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

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

From The Foundations of Mysticism

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

Inspired in part by the seminal work of Joseph Maréchal, but especially by my reading of the texts that have been accepted as mystical classics in the history of Christianity, both East and West, I have come to find the term “presence” a more central and more useful category for grasping the unifying note in the varieties of Christian mysticism.  Thus we can say that the mystical element in Christianity is that part of its belief and practices that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the reaction to what can be described as the immediate or direct presence of God.

The ways in which this special form of encounter with God have been understood are multiple.  One thing that all Christian mystics have agreed on is that the experience in itself defies conceptualization and verbalization, in part or in whole.  Hence, it can only be presented indirectly, partially, by a series of verbal strategies in which language is used not so much informationally as transformationally, that is, not to convey a content but to assist the hearer or reader to hope for or to achieve the same consciousness.  Even those mystics who have paradoxically insisted on “strong” ineffability have tried to use all the resources of language – and often to create new ones – to assist this transformative process.  From this perspective, it comes as no surprise that union is only one of the host of models, metaphors, or symbols that mystics have employed in their accounts.  Many have used it, but few have restricted themselves to it.  Among the other major mystical categories are those of contemplation and the vision of God, deification, the birth of the Word in the soul, ecstasy, even perhaps radical obedience to the present divine will.  All of these can be conceived of as different but complementary ways of presenting the consciousness of direct presence.

A full explanation of this broad and flexible understanding of mysticism must await the final volume, but the reader is owed at least a brief comment here on my understanding of the crucial terms “consciousness,” “presence,” and “direct” or “immediate.”

Much of the modern discussion of mysticism, of which I have tried to present some key moments in the appendix to this volume, has revolved around the analysis of the nature and kinds of mystical experience.  There are reasons for thinking that this discussion has reached an impasse.  Part of this, at least, seems due to the imprecision and ambiguity of the term “experience,” which many investigators scarcely bother to define – as if they were sure that everyone has the same thing in mind when the term is used.  The term mystical experience, consciously or unconsciously, also tends to place emphasis on special altered states – visions, locutions, raptures, and the like – which admittedly have played a large part in mysticism but which many mystics have insisted do not constitute the essence of the encounter with God.  Many of the greatest Christian mystics (think of Origen, Meister Eckhart, and John of the Cross) have been downright hostile to such experiences, emphasizing rather the new level of awareness, the special and heightened consciousness involving both loving and knowing that is given in the mystical meeting.  For this reason alone we can welcome the suggestions of some recent investigators who have found the term “consciousness” a more precise and fruitful category than “experience.”  Obviously, “consciousness” can be used just as ambiguously as “experience.”  In the last volume of this series I hope to say a good deal more about the way in which a category that should not be totally rejected.  In preferring to emphasize consciousness rather than experience at this stage, I am primarily interested in underlining the necessity for exploring forms of language that will be both more true to the historical record and potentially more accurate and flexible in investigating its significance.

The second term in need of comment is “presence.”  It would be easy to draw up a lengthy list of texts from the mystics (like the one from Teresa cited above) that speak of a special consciousness of the divine presence as the goal of all their hopes and efforts.  But this would be to tell only half the story.  Precisely because of the incommensurability between finite and Infinite Subject, Christian mystics over the centuries have never been able to convey their message solely through the positive language of presence.  The paradoxical necessity of both presence and absence is one of the most important of all the verbal strategies by means of which mystical transformation has been symbolized.  The relationship has been portrayed in many forms.  Sometimes, among the more positive, or cataphatic, mystics, it is primarily a successive experience, as in the coming and going of the Divine Lover presented in the Song of Songs and studied by the great mystical commentators on the Song, such as Origen and Bernard of Clairvaux.  At other times, among the negative or apophatic mystics, presence and absence are more paradoxically and dialectically simultaneous.  If the modern consciousness of God is often of an absent God (absent though not forgotten for the religious person), many mystics seem almost to have been prophets of this in their intense realization that the “real God” becomes a possibility only when the many false gods (even the God of religion) have vanished and the frightening abyss of total nothingness is confronted.  If everything we experience as real is in some way present to us, is not a “present” God just one more thing?  This is why many mystics from Dionysius on have insisted that it is the consciousness of God as negation, which is a form of the absence of God, that is the core of the mystic’s journey.  The author of The Cloud of Unknowing speaks of this with particular power:

Leave aside this everywhere and this everything, in exchange for this nowhere and this nothing.  A man’s affection is remarkably changed in the spiritual experience of this nothing when it is achieved nowhere.  It seems to him, sometimes, in this labor, that to look upon it is to look into hell.

