views updated May 29 2018


A term used to cover a literally bewildering variety of states of mind. Perhaps the most useful definition is that given by Jean gerson: "Theologia mystica est experimentalis cognitio habita de Deo per amoris unitivi complexum" (Mystical theology is knowledge of God by experience, arrived at through the embrace of unifying love). There are three points to notice: (1) the use of the term mystical theology (which was traditional in the Church until comparatively modern times) associates the mystical state with, while distinguishing it from, natural theology, which enables man to arrive at some knowledge of God by natural reason: also from dogmatic theology, which treats of the knowledge of God arrived at by revelation. (2) We do come to know God through mystical theology. (3) This knowledge is obtained not by intellectual processes but by the more direct experience implied in the term "unifying love."

Non-Christian mysticism. This article is concerned primarily with Catholic mysticism, but it is necessary to recognize that Catholics and Christians in general have no monopoly on mysticism. Indeed, every religious tradition has its mystical aspect, and we cannot do adequate justice to the subject of Catholic mysticism without seeing something of the background from which it sprang. Just as in the realm of Biblical scholarship, exegetes have come to recognize that we cannot isolate the Jewish experience from the larger context of Egyptian and Babylonian religion, so we have to see the whole development of Christian mysticism in the light of a common human striving.

Thus, within the remote world of China an early teaching maintained that man's highest purpose was the quest of Dao (see daoism), which was regarded as the Ultimate Reality, source of all that is, pervading and harmonizing all natural phenomena. Hence, for man, Dao is the exemplar of conduct and man can find himself only by some kind of identification with it.

The process by which this identification is achieved bears a remarkable resemblance to the traditional teaching of Christian mysticism. First comes a process of purgation. In the words of laozi: "Only one who is eternally free from earthly passions can apprehend the spiritual essence of Dao. " After this stage comes the condition in which the achievement of virtue is not a self-conscious, self-regarding effort but rather a connatural state. The final stage is reached when harmony with Dao is fully realized. In this condition, man is the unresisting vehicle of Dao, so that he is able to rise above the limitations of matter and the laws of the physical universe.

On the other hand, it must be insisted that in much Chinese speculation, especially in the writings of Laozi, there is no idea of "religion" as we understand the term, no sense of a personal relationship with God, or of obligations to him. In fact, the end of the mystical way for the Daoist might well seem to be an absorption into some pantheistic system (see pantheism). It is hardly surprising that, to all intents and purposes, Daoism became amalgamated with buddhism.

Of hinduism it is unnecessary to speak here, except to mention the possible influence that Indian ideas had on the Greek tradition through Pythagoras, and hence on Plato and neoplatonism. Neoplatonic influence on the Christian tradition through plotinus and proclus is undeniable. It was recognized that nothing made life more worth living than to look upon Beauty, not just in its partial and imperfect realizations, but in itself.

There is a kind of universal tradition embracing a metaphysics "that recognizes a divine reality, substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; and a psychology that finds in the soul something similar or even identical with divine reality; and an ethic that places man's final end in the imminent and transcendent Ground of all being." (See A. Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, introduction.)

Is mystical experience open to all? Yet, if the foregoing were true, the problem at once arises, why is the recognition of this universal reality so partial and fragmentary? What is it about the mystics that enables them to pierce through the veil that conceals from so many others the essential truth and goodness and beauty of God Himself? In the words of one of the mystics quoted by Huxley (ibid. ):

O my God, how does it happen in this poor world that thou art so great and yet nobody finds thee, that thou callest so loudly and nobody hears thee, that thou art so near and nobody feels thee, that thou givest thyself to everybody and nobody knows thy name? Men flee from thee and say they cannot find thee; they turn their backs on thee and say they cannot see thee; they stop their ears and say they cannot hear thee.

There has been much debate whether the full mystical experience is possible for all men or whether it is open only to those of a certain temperament. Dom Cuthbert Butler, a recognized authority, argued that the traditional Christian view, which had been lost to sight during the 18th and 19th centuries, is that all men are called to a specifically mystical way of knowing and loving God. In favor of this view he quoted Bishop John Hedley, who argued that contemplation is the chief act of the heart of man, for the heart flowers in the act of charity, and contemplation is charity that is actual, pure, and flowering under the movement of the Holy Spirit. It differs from ordinary prayer, yet is not extraordinary in the sense that humble souls cannot aspire to it. It is not a miraculous activity, but is simply the perfection of supernatural prayer, ordinarily given by God to those who remove obstacles to it and avail themselves of the requisite means.

R. Garrigou-Lagrange protested against the view that there are two ways of perfection: an ordinary way, intended for all, and an extraordinary one of prayer and mystical life, to which all fervent souls are not called by God. On the contrary, there is only one unitive way, not of its nature extraordinary, to which, by docility to the Holy Spirit, generous souls are led to perfection. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that because of a lack of proper guidance or because of other unfavorable circumstances, or because particular individuals are strongly inclined to exterior activities, some generous souls may not arrive at the mystic life during the span of an ordinary lifetime. This, however, Garrigou-Lagrange considered to be accidental.

Accidental or not, Abbot Butler recognized the situation to be so common that, through no fault of the individual concerned, the circumstances of life may, and often do, render the experience of mystical union all but impossible. He cited St. Gregory's complaint that by becoming pope he had lost the gift of contemplation he had enjoyed in the monastery, and concluded there is much to be said for the view that there are not one or two "unitive ways" but many, just as there are many mansions in our Father's house.

One of the problems raised by much mystical literature is that far too many authors seem anxious to achieve a basic classification of states into which, like some bed of Procrustes, the diversified experiences of a whole host of highly individualized personalities must be made to fit. The all but infinite variety of physiological conditions, intellectual endowments, social background, educational equipment, and the like, render it unlikely a priori that the way to God will be precisely the same even for any two persons, let alone for a whole mass of people. It seems desirable, therefore, to maintain flexibility of mind in trying to evaluate the accounts that different mystics give of their experiences, even while we recognize that, as the fundamental qualities of human nature remain unchanged, so there is likely to be a rough parallelism between any two sets of experience.

The role of grace. Certainly an absolutely essential starting point for all is the desire to arrive at whatever the goal may be and a consequent willingness to undertake whatever steps may be required to attain that goal. Yet even this starting point itself implies some faint recognition of what the goal is. "You would not be looking for me if you had not found me," as Pascal expressed it. Already the process of turning away from what is not God in order to come to God has begun; already God is "drawing" the soul to Himself. It is here that we begin to encounter what is probably the crucial problem in any discussion of mysticismthe cooperation between the soul and God. This is, of course, only a specialized form of a larger problem (see grace and nature), but it calls for particular treatment here.

Without going into the question of the possibility of genuine mystical experiences for those who do not belong in any external sense to Christianity (though the modern view tends to be that such grace may be more widely available than was once thought), all Christian writers agree that where genuine mystical experiences occur they are the direct result not of any efforts of the mystics themselves but of a special grace over and above the ordinary graces available to all Christians.

Some chosen souls appear to enjoy more than the ordinary gift of faith and the power to love and serve God. They seem to enjoy a supernatural knowledge and love beyond that of other generous souls, as though in some manner they participated more fully in God's own knowledge and love of Himself, and thus shared more intimately in the life of the Blessed Trinity and of the blessed in heaven. In their case, grace appears to do more than cooperate with their human effort. It is as if God produces in them a knowledge and love that exceeds all that can be felt or expressed by the faculties, although it is experienced by the soul.

The whole mystery of the relationship between any human soul and its Creator, at any phase and therefore especially at the stage of mystical union, springs from the nature of man's being. Dependent as he is on the creative act of an eternal Creator, an act that is described in its temporal effects as an act of conservation, man's whole conscious life is passed in a space-time world; yet he is more than a "pilgrim of eternity." The roots of his being, at a level deeper than consciousness, are to be found in the very Being of God Himself. Because of original sin the consciousness of God that would seem to be connatural to man has become fitful and obscure. It can be restored only by a rigid process of "purgation," a deliberate effort to turn away from this space-time world of everyday experience to concentrate on the eternal reality of God.

Precisely because so much of our conscious life is inextricably bound up with this world of sense, the process of purgation is a painful one. Hence follows the dark night of the senses, then the dark night of the soul, in the course of which the personality is detached from that absorption in temporal, material reality that has become connatural to man. Hence comes, too, the traditional insistence on the via negativa, the attainment to some knowledge of God by seeing Him as the denial of all that is commonly thought and felt by human beings through the ordinary channels. In this "cloud of unknowing," the mystic learns God by unlearning, so to speak, everything that is not God. Moreover, unlike the objects of ordinary knowing, God is not the passive object of the mystic's contemplation. Rather is He the active inspiration, an overwhelming Power to whom the mystic submits freely and therefore not inertly. The surrender becomes an immense enrichment, simply because the knowledge and love of God is the consummation of man's purpose.

The mystic's knowledge of God. St. Thomas Aquinas developed what has come to be accepted as the classic explanation of what we may call the mechanics of the intellectual communication implicit in the experience of mystical union. Human knowledge begins with some sense of awareness. On this raw materialthe colored shapes, the sounds and feelings, the scents and tastes produced by physical and chemical interaction between an external object and the sense organthe intellect works to "abstract" the idea or concept that is the specific object of normal, human rational activity. Out of changeable phenomena is derived the changeless concept. By linking together these abstract ideas the mind makes judgments; it reasons and infers. Ordinarily in the act of thinking the concept is never entirely free of a penumbra of images or phantasms, be they no more than the words in which we normally clothe our ideas. (Yet we do distinguish between the word and the idea, as is shown by those occasions when, as we say, we are trying to find the right word to express what is in our minds.)

In the highest forms of intellectual activity, it does seem that the image becomes less and less helpful and can indeed be a positive nuisance. The most obvious example is provided by mathematical reasoning. The geometrical figure, the algrebraic formulas are necessary to begin the process; but the stage is reached sooner or later when what we are thinking of bears only the remotest relation to what can be pictured: the curve is replaced by the formula, which is seen to bear less relation to what it purports to describe than do the stenographer's notes to the rhetorical cadences of the speaker, or the notes of a musical score to the symphony or sonata as it is created by the composer or performed by the orchestra.

Perhaps there was some way of knowing that began with an immediate activity of intellect without any previous stage of sensation and abstraction. Since any created nature is finite and liable to imperfection, only by special divine help would human nature be able to abide permanently in the enjoyment of a situation calling for the complete integration and subordination of all its faculties to the purposes of the spiritual side of its being. Having lost that preternatural endowment, man, of himself, is no longer capable of that intellectual awareness of God which, if awareness is to be adequate, must obviously be free from the distorting effects of imagery. God is pure spirit and is therefore not to be described in language drawn from sense experience.

But there seems to be no reason in the nature of things why, in some cases and for special reasons, God should not confer a grace that might restore a person temporarily to that condition of perfection that man enjoyed before the Fall. We may presume that whereas in an unfallen state man's preternatural endowments would enable him to enjoy such an immediate awareness of God while still retaining his normal consciousness, direct awareness is not possible in the fallen state except at the price of a suspension of normal consciousness. In St. Thomas's words:

In contemplation, God is seen by a medium which is the light of wisdom elevating the mind to discern the divine; and thus the divine is seen by the contemplative by means of grace after sin, though more perfectly in the state of innocence. [De ver. 18.1 ad 4.]

The foregoing remains no more than a theory, but as far as it goes, it is a coherent explanation and serves as at least a useful working hypothesis. It helps us also to understand why the mystic, after his experience, is invariably incapable of describing what happened or even, it would seem, of remembering anything at all except that something did happen. Thus St. Augustine says:

Thy invisible things, understood by those that are made, I saw indeed, but was not able to fix my gaze thereon; my weakness was beaten back, and I was reduced to my ordinary experience (Conf. 7.23).

Moreover, as F. L. Mascall says (Christ, the Christian and the Church, 61):

When the soul tries to describe this object to itself, when it tries to relate this knowledge to knowledge obtained by normal means, and above all when it tries to tell other people about it, it is faced with an enormous problem of translation and interpretation.

A. F. Poulain, in an exhaustive treatise on this subject, includes examples of some remarkable ways in which mystics interpreted their experiences. Thus St. Mechtild apparently declared that Christ had told her in a vision that the virtue of patience was especially dear to Him because patientia combines pax and scientia; St. Catherine of Siena claimed to have had a vision in which Our Lady revealed that she was not conceived immaculate! In individual cases, of course, it is possible to doubt whether any genuine mystical experience did in fact occur; but it is equally possible to suppose that, in attempting to translate into normal language and thought the contents of some mystical illumination, even a saint must be reduced to an ordinary way of thinking.

