MYSTICISM: The Evolution Of Christian Mysticism by Carl McColman

The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality

The Evolution Of Christian Mysticism by Carl McColman

From The Big Book of Christian Mysticism

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.  God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:16)

I have found Heaven on Earth, since Heaven is God, and God is in my soul.  The day I understood this, everything became luminous in me, and I wish to tell this secret to those I love, discretely. (Elizabeth of the Trinity)

The basics of Christian thought put forth in the New Testament are foundational to all subsequent Christian mysticism.  In their time, these interpretations of spirituality were the religious equivalent of dynamite.  They emerge out of the revolutionary concept that a flesh-and-blood human being, Jesus of Nazareth, was actually the revealed presence of God, the creator of the universe, the source of love, and the sustainer of all life.  In Jesus, the mystery and hidden secrets of God were made known.

In other words, Jesus was not just a teacher or faith healer, or even a gifted prophet.  He is the embodiment of God with a capital “G” – a God who, unlike pagan deities, was a God of infinite power.  Jesus, the New Testament maintains, is the incarnation of the fullness of God.  His followers become part of the “Body of Christ,” which means we become “embodiments of God” as well.

In the early years of Christian spirituality, this notion of mystery – of the secrets of God, formerly hidden, now revealed – was applied not only to Jesus as the revealer of God, but also to the sacred writings of the Jewish people: the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians now call the Old Testament.  Some of the earliest Christian mystics – including Clement of Alexandria, (ca. 150–216); Origen, also from Alexandria, (ca. 185–254); and Gregory of Nyssa, (fourth century) – all made names for themselves by their ability to discern the hidden secrets of God in scripture.

And what did they find hidden in the scriptures?  Beyond the plain meaning of the text, they found symbolic and allegorical “clues” to the hidden activity of God.

For these early Christian mystics, the Hebrew Scriptures were encoded with hints that pointed to the coming of Christ.  Some of these hints were explicit, as when the prophet Isaiah foretells the coming of the Messiah.  But others were more subtle, as in the Song of Songs, a love poem that has been interpreted as mystically symbolic of Christ’s love for the church.

From our vantage point today, this early Christian approach to scripture – investigating ancient writings to find evidence of God’s working by discerning prophetic hints about Christ – appears quaint and naïve.  To the early Christians, who did not enjoy the same scholarly understanding of the Hebrew writings that we know today, it made sense.  If God’s presence were perfectly revealed in Jesus, wouldn’t his secrets be hidden, like Easter eggs, in the sacred writings, just waiting to be discovered?  This is the line of thinking that inspire the early Christian mystics to read the Bible in an effort to find God’s hidden purpose.

Out of this foundation of scripture interpretation emerged the quest to comprehend the mystery of God.  In the early centuries of the church, Christians struggled to make sense of their experience of Christ as both the Son of Man, (Matthew 8:20), and the Son of God, (Matthew 27:43) – and also, as One with God, (John 10:30).  Likewise, the early believers wrestled with Jesus’s promise that he would send the Holy Spirit of God, (John 15:26), which pointed to “God the Father,” “Christ,” and the “Holy Spirit,” as three different “faces” of God.  This, in turn, had to be reconciled with the profound belief that God is One, (Deuteronomy 6:4).  Christians squared the Oneness of God with the apparent “Threeness” of the Father, the Son,  and the Holy Spirit in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which celebrates One God in Three Persons.  This complex concept was acknowledged by Christians as early as Cyril of Alexandria, (ca. 378–444), as “supremely ineffable and mystical.”  In other words, it’s a concept so mysterious, a truth so hidden, that it is beyond the capacity of human language to contain it.

Enacting the (Christian) Mysteries

There’s more to Christianity than just words, ideas, thoughts, teachings, and concepts, just as there’s more to mysticism than abstract ideas.  As a mystical faith, Christianity is not in the business of merely thinking and talking about Christ.  Rather, it’s all about relating to Christ, and making that relationship real in people’s lives.  It’s about encountering Christ, experiencing his presence, and allowing him to heal and transform the lives of believers.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that, in the early centuries of the church, Christianity developed not only mystical doctrines, but also mystical rites – liturgical events played out in the lives of believers that anchored their mystical faith in down-to-Earth ceremonies and actions, using material objects to signify and convey spiritual realities.  Baptism and the Eucharist are two of these rites.

