MYSTICISM: The Nature Of Mysticism—A Heuristic Sketch (Part One) by Bernard McGinn

The Nature Of Mysticism—A Heuristic Sketch (Part One) by Bernard McGinn

From The Foundations of Mysticism

According to the great mystical Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Ávila:

I used sometimes, as I have said, to experience in an elementary form, and very fleetingly, what I shall now describe.  When picturing Christ in the way I have mentioned, and sometimes even when reading, I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God of such a kind that I could not possibly doubt that he was within me or that I was wholly engulfed in him.  This was in no sense a vision: I believe that it is called mystical theology.

This quotation from Teresa’s Vida, or, Life, introduces some of the major issues that govern the account of mysticism to be presented in these volumes, especially the consciousness of the divine presence.  But I would like to begin from the perhaps curious fact that Teresa identifies this conscious presence with mystical theology, and between mystical experience and its theological interpretation.  Evelyn Underhill, for instance, in differentiating true mystics from those philosophers (and, we may add, theologians) who reflect on mystical experience, said of the latter, “They are no more mystics than the milestones on the Dover Road are travelers to Calais.”  This bon mot masks an important misconception that has plagued the modern study of mysticism.  Although it may be possible to make theoretical distinctions between mysticism and mystical theology, I believe that it is dangerous to separate the two in the history of Christianity.

The fact that the term “mystical theology” antedated the coining of the term “mysticism” by over a millennium points us in the right direction for appreciating the complex and unbreakable bonds between mysticism conceived of as a religious way of life and mystical theology.  Mystical theology has often been understood in terms of misleading models of a simple distinction between experience and understanding that do justice neither to the texts of the mystics nor to the complexities of the relations between experience and understanding that modern epistemological and cognitional theories have presented to us.  Mystical theology is not some form of epiphenomenon, a shell or covering that can be peeled off to reveal the “real” thing.  The interactions between conscious acts and their symbolic and theoretical thematizations are much more complex than that, as the following volumes will try to show.  Rather than being something added on to mystical experience, mystical theory in most cases precedes and guides the mystic’s whole way of life.

Those who define mysticism in terms of a certain type of experience of God often seem to forget that there can be no direct access to experience for the historian.  Experience as such is not a part of the historical record.  The only thing directly available to the historian or historical theologian is the evidence, largely in the form of written records, left to us by the Christians of former ages.  Until recent years, overconcentration on the highly ambiguous notion of mystical experience has blocked careful analysis of the special hermeneutics of mystical texts, which have usually been treated without attention to genre, audience, structure, and even the simplest procedures for elucidating study of the text.  Mystical masterpieces, which are often close to poetry in the ways in which they concentrate and alter language to achieve their ends, have all too often been treated like phone books or airline schedules: handy sources for confirming what we already expect.

A recognition of the interdependence of experience and interpretation can help avoid some of the false problems evident in scholarship on mysticism.  The emphasis on mystical experience has led not only to neglect of mystical hermeneutics but also to an emphasis on first-person, autobiographical accounts of special visionary or unitive experiences of God.  First-person accounts are rare in the first millennium of Christian mysticism, for reasons that will appear in this volume.  Debates about whether authors like the Pseudo-Dionysius were “really” mystics because they lack such accounts are sterile.  Authors whose “autobiographical” statements were found to be based on prior literary sources (the most famous example is Augustine’s dependence on Plotinus in the Ostia vision described at the end of the ninth book of the Confessions) also have had their mystical credentials questioned or withdrawn.  Much of this confusion and unproductive debate could be avoided by a more nuanced understanding of the textually and theologically mediated nature of all Christian mysticism.  Theologically speaking, the issue is not, Was this person really a mystic because he or she claims to have had the kind of experience I define as mystical? but, What is the significance of her or his writings, autobiographically mystical or not, in the history of Christian mysticism?

It is also important, as far as possible, to try to see mysticism against the broader historical development of the Christian religion.  In the history of Christian mysticism one neglects the wider context only at the cost of missing important elements of the significance of the phenomenon.  The paradoxical intersection of the timeless and time implied in the mystery of the Incarnation is nowhere more evident than in the ways in which “timeless” mystical consciousness of God’s presence has been conditioned by changes and developments in the church and in society at large.  For example, the mystical piety of the fathers and mothers of the desert cannot be understood apart from monasticism seen as an institutional response to significant shifts in the religious climate of late antiquity.  Again, radically new features present in the mysticism of the thirteenth century need to be understood within the context of important social upheavals in medieval civilization and their effect upon the fabric of Christendom.  Though these volumes will be primarily a history of theological ideas, a study of the ways in which the direct consciousness of God’s presence has been fostered and understood in the history of Western Christianity, they will try, at least in minimal fashion, to note key elements in the historical background that affected these conceptions.

If mysticism needs to be understood contextually, and if the mystical text and its place in the tradition – not mystical experience (whatever it may be) – are the primary objects of study, we must still ask what mysticism is.  The final part of the fourth volume of this series, as mentioned above, is intended to present a more complete and constructive understanding based on the history of Christian mysticism, especially in the Latin West.  But in the spiral of historical understanding (to use H.-I. Marrou’s phrase), it is important to present here at the outset at least a preliminary and heuristic notion of what I mean by mysticism.

Rather than trying to define mysticism (any simple definition of such a complex and controversial phenomenon seems utopian), I prefer to give a sense of how I understand the term by discussing it under three headings: mysticism as a part or element of religion; mysticism as a process or way of life; and mysticism as an attempt to express a direct consciousness of the presence of God.

It was perhaps the greatest insight of Friedrich Baron von Hügel’s great book, The Mystical Element of Religion, to emphasize that mysticism is only one part or element of a concrete religion and any particular religious personality.  No mystics (at least before the present century) believed in or practiced “mysticism.”  They believed in and practiced Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism), that is, religions that contained mystical elements as parts of a wider historical whole.  These elements, which involve both beliefs and practices, can be more or less important to the wider body of believers.  They also can be present in varying degrees of intensity and development.  When they reach a level of fully explicit formulation and paramount importance for certain adherents of the religion, I would argue that we can speak of mysticism proper, though even then mysticism is inseparable from the larger whole.  Thus, in the history of early Christian mysticial elements presented in this volume, I will argue that there have been mystical elements present in the Christian religion from its origins but that the first great tradition of explicit mysticism came to birth when a theory of mysticism first fully laid out by Origen in the third century found institutional embodiment in the new phenomenon of monasticism in the fourth century.  This combination characterizes the first stage, or layer, in the history of Christian mysticism spoken of above.

Second, it is important to remember that mysticism is always a process or a way of life.  Although the essential note – or, better, goal – of mysticism may be conceived of as a particular kind of encounter between God and the human, between Infinite Spirit and the finite human spirit, everything that leads up to and prepares for this encounter, as well as all that flows from or is supposed to flow from it for the life of the individual in the belief community, is also mystical, even if in a secondary sense.  Isolation of the goal from the process and the effect has led to much misunderstanding of the nature of mysticism and its role as an element of concrete religions.

This goal, essential characteristic, or defining note has most often been seen as the experience of some form of union with God, particularly a union of absorption or identity in which the individual personality is lost.  If we define mysticism in this sense, there are actually so few mystics in the history of Christianity that one wonders why Christians used the qualifier “mystical” so often (from the late second century on) and eventually created the term “mysticism” (first in French, “la mystique”) in the seventeenth century.  This suggests that at the very least, it is necessary to expand the notion of union, recognizing that there were several, perhaps even many, understandings of union with God held by Christians over the centuries.

But it may also be argued that union with God is not the most central category for understanding mysticism.

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