Validity of mystical experience. At this point, the question may well be asked, by both the skeptic and the sincere believer, whether there may not be some validity in R. A. Vaughan's unkind definition: "Mysticism is that form of error which mistakes for a divine manifestation operations of a merely human faculty." How can the mystics be said to "know" something that cannot be expressed in words and communicated to others, or rendered explicit by the mystics even to the mystics themselves? Perhaps it must be admitted that mystical experiences cannot be "justified" or authenticated by and in themselves. But this is not to say that there is no answer to the question raised here.

There is danger of concentrating too closely on mystical experience as an isolated phenomenon, dissecting the statements of this or that individual mystic, and so losing sight of the whole history of the subject. For in the words of William James: "There is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think."

First, there is the general background of the long line of Christian mystics to be considered. The intellectual equipment, temperamental qualities, and educational opportunities of such men and women as SS. John, Paul, Augustine, the Pseudo-Dionysius, SS. Gregory, Bernard, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross, to say nothing of the English and German mystics, were so vastly different that one might expect differing approaches to mystical activity and widely dissimilar consequences. Yet, despite immense difference in detail, there is an almost monotonous sameness about their general attitudes to the basic matters of moral conduct and religious beliefs. If mystical experience were no more than a self-induced trance, and if the alleged intuition of a divine reality were sheer hallucination, it is remarkable that these baseless and purely subjective phenomena should be under the control of a persisting framework of ideas and beliefs.

Forgetting for the moment the specific problem of the authenticity of mystical experiences, one might look at normal Christian belief and practice. We believe that this world of material substance and rational and moral activity is but the surface of an unfathomed abyss of energy, eternally operative and effective.

"The weariness, the fever and the fret" that make up the conscious content of normal human experience cannot be understood save in relation to an external existence, which is the deepest reality. From that deepest reality man has come to live out his little day, realizing, as best he may with the help of God, the perfection for which he was made. Even apart from the assurance of revelation, there is what is described by Dean Inge as "the raw material of all religion, and perhaps of all philosophy and art as well, namely that dim consciousness of the beyond, which is part of our nature as human beings." At the heart of the Christian message is the doctrine that the world of man and the world of God, time and eternity, meet and blend in the Incarnate Word. Our reasons for believing this have nothing to do with mysticism.

Mysticism, on the other hand, has a history of experience in which the mystic claims to have been in immediate contact with the Ground of Being, known in an intellectual way that is free from imaginative content and incapable of normal conceptualization. Further, the result of the total experience is not so much a deepening of understanding as a sort of fusing of personalities. Hence the prevalence of language and imagery drawn from the common experience of human love, an experience leading to physical union in which the lovers seek to express an identification of interests, desires, joys, and delights as symbolizing a longing for union of personality. It is not given to mortals to achieve such union; but, from the accounts the mystics have left, it would seem that somehow it is achieved in the highest form of their experience, sometimes even described as a "mystical marriage." Now human love is a powerful revealer of personality. Through love one comes to know another in a profounder way than by the ordinary exchange of social contact. (It is not without significance that we speak of a man's "knowing" a woman in sexual intercourse.) The difference between God's self-revelation in what may be called the ordinary waysthrough the Prophets, the teaching Churchand what is given to the mystic in his special experiences may well be that, in the latter, there is a fusing of will and intellect in one act, analogous to but immeasurably fuller than the communion of souls that is experienced in human love.

Recalling Gerson's definition"knowledge of God arrived at through the embrace of unifying love"we might suggest that, in the mystic's experience, there is a complete coordination of both intellect and will, directed toward God, who is the perfect and adequate end of their activity. Hence, it can be seen why the effect of mystical contemplation is not merely, not even primarily, an illumination of the intellect but chiefly a deepening of the whole personality, an enriching of character, a development of virtue. It is this fact that, in the end, is the guarantee of the mystic's claim. For in the authentic mystic, we have a man or woman who is invariably distinguished for integrity, candor, and sensitivity of conscience. At the state of ordinary awareness, he shares our ideals, our beliefs, our principles of conduct. It is conceivable that, in some cases, the mystic's alleging of his experience of God is a piece of self-deception, hallucination, hysteria, megalomania, and the like. But it is absurd to suggest that all the mystics are so deceived all the time. Once it is admitted that some of the mystics may be right sometimes, that some of them genuinely "experience God" in an act wherein the whole of their spiritual nature, will, and intellect is operating at the highest level attainable by man (and then only with the special assistance of God), there is sufficient ground for claiming the mystics as witnesses, in a sense eyewitnesses, to the ultimate truth after which the rest of us are dimly groping.

Modern interest. Current interest in mysticism is both theoretical and practical, is not limited to the educated or initiated, and is ecumenical or cross-cultural in its orientation. An adequate assessment of the current situation needs to consider more than the spectacular or exotic features, which, in the long view of Christian history, suggest the déjà vu rather than innovation. Particular notice should be taken of new directions in Christian spirituality, presaged by current mystical language and symbolism. Furthermore, its rather broad theoretical base adds a dimension to the contemporary renascence of mysticism which prompts more serious reflection and indicates that Christian spirituality may be in the process of significant modification.

Scholarly or theoretical interest in mysticism has been steady and fruitful, even if not intense, throughout the present century. William James' chapter "Mysticism" in his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), with its observation that mysticism discloses a realm of consciousness beyond the rational, gave an unremitting impetus to the study of mysticism by the behavioral and social sciences and to the continuing dialogue within and among these disciplines. The comparative study of religions has considerably improved the comprehension of a notoriously elusive subject. Even the well-known experimental attempts to induce mystical experiences by means of drugs have led to meaningful distinctions between the religious goal of spiritual endeavor and its occasional exotic sensory accompaniments. Reasonable facsimiles of the latter can be artificially stimulated, and this fact, itself well known for centuries, has reemphasized the age-old cautions of the spiritual masters against overvaluation of emotional states.

Interest in mysticism as experiential also follows behavioral science's concerns with the role and function of emotion generally, especially in its capacity to add richness and depth to life. Proliferation of sensitivity clinics and awareness institutes of indescribable variety is some indication of a general search for emotional fulfillment, a datum which corroborates theoretical observations. The successful quest for more intense feelings of personal intimacy as well as for a closer relationship with nature and life generally, has made the so-called peak experience, described by Abraham Maslow, less extraordinary.

Developments in theology. In the theological sphere of theory, modern Christian theologians, unlike their medieval predecessors, have not given much attention to the mystical emphasis. Post-Tridentine Catholic theology, with its defensive stress on ritual efficacy and ecclesiastical authority, felt compelled to relegate mysticism to the exotic realm inhabited by a few "chosen souls" on the way to "infused contemplation." Mainline Protestant theology had little need for mystical vision because "this worldly," mundane activity was not seen to have any causal relationship to salvation and hence did not need to be transcended. Protestantism represented a "this-worldly ascetism" rather than an "other-worldly mysticism" in Max Weber's categories. The anti-mysticism of Karl Barth and Emile Brunner reflect this emphasis.

Current theological interest in mysticism owes much to ecumenical developments. Mystical traditions within the major religions seem to share so much common ground that ecumenical endeavor frequently appears superfluous. Recent exponents of the view that at their highest, mystical levels, the world religions are, in reality, one religion (e.g. A. Huxley, F. Schuon, and S. Radakrishnan) have understandably been criticized for glossing over precious and essential distinctions, but their positions do highlight areas of almost ready-made religious unity. Conceptions of the Absolute and, even more so, descriptions of ineffable experience, tend linguistically to converge as they approach what they perceive to be their respective goals.

In its ecumenical concerns Christian theology has begun what promises to be an enormously fruitful discussion with comparative-religions studies. Mystical world-views as well as mystical practices are three major preoccupations among comparative-religions scholars which have already stimulated some development in Christian mystical theology. Jungian psychology has also proved to be an important partner to this multileveled conversation. William Johnston's works on Zen and Christian mysticism offer a distinguished example of the theological enrichment available from such comparative studies. Robert Zaehner's comparative studies of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian mysticism have also made an enormous contribution, not only by way of generating scholarly interest in the subject but also by reason of his clarification of similarities and differences.

Some support is given scholarly concerns by widespread popular interest in Zen and Yoga. The faddish nature of the popular brands is often obvious, but the very fact of concern or curiosity, and especially its breadth, could signal substantial readjustment in overall religious orientation. At the very least it indicates a dissatisfaction with religious resources traditionally available in the Christian West. Even though such forms as Yoga and techniques as Transcendental Meditation assert their nonreligious nature and are allegedly compatible with the traditional faiths, it is apparent that all but the merely physical ("Yoga as exercise") do clash in some way with traditional Christianity (see yoga).

Significance for Christian spirituality. From the two distinguishing and mutually inseparable marks of the mystical phenomenon, namely its experiential emphasis and its unitive worldview, several observations relative to contemporary Christian spirituality suggest themselves. To some extent these two marks or characteristics correspond to the correlative symbols Self and Universe, and any decided enlargement of consciousness in either area would elicit a corresponding reaction toward maintaining intimacy and cohesion between the two. Historical periods witnessing significant world expansion and its corresponding threat to intellectual and psychological cosmos are invariably accompanied by a rise in mystical experience and a more comprehensive religious worldview.

The mystical vision of Teilhard de Chardin accommodates an impressive range of recent world-expanding discovery, stretching from paleontology's substantial revisions regarding human origins all the way to nuclear theory and space travel. With the affirmation characteristic of the mystic and an imminentism at times nearly indistinguishable from pantheism, he offers a spirituality in his The Divine Milieu, which meshes with contemporary valuations of nature, science, and technology and which, in its cosmic sweep, is little disturbed by the hairsplitting details that exercised traditional dogmatic and moral theology. His vision offers Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, an affirmative valuation of work and invention, of learning and recreation. For Teilhard, as well as for his kindred spirit in India, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, all these activities are inherently religious and need no ritual blessing or specific intention to make them so. Matter itself is raised to the plane of the spiritual and this coincidentia oppositorum finds resonance in the social sphere where the mystical and the prophetic become one in the cause of social reform.

Contrary to many popular images, the mystical religious mode is not extraordinary and is not for reclusive types. As James and others have asserted, there is a mystical dimension in all serious and sincere religion. Contemporary religion's emphasis on social problems, its deemphasis of institutional and clerical prerogatives, its diminished enthusiasm for laws, forms, and ritual all bear upon the current interest in mysticism. Even rather ordinary or commonplace religious experience can be personally transforming and authoritative and, because of its immediacy, tends to reduce dependence on institutional structures and to call into question their very relevance. This helps explain the apparent inner freedom as well as the specific orientation of such famous innovators and reformers as Paul, Bernard, Catherine of Siena, Eckhart, and Cusanus.

Teilhard's is by no means the only mystical vision influencing contemporary spirituality. An approach that can be thought of as a personalist emphasis forming a salutary counterbalance to Teilhard's universalism is the I-Thou religious vision of Martin Buber. Despite Buber's demurrer, his spiritual approach bears all the necessary marks of the mystical mode: it is experiential, comprehensive, immediate, and transforming. Buber's influence upon Catholic spirituality continues to be both deep and broad. Thomas Merton's life and example have been influential in sustaining an interest in contemplative spirituality, and he himself embodied the cross-cultural emphasis mentioned above. His last days were spent in Asia pursuing the mystic ideal. He is significant not so much for the power of his vision as for the orientation and persistence of his quest. Finally, mention should be made of Simone Weil, a mystic of powerful and awe-inspiring conviction, whose importance for the spirituality of the future should not be minimized. As visionaries all of these shared a deep engagement in the world and helped set the tone for a spirituality of personalism and human concern, global in its orientation and resource, affirmative in its assessment of nature and action.

Bibliography: From an almost limitless selection, the following brief list gives a representative picture. w. r. inge, Christian Mysticism (London 1899). a. thorold, An Essay in Aid of the Better Appreciation of Catholic Mysticism (London 1900). w. james, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York 1902). r. m. jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (London 1909). a. f. poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, tr. l. l. yorke smith (St. Louis 1950). a. b. sharpe, Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value (St. Louis 1910). e. underhill, Mysticism (12th ed. rev. New York 1960); The Essentials of Mysticism (New York 1920). e. c. butler, Western Mysticism (London 1922). f. von hÜgel, The Mystical Element of Religion, 2 v. (2d ed. London 1923). r. otto, Mysticism East and West, tr. b. l. bracey (New York 1932). j. chapman, The Spiritual Letters , ed. r. hudleston (2d ed. London 1935). r. a. knox, Enthusiasm (New York 1961). d. knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (New York 1961). s. spencer, Mysticism in World Religion (Baltimore 1963). f. c. happold, Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology (Baltimore 1963), excellent bibliog. m. l. furse, Mysticism: Window on a World View (Nashville 1977). g. harkness, Mysticism: Its Meaning and Message (Nashville 1973). w. johnston, The Still Poin Reflections on Zen and Christian Mysticism (New York 1977).

