MYSTICISM: Defining Mysticism by Carl McColman

The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality

Defining Mysticism by Carl McColman

From The Big Book of Christian Mysticism

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
(Isaiah 55:8)

What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that
nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.

Some people think mysticism means having powerful spiritual experiences, like seeing Heavenly visions, or hearing supernatural voices, or feeling a sense of communion with God, or undergoing profound shifts in consciousness.  Others see it as a spiritual dimension to (and beyond) religion, in which the cultural, ethical, and theological differences between religions are somehow resolved in a trans-verbal state of unity.  Still others dismiss it as the fuzzy, illogical, and irrational element that makes religion and spirituality so distasteful to those who prefer to conduct their lives according to science rather than faith (which they see as superstition).  These, and other, ways of understanding mysticism all make sense in their own context.  But none of them manages to appreciate mysticism’s treasures fully.

Probably the first important thing that needs to be said about mysticism is that you can never adequately put it into words.  And, although there are many different kinds of mysticism, the inability to describe them adequately with words – in other words, the ineffability of mysticism – holds true for them all.  Indeed, trying to understand mysticism is futile, and we must begin our discussion with the recognition that it cannot be precisely defined.

Love In A Bottle

It’s like trying to put love in a bottle.  It just can’t be done.  To begin with, love is not something that can be pinned down to a specific point in space and time.  It is a spiritual reality that can never be defined, or enclosed or “captured.”

Much the same is true of mysticism.  Its essence simply cannot be captured in human language – indeed, not even by the most sublime reaches of human thought.  We can use language to suggest mysticism – to allude to it, to point to it, to create poetic metaphors or analogies about it that ring true – but these linguistic interpretations are ultimately like attempts to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.  Like God or spirituality or Heaven, mysticism takes us beyond what the most eloquent and poetic language can ever express.  It pushes you to the limits of your imagination and then says “take another step,”  and another, and another.

Dr. Seuss once wrote a book called On Beyond Zebra! that explored all the meta-letters that exist in his imaginary alphabet, beyond the twenty-six of the standard English alphabet.  Mysticism is like Seuss’s alphabet.  It pushes beyond the normal boundaries of human thought, human logic, and human rationality and knowing.  It goes beyond the limits of philosophy, theology, psychology, and science.  But whereas Dr. Seuss was just playing make-believe, mysticism points to something that countless witnesses, in cultures all across the world and in every age from the dawn of recorded history, insist is utterly real – maybe even more real than the universe and consciousness we normally inhabit.

You don’t have to be an expert in etymology to figure out that the word “mysticism” is related to the word “mystery.”  Thus, the most we can hope to do is to use our feeble language to try to catch tiny glimpses of that Heaven-sent something – that mystery – the great visionaries and saints have described as an experiential relationship with God.  Maybe your heart will register a thrill of recognition as you read their writings, giving you some sense of what mysticism is.  But like love in a bottle, as soon as you try to put it into your own words, mysticism unfolds itself into a variety of paradoxes and seemingly contradictory truths that leave you as confused and befuddled as ever.

Christian mysticism is all about having a “relationship with God.”  Indeed, this is its bedrock principle.  In some non-Christian forms of mysticism, like Zen Buddhism or Taoism, God is not part of the equation at all.  In these traditions, it is possible to be a mystic and an atheist – or at least, an agnostic.  However, even some of the most profound Christian mystics talk about how unknowable God is.  How can you have a relationship with something or someone who is fundamentally unknowable?  And yet, that is where mysticism takes you.  When we talk about mysticism, we can use words that try to make sense of the mystery – “God,” or “the Absolute,” or “the Ultimate Mystery” – until the words themselves fail us.  Then we are left with only silence, facing the mystery again, and perhaps scrambling to find new words, new concepts, and new ideas.

The way I talk about mysticism will make the most sense in a Christian context – even when I’m discussing mysticism in general.  After all, this is a book about Christian mysticism.  But even within a specifically Christian framework, mysticism has an unnerving tendency to contradict itself and deconstruct itself in bewildering and playful ways.  That dynamic gets even more complicated when we begin to talk about “world” mysticism, which is not limited to any one religious or spiritual tradition.  As a dynamic spiritual force that has been at work in the lives of Christians throughout the history of the faith – and one that continues to show up in surprising ways among the faithful even today – mysticism remains perplexing and uncontrollable; it plays out in people’s lives in unexpected ways.

