What is mysticism? This question came up recently in a conversation with my friends. We’re reading through G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy together, and in the early chapters Chesterton sets mysticism as a necessary alternative to the tyranny of pure logic. For all of Chesterton’s whimsical defense of mysticism, though, I’ve found that many Christians—particularly evangelical and fundamentalist Christians—are deeply suspicious of mysticism, and, I am convinced, often misunderstand it.
In most of the places I’ve gone in the past few years, I’ve gained a reputation as being a mystic. Part of that reputation, I would hope, comes from the place of prayer and contemplation in my life. But I think that part of it also comes from the mere fact that I’m a quiet, reflective guy. I would hope to be a mystic in the truest sense of the word, but I’m not sure that I’m there yet.
So let’s dive in and look at some of the prevailing notions of Christian mysticism. The difficulty in describing it is that there’s no established “school of mysticism” that defines the boundaries of this particular “brand” of spirituality. With the exception of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, “theologians” have not usually been the same thing as “mystics.” And since most Christian mystics do not have the theologian’s natural tendency to write out the basics of mysticism in a systematic manner, defended by Scripture, it has been subject to the vagaries of anyone’s opinion and has, too often, been made infamous by the excesses of its more extreme forms.
In fact, “theology” and “mysticism” are often seen on a popular level as being polar opposites. During my semester in Tanzania, one of my fellow students asked some of us whether we considered ourselves theologians or mystics, under the supposition that everyone related to God in one of those two ways. “Theologians” were those who operated on an intellectual level, their faith defined by rational assent to doctrine. “Mystics,” on the other hand, were those whose faith was characterized by the affective, emotional, and experiential elements of a “relationship with God.” Unfortunately for that student’s dichotomy, I’ve always considered myself to be both a theologian and a mystic, and it’s from that dual perspective that I approach the matter.
A few notes at the outset: we’re dealing here with Christian mysticism. Other religions also have mystical aspects to their spirituality (such as the Sufi movement in Islam), and these mysticisms have some surface similarities to Christian mysticism. However, Christian mysticism developed independently from all these other religious traditions (with the possible exception of classical Neoplatonism) and arises directly from Christian beliefs and practices. Christian mysticism has nothing to do with New Age practices or yoga or Buddhist meditation. It comes, rather, from the earliest days of Christian history and has carried through to the present age, represented by such giants of the faith as the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross, John Wesley, A. W. Tozer, and Mother Teresa, to name only a few.
Since there is no agreed-upon definition of mysticism, I will attempt to explain my own understanding, drawing from the best of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions. As such, this is in part a defense of mysticism as a necessary and fundamental part of the Christian life, but I’ll also include a few critiques of some of the extremes of mystical spirituality. It may be, then, that my definition of mysticism is broader than that of most of its critics, which only associate it with the wilder versions that have cropped up now and then. However, a broadening of the popular conception of mysticism is important because there is too often a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because of the abuses perpetrated on good Christian theology by some of those who practice the extremes of mysticism, the whole system of faith and practice associated with the mystical tradition is rejected. I think this is a mistake. Even here at Denver Seminary, where there’s a very good Spiritual Formation / Soul Care program, it often gets looked down on by many of my fellow MDivs as “loopy,” “flighty,” or just plain wrong. And that is, I think, to their own detriment. Theology without mysticism loses its sense of wonder and often dances dangerously close to intellectual pride.
Mysticism is, in short, the expectation of encountering and being transformed by the mystery of God. As one author puts it, it is a “preparation for and consciousness of a direct and transformative presence of God.” It is an all-encompassing outlook on life that expects to find God in all things, even in the loneliest and darkest of desolations. The mystic is the one who is willing to be surprised by God, who doesn’t just use the lingo of “a relationship with God,” but actually expects that relationship to be authentic and transformative. It will be unlike any other relationship one has, and it will take all of one’s life, but it will be a relationship nonetheless—an actual encounter between two real persons (for more on this idea—the ways in which a relationship with God is unlike any other relationship—see my blog post for Sept. 25, 2008). Mysticism feels a sense of perpetual wonder at the beauty and mystery of God, understanding that there will always be a sense in which the nature of God, as infinite and holy, is hidden from us. Mysticism moves to the cadence of poetry in the soul.