[t. corbishley/

j. e. biechler]


views updated Jun 27 2018


The attempt of man to attain the ultimate reality of things and experience direct communion with the highest. Mysticism maintains the possibility of a relationship with God, not by means of revelation or the ordinary religious channels, but by introspection and meditation in conjunction with a purified life, culminating in the awareness that the individual partakes of the divine nature. Mysticism has been identified with pantheism by some authorities, and many pantheists have been mystics. However, mysticism is not tied to any particular philosophical or theological perspective.

Mysticism tends to differ from public religion, which emphasizes a worshipful submission to the deity and the ethical dimension of life, while mysticism strains after the realization of a personal union with the divine source itself. The mystic desires to be as close to God as possible, part of the divine essence itself, whereas the ordinary devotee of most religious systems merely desires to walk in God's way and obey his will.

Historical Survey

Mysticism has emerged as a strain in all of the major religious systems, both East and West. It tends to have a particular affinity, however, with some systems. While there is, for example, a perceptible mystical stain in Christianity, Judaism (Hassidism), and Islam (Sufism), Western systems that emphasize the transcendence of a personal all-powerful deity have made mysticism a secondary concern. In the East, where the unreality of material things is emphasized, mysticism is a more dominant form of spiritual life. The Sufis of Persia may be said to be a link between the more austere Indian mystics and those of Europe.

With the rise of Alexandrian Neoplatonism, mysticism attained a new level of presence in Europe. Neoplatonism made a definite mark upon early Christianity, and we find it mirrored in many of the patristic writings of the sixteenth century.

It was Erigena who, in the ninth century, transmitted to Europe the so-called writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, the sixth century Syrian thinker who synthesized Christian theology and Neoplatonism and thus greatly influenced the mysticism of the Middle Ages. Erigena based his own system upon that of Dionysius. This was the so-called "negative theology," which placed God above all categories and designated him as nothing, or the incomprehensible essence from which the world of primordial causes is eternally created. This creation is the work of the Son of God, in whom all substantial things exist; but God is the beginning and end of everything. On this system Christian mysticism may be said to have been founded with little variation.

With Erigena, reason and authority are identical, and in this he agrees with all speculative mystics. Scholasticism, however, is characterized by the acceptance by reason of a given matter that is presupposed even when it cannot be understood. It seemed to Erigena that in the scholastic system, religious truth was external to the mind, while the opposite view was fundamental to mysticism.

That is not to say that mysticism according to Erigena is a mere subordination of reason to faith. Mysticism indeed places every confidence in human reason, and it is essential that it should have the unity of the human mind with the divine as its main tenet, but it accepts nothing from without, and it posits the higher faculty of reason over the realization of absolute truth.

Medieval mysticism may be said to have originated from a reaction of practical religion against the dialectics in which the true spirit of Christianity was then enshrined. Thus St. Bernard opposed the dry scholasticism of Abelard. His mysticism was profoundly practical, and dealt chiefly with the means by which human beings may attain the knowledge of God. This is to be accomplished through contemplation and withdrawal from the world.

Asceticism is the soul of medieval mysticism, but St. Bernard averred regarding self-love that it is proper to love ourselves for God's sake, or because God loved us, thus merging self-love in love for God. We must, so to speak, love ourselves in God, in whom we ultimately lose ourselves. In this, St. Bernard is almost Buddhistic, and indeed his mysticism is of the universal type.

Perhaps Hugh of St. Victor, a contemporary of St. Bernard's, did more to develop the tenets of mysticism, and his monastery of Augustinians near Paris became a great center of mysticism. One of his apologists, Richard of St. Victor, declared that the objects of mystic contemplation are partly above reason, and partly, as regards intuition, contrary to reason. The protagonists of this theory, all of whom issued from the same monastery, were known as the Victorines and put up a stout fight against the dialecticians and schoolmen. Bonaventura, who died in 1274, was a disciple of this school and a believer in the faculty of mystic intuition.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the worldliness of the church aroused much opposition among laymen, and the church's cold formalism created a reaction towards a more spiritual regime. Many sects arose, such as the Waldenses, the Cathari (see Gnosticism ), and the Beguines, all of which strove to infuse into their teachings a warmer spirituality than that which burned in the heart of the church of their time.

In Germany, mysticism made great strides, and Machthild of Magdeburg and Elizabeth of Thuringia were, if not the originators of mysticism in Germany, certainly among its earliest supporters. Joachim of Flores and Amalric of Bena wrote strongly in favor of a reformed church, and their writings are drenched with mystical terms, derived for the most part from Erigena. Joachim mapped out the duration of the world into three ages, that of the Father, that of the Son, and that of the Spiritthe last of which was to commence with the year 1260, and to be inaugurated by the general adoption of monastic and contemplative life.

A sect called the New Spirit, or the Free Spirit, became widespread through northern France, Switzerland, and Germany; and these did much to infuse the spirit of mysticism throughout Germany.

It is with Meister Eckhart, who died in 1327, that we get the juncture of mysticism with scholastic theology. Of his doctrine it has been said:

"The ground of your being lies in God. Reduce yourself to that simplicity, that root, and you are in God. There is no longer any distinction between your spirit and the divineyou have escaped personality and finite limitation. Your particular, creature self, as a something separate and dependent on God is gone. So also, obviously, your creaturely will. Henceforth, therefore, what seems an inclination of yours is in fact the divine good pleasure. You are free from law. You are above means. The very will to do the will of God is resolved into that will itself. This is the Apathy, the Negation, the Poverty, he commends."

With Eckhart personally this self-reduction and deification is connected with a rigorous asceticism and exemplary moral excellence. Yet it is easy to see that it may be a merely intellectual process, consisting in a man's thinking that he is thinking himself away from his personality. He declares the appearance of the Son necessary to enable us to realize our sonship; and yet his language implies that this realization is the perpetual incarnation of that Sondoes, as it were, constitute him. Christians are accordingly not less the sons of God by grace than is Christ by nature. Believe yourself divine, and the Son is brought forth in you. The Saviour and the saved are dissolved together in the blank absolute substance."

With the advent of the Black Death, a great spirit of remorse swept over Europe in the fourteenth century, and a vast revival of piety took place. This resulted in the foundation in Germany of a society of Friends of God, whose chief object was to strengthen each other in intercourse with the creator. Perhaps the most distinguished of these were John Tauler and Nicolas of Basle, and the society numbered many inmates of the cloister, as well as wealthy men of commerce and others. Ruysbroek, the great Flemish mystic, was connected with them, but his mysticism is perhaps more intensely practical than that of any other visionary. The machinery by which the union with God is to be effected is the most attractive. In Ruysbroek's lifetime, a mystical society arose in Holland called the Brethren of Common Lot, who founded an establishment at which Groot dispensed the principles of mysticism to Radewyn and Thomas Kempis.

The attitude of mysticism at the period of the Reformation is peculiar. We find a mystical propaganda sent forth by a body of Rosicrucians denouncing Roman Catholicism in the fiercest terms, and we also observe the spirit of mysticism strongly within those bodies that resisted the coldness and formalism of the Roman Catholic Church of that time.

On the other hand, however, we find the principles of Luther strongly opposed by some of the most notable mystics of his time. But the Reformation passed, and mysticism went on its way, divided, it is true, so far as the outward theological principles of its votaries were concerned, but strongly united in its general principles.

It is with Nicolas of Kusa, who died in 1464, that mysticism triumphs over scholasticism. Nicolas was the protagonist of super-knowledge, or that higher ignorance which is the knowledge of the intellect in contra-distinction to the mere knowledge of the understanding. His doctrines colored those of Giordano Bruno (1550-1600) and his theosophy certainly preceded that of Paracelsus (1493-1541). The next great name in mysticism is that of Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), a German Rosicrucian mystical teacher.

The Roman Catholic Church produced many mystics of note in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including Francis of Sales, Madame Guyon, and Molinosthe last two of which were the protagonists of Quietism, which set forth the theory that there should be no pleasure in the practice of mysticism, and that God did not exist for the enjoyment of man. Perhaps the greatest students of Boehme were William Law (1686-1761) and Saint-Martin (1743-1803).

The Universality of Mystical Experience

It is clear from the statements of mystics that they are not limited to any given religion or theology. Given the elevation of the mystical experience over any theological reflection upon that experience, it has been relatively easy for mystics of different traditions to relate to each other, often finding a more natural affinity that with the non-mystic members of their own religious tradition. It is obvious that they are dealing with an element in human experience common to all of humankind. When Meister Eckhart stated, "If I am to know God directly, I must become completely He, and He I: so that this He and this I become and are one I," he comes to the same point as the Advaita Vedanta doctrine of Hinduism, where the jiva (individual soul) merges with Brahma the creator before absorption in Brahman, the non-personal divine ground.

Sufism, Islamic mysticism, first arose in the ninth century among the Persian Moslems, probably as a protest against the severe monotheism of their religion, but in all likelihood more ancient springs contributed to its revival. In the Persia of Hafiz and Saadi, pantheism abounded, and their magnificent poetry is read by Moslems as having a deep mystical significance, although for the most part it deals with the intoxication of love. It is certain that many of them exhibit the fervor of souls searching for communion with the highest.

The apparent differences between Hindu mysticism and Christian mysticism are nominal. Although Christian theology postulates the divine in the form of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, such distinctions become largely unimportant in the actual mystical experience. Similarly, popular Hinduism postulates hundreds of different gods and goddesses, but these are merely legal fictions to the Indian mystic, melting away in the totality of higher consciousness.

Because mind and emotion are transcended in the higher reaches of mysticism, they are seen by mystics as merely ways of reaching a reality that lies beyond them, a totality of consciousness without object, beyond the normal human limitations of individual body, ego, personality, hopes, and fears.

Like Christianity, Hindu Vedanta (inquiry into ultimate reality), has different schools of theology, ranging from Advaita (monism or non-dualism, claiming that all is one and only the divine ultimate has actual existence, all else being illusory) to degrees of Dvaita or dualism (claiming that there is one ultimate divine principle of God but that the soul is a separate principle with independent existence). Such schools are not really contradictory to the mystic, but rather different degrees of interpretation of one reality on the way to an actual mystical experience in which intellectual distinctions vanish.

The Way of the Mystic

In both Eastern and Western mysticism, withdrawal from the everyday life of a householder is recognized as an aid to mystical progress, thus both have monastic establishments at which one follows a life of prayer and meditation. In the initial stages, self-purification is facilitated by dedicated service to others, prior to the more secluded life of the contemplative.

Mystics have sometimes been accused of escapism, of retreating from the responsibilities of everyday life into a private world, and indeed, the descriptions of the ecstasies of spiritual awareness often sound rather like a selfish indulgence, oblivious to the problems of the outside world.

It is clear that the ideal mystic partakes fully of the duties and social responsibility of life after spiritual enlightenment, since mystical experience should give deeper meaning to the reality behind the everyday mundane world. For most individuals, however, a period of retreat from everyday life is helpful in disengaging oneself from the fears, desires, and egoism of mundane existence.

Hinduism places great stress on dharma, the duties and responsibilities of the individual, which take priority over any desire for transcendentalism. During this period one would observe the everyday religious rites and rituals related to the gods and goddesses of an individual's life. Later, however, when one had fulfilled one's responsibilities, married, begat a family, and provided for them, the realization that everything connected with the material world and physical life was transient would grow steadily, culminating in a hunger for knowledge of what is eternal.

At such a time, one might seek a qualified guru or spiritual preceptor and follow an ascetic life, discarding all material possessions, egoism, hopes, and fears in the quest for a higher spiritual awareness not subject to birth and death, or change and decay. Various pathways of yoga facilitated that quest, involving self-purification, service to others, and refinement of perception based upon physical health and its spiritual counterpart.

The Hindu emphasis on the duties and responsibilities of a householder taking priority over the quest for mystical enlightenment have something in common with Judaism, which does not seek to separate mystical experience from everyday life. Judaism is essentially pragmatic in its approach to the spiritual life and requires that mystical experience be interfused with daily life and religious observance.

The Jewish mystic typified in the period of eighteenth to nineteenth-century Hasidism, was a pious rabbi, living a life of prayer, study, and meditation within his community and sharing everyday social life and responsibility. In this respect he resembled the Eastern teacher around whom a group of pupils would gather for spiritual teaching and experience.

