CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM: An Introduction by Bernard McGinn

CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM: An Introduction by Bernard McGinn

From Comparative Mysticism

The term” mysticism” is a modern one.  It first appeared in the seventeenth century in French as “la mystique” (literally “mystics”), indicating a separate branch of theology akin to that which treated of Christian doctrine (i.e., “dogmatics”).  Mysticism does not seem to have been widely used, either academically or popularly, before the nineteenth century.  The appropriateness of the word to describe aspects of Christian belief and practice prior to 1600 is defensible, but by no means as simple as sometimes supposed.

One of the reasons why the task is not easy is because contemporary readers often understand “mysticism” as a special form of religion, or sometimes as the inner core of all the religions.  In the history of Christianity, however, mysticism has never been more than one element in a complex whole, an element that was never separate from the sum of practices, beliefs, and theories that made up the Christian religion in all its diverse manifestations.  Nevertheless, it is not illegitimate to talk about Christian mysticism, understood as the mystical aspect of Christianity throughout its history, largely because the qualifier “mystical” (literally “hidden” or “secret”), though originally a pagan Greek word, has had an important role in Christianity from the second century C.E.  Its primary significance pointed to the inner meaning, or “mystical understanding,” of the Bible; it was also used to indicate the hidden power of Christian rituals and even the secret vision of God given to the spiritual adept (i.e., theōia mystikē, or “mystical contemplation”).  By the end of the fifth century C.E., the unknown Eastern Christian author who used the pseudonym “Dionysius” had coined the term “mystical theology” to describe the indescribable contact with the unknown God that was the goal of Christian life.  From this perspective, “mystical contemplation” and “mystical theology” have formed a significant part of Christianity for centuries.

Attempts to define Christian mysticism (let alone mysticism in general) are legion.  In the fifteenth century, the theologian Jean Gerson advanced a classic definition of mystical theology as “experimental knowledge of God gained through the grasp of unitive love.”  This definition, however, expresses a particular understanding created in the midst of late medieval debates, especially about the “experimental” (experimentalis) nature of mystical theology.  Therefore, we should not be surprised that modern students of mysticism have tried to create new definitions and descriptions that attempt to be more inclusive of all the expressions of what Christians meant by contemplation and mystical theology over the centuries.  One major issue involved in such definitions is already evident in Gerson’s attempt: how to express the respective roles of the fundamental human powers of knowing and loving in the path to whatever kind of contact with God is seen as the highest attainable in this life.  The relation between love and knowledge has been an ongoing concern for  Christian mystics.

Within Christianity, this ultimate contact with God has often been expressed as involving mystical union (unio mystica), but the term is actually less prevalent in the history of Christian mysticism than has been claimed.  Many major Christian mystical teachers, such as Augustine of Hippo, never used union in this sense.  Therefore, I believe it is preferable to describe mysticism within Christianity as that part of its beliefs and practices that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and reaction to (or effect of) what mystics claim in the immediate or direct presence of God.  One advantage of this approach is that it encourages us to see the mystical element as not just involving a transcending and supratemporal moment of contact with God, but as part of a whole life story, involving long and difficult preparation (what Christians call asceticism), as well as the transformation that such direct contact with God makes in the mystic and in his or her relations with others.  There are three stages: preparation, attainment, and effect.

Not all aspects of the mystical element in Christianity need be understood as comprising mysticism in the explicit sense given above.  There has been much debate, for example, about whether the New Testament, as well as the Old, form a necessary but still implicit ground for the development of an explicit Christian mysticism that first found its full theoretical exposition in the writings of Origen of Alexandria in the third century C.E. and that received its institutional embodiment in the creation of the monastic way of life in the fourth century.

