Death, Dying, and Mysticism

The Ecstasy of the End

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Thomas Cattoi, Christopher M. Moreman
Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Mysticism
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , April
     292 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


First in the new series, Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Mysticism, Death, Dying, and Mysticism offers a rich, multi-disciplinary perspective on physical death as a time of transformation, and examines the mystical loss of ego mentioned in various religious narratives on dying.

In Chapter 1, Darleen Pryds discusses the ways that hagiographic censors retell, and sometimes write out, the story of the wealthy lay Lady Jacopa, who assisted at Francis of Assisi’s deathbed. Later Church leaders found a female presence by a celibate’s bedside unacceptable, though women were the most common care-takers. Preserving reputations changes storytelling.

Lucy Bregman’s essay finds mystic experiences often missing in contemporary American autobiographies written about the dying process. Most focus instead on faith and meaning, and on rituals and the need for personal community, rather than depersonalized hospital deaths. Bregman’s assumption that no one would be left to write the story if there was mystic ego-dissolution seems a bit misguided.

A number of articles in this book explore death, grief, spiritual experience, and identity for various key thinkers, artists, and composers. Stuart Jesson presents Simone Weil’s sense that real spiritual awakening is like death; instead of fear of death, we should remain open to pain and death, receptive and ready for fulfillment in the Resurrection. Robert Michael Ruehl’s excellent treatment of H. D. Thoreau’s diary, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, opens for us Thoreau’s deep spiritual and ecological roots. As part of the natural process, humans can weave the traces of our deceased loved ones into our current lives.

Cynthia Hogan deals with the “Seth Paradigm,” treating seriously New Age channeling, including ideas such as: all matter is conscious, time is a construct for our three-dimensional existence, and death is a fallacy. Though sources of the Seth Paradigm may include Renaissance Neo-Platonism and Hermetic thinking, noting links with Indian thought would also have been useful. Hogan considers it an “insult” that suffering is not treated seriously in Seth materials (99), but this negative judgment was a shock to this reviewer. As scholars we suggest meanings, but we rarely fully comprehend others’ points of view.

Additional articles include Jin Sook Kim’s discussion of symbolic death in Jacques Lacan, and the power to open up to the “Other” and to “intersubjectivity.” Candy Gunther Brown discusses near-death experiences (NDEs) in the book/film “Heaven is for Real.” And Lee Irwin’s chapter expands our understanding of states of mystic consciousness in his diagram that depicts permeable and ever-widening “nested doll” mystical experiences in NDEs.

Assumptions that death is necessarily and universally an emotionally negative experience appear in Chris Roe and Graham Mitchell’s introductory remarks to their “Anomalous Experience and the Bereavement Process.”  Their idea that therapists could assist the grieving process by efforts to recreate personal links between the deceased and the living is a good one.

However, if death is always negative, as Roe and Mitchell seem to say, it is puzzling why the subtitle of this book is “the ecstasy of the end.”

Several of the authors, including Jordan Paper, seem to equate symbolic death, or loss of ego-sense, with actual death, as if human beings cannot function without being bounded by ego. Yet mystics themselves usually consider the egoless condition as a more genuine life, rather than a death, though their apophatic language can confuse even scholars. Paper says, “death has no meaning” in mystic traditions in which loss of self is a key theme (178), but is this accurate? Death always has meaning in every tradition, but that meaning may not be what we expect.

June McDaniel’s essay discusses transforming awareness of life and death during Goddess Kali Tantric corpse rites, and Lloyd Plueger looks at the samadhi experience as “true death” in the Yoga Sutras. However, the assumption that lack of thought-waves in the mind is “death-like” again, may not be accurate. Why assume that without thought, without an ego, we are dead? Awareness, or consciousness, constitutes fundamental living divinity in the Yoga Sutras and other Hindu texts. Religious traditions that seek death of ego do so because they see ego as false cultural coin, and divinity as the Real, the ever-living. We must comprehend their categories, not our own.

June-Ann Greeley’s discussion of Frida Kahlo’s art is a powerful look at a life on the edge, revealing how terrible physical pain can transform human feelings about both life and death. Lastly, Martin Hoondert traces Requiem masses by three modern composers, with musical themes ranging from traditional Christian death and resurrection themes to social criticism following untimely death in war.

Rich as this book is, it does not actually demonstrate that ecstasy is commonly experienced at death, except in NDEs (which, of course, are powerful, valid testimonies). The book instead might be subtitled “transforming mystic identity.” More than one author tends toward treating ego-loss as equivalent to physical death. Yet it is not. The hyper-lucid, final state of the Real would more likely be described by mystics as the “truly alive.”

In the introduction to the volume, Thomas Cattoi states that the Christian world view crumbled to pieces after Kant, and that as a result we all die alone. Would these statements be agreed upon by most American Christians, who are not theologians or philosophers? Our early 21st century world may be in the throes of rapid change and turbulent religious synthesis, but why call it a “harsh existential fragmentation?” Much of the religiosity in our world is quite genuine and deep, not superficial, though of course secularism is present as a cultural feature.

An introduction or conclusion that more clearly traced the links between the articles would have been helpful. Replete with wonderful ideas, many deep articles, and useful notes, this book is neither “graffiti” nor a “spiritual collage” as Cattoi suggests (12). His view of religion today as fragmentation is not a vision we all share.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dr. Lise Vail is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Monclair State University.

Date of Review: 
September 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Cattoi is Associate Professor of Christology and Cultures at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, USA, which is part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. His interests include Christology, comparative theology and spirituality, and Buddhist-Christian studies.

Christopher M. Moreman is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at California State University, East Bay, USA. His specialization lies in the relationships between death, dying, and the afterlife; religious, mystical, and paranormal experience; and folklore and popular culture. Recent publications include Beyond the Threshold: Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions (2010) and The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and around the World (2013).



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.