The Mechanisms of Mysticism

It is clear that the concept of self-purification in mystical progress involves psycho-physical mechanisms. Fasting, asceticism, mortification, and intense meditation have profound effects on the individual nervous system and other aspects of the body and mind. Very little discussion on this important area appeared in Western literature until Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven & Hell (1956). The starting point for Huxley's speculations about the psychophysical mechanisms of mystical experience was his own experiment in taking mescaline, a psychedelic drug, and unfortunately this particular stimulus has overshadowed the wider implications of his discussion.

A more simplistic interpretation of Huxley's speculations leads directly to the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, spear-headed by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, based on the conviction that by merely taking certain chemical substances one could have a spiritual experience comparable with that of the great mystics of history. This was a concept that Huxley himself deplored in his later years.It is now obvious that the chemical ecstasy and visions produced by psychedelic drugs are qualitatively different from the transcendental union experienced by the mystic who has devoted years to self-purification of mind, inner exploration, and spiritual perception, and that unless there is such a purification of the individual, the consumption of drugs can produce an intense but ultimately shallow experience. The search for chemical ecstasy was soon abandoned by its major early exponents, such as Walter Houston Clark.

It is now clear that the gradual transformation of the personality on all levelsphysical, mental, emotional and spiritualinvolves specific psycho-physical concomitants. Some of these may be accessible to scientific inspection. It may also be possible to evaluate various degrees of transcendental experience, ranging from emotional euphoria to progressively more profound areas of higher consciousness.

The modern Hindu mystic Pandit Gopi Krishna, who experienced a dramatic development of higher consciousness following a period of intense yoga discipline and meditation, has published his experiences and the perceptions accompanying them in a series of books, which during the last years of his life attracted the attention of scientists in investigating the phenomenon.

Paranormal Side Effects

Most religions have reported miraculous phenomena associated with the path of mysticism, including visions, disembodied voices, levitation, and gifts of healing. Christian saints have their miracles and the yogis have their occult powers. It would seem that with the transcendence of normal mental and emotional life, there is an area of transcendence of normal physical law. However, the mystic is warned not to be snared by such phenomena, since it will activate egoism and pride, common faults of the beginner on the spiritual path.

A Turning Point in Western Mysticism

Recent studies of Christian mysticism recognize 1200-1350C.E. as a crucial period in Western mysticism history. The era witnessed new styles and forms of religion, including reformed attitudes toward the relation of the world and the church. No longer was withdrawal from the worldly considered necessary to experience the mystical. Language styles changed in mystical poetry, sermons, and hagiography. Most significantly, there was a growth in the number of mystics, both male and female, as women began to take on a more influential role in mysticism during this time. Among these women visionaries was the ecstatic mystic Angela of Foligno and several great spiritual leaders of the Beguine movement: Mary of Oignies, Hadewijch of Antwerp, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete.


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Permeating each of the world's major religious traditions, mysticism may be described as the level of deep, experiential encounter with the divine, or ultimate, however that may be understood, that links religious and spiritual pursuits across cultures and across the centuries. Mysticism differs from more defined forms of religious experience, inasmuch as it frequently transports the individual beyond the confines of the religious tradition itself to a realm often described as lacking in any sense of differentiation, whether it be between aspirant and God, or between self and non-self.

The task of defining mysticism bears reevaluation, however. As Frits Staal has written, "If mysticism is to be studied seriously, it should not merely be studied indirectly and from without, but also directly and from within. Mysticism can at least in part be regarded as something affecting the human mind, and it is therefore quite unreasonable to expect that it could be fruitfully explored by confining oneself to literature about or contributed by mystics, or to the behavior and physiological characteristics of mystics and their bodies." (p. 123). That being said, according to a loose, phenomenological typology, one may consider mysticism to be that genre of subjectivity and behavior manifesting in an "altered," or nonconventional mode, framed in a religious or spiritual narrative, and experienced by those who are refered to, at least in English, as "mystics."

Mysticism in various religious traditions

The Christian tradition manifests varied branches of mysticism, including the Discalced Carmelites, a movement within the Carmelite order that espouses a form of mystical development still followed today in the Catholic Church. Founded by St. Teresa of Avila (15151582) and St. John of the Cross (15421591) in sixteenth-century Spain, the movement defended the practice of inner prayer against its persecution by King Philip II of Spain. Educated by Jesuits, John of the Cross began theological studies at the University of Salamanca in 1567 but left to help Teresa of Avila in her efforts to found the Discalced Carmelites. Imprisoned by the non-reformed Carmelites from 1575 to 1578, he used his imprisonment to his advantage, composed poetry, and, finally, escaped to face further suspicion regarding supposed connections to socalled illuministic books roundly condemned during the Inquisition. Only after the Apostolic See had examined his orthodoxy in the early seventeenth century were his books published openly.

St. John primarily articulates a systematic approach to mystical development appropriate to cloister spirituality, though he wrote his last book, The Living Flame of Love, for a laywoman, and used it as a vehicle of instructing both lay and monastic Christians in the methods for attaining mystical union. St. John may primarily be remembered for explicating a so-called via negativa mode of spiritual engagement in which one prays without focusing on imagery and without actively pursuing any specific intellectual content (Mallory, pp. 17). Some generations earlier, Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (12601328) similarly utilized a kind of "negative theology" to point towards the inadequacy of human language and perception in capturing the fullness of mystical experience: "There is no knowing what God is" (Steere, pp. 143144). And in the Indian Advaita tradition, as Mahadevan wrote in the preface to The Wisdom of Unity, one experiences transcendent unity as "the distinctions and differences that teem this world" fade away in the recognition of "the eternal nonduality of the Self."

The Sufi tradition exhibits the depth of Islamic spirituality and exemplifies the paradoxical quality of mysticism in general. According to Rumi (12071273), a Persian mystic and poet, "What is Sufism? He said: To find joy in the heart when grief comes." Rābi 'a (717801), a Sufi mystic and an Islamic saint, "introduced the element of selfless love into the austere teachings of the early ascetics and gave Sufism the hue of true mysticism." Never marrying and not favoring the prophet Mohammad in any particular way, she loved God absolutely, and completely, losing herself in contemplation of him. Sufism also provides a good example of the nature of the path that carries mystics of all stripes, a series of steps towards a deep experience of God, toward the realization of emptiness, or towards whatever the goal may be. In Islam, Sufis follow the ṭarīqa (path), in which the mystic practices īthār (preferring others over oneself), a practice that later dissolves as the difference between oneself and the other is "subsumed in the divine unity" (Schimmel, p. 99).

The theme of total, devotional love also infuses Christian mysticism, as evidenced by the Franciscan movement of the alumbrados, those mystics "illuminated" by the Holy Spirit, some of whom practiced dejamiento (abandonment) of oneself to the love of God, with the result that the formal sacraments of the Church were seen to be superfluous (Hamilton, pp. 12). And according to the visions of the German mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (10981180), love appears as a beautiful apparition, such that "the fire of God's love runs through the world and its beauties, constantly re-enlivening the cosmos as a miracle of perfection" (Schipperges, pp. 6869, citing Hildegard's Book of Divine Works ).

The status of duality, or non-duality, occupies branches of mysticism otherwise separated by virtue of culture, time, or doctrine. This is unsurprising, particularly given the nature of mysticism itself in transcending boundaries, which are often perceived as limitation; for example, the dualisms of sense versus spirit, and attachment to creation versus attachment to God, pervade St. John's writings, as Marilyn Mallory posits in her 1977 book, Christian Mysticism. Interestingly, in attempting to express non-duality and paradox, mystics often choose poetry as a modality capable of pointing beyond the mundane levels of a world with defined, black and white borders, at the same time that it promises great aesthetic enjoyment to its listeners. And as Herbert Guenther indicates in The Royal Song of Saraha (1969), beginning with Mar pa (10121097), Tibetan teacher and translator, the Doha tradition in Tibet utilized melodious verses composed and sung by mystics to both express and indicate non-conventional modes of awareness and states of deep appreciation and joy.

Sometimes referred to as "states of infused contemplation" (Pike, p. ix), union exists as a central preoccupation of many mystics. In Christianity, for example, union covers experiences from prayers of silence, to prayers of union, to more intense experiences of rapture, so-called ecstasy states similar along certain dimensions to shamanic flights of the soul. As Nelson Pike puts it, "the paradigm union experience unfolds through a dualistic stage into a state in which the distinction between subject and object is lost" (p. 59). Language fails at this important juncture, causing many mystics to resort to metaphor and poetry in describing their experiences. St. John of Ruysbroeck (12931381), for example, describes his experience of being permeated, stating, "the iron is within the fire and the fire is within the iron; and so also the air is in the sunshine and the sunshine in the air" (pp. 236237).

Sociologically, mystical traditions in many religions rely upon a period of tutelage by a respected member of the community, and a period of discipleship on the part of the aspirant. As Frits Staal comments, "The need for a qualified teacher is stressed in almost all the traditions of mysticism . In Islam it is the foundation of the silsila or 'spiritual lineage'" whereas in Indian religions, one refers to "the guruparampara, 'the direct lineage of teachers'" (p. 144). Tibet, for example, historically organized a good part of its country's social structure around this kind of hierarchical, lama-discipline relationship, and this tradition of devotion to idealized teachers in some cases stimulates the minds of Western academics who study Buddhism. One also may find the master-discipline lineage tradition in other religions, such as the Sufism of West Africa. 'Umar al-Shaykh (864960) brought the Qādiriyyah order of Sufism to the western Sudan in West Africa, having been initiated into the order of the Qādiriyyah masters and hajj, as Ibrahim Doi posits in "Sufism in Africa" (1991).

In communities, and in some cases, entire societies, in which mystical achievement translates into positions of power and prestige, authenticity exerts itself as a powerful mediator of who will or will not be accepted by the group, which teachings will be honored, and whose interpretations will be valued. In the Islamic world, for example, Jami (14141492), a Persian poet and mystic, describes two types of mystics, those who are concerned with their own salvation and who practice in complete reclusion, "and those who return from their mystical experience in a higher, sanctified state of mind and are able to lead other people on the right path" (Schimmel, p. 7). Grace Jantzen also discusses the manner in a "gendered struggle for power and authority" permeates mysticism in early and medieval Christendom, though the same may easily be claimed for mystical traditions more generally (p. xv).

Members of mystical communities also distinguish between "the true Sufi, the mutasawwif who aspires at reaching a higher spiritual level, and the mustawif, the man who pretends to be a mystic but is a useless, even dangerous, intruder" (Schimmel, p. 20). In some cases, too, the mystic's life is seen to contradict that of the householder, and severe sanctions may ensue. For example, the father of Dnyaneshwar, a well-known fifteenth-century Indian saint, abandoned the world for the mystical path after leading a householder's life for many years. He later returned to family life, however, fathering Dnyaneshwar, who was condemned as an outcaste on the basis of his father's violation of the orthodox injunction that a sanyasi (renounced person) should never return to the life of the householder, according to Ian Ezekiel.

Throughout this brief account, the existential dimensions of mysticism should not be ignored. Mystics from all traditions often point towards aspects of reality beyond the conventional world of thoughts and forms. Yesh, a Hebrew term used by rabbis to indicate the treasure awaiting saints in the future life, roughly translates as there is, thereby signaling deeper existential dimensions than those normally encountered. As Abraham Isaac Kook (18651935), a Jewish mystic, writes, "So long as the world moves along accustomed paths, so long as there are no wild catastrophes, man can find sufficient substance for his life by contemplating surface events, theories, and movements of society." But "when life encounters fiery forces of evil and chaos," he continues, "the man who tries to sustain himself only from the surface aspects of existence will suffer terrible impoverishment, begin to stagger then he will feel welling up within himself a burning thirst for that inner substance and vision which transcends the obvious surfaces of existence and remains unaffected by the world's catastrophes" (Weiner, pp. 34). In the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbala, one searches for yesh in a kind of "subsurface reality," a dimension of existence in which "good and evil [lose] the distinction so apparent to surface vision" (Weiner, pp. 67).

Interpreting mysticism

Interpretative approaches to mysticism vary, from those influenced by traditional disciplines such as philology and the history of religions, to those that take their inspiration from contemporary Western sciences of the mind. Frits Staal, for example, canvasses dogmatic approaches, philological and historical approaches, phenomenological and sociological viewpoints, and physiological and psychological frameworks. In this last category, one moves from Freud's dislike for "dark" phenomena such as mysticism and Yoga, to Jung's archetypal metaphysics according to which a variety of mystical phenomena may be classified. Nevertheless, Staal himself claimed that he "would not be surprised if the study of mysticism would one day be regarded as a branch of psychology," by which he meant "that psychology would be deepened and widened so as to be in a position to take account of these particular aspects of the mind" (p. 116).