The historical development of explicit forms of Christian mysticism can be sketched according to a model of gradually accumulating and interactive layers of tradition.  The monastic ideal of flight from the world in order to lead a specialized life of penance and prayer, either as a solitary (the eremitical way) or within a community (the coenobitical way), was the institutional matrix for most forms of Christian mysticism down to the end of the twelfth century.  This monastic layer of mysticism was primarily Biblical and liturgical in the sense that it sought God in and through personal appropriation of the mystical understanding of the Bible as cultivated within the liturgical life of the monastic community.  Most monastic mystics were also “objective” in the sense that they rarely talked about their own experiences of God, but rather sought to express their understanding of mystical transformation through Biblical exegesis and theoretical expositions of a mystagogical character (i.e., one designed to lead readers into the mystery of the consciousness of God’s presence).

The twelfth century in Western Europe saw both a summation of traditional monastic mysticism, especially in the writings of the Cistercian and Victorine mystics, and the appearance of elements hinting at a new layer of Christian mysticism that was to become evident shortly after 1200.  The growth of autobiographical accounts of visionary experiences of Christ in that century hinted at the visionary explosion of the later Middle Ages, especially among women.  Even more important was the stress that the major teacher of the era, Bernard of Clairvaux, gave to the need for personal experience as a criterion almost equivalent to the Biblical text.  At the beginning of his exegesis of the Song of Songs, traditionally seen as the core text for understanding mystical love of Christ, Bernard proclaimed, “Today we are reading in the book of experience,” (liber experientiae).  The proper balance between the book of the Bible and the book of experience was to be a major issue in later Christian mysticism.

Significant new forms of religious life created around the year 1200, especially the mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans and the independent groups of women known as Beguines, provided the impetus for what may be called the “new mysticism” of the period 1200–1600 C.E.  Although this new mysticism built upon the riches of the monastic contemplative tradition, it was innovative in its break with the monks’ stress on the need for flight from the world and in the universality of its message that mystical encounter with God was accessible to all.  Such an appeal, of course, was not well adapted to the limits of the Latin language, the sacral speech of liturgy and academic theology; it called out for expression in the rapidly developing vernacular languages of Western Europe.  The new mysticism also invited the participation of women in a more powerful and public way than ever before.  Finally, the literary forms, as well as the tone of expression, found in the vernacular texts of the era (many written by women) were more varied and often more daring than those found in the monastic tradition.  This is evident not only in the proliferation of vivid accounts of visionary experience, but also in the willingness to present the most complex and challenging forms of mystical speculation within the realm of public preaching and teaching.

The centuries between 1200 and 1600 can be described as the era of the flowering of Christian mysticism, both for the variety of its creations and the profundity of the message offered.  It was also an era of contention in which the teaching of some mystics came to be seen as doctrinally incorrect and therefore subject to official condemnation.  The essence of these disputes rested on a new conception of mystical union that appeared in the thirteenth century, as well as in the way in which this conception was thought to affect the relationship between the mystic and the church.  The traditional monastic view of mystical union centered on the loving union of two wills, divine and human, and often expressed according to the model of the erotic intercourse of the lovers in the Song of Songs.  It insisted on the continuing individuality of the subjects involved, God and the human person, taking its motto from the Pauline text: “The one who adheres to God becomes one spirit (unus spiritus) with him,” (1 Corinthians 6:17).

Beginning with some of the women mystics of the thirteenth century, we find mystical teaching that involves a deeper form of union in which God and human become identically one in a bottomless abyss of absolute mutuality and equality.  This form of union of indistinction (unitas indistinctionis), which reached a theoretical formalization in the teaching of Meister Eckhart in the early fourteenth century, seemed to some (both then and now) to conflict with Christian teaching about the nature of created reality.  Nevertheless, its proponents could also appeal to scriptural texts for warrant, such as the passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus prays for his disciples.  “That they all may be one, even as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you,” (John 17:21).  If mystics came to see themselves, at least in some sense, as identical with God, what did this mean for their relationship to the church as the institutional mediator of salvation?  Were they no longer bound to the church’s sacraments, liturgy, and authority?  Were they perhaps even above the moral law?  Accusations that some mystics had reached such conclusions began to appear in the second half of the thirteenth century.  They were to lead to condemnations, persecutions, and even executions during the next four and a half centuries.

