be One, All can be in the ALL and yet still have the reality of individuality. Incongruent? Perhaps. But that’s the duality of our situation.

    On the physical plane of our existence we are very real…but on higher and still higher planes…perhaps not.

    Fun stuff to ponder. Thanks for your post Abigail.

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