The Eucharist, also called Holy Communion, is the ritualized meal mandated by Jesus the night before he died.  It was at this “Last Supper” that Christ said of bread, “This is my body,” and of wine, “This is my blood.”  Eventually, Christians developed a rich and poetic language to describe this simple act.  Unfortunately, over time, this rite also became the subject of divisions and disagreements that separated Christians from one another.  What is important for our purposes here is to note that the Fathers of the church saw Communion as a mystery – a locus where that which is hidden or secret (in this case, the true presence of Christ) became revealed.  The Eucharist thus became an important component of the mystical element of Christianity.  Nilus of Sinai (early fifth century) called Communion the “mystical bread,” but also the “mystical body” – a term that eventually came to be used to desribe the entire Christian people.  Around the same time, John Chrysostom referred to Communion as “mystical food” and a “mystical banquet.”

While Holy Communion, with its emphasis on the presence of Christ, became the central ritual of the ancient Christians, it was by no means the only mystical rite.  Eventually, other liturgical acts – the initiation of newcomers to the faith through the ceremonial washing of Holy Baptism, the marking of believers with chrism (blessed oil) to signify the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and pastoral rituals like marriage, confirmation, and the anointing of the sick – were recognized as conduits by which the grace and presence of God was realized in the lives of believers.  These rituals, which all make the hidden reality of God known, became known in the West as sacraments – a word that means “consecrated act.”  Among the orthodox Christians of the East, however, these sacraments are called by a different name: mysteries.

When ancient Christians spoke of the mystical dimension of their faith, they not only acknowledged that the secrets of God had been revealed (through Christ, through the Bible, through the Eucharist), but also proclaimed that the presence of God was made manifest through these things.  This led to the fullest flowering of the Christian understanding of mysticism – that it involves a conscious experience of the presence of God.  Not just a nice, cozy feeling that God exists and therefore all is right with the world, but a feel-it-in-your-bones, more-real-than-real encounter with God’s here-and-now presence.  This experience is, paradoxically, something more profound than mere human experience.  It is conscious experience – even though it’s bigger than human consciousness – which means that a mystic may only be aware of just how unconscious he or she is of God.

Narrating the Mysteries

By the Middle Ages, Christians who underwent profound experiences of God were committing their stories to writing.  Some were visionaries, like Julian of Norwich, (1342–ca. 1416), who received detailed and highly symbolic visions of the life of Christ and the Heavenly banquet.  Others, like Francis of Assisi, (ca. 1182–1226), received the stigmata, wounds in the hands and feet that echoed the wounds Christ suffered at the crucifixion.  Still others were gifted teachers who, like Meister Eckhart, (ca. 1260–1328), revealed a profound sense of God’s presence through their sermons and writings.  In the East, Symeon the New Theologian, (949–1022), underwent profound changes of consciousness through the indwelling of the Spirit, which he experienced as a presence marked by fire and light, while Gregory Palamas, (1296–1359), advocated hesychasm, a spiritual exercise that seeks the conscious presence of God through continual prayer.  By the sixteenth century, as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance and the birth of the modern work, Teresa of Ávila, (1515–1582), and John of the Cross, (1542–1591), wrote at length about their contemplative experiences and about how the mystical life entailed an uncompromising commitment to prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and holiness.

John and Teresa lived in the tumultuous age of the Protestant Reformation, which forever changed the landscape of Western Christianity.  A culture of suspicion developed among both Catholics and Protestants against the idea of personal experience of God.  In the Roman Catholic world, obedience to the church became the standard by which faithfulness was measured; in the Protestant world, obedience to the Bible played a similar role.  In other words, both sides of the Reformation conflict began to promote a behavioral rather than experiential approach to spirituality.  Instead of fostering a spirituality based on encountering the presence of God, Christianity (at least, in the West) became increasingly focused on behavioral markers like obedience to authority and moral rectitude as the benchmark of a “good” Christian life.

Ironically, it is in this context that the word “mysticism” finally emerges (the earliest use of the word documented in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1736).

The Rehabilitation of Mysticism

By the end of the Middle Ages, all the various elements of the spirituality of mystery had come together in the beautiful writings of mystics who recounted their personal experiences of the presence of God, the love of God, and even union with God.  Between the Reformation and the rise of modern science, however, mysticism suddenly became disreputable.  Within the established churches, the spirituality of personal experience was ignored as religion became more focused on morality and obedience to authority.  Then modern science, with its comprehensive rejection of all religious thinking as irrational, seemed to seal mysticism’s fate.

Why, then, has mysticism refused to die?