The various trends of the new mysticism – stress on the role of personal experience, use of the vernacular, a universalizing and “secularizing” emphasis, and increasing debate over legitimate versus suspect forms of mysticism – are evident down through 1600.  The Reformation of the sixteenth century saw both Catholics and Protestants continue to debate these issues, though in rather different ways.

The seventeenth century marks another watershed, the beginning of a third and more ambiguous layer in the history of Christian mysticism: the era of the crisis of mysticism.  This crisis was partly an internal and partly an external development.  Internally, the trajectory stressing the importance of experience in accounts of mysticism finally reached a point of stressing the importance of experience in accounts of mysticism finally reached a point of something like “implosion,” in which concentration on the investigation of interior states became so dominant that it ruptured the relation between the mystical element and the broader context of Christian life founded on the reading of the Bible, liturgical practice, and institutional accountability.  Mystics seemed to some observers, both then and now, to be creating a sphere of religion that was all their own.  The creation of “mysticism” as a distinct and separate category of theological investigation has been seen as a sign of this change.  The movement within also exacerbated the ongoing disputes over mysticism to such an extent that the last major quarrel over the orthodoxy of certain mystical writings (the “Quietest” controversy of the end of the seventeenth century) resulted in a wide-ranging condemnation that left mysticism suspect in many circles.  At the same time – and from the outside – the Enlightenment criticism of traditional forms of Christian belief and practice undercut the worldview on which mysticism was based.

This is not to say that mysticism died out within Christianity after the seventeenth century.  Indeed, in places like Russia, well removed from the scientific and “enlightened” world of Western Europe, mystical currents continued to flourish and reached an apogee in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.  However, any revival of the mystical element within Western Christianity since 1700 has had to confront the issues involved in the modern crisis of mysticism.

In attempting to highlight some of the distinctive marks of Christian mysticism, it may be helpful to invoke a comparative perspective by considering Christianity’s mystical elements in relation to the mysticism of its siblings, the other Western monotheistic faiths of Rabbinic Judaism and Islam.  All three regions have made frequent use of the categories of Greek philosophy (primarily the Platonic tradition) to give theoretical expression to mysticism.  This common background helps account for some of the remarkable similarities among the “mysticisms” of the three religions, even more than the historical contacts, real but limited, that their contentious history has involved.  More interesting (because they tell us more about what makes each form of mysticism distinctive) are the differences conditioned by the particular form of mysticism each monotheistic faith evolved within its historical context.

For example, Christianity has tended to stress orthodoxy (i.e., correct belief) more than orthopraxy (i.e., correct practice).  At the same time it has often, especially in its major forms of Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Classic Protestantism, concentrated teaching authority in the same groups which were also functionally qualified through ordination to lead the community in worship.  One result of this emphasis on right belief determined by ordained authority has been a heightening of possible tensions between mystical claims to special access to God and the judgment made upon such assertions by these ecclesiastical authorities.  This was evident as early as the second century C.E., during the struggle over the status of secret saving knowledge (gnosis), in which the party that emphasized the priority of such knowledge over general institutional access to the means of salvation lost out to the institutionalized hierarchy of priests and bishops.  As a result, Christianity has generally taken a negative attitude towards the role of esotericism in mysticism, especially in comparison with Judaism and Islam in which esoteric traditions have always been strong.  Paradoxically, however, the triumph of the ideal of virginity in classical Christianity (i.e., the conviction of the superiority of life of dedication to God that involved abstention from all sexuality) reintroduced a form of “social esotericism” into its mystical traditions.  By this I mean that the attainment of the ultimate form of contact with God was often seen as really accessible only to an elite group of virginal religious professionals, however much it was open in theory to all.  Other forms of Christian mysticism, especially after 1200 C.E., as noted above, challenged this exclusivism,  The dynamic confrontation between inclusive and exclusive models is one of the characteristic marks of Christian mysticism.

