Monday, September 13, 2010

MISTS AND MYSTICISM


Cool mornings here at Sewanee have frequently been misty and have evoked thoughts about how much I like places overhung with mists. At Sewanee, I love the early morning mists hanging over the valley that I see through the windows behind the altar at St. Mary’s Convent chapel. I think of mists or fogs as veils, which when parted, offer endless discoveries.

I remember the great mists in the Big Sur Valley and at Carmel, California, “vagrant wisps of luminous fog creeping like a live thing in and out of the canyons,” wrote Una Jeffers (wife of the poet Robinson Jeffers). The fog along the central and northern California coast is known as Tule fog and is often exceedingly dense in early morning, but I love the sight of water or mountain suddenly appearing through the mists.

Then there is Louisiana, my second home, where on winter mornings during my drive to work (before retirement!) a heavy fog enveloped highway and the cane fields alongside it and hovered over the muddy Bayou Teche. This sight lent a little mystification to an otherwise monotonous drive to Lafayette, Louisiana, eighteen miles from New Iberia where, for twelve years, I worked in an office overlooking a fallow cane field.

Folk tales about Louisiana mists and fogs abound, and in the early 19th century, when fogs were particularly heavy, newspapers often carried these tales. One story published by Edwin Davis in LOUISIANA, THE PELICAN STATE, features a group of fifty laborers who wielded spades, axes, and crowbars in an attempt to clear a path through a dense fog, and this bit of hyperbole ends on the note that blasting with gunpowder loosened the fog “a little.” This story appeared in the New Orleans Times Picayune, and a postscript to it revealed that some butchers at Slaughter House Point, who were unable to guide their pirogues through the fog, climbed up forty feet and discovered the air was thin enough to haul their beef up and carry it in wheelbarrows across the city atop the fog. You see, Texans aren’t the only ones who can concoct a tall tale!

From the ridiculous to the sublime, I’ve often thought about the parallels between mist and mysticism – not only do the words have assonance, they both define a veiling of something that is beyond. In the case of early earthly morning mists, they veil a mountain or the sea, or just the road ahead. In the case of mystics, the mist is the veil between this world and its frenetic activity and the reality of God.

One of my favorite mystics, the Anglican writer, Evelyn Underhill, claims that everyone can be a practical mystic, and she describes five stages through which a person can pierce the mist, reach union with God and achieve enlightenment. Her explanation is succinct, but those who seek the mystical path may often feel that in this search for deeper spirituality which she describes, God is heavily veiled.

Underhill advocates cleansing the doors of perception that are “hung with the cobwebs of thought: prejudice, cowardice, and sloth…” In the first step toward becoming a practical mystic, she talks about the process of awakening, which involves a bit of contemplation and bringing the mind into a consciousness of God, followed by purgation (awareness of one’s imperfections and finiteness), then illumination (a stage into which poets often enter when they are entertaining the Muse). This stage is followed by passage into the dark night of the soul, characterized by confusion, stagnation of the will, and, ultimately, surrender to the Divine Will. The fifth step is the final piercing of the veil in which union with the One reality, God, takes place.

Evelyn says if we’d take the time to spring clean the soul, rearrange the mental furniture, and open closed windows, we’d discover we’ve lived in a stuffy world, while our inheritance is a “world of morning glories…” I love Evelyn’s simple allusions and earthy sayings – I suppose it’s why she called herself a “practical mystic.”

Those who may be totally “be-fogged” by now, take heart. There are less misty blogs to come!

Note:  Painting above is a "misty" version of my brother Paul's painting for the cover of FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE.
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