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The Characteristics of a Mystic
What are the characteristics of a mystic?
I know two elderly monks at the local monastery near where I live, both of whom have reputations as “real mystics.” Indeed, I would agree with this assessment — they both strike me as genuine contemplatives, true living mystics. But they are very different from one another in some key ways. One is something of a theologian, who spent most of his life reading dense, academic works on topics like the Holy Trinity and apophaticism (the spirituality of darkness and unknowing). The other, meanwhile, while no intellectual slouch — he speaks several languages — would rather spend several hours a day meditating than reading. Both have charming personalities, but one is a clear extravert, the other just as obviously an introvert. Both are committed Roman Catholics, but one of them also has a strong interfaith bent and as a young man devoted much time to exploring eastern forms of meditation.
So, using just these two men as a template (but also drawing from the literary sources by recognized mystics like Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Keating, Simone Weil, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and many others), is it possible to begin to identify what kinds of characteristics mark the life and personality of a true mystic? Especially given the reality that mystics come in many shapes or sizes: like the saying goes: “a mystic is not a special kind of person; each person is a special kind of mystic.”
I think it is possible to make at least some basic statements about the characteristics of a mystic. And while a simple blog post cannot be the final word on the characteristics of mysticism, perhaps this list of seven common (not necessarily universal) marks of a true mystic can be a source of discernment for anyone who is interested in embracing the mystical path.
- Mystics are humble. Kenneth Leech (author of Prayer and Prophecy) once rather playfully told me that true mystics would never presume to call themselves a mystic — they would humbly trust others to decide whether or not they truly deserved to called as such. I think his point was less about the labels we choose to identify ourselves with, and more about the central role of humility in the contemplative life. Mysticism is not a badge of honor or a point of pride. Having a sense of God’s abiding presence in your life, if it’s authentic and not just your imagination, most likely will impress you with a serene but clear sense of your own littleness and even unworthiness — not in terms of self-denigration (that’s just pride inverted), but rather as a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact acknowledgement of your own limitedness and imperfection. As someone (it’s often credited to C.S. Lewis) once said, a humble person doesn’t think less of himself, but thinks of himself less. Humility is all about being honest and authentic. So too is mysticism.
- Mystics are virtuous. We have so many subtle ways in which we dismiss the idea of basic, down-to-earth goodness in our society. We call a good person a “girl scout” or a “goody-two-shoes.” We sometimes think that truly good people are rather weak or passive — unable to defend themselves or to effectively fight for what they want. These ideas are so pervasive that they might go unquestioned: but they are symptoms of the pervasive cynicism of our culture. We forget that the word virtue is related to virility which implies strength, fecundity, and “manliness” — a gendered term that might better be re-defined as humanliness — the qualities that make a human being reach his or her full potential. True virtue: an unwavering commitment to goodness, fairness, justice, and courage, even when it requires self-sacrifice, was classically understood as an essential part of living a truly good human life. Goodness is not an optional dimension of a mystical life: it is inherent to it. And while no one is perfect, a good person takes responsibility for his or her mistakes.
- Mystics are kind and compassionate; love is central to their identity and consciousness. At least in a Christian context, love is recognized as the greatest of the virtues. If the characteristics of a true mystic begins with humility, the ultimate flowering of the mystical life is love, in its fullest expression. Not just love as passionate feeling or erotic desire, but rather love as a function of the will: an intentional commitment to virtues such as kindness, compassion, caring (and, when necessary, charity), and a grounded sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with all people and indeed all of life. “We love because God first loved us,” proclaims the New Testament, and a mystic embodies this truth. He or she lives immersed in Divine love, and the proof of that immersion is the loving way in which the mystic relates to others, including rivals and enemies, and to the world at large. Mystics bring the presence of God into the lives of others, and they do so by bringing love into all situations and circumstances; even and especially the most troubled situations.
- Mystics recognize spiritual depth regardless of one’s religious label. The first three characteristics could all be expected of any high-functioning, self-actualized person. But mystics are beyond merely human peak performance. A mystic is one who has drunk deep from the waters of eternity, and bathed in the supernal light of Divine consciousness. He or she is infused by God, and so lives from a deep place, a deep center within. One of the qualities of living such a “deeper” life is the capacity of recognizing a similar depth in others. It is said that when the American Catholic mystic Thomas Merton traveled to Asia, a Buddhist (who had never met him before) greeted him by proclaiming, “You are a natural Buddha!” Likewise, the Southern Baptist mystic Howard Thurman in his biography With Head and Heart reports recognizing deep truth in the lives of Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims when he traveled through India. The presence of God cannot be constrained by religious boundaries, and true mystics naturally recognize this.
- Mystics take their spiritual practice seriously; they don’t take it for granted. While there is a certain universal quality to mysticism, paradoxically many mystics remain deeply affiliated with one particular path. There are Sufi (Muslim) mystics and Christian mystics; Jewish mystics and Vedantist mystics; Buddhist mystics and nature mystics (found among indigenous spiritual practitioners around the world). Mysticism is universal, but it also seems to be a universal quality of mysticism that it benefits from a healthy ecosystem in which to thrive and flourish. When people say “I’m spiritual but not religious,” presumably this means they reject the constraining, fussily bureaucratic nature of religious institutionalism. That makes sense; meanwhile, so many mystics have pointed the way to spirituality within religion that they have wisely maintained at least some ties to the disciplines and practices of their particular faith tradition. Rather than digging a lot of holes, none of which go very deep: most mystics persevere at digging one deep well to access the living water.
- Mystics rely on grace and wonder: they know their spirituality is not entirely under their control. Playing a musical instrument, or improving one’s physical fitness, or many other desirable goals in life require hard work, perseverance, dedicated effort, and the willingness to follow the instruction of a qualified teacher, trainer, or coach. Mysticism is similar: it’s more than just a nice idea or a desirable identity: it is the fruit of dedication, loyalty, hard work, and ongoing training and formation. However, there is much more to mysticism than merely mastering a skill or honing a talent. Mysticism is, at heart, relational — it’s a dance between a finite human and the infinite Spirit. And of course, the Spirit leads the dance. This means that sometimes people enter the deepest chambers of the Interior Castle with seeming little effort; others may toil away for years and have no conscious “mystical experience” to show for it. God is the choreographer of the mystical life, and true mystics always recognize that grace is at the heart of their spirituality.
- Mystics are comfortable with ambiguity, paradox, and unknowing. The challenge of grace is that it is beyond our control. We do not get to decide just how “mystical” we become: do we have supernatural experiences like Teresa of Ávila, an ongoing sense of desolation like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, one single night of visions like Julian of Norwich, or an ongoing sense of darkness and mystery, called by names like The Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing? Ultimately, God decides, and each mystic is a unique expression of what it means to be a human being fully accepting of God’s love at work in their lives. We do not know what the road ahead of us looks like: so true mystics learn to live serenely with the unknowing, the mystery, the sense of ambiguity and paradox that is the mystic’s constant companion on the contemplative path. Mystics are more familiar with wondering than with certainty; more comfortable with heavenly questions than with cut-and-dried answers. Mystics live in the heart of paradox and possibility.
For your own discernment: which of these characteristics do you embody? Which ones are not familiar to you? Can you think of ways to cultivate all seven of these characteristics in your own life?