Psychology and cognitive science. Approaching mysticism from the interpretive lens of cognitive science, visions and locutions offer themselves as interesting candidates for investigation. Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, for example, frames Hildegard of Bingen in terms of medical literature on migraine. He writes, "The religious literature of all ages is replete with descriptions of 'visions,' in which sublime and ineffable feelings have been accompanied by the experience of radiant luminosity." He continues, "It is impossible to ascertain, in the vast majority of cases, whether the experience represents a hysterical or psychotic ecstasy, the effects of intoxication, or an epileptic or migrainous manifestation" (p. 112). Somewhat similarly, mental health professionals also have investigated patterns of commonality between the reported mystical experiences of religious practitioners and psychotic inpatients, concluding, "Contemplatives and psychotics taken together could be separated from Normals, but not from each other, with the Hood Mysticism Scale. The Normals and Contemplatives taken together could be separated from the Pyschotics, but not from each other, with the EGO Scale (Knoblauch's Ego Grasping Orientation Inventory) and the NPI (Raskin and Hall's Narcissistic Personality Inventory)" (Stifler, p. 366).

Hindu and particularly Buddhist mysticism assumes "the perfectibility of man," as Herbert Guenther puts it (p. 42). This fact opens the way for some incredible claims concerning human capacities, such as the claims that enlightened humans may attain ja 'lus, or "rainbow body," at the time of death, such that their bodies dissolve into rainbow light and all manner of spectacular visions appear to the disciples left behind (Lhalungpa, pp. 8297). Obviously, traditions postulating no ceiling on human accomplishments open the way for psychological grandiosity to manifest in the character structures of certain practitioners. Invoking a contemporary, psychiatric frame of interpretation, one can recognize a pathological "mechanism of defense" in the "primitive fantasy" of omnipotence (Kernberg, pp. 221) and the signs of "narcissistic personality disorder" in fantasies of unlimited success (Beck, p. 234). Along somewhat similar lines, Schumaker argues that we should "understand religion and psychopathology (and, indirectly, hypnosis) as systems of artificial order that are dependent upon an active dissociation process" (p. 34). The fine line between insightful interpretation of one system of thought and practice in terms of the reality framework of another, and critical, almost condescending judgment, on the other hand, however, highlights the difficulties one encounters when employing one specific cultural lens to interpret behaviors arising in different segments of the same culture, or in different cultures altogether.

The status, experience, and understanding of consciousness, awareness, the mind, and the self, occupy tomes of mystical rumination. Indian philosophical systems of thought, and later Tibetan Buddhist writers, excel in this arena. For example, Prabhakara Mimamsaka philosophers occupy themselves with the question of whether or not the self is "self-luminous," concluding, "the self is not consciousness, and while consciousness (samvit) is self-luminous, the self is not" (Mahadevan, p. 11). Interestingly, this emphasis on consciousness and awareness makes mysticism a possible ally to contemporary brain science in the West. Mystical accounts from all of the world's major religious traditions, such as the rnam thar ("sacred biography") genre expressive of Tibetan Buddhist mysticism, frequently rely upon autobiography and sacred biography (hagiography) as narrative forms, further pointing to the centrality of the "self" and its transformations in the mystical journey. To oversimplify the situation, regular and frequently dramatic personal transformations wrought by the mystical path threaten to destabilize the self, a potentially dangerous, psychological situation mitigated by the creation of a "narrated self" (Wortham, p. 140), which can function as the hero or heroine in tales of miraculous accomplishment, thereby compensating for possible psychological fragmentation by means of a chronological narrative unfolding in which the mystic's own identity remains constant over the course of his or her lifespan.

The role of the body in providing a support for mystical experience constitutes another area in which mysticism and modern science, in this case, medicine, may complement one another. In the medieval Siddha traditions of Hindu alchemy and hatha yoga, for example, the body serves as the locus for complex worldly to transcendent transformations, as in when the practitioner utilizes pranayama (breath control) to transform mundane semen into the "divine nectar of immortality" and to transform mundane mind into "a state beyond mind" (White, p. 45). Because of its intricate involvement with body, speech, and mind, ritual plays an important role in catalyzing mystical states of awareness, as demonstrated, for example, by the tremendous emphasis placed on ritualized mantra repetition in both Hindu and Buddhist mystical traditions (Abe, pp. 138149). Repetitive, ritualized mandala visualization provides a similar, corporeal engagement of the aesthetic sensitivities cultivated by mystical practitioners (Andresen 2000). Perversions of the relationship between self and body, as seen from the perspective of Western medicine's diagnostic recognition of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, also has plagued mystics of many traditions. Whitney Miller develops a methodology of "psychomysticism," a kind of "contemplative counseling" in which the counselor emphasizes awareness and sensitivity, "a willingness to pay attention," following Bernard Lonergan's transcendental precept "to 'be attentive'" (p. 1).

The importance of context. Scholars of mysticism continue to debate whether or not mystical experience itself is mediated by context. Constructivists have held the view that, "linguistic, social, historical, and conceptual contextuality" shape the mystic's experience. On the other side, essentialists articulate a position whereby a common, pure core to mystical experiences supposedly exists, not merely within a single tradition such as Christianity or Buddhism, but across cultures and traditions, too. It is possible, as argued by Jensine Andresen, that constructivist and essentialist ("perennialist") positions may be seen to be complementary, inasmuch as species-wide perceptual systems and consciousness, which mediate between the qualia, or felt experience of the subjective, and the hard and fast reality of what is conventionally perceived to be an external world, are shared between all members of the human family, mystics included.

See also Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Physiological Aspects; Experience, Religious: Philosophical Aspects; Meditation; Monism; Mystical Experience; Mystics; Neurosciences; Pantheism; Psychology; Spirituality; Transcendence


abe, ryuichi. the weaving of mantra: kukai and the construction of esoteric buddhist discourse. new york: columbia university press, 1999.

andresen, jensine. "vajrayàna art and iconography." zygon: journal of religion and science 35(2) (2000): 357-370.

andresen, jensine. "introduction: towards a cognitive science of religion." in religion in mind: cognitive perspectives on religious belief, ritual, and experience, ed. jensine andresen. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 2001.

beck, aaron t., and freeman, arthur. cognitive therapy of personality disorders. new york and london: guilford press, 1990.

doi, abdur-rahman ibrahim. "sufism in africa." in islamic spirituality: manifestations, ed. seyyed hossein nasr. new york: crossroad, 1991.

ezekiel, ian a. sarmad. punjab, india: radhasoami satsang beas, 1966.

guenther, herbert v. the royal song of saraha: a study in the history of buddhist thought. seattle: university of washington press, 1969.

hamilton, alastair. heresy and mysticism in sixteenth-century spain: the alumbrados. buffalo, ny, and toronto: university of toronto press, 1992.

jantzen, grace m. power, gender and christian mysticism. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1995.

kernberg, otto f. "omnipotence in the transference and in the countertransference." the scandinavian psychoanalytic review 18 (1995): 2-21.

lhalungpa, lobsang. p. the life of milarepa. boulder, co: prajna press, 1982.

mahadevan, t. m. p. the wisdom of unity. madras, india: ganesh, 1967.

mallory, marilyn may. christian mysticism: transcending techniques. amsterdam: van gorcum assen, 1977.

miller, whitney g. psychomysticism: toward a method of contemplative counseling. donaldson, ind.: graduate theological foundation, 1997.

pike, nelson. mystic union: an essay in the phenomenology of mysticism. ithaca, ny: cornell university press, 1992.

ruysbroeck, jan van. john of ruysbroeck. london: john m. watkins, 1951.

sacks, oliver w. migraine: the evolution of a common disorder. berkeley and los angeles: university of california press, 1970.

schimmel, aannemarie. mystical dimensions of islam. chapel hill: university of north carolina press, 1975.

schipperges, heinrich. the world of hildegard of bingen: her life, times, and visions. collegeville, minn.: liturgical press, 1998.

schumaker, john f. the corruption of reality: a unified theory of religion, hypnosis, and psychopathology. new york: prometheus books, 1995.

staal, frits. exploring mysticism: a methodological essay. berkeley: university of california press, 1975.

steere, douglas v. together in solitude. new york: crossroad, 1982.

stifler, kenneth; greer, joanne; sneck, william; and dovenmuehle, robert. "an empirical investigation of the discriminibility of reported mystical experiences among religious contemplatives, psychotic inpatients, and normal adults." journal for the scientific study of religion 32 (4) (1993): 366-372.

weiner, herbert. 9 ½ mystics: the kabbala today. new york: macmillan, 1992.

white, david gordon. the alchemical body: siddha traditions in medieval india. chicago and london: university of chicago press, 1996.

wortham, stanton. narratives in action: a strategy for research and analysis. new york and london: teachers college press, 2001.

jensine andresen


views updated May 23 2018


In an academic context, the term "mysticism" is generally understood as referring to a cluster of phenomena having to do with the unmediated contact with the divine or with the merging with an absolute understood in impersonal terms. In everyday usage, on the other hand, the term "mysticism" is associated with magic, with the occult, and in general with practices that seek to transcend the mundane realm—above all, the realm of ordinary, institutionalized religion. Even if the equation of the "mystical" and the "magical" may appear as inappropriate to some, including mystics, the history of religions provides enough examples of cases in which out-of-the-ordinary experiences are accompanied by supernatural, mysterious powers—indeed, it ought to be remembered that "mysticism" and "mystery" are etymologically related. In any event, neither in academic nor in non-academic contexts is there an agreement as to the nature of the mystical. To begin with, one must consider the difficulties involved in trying to determine the meaning of terms such as "divine" or "absolute"—or, actually, one must confront the fact that such terms may be posited precisely because they defy definition. Furthermore, the claim that the mystics' experiences are not mediated by doctrine or ritual has been questioned by scholars since the early decades of this century. These scholars—besides pointing out that not many mystics have made such claims in the first place—have argued that, like everybody else, mystics function within a culture—that is, within a shared universe of meanings. This means that the religion within which mystics function or against which they react would necessarily mediate—that is, constrain or enable—the mystics' experiences. Against this position, some scholars of mysticism, referring to research in psychology and neurophysiology or to their own spiritual accomplishments, maintain that there are indeed experiences that transcend historical constraints. If research on mysticism is to go beyond sterile debates, scholars will have to take into account research in both the natural and social sciences—or, will have to stop assuming that the physical and the social sciences constitute self-contained domains.

A further problem with the concept of mysticism—one that will be especially relevant when discussing American developments—has to do with the difficulties one encounters when trying to differentiate mystical from other attempts to leave behind ordinary religiosity. In effect, it is not easy to distinguish attempts to transcend ordinary reality through mystical means from situations that involve messianic or millenarian ideologies. Even if one assumes that mysticism has to do mainly with achieving rarefied experiences, one can find examples of situations in which access to such experiences is achieved through the mediation of a spiritual guide—a guru or messiah. Similarly, mystical experiences can function as the catalyzers for millenarian movements—for cataclysmic events that are followed by a new era of peace and justice.

In the United States, interest in mystical approaches to religion can be traced back to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), the New England Transcendentalist who was familiar with ancient Indian scriptures such as the Upanishads, as well as with Neoplatonism and with the teachings of the eighteenth-century Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg. Then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, William James wrote one of the most influential accounts of mysticism, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Interest in mysticism and in Asian religions was reawakened during the Beat generation; one need only refer to Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) and The Dharma Bums (1958). During the 1960s, interest in mysticism has coincided with a distrust of institutional forms of religion, particularly when leaders of the main denominations have not assumed a critical attitude toward the government's activities. To these can be added occasional reports of visions or communications with Mary that repeat in an American context the European Catholic apparitions of Lourdes and Fatima.

One of the problems that students of mysticism share with scholars of the social sciences in general is the fact that a given social phenomenon can be said to have emerged as the result of diametrically opposed causes. Thus interest in noninstitutional forms of religion can be said to appear at times of relative peace and prosperity as a reaction against complacency and ossified religious practices, but also during periods of crisis when institutions have lost their prestige. An example of the first situation would be the post–World War II period when the Beat generation seemed to function as a reaction against the self-satisfaction of 1950s American culture. During the 1960s, on the other hand, the interest in Asian religions, in forms of noninstitutional religion, as well as in altered states of consciousness can be seen as a rejection of the technological and militaristic values of society, as well as of the passivity or outright complicity of religious leaders regarding the policies of the United States government in Southeast Asia. In both cases, some of those who rejected the socially accepted values engaged, like mystics in many traditions, in antinomian behavior, doing the reverse of what would be expected from ordinary people.