Popular misconceptions of mysticism focus on peripheral phenomena like visions and dreams. It is often assumed that mystics are those who pursue an emotionally-focused spirituality marked by bizarre encounters with God in ecstatic trances. It is regarded with suspicion because it appears to be largely subjective—in one person’s direct encounter with God, the claim might be made that that constitutes a form of special revelation of comparable authority with Scripture. (And, on a few occasions in history, a few mystics have made that mistake.)
However, these criticisms are largely misplaced. Even though some of the more famous mystics achieved their notoriety through visions (Julian of Norwich, for example), most mystics would emphatically say that mysticism really isn’t about visions or dreams at all. Such ecstatic phenomena are certainly a possibility in an authentic relationship with God, but they aren’t the main point. Such things are gifts from God, to be received with joy and then left behind. It is a mistake of some mystics (and some forms of Pietistic and charismatic Christianity) to desire these mountaintop experiences of God rather than God himself. John of the Cross, one of the definitive voices of the mystical tradition, is adamant in his Ascent of Mount Carmel that visions are to be accepted as gifts, and then ignored and left behind. There was a popular spiritual movement in Spain at the same time of John of the Cross that made the pursuit of dreams and visions its centerpiece, and the great mystic rebutted them fiercely. In mystical spirituality, the authentic experience of God is far more often found in the desolations and after the long, hard battle of a “dark night of the soul” than in ecstatic visions. Julian of Norwich, in her Revelations of Divine Love, admitted that she ought not to be considered more advanced in the Christian journey than others on account of her visions—rather, she speculated that there were many common believers, even in her own parish, who were closer to God than she was because of their humble, ordinary devotion and prayer. Ecstatic phenomena often draw the attention of the critics of mysticism, but most mystics would agree that it really isn’t about the dreams and visions at all.
Neither does mysticism focus primarily on emotions. As with ecstatic phenomena, emotions may be (and usually are) an important part of the mystical experience, but they’re not the main point. The main point (as we’ll see below) is one’s growth toward union with God. Emotions are associated with this journey, but not always the warm, fluffy, loving emotions that critics focus on. Classical mysticism acknowledges that along with the consolations (the positive emotions of love and acceptance that come with a relationship with God), there are also desolations—the dark times, the absence of fond emotions, the desperate lack of a sense of the presence of God, and the overwhelming sorrow and pain of that deprivation. (A contemporary example of this is Mother Teresa’s long journey through emotional desolations). These desolations are just as common and just as necessary to the mystic’s journey as are the consolations. These emotions, while not being the main point of mysticism, are nonetheless important. They are not pursued in and of themselves, but they are accepted as a natural part of the process. Human beings are affective creatures, and it is unreasonable to assume that genuine Christian faith can be undertaken without touching the depths of our emotion (a point made beautifully by Jonathan Edwards in his magisterial Religious Affections).
So if mysticism isn’t about visions or emotions, what is it about? Drawing on the classical model of the spiritual journey used by John of the Cross (among others), mysticism is about the journey of the believer toward God. It deals with the process of growing in maturity and intimacy with God, toward the ultimate point of union and (in some mystics’ thought) an unmediated experience of God himself. But the process is usually lifelong and involves the deep transformation of the believer. The classical model has been described in three stages: Purgation (learning discipline to rid oneself of sinful habits), Illumination (deeper intimacy and maturity, along with the slow reformation of the sinful nature into a nature aligned toward God), and Union. The third stage, mystical union with God (or, in Eastern Orthodox thought, “theosis/deification”—the stage of sharing in the energies of God’s own life), is only experienced by a very few people in this earthly life.
