When I teach an introductory class on Christian mysticism, often the first session will be devoted to exploring the basic question, “What is Christian mysticism?” It’s actually a question that is immediately fraught with challenges. Mysticism is a notoriously squirrelly subject — the word gets used by different authors and in different contexts to describe radically divergent dimensions of spirituality. Indeed, some Christians are hostile to the very notion of mysticism, because they have seen the word used to describe occultism, magic, or some other type of spirituality which they find objectionable.
I cannot nail down a Christian understanding of mysticism in a single session of a class (or in a simple blog post), but hopefully I can offer some lines of thinking that can help readers and students to think about Christian mysticism in a manner that is consistent with how mysticism has been understood by Christian theologians, contemplatives and visionaries. What follows is a handout that I like to share with my classes; hopefully these principles can be helpful for you as you reflect on what Christian mysticism is, and how it can be meaningful for your spiritual life journey.
Twelve Ways to Approach Christian Mystical Spirituality
- Mysticism is a vague word that means different things to different people. It is perhaps more skillful to approach this topic with the heart of a poet rather than the mind of an engineer. It’s not marked by technical precision or concrete language; rather it is an invitation into a spirituality shaped by intuition, feeling, and visionary insight. While some mystics are philosophers and attempt to describe their experience with exactitude, many others are storytellers who simply invite us into a place where we hope to meet the God who creates us, loves us, saves us, sustains us, and ultimately desires to be one with us.
- The root of mysticism is the Greek word μυεο (mueo), which implies “being taught the secrets.” In ancient Greece, a mueo was an initiate into religious secrets; for Christians, this implies rather being initiated into spiritual mystery. The word mueo is the root for our words mystery and mute (like the mute button on your TV remote). So mysticism invites us into the mystery of God, and into a place where silence reigns — because our words fail us.
- The word mysticism does not appear in the Bible, but the word mystery does — multiple times. Saint Paul describes Christians as “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (I Corinthians 4:11). Phrases like “the mystery of God” or “the mystery of Christ” appear throughout the New Testament. Mysticism, therefore, means being initiated into these sacred mysteries. And while no one can ever fully express the mysteries of God or Christ in human language (see #7 below), we can begin to explore these mysteries by considering Biblical principles like: God is love; humans are created in God’s image and likeness; Christ is one with God; we are called to be one with Christ.
- For lack of a better word, mysticism in Christianity refers to the direct experience of God. This is a tricky concept, because experience is very subjective and we can get lost when we decide that our personal experience matters more than the collective wisdom of mystics and theologians over the ages. But Christianity has also fallen into the opposite trap: of denigrating experience, trusting only in “objective” teaching (like doctrines formulated from the Bible). At its best, Christian mysticism depends on a synergy where each individual (and community) is invited into direct experience of God, as formed and interpreted by the collective wisdom of all Christians, past and present.
- Paradoxically, mysticism also implies the non-experience of God: meeting God in absence or unknowing. Most students of mysticism (and spirituality in general) recognize the importance of the direct experience of God; but mystics over the ages have also grappled with the seeming paradox that God often seems absent, or hidden, or lost in a dark night or a “cloud of unknowing.” Mystics reject any kind of simplistic dualism that implies experience is the only way to encounter God. Sometimes God works in our hearts at a level deeper than our experience; so mysticism paradoxically invites us to hold experience(s) lightly. Non-attachment is a mystical virtue: even non-attachment to experience itself.
- The two statements above point us to the fact that mysticism involves paradox. After two thousand years of Christian history, it’s safe to say that many writers and teachers that are generally regarded as “mystical” often present wisdom that seems to be at odds with other principles within the world of mystical spirituality. For example: some teachers promote prayer that is radically silent, seeking to let go of all thoughts and distractions; while others promote a way of praying that is deeply imaginative, actually engaging with thoughts and feelings and images as they arise within! Mystical spirituality is inclusive and embracing, so even paradoxical truths or principles can co-exist within it.
- Mysticism is ineffable: it cannot be put into words (although people keep trying). Saint Paul talks about the Holy Spirit praying within us, using “sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). It only stands to reason that human language cannot capture the fullness of God, any more than an amoeba can understand what it means to be human. This is part of why “the fullness of God” and “the mystery of God” are essentially synonymous. We are like the blind people with the elephant: each of us can speak of our experience of God, but it always provisional, subjective, and incomplete. But we need to keep the conversation going, since we can learn from one another and go deeper than even our experience.
