|Christian mysticism, rooted in biblical spirituality and the depths of all human yearning, is a way of finding union with God in prayer, love, and service to others in all walks of life.|
Joyce Rogers teaches classes in Spanish mysticism and C.S. Lewis for the Religious Studies Program of the University of New Mexico. She holds a doctorate in English. A member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites, she has ublished a biography of the father of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Louis Martin: Father of a Saint (Alba House 1983) and is writing a companion volume on the saint’s mother.
SIMPLY put, mysticism is an immediate knowledge of God attained in this life through personal religious experience. It is primarily a state of prayer, and as such admits of various degrees, from short and rare Divine “touches” to the practically permanent union with God in the so-called “mystic marriage.” The mystic is the person who attains to this union. The mystic is one who goes beyond knowing about a closeness to God to being a personal relationship with God. The effects of drawing close to God in such a personal way are an increase of humility, charity, and love.
Judaeo-Christian mysticism emphasizes two elements often absent in other religions. In contrast to pantheism’s goal of union with nature, or the union with the transcendent self at the heart of Eastern religions, union with God in the JudaeoChristian view is love between two distinct beings. Unlike all pan-cosmic conceptions of the underlying Reality as an impersonal unity, Judaeo-Christian mysticism recognizes that the Reality to which it penetrates transcends the soul and the cosmos. And in place of all notions of absorption of the soul into the Divine, it posits that the union is one of love and will in which the distinction between Creator and creature is permanently retained. It transcends all forms, whether images or concepts. It is an intuition of presence.
Sometimes, as in the case of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus or at night in Corinth (Acts 9:1-10 & 18:9-11, respectively), the experience is accompanied by psychological phenomena, such as trances, visions, and ecstasies. But these are not essential to it. In fact, they are sometimes considered a hindrance to its proper realization. Ordinarily, the mystic seeks solitude, but even this is not necessary. Though Christian thinkers have differed widely in their attitudes to mysticism, a measure of it is encountered in the Christian life at its more serious levels in all periods.
THE ROOTS OF MYSTICISM
The word “mystic” has its origins in the Greek mysteries and Jewish wisdom literature. As William R. Inge points out in his classic study of Christian Mysticism, “A mystic (mustes) is one who has been, or is being, initiated into some esoteric knowledge of Divine things, about which he must keep his mouth shut (muein); or, possibly, he is one whose eyes are still shut.”(1) The Greek verb mu means to shut or close the lips or eyes.(2) Philo, for example, in another of the earliest recorded uses of the word, applied it “to the secret and hidden wisdom of the meaning of God’s word.”(3) In the Oxford English Dictionary one finds that Wycliffe used the word in the preface to his translation of the Bible, where he refers to John, James, and Peter as “writers of epistles not only mistik but redi.”(4)
The word “mystic” itself doesn’t appear in the Bible, but the related word “mystery” abounds (mysterion comes from the same Greek verb mu) as does the mystical experience itself. Throughout the Bible many mystical experiences are recorded. Elijah was told to meet with God on Mount Horeb: “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.” Though there came in succession “a strong and heavy wind,” an earthquake and even fire, the Lord “was not in” [my emphasis] any of these. Rather it was upon hearing “a tiny whispering sound” that Elijah knew God had come, and so he “hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave,” in the presence of God (I Kings 19:11-13).(5) The Song of Songs is an entire book about the relationship between a lover and her Beloved, often interpreted as the love, that is, the hesed, between God’s people and God.
The psalms are largely avowals of the mystical yearning for and delight in union with God:
- One thing I ask of the Lord;
- this I seek:
- To dwell in the house of the Lord
- all the days of my life,
- That I may gaze on the loveliness of the Lord
- and contemplate his temple.
- For he will hide me in his abode
- in the day of trouble;
- He will conceal me in the shelter of his tent,
- he will set me high upon a rock ….
- Your presence, O lord, I seek ….
- I believe that I shall see
- the bounty of the Lord
- in the land of the living.
- Wait for the Lord with courage;
- be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord (Psalm 27:4-5, 8, 13-14)
The whole experience of mysticism is summed up in the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew: “Whenever you pray, go to your room, close your door and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees what no man sees, will repay you (6:5-6).”
According to Jesus, the greatest commandments are rooted in this way of intense and complete desire, or love:
This is the first: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the second, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:29-32. Cf. Dt 6:4, Lev 19:18).
