From The Big Book of Christian Mysticism
You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (John 15:3)
All mystic charisms are worthless compared to the love of God.
They are as a string of pearls adorning a hungry infant who does not heed the pearls
but only wants his mother’s breast. (Macarius the Egyptian)
For those who have a sense of God’s presence in their lives, who enjoy a natural bent toward spirituality or a strong commitment to religion, or who simply enjoy the history of ideas, mysticism is a fascinating subject in its own right. Others without an innate attraction to the topic, however, may be asking themselves: “What’s the point? Does mysticism really make a difference? How can it make life better?”
As we begin to answer these questions, think about mysticism in the context of Christianity as a whole. Christianity, in its best and highest form, is a religion that proclaims Good News (the literal meaning of “gospel”). Therefore, any mysticism embedded within Christianity is, likewise, a conduit for Good News, and this gospel is not just for those who like to meditate or ponder the inscrutable mysteries of God. It’s also (and maybe even especially) for those who suffer, for those who have difficulty believing in God, for those who think that God is just some sort of angry bully in the sky. It’s good news for the rich as well as the poor, for the healthy as well as the afflicted.
Like the larger Christian gospel, the “gospel of mysticism” can take different forms for different people. Sometimes, it is a kind voice of reassurance; sometimes, it is a voice that challenges and even confronts. Regardless of the various tones it may take, however, it always points to a promise to make life better and open our hearts to love. Mysticism is always a force for real, results-oriented transformation, a force for making a difference in the world.
The Promise of Mysticism
Based on the witness of all the great mystics over 2,000 years of Christian history, the message of mysticism can be reduced to a single paragraph:
God is love. God loves all of us and wants us to experience abundant life. This means abiding in love – love of God, and love of neighbors as ourselves. Through prayer and worship, meditation, and silence, we can commune with God, experience his presence, have our consciousness transformed by his Spirit, participate in his loving nature, and be healed and renewed in that love. This new life (what the New Testament calls “the mind of Christ”) will not only bring us joy and happiness (even when we suffer), but also will empower us to be ambassadors for God, to bring God’s love and joy and happiness to others. There is much work to be done, and the task is overwhelming. Even our own need is very great, for we tend to resist God’s love, even as we hunger for it. Yet God continually calls us back to his love and continually empowers us to face the challenge of bringing hope to our broken world.
This message is nothing new. In fact, most of it comes straight from the Bible (1 John 4:16, Matthew 22:36-39, John 10:10, Philippians 2:5, and Philippians 4:13). Mysticism’s promise – the promise of lives transformed by divine love – seems to some, however, to be simply too good to be true. Can we really believe that God is love? Can we really trust the love of God to make our lives better? Is the premise of mysticism simply too good to be true?
Why do we find it so hard to believe that this Ultimate Mystery we call God – the infinite force / intelligence responsible for the ongoing creation and evolution of the entire cosmos – is intimately, passionately, and personally in love with each and every one of us here on this tiny planet whirling away at the edge of a relatively small galaxy? And there’s more to this than some sort of abstract love affair. God’s love is more than just love from afar. The love of God flows out from him; it is poured lavishly on his creation, ready to flow into the heart of any creature willing to receive it. Not only does this transcendent being, this supreme consciousness, and fountain of love, long to give itself in beauty and grace to each individual creature, but we are actually invited, in and through our creatureliness, to participate in the fullness of that divine love. And this is the message of mysticism.
To “participate” in God’s love means to receive that love, to live in and within it, and, in a true and real way, to be love. Christian mysticism spirals out from a profound wisdom found in and through the story of Jesus of Nazareth. This wisdom tradition proclaims that the source of infinite love and power and consciousness is not some impersonal force, but rather an impossible-to-understand confluence of unity and community embodied in the Holy Trinity. In the faltering limitation of language, we say “one God, three persons.” In this mystery, we find God the Father (the ground of being, the fount of creation, the source of sources), God the Son (Jesus, who lived and died among us, then rose from death and ascended into Heaven), and God the Holy Spirit (the spirit of love and comfort and advocacy that strengthens the community of God’s lovers and knits us all together into the one Body of Christ). This triune deity pours love into us in an infinite variety of ways: as the parent loves the child, as a friend loves a friend, as a spouse loves a spouse, and as artists love their masterpieces.
The love that God gives you (and invites you to embody) is meant to be expressed in three ways, as Jesus himself pointed out: to love God with all your heart and all your soul, to love your neighbor as yourself, and, therefore, to love yourself. (Mark 12:30-31) Just as each person of the Holy Trinity is an essential part of God, so is each dimension of this triune nature of love to give itself away, and so God pours divine love into you so that you may more truly, fully, and wholly return that love to God, even as you love your neighbor as lavishly as you love yourself.
