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Mysticism and the Desert Fathers

"In mysticism the will is united with the emotions in an impassioned desire to transcend the sense-world, in order that the self may be joined by love to the one eternal and ultimate Object of love; whose existence is intuitively perceived by that which we used to call the soul, but now find it easier to refer to as the “cosmic” or “transcendental” sense."...Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness Evelyn Underhill

Mysticism from the Greek μυστικός, mystikos, meaning 'an initiate') is the knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, or levels of being, or aspects of reality, beyond normal human perception, including experience of and even communion with a supreme being.
Mysticism (Wikipeida)
The Desert ascetics of Egypt followed a three-step path to mysticism: Purgatio, Illuminatio, and Unitio. These stages correspond to the purgative way found in later Catholic theology.

During the first level, Purgatio (in Greek, Catharsis), young monks struggled through prayer and ascetic practices to gain control of "the flesh"—specifically by purging their gluttony, their lust and their desire for possessions. This period of purgation, which often took many years, was intended to teach young monks that whatever strength they had to resist these desires (grace) came directly from the Holy Spirit. As the monks underwent this stage of their spiritual education, they identified with Christ's temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13), so that by the end of the Purgatio they could trust peacefully in the Lord for all their needs.

At this point, the Illuminatio (theoria in Greek) commenced. During this period the monks practiced the paths to holiness as revealed in the Gospel, identifying strongly with the Christ who taught the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew 5–7). Many monks took in visitors and students and tended the poor as much as their resources allowed. The monks continued their life of humility in the Spirit of God; the stoic acceptance of suffering was intended to make them capable of taking on heroic or difficult responsibilities for the local Christian community. Many monks died never having moved past this period.

The final stage was the Unitio (theosis in Greek), a period in which the soul of the monk was meant to bond with the Spirit of God in a union often described as the marriage of the Song of Solomon (also called the "Song of Songs" or the "Canticle of Canticles"). To find the solitude and peace that this level of mystical awareness demanded, elderly monks often fled into the deep desert or into remote forests, identifying with the transfigured Christ, who remained hidden from his disciples both during his life and often after his resurrection...source: "Spirituality of John Cassian"...Wikipedia
Mysticism: the emphasis on direct experience and living realization over doctrine.
In addition to establishing the mystic fact, Underhill outlines the universal mystic way, the actual process by which the mystic arrives at union with the absolute. She identifies five stages of this process. First is the awakening, the stage in which one begins to have some consciousness of absolute or divine reality. The second stage is one of purgation which is characterized by an awareness of one's own imperfections and finiteness. The response in this stage is one of self-discipline and mortification. The third stage, illumination, is one reached by artists and visionaries as well as being the final stage of some mystics. It is marked by a consciousness of a transcendent order and a vision of a new heaven and a new earth.

The great mystics go beyond the stage of illumination to a fourth stage which Underhill, borrowing the language of John of the Cross, calls the dark night of the soul. This stage, experienced by the few, is one of final and complete purification and is marked by confusion, helplessness, stagnation of the will, and a sense of the withdrawal of God's presence. It is the period of final "unselfing" and the surrender to the hidden purposes of the divine will. The final and last stage is one of union with the object of love, the one Reality, God. Here the self has been permanently established on a transcendental level and liberated for a new purpose. Filled up with the Divine Will, it immerses itself in the temporal order, the world of appearances in order to incarnate the eternal in time, to become the mediator between humanity and eternity.

In Mysticism, Underhill sets out the framework of her understanding of human psychological development. The focus for full development must be on the eternal. the transcendental order which exists, but is not immediately obvious to us. By following the natural tendency towards union with this order, one becomes liberated and unselfed, filled up with that eternal reality which one loves. Mysticism is not some rare, esoteric phenomenon, but rather a movement of the heart, open to all, fully realized by the few, in which the object, method, and consequence are all the same. To seek, to find, to be transformed by that which is eternal and fully real, the One, which the mystics call God....Dana Greene...Adhering to God: The Message of Evelyn Underhill for Our Times
The Platonic view of man as a soul imprisoned within a body was for a time incorporated into Christian speculative thought through the writing of Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399) and Origen of Alexandria (d. 253 or 254), but it was later ignored in favor of a more Hebrew view of man as an animated body. The difference between considering man as an animated body (like Adam, for whom God first created a body out of the dust and then breathed life into him) or an imprisoned soul (as taught by the Greek philosophers who followed Plato) has a subtle influence on one's understanding of redemption and even of prayer. Origen had given the outline for mystical theology with some Platonic influence, but this was balanced by the teachings of the Macarian Homilies (usually attributed to St. Macarius of Egypt, 300-390 A.D., but perhaps the work of an unknown writer of the fifth century). In the Macarian writings, the more Biblical emphasis on the whole man was re-established. The pagan Greek emphasis made prayer an activity of the mind and intellect, whereas the Hebrew tradition followed by the hesychasts made prayer a function of the whole man: mind, emotions, will, and even body!...ORTHODOX MYSTICISM: TEACHINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS
The daily experiences and world view of the early desert fathers may be completely alien to us in the modern world. Their world was a different time, different place, a different milieu.

Through the practice of mysticism, they went direct to God through a process we have come to know as a mystical vision. In those times, no middleman, such as the early Church, guided them. Each individual navigated through an uncharted wilderness on his or her own path to achieve unity with the Creator. In the view of the early desert fathers, the physical world was only a temporary existence, even an illusion. They looked forward to a more permanent world beyond everyday reality.

The first link provides an overview of the mystical experience and how it was sought by the desert fathers.

The second link includes the text from Evelyn Underhill's, Practical Mysticism. I highly recommend it as a starting point for understanding the mystical process. She describes an approach to viewing reality, a reality that the mystic describes as the "real" and "permanent" reality.
Although published in 1915, Practical Mysticism is just as readable today as it was almost a hundred years ago. And it would have likely made sense to the early desert fathers.

The third link I have included is to her book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, should you wish to go deeper.
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