And Where, Exactly, Does Mysticism “Happen”?
When I was studying journalism in school, I learned that good reporters seek in their writing to answer some or all of these simple questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?
So when I began to work on the articles for this website — for exploring the mystical life — it only seemed reasonable to begin with those same six questions.
It’s pretty easy to see how I’ve organized this knowledge base (or should I say, this unknowledge base):
What — see the Overview of Christian Mysticism
Who — see the Profiles of Christian Mystics
When — see the History of Mysticism
Why — see Mystical Theology
How — see The Practice of Mystical Spirituality
and that leaves us with “Where.” At first, this seemed the most challenging question to answer.
Where is mysticism?
Where is the mystical life?
Mysticism can be seen as such an ethereal or even abstract reality. It concerns how we relate to God, to the Spirit, the world of spirits. It’s about heaven and eternity, not locations with a postal code.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s a mistake to simply etherealize mysticism away, reducing it to just an idea or a dream or a mental image (it can be all of these things, but it’s not just those things).
The impulse to reduce mysticism to just an idea or a mental construct is a type of Platonism, a subtle idea that “spirit” is separate from — and higher than — “matter.”
But this is not how Christianity views the world or operates within the world. Christianity is a religion that is as material as it is spiritual. In other words, Christianity is incarnational.
Jesus Christ is “the Word made flesh.” He is more than just a story, an idea, an abstract principle or philosophical thought. Jesus is a person. And this is how we encounter the presence of God: person to person, body to body.
So in a very real sense, the most foundational answer to the question “Where is mysticism?” is simply this: Mysticism is in the body.
I know in new age or occult circles you’ll hear about “out-of-body experiences” or astral travel or some such experience. I won’t pass judgment on what such experiences are, or what they mean. But Christianity offers a more humble approach: we can, and do, encounter the presence of God, without having to “leave” the body.
Put another way: Christian mysticism is an embodied spirituality. An incarnational spirituality. Christ may be the Incarnation (with a capital I) but each of us, by virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God and having the Holy Spirit given to us in our hearts (Romans 5:5), each of us is also an “incarnation” of the Divine Presence, in our own small and humble way.
But does mystical Christianity have “locations” other than the incarnational, embodied reality that I’ve just described?
And I think the answer is yes.
It’s true that many mystics encourage us to find God in many places and ways.
We believe the divine presence is everywhere. — Saint Benedict
Find God in all things. — Saint Ignatius of Loyola
I saw that God is in all things. — Julian of Norwich
These are just three examples.
But if we say that God is everywhere, isn’t that just another way of saying that God is nowhere in particular? Which leads us again to the question: Where is the mystical life? In other words, is there a particular habitat or location that is conducive to mystical spirituality?
As long as we bear in mind that the Spirit cannot be constrained or limited by our notions of what “is” or “isn’t” mystical (or spiritual, or holy, or whatever), then we can reflect on the following places as “mystical locations.”
Mysticism happens in the Desert and/or the Wilderness. The roots of Christian monasticism — see below — is the desert, specifically the desert regions of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Beginning in the third century, Christians who wanted to imitate Christ’s forty-day sojourn in the desert withdrew into the deserts of the middle east, to fast, to pray, and to face down their own shadow sides — their encounter with the “evil spirit.” But it’s not just about arid wastelands; in the Celtic lands like Ireland and Scotland, you had similar movements of withdrawal into remote hermitages in wilderness, mountainous or island settings. The idea is that such places of elemental power have a way of stripping away what is inessential within us, leaving us more available for the Divine/human encounter.
Mysticism happens in the Cloister. Any survey of the history of Christian mysticism will acknowledge that, for centuries, virtually all of the contemplative and mystical writers that are now recognized as key voices come to us from within monastic cloisters. You do not have to be a monk to be a mystic, and being a monk in itself is no guarantee of embracing a particular type of mystical spirituality. But the living rhythm of simple living, silence, sung prayer, manual labor and study seems to be particularly congenial to cultivating a contemplative or mystical heart. Indeed, many who do not feel called to monastic life may nevertheless embrace becoming a monastic associate, oblate, or lay/secular member; even if you don’t live in a monastery you can still embrace elements of the monastic way of life.
Mysticism happens in the Home. Read Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God for some insight into this often-overlooked reality: that for many of us, the home is a place of ongoing spiritual nurture. Julian of Norwich was in her home (on a sickbed) when she had the sixteen visions or “showings” that changed her life. But you don’t have to be a “great” mystic to find God in the place where you sleep, eat and life. We pray in our homes, we study in our homes, we learn the skills of loving and relating to others in our homes, and alas, we struggle with our sin and our resistance to God in the home as well. Catholics speak of the home as “the domestic church.” It’s an image worth holding on to: this is a place where God may be encountered.
Mysticism happens in the Church. From Thomas Aquinas to Margery Kempe to Teresa of Ávila to Thomas Merton, mystics down the ages have described moments of profound insight, enlightenment and even ecstasy occurring in churches, during the Eucharist or other liturgies, and during time of private and personal prayer. We do not have to go to church to meet God. But that’s rather like saying we do not have to go to the gym to work out. Strictly speaking, both statements are true, but just as the gym is a location that is oriented toward maintaining or restoring physical fitness, so too the local neighborhood church is (or can be) a location oriented toward fostering prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Granted, not all churches live up to this mission, and no church is perfect. But finding a church with a prayerful spirit is worth the effort, and once you find it, frequent it.
Mysticism happens in the Marketplace. Thomas Merton tells a dramatic and moving story of a moment of profound mystical insight that occurred while he was walking through downtown Louisville, KY one day in early 1958. He describes falling in love with everyone he saw, and reflecting on that moment of epiphany, he went on to recalibrate his entire ministry as a writer. So don’t tell me you can’t find God at work, or on a busy street corner, or in the midst of any other sort of “worldly” setting. “We believe the divine presence is everywhere,” remember? So mysticism is all about wherever we open our hearts to receive that divine presence. And as Thomas Merton proved, that can happen in even the most unlikely of places.