What is Christian Mysticism?
By Jon Zuck
"To many modern Christians, words like "meditation," "mystic," and "mysticism" bring to mind Eastern religions, not Christianity. Certainly Eastern religions are known for their mysticism; however, mysticism is not only a vital part of the Christian heritage as well, but it is actually the core of Christian spirituality. Mysticism simply means the spirituality of the direct experience of God. It is the adventure of "the wild things of God."
The direct experience of God is a kind of knowing, which goes beyond intellectual understanding. It is not a matter of "belief." It is marked by love and joy, but it is not "emotional experience." In many ways, it is better described by what it is not. To describe what it is, we must use metaphors,—the marriage of the soul to Christ, the death of the "old man" and birth of the "new man," being the "body of Christ."
Jesus proclaimed "I and the Father are one," (Jn. 10.30) showing the world what the union of God and man can be. Christian mysticism is about nothing else but this transforming union.
Christ is the sole end of Christian mysticism. Whereas all Christians have Christ, call on Christ, and can (or should) know Christ, the goal for the Christian mystic is to become like Christ, to become as fully permeated with God as Christ is, thus becoming like him, fully human, and by the grace of God, also fully divine. In Christian teaching this doctrine is known by various names—theosis, divination, deification, and transforming union.
A common misconception about mysticism is that it's about "mystical experiences," and there are many volumes on such experiences in religious literature. But true mysticism is not focussed on "experiences" (which come and go) but with the lasting experience of God, leading to the transformation of the believer into union with God.
a very, very, very short mystical apologetic.
To know God directly shows that mysticism is different from any passive or legalistic kind of Christianity. It means:
• That while we honor the Scriptures, we want to know God directly, not just through Scripture.
• While we respect our heritage of teachings about God, we want to know God directly, not through doctrines and teachings.
• While we gather in communal worship, we want to know God directly, not just through the Church.
Some readers may find this unsettling. Maybe you believe it doesn't apply to you, because you "know" that your church is purer and more correct than others. Even if that were true, is it a substitute for knowing God directly? Or, you might also feel that trusting the Bible alone gives you knowledge of God directly from the Source. But it was written by mystics, listening to God speaking his Word in their hearts. Is it possible for you to read it directly, without the conceptions of your language, time, culture, and personal history? Are you sure you wouldn't understand it very differently if you were reading it, say, in third-century Damascus?
The religion we call "Christianity" changes, but God is eternal. Mystical faith wants to know this unchanging God to whom Christianity leads us, the One behind the beliefs and the words, the One whom beliefs and words cannot describe. We want to follow Jesus' example more closely, and go beyond the religion about Jesus, and take the religion of Jesus: the knowledge of the Father and unconditional love he had, and urged us to have.
WHAT IS A MYSTIC?
I believe that everyone who wants to love unconditionally is a mystic. All children are born mystics, and if you were once a child, you were once a mystic. Christian mysticism is following the example of Christ as he followed the Father. And mysticism is not by any means restricted to Christianity: the Bible says, “everyone who loves is begotten of God, and knows God.” (1 Jn. 4.7) God speaks in various ways, in every time and every place to "whosoever will." Other pages on this site treat non-Christian mysticism.
Mystics range the gamut of walks of life, from intellectual priests such as Frs. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox, to laywomen like Bernadette Roberts and Katherine Nelson. The mystic way is old, but timeless—it is alive, and ever-new for each one who chooses it. It may be inviting you to begin this adventure of divine transformation and discovery."
A VERY, VERY, VERY SHORT HISTORY OF MYSTICISM
The term mysticism derives from The Mystical Theology, a tiny treatise written by the greatest Christian writer of the sixth century, Dionysius the Areopagite, a.k.a. Pseudo-Dionysius or St. Denys [the Areopagite]. But Dionysius is in no way the "founder" of Christian mysticism. That honor belongs to none but Jesus the Christ himself. But there was mysticism long before Jesus was born. God "strolled in the Garden" with man (Heb.'adam). Jacob saw heaven opened. God spoke to Joseph through dreams. Moses communed with God on Sinai. David lost himself in dancing for the Lord.
But when Jesus declared "I and the Father are one," (Jn. 10.30) he proclaimed in himself the union of God and humankind, and he offers it to all who follow him (he gave the power to become sons of God to all who believe. (Jn. 1.12).
