Mysticism is a dirty word for many Christians. Unfortunately, that is often because few Christians know what mysticism even references, let alone what it looks like in practice. Michael Mitias, in his book Seeking God, paves a way forward in the conversation. Seeking God presents a fictional journey in which a philosopher, Dimitri Christophides, makes a journey through the Syrian Desert. Along the way, he meets a Sufi, Kamal, and a Christian monk, Father Sergios and discusses the nature of reality as well as mysticism.
Mitias utilizes the reflections of Dimitri to get across various aspects of mysticism. Primary among these is a sense of wonder about the universe generally, which is not felt by everyone. The contrast between visions of the mundane between a mystic and those uninterested in such things is brought up poignantly by Dimitri: “The majority of people… do not even raise the question of their destiny… They simply immerse themselves in the river of social existence without questioning the source and destiny of this river” (p. 3). Yet the mystic feels a sense of unease at simply floating with the river of life. They feel the pull of the metaphysical and yearn for “The Eternal” and “The One.”
The way Mitias introduces readers to the realities of mystic practice is commendable. He shows, through Dimitri, how mystics can feel attuned to the things happening in the everyday realities. However, he also does this by painting the great beauty of the created world through words. One of the important aspects of mysticism is a sense of wonderment at the world and how much beauty it contains, pointing beyond it to “The One.” Another important aspect is the feeling of union with “The One.” This union is not portrayed as a full union in which becomes “The One” themselves, rather it is shown as an awareness of union with “The One.” The distinction is vitally important for mysticism, and it is one that is hotly debated within various works on mystic practice.
Mitias also puts forward a fairly detailed outline of how to perform mystic practice through the instruction of Father Sergios. In a discussion with Kamal and Dimitri, Father Sergios notes the path to becoming united with “The One.” The path involves first removing the obstacles found in social life; second, one must recognize that religious beliefs come from the “web of rites, ceremonies, symbols, and practices of the religious community” (p. 185). One must also, thirdly, “be real”; fourth, be true to oneself; fifth, live from one’s inner self; sixth, love the world; and finally, choose to love (pp. 185-186).
One cannot discuss a book of this nature without referencing the quality of the plot. Suffice to say that the story in Seeking God provides little more than a framework for discussing the various issues brought up within the book. The plot is inoffensive and does not interfere with the meat of the discussion. It is essentially a story of Dimitri finding himself in a journey across the desert.
Seeking God provides a valuable lesson in exploring what “mysticism” is and how it plays out in practice. Moreover, it makes mysticism at least somewhat accessible to those who are interested in the topic without knowing anything about it. Many who read the book will realize that they have experienced mystic experiences without having ever labeled them as such. Mitias is to be commended for the even-handed presentation of mysticism throughout the work. The balance of perspectives is done very well, and the book will serve as a very capable introduction to the topic for interested readers.
All of that said, there are a few areas of criticism that must be offered for the book at least from a Christian perspective. Mitias does not clearly delineate the differences between mystical practice and belief in differing faith traditions. That is, in the discussions the characters have there is very little development that a Sufi and a Christian may have differing objects of belief. Mysticism in general often focuses upon unity rather than diversity of religious belief, but from a Christian perspective this blurring of lines goes too far. Mystics are not all focused upon the same deity/object of mystic practice, and that must be remembered when interacting with “The One.”
The way that Mitias writes on religion also is open to some debate. Father Sergios’ discussion of unity with “The One” was particularly divisive on this subject. What is it about “religion” that is different from the interpretations of rites, practices, etc. mentioned above (p. 185)? Mitias offers no answers here, and the overall impression one is left with is that “religion” as a rites-based institution may be keeping people from unity with “The One,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all, for Father Sergios remains intensely religious. This criticism may be thwarted by simply noting the great difficulty that comes with defining religion and separating it from other spheres of worldviews.
More importantly, Christians involved in mystical practice must be very careful to be aware that not all mysticism is positive in nature. The book did not emphasize the negative powers which can also be involved in mysticism. There is, in fact, essentially no mention at all of anything negative which can come from mystic practice. On the Christian worldview, however, it is acknowledged that many of the things with which we can interact on a spiritual level are negative or even evil. It is important to follow biblical practice and “test the spirits by the spirit” (1 John 4:1).
Despite the reservations outlined above, Seeking God is a worthy read for those interested in mysticism. It helps to broadly outline what mystical practice is while also introducing readers to many of the debated questions regarding the subject. Mitias has provided a text which will serve to foster discussion and debate, which is perhaps the best praise one can give for a book written so clearly to do exactly that.