The amazing premise of Christian mysticism is that, when God loves you, he transforms you into love; when God loves you, he gives the fullness of his Divinity to you and, through you, back to God and to others and indeed, to all creation. When you are called to partake of the divine nature, you are called to be loved, to love, and to be love. You thereby join in the most amazing of cosmic dances, a dance of joy and fullness, of healing and restoration, of light and rest and delight, that will give you the entire cosmos forever and ever.
Mysticism and Cynicism
Ours is a world that has decided that mysticism is actually kind of dangerous – a retreat from reality into fantasy, a thumb-sucking, naval-gazing way of compensating for how much life hurts. We’ve become too sophisticated to buy into all this “God is love” nonsense. Non-Christians can be particularly pessimistic about the message of the mystics and compare it, to its detriment, to the scandalous behavior that all too often characterizes Christian society. How can a judgmental and exclusionary religion be a conduit for divine love?
And so, faced with a cynicism that parades itself as realism, we turn away from what mysticism offers us. We turn our gaze away from Heaven and back to Earth. Ours is a world that busily (some would say frantically) offers a variety of lesser destinies. Thanks to the dominance of a strictly empirical / scientific worldview, Western society sees life strictly in terms of the verifiable – “only what can be scientifically proves is real.” In other words, we live a finite mortal existence in an environment with limited resources, where we participate in biological processes for eighty or ninety years, and then we die. Life seen like this is all about limits, so we need to make the most of what little we’ve got. This worldview dismisses all spiritual beliefs (including mysticism) as merely wishful thinking. In other words, the mystical vision of an eternal dance of loving communion is simply too good to be true.
This pessimistic view of reality may find favor among atheists and those who insist that only what can be measured is real, but, ultimately, it’s a pretty miserable way to view the world. In fact, it really only makes sense for the small percentage of human beings who live a life of material comfort and leisure – and even those who enjoy the best pleasures that the Earth has to offer sooner or later discover that the limitations of that life eventually win. We always lose our health, our relationships, our very lives. Buddha said: “Life is suffering.” And we know that ignoring that suffering neither makes it go away nor makes it easier to bear.
Human beings simply don’t like limits, whether these are the physical limits of a life that inevitably includes suffering and death, or the ideological limits of a worldview that tells us “this is all there is.” Consequently, various spiritual theories have emerged over the ages and around the world that seek to answer the question of life’s greater meaning. Many of these spiritual narratives are beautiful and inspiring, although some contain their own hidden limits.
One popular idea holds that all material existence is an illusion, and that the only thing that truly exists is one, single, solitary being. You and I and everyone else are only projections or masks that this one being wears in order to create the illusion of separate entities. On the surface, this is a beguiling idea, because it basically claims that you are God (and so is everyone else.) The theory begins to lose its appeal, however, when you carry it to its logical conclusion. If I am God, and everything else is an illusion, then I am all alone. What’s the point of being God if you have no one to share your deity – no one to love? Sounds pretty lonely to me.
By contrast, the bold claim of Christian mysticism is not merely that we “are” God, but rather that we participate in God – a subtle but crucial distinction. God remains God, I remain me, you remain you, and we all love each other. We exist in each other, through each other, in union and communion, here in the beauty of the present moment – and for all of the ever-expansiveness of eternity. That, Christian mysticism dares to assert, is the ultimate promise of life. It promises the same ecstasy and joy that the all-things-are-God theory claims, but its promised bliss is grounded in relational love – a love that ultimately has no limits, either in space or in time. “Eternity,” the word Christians use to describe the locus of God, transcends the physical limitations of space and time.
Christian mysticism makes this bold claim: What appears to be naïve folly in purely human terms is bracingly and joyfully possible in terms of the Divine. Possibility in God is a theme that appears frequently in the Bible. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) Nothing is impossible: not even the amazing destiny of love-in-divine-communion that Christian mysticism promises. Traditionally, this has been called the “Beatific Vision.” A Trappist monk I know dismisses that term because it implies stasis. “Heaven is not a spectator sport,” he insists. He suggests that a better way to describe our ultimate destiny in God is as a “Beatifying Communion.” I rather like to think of it as “living in Heaven Consciousness.”
And the amazing truth of Christian mysticism is that this vision, this communion, this consciousness is available to all of us – right here, right now. You can begin to live in Heaven Consciousness today.
There is a cost, however. Although you don’t have to surrender your Earthly life to embrace the Beatifying Communion, you do have to “die” in a figurative sense. Christianity has traditionally called this symbolic death a “dying to self.” Some describe it as the death of the ego – that small, self-absorbed tendency we have to prefer control over love. When you offer God all the parts of yourself that prefer control or pride or anger to love, you begin the process of dying-to-self. It’s not something that happens in an instant, and it’s not always painless. But the Christian faith insists that this death leads to a resurrection. When I die to myself, I rise to Christ – which is another way of saying that I rise to new life, in love.