In the thought of both Luther and Calvin, “union with Christ” is absolutely central. For them, however, union with Christ is an already-accomplished state for ever Christian. In that light, the mystical journey is not so much a journey into an ontological state that we didn’t before possess, but rather a journey into the experiential fullness of what has always been our possession and birthright as believers. Evangelicals, who tend to be skittish around terminology like “union” and “deification” (misreading them as implicating a change in one’s ontological essence), gravitate more towards descriptions of the goal of the mystic journey as “the deeper life” or “the practice of the presence of God” (in the famous phrase of Brother Lawrence).
For my own part, I think the classical three-step model of the mystical journey is instructive, but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s authoritatively true of everyone’s relationship with God. Other traditions that border on the mystical have slightly different systems (such as the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition, with its emphasis on a second work of grace and the pursuit of “Christian perfection”). On the whole, though, the picture and aim is the same—a journey into deeper relationship with God. It may come more naturally for some than for others, but it is open to all. Whether or not there is the promise of a dramatic, transformative event or encounter, each of us can certainly grow in maturity and intimacy with God. While mystical union may come only to a very few, the possibility of living life as an ongoing, continuous conversation with God is open to everyone, and that’s a goal worth pursuing. Rather than being criticized as something foreign to biblical Christianity, this view of mysticism ought to be desired by every believer. It presents a view of the Christian life that is not limited to rationality and duty, but extends to the territory of relationship, transformation, wonder, and beauty.
On the other side, however, a few critiques of some points of the mystical tradition are in order. It’s true that mystical experience can be dangerously subjective. (Some famous mystics, such as Meister Eckhart and Madame Guyon, have wandered into theological positions that were ultimately condemned by the church as heresy.) And for this reason, mystics ought to take great caution against the temptation to make their personal experiences normative for others. If the revelation of some new message is involved in a mystical encounter with God, it must be recognized that such revelations are always subject to the overriding authority of Scripture and the church. It should also not be assumed that the descriptive systems of various mystics are to be made prescriptive—that is, one ought to read systems like the 3-step journey of classical mysticism or the Seven Mansions of Teresa of Avila as descriptive of the mystic’s own experience (and thus instructive and helpful for us), but not necessarily prescriptive as the normative pattern which all Christian journeys must follow. Sometimes evangelicals who appreciate mysticism also try to prove that these systems originate from Scriptural paradigms, which is usually an error. As far as I can see, the New Testament does not outline any specific step-by-step process toward Christian maturity which is true of all believers.
Mysticism sometimes also errs in assuming that the methods of its greatest proponents are the normative methods for all Christians. That is to say, it is often assumed in mystical circles that prayer and contemplation are the only acceptable way by which one can proceed in the Christian journey. But I don’t think that’s quite true. Just as God made us all to be different in personality and temperament, there are various methods and ways by which we grow closer to God. For some, time spent in nature is an element of growth. For others, it’s journaling. Or study. Or acts of service. It’s not only monks to whom the mystical journey is open.
Further, some mystics go to the unfortunate extreme of claiming that reason can’t get us anywhere. But that’s obviously false. Reason is a gift of God, and tremendously useful in learning and growing in the Christian faith. The position of classical Christian mysticism is simply that reason is not the be-all and end-all of faith. Reason can’t move us, all by itself, into deeper relationship with God. We need the actual presence of God himself, not just knowledge of him. To use the famous example from the life of Thomas Aquinas, the brilliantly logical theologian and writer of the Summa Theologica: toward the end of his life, Thomas experienced a revelatory vision of God, after which he said, “All that I have written seems like straw to me.” Reason can’t get us all the way there—we need the presence of God—but that doesn’t mean that reason is useless, either. Seven centuries of church history have proven the inestimable worth of all that Thomas wrote. We need a balance of reason and experience.
These caveats, however, are not so strong that we need to look askance at the whole mystical tradition. To those that have experienced the breath of mysticism in their lives, the wonder and truth of this all-encompassing spirituality is evident. Mysticism pursues a deep and lasting relationship with the God who loves us. The shape of that relationship will undoubtedly look different for each of us, but it’s open to all. In short, mysticism takes doctrine—the belief that we are the beloved children of God—and makes it dance.