In a more modern vein, the twentieth-century mystic Simone Weil has expressed it thus: “Contact with human creatures is given us through the sense of presence.  Contact with God is given us through the sense of absence.  Compared with this absence, presence becomes more absent than absence.”

This is not the place to analyze in greater detail exactly what is meant by the consciousness of presence, nor can the issue of the paradoxicality of presence and absence in the encounter with God be pursued now.  I merely wish to point out the many dimensions of the issues as we begin to follow them in the history of Christian mysticism.  I have spoken, however, of this presence of God (or present-absence as the case may be) as direct or immediate.  My final heuristic comment relates to the choice of these terms.

When I speak of mysticism as involving an immediate consciousness of the presence of God I am trying to highlight a central claim that appears in almost all mystical texts.  Mystics continue to affirm that their mode of access to God is radically different from that found in ordinary consciousness, even from the awareness of God gained through the usual religious activities of prayer, sacraments, and other rituals.  As believers, they affirm that God does become present in these activities, but not in any direct or immediate fashion.  Mystical religious texts are those that witness to another form of divine presence, one that can, indeed, sometimes be attained within the context of the ordinary religious observances, but which need not be.  What differentiates it from other forms of religious consciousness is its presentation as both subjectively and objectively more direct, even at times as immediate.

This experience is presented as subjectively different insofar as it is affirmed as taking place on a level of the personality deeper and more fundamental than that objectifiable through the usual conscious activities of sensing, knowing, and loving.  There is also an objective difference to the extent that this mode of the divine presence is said to be given in a direct or immediate way, without the usual internal and external mediations found in other types of consciousness.

It is important to note that this immediacy describes the actual mystical encounter itself, not the preparation for it, nor its communication in speech or in writing.  Human consciousness in its total activity is always mediated both by the subject’s previous history and by the mediations necessarily found in all thought and speech.  What the mystics are talking about is what lies “between” these necessary mediations, if I may express it in this way.  The mystics may well be mistaken about this form of immediacy, but I think that it is important, at least in a preliminary way, to underline this element in their claims before subjecting them at a later time to a more intense scrutiny.

It is interesting to note that some of the major modern theories of mysticism, such as that of Jacques Maritain in his The Degrees of Knowledge, have sought to incorporate this immediate relationship into their accounts.  I have also found Bernard Londergan’s notion of the possibility of a “meditated immediacy” (though he does not directly relate this to mysticism) as a helpful way of thinking about the issue.  It is in this still primarily heuristic sense that I am using the term.

Obviously, these remarks about the nature of Christian mysticism will raise many questions, both because of their brevity and perhaps also because of their inherent ambiguities and shortcomings.  The large task of writing the history of Western Christian mysticism, much of which still lies before me, as well as the reactions of students, readers, and critics, will, I hope, help me to refine them.  They represent my current position in a spiral of understanding whose firstfruits I present in this volume.

10 Comments on MYSTICISM: The Nature Of Mysticism—A Heuristic Sketch (Part Two) by Bernard McGinn

  1. Bernard McGinn is the most eminent scholar of Christian mysticism. He is also very knowledgeable about the Kabbalah of Judaism and Sufism of Islam. Three of his books on the Presence of God are in the bibliography pf my ebook on comparative mysticism.

    He and I have exchanged emails often in the past few years. I am trying to get him interested in the mysticism of Hinduism and Buddhism. The mystical traditions of the Abrahamic religions and of the Dharmic faiths have much on common, although their orthodox beliefs and practices are extremely different.


  2. Religion is a distraction on the path of the mystical experience of Reality, in my experience – a dead end if not manouvred through with persistent focus by those entangled in it.


  3. When I use the word “my” it’s to alert people to the fact it’s only my experience and to be treated accordingly against their own experience. I would strongly resist anyone setting me up as an authority on anything outside my own experience. Even then I’m open to correction.


    • So you only want to set up a situation of giving people an opportunity to have an experience-off? My experience vs. your experience? Do I get that right? Because, you know, like, mysticism is all about insisting on the rightness of one’s experience as compared with another’s. And why take into account the fact that Bernard McGinn never claims to be a mystic? He is only someone who has spent his life studying mystics and writing about his findings. And if you had any real inkling to his actual output and were familiar with it, from page one of his voluminous tomes you would see quite quickly that mystical experiences do not overlap. They do not imitate another’s experience. They don’t even speak to the same issue. My visions appear to be along of a science of God, if there is such a thing, in which I rip open the mechanics of things like prayer and soul structure. I’ve never seen anything like that in anyone else’s writings, and I never expect to. Conformity is not in the nature of mysticism.

      Liked by 1 person

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