The mystics themselves have long recognized the ultimate “unknowability” of this indefinable thing we call mysticism.  Indeed, I warn you that I will fail utterly to explain what mysticism is.  I am philosophical about that because, as a Christian, I know that grace is always present, even in the midst of our failures.  So why, you may ask, do I try?  As the mountain climber said when asked why he climbed mountains: “Because it’s there.”  I write about mysticism, not because I have it all figured out (I don’t), or because I think my book will help you figure it all out (it won’t), but because I hope my attempt may contain some small glimmers of insight or encouragement that you can use on your own journey into the Ultimate Mystery.

Exploring the Unknowable

When we talk about mysticism, what exactly are we talking about?  I can offer several snappy definitions:

Mysticism is the art of union with God.

Mysticism is the experiential core of spirituality, contrasted with religion, which is an organized assembly of rituals, beliefs, and codes of conduct that are derived from spirituality.

Mysticism is the heart of spirituality where all religious differences are resolved and we find unity in the Sacred.

Each of these statements is useful, as far as it goes.  The first is rather more useful in terms of God-oriented mysticism (like Christian mysticism), while the other two broaden the topic to include other mystical paths as well.

The problem with these pat definitions is that they leave all the major paradoxes and seeming contradictions of mysticism unexplained.  How can mysticism be about God when even Christians don’t all agree on who or what God is or how knowable he is?  Can we really say that mysticism is about “experience,” when there are some mystics (like Jean-Pierre de Caussade) who insist that our feelings are unreliable when it comes to spiritual growth?  And what’s all this about resolving religious differences?  Is part of those who try to gloss over real and intractable differences between religions?  Each of these definitions contains a measure of truth, but also a measure of distortion or limitation.

Mysticism is directly related to mystery, and indeed few topics are more puzzling or enigmatic.  Here are some other definitions; the first comes from the American Heritage Dictionary; the others from writers and thinkers who have wrestled with the mystery:

Mysticism: Immediate consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality of God.

Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, is the direct intuition or experience of God; and a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which he regards as first-hand personal knowledge. (Evelyn Underhill)

The word “Mysticism” itself comes down to us from the Greeks and is derived from a root meaning “to close.”  The mystic was one who had been initiated into the esoteric knowledge of Divine things, and upon whom was laid the necessity of keeping silence concerning his sacred knowledge.  The term “mystical,” then, might be applied to any secret cult revealed only to the initiated.  (Margaret Smith)

Christian mysticism is a way of life that involves the perfect fulfillment of loving God, neighbor, all God’s creation, and oneself.  It is an ordered movement toward ever higher levels of reality by which the self awakens to, is purified and illuminated by, and is eventually fully united with, the God of love. (Harvey D. Egan)

With the exception of the dictionary definition, all of the above refer specifically to Christian mysticism.  To make things more interesting, here are a few ideas about mysticism that come from non-Christian sources, or sources that are not exclusively Christian:

Mysticism is concerned with the possibility of personally encountering a spiritual reality which is hidden from our normal awareness like the sun behind the clouds.  It is not concerned with propounding a philosophy that may be believed or doubted.  The mystics tell us that higher consciousness is available to everyone, and by setting out on our own journey of spiritual exploration we can experience it for ourselves. (Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy)

Mysticism is that point of view which claims as its basis an intimate knowledge of the one source and substratum of all existence, a knowledge which is obtained through a revelatory experience during a rare moment of clarity in contemplation.  Those who claim to have actually experienced this direct revelation constitute an elite tradition which transcends the boundary lines of individual religions, cultures, and languages, and which has existed, uninterrupted, since the beginning of time. (Swami Abhayananda)

Mysticism is a manifestation of something which is at the root of all religion and all the higher religions have their mystical expressions. (F. C. Happold)

Mystical experience is the direct, unmediated experience of what Bede Griffiths beautifully describes as “the presence of an almost unfathomable mystery.”  This mystery is beyond name and beyond form; no name or form, no dogma, philosophy, or set of rituals can ever express it fully.  It always transcends anything that can be said of it and remains always unstained by any of our human attempts to limit or exploit it. (Andrew Harvey)

Imagine all these experts sitting in the same room trying to hammer out a universal definition of mysticism.  It might get pretty loud in there.

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy insist that mysticism is about “higher consciousness” that is “available to everyone,” while Swami Abhayananda calls it an “elite tradition,” which suggests that it is something only for the chosen few.  Margaret Smith sees mysticism in terms of an “esoteric knowledge of Divine things” that is so exalted that mystics (whom she describes as “initiates”) must forever remain silent about their “sacred knowledge.”  By contrast, Andrew Harvey insists that mysticism “always transcends anything that can be said of it and remains always unstained by any of our human attempts to limit or exploit it.”  In other words, there are no secrets to keep, because, far from being esoteric, mysticism in ineffable, and therefore impossible to put into words even if you wanted to.

Orienting Generalizations

While it may be tempting to look at all these contradictory approaches to mysticism and simply decide that it is an impossible topic to explore, it is possible to build bridges between these various perspectives.  American philosopher Ken Wilber writes about the connections between religion and science, between Eastern and Western spirituality, and about other broad areas of human knowledge.  In his book A Brief History of Everything, Wilber argues that the best way to approach large and complex topics is to begin by looking for patterns of similarity between the different elements of the material being investigated.  We can apply this same methodology to the complex and mysterious topic of mysticism.

Wiilber uses the term “orienting generalization” to describe a broad and basic way of speaking about a difficult topic that can point toward an understanding, if not a precise definition, of complex issues.  Even when experts can’t find complete agreement, he notes, their perspectives may have enough commonality that orienting generalizations can be drawn from their differing viewpoints.

So what are the orienting generalizations of mysticism?  We can make at least these initial observations based on the various and admittedly contradictory earlier definitions:

  • Mysticism concerns a higher reality.  Different religions and philosophies call this by different names; the traditional Christian name for this reality is “God.”
  • Mysticism involves an experience, or conscious awareness, of this higher reality.  Precisely because this reality is “higher,” however, there is an unavoidable and inexhaustible element of mystery surrounding it as well.  In other words, mysticism seems to be grounded in experience, but simultaneously is something other than mere experience.  It involves consciousness, but also transcends it.
  • Mysticism is often connected with religion.  Here I am using religion to mean the various social and cultural ways in which people relate to each other’s common desire for contact with the Higher Mystery.  This connection between mysticism and religion, however, exists alongside real differences and tensions.  Certainly it is possible to be religious without exploring mysticism; and some expressions of mysticism do not require a religious setting.  Since community is such an important element within Christianity, Christian mysticism is more overtly religious than other forms of mysticism.  In fact, while mysticism in general is often connected with religion, I think the case can be made that genuine Christian mysticism is always religious (communal) in nature.
  • Since religion concerns values, beliefs, ethics, and dogma, these things all have an impact on mysticism in its religious forms.  That being said, it’s important to remember that, just as religion includes many ideas and values about God (some clearly paradoxical, if not apparently contradictory), so too mysticism entails a rather dizzying array of ideas, beliefs, and values, among which many paradoxes and tensions can be found.
  • Along with its emphasis on personal experience and consciousness, mysticism also has a behavioral component.  In other words, mysticism is a way of life.  People who explore it often do some pretty unusual things, including trying to live in a holy or sanctified manner, or (at the very least) embracing a regular practice of prayer, meditation, or contemplation.  Such spiritual exercises are believed to foster or support the desired experience of intimacy with, union with, or even simply the felt presence of God.

Much of Wilber’s work is devoted to understanding consciousness, which means that he has devoted a lot of effort to examining the role of spirituality in human life.  In his book Integral Spirituality, Wilber suggests that the word “spirituality” can be understood in four distinct ways.  He notes that many people regard spirituality as a rather vague, if not meaningless, concept and suggests this is because the word has a variety of meanings.  It’s not a question of which meaning is the “right” one – they are all correct, depending on the context in which the word is used.  His point is that, only when we start taking these distinctions seriously do we begin to recognize the beauty and value of spirituality.  Moreover, it becomes easier to communicate about it in meaningful and effective ways.

Wilber gives four orienting generalizations about spirituality that I believe can be applied to mysticism as well.  Although spirituality and mysticism are not synonymous – all mysticism is spiritual, but not all spirituality is mystical – I think his four generalizations can aid our understanding of mysticism.

  1. Mysticism can refer to a particular type of experience – a “peak” experience of God / the Ultimate Mystery, which can also be called a “peek” experience in that it provides a glimpse of previously unimagined possibilities.  The Bible has numerous examples of such experiences, which, in traditional religious language, are called “epiphanies.”  The most dramatic is the conversion of Saint Paul, which followed an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, (Acts 9:3-9).  Many, if not all, of the great Christian mystics experienced epiphanies of their own.
  2. Mysticism also refers to a particular level of consciousness.  This altered or heightened state – which has been known by many names, including enlightenment, holiness, sanctification, and the unitive life – is not an isolated event, but rather represents a fundamental shift in awareness to a higher / holier state.  As Saint Paul put it: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 2:5).  Unlike an epiphany, which is transitory in nature, mysticism as heightened consciousness suggests a more or less permanent or longer-lasting change in awareness or knowledge of the Ultimate Mystery / God.  While a mystical experience may involve having a glimpse of God’s presence, mystical consciousness may mean an ongoing sense of being united with God.
  3. Mysticism may also refer to a particular type of ability – what Wilber calls a “developmental line.”  Just as some people are naturally gifted at music or sports or mechanics, so mysticism is a particular aptitude for which a person may exhibit a greater or lesser degree of innate skill.  This suggests that a “mystically gifted” person has an innate ability, not only to experience the presence of the Ultimate Mystery, but also to manifest extraordinary spiritual abilities – to heal, to prophesy, to teach or influence others through a deep spiritual charisma, to live a holy or sanctified life.  Of course, such mystical ability, like all other aptitudes, exists on a continuum.  Just as you can enjoy music or art or sports even if you are not a Mozart or a Michelangelo or a Michael Phelps, you don’t have to be a mystical genius to have some capacity for the mystical.
  4. Mysticism refers to a particular attitude that has more to do with values than with experience, consciousness, or ability.  In this sense, being a mystical person may mean nothing more than being serious about your belief that God is real and at work in your life, or having a clear conviction of the world as operating in harmony with God’s plan, or consistently being more forgiving than judgmental about others’ failings.  Whereas the previous generalizations all seem to indicate that mysticism is something largely outside of your control (either you’re born with a mystical ability or you aren’t), a mystical attitude rests more on the choices and intentions you make.  If you immerse yourself in mystical literature, if you are deeply engaged in the life of faith, if you choose to pray and meditate on a daily basis, you are cultivating an attitude of mysticism even if you never have an extraordinary experience, or sense a heightened consciousness, or display any supernatural ability.  This may not be as dramatic a view of mysticism, but it has the virtue of being within the reach of the average person.  Many Christian mystics, in fact, understood the spiritual life, not as something awesome and extraordinary, but as something humble, down-to-Earth, and in many ways very simple and small.

In addition to Wilber’s four orienting generalizations, I propose a fifth:

  1. Mysticism refers to the inner dimension of religion.  The world’s great contemplative wisdom traditions typically are embedded in a larger and more “ordinary” religious or philosophical culture.  Christian mysticism emerges within Christianity; Vedanta within Hinduism; Kabbalah with Judaism; Zen within Buddhism; Sufism within Islam.  This generalization, however, may be more useful for Western than for Eastern religions.  In the East, the line separating mysticism from religion seems fuzzier, although, even in the East, a distinction is drawn between the perfunctory performance of religious rituals and a more heartfelt inner experience.  In other words, you can burn incense to the Buddha every day for years and not necessarily experience awakening or enlightenment, just as a Roman Catholic may go to Mass day after day and not necessarily have a mystical experience or enter into mystical consciousness.  But these religious practices might help you be far more open to mystical experience than if you never bother with religious exercises at all.

The key to making sense of these differing definitions is remembering that, to some extent, they are mutually exclusive.  I once asked a monk how he defined mysticism.  “A mystic is someone who exhibits extraordinary phenomena,” he said.  “They have visions, they hear locutions, they levitate, or something along those lines.”  Thus, he understood mysticism almost exclusively in terms of ability.  Not surprisingly, he rejected the idea that mysticism can mean nothing more than a spiritual attitude or a religious sensibility.  “Everyone is not called to be a mystic,” he argued.  “Everyone is called to holiness.”  For him, mysticism is therefore reserved for truly supernatural experiences or phenomena, although ordinary people still have this opportunity to cultivate a sense of connection to God in their lives.  This is not properly called mysticism, to his way of thinking; it is holiness.

