From The Big Book of Christian Mysticism
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (II Corinthians 4:6)
For the sages say that it is impossible for rational knowledge of God to coexist with the direct experience of God, or for conceptual knowledge of God to coexist with immediate perception of God. (Maximus the Confessor)
Mysticism is a vague word that is used in a variety of ways to mean different things. This is not just because human beings are sloppy and like to use words in imprecise ways – although, granted, that’s part of the problem. Rather, mysticism as a word or concept is impossible to define because it is, by nature, linked to spirituality, to mystery, to subjective experience – all notoriously squishy subjects. In this book, we attempt to unlock the mystery of mysticism, not only by appealing to the wisdom of the great mystics from more than 2,000 years of Christian history and the scholars who have written about them, but also by exploring the ways in which mysticism can enlighten our spiritual lives today.
The history of Christian mysticism includes a wide array of colorful and sometimes eccentric characters who have much to teach us, not only about Christianity and mysticism, but also about life in general. When we take the time to understand their lives in a way that honors their wisdom, we begin to find ways to apply that wisdom to our own lives. Ultimately, our goal must be not just to explore an interesting philosophical concept, but rather to understand mysticism as a powerful tool for transforming our minds, hearts, and souls.
What do the Christian mystics tell us? That the wisdom they offer us can literally unite us with God – or at the very least, give us such a powerful experience of God’s presence that it can revolutionize our lives. The purpose of such transformed lives is not primarily to achieve a goal (like enlightenment or spiritual bliss), but rather to participate in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing activity – embodying the flowing love of Christ, love that we in turn give back to God as well as to “our neighbors as ourselves.” The mystical tradition manifests in a particular tension that persists throughout Christian history and is, thus, distinct from other expressions of Christian spirituality. You can be a Christian without being a mystic, and you can be a mystic without being a Christian. If you want to embrace Christian mysticism, however, you begin by embracing Christianity, both in its external, “religious” form, and also in its inner exploration of prayer, meditation, and contemplation.
The Problem With Mysticism
Over the years, I have found that many – perhaps most – of the books, websites, and blogs that treat the mystical dimension of Christianity tend to fall into two categories: the overly fanciful, and the overly boring.
Christian mysticism gets overly fanciful when you place too much emphasis on having “cool” spiritual experiences like cosmic consciousness or secret visions. While it is true that mysticism is experiential, Christian mysticism is also grounded in the love of God – a love which leads to healing, transformation, and growth in holiness. In other words, Christian mysticism is never an end to itself. The point behind mysticism is not to dazzle the mind with ecstatic wonders or heady feelings, but to foster real and lasting changes, for the purpose of becoming more like Christ, which is to say, more compassionate, more forgiving, more committed to serving others and making the world a better place. In other words, the experience is really just a small part of the overall package.
Likewise, students of Christian mysticism lose their way when they get too caught up in quests for secret knowledge, or hidden teachings that are supposedly the key to higher realities, that somehow have been lost (or suppressed) by church authorities. I’m willing to go with the idea that many of the key principles of Christian mysticism have been marginalized, ignored, or even rejected by many followers of Jesus, but there’s no need to get all conspiratorial about this. The keys to Christian mysticism have been hidden in plain sight.
Unfortunately, there is a certain allure to the idea that some sort of secret body of knowledge has been squirreled away in the Vatican or in a monastery somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula for the past 1,500 years. History is full of colorful characters who have promoted themselves as the guardians of such long-lost information, offering to share their esoteric teachings with a select worthy few – for a hefty fee.
The real mystical tradition in Christianity is much broader and deeper than that. It is the story of people who receive powerful mystical experiences, undergo amazing and beautiful transformations of consciousness, and embody the teachings of Jesus – without getting lost in a fantasy world.
Another variation of this kind of fanciful mysticism is the idea that the only “real” mysticism comes from the East, from venerable wisdom traditions such as Vedanta or Zen. Therefore, “Christian” mysticism is really just Hinduism or Buddhism with a little bit of Jesus mixed in. But, in fact, Christianity has its own, homegrown mystical tradition with its own practices, wisdom, and values. While it is true that, generally speaking, Christian mystics are more open to the wisdom of other religions than most Christians, this openness is rooted in loyalty to the central wisdom teachings of Christ, the Bible, and the Christian tradition.
Where can we turn to find the most authentic expressions of Christian mysticism? To that tradition, as embodied in the great mystics of history. Christian mysticism is rooted in an easily identifiable body of wisdom teachings that can be traced back to the very origins of the faith. Great saints, monks, nuns, theologians, philosophers, and artists throughout the centuries have made contributions to the faith that include their experience as mystics. Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine are just a few of the many Christian spiritual geniuses who lived by and taught the wisdom of encountering the mysterious presence of God. Because they didn’t draw attention to themselves or their experiences, their mysticism is, in a very real way, hidden in plain sight. It is not secret or occult, or part of an underground conspiracy. It is a very simple, humble, down-to-Earth spirituality that has slipped unpretentiously across the stage of history. The problem is not that mystical teachings are hidden, but rather that so few people bother to learn the principles of Christian mysticism, much less apply them to their own lives.
If some writers err on the side of overly fanciful, however, others err on the side of boredom. Many of the teachers and scholars who write about the genuine tradition of Christian mysticism without resorting to sensationalism or exaggeration are brilliant, intelligent experts who produce profound studies filled with fascinating insights – all too often, replete with complex ideas and arcane terminology, much of it Greek or Latin. Since mystical spirituality is intimately related to theology which in turn is related to philosophy, most of these studies are as challenging to read as the works of Plato, Aristotle, or Kant. Even when these academics work hard to make their studies accessible to those of us who don’t have graduate degrees in logic, their books are often unavoidably dry and dull.