Among the groups that became popular during the 1960s and 1970s are the once ubiquitous Hare Krishna, founded by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Although the psychological transformation induced by devotional yoga promoted by the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) can be traced back ultimately to the teachings of the sixteenth-century Indian mystic Caitanya, the movement was never popular in India, having been rather elicited by conditions in the United States. Indeed, the emphasis on transforming one's consciousness through mystical means, rather than by changing institutions through politics, was one of the avenues left to those who mistrusted American institutions. On the other hand, it would be worth exploring the parallels between the social conditions against which twentieth-century American devotees of Krishna Consciousness were reacting with those prevalent in northeastern India in the sixteenth century: on the one hand, youth alienation from a government engaged in aggression against Vietnam, and, on the other, Hindu protest against Muslim domination—in both cases, ecstatic devotion as a reaction against intolerable external conditions. Less ecstatic is the "gestalt consciousness" and the realization of Self sought by the adherents of the Human Potential Movement, popular during the 1960s and 1970s. In this movement, as in many others, one sees at work the still pervasive concern with therapeutic models and self-realization. Potentially deadly, on the other hand, are recent apocalyptic groups such as the Solar Temple, whose members committed suicide (or were murdered) seeking to transcend the human condition.

Interest in the mystical, intensified by the approach of the new millennium, may involve reading the many books found in the "metaphysical" section of most bookstores or harmless books such as James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy, which takes place in a suitably mysterious Peru and is popular among college students. More pretentious, if equally harmless, are the many writings of "continental" authors, popular among academics of the postmodern persuasion—"continental" being for some academics at the turn of the millennium what "Oriental" used to be for 1960s dropouts. What deconstruction and postmodernism have in common with traditional forms of mysticism is the mistrust of reason as well as the concern with the relationship between identity and difference. However, traditional mystical teachings tend to emphasize identity and oneness, but postmodernism/deconstruction celebrates otherness and difference.

One should not conclude from the previous cases of mystical religion that mystical practices always take place outside the framework of mainstream religion. The ambiguity of mysticism becomes clear when one sees that intense experiences are sought and achieved in Protestant Pentecostal churches as much as in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. In these cases, trance, possession, speaking in tongues, and the like, take place in a ritualized context—just as mystical experiences have tended to occur in all cultures. Similarly, academic celebrations of otherness and difference do take place within the safe confines of academia.

Despite the apparent clash between mystical goals and the values of a consumer society, in its current American form the mystical quest fits very well with the prevailing American ideology. In effect, the rejection of external constraints on one's behavior, the lack of interest in doctrinal issues, the abandonment of the unpleasant aspect of religion (for example, Americans' tendency to believe in heaven but not in hell), the concern with the self and with self-cultivation—in short, the desire for a religion designed by and for oneself, rather than one inherited by tradition—all go hand in hand with an individualist ideology in which the consumer, faced with an unlimited supply of inexpensive goods, is always right. It should be pointed out, however, that the fact that many contemporary Americans engage in mystical practices in order to improve their psychological and physical health, as well as their general well-being, should not be construed as the betrayal of a presumed essence of mysticism, for in many traditions mystical practices are intimately connected with the control of one's mind and of one's body—meditation has been an important component of most of the religions that have emerged in India, and in the Taoist tradition the goal is to attain immortality in one's own body.

Perhaps more telling than specific cases of interest in mystical teachings or membership in esoteric groups is Americans' desire for "experiencing," as opposed to just knowing about something in a detached way. This is shown by the frequency with which precisely the word "experience" is used in everyday American speech—for example in expressions as mundane as "dining experience" or "shopping experience." The fact that these expressions are promoted in the context of carefully orchestrated sales pitches does not prove that the thirst for experiencing is artificially induced—it shows rather that advertisers and purveyors of popular culture are quite aware of the pulse of American culture. We may conclude by noting that the peculiar tension between the search for experience and the concern with the self, on the one hand, and the prevalence of calculation and desire for economic advancement, on the other, is one of the central characteristics of modernity. In that sense, then, the current understanding of mysticism as that which transcends ordinary religion and ordinary experience appears as the perhaps necessary, modern counterpart of the rationalized world that emerged in the seventeenth century.

See alsoCatholic Charismatic Renewal; Enlightenment; Guru; Human Potential Movement; International Society for Krishna Consciousness; Magic; Meditation; New Age Spirituality; Occult; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Psychology of Religion; Religious Experience; Ritual; Solar Temple; Spirit Guide; Spirit Possession; Spirituality; Trance; Upanishads; Yoga.


Benavides, Gustavo. "Modernity." In Critical Terms forReligious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor. 1998.

Glock, Charles Y., and Robert N. Bellah, eds., The NewReligious Consciousness. 1976.

Katz, Steven T., ed. Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. 1978.

Robbins, Thomas, and Susan J. Palmer, eds. Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements. 1997.

Roof, Wade Clark. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomersand the Remaking of American Religion. 1999.

Staal, Frits. Exploring Mysticism: A Methodological Essay. 1975.

Wuthnow, Robert. After Heaven: Spirituality in Americasince the 1950s. 1998.

Gustavo Benavides


views updated May 29 2018


The etymology of the word mysticism traces back to the Greek verb myein (to close), employed by the ancient mystery cults when prohibiting initiates from disclosing the contents of the secret rites. In this context the verb suggested silence and secrecy. Later, the second- and third-century Greek Christian fathers used the adjective mystikos to describe arcane cognition such as the allegorical interpretation of scripture in contrast to the literal, or spiritual knowledge in contrast to carnal knowledge. The fifth- or sixth-century Syrian monk who wrote under the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite adapted the adjective and gave it a use that brings it considerably closer to the modern concept of the mystical. In "The Mystical Theology" Dionysius pursues the consequences of a negative theology, a theology that denies the adequacy of any proposed predication of God. Elsewhere, in his "The Divine Names," pseudo-Dionysius distinguishes the predicatespertaining to the trinity from other predicates used to describe God. Whereas the multiplicity of the other predicates (e.g., light, life, good) does not reflect differentiation within the unity of God, the predicates pertaining to the father, son, and spirit do refer to a differentiation within the unity of God. Even these gendered predicates must, nevertheless, be negated as inadequate to describe God's ineffable transcendence. God, pseudo-Dionysius insists in "The Mystical Theology," is not light, life, or goodness, but neither is God sonship or fatherhood. Dionysius's negative theology ultimately leads to paradoxical results. He asserts, however, that one can attain extraordinary cognition of truths about God that defy rational articulation. "Mystical theology" is, for Dionysius, a form of cognition that paradoxically knows about God "by knowing nothing."

For Dionysius mystical theology refers to a kind of extraordinary knowing, an extraordinary kind of cognition. After around 1200 ce, however, the mystical became more affective, less elite, and more experiential. Prior to this period mystical writing was largely speculative or theoretical. After, it became more devotional, confessional, and biographical. Previously, mystical theology concerned extraordinary cognition; now it increasingly concerned extraordinary consciousness. Although the substantive term mysticism did not appear until the seventeenth century, Bernard McGinn (1998) has labeled this development "the new mysticism." The modern concept of mysticism is the descendent of the new mysticism. Mysticism has come to denote a peculiar and ineffable state of mind that purportedly conveys private, intuitive, higher knowledge of the divine or ultimate. Experiential awareness of an ultimate unity is frequently ascribed to mystical consciousness. Mysticism is viewed, furthermore, as a source of insight that stands in uncertain relationship to institutional and dogmatic authority. In the nineteenth century, apologetic attempts to render religion intellectually respectable seized on mysticism. In many quarters mysticism was viewed as the universal, primordial basis for religion. The notion that various religions are expressive responses to ineffable mystical experience insulated religion against criticism aimed at doctrines.


The "new mysticism" of Western Christendom arose in the context of profound changes to the structures of authority in the church. In the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries the salience of the priestly office changed considerably. The authority of the (now celibate) priesthood as religious teachers and mediators of salvation grew. At this time whatever limited institutional authority to preach or participate in pastoral affairs that women had previously enjoyed was strictly curtailed. The orders of friars, founded as preaching orders, likewise excluded women. Caroline Walker Bynum (1982) argues that the thirteenth-century mystical visions of the nuns of Helfta (Mechtild of Magdeburg, Gertrude of Helfta, and Mechtild of Hackeborn) served to authorize these women mystics as teachers and pastoral counselors. The nuns' mystical communion with Christ granted them an authority—explicitly bestowed by Christ in the visions them-selves—that was not based on their office within the church hierarchy. In medieval Europe mysticism provided women with a path to power and authority, but women mystics needed male approval or sponsorship to succeed. That Christ would appear to women, perceived as weaker and less rational than men, seemed congruous with Christ's ministry in the Gospels to the humble and meek. This supposition counteracted somewhat the suspicion that these experiences were delusory because women were more susceptible to natural infirmity and the devil's wiles.

Bynum contends that the exclusion of women from clerical and pastoral authority accounts for the prominence of women mystics at this time, and that their spirituality extensively influenced high medieval piety. They contributed to a heightened attention to the interior life and to paranormal experience. They emphasized the humanity of Christ and the devotional significance of incorporating the body of Christ during the Eucharist. Women mystics also made a tropological interpretation of the biblical Song of Songs central to medieval Christianity. They interpreted the nuptial imagery of the biblical poem as an encounter between the soul and Christ. Christ, the bridegroom, unites the soul, the bride, to him in spiritual marriage, a union of love. Significantly, this gender imagery did not imply equality between the soul and God. Rather, the imagery conveys that the loving soul conforms its will to God's will for it, as the bride submits her will to her husband's will.


Medieval Christian mysticism is not alone in reinscribing gender hierarchy in symbolism that seems to collapse gender dualisms. Elliot R. Wolfson (1995) has argued, for instance, that medieval Jewish Cabala employs masculine and feminine symbols to convey the idea of a primordial diremption (division into two) of the Godhead. Through symbolic gender transformations in which the masculine becomes feminine and vice versa, human ritual activity aims to restore the unity that transcends gender dichotomies. That ultimate unity, nevertheless, has masculine associations. Wolfson claims that in cabalistic thought God can be mythically described as a "male androgyne." This notion is symbolically captured by the image of the "androgynous phallus." The feminine aspect of God is represented as the corona of the penis. These gender relationships are recapitulated in the cabalistic interpretation of human sexual intercourse, an act that, properly undertaken, contributes to the restoration of the male androgyne. In the reproductive act, the male and female are united, but in such a way that the male's ability to procreate is made complete and the female is transformed into masculine potency. In Cabala, redemption consists of the subsumption of the female in the male rather than the transcending of gender altogether.


In a controversial 1994 book, Miranda Shaw arrives at conclusions about sex and gender in Tantric Buddhism that invert the sex and gender relationships found in medieval Christian mysticism and medieval Jewish Cabala. Like other forms of Mahayana Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism (eighth through twelfth centuries) prescribes rituals, teachings, and meditation exercises in order to achieve an enlightened, nondual state of awareness. Unlike other forms of Mahayana Buddhism, which view the passions and desires solely as dangerous fetters tying one to conventional, dualistic consciousness, Tantra exploits passion and desire as techniques of enlightenment. In this context human sexuality takes on special ritual and symbolic importance. Shaw claims that despite the emphasis on nondualism and gender equality in Mahayana Buddhism, Tantric cosmology, Tantric theory, and Tantric practice privilege women and femaleness. Cosmologically, the powers of the universe flow through female deities. Ritually, the female is the foundation and generating source of spiritual progress. As the font of enlightenment, women Tantric practitioners did not need the patronage or approval of men. Rather, the male practitioner courted the favor of the woman and worshipped her. At its most esoteric, this worship consists of ritual coitus. By offering his sexual fluid, which mingles with hers to produce bliss, the man in effect makes the woman an offering of sexual pleasure. The woman uses this pleasure as the basis for a meditation on the emptiness of all things, and comes to experience her desire as mere illusory dualistic consciousness. If the cabalistic ritual sex act was essentially androcentric, Shaw claims that the Tantric ritual sex act was gynocentric.