Christians who through the centuries have sought to bring this Word to life through their lives are the very ones known today as the great mystics. Walter Hilton, a mystic of medieval England, echoes the same zeal and even alludes to David’s fervor in his beautiful testimony of the mystical experience, The Scale of Perfection:
Truly I would rather feel and have a true desire and a pure longing for my Lord Jesus, though I were never to see Him at all with my spirit’s eyes, than, lacking this desire, all the bodily penances performed by every living man, all the visions and the revelations brought by angels, all the songs and sounds, the savours and scents, the burnings and the delectable bodily sensations, all the joys of heaven and earth, in short, which I could have without this desire for my Lord Jesus. The prophet David felt what I mean when he said: Quid enim mihi est in caelo, et a to quid volui super terram? ‘Lord, what is there for me in heaven, or what do I want on earth, without You?’(6)
One of the great women saints, Teresa of Avila, a foremost practitioner of mystical spirituality, explained it from her personal experience in The Book of Her Life:
it seems to be completely outside itself. The will loves; the memory …is almost lost; the intellect does not work discursively, in my opinion, but is not lost. For, as I say, the intellect does not work, but it is as though amazed by all it understands because God desires that it understand, with regard to the things His Majesty represents to it, that it understands nothing.(7)
Evelyn Underhill, whose book Mysticism is considered the standard reference on the subject, claimed that mysticism “is the name of that organic process which involves the perfect consummation of the love of God …. the art of establishing a conscious relation with the Absolute.”(8) This art is achieved in exactly the same way that all relationships among humans are done, namely by being with another, by talking and listening to the other, by getting to know and be known by the other.
Thus it comes as no surprise that the mystic’s life is a way of life centered on prayer. Prayer is a mystery. It is a mystery in the sense that if prayer is true prayer, it is founded on faith, and everything originating from faith is a mystery. Prayer as activity, prayer as vocation, prayer as mission — all are a mystery. One will not become a soul of prayer by any natural human means nor by simply being inclined to prayer.
There are many methods of practicing mystical prayer. One in common use today refers to the process as “centering.” This is derived from Hindu traditional mysticism, and it is based upon the principle that through discipline one becomes proficient. This method is regarded by some students of Christian mysticism as “the human way,” since it emphasizes self-discipline, self-perfection.
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the mystical way is more often one of self-surrender, of letting go, of inquiry, of seeking God, and of allowing God to accomplish the union, as we have seen in Psalm 27 quoted above. One medieval Christian writer, St. Bonaventure, defined prayer as “the raising of the mind to God through the desire of love.”(9) Walter Hilton likens this way of prayer to fire:
If you pray in this way, you can pray well: for prayer is nothing else than a mounting desire of the heart into God through withdrawal from every earthly thought. And this is why it is compared with a fire, which by its own nature mounts from the earth, always up into the air. In just the same way, your desire in prayer, when it is touched and illumined by that spiritual fire which is God, by nature always mounts to Him from Whom it came.(10)
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, one commences upon the mystical way by spending time with a Person. One must be still, awaiting God in an attitude of humility. Actually, as the mystics tell us, just taking the time to be with God is an act of humility in itself. One simply wants to be with the person who is God. Reading and meditating upon a scriptural verse are good ways to get started.
For example, take the verse from the Gospel of Mark, pertaining to Herod’s demanding John the Baptist’s head: “He promptly dispatched an executioner, ordering him to bring back the Baptizer’s head” (6:27). Picture in your mind a king sending forth an executioner. Visualize the executioner as he is walking to the place where John the Baptist is imprisoned. What thoughts might have been going through his mind? Had he heard of John’s ministry? Might he himself have heard John preaching? Now, consider from John the Baptist’s point of view: though he might have been expecting the worst, he does not know this man is on his way to kill him. What are his thoughts when he sees the executioner come towards him and realizes the moment is at hand? And what of that severed head? Think of all the extraordinary things for which it had been created — its mind envisioning and its tongue prophesying the long-awaited coming of the Messiah, its eyes seeing the Galilean coming forward for baptism, its ears hearing the words of the One for whom its voice had cried in the wilderness ….
In this way we enter into the depths of spiritual reflection, allowing the Holy Spirit to quicken the understanding and bring the words to life in several dimensions of meaning. In so doing, our reflection takes us beyond our previous understanding to another dimension of knowledge, one in which we enter into the reality of the historical moment. After such knowledge follows Love, for we love the more for having come to better understanding.
But even these are not altogether necessary steps. The important thing is the desire for practicing the Presence of God. Jesus, in His last great prayer, recorded in the Gospel of John, emphasized the importance of this practice and of this union as being at the heart of discipleship:
A little while now and the world will see me no more; but you see me as one who has life, and you will have life …. and he who loves me will be loved by my Father. And I too will love him and reveal myself to him …. Anyone who loves me, will be true to my word, and my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our dwelling place with him (14:19-24).
