Hints to Advanced Spirituality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Meet three mystics representing the advanced spirituality of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These monotheistic spiritual masters are the Baal Shem Tov, St. Teresa of Avila, and Mahmud Shabistari.

JUDAISM: THE BAAL SHEM TOV – In the Context of the Jewish Community

The Baal Shem Tov was an Eastern European Rabbi, born in 1698 ce, who founded the Hasidic tradition of Judaism. Opposed to asceticism, he taught the immanence of God in the world. The Hasidic learn to remember God, not only during formal worship but in everyday life. Physical pleasure can rise to spiritual pleasure. The spirit and joy of Judaism are more important than its form.

To reach the highest realm, a state not separate from God, it is necessary to move beyond daily preoccupations and to overcome the ego. Meditation on the letters in the words of the Torah can lead to higher forms of spirituality and revelation.

A student of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Margoliot (b.~1707 ce), remembers his teaching: “Is not the proper intention attained through study for its own sake? One should be in a state of adherence to the letters in holiness and purity, and work in speech and in thought to connect part of the various levels of the soul with the holiness of the candle of commandments and Torah, the letters which edify and produce abundant lights.” [Reference: Rosman, Moshe (1996) “Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov,” University of California Press, pg. 135.] Such meditation and true worship leads to unification with God.

CHRISTIANITY: SAINT TERESA OF AVILA – In the Context of the Monastery

St. Teresa was an ascetic nun, born in 1515 ce in Avila, Spain. Despite being a natural suspect because she was woman and a converso (her grandfather converted from Judaism to Catholicism), St. Teresa was recognized by her superiors as an advanced mystic. They asked her to write a description of spiritual development to its highest stage.

The result was The Interior Castle, a blueprint for seven stages of spiritual ascent. A universal document, it reveals at each stage ever deeper challenges; improved awareness of one’s thoughts, actions, and control of ego; deeper prayer and meditation; and ever greater rewards of bliss and knowledge until the individual reaches union with God in the soul’s innermost mansion of the Interior Castle.

St. Teresa writes: “We should be most vigilant in little things, and take no notice of the great works we plan during prayer, which we imagine that we would perform for other people, even, perhaps, for the sake of saving a single soul. If our actions afterwards belie these grand schemes, there is no reason to imagine that we should do anything of the sort. I say the same of humility and the other virtues.

The devil’s wiles are many; he would turn hell upside down a thousand times to make us think ourselves better than we are. He has good reason for it, for such fancies are most injurious; sham virtues springing from this root are always accompanied by a vainglory never found in those of divine origin, which are free from pride.” [Reference: Translator Robert Van de Weyer (1995) “The Interior Castle” by St. Teresa of Avila,” Fount Classics, Fifth Mansions, Chapter III, Paragraph 9, pg. 83.]

SUFI ISLAM: Mahmud Shabistari – In the Context of Religious Diversity

In 1288 ce, Mahmud Shabistari was born in Shabistar, near Tabriz, in what is today southwestern Iran. In 1258, the Mongol invasion ended the Abbasid Dynasty, the major center of Muslim power of the time. Ghenghis Khan’s grandson, Hulagu, captured Baghdad and established the Ilkhanate Empire.

It was a time of upheaval, intellectual ferment and religious diversity. The Ilkhanate rulers, even after they became Muslim, had Buddhists, Shamanists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims mixing in their courts. This was the time Shabistari wrote, before the intolerant Muslim clerics prevailed.

Among the many influences on Shabistari were the mystic Ibn al Arabi, Plato, and of course, the Quran. His book, The Garden of Mystery, is widely considered the most concise summary of Sufism, the mystical stream of Islam.
Shabistari writes:
“Your existence is all thorns and weeds;
Make a clean sweep and throw them away now.

Go now and sweep out the house of self;
Make ready a place for the Beloved”

When ‘you’ have left, He will come within;
Through you, but without ‘you’, He will show His beauty.”  [Reference: Translator Robert Abdul Hayy Darr (2007) “Garden of Mystery: The Gulshan-I raz of Mahmud Shabistari,” By Mahmud Shabistari, ARCHTYPE, The Fifth Inquiry, Verses 397-399, pg 82]

2 Replies to “Hints to Advanced Spirituality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam”

  1. I’m worried that the talk of eradicating the ego/self, i.e. “when ‘you’ have left, He will come within” is often used as a setup for brainwashing (or, as I see it with some religious devotees, substituting the ego of the group for the personal ego). It seems more people are brainwashed into being suicide bombers or giving all of their money to a religion rather than becoming “enlightened” based on these notions. When people identify as members of a religion, whether Mormon or Muslim, as one of their top priorities/identities, they often spend so much of their life and energy on that religious group. Often it is socially fulfilling, but rarely leads to strong spiritual experiences. Even having an experience of altered consciousness from prayer or meditation doesn’t apparently leave a permanent moral/intellectual improvement, but is often used by religious leaders as ‘evidence’ that their system works and that the person should increase their devotion to that system/religion. Sadly, by teaching that it could take ‘several lifetimes’ to reach enlightenment, etc., some people are tricked into spending much of their time and energy sitting still, doing repetitive chanting/prayers, volunteering for the church, etc. They don’t expect to have a strong spiritual experience in this lifetime. How convenient for the religion: They can keep a person mentally enslaved to their group and have only promised benefits after death! Can you differentiate spiritual experiences from runner’s high, sensory isolation, sexual afterglow, and general passion and focus? Is there something special about the existing Holy Books, or could one reach the same state of mind memorizing the Periodic Table of the Elements and mentally repeating it?

    1. Kevin, thanks for your comment. There may or may not be something after death for us humans, hard to say since we have such hope and imagination. However, as a motivation for spiritual practice, it is all the same to me. Based on my modest spiritual experience, I am usually comfortable with death as the end but would be delighted if there is something more. My preparation is the same.
      As for sexual abuse in the clergy, I think it is a product of human nature. Sex is a big drive and you never know when it might hit you. Some time I want to write a blog on sex and the Islamic saying “Allah loves a good laugh.” From the sacred to the profane to the ridiculous. I believe great spiritual teachers do not differ from the rest of us except they have a policy of self-observation and self-control. Even Rumi said that sometimes he is at the highest levels and sometimes in the furnace of his own nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *