MYSTICISM: How Mysticism Became Christian by Carl McColman

The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality

How Mysticism Became Christian by Carl McColman

From The Big Book of Christian Mysticism

But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. (1 Corinthians 6:17)

The Christian religion is primarily about a transformation of consciousness.  This takes spiritual practice and the cultivation of wisdom.  In another time, this was called cultivating the supernatural organism, what Paul called “a new creation.”  So the main thing is to be transformed into God, what the early church called deification, theosis, divinization. (Thomas Keating)

As useful as Wilber’s orienting generalizations are, they are not the only tools we have to explore the complex mystery of mysticism.  History and etymology also provide important clues to the understanding this recondite topic.  By tracing Greek origins of mysticism as a concept, and seeing how the meaning of mysticism has evolved in the history of the Christian faith, we can discover how this originally pagan form of spirituality took on a uniquely and specifically Christian character – and what this means for us today.

To understand the history of Christian mysticism, we have to explore the origins of Christianity, in the context of the language, philosophy, and religion of the Hellenistic world in which the New Testament was written.  The word “mysticism” comes from the Greek word, mueo, which means “to close” or “to shut.”  In “Mysticism: An Essay on the History of the Word,” French scholar Louis Bouyer says it refers to closing the eyes, while other sources suggest it refers to keeping your mouth shut.  In fact, both of these meanings make sense.  Yet another source suggests the word means “to initiate into the mysteries,” hence, ” to instruct.”  Mysticism thus involves keeping your mouth shut long enough to listen for what’s really going on.

Mysticism first emerged in the great pagan mystery religions of the ancient world.  These religions encompassed a variety of independent communities that were organized around the veneration of a particular deity linked to a mythological story.  For example, the Orphic mysteries venerated Orpheus, whose myth recounts how he went into the underworld in a vain attempt to rescue his beloved Eurydice.  Likewise, the Eleusinian mysteries are devoted to the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, another tale with a strong underworld theme.  Incidentally, this underworld theme is an important clue to understanding mysticism – even after it became Christianized.

Only initiates could participate in the ceremonies associated with the mystery religions.  Initiation, as best we can tell, involved participation in one or more rituals in which the secrets of the god or goddess were revealed.  Since initiates vowed never to reveal the secrets of the tradition, we know little of these ancient rites.

At least two of mysticism’s orienting generalizations appear to be present in the mystery religions.  The mysteries involved a specific experience – the ritual of initiation – as well as the suggestion of a particular change in consciousness that initiates enjoyed by virtue of having been enlightened by the secrets that were imparted to them.  The secrets were, in all likelihood, meant to transform the faithful with a particular feeling or sense of connection with the gods, giving access to divine power.

Louis Bouyer suggests that “What the initiated must forbear from revealing is not a doctrine, nor is it esoteric knowledge, but simply and solely the details of a ritual.”  But the reason the rituals were secret was because they included, in a symbolic or encoded way, spiritual doctrines or esoteric knowledge designed to foster mystical experiences and/ or mystical consciousness.  Mysticism thus emerged through rituals oriented toward mythological gods and designed to foster spiritual experiences that led to a transformation in consciousness.

And then along came the Christians.  Bouyer goes to great lengths in his essay to argue that Christianity did not borrow any secret teachings from the pagan religions, although they did borrow the language of the mysteries.  While it is unclear just how the Greek concept of mystery influenced early Christianity, the concept of mystery as “hiddenness” that appears in the New Testament and among the earliest Christian mystics does have an entirely different flavor from the pagan contexts out of which the language of mystery emerged.  The earliest Christian mystics don’t talk about ritual secrets that only initiates can access; rather they talk about secrets that are revealed – through Christ, through the Bible, through the Christian sacraments, and eventually, through personal experiences of the presence of God.

For Christians, mysticism is thus not a static concept.  Rather, it suggests something dynamic – a process, energy, or movement.  It involves a continual tension between what is hidden and what is revealed.  The development of this nuanced sense of the mystical was a long (and ongoing) process within Christianity.

Mysticism and the New Testament

The word “mysticism” never appears in the New Testament.  That is not particularly remarkable, however, for it is not an ancient word.  The word was coined in the eighteenth century, derived from the Greek word mueo, which appears only once in the New Testament, when Paul notes that he has “learned the secret” of what it is like to be both hungry and well fed, (Philippians 4:12).  This mundane use of the word clearly does not give us a lot of insight into the concept of mysticism as we know it.  Of more direct interest to our inquiry is the Greek word musterion, meaning “mystery.”  Various forms of this Greek word appear in twenty-seven passages scattered throughout the New Testament.  Here are some of the key concepts given in those passages:

The secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, (Matthew 13:11).

