Mysticism in the 21st Century (2nd ed)
Connell R. Monette
Right up front, I have to acknowledge my connection to this book. Though I do not know Professor Connell Monette personally, I have corresponded with him a little bit. More importantly, I am friendly with one of the groups discussed in the book (the EGAe) and am actively training toward initiation in another (the INO). I think, then, that I have a pretty balanced perspective going in: personal knowledge of two of the groups, and prior exposure to some of the literature and meeting a few practitioners of several of the others without much investment in them myself.
Mysticism in the 21st Century is designed to be an undergraduate level textbook on what we might as well call esoteric religious movements. The author’s intention is to give a broad survey rather than a complete catalog, so instead of compiling an encyclopedia or yet another introductory book on modern religious studies, Monette chose to present eight (five in the first edition, updated, with three entirely new chapters) traditions of “mysticism” (the term being used somewhat loosely) extant in the modern world. In order to demonstrate the sheer variety of these traditions, Professor Monette did not attempt to show “typical” examples of any given tradition but rather some which take some common elements of a given tradition either to a notable extreme or in a direction representative of the power these spiritual modalities can have in the lives of their practitioners. The word “practitioners” is also a big part of Monette’s mission: he distinguishes mysticism from religion not in the sense that they are mutually exclusive but in that mysticism is explicitly personal and experiential, while religion is communal and belief-oriented. Where a religion includes mystics, the mystics are often seen as eccentric, unorthodox, or even heretical by the greater faith community of which they are a part.
Over all, I think that this was a wise course of action to take. By focusing attention on a few exceptional examples of any given mystical tradition, Monette skirts the pitfall of dry abstraction in favor of a series of portraits depicting living, breathing modes of spiritual engagement as practiced by real people. Even where his choices seem puzzling to those “in the know”, the chapters are still informative and fascinating reads when taken for what they are.
For example, I was (and still am) a bit puzzled by Professor Monette’s choice of including the Order of Nine Angles (ONA) as his snapshot of Hermeticism. While they do draw from Hermetic sources, so do almost all modern occult organizations at some stage or another. We cannot escape the influence of the Hermetica, for instance, on any and all modern Western systems of magic, even if only indirectly through the European alchemical tradition or many books preserved, used, translated, and adapted by Arab magicians such as The Picatrix. These are just part of the DNA of Western occultism. But philosophically speaking, the ONA in no way resemble Hermeticism. Even in its classical phase, Hermeticism was far closer to Christianity than to Satanism, eschewing what even a strict moralist might call black magic in favor of visionary meditation practices, contemplative prayer similar to that of the Christian Gnostics, and theurgy not much different from that of the Neoplatonists. Though the ONA do not really identify themselves as Satanists, they certainly more closely resemble at least an attempt at a cult from a Lovecraft or Ligotti story more than, say, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This has nothing at all to do, however, with the interest I have in reading about the ONA, just as I read about many other religions and spiritual systems which I have no intention of practicing. Would changing the chapter title to “Satanism: The Order of Nine Angles” (or, a bit cheekily, “The Church of Aleister Crowley of Latter Day Sinners: The Order of Nine Angles”) have been more accurate? Yes, I think so, and that change would also help the less familiar reader who tries to read some Hermetic material and wonders why it doesn’t encourage murder like that silly ol’ ONA. But the chapter is not therefore less worth reading. It is perhaps the single most concise introduction to the ideas of the ONA that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been floating in the occult Internet for over two decades. Whether someone were a prospective member or, like me, just interested in knowing about who’s out there, the chapter on the ONA presents its subject very well.
The International Nath Order (INO) is very well presented in the chapter on Tantra. As a friend and student of the INO, and having a generally good knowledge of Yoga and Tantra, I couldn’t point to a better introduction to the topic anywhere else. Yes, the INO Web presence is excellent, and Shri Gurudev Mahendranath’s writings are fairly accessible, but nowhere is there such a good “ok, here’s everything you need to know before diving in” document. Not only will it give the curious general reader or undergrad student a good look at a living Tantric lineage, it could also serve someone just making contact with the Nath Order as an unparalleled summary of ideas and exploration of key vocabulary that would make communication with the Order and reading Order documents that much easier.
I could say much the same for the chapter on the the Ecclesia Gnostica Aeterna, whose Tau David Beth I greatly admire and whose Tau Craig Williams I number among my friends. The EGAe is both similar and different from other contemporary Gnostic churches, so this chapter makes for a useful reading into the variety of modern Gnosticism. Professor Monette does an excellent job of not only presenting the ways in which the EGAe differs from other forms of Gnosticism, he takes the opportunity to give an overview of a number of the more usual Gnostic ideas by way of contrast. As such, alongside the chapters on the INO and on Boutchichi Sufism, this is one of the most generally helpful of chapters in the book for someone trying to come to grips with the tradition at large through one of its specific branches.
The final chapter on Yoga is a bit of a mixed bag, for my eyes. In it, Monette covers three forms of Yoga in a noble attempt at recapitulating the mission of the book: demonstrating the breadth and variety of mystical traditions not by showing a “typical” example of each one but by demonstrating their internal diversity. With Shadow Yoga and Bhakti Yoga (really Gaudiya Vaishnavism embodied mostly by ISKCON, aka “the Hare Krishnas”), he does an admirable job. Shadow Yoga actually is a fairly famous “studio yoga” tradition which has nevertheless attempted to maintain a real esoteric core. Personally, I can’t say how successful their attempt has been, but it is laudable nonetheless. The Bhakti Yoga of ISKCON and similar groups can be a powerful practice for those who seriously engage with it, but also comes with the danger of much more typically hierarchical religious organizations which are often extremely controlling and, like other wealthy and powerful religious groups such as the Roman Catholic Church, prone to extremes of moral conservatism and some terrible abuses of authority. The third choice, however, of so-called Rune Yoga is a curious one. Its inclusion is predicated on Professor Monette’s belief that Yoga is typically based in physical postures (asana), and in the INO chapter he is quick to point out that the Nath definition of Yoga as an internal practice leading to reintegration with the Divine is somehow idiosyncratic when it is in fact the more classical definition—Yoga being Sanskrit for “union”, after all. I am not in any way saying that Rune Yoga is an invalid practice; I’ve met several people who have gotten a lot of spiritual and magical value out of it. But Rune Yoga only very loosely fits the category, being perhaps more appropriately a Neopagan practice in the same way that Hebrew letter yoga (yes, it’s a thing) is far more a Jewish “answer” to studio yoga than it is a system of Yoga unto itself.
That being said, I suppose that Monette’s choices here do reflect his overall mission: as I’ve said before, to demonstrate the internal variety of mysticism rather than to try to showcase purely “orthodox” examples. In that, he amply succeeds in this second edition of Mysticism in the 21st Century. Even if you’ve got no background in any of this stuff, if you even have some purely intellectual curiosity about the many ways in which mysticism, esotericism, and modern religious movements manifest, hang together, and thrive, this book is a must-read.