Arising in the same historical context, Hindu Tantra bears great similarity to Buddhist Tantra. In contemporary India a small proportion of female Hindu ascetics are Tantric ascetics. There is no uniform or universal set of activities among Tantric ascetics, but yoga is common. Their yogic practices aim to elicit a vision of a deity or to attain samadhi, a trancelike consciousness that transcends material existence and the individual ego. In classical yoga theory, samadhi is the blissful awareness of one's purusha (literally, "male"), or non-individuated inner spiritual essence, transcending prakriti, the feminine gendered material process. Tantric ascetics may also engage in notorious "left-hand" practices. These ritual activities consciously flout purity rules, moral codes, and social conventions. Female Tantric ascetics renounce women's traditional religious duties (stridharma), may use intoxicants, and may meditate at polluting cremation grounds. Ritual sexual relations with a male fellow ascetic is the "left-hand" practice most prominent in the popular mind. The ascetics' wantonness and freedom with respect to social norms, which they believe evidences their spiritual power and freedom, causes them to be viewed with suspicion by others.

In many contexts mysticism has suggested the possibility of freedom from gender. Women have celebrated this possibility, but men reflecting on women mystics have noted it too. Rabi'ah al-'Adawiyah, the eighth-century Sufi from Basra, is a well-known example. Rabi'ah is often credited with introducing the notion of selfless love to Sufism. True love of God, she insisted, must not have its basis in hope of paradise or fear of hell. Her love for God was all consuming. Indeed her love was ecstatic, annihilating the self in perpetual union with the beloved. Farid od-Din 'Attar, the great thirteenth-century Sufi, wrote apropos of Rabi'ah that united in love to God, the mystic transcends gender identity altogether.

see also Celibacy.


Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1982. "Women Mystics in the Thirteenth Century: The Case of the Nuns of Helfta." In Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Denton, Lynn Teskey. 1991. "Varieties of Hindu Female Asceticism." In Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, ed. Julia Leslie. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Luibhead, Colm, trans. 1987. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. New York: Paulist Press.

McGinn, Bernard. 1998. The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism, 1200–1350. New York: Crossroad.

Schimmel, Annemarie. 1975. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Shaw, Miranda. 1994. Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wolfson, Elliot R. 1995. "Crossing Gender Boundaries in Kabbalistic Ritual and Myth." In Circle in the Square: Studies in the Use of Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

                                          Matthew C. Bagger


views updated May 23 2018



It is a major premise of the mystical traditions that it is possible for humanity to come into direct contact with the one God, the one Goddess. These traditions can be found in many places and in many eras. This entry provides a brief introduction to this profound area of human experience.

One such tradition can be found in the Holy Kabbalah, which embodies the mystical, esoteric teachings of the Jewish faith. Its primary glyph is the tree of life, which is a complex symbol that represents both the microcosm and the macrocosm (the symbol of which is the Star of Davida hexagram uniting two triangles). The tree is composed of ten emanations of God, called sephira, and twenty-two connecting paths that correspond to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each sephiroth is associated with a different vision experience. The two greatest of these visions are the vision of God face-to-face and the vision of union with God. It is interesting to note that even Moses, who received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, was denied the vision of God face-to-face. He was only allowed to see his hind parts. The vision of union with God was experienced by several prophets in the Old Testament, including Elijah. Christians refer to this experience as being translated. Once one experiences this vision, in accord with Kabbalistic teachings, one is taken from the earth. A relatively modern manifestation of these teachings can be found in the writings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization that only lasted about twenty years but was composed of such important figures as William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Dion Fortune (1890-1946), and Israel Regardie (1907-1985). Offshoots of this group can be found today.

The Holy Kabbalah is the centerpiece of a larger body of knowledge referred to as the Western esoteric tradition. It included such people as the Swiss physician Paracelsus (c. 1493-1541), Nostradamus (1503-1566), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). These alchemists, in their search for the philosopher's stone, sought the hidden truths by which they could successfully engage in a process called the great work. This process entails transforming all that is lead or dross within one's nature into pure gold. These transformational processes allow one to transcend ordinary human limitations and bring one into contact with the higher powers and the beings through whom these powers flow. This approach is referred to as process theology, which is in close harmony with mystical traditions. This process is often described as being on the path or as one's personal journey. Perhaps the best known example of this is the story of Saul who was blinded for three days and nights on the road to Damascus. There he met a holy man by the name of Ananias who aided him in his spiritual transformation by which he became Paul, the Apostle.

The mystical tradition exists within Christianity as well, although it has been historically suppressed. The founding fathers, such as Origen (c. 185-254 CE), placed much more emphasis on the inner Christ than is true of most of Christendom today. The Gnostic movement in the early church promoted this approach by developing practices by which one could experience the Christ principle found deep within the consciousness of all people. This gave it a universalistic thrust that would appeal to mystics of all ages. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) stated, when asked what religion he was, that in his true essence he was a Christian, in his true essence he was a Hindu, in his true essence he was a Buddhist. Implied in this answer, is that all world religions flow from the same source. It is their concrete expressions that give rise to dogmatism and social conflict. Were all people to adopt this perspective, religious strife, bigotry, and arrogance would come to an end.

The centerpiece of Buddhism is the achievement of nirvana or enlightenment. That experience is so powerful that it releases one from the wheel of rebirth. This event happened in the life of Prince Siddhartha (who became an enlightened one) when he sat under the banyan tree 2,500 years ago and declared unto humanity that all is sorrow. He had what the Kabbalah describes as the vision of the sorrow of the world. He then gave us the noble eightfold path by which one can experience the ineffable bliss. This process entails the raising of the kundalini fire up the spinal chord, vivifying each chakra along the way until it reaches the thousand-petal lotus located within the crown chakra. Each petal of the lotus represents a different spiritual power. Thus, an enlightened one is born. Successful completion of this process frees one from the wheel of rebirth.

Native American spiritualism provides yet another fine example of mysticism. Wankan Tanka, the Lakota term for the Great Spirit, suggests the awe one experiences when one draws near these primal forces. Lakota culture, like many Indian tribal cultures, emphasizes the harmony ethos in which tribal members are encouraged to place their lives in harmony with these powerful forces found in nature. Such rites as sweats, crying for a vision, and the most sacred of all Lakota rituals, the sun dance, aid one in this process, termed the medicine path. The focus here is to come into an understanding of who one is and the spiritual purpose for which one has been placed on earth. Native culture is about being. Anglo culture is about doing.

Modern psychology also contains traditions that speak to these exalted states of consciousness. William James (1842-1910), the father of psychology, wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), which provides descriptions of these experiences. More recently, transpersonal psychologists have devoted considerable effort to better understand these phenomena. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), a forerunner of this tradition, described these events as peak experiences that can have great meaning for those who experience them. Regardless of the tradition to which one subscribes, all agree on the premise that it is possible to come into contact with God.

SEE ALSO American Dilemma; Buddhism; Christianity; Cox, Oliver C.; Gramsci, Antonio; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Ideology; Judaism; Lukacs, Gyorgy; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Myrdal, Gunnar


Black Elk. 1961. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Ogalala Sioux. As told to John G. Neihardt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Fortune, Dion (Violet Firth). [1935] 1998. The Mystical Qabalah. Boston: Weiser.

James, William. [1902] 1963. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Hyde Park, NY: University Books.

Maslow, Abraham. 1971. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Regardie, Israel. [1932] 2004. A Garden of Pomegranates: Skrying on the Tree of Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.

Paul R. Newcomb


views updated Jun 11 2018



The Place of Mysticism in Medieval Christianity. Although the medieval Church stressed the importance of good works to salvation, a strong mystical streak existed alongside this practical Christianity. Mysticism emphasizes individual and immediate communion with God through means beyond rational understanding. It may be manifested through dreams, raptures, and visions. Mystics spent days fasting, received signs of divine favor, and made prophesies. The medieval Church had an ambivalent attitude toward such mystics. On the one hand, the Church had no doubt that God could choose to communicate directly with Christians, and its theology stressed the importance of personal experience of the divine and how that experience would transcend all forms of worldly experience. On the other hand, how could they be sure these visions were from God? Satan was by definition the prince of deceivers, and sending false visions was something he would do to thwart Christians. For these reasons, many medieval mystics and their spiritual guides were often torn when they began having visions and other mystical experiences, and the Church generally regarded mystical movements quite closely and with great skepticism.

Revelation and Apocalypse. Religious life in the Middle Ages appears to have been lived in perennial expectation of the end of the world. Basing their belief on the Book of Revelations, medieval clergy and laity had a clear vision of this final battle between the forces of good and evil. Images of the Apocalypse (the final battle) adorned medieval churches, and descriptions of its terrors fill medieval manuscripts. Figures from the Apocalypse also provided a rhetoric of evil used long after the Middle Ages; to call an opponent the Antichrist (the opposite of Christ and the leader of the evil force in the final, 1,000-year battle) remained the ultimate condemnation in Christian society during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although much has been written about the supposed “terrors of the year 1000,” the expectation that the end of the world was near was a major feature of the whole medieval age rather than something people discovered only at the millennium. Yet, the coming of Christ in judgment was not only a fearful prospect but also a joyful one. One strand in the mille-narian tradition that was already very much present as early as the tenth century is the belief that a time of justice and joy will be enjoyed between the Second Coming of Christ and the end of time. Although emphasized less frequently than the terrors of battle and judgment, this expectation of a better age to follow the end of present decadence and injustice was an important part of medieval beliefs about the Apocalypse.

Orthodox Mysticism: Christ and Female Mysticism. A particularly enduring expression of mystical trends may be found in the experience of unity with the suffering Christ, which was experienced by a host of women mystics. In the high Middle Ages, this tradition of female mysticism included Hroswitha of Gandersheim (circa 1000) and Hildegard of Bingen (1109–1179), and it came to a fuller and more striking maturity with women who were linked to the Mendicant movement, such as Clare of Assisi (died 1253), Catherine of Siena (died 1380), Bridget of Sweden

(died 1373), and many others. Their mystical experiences had an intense visual quality; from their descriptions it is possible to draw detailed pictures of Christ’s crucifixion, of a spiritual marriage ceremony with Christ, and of Christ’s lifting them spiritually and physically. Although the themes of their piety were not radically different from those of their male counterparts, these women were often more identified with the Christ-like bearing of suffering. The description of mystical experience as a bridal relationship with Christ crucified also acquires a particular power with these women, as does their expression of desire for union with Christ in the eucharist. Through them these themes and approaches became characteristic of medieval, and of much modern, Christian piety.

Academic Mysticism: Meister Eckhart. Eckhart (circa 1260–1328) was a German Dominican who was trained in theology at Paris and Cologne, two of the leading universities of his time. It has been argued that while in Paris he saw the heresy trial of the mystic Marguerite Porete and was influenced by her courage. Certainly, he was exposed to the Movement of the Free Spirit in the Rhineland, and he preached in German to Beghard and Beguine groups. They wrote down his sermons and their interpretations of them, which could vary greatly from the content of Eck-hart’s original. In 1325–1326 he was accused of heresy by the archbishop of Cologne and attempted to defend himself in public debate. His case gained such international recognition that he pleaded it before the papal court. Censured for his sermons, in particular his focus on direct individual communion with God over the sacraments of the Christian Church, Eckhart retreated from preaching. In the fifteenth century, however, he became a model for people seeking more personalized religious expression.

Suspect Mysticism: Joachim of Fiore . One of the most influential mystics on marginal religious groups in the Middle Ages was the Italian Joachim of Fiore (1132–1202). Beginning as a courtier with the Norman kings of Sicily, he turned from worldly concerns after viewing a great calamity; later writings suggest that this event might have been an outbreak of disease, but there is no clear evidence. By the time he was twenty-seven he was preaching, without any theological training, without joining any religious order, and without becoming a priest. When the clergy objected to his activities, he took monastic vows. He spent the rest of his life moving from monastery to monastery in Italy, where many saw him as a prophet. Although Joachim disavowed this claim, his interpretations of the Apocalypse and the doctrine of the third age of the spirit, which he developed, influenced generations of mystics. According to Joachim, history could be divided into three ages, which correspond to the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father ruled the first age, the age of the Old Testament, while God the Son ruled the second age and its New Testament revelations. The third age, ruled by the Holy Spirit, will be an age of universal love that will transcend the Gospel, and in it disciplinary institutions will be unnecessary. For Joachim the second age was coming to an end, and the third age would begin around 1260, after some disaster. Although some of his teachings were condemned at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the idea of the ages was not suspect until the middle of the thirteenth century. By this time a group of radical followers, calling themselves Joachimists or Joachimites, had arisen in the Franciscans. The Joachimites argued that around 1200 the New and Old Testaments had lost their force and that the new age was at hand, prefigured by the persecutions of true believers (the Joachimites). Even more radical forms of Joachimites evolved. Joachim’s relatively harmless idea of an angelic pope, come to cleanse the Church, became a female pope, who—working with cardinals who were all women—would convert the Jews and write new scriptures guided by the Holy Spirit.


Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, revised edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

Amy Hollywood, The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970).

Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages, expanded edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

Marjorie Reeves, Joachim of Fiore and the Prophetic Future (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).

Ulrike Wiethaus, ed., Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1993).


views updated May 11 2018

mysticism is frequently defined as an experience of direct communion with God, or union with the Absolute, but definitions of mysticism (a relatively modern term) are often imprecise and usually rely on the presuppositions of the modern study of mysticism — namely, that mystical experiences involve a set of intense and usually individual and private psychological states. While figures such as Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux, and John of the Cross are seen to be paradigmatic mystics of the Christian tradition, no ‘mystics’ would have defined themselves as such before the twentieth century. Furthermore, mysticism is a phenomenon said to be found in all major religious traditions — though the common assumption that all mystical experiences, whatever their context, are the same cannot, of course, be demonstrated.

Mysticism involves the practice of contemplation both in the philosophical sense of the contemplation of truth and in the ‘supernatural’ sense of having knowledge of God via a life of prayer. Nevertheless, the ‘mystic way’ is primarily practical, not theoretical, and is something in which the whole self is engaged; the great Christian mystics have spoken of how they acted rather than how they speculated. St Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote that the writing of her book had been seen and experienced in her every limb, seen with the eyes of her soul, and heard with the ears of her eternal spirit. Sharing the mental and physical suffering of Christ, in the meeting of the spirit with evil, is described by some mystics as central to their experience. Teresa of Avila warned her nuns that the trials given by God to contemplative could be intolerable, and that they might not be able to endure their sufferings for as long as a day. Images of action — battle, pilgrimage, search — are used to describe the mystic's inward work, which is, paradoxically, sustained by the outward stillness of contemplation.

Some have placed a particular emphasis on certain altered states, such as visions, trances, levitations, locutions, raptures, and ecstasies, many of which are altered bodily states. Margery Kempe's tears and Teresa of Avila's ecstasies are famous examples of such mystical phenomena. But many mystics have insisted that while these experiences may be a part of the mystical state, they are not the essence of mystical experience, and some, such as Origen, Meister Eckhart, and John of the Cross, have been hostile to such psycho-physical phenomena. Rather, the essence of the mystical experience is the encounter between God and the human being, the Creator and creature; this is a union which leads the human being to an ‘absorption’ or loss of individual personality. It is a movement of the heart, as the individual seeks to surrender itself to ultimate Reality; it is thus about being rather than knowing. For some mystics, such as Teresa of Avila, phenomena such as visions, locutions, raptures, and so forth are by-products of, or accessories to, the full mystical experience, which the soul may not yet be strong enough to receive. Hence these altered states are seen to occur in those at an early stage in their spiritual lives, although ultimately only those who are called to achieve full union with God will do so.

In Jewish mysticism, embodied in the collected teachings known as the Kabbalah, God is perceived as one who both reveals and conceals himself but who can be perceived through the practice of contemplation and resulting illumination. Because mystical knowledge can easily be misinterpreted, traditionally only people of a certain age and educational level, and usually men, were allowed to engage in mysticism. The role of the ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ body, and the place of gender relations, in Jewish mystical experience are illustrated by the story of Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakkanah, told in the sixth- or seventh-century Hekhalot Rabbati. The rabbi was in a mystical trance, at the sixth heaven but about to enter the seventh heaven, when the people with him wanted to ask him about his vision when he was speaking out loud to them while in his trance. They were faced with the question of how to get him out of his mystical trance, so they laid a piece of cloth on his knees which had been touched by a woman who had completed her menstrual cycle, had purified herself the first time, but not the second, and was therefore not quite pure. When the cloth touched his knees the rabbi came out of his trance immediately so they were able to ask him the question, and then he went back into his trance.

In the late nineteenth century mysticism became the object of much research, partly because of the development of psychology and partly because of the new comparative study of religion by which phenomena were observed and compared across cultures. Key figures in this scholarship were Evelyn Underhill and Friedrich, Baron Von Hugel, though their analysis of mysticism was not theological. Von Hugel emphasized the Transcendent, the ‘wholly other’ as a fact of religions across cultures and thus he influenced thinking about the mystic's union with that Transcendent being. Underhill in particular saw mysticism as a process or way of life and as a cross-cultural phenomenon, and thus envisioned the ‘mystic way’ as a series of psychological states which could be found in mystics across different religions, times, and places. While Underhill insisted that a feature of mysticism was the abolition of individuality, the new emphasis, also found in the work of the philosopher William James, on the psychological states of the mystic led to an assumption that mystical experience is an essentially private and subjective matter. It did not involve, for example, questions of social justice — though mystics have long claimed that the mystical experience is proven ‘true’ in its effects or fruits, such as greater humility, acts of charity, and love of others. James associated the mystical with subjective states of feeling and the notion of mysticism as ‘private’ remains in most subsequent philosophical treatments of the subject. Both Underhill and Von Hugel made it clear that mysticism was an essential element in all religion, but never claimed it to be the whole content of any religion. However, some Protestant theologians, such as Emil Brunner and Reinhold Neibuhr, came to reject it as anti-Christian, considering it to be too Neoplatonic, while others, including Anglicans like W. R Inge, Dean of St Paul's, went to the other extreme and saw mysticism as the essence of Christianity.

Michel de Certeau's work, in the latter part of the twentieth century, has compared the procedures common to both mysticism and psychoanalysis, suggesting that the body, far from being ruled by discourse, is itself a symbolic language, and that in both psychoanalysis and mysticism the body is perceived as responsible for a truth of which it is unaware. Thus the body holds the ‘key’ to the ‘truth’ of the ‘space’ represented by the mystical or unconscious. This has caused the modern study of mysticism to focus, like psychoanalysis, on the bodily manifestations of the psyche's or soul's condition in order to understand the ‘truth’ of that condition. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is Jacques Lacan's attempt to locate the apparent impossibility or unknowability of female desire in the mystical experiences of Teresa of Avila, as depicted in Bernini's sculpture in Rome; he states that on looking at that statue it is immediately clear to us, if not to Teresa, that she is experiencing an orgasm. Luce Irigaray, a feminist psychoanalyst, has appropriately responded (in This Sex Which is Not One) to this collapse and merging of female sexual desire and religious experience thus: ‘In Rome? So far away? To look? At a statue? of a Saint? Sculpted by a man? What pleasure are we talking about? Whose pleasure? For where the pleasure of Teresa is concerned, her own writings are more telling.’

Jane Shaw


Underhill, E. (1995). Mysticism, (15th edn, revised). Bracken Books, London.


views updated May 14 2018


MYSTICISM has many meanings in the study of the history of religions. In general it refers to a type of faith that emphasizes the direct experience of unity with the Divine. Theologically, mystical faiths tend to stress the divine immanence, and they often identify God with the structure of being. In the United States mystical forms of faith can be seen as a protest against the dominant religious tradition. Often centered around charismatic leaders, many of whom have been women, important strains of American mysticism have also set themselves explicitly outside Christianity.

The most famous mystic in early American history was Anne Hutchinson, whose mysticism evolved from the Puritan emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the means of grace. Her teachings were inflammatory, and for stating that she had communicated directly with God, she was exiled from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637.

Although Jonathan Edwards, a leading preacher of the Great Awakening, was primarily interested in traditional forms of religious experience, many elements in his writings suggest mystical leanings. The description of his wife's religious experience in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1792) is one of the classic accounts of mystical experience in American literature. Edwards's own theology presented a view of the world as filled with shadows and images of things divine and had elements in it similar to those found in mystical faiths.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was perhaps the most prominent proponent of nineteenth-century Romantic mysticism in the United States. Building on ideas ultimately derived from German philosophy and—in his later years—from the religions of the East, Emerson evolved a unique American mysticism that stressed the unity of humans with all nature. Through humans' communication with the world, Emerson argued, they could come to transcend it and recognize themselves as part of it at the same time.

In the years after the Civil War a variant of mysticism known as theosophy gained in popularity. Theosophy focused both on humans' ability to experience God and on the power of the human mind. Drawing on ideas from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, charismatic leaders, such as

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Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Annie Wood Besant, attracted both numerous followers and considerable controversy. In 1875 Blavatsky helped found the Theosophical Society and Universal Brotherhood in New York City. Mysticism also became better known to Americans through the World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. Representatives of Eastern religions and Western mysticism presented their views of the religious life to large audiences.

In the Native American tradition, mysticism had always played a central role, and this tendency increased under the pressure of persecution and displacement from ancestral lands. The most famous example of this phenomenon is the rise of the Ghost Dance movement among the Plains Indians in the late 1880s. Inspired by the Paiute prophet Wovoka, who claimed transcendent experiences in the afterworld, Sioux believing themselves invincible to bullets came into conflict with the U.S. Army. In 1890 over three hundred Sioux were killed in what became known as the Battle of Wounded Knee. Although this massacre brought the Ghost Dance movement to an end, the ideas that had animated it lived on and became part of the Native American Church, founded in 1918. Native American mysticism after Wounded Knee often revolved around peyote, a hallucinogenic plant that was used as a sacrament in ceremonies.

The Roman Catholic Church has always had more of a place for mysticism than the Protestant churches, and the mystical experience has continued to be important in the lives of many Roman Catholic religious orders. Thomas Merton, a convert to Catholicism, was one of the influential voices for Catholic mysticism in the United States in the twentieth century. His exposition of the mystical way was marked by clarity and philosophical insight, and his works reveal a deep concern for social justice and a keen analysis of political issues.

The drug culture of the 1960s created a widespread interest in mysticism among the young. Many who tried mind-expanding drugs found the states they induced were remarkably similar to or even identical with the experiences of the great mystics of the past. This led many to explore or become followers of non-Christian faiths, such as Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Native American religions.


Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948.

Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. New York: W. Sloane, 1949.

Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness. London: Methuen, 1962.


See alsoGhost Dance ; Indian Religious Life ; Spiritualism ; Theosophy ; Transcendentalism .


views updated May 21 2018


Mysticism is a set of beliefs and practices evoking an intimate union of man and the principle of being (god or divinity). The term mystic (mystisch ) appears in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). In its March 20, 1907, session, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society listened to a talk by Adolf Häutler on "Mysticism and the Comprehension of Nature," with critical comments by Adler, Rank, and Freud.

Mysticism was understood at that time in a pantheistic sense, as a union of man and nature and of nature with God. In a related sense, Freud "reserved for mysticism a consciousness of the inanimate," that is of matter and the mineral world (1915e).

The discussions between Freud and Romain Roll-and on the "oceanic feeling" and "Universal river" partook of the same pantheistic atmosphere that the French writer was fond of attributing to the "Germanic soul," and that he had borrowed from Indian thought. The feeling for nature and the idea of God were combined in a communion that drew equally on art and religion. For his part, however, Freud wrote to Rolland, on July 20, 1929, "I have as little appreciation for mysticism as I do for music."

Unlike Carl Jung, Freud was distinctly reticent about mysticism, which he felt had more to do with nature than with culture, more to do with intuition (if not drives) than with reason. Near the very end of his life, on August 22, 1938, he wrote in his notes: "Mysticism, the obscure self-perception of a kingdom outside the ego, or id." This obscurity, according to Freud, is not unrelated to the "dark continent" of the female psyche.

But although he seemed to reject mysticism, Freud acknowledged an irrational element in himself: the residue of his self-analysis, which he called "the specifically Jewish nature of [his] mysticism." Moreover, he loved mystery and wrote to Fliess (June 12, 1900) that he had dreamt of a marble plaque on his house that read:

In this house,
on July 24, 1895,
the mystery of the dream was revealed
to Dr. Sigmund Freud.

Odon Vallet

See also: Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis, A ; Jung, Carl Gustav; Oceanic feeling; Rolland, Romain Edme Paul-Emile.


Freud, Sigmund. (1915e). The Unconscious. SE,14:159-204.

. (1970). Letters of Sigmund Freud, 1873-1939. (Ernst L. Freud, Ed.; Tania and James Stern, Trans.). London: Hogarth.

Häutler, Adolf. (1962-75). Scientific meeting, March 20, 1907: Mysticism and the comprehension of nature. In Herman Nunberg and Ernst Federn (Eds.), Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (M. Nunberg, Trans., Vol. 2, 1906-08). New York: International Universities Press.

Jung, Carl Gustav. (1980). The psychology of the transference. Coll. Works, Vol. 16. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Vermorel, Henri, and Vermorel, Madeleine. (1993). Sigmund Freud et Romain Rolland. Correspondance 1923-1936.(Alain de Mijolla, Ed.). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.