The proclamation of Jesus Christ is “according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages,” (Roman 16:25).

God’s wisdom is described as “secret and hidden,” (1 Corinthians 2:7).

Christians are “stewards of God’s mysteries,” (1 Corinthians 4:1).

In 1 Corinthians 13 (the famous “love” chapter), Saint Paul notes that, even if he could “understand all mysteries and all knowledge,” if he lacked love, he would be “nothing.”

The Christian belief in life after death is described as a mystery, (1 Corinthians 15:51).

In Ephesians 1:9, the “mystery of God’s will” has according to his good pleasure, been “set forth in Christ.”

In Colossians 1:26-27, the mystery of God is described as hidden throughout the ages, but now revealed; the mystery is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  In Colossians 2:2, “God’s mystery” is described as “Christ himself.”

In the first letter to Timothy, there are references to the “mystery of the faith,” (3:9), and the “mystery of our religion,” (3:16), which is explained in terms of events from the life of Christ.

So what does all this mean?

Certainly, the concept of mystery as it appears in the New Testament does, in some ways, mirror the spirituality of the pagan mystery religions.  But there’s far more to the New Testament’s concept of mystery than just a subtle echo of Greek paganism.  Instead of focusing on the spiritual secrets of a polytheistic god or goddess, the New Testament (or course) focuses entirely on Christ.  Moreover, the emphasis in much of the New Testament is not on secrets kept, but on secrets revealed.  That’s the crucial difference between Christianity and the mystery religions.  Christ himself is the ultimate secret that is revealed.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is through Christ that the ultimate secret is revealed – the secret of the nature of God, the reality of God’s unconditional love for us, and our invitation to partake of God’s divine nature.

In Christ, not only is God revealed; his attributes and actions are as well – his mercy, his grace and love, and his plan for spreading glory and hope throughout the world.  It’s important to keep in mind that Christ is not just some abstract concept that is found in a book or a religious ritual.  The mystery of God is Christ in us.  Not only is God revealed through Christ, but also his presence in Christ is made known intimately to those who believe, because they abide in Christ and Christ abides in them, (John 15:4).

The Charter of Christian Mysticism

The third chapter of Ephesians is probably more important than any other chapter in the Bible for understanding the scriptural basis of Christian mysticism.  The Letter to the Ephesians, traditionally attributed to the Apostle Paul, is one of the shortest, but most lyrical, of the New Testament writings.  Ephesians 3 examines why Christians believe that Jesus came, not just for Israel, but for the entire world – for gentiles as well as for Jews.  Here, Paul speaks of the mystery that was made known to him through revelation and goes on to point out that this mystery “made known by revelation” is, in fact, Christ himself.  Later in the chapter, he maintains that this “mystery of Christ” had been hidden all along” in God who created all things,” (verses 3 through 9).

In its poetic description of the mystery of Christ, this chapter lays the foundation for Christian mystical theology, introducing ideas and beliefs that inspired generations of men and women who sought to unite their lives with the love of God.  Indeed, this single chapter of the New Testament reveals how mysticism was a part of Christianity from the very beginning.  It is the “charter,” if you will, of the Christian tradition of seeking to enter the hidden, loving, and transformative splendor of God.

In the first four verses of the chapter, the author declares that God has entrusted him with a revelation of the mystery of Christ:

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.

Here, “wrote above,” refers to Ephesians 2:22, where Paul describes the mystery of Christ: “in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”  Paul makes the amazing statement that God, in the Spirit, will dwell in us because we, the community of believers in Christ, are “in him.”  We are actually immersed in Christ’s spiritual presence.  So the mystery that Paul is describing can be restated like this: “God is in us, because we are in Christ.”  Here is the spiritual essence of Christianity – Jesus is one with the father, John 10:30); Jesus’s followers are, as a community, the “Body of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 12:27), and in that body dwells the Spirit of God.  It’s a dance, in which God, Christ, and Christians all are immersed in each other’s presence.

The next verses lay out the main point of this chapter.