Many of the serious and scholarly books on mysticism tend to focus on its heritage – on the lives and the teachings of great mystics of the past – and have little or nothing to say concerning why mysticism matters today. In other words, they do a great job of telling you about mysticism, but don’t really make mysticism come alive in an intimate, practical way. It seems to me that the central question we need to ask is how and why that ancient wisdom can be relevant today. How can we take the authentic Christian mysticism of history and apply it to our own spiritual lives?
The Search For Authentic Experience
I’m writing about Christian mysticism because I love Christ, and because I hunger for the presence of God in my life. I’m writing about it because I believe that the wisdom of great mystics – Julian of Norwich, John Ruusbroec, Richard of St. Victor, Teresa of Ávila – can be applied to our lives today. I believe that, if enough of us try to conduct our lives according to their teachings, we can change our lives and the world.
The mystics point us to Christ, and to the powerful message of the gospel. So make no mistake: this is a book about how to live according to the teachings of the Christian faith. We look at topics like repentance, holiness, sacrifice, and prayer – difficult topics with which you may or may not be comfortable, depending on your background and beliefs. All I ask as you consider them is that you try to keep an open mind. I believe one of the powerful gifts of Christian mysticism is that it can take the truths of the gospel – ideas that sometimes come across as rigid or repressive in many contexts – and transform them into exciting, spiritually luminous principles by which we can ignite our lives into a profound experience of God’s love and healing presence. If you are a devout Christian, I likewise ask you to approach this book with an open mind. Mysticism does not change the gospel. But it does shine an entirely new light on it that can help you see what has always been there in powerful and exciting new ways.
Christian mysticism is a concept unto itself – not just a “flavor” of some generic mystic philosophy. The cross-fertilization between Christianity and mysticism created something entirely new – a unique belief system that is different from all other kinds of mysticism.
Likewise, Christian mysticism is not the same thing as basic Christianity. The two are not incompatible, however. On the contrary, authentic Christian mysticism reflects and reinforces authentic Christianity. Any perceived conflict between them arises only when something has gone awry with one or the other. When Christianity is true to itself as a liberating faith in Jesus, and Christian mysticism is true to itself as a Christian encounter with the awesome mystery of God, they flow together beautifully and harmoniously. Nonetheless, while it is helpful to draw a distinction between Christianity-the-religion and Christian mysticism, the tradition has consistently emphasized that you cannot be a Christian mystic without engaging with the social and communal dimensions of the Christian faith. Indeed, the more authentic a Christian mystic it, the more engaged he or she will be with even the most mundane aspects of religious Christianity.
Likewise, there are real differences between generic mysticism, Christian mysticism, and all the other types of mysticism – Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, etc. These differences are not absolute and we can, in fact, talk about mysticism in general ways. For example, we can make this statement: “Mysticism concerns spiritual experience.” This is true for mysticism in general as well as for Christian mysticism. But we must also acknowledge the real differences that distinguish Christian mysticism from world mysticism. For example, many forms of non-Christian mysticism are anchored in the idea that human beings are (or can become) identical with God. Christianity denies this, and Christian mysticism concurs. Christian mysticism pursues participation with God, communion with God, and even experiences of union with God, but always distinguishes creator from creature. To deny that distinction is to move away from Christian mysticism, even if you talk about Jesus all the time.
I’m belaboring this point because I anticipate three kinds of people will pick up this book: non-Christians who are interested in mysticism, but perhaps not favorably disposed to Christianity; Christians who are interested in, but perhaps not favorably disposed to, mysticism; and people who are interested in Christian mysticism (regardless of their faith). I point this out because I need to be clear about my own perspective: I love Christianity; I love mysticism in general – including all the different “types” of mysticism; and I love Christian mysticism and understand it as a unique phenomenon. It is, however, my goal to write an honest book, which means being honest about both my Christian faith and my fascination with mysticism.
Part of the challenge in writing about this topic is that there are plenty of people who love mysticism, but are suspicious of Christianity. And there are others who are committed to Christianity, but are unsure about mysticism. I want to write a book that honors readers wherever they are on their own spiritual journeys. I can’t guarantee that I’ll win anyone over to my point of view, but I can hope to give everyone who reads this book a new insight or two, or something to think about. If you have a positive attitude (or, at least, an open mind) toward both Christianity and mysticism, you will find plenty of information here to consider as you proceed on your own spiritual journey. My goal is to inspire and encourage you to make Christian mysticism a part of your life.
I believe Christian mysticism can transform you. It’s a form of alchemy that integrates Christianity’s promise of new life in Christ with mysticism’s promise of experiencing the presence of God. It allows something to emerge that is greater than the sum of its parts; it illuminates a path by which you can open yourself to what the Apostle Paul calls, “letting the mind (consciousness) of Christ be in you,” and what the Apostle Peter called, “partaking of the divine nature.” Christian mysticism invites you to do more than just know about God, or Christ, or spiritual transformation. It invites you into God, and into Christ, and into the experience of transformation that can come about only through the love and grace of God. It’s intimate; it’s heartful and mindful; it’s oriented toward making a real, powerful, profound, and lasting difference in your life and your relationship.
Of course, whether you accept the invitation is entirely up to you.