The adoption of the ideal of virginity has often been seen as representing a form of masochistic asceticism, but historians have increasingly recognized that the renunciation of marriage was rooted in Christian desire to create a new eschatological social order, one that broke with the family-dominated structures of ancient society.  One important consequence of the formation of groups of religious elite, originally monastics and later involving other forms of specialized religious life, was the freedom that it gave women to develop roles outside ordinary family structures.  Women took leadership roles in special forms of religious communities from at least the fourth century C.E.  Though only a handful made literary contributions during the early centuries, the eruption of the new mysticism after 1200 allowed women a key role in Christian mysticism.  Perhaps no other mysticism has been so shaped by the contribution of women.

From the doctrinal perspective, Christianity shares many beliefs with Judaism and Islam, from the confession of a single all-powerful and good Creator through to the conviction of an approaching day of judgment and final reward of good and punishment of evil.  Nevertheless, two foundational articles of Christian faith have formed its mysticism in a special way: belief in God as a Trinity of co-equal Persons, that is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and the confession that the Second Person of the Trinity became man in Jesus Christ in order to save fallen humanity.  Christian mysticism has always been fundamentally Christological  in the sense that Christ is seen as necessary for the return to God, even though the forms of Christology in Christian mystical traditions have been many.  Similarly, although belief in the Trinity often seems vestigial in contemporary Christianity, the history of Christian mysticism shows how powerfully the doctrine of the Trinity worked as a living force in the Christian community in previous eras.

Though Christianity’s understanding of its positive concept of God as Trinity is distinctive, the dynamic ways in which Christian mysticism has explored both positive (or cataphatic) and negative (or apophatic) ways of attaining deeper consciousness of God have important affinities with aspects of Jewish and Islamic mysticisms.  All three traditions have emphasized the importance of the positive names given to God as the Creator of the universe, especially those revealed in their sacred texts.  But each tradition has also insisted that all names always fall infinitely short of the divine mystery, so that God is better known through negations of symbols and conceptual names than through affirmations.  As far as the mystics are concerned, the most adequate forms of language to try to express what cannot be expressed are poetical, paradoxical, even perverse forms of “language-games” that try to suggest what lies beyond language.  Mystics often also employ strategies of “hypernegation” that strive to destroy human thinking and speaking in the service of mystical silence, insisting that God is beyond both affirmation and negation.

From the perspective of the relation of mysticism to the wider religious tradition in which it finds its home, mystics have often been seen as seeking an individual, even solitary, experience of God attained in isolation from the community of believers.  As far as Christian mysticism is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth.  To be sure, it is the individual person who is encouraged to prepare for the gift of direct transformative consciousness of God through mystical teaching, but this encounter takes place within the communal life of the church and its various practices, especially Biblical reading, liturgy and sacraments, prayer and preaching.  Furthermore, the transformative character of mystical consciousness has traditionally been viewed as a charism given more for others than for the self, that is, the mystic demonstrates the validity of the special grace she or he has received by its value for the whole church, as displayed in teaching, intercession, and even miraculous power.

In the history of Christian mysticism, the interaction between what today is often called mystical experience and the visible effects of this experience in the life of the mystic was often expressed in terms of the correct relation between contemplation and action (i.e., active love of others).  Although mystical contemplation was the highest goal to which one could aspire in this life, active charity was generally seen as more necessary for the church.  Therefore, contemplation needed to yield to action in order to demonstrate its authenticity.  Two models for understanding the relation of contemplation and action emerged.  Some mystics insisted that as long as the one remained in this life there would always be a tension between the two forms of life; others believed that it was possible for some gifted individuals to arrive at a state where they could achieve what seems impossible – ecstatic rapture combined with ongoing involvement in the obligations of active love.  Thus Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was described as being “active in the midst of contemplation” (in contemplatione activus).  This goal remains among the highest aspirations of all Christian mysticism.

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