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

The mystery of Christ is available to all, not just to his Jewish disciples.  In other words, Paul is not so much trying to teach the readers of this letter about mysticism, but rather is pointing out how the truth of the Christian mystery (which would have been understood to his readers, since they were already believers) is not limited to jut one ethnic group.  Even though Paul’s main point is not to describe what the mystery is, he does so nonetheless, providing valuable information for those of us who want to explore the Ultimate Mystery in our lives today.  By explaining “the mystery of Christ,” Paul reveals the heart of Christian mysticism.

Paul goes on to reiterate that his own calling is to spread the good news of Christ to the gentiles.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.  Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.

Here, Paul states a central goal of Christian mysticism: to experience the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.

So that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the Heavenly places.

Paul engages in some subtle humor here.  The ancient church – the community of believers who followed Christ and lived in him – was hardly in a position to instruct the “rulers and authorities” of either Heaven or Earth.  On the contrary, in Paul’s day, Christianity was a marginal religion.  It was some 250 years before it became a socially accepted faith.  What Paul points out here is that Christians, even if they lack any social standing whatsoever, have access to wisdom that proves to be a revelation to both human and spiritual powers (whether they pay attention to Christians or not).  Paul lauds “the wisdom of God in its rich variety,” suggesting that the mystery (of God’s indwelling presence) cannot be reduced to a simple equation or formula.

This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.  I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.

The Apostle colors his subtle but important commentary with political as well as spiritual overtones.  Today, in the United States, we tend to think of God as the ultimate populist – available to everyone, accessible to all.  It may be impossible to set up an appointment with the President of the United States, but the God of all creation is just a prayer away.  Paul reminds us that people did not always have this kind of confidence about approaching God.  In the days of imperial power, God was seen as even less accessible than the emperor.  But Paul depicts Christ as the great demolisher of red tape.  Through Christ, God becomes accessible to everyone.  This was a revolutionary idea that we take for granted today.  It is also a foundational principle at the heart of Christian mysticism.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in Heaven and on Earth takes its name.

Paul then tells us what he himself prays for – that all believers be mystics.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

In a burst of mystical writing to rival (if not surpass) anything that came from the hand of the great mystics centuries later, Paul describes the breadth and depth of the mystery of Christ.  Let’s carefully examine his poetic language:

According to the riches of his glory: What Paul describes here is replete with the beauty, splendor, honor, and praiseworthiness of God.

He may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit: Here’s what is at stake in the mystical life – the opportunity to receive “power,” but internally, which means growing into a dynamic spiritual life, rooted in Christ through his Spirit.

and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith: This powerful spiritual life isn’t just some sort of inner entertainment.  It means actually opening our hearts to receive the presence of Christ, who doesn’t just come for a visit, but rather lives within us.

As you are being rooted and grounded in love: That Christ lives within us means we will be immersed in love, will rest on love, will embrace and be embraced by the fullness of love.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth: This is a mysterious verse.  I suspect Paul here refers to the love of Christ and/ or the fullness of God, which he goes on to mention.

And to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge: Paul declares that the love of Christ (which is what has just taken up residence in our hearts) surpasses knowledge (the Greek word is gnosis).  Whatever we may comprehend or “know” in terms of God’s presence in our lives will be only a tiny fraction of what is truly being offered to us in the Mystery.

So that you may be filled with all the fullness of God: This is true union with God.  In other words, Paul promises that the mystery of Christ leads to a glorious end that so many mystics since have described – union with God, a beatific vision, communion with the Holy Trinity, deification, to be filled with the utter fullness of God.

Paul acknowledges that the mystery of Christ (i.e., mysticism) emerges from the “inner self,” where “Christ may dwell, rooted and grounded in love.”  We are given the ability to grasp all the dimensions of this supernatural love, thereby integrating heart and mind in a unitive experience.  “To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”  Yes, this is ineffable (it can’t be put into words) – a knowledge beyond knowledge.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.

This stirring conclusion simply offers praise to the One in whom we are mystically united.  But in offering this praise, Paul notes that Christ immerses us in his mystery on a level far beyond “all we can ask or imagine” – in other words, as good as you think union with God in Christ can be, it is far, far better than that.

Alfred North Whitehead once suggested that all of Western philosophy is little more than an extensive collection of footnotes to Plato.  The more I read Ephesians 3, the more convinced I am that the entire sweep of Christian mysticism is, likewise, simply 2,000 years’ worth of annotations on this chapter, accumulated as generation after generation has sought to explore the radiant splendor of the mystery it describes – the mystery of the indwelling presence of God in Christ, experienced in communion with other Christians, something that can be powerfully known and yet is ultimately beyond knowledge, for its true nature is love.

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