Bernadette Roberts


The mystical journey through the soul has recently been well documented by an American Christian contemplative, Bernadette Roberts. In a number of books, 'the Experience of No-Self', 'the Path to no-Self ', 'What is Self?' and in her latest 'Contemplative, Autobiography of the Early Years', she has given us a detailed map of the interiors of the soul and its intimacy with the divine. For a beginner in mysticism reading these books can be a demanding task. They are not easy to read and it takes some contemplative training to really understand what she's pointing at. But even a highly trained mystic may not understand all she writes. So it will in all sense be rewarding if we try to shed some light on these very essentia of mysticism. We may fail in doing so, but then at least we shall have contributed to a debate about these delicate matters.

In 'Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995) (p.279-310)' Ken Wilber has given us a description of the different stages of mystical unification. It is of importance to connect these findings with the experiences of Bernadette Roberts. That way we will perhaps have a deeper understanding of the successive levels of contemplation she refers to. Comparing Wilber's findings with Roberts' may also enable us to formulate some criticism, if we may stumble on some significant differences.

Wilber has described the four types of mysticism (nature mysticism, deity mysticism, formless mysticism and non-dual mysticism) that correspond with the four transpersonal levels of higher consciousness development that come to the fore once we transcend the levels the mental. With these higher levels (described as psychic, subtle, causal and non-dual) we have left behind our mind and we have entered the realm of our soul. It is with these levels or stages of consciousness that religion and mysticism are concerned. We all have experience of these levels, even if we are not religious or mystical, because our consciousness enters these levels in dream sleep (the subtle) and deep sleep (the causal). The only difference with mystical practice is that the mystic and the contemplative enter these realms consciously, while in sleep we all enter these realms unconsciously. What happens if we enter the four levels of higher consciousness consciously?

1. the psychic level

The first religious experiences coming to life in consciousness are feelings of connectedness with the world, especially with nature. In the depth of our interior we make contact with Soul. From the unfathomable depths of our most inner life somehow the feeling gets hold of us that our soul is not very different from the Soul we feel everywhere around us. Especially when we walk in nature we feel this Soul everywhere, in the trees, in the landscape, in the magnificent sunset, in the rise and tide of the seasons. Ralph Waldo Emerson has called this Soul, this life giver of all we see around us, the Over-Soul. It is Spirit working in the manifest world. This Over-Soul in nature strikes us with awe. It is poetically described by Emerson as 'making our knees bend'.

The Over-Soul (or World-Soul) is an initial apprehension of the pure Witness or aboriginal Self, which starts to emerge, however haltingly, as an experiential reality at this psychic stage (Wilber SES p. 285)

Though the mysticism of this level is called 'nature mysticism' it is not only a felt connectedness with nature but with the whole World, including mankind and its culture. In Wilber's terms: it is not merely an ecological self but it is a Eco-Noetic Self, 'the Self of nation and of nature' (Emerson). So it would in fact be better to call it 'nation-nature mysticism'.

2. the subtle level

But seeing Spirit everywhere in the world was only the beginning of the religious path. Again the mystic turns deeper within in contemplation. She sees a further path lying ahead. At the subtle level she now begins to apprehend the direct subtle workings of Spirit in her own soul. The soul now wants nothing more in life than'to belong' to this Spirit. She is deeply 'in love' with this magnificent source of life. She has found her true home now and wants nothing more than to be unified with this innermost Spirit that lives in her. The mystic now turns all her senses away from the world, closes her eyes in contemplation and intuits her coming unification with 'the Bridegroom'.

Here at the subtle level the great unification takes place. Here Spirit and soul are felt to be totally One in essence. This Oneness has already always been the case, but now for the first time is this unification realized consciously by the soul itself. In the words of St. Teresa of Avila (the great champion of subtle level mysticism): the silkworm (the individual separate ego) has transformed into the glorious beauty of the butterfly (the soul unified with God).

Teresa reports that in the beginning these unifications of the soul with Spirit are only shortlived and last for only half an hour or so. They can be compared with the satori experiences in Zen buddhism, where the adept also temporarily peaks up to the subtle plain. But after these shortlived experiences, , after having seen these glimpses of a beatific vision, the soul tends to fall back again to her old ways. Ar this time the great longing starts. This longing has been described by Teresa's friend and co-worker St. John of the Cross as 'the Dark Night of the Soul'. This phase is probably one of the worst nightmares the soul has to go through. For after having seen such beautiful and perplexing visions, now everything is doomed to grow pale in comparison.

For from now on the soul wants to be in a permanent state of union with the divine. Teresa speaks movingly of the soul now wanting to 'marry' her 'Beloved'. From this day onward the soul only wants to live with and be connected to this object of all her desires.

Anyone who has experienced the blessings of the subtle plain knows what Teresa is talking about. These experiences are so profound and so overwhelmingly beautiful that one wants to remain with them for ever. They can be compared with

werk    essay in progress

Bernadette Roberts

Bernadette Roberts
The child of a devout Catholic family, Bernadette Roberts’ contemplative experiences began at an early age. It was at fifteen that they began to fit into a frame of reference within her Christian tradition. Ten years of seclusion in a monastery followed, during which Bernadette realized an abiding state of oneness with God. 

She left the convent, married, raised four children, and trained as a teacher,but all the while continued her contemplative practices - prayer, Mass and solitary walks in nature.

There were many trials and tribulations in this twenty year period. She also had intimations that there was a further state beyond the Union she habitually enjoyed. God was perceived as an object and the soul also was perceived as an object - and they were in union. However this state was still in the realm of duality and relativity and she wondered who or what, was the subject that was perceiving this union. In her mid-40's she would find herself sinking into profound absorbing silences. Gradually her self died out and she reached the mystical state of non-duality..


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