Remember the Stories. Human beings are storytellers: each of us has a story to tell. The stories of the mystics — men and women who have profoundly loved God, both in the past and up to, and including, the present day — can be profound inspiration for each of us on our own unique God-search today. So let us take time to learn about, imitate, and honor the mystics and contemplatives and sages and saints who have journeyed before us, people like Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John Ruusbroec, Evelyn Underhill, John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, and many many more. When we remember their stories, we are nurtured in our own unfolding stories of intimacy with God.

Photo credit: Stained glass window of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral. Flickr image from Ian-S, under Creative Commons Licence. Used by Permission.

Photo credit: Stained glass window of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral. Flickr image from Ian-S, under Creative Commons Licence. Used by Permission.

Over the centuries of the Christian era, many people — lay and ordained, clergy and monastic, men and women, educated and simple — have contributed to a large body of literature devoted to prayer, contemplation, and the direct experience of God. This body of writings comprises the wisdom teachings known as mysticism, from the language of mystery used by the earliest Christians to describe the inability of the mind to comprehend the spiritual truths of God; spiritual truths such as the lavish abundance of Divine grace and the incarnation of God into human form. Mystics — those whose direct experience of God form the basis of this literary/spiritual tradition — have existed in the Christian world since the time of the New Testament (both St. Paul and St. John the Evangelist are considered to be mystics) to the present day.

The greatest of mystical writings are timeless, capable of providing rich spiritual inspiration even centuries after they were written. Through autobiographical and instructional prose, the mystics of the middle ages prove to be surprisingly relevant to the post-modern world. They offer psychologically astute instructions on contemplation and meditation, insightful explorations of the dynamics of both the acceptance of and resistance to grace in the human soul, and fascinating theological insights on issues such as the spirituality of sensuality, the motherhood of God, and deification: the process by which human beings are transformed into the very image and likeness of God.

Here is a list of some of the major voices within the western contemplative tradition. If a name is hyperlinked, click on it to learn more about that particular individual. Approximately once a month I’ll add another page detailing a brief biography and bibliography for each of these major mystics.

The first five centuries of the Christian era:

  • Evagrius Ponticus
  • John Cassian
  • Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

Sixth through the eleventh centuries:

  • Benedict of Nursia
  • Maximus Confessor
  • John Scotus Eriugena

Twelfth century:

  • Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Aelred of Rievaulx
  • Richard of St. Victor
  • Hildegard of Bingen

Thirteenth century:

Fourteenth century:

Fifteenth century:

Sixteenth century:

Seventeenth century:

  • Brother Lawrence
  • Thomas Traherne
  • George Fox

Eighteenth century:

  • Jean-Pierre de Caussade
  • William Law
  • Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain

Nineteenth century:

  • Author of The Way of a Pilgrim
  • Coventry Patmore
  • Thérèse of Lisieux

Twentieth century:

The best way to learn about the mystics is to read their own words. Visit my Books of Unknowing page to review an in-depth list of writings by (and about) Christian and world mystics.

If you’re new to the mystics or don’t understand how reading the writings of a Christian who lived 500 or 1500 years ago could benefit you today, check out my musings on Why Read the Mystics?

If you are interested in applying the wisdom of the mystics to your life today, visit the Spiritual Formation page.

Also see The Hidden Tradition of Christian Mysticism — An article I wrote for the summer 2010 issue of Evolve! magazine.