Christian Mysticism

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Christian Mysticism

Since the Baroque age, the concept of mysticism (first in French, la mystique ) has been used to describe religious phenomena that can hardly be restricted to a certain geographical space or a certain epoch. These phenomena are primarily symbolic expressions (in act, speech, literature, art, music, etc.), of persons trying to communicate knowledge that has been gained through mystical experiences.

A commonly accepted definition of "mystical experience" does not exist. St. Thomas Aquinas (12251274) says that beyond speculation, there is an experimental cognition (cognitio experimentalis ) of the divine, "thereby a man experiences in himself the taste of God's sweetness, and complacency in God's will" (Summa theologiae II/II q.97, a.2, re2). In order to include forms of mysticism that reject the notion of a personal god, one could more generally speak of immediate experiences of divine presence. For an additional clarification of the concept it is still useful to consider the four characteristics of the "mystical state of consciousness" as provided by William James (pp. 294296):

  1. Ineffability: The paramount experiences exceed the intellect, defy verbal expression, and can therefore not be imparted or transferred to others.
  2. Noetic quality: Mystical experiences are not mere feelings but also insights and participations in a nonintellectual and nondiscursive knowledge.
  3. Passivity: Although the mystic may actively prepare body and mind, the actual experience is rather one of being grasped and held by a superior power.
  4. Transiency: Mystical experiences are limited in time and can only imperfectly be reproduced by memory. This last characteristic, however, has been questioned by more recent scholarship, since there are sources that speak of permanent mystical states.

The symbolic expressions as well as the modes of mystical experience are, to a certain degree, predetermined by their social, religious, and intellectual environment. This observation, however, does not contradict the assumption that there is a "numinous" dimension of reality from which all mystical experiences originate. Accounts of mystical states of consciousness occur in every religion, philosophy, and doctrine of wisdom, involving a dimension of divine eternity, which on the one hand transcends the sphere of temporal beings and sense perceptions and, on the other hand, is the ground and source of all being. Besides this ontological presupposition an anthropological one is required. Mystics claim that a feature of human naturemost often identified as the "soul" or its highest partsis divine or can assume a divine form. Therefore, it can free itself from the bodily and temporal sphere of existence in order to enter the transcendent realm of the divine.

Basic Problems of Christian Mysticism

Christian mysticism inherited most of its ontological and anthropological foundations from the Hellenistic environment from which it emerged. But it also derived a great deal of its imagery and inspiration from the Old Testament, first of all from the Song of Songs. Nevertheless, the original contributions of Christianity must be related to the revelations of the New Testament. The history of Christian mysticism begins with the oldest documents of Christianity, the letters of Paul. The Apostle writes:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. (2 Cor. 12:24)

This quotation shows the problems that scholarship on Christian mysticism confronts. Paul's memory of his mystical ascent seems to lie at the periphery of his religious consciousness. It is his experience as a "man in Christ" and can only be understood as one of the consequences of the Damascus experience, his vision of the Resurrected. The paramount experiences that lie at the foundations of the Christian symbolic universe are not understood as the results of individualistic efforts by religious virtuosos but as the self-revelation of a merciful god. At least in Western Christianity, the paradigm of the saint is not the ascetical hero, who attained mystical states, but the converted sinner, who did not deserve the grace of his calling. The notion of a God who not only created the world but also mediates himself through sending his Son and the Holy Spirit, in other words a God who acts toward man, seems to contradict the mystical notion of an ever-transcendent God that must be approached by meditative ascent.

Moreover, if the climax of God's self-revelation is the incarnation of his word (logos), how can there be a higher knowledge, gained in an experimental realm beyond language? The union of the soul with the ground of being, which can be regarded as the climax of mystical experiences, seems to undermine the orthodox understanding of divine union, that is the sacramental union with the body of Christ, provided by the institution of the church. It is therefore no wonder that Christian mystics often fell under the suspicion of heresy and that even modern theologians regard the concept of Christian mysticism as a contradiction in terms. Of course, a closer look at their writings would show that almost all Christian mystics did not doubt that membership in the church, faith in Christ, and the dispensation of divine grace is the presupposition of their ascent. Nevertheless, the tension remains.

History of Christian Mysticism

The tension first became manifest in the mysticism of the Egyptian hermits who, influenced by the Platonic theology of Origen (185?254? c.e.), felt dissatisfied with the community life of the church and were searching for a more immediate experience of God in the isolation of the desert. In their view, the parousia, the presence of Christ, was no longer a historical event but rather a personal encounter and a result of ascetical purification. Until the High Middle Ages, occidental mysticism was limited by the authority of St. Augustine of Hippo (354430). Other than in his early work, which drew heavily on the mystical Neoplatonism of Plotinus and Porphyry, the church father more and more opposed the self-confident individualism of the ascetics. Rather, he insisted on the general sinfulness of man and God's autonomous dispensation of grace. But the manifold richness of his experiential world would not allow him to completely abandon the Neo-platonic idea of mystical ascent. Augustine shows the orthodox Western attitude that mystical experience does not necessarily lead to a mystical theology. Rather the awareness of divine presence confirms earlier theological assertions and removes doubts. An account in the Confessions (c. 400) betrays its Neoplatonic background as it sketches the parallel ascent through the hierarchies of the ontological order of beings and the anthropological order of human capacities.

