Few terms have been so misunderstood and maligned as the word “mysticism.” It has been taken to mean anything from astral travel to psychic divination; from communion with the dead to channeling Elvis. This trend of defining any experience that is subjective and outside the parameters of deductive reasoning as “mystical” is highly unfortunate and has robbed many sincere spiritual seekers, especially Christians, of a source of personal experience that is both valuable and relevant to the age in which we now live.
The fact is that mysticism and mystical experience has been a significant part of all major spiritual traditions, both East and West, and has given rise to some of the most highly respected religious writers and teachers in history. From the perspective of the Christian Church, the mystical tradition, sometimes referred to as “contemplative,” has produced such noted personages as Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Thomas a Kempis, Henry Suso, John Tauler, and Julian of Norwich, just to name a few. Within the scope of Christian history, it is safe to say that without the contemplative tradition the contemporary Church, whether Catholic or Protestant would be far less than it is today.
With these thoughts in mind, I believe it is imperative that we come to understand the mystical tradition in all spiritual traditions and, for those of us who worship within the framework of the Christian Church, especially the contemplative tradition of Christianity. Although an in depth treatment of the subject is far beyond the scope of this short article, it is my hope that we may touch upon at least a few salient issues.
First, let us dispense with the fallacy of defining mysticism. Definitions are, by nature, a left brain phenomenon and mystical experience is largely a right brain reality. As mystics throughout the ages have attested, to wrap words around the mystical experience of union with the Divine is beyond the scope of explanation. It is like trying to capture the proverbial greased pig at the county fair. The legendary Chinese mystic Laozi said it so well in the opening lines of his classic “Dao de Jing,” – “The Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao.”
Even though formal definition is elusive, we can describe with a degree of accuracy some of the common aspects of the mystical experience and, from that, deduce its relevance and its value. Although far from exhaustive, let’s explore these salient characteristics of mystical spirituality in general and Christian mysticism in particular: it is progressive; it is unitive; and it is transformational.
As mentioned earlier, all major religions have a mystical element within their history. No matter whether you are describing the Daoist sages, the Islamic Sufis, the Hindu Yogis, or the Christian mystics, a common element to all these traditions is the progressive nature of the mystical experience. In other words, the mystical experience deepens as the practitioner becomes more adept at his or her chosen path. In the classical tradition of the Christian mystics, the seeker progressively moved through three major stages: purgation, illumination, and union. Briefly, the purgative stage involved the stripping away of the vestiges of the flesh or lower self in preparation for the higher aspects of the journey. In the stage of illumination, the aspirant began to have vivid glimpses of the unity of all creation and, as these experiences became deeper and more frequent, the seeker’s insight and understanding developed progressively. In the final stage, the aspirant’s spirit joined in a type of “holy matrimony” with the Spirit of God.
The stage of union, as time passed, became a “unitive reality,” meaning that the individual soul had been called into a more permanent union with the Divine. With this experience of union came “revelation.” The mystic began to see more clearly into the essence of reality and life; he or she began to see the divine whole rather than the individual, unrelated parts and with this awareness came the life-changing experience of “non-duality.” The seeker not only understood intellectually, but experience with the core of his or her being the fact that separation between God and man, self and other, us and them, were all illusions. As a result of this transcendent knowledge, the mystic was transformed.
Personal transformation was the most significant aspect of the mystical experience. The realization of non-duality had a healing impact on the mystic, realigning his or her being. Rather than being led by the intellect and the lower self (read “flesh”), the mystic now acted with the personal spirit, infused by the Spirit of God, in ascendancy. All aspects of the seeker’s being were touched by the unitive experience, including not only the mind, but the emotions and the will as well. Although still human and fallible, the seeker now experienced a more peaceful life and relationships with others were markedly improved. After all, if there was no real separation between the mystic and others, how could there be any lasting conflict?
It is this last point that makes the path of mysticism so relevant and valuable today. Not only does the internal peace and increased understanding help a person to feel more comfortable and centered in life, the modern mystic is better able to cope with the rapid fire change that so characterizes our 21st Century world. Further, the mystical character has always been noted for traits such as tolerance, patience, kindness, self-control, and all the other “Fruit of the Spirit” listed by Paul in the fifth chapter of the Book of Galatians.
Mysticism’s relevance and value to the contemporary Church should be obvious. The post-modern Church is fractured, fragmented, and increasingly lacking in cultural relevance. Moreover, the Body of Christ as a whole has lost track of one of its most important missions: making disciples. Enlisting converts is one thing, making disciples quite another. I think the primary reason the Church as a whole has been so woefully inadequate to this task is centered on the reality that those in teaching roles lack knowledge of the methodology of spiritual formation. A new emphasis on incorporating mystical experience into the Church would be a great contribution to rectifying this situation.
Recent trends of increasing focus on spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation are an excellent beginning and are already having positive results. However, a fresh and vital focus on the classical traditions of mystical/contemplative spirituality in Christianity will go even farther in helping Christians to learn methods that will allow believers to position themselves where they are more receptive to God’s transforming grace. The potential benefits of this are enormous.
It seems to me that one of our first small steps toward realizing this worthwhile goal is to redeem the word “mysticism.” With all due respect to those who channel Elvis, the word implies something far deeper and more profound.