If oneness with God is the aim of life, then the mystic is the true realist. And union begins here on earth, according to the many Christians who have experienced it. In this sense, John Wesley shows himself mystical in his understanding of the fully lived Christian life, and he certainly did not believe that such a life was meant for only a few:
This it is to be a perfect man, to be sanctified throughout, created anew in Jesus Christ; even “to have a heart all flaming with the love of God;” (to use Archbishop Ussher’s words,) “so as continually to offer up every thought, word, and work, as a spiritual sacrifice, acceptable unto God through Christ.” In every thought of our hearts, in every word of our tongues, in every work of our hands, to show forth His praise who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. O that both we, and all who seek the Lord Jesus in sincerity, may thus be made perfect in one!(11)
In the fourteenth century, Julian of Norwich testified of the same relationship: “Till I am substantially oned to Him, I may never have full rest nor very bliss;’(12) recalling in her verb “oned” Jesus’ prayer, “That they may be one, Father, even we are one” (John 17:11).
Another medieval English mystic, Richard Rolle, has some reassuring advice for anyone who considers entering upon this way of spirituality:
I do not say that you or anyone else who reads this shall accomplish it all; for it is according to the will of God whom He chooses to do what is said here, whom He wishes to do other things in other ways, as He gives grace to men to have their salvation. For different men obtain different graces from our Lord Jesus Christ, and all shall be placed in the joy of heaven who end their life in love. Whoever is in this degree has wisdom and discretion to love accordinj to the will of God. This degree is called contemplative life.(13)
To judge from either Genesis or the Book of Revelation, it seems as if normal existence had been intended for walking with God in the cool of the evening and marrying God at the dawn of Eternity.
Our own time has seen a renewed interest in the study of spirituality. Many people see this as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel:
- I will pour out My Spirit upon all mankind.
- Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
- your old men shall dream dreams,
- your young men shall see visions.
- Even upon the servants and handmaids
- in those days, I will pour out My Spirit (2:28).
A contemporary religious writer observes, “Praise and contemplation will be our great occupation in eternity, and modern diversions show ever more plainly the emptiness of interests that do not lead to God. Shouldn’t everyone, to preserve his [or her] sanity, turn to contemplating the inexhaustible Being who, to quote The Cloud of Unknowing, is contained in that little word Is?”(14)
The mystical experience of God leads to the more perfect fulfillment of the second commandment referred to previously: “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the experience of God in others, as the great Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, explains in the concluding section of her masterpiece, The Interior Castle:
You will think, Sisters, that since so much has been said about this spiritual path it will be impossible for anything more to be said. Such a thought would be very foolish. Since the greatness of God is without limits, His works are too. Who will finish telling of His mercies and grandeurs?… He grants us a great favor in having communicated these things to a person through whom we can know about them. Thus the more we know about His communication to creatures the more we will praise His grandeur and make the effort to have esteem for souls in which the Lord delights so much. Each one of us has a soul, but since we do not prize souls as is deserved by creatures made in the image of God we do not understand the deep secrets that lie in them.”(15)
Citing Isaiah 64:4, the mystic Paul of Tarsus reminds us that “God’s wisdom is a mysterious, a hidden wisdom …. ‘Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him.’ Yet God has revealed this wisdom to us through the Spirit. The Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:7 11). Participating in the Spirit of God, the mystic is enabled to understand not only the deep things of God, but also the deep things in all creatures, and therefore wants to communicate to humanity at large the riches awaiting any who seek such an experience of God’s presence. This is the reason why many mystics are usually writers as well as men and women of prayer. And all they ever seem to want to write about, as is true of most lovers, is loving and the one they love, who in this case is Love.
- William Ralph Inge, Christian Mysticism, New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1933), p. 4.
- F.C. Happold, Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology, 1933; (reprinted, Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 18.
- Harvey D. Egan, S.J., Christian Mysticism, The Future of a Tradition (New York: Pueblo, 1984), p. 2.
- The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 25th printing, s.v. “mystic.”
- All scripture references are taken from the New American Bible.
- Eric Colledge, ed. The Mediaeval Mystics of England (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1961), p. 231.
- The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, trans. by Kieran Kavanaugh. O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., 3 vols. (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1976), vol. 1, p. 74.
- Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, London: Methuen, 1911; (reprinted, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1961), p. 82.
- Egan, op.cit., p. 4.
- Colledge, op. cit., p. 218.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., 14 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1984), p. 330.
- Donald Atwater, et al., trans., and Paul Dejaegher, ed. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1977), p. 57.
- Colledge, op.cit., p. 151.
- Paul Hallett, National Catholic Register (1986), p. 4.
- Teresa of Avila, ed. cit., vol. 2, p. 427.