And so step by step I ascended from bodies to the soul which perceives through the body, and from there to its inward force, to which the bodily senses report external sensations, From there again I ascended to the power of reasoning to which is to be attributed the power of judging the deliverances of the bodily senses. This power, which in myself I found to be mutable, raised itself to the level of its own intelligence, and led my thinking out of the ruts of habit. It withdrew itself from the contradictory swarms of imaginative fantasies, so as to discover the light by which it was flooded. So in the flash of a trembling glance it attained to that which is. At that moment I saw your "invisible nature understood through the things which are made." (Confessions VII, 17, 23)

Augustine's "moderate mysticism," which laid greater emphasis on the mutability and misery of all earthly existence and the limitedness of human knowledge, has been challenged throughout the history of Western Christianity. Influences from Eastern Christianity always provided alternative approaches to mysticism. The most important of these sources were the writings of an unknown (probably Syrian) author, published around the year 500 under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite (cf. Acts 17, 34). Unlike Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius provides a mystical theology in the strict sense. His negative (apophatikē ) theology teaches the contemplative ascent through the realm of language by the successive reduction of words and negation of all positive propositions about God. Its purpose is a translinguistical meditation on and union with the superessential (hyperousion ) "It."

ascending, we say, that It is neither soul, nor mind, nor has imagination, or opinion, or reason, or conception; neither is standing, nor moving; nor at rest; neither has power, nor is power, nor light; neither lives, nor is life; neither is essence nor eternity, nor time; neither one, nor oneness; neither Deity, nor Goodness; nor is It Spirit according to our understanding; nor Sonship, nor Paternity; nor any other thing of those known to us, or to any other existing being. (Mystical Theology V)

The inherent tension of Christian mysticism becomes again manifest because the mystical insights transcend everything that Christian theology teaches about God. The "It" lies in the "overbright darkness" (hyperphōtos gnophos ) beyond the essence of the triune God.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (10901153) became the most influential representative of a genuine Christian version of mysticism, the mysticism of love. In his Sermons on the Song of Songs, he provides a sophisticated doctrine of four types of love. The highest one is the paradoxical "self-love for God's sake," an ecstatic state in which the self is almost completely annihilated through the union with the divine. On the one hand, Bernard could more easily reconcile his mysticism with the doctrine of grace, since he could understand the mystical ascent as the loving answer of the human soul to the loving call of God. On the other hand, his doctrine implied the degradation of other forms of Christian love. According to Bernard, the love of neighbor belongs to the lowest type of love.

This view was rejected by one of the most singular personalities of medieval Christian thought, Johannes Eckehart, called Meister Eckehart (c. 1260?1327), a German Dominican. His philosophy was a turn back to the heritage of Neoplatonism and faced vehement opposition by the church. Mystical ascent is not a movement through ever-higher stages of love but an intellectual endeavor. Its end is the contemplation of the "divinity" (Gottheit ), a higher preexistent unity that precedes and transcends the ontological difference between God and man. Eckehart also insisted on the priority of the active life.

Nevertheless, the mysticism of love dominated female mysticism, which first began to flower in the middle of the twelfth century. Thousands of mostly wealthy married women, who were dissatisfied with their subordinate status in society and the ecclesiastical order of charismas, joined the Cistercians in order to change their "carnal marriage" into a "spiritual marriage" with Christ. In the thirteenth century, the more freely organized but orthodox movement of the Beguines began to attract many women from all social ranks, primarily in the new urban centers of western Europe. Contemplation of and union with Christ is the typical form of female love mysticism, which ranges from loving compassion with Christ's suffering to explicit accounts of erotic encounters with the Savior. Female mysticism reached an intellectual climax in the writings of the Spanish nun St. Teresa of Ávila (15151582). Her symbol of the "interior castle" and its various rooms signifies the different stages of perfection the soul must pass to achieve final perfection and the union with God in the "innermost chamber." Although the exclusion of women from scholastic education was one of its motivations, female mysticism may not be regarded as a feminist protest movement. The more significant currents remained orthodox and did not oppose church authority. Moreover, many of its spiritual leaders were male. Female mysticism, however, shows that contemplative life does not necessarily lead to the renunciation of the active life. Many female mystics were extraordinarily active in charity and politics. One of the best examples is St. Catherine of Siena (13471380), who was sent on diplomatic missions and played a mediating role in the Great Schism.

Some other important representatives of Christian Mysticism have not been mentioned so far: St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335c. 394) was one of the most brilliant and influential church fathers of the East and described mystical experience as the "fruition of God." The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck (12931381), known as the "Ecstatic Teacher" and the "New Dionysius," developed a "spiritual ladder of Christian attainment," consisting of the three steps of active life, inward life, and contemplative life. St. Gregory Palamas (12961359) was an important theorist of the Eastern mystical movement of the "hesychasts" and taught the fusion of the soul with divine energies. Johannes Tauler (c. 13001361), a German mystic and Dominican monk, emphasized ethical perfection as the presupposition of mystical union. The English female mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-after 1416), insisted on the love and benevolence of God. The unknown English author of The Cloud of Unknowing (written around 1375) continued the negative theology of the Areopagite. St. John of the Cross (15421591) was the most brilliant of all mystical poets. Edith Stein (18911942), a student of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (18591938), developed the inward mysticism of Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross.

See also Christianity ; Mysticism: Kabbalah ; Sacred Texts .



Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Translated with an introduction and notes by Henry Chadwick. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Bernard of Clairvaux. Selected Works. Translated with a foreword by G. R. Evans. New York: Paulist, 1987.

Dupré, Louis, and James A. Wiseman, eds. Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. 2nd ed. New York: Paulist, 2001.

Meister Eckhart. The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense. Translated with an introduction by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn. New York: Paulist, 1981.

Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite. The Divine Names; and, Mystical Theology. Translated with an introductory study by John D. Jones. Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 1980.

Teresa of Ávila. The Interior Castle. London: Fount, 1995.


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McGinn, Bernard. The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: Crossroad, 1991.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. 2nd ed. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Ruh, Kurt. Geschichte der abendländischen Mystik. 4 vols. Munich: Beck, 19901999.

Matthias Riedl

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Christian Mysticism

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Christian Mysticism