Maggie Ross sums it up best, in her usual blunt style: “It is a word that has, in my view, become entirely useless.”1Writing the Icon of the Heart, p. xxii. She’s talking about the word mystic but if anything, that sentiment applies equally well to mysticism.
Consider the definition as found at dictionary.com:
- the beliefs, ideas, or mode of thought of mystics.
- a doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding, or of a direct, intimate union of the soul with God through contemplation or ecstasy.
- obscure thought or speculation.
The first definition runs the risk of being circular (“mysticism, that’s what mystics do. What’s a mystic? Someone who practices mysticism, of course”) and the third definition is the basis of Ross’s antipathy toward the word. You could almost add a fourth: mysticism is a marker for spiritual experience, that has different shades of meaning depending on a person’s religious or spiritual identity. In other words, mysticism very often means something different to Catholics and Protestants, and to Jews and Muslims, and to occultists and new agers.
Evelyn Underhill offers this amusing insight into how vague this concept is, in her classic Practical Mysticism published in 1914:
The genuine inquirer will find before long a number of self-appointed apostles who are eager to answer his question in many strange and inconsistent ways, calculated to increase rather than resolve the obscurity of his mind. He will learn that mysticism is a philosophy, an illusion, a kind of religion, a disease; that it means having visions, performing conjuring tricks, leading an idle, dreamy, and selfish life, neglecting one’s business, wallowing in vague spiritual emotions, and being “in tune with the infinite.” He will discover that it emancipates him from all dogmas—sometimes from all morality—and at the same time that it is very superstitious. One expert tells him that it is simply “Catholic piety,” another that Walt Whitman was a typical mystic; a third assures him that all mysticism comes from the East, and supports his statement by an appeal to the mango trick. At the end of a prolonged course of lectures, sermons, tea-parties, and talks with earnest persons, the inquirer is still heard saying—too often in tones of exasperation—”What is mysticism?”2Practical Mysticism, pp. 9-10
At the risk of being another self-appointed apostle, here’s my take. It’s actually not that different from the second dictionary definition quoted above.
Mysticism is the dimension of spirituality that goes deeper than belief, doctrine or dogma. It recognizes that spiritual reality cannot ever be fully comprehended by the limitations of human thought, language or logic. This implies that intuition and especially love are the necessary gateways to the fullness of spiritual perception, experience, and meaning. Because language is inadequate to express and convey mysticism, it is often associated with concepts such as mystery, ecstasy, ineffability, illumination, and especially silence. And while “experience” is a problematic word, for lack of a better term, mysticism is experiential spirituality.
So now that I’ve given you my definition, and you’ve seen what at least one dictionary has to say about it, here are a few other definitions you can mull over.
First, Evelyn Underhill from her Practical Mysticism:
Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.
Then Howard Thurman, from his essay Mysticism and the Experience of Love:
For our purposes then, mysticism is defined as the response of the individual to a personal encounter with God within his own spirit.
Dorothee Soelle writes about mysticism The Silent Cry: Mysticism as Resistance. She never really pins herself down with a specific definition of mysticism, but she does offer these thoughts as to what it is:
The history of mysticism is a history of the love for God… For mystical consciousness, it is essential that everything internal become external and be made visible. A dream wants to be told, the “inner light” wants to shine, the vision has to be shared.
We could go on and on, but let me just offer one more. This comes from one of the preeminent scholars of Christian mysticism, Bernard McGinn, in The Foundations of Mysticism, the first volume of his magisterial survey of the history of Christian mysticism. He offers this rather cautious description, as would befit an academic understanding of the concept.
The mystical element of Christianity is that part of its belief and practices that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the reaction to what can be described as the immediate or direct presence of God.
A couple of final thoughts. First, my apologies for how Christian-centric these definitions are — but please keep in mind that I am writing from a Christian perspective and seeking to explain, both in this article and in this entire website, a Christian understanding of mysticism. Back to Maggie Ross: you can trust that students of mysticism from other traditions will define it in different ways.
Finally, if you feel that you are no closer to understand just what mysticism is, you have my sympathy. Remember: it can’t be put into words. So every definition is bound to fail. My advice would be to keep reading about it, and even more important, explore the practices associated with the mystical life. Mysticism is not something you comprehend, so much as it is something you embrace, you encounter, you live into.