So is all this too good to be true? This is not just a rhetorical question. It is the question on which everything hangs. If you decide that the promise of Christian mysticism is too good to be true, then, at a fundamental level, you are deciding that life is not, ultimately, about love. But if the essence of life is not love, then what is it? One common response to this question is that life is all about power (“the person who dies with the most toys wins”). Another is that life is all about knowledge and / or awareness and ability are important keys to a life well lived, but if you organize your life around either of these principles, then you miss out on love – or, at best, experience only a limited, finite love.
On the other hand, if you dare to believe that the ultimate meaning, destiny, and purpose of life is to love and be loved in expanding, eternal divine / human communion – if you dare to believe this is true – then everything changes, literally, immediately, and everlastingly. Despair and cynicism no longer reign. Hatred, prejudice, oppression, and cruelty lose their final claim over your life; such things are nothing more than problems that must be overcome. Granted, if you give your life to love, you become responsible for cleaning up your own mess. And you take on that responsibility because you believe there is a reason and a purpose for doing so.
What I am talking about here is deeply countercultural. Few people – even those who are supposedly committed to a spiritual or religious life – accept the idea that life is totally and radically about love. We’re too dazzled by the competing claims that life is all about power, or all about position or prestige, or all about knowledge, or all about bliss or fun. When you orient your life to love, however, you discover that you can attain a loving measure of all these other things as well (see Matthew 6:33). When you orient your life to anything other than love, no matter what you gain, you risk losing out on the fullness of love.
The beauty of Christian mysticism lies in its promise that, by choosing love over all the other potential blessings that life can give us, we are embracing the best possible life; a life in which all blessings can flow, but always in accordance with love.
Love Is the Key
Simply put, mysticism – at least, Christian mysticism – is all about love. To explore Christian mysticism basically means to explore love. It’s an invitation to join the noblest of human aspirations. Love has inspired poets and philosophers for as long as human beings have enjoyed telling a good story. Without love, we would have no Romeo and Juliet, no Tristan and Isolde, no Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, no Wandering Aengus and the Glimmering Girl – and, for that matter, no Song of Songs, no Jacob and Rachel, no Ruth and Boaz. Whether the topic is love won or lost, love thwarted or misunderstood, comic romance or passionate tragedy, there is nothing so fundamentally human as a good story about love. And mysticism is just that. It is the greatest of love stories. And that’s why it matters.
That’s why people like you and me are drawn to mysticism. For some, mysticism may be a “head trip,” but for most, it’s a “heart trip” – a journey into the sacred nature of love.
We are all breathing miracles, living clay with a carefully calibrated capacity to give and receive love. And no matter how that may play out on a human level – for human love, of course, can take many forms and can be joyous or heartbreaking – this thing called mysticism dares to proclaim that you, and I, and everyone else who has ever been given a beating heart and a wondering mind, have all been invited to immerse ourselves in an immediate, experiential, life-transforming relationship with the very Source of Love in its purest, most original, foundational form. Christians call that Source of Love “God” and we find God in Jesus Christ, made real and visible and accessible to everyone.
Christian mysticism is grounded in this love. The teachings of the great mystics speculate on the nature of this love, where it came from, and why we believe it is accessible to us all. Mystical wisdom about love is recorded in the autobiographies and memoirs of Christian contemplatives and visionaries who – great and ordinary, ancient and medieval, modern and postmodern, male and female, young and old, educated and not so educated – all tell about how this love surprised them, pursued them, filled their awareness with breathtaking visions and heart-rending suffering, demanded almost superhuman sacrifices, and yet overflowed with unspeakable joys.
As we discover not only the stories of the great mystics, but also our own stories, and the stories of our friends and neighbors and others who have heard the whispered call from the Ultimate Mystery, we sense intuitively that we each have something to say directly and intimately to each other. For Christian mysticism does not belong in a library or a museum. It belongs in beating hearts and meditative minds. I believe that, even though there is tremendous diversity among the great mystics of Christianity, at the heart of all their lives they are telling the same story. And I believe that we each represent, at least in potential, a new chapter in that story, a new verse in the eternal song. The great story of God’s love resides in our hearts, just waiting to be given yet another new and unique form of expression.
Christian mysticism encompasses 2,000 years of wisdom that shows you how to open your heart to the possibility of receiving this love, to conducting your life in a manner that is both honorable and worthy of it. Through this wisdom, you learn how your mind and heart can perceive and receive the overtures of this love as it comes to you in an infinite and unpredictable variety of ways. In other words, the writings of the great mystics include instructions on how to live a mystical life – a faithful life, a holy life, a life in which we strive to become saints even while we humbly learn to accept that, ultimately, we have no control over just how “mystical” our experience or our God-awareness may be. When you become an acolyte of mysticism, you learn how to pray, to meditate, to contemplate, to read the Bible and other sacred writings in a divine way, to serve and to sacrifice, to open your heart with hospitality for the world even while you somehow realize that you are, ultimately, the citizen of another country.
That’s why mysticism matters.