Even though inner experiential spirituality fell out of favor in the centuries following the Reformation, people didn’t stop having profound experiences of the presence of God, or even union with God.  In fact, every generation has continued to produce mystics and contemplatives.  Over the past few centuries, some of these figures were denounced as heretics for instance, the Roman Catholic Jeanne Guyon and the Protestant Jakob Böhme while others, like Thérèse of Lisieux and Jonathan Edwards, expressed their mystical tendencies as part of their scrupulous religious observance.  In the Eastern Orthodox churches, which were relatively uninfluenced by either the Reformation of the scientific revolution’s critique of spirituality, mysticism continued to thrive, fueled by the publication of a profound multi-volume anthology of mystical texts, The Philokalia, as well as the success of a popular nineteenth-century Russian spiritual book, The Way of a Pilgrim.  Meanwhile, new and alternative movements within Christianity kept the mystical flame lit, such as the Society of Friends (the Quakers), who advocated a mystical spirituality and taught that God’s “inner light” shone within all people.  When Christians sat together in silence, they claimed, God could use anyone present to deliver his message.

In the twentieth century, experiential spirituality got a boost with the emergence of Pentecostalism, also known as the Charismatic Renewal.  In worship marked by ecstatic singing and dancing, Pentecostals joyfully seek communion with God through the Holy Spirit, who, in turn, blesses believers with spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues.  A generation later, increasing numbers of Christians throughout the West began to explore the wisdom of Eastern spirituality, from the Sufi mysticism of Islam to Yoga, Vedanta, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism.  They brought a new level of legitimacy to the idea that Christianity should return to its core mystical spirituality.

Ultimately, scholars and thinkers began to take mysticism seriously as a field of study.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mysticism caught the interest of theologians like William Ralph Inge and Friedrich von Hügel, and of psychologists like William James and popular religious writers like Evelyn Underhill.  This revival eventually filtered into the Christian mainstream, where it united with the interest in Eastern spirituality that had emerged in the mid-twentieth century.

The twentieth century also featured efforts to translate the writings of the great mystics into English many for the first time thereby making this wisdom available to everyone in the English-speaking world.  The Vatican II Council in the 1960s launched a new effort to encourage laypeople to embrace the fullness of Christian spirituality an effort that impacted Roman Catholic, as well as Protestant and Anglican, circles.  Finally, the arrival of the Internet and the World Wide Web made a wide range of resources available to Christian spiritual seekers, from the texts of great mystical writings, to websites explaining practices like lectio divina and contemplative prayer, to retreats scheduled by monasteries and convents.  All of these converging streams made the widespread exploration of experiential Christianity even more available to ordinary Christian men and women.

Mystery and Revelation

Thus we can trace the evolution of mysticism through the many shades of meaning that the words associated with it “mystery,” “mystic,” and “mystical” have taken on over the centuries.  Mystery, as a religious or spiritual concept, originally had to do with religious rituals or ceremonies designed to impart secret spiritual teachings.  With the transition from pagan to Christian usage, the concept of spiritual mystery kept its notion of “secrets taught,” but took on a slightly more democratic notion that of “the hidden things of God revealed.”  This is the predominant meaning of mystery found in the Bible.

Beginning with the New Testament and extending into the writings of the early church fathers, Christianity proclaimed Christ himself as the incarnation of the Word of God in other words, the revelation of the Ultimate Mystery.  He is the manifestation of God in human form, the Word of God made flesh, the secret of God’s love made freely available to all.  Thus, from the beginning, Christianity proclaimed a message that is thoroughly mystical, which is to say, beyond the ability of language to describe or the human mind to understand fully.  This mystical message became codified in teachings such as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

From early on in the history of the faith, Christians performed ceremonies with a mystical dimension, embodying and revealing the hidden things of God.  The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, invites partakers to a mystical experience in which Christ becomes present in the bread and wine, and, in this mystery, is united with those who commune.  By the Middle Ages and into the modern era, increasing numbers of individual Christians began to write and teach others about their own unique and remarkable experiences of visions, ecstasies, miracles, and raptures, all pointing back to the heart of mysticism: the experience of the divine presence and of union of God.  Many historians of Christian spirituality regard the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries as the Golden Age of mysticism.  In the wake of the fracturing of Western Christianity by the Protestant Reformation and the rise of modern science, however, mysticism became an object of suspicion or ridicule a problem that remains to this day, even though, by the end of the twentieth century, mysticism was more widely accepted within Christianity than it had been for centuries.

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