- In the early centuries of Christianity, mystical theology implied God’s hiddenness (made manifest). Ancient Christian writers, interestingly enough, spoke of mystical theology not so much in terms of subjective experience, but rather in terms of how hidden truths or wisdom of God can be revealed — especially in the sacred writings (the Bible) and in the rituals of the Christian community (the sacraments). In fact, Orthodox Christians to this day refer to the sacraments as “the mysteries”! So in the sacrament of Holy Baptism is hidden God’s forgiveness and desire to be in relationship with us; in Holy Communion is hidden Christ’s presence and desire to nurture and sustain us. It is out of these “hidden” truths that the possibility of experience God’s presence — or even union with God — becomes possible.
- Mysticism cannot be regulated or credentialed; therefore, institutional religion is not always comfortable with it. There have been mystics and contemplatives in every century of Christian history. Some of these women and men have become renowned as saints, holy teachers and exemplary models of Christian discipleship. But others have been denounced as heretics or have been viewed with suspicion by those in power. Since mysticism involves intuition and subjective experience, it cannot be neatly codified in dogma or doctrine, and so different mystics have been treated differently over the ages. Some are seen as holy, others as heretics. And sometimes, today’s “heretic” just might be tomorrow’s saint! Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy was condemned by the bishop of Paris in 1277 yet today is called a “Doctor of the Church.” Perhaps controversial mystics of our time, like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or Thomas Merton, will someday be embraced by the institutional church. Or not: Meister Eckhart, condemned a century after Aquinas, has yet to be fully accepted by the institutional church, although he remains widely regarded as one of the greatest of Christian mystics.
- While mysticism is associated with extraordinary visions, locutions, and/or states of consciousness, mystics have often emphasized ordinariness and even regard supernatural phenomena with suspicion. Some of the most renowned mystics, from Francis of Assisi to Julian of Norwich to Teresa of Ávila, are famous not only for their experience of God, but also for extraordinary or even supernatural phenomena that is associated with their spirituality. We human beings love what is dramatic, so naturally mystics who have unusual or remarkable experiences get plenty 0f attention. But many mystics caution that extraordinary phenomena is not the point of mystical spirituality — the point is to form and deepen an intimate relationship with God, even to the point of union with God. Supernatural experiences can actually be a distraction from that more essential objective, and for this reason, mystics tend to counsel non-attachment.
- Christian mysticism is relational — to be a mystic usually implies sensing a vocation to serve and care for others in some way or form. Some mystics live as hermits or solitaries — Julian of Norwich and Thomas Merton being two famous examples. But even the desert mothers and fathers, who lived alone in remote places, would still offer counsel and encouragement to students and visitors. Christianity in general is a deeply social religion, with a strong emphasis on community, on service, and on care for those in need. This social dimension of spirituality is present in Christian mysticism as well. To experience God’s presence or union always leads toward a deepened appreciation of both of Jesus’s two central teachings: love God, and love your neighbor. Many great mystics suggest that ultimately there is no division between these two core principles.
- Christian mysticism is optimistic: it implies that the spiritual life of Christians can be marked by joy, delight, reverie and felicity. Christian spirituality is ultimately an invitation to manifest what Saint Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” in our lives; and his description of such spiritual fruit begins with love, joy and peace. Many expressions of Christianity over the centuries have tended to stress duty and obligation, seeing humanity as sinful or even depraved, and God as angry and wrathful. This image of God (and of religion) can lead to a dour or morose understanding of faith and spirituality. Mysticism, however, stresses God as the supreme presence of Love, and that to be in relationship with this God-of-Love is to embark on a journey of ever-deepening joy, serenity, and even happiness. This is not to downplay the seriousness of humanity’s problems or our capacity of causing harm or suffering; but mysticism sees Divine Mercy and Love as so much greater than the worst failing so humanity. As a matter of perspective, to embrace Christian mystical spirituality is to compare a handful of dirt (our brokenness) to an ocean of cleansing water (God’s love and mercy). Immersed in this ocean, we are slowly transformed into the human embodiment of joy.