The Particle and the Wave

One of the most famous mysteries to perplex scientists was whether light, at its most foundational level, is composed of particles or of waves.  The answer to the puzzle, it appears, is: “It depends.”  In fact, the properties of light may actually be influenced by those who observe it.  Likewise, mysticism.

Is mysticism about specific experiences of God, or rather a more lasting consciousness of God?  Is it an irresistible gift from God, or must a would-be mystic make a choice in response to God’s grace and out of desire for God’s love?  Are all these ways of understanding mysticism the same thing, or are they really as different as a wave and a particle?  Or perhaps all of these different ways of understanding mysticism reveal just the imprecision of language.  Perhaps what some people call “mysticism” really should go by a different name – like holiness, or sanctification, or esotericism, or hermeticism.

Does mysticism involve something that happens as a specific event, at a specific moment and location in space and time, like Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus?  Or is it an ongoing state of mind, a way of seeing and thinking that may not involve particular extraordinary experiences, but rather points to a blessed and holy way of life?  We are all more likely to encounter the mystery at the heart of mysticism if we remain open to all its paradoxes and possibilities.

8 Comments on MYSTICISM: Defining Mysticism by Carl McColman

  1. Spiritual knowing, mystical gnosis*, is complete intuitive insight. It combines the very definition of all three words. Complete: “The entirety needed for realization; consummate.” Intuitive: “Knowing something without rational processes; the immediate cognition of it.” Insight: “Discernment of the true nature of a situation; the penetration beyond the reach of the senses.” Complete intuitive insight precedes divine unity and usually follows it. It is suprarational. Union with the divine, however, surpasses knower, known and knowing; it is to be at one with the divine essence. It is not to be the divine, but to be in the divine as the divine is. It is sharing in universal consciousness.
    Books on mysticism may speak of transcendence and immanence. Transcendence: “Passing beyond human limit; independent of any material experience.” Immanence: “Existing or remaining within; inherent.” Unity with the divine is both. You must go beyond your self to be in the divine. To be in the soul, the divine in you, is to be in the divine. The divine is not just in you, it is in All: animate and inanimate; on Earth and in this entire Universe; emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual; anything, everything, but yet no ‘thing.’


  2. Many thanks for all that you share.

    In an age of spiritual consumerism in which many people claim that a weekend workshop makes them a ‘master’ or an online ‘telesummit’ makes them a Mystic, it’s refreshing to revisit the wiser perspectives gleaned from clues left by actual mystics (or accounts of them, once removed).

    The author of this article wrote: “… being a mystical person may mean nothing more than being serious about your belief that God is real and at work in your life, or having a clear conviction of the world as operating in harmony with God’s plan, or consistently being more forgiving than judgmental about others’ failings.”

    That would be more ‘religious’ or perhaps ‘spiritual’ than the more experiential awareness of the mystic. The ‘ineffability of mysticism’ goes beyond beliefs, convictions, intellectual thoughts or information, as much of the rest of the article suggests. That’s why such experiences are so ‘mind-blowing’ – they really do change, expand, alter one’s perspective, and thus one’s life and way of living.

    Thank you again. I appreciate my visits here.



  3. Excellent post. Your insights express a delightful clarity. As a hermit monk whose lived in the wilderness since 1997 I’ve concluded that mysticism is dancing with the mystery, not trying to figure it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, my name is Julia Marks. My writing can be found under the tab at the top of the page entitled, My Writing.

      Carl McColman, on the other hand, lives in Atlanta and is a lay member of a Trappist monastery. I’m sure he would love to hear from you. His website is:

      Thanks for your comment. And I, too, am finding this book of his astounding. Even with it’s somewhat silly title.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, my name is Julia Marks. You can find my writing by going to the top of the page and clicking on the tab entitled, My Writing.

      Carl McColman, on the other hand, lives in Atlanta and is a lay member of a Trappist monastery. I’m sure he would love to hear from you. His website is

      Thanks for your comment. I, too, am finding his book astounding. Even with its somewhat silly title.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Mystical Experiences of Reality and commented:
    Despite reducing mysticism to the anthropormorphic mythomania of the existence of a God, this is a useful introduction to a subject much more profound than religions in general and Christianity in particular.

    Liked by 1 person

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