From there, the mystic heart is seen in the letters of the apostles: Paul reached the divinized state of losing his "self": I no longer live, but Christ lives in me! (Gal. 2.20) James wrote that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights, in whom there is no variation nor shadow of turning. (Jas. 1.17) Peter proclaimed that Christ even descended to hell to liberate imprisoned souls, (1 Pet. 3.19) and John understood the most sublime truth of God's essence: God is Love! (1 Jn. 4.8,16). This is only the beginning. Every century has been influenced by Christian mystics—from apostles and martyrs, Church Fathers and Desert Mothers, to monks and nuns of religious orders, to the lay mystics—men and women and boys and girls in every century, in every denomination, in every walk of life.
STARTING ON THE WAY
Few people seem to choose mysticism deliberately. It often takes a jolt of some kind from God to wake us up to the fact that there is something there, full of love, wanting to be known. It might come from a beautiful sunset, a shocking dream, a joyous birth, a shattering loss, or a brush with death. But from there, an awareness of an entirely new level of love, truth and goodness begins. But it is indeed possible to begin the mystic journey deliberately, determining to find the One who is the fountain of all being. The starting point of mysticism is encountering the Goodness of God. Not a conditional "goodness," but pure Goodness itself, with a capital G. This is Goodness without opposite or contrast, not the good in "good and evil." Goodness filling the Universe just as God himself does, so overwhelming in Good, that there is nothing possibly non-good there, no matter what appears to be otherwise. Unless we believe that God is Good, why would we even want to directly experience him? Although we may say we believe in his true Goodness, in the core of our beings, most of us do not.
We receive a thousand invitations to swim in this sea of wonder every day, with every sunrise and sunset, every laugh, every breath, every eyeblink. Yet few of us are able to see infinite Goodness surrounding us except in occasional glimpses. What happened?
We were all born natural mystics, eager to see pure Goodness in everything. Jesus said, unless you come as a child, you can not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 18.3) But early on, we are taught that receiving God's Goodness is dependent on our beliefs and actions, so a certain fear enters our hearts. Soon after that, we may try to accept contradictions, for instance, that God is infinite Love, but sends unbelievers to eternal torture in hell, (which is the most destructive and erroneous teaching in the typical Christian world-view.)
We cannot resolve the impossibility of the contradiction, so we back away slightly, believing God's goodness is merely conditional:... if I pray, if I believe, if I'm good, if whatever, then God will be good to me. The development of our belief system often stops there. Our teachers and preachers often say the same things to 40-year-olds as to 14-year-olds, so we carry these conditionings throughout life, and we lose the childlike heart. Many (very many!) adult Christians simply put their spiritual lives on hold out of frustration or a vague sense that something is amiss with the teachings they've received as "Christianity."
And even mystical Christians may find that although they are experiencing the wonder of God in their hearts, intellectually, the beliefs with which they grew up seem insufficient, creating a dichotomy between heart and head. How can we keep a child's faith in absolute Goodness, and integrate it with adult awareness, intelligence, and competence?
Learning and unlearning is necessary. There is a great heritage which mystics have passed on to us which can help the mind grasp what the heart is trying to tell it. For instance, mystics have believed from the beginning that God is in all things. Mystics believe that the nature of spiritual reality is even more real than that of this created world. Many Christian mystics have believed in universal salvation, and that "hell" is not endless. Most mystics have practiced some form of meditation to enter into awareness of God's divine Presence. And from Jesus, Paul, and John to the present, mystics know that the end goal of the Path is theosis, union with God.
stages on the journeyAnyone who undertakes this adventure of striving to know God directly, soon learns that it doesn't happen instantly; there are stages to the process. Eastern Orthodox Christians often envision it as Jacob's ladder, leading to upward to God. Western saints, such as Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross use other analogies, such as going deeper within the "Interior Castle." Evelyn Underhill describes the stages as awakening, purification, illumination, surrender or the "Dark Night of the soul," and divine union. Matthew Fox describes it as a four-fold path.
The usefulness of these analogies is limited. Any attempt to describe the process of awakening to the indescribable is essentially drawing a map on water. One thing is certain, however. There will be letting go—of fears, desires, and even your self. And as more is released, more is received. (Or so it appears—really we just get rid of what is blocking us from seeing God's perfect goodness that was already there all along. The wonder of God's own Self.
Mystics over the centuries have advised spiritual practice for the releasing and receiving that is the essential rhythm of this life. In more familiar terms, meditation. If you're surprised because you've never heard your minsters urge you to meditate, you're not alone. Most Christian denominations, particularly the newer ones, have little history. But thestillness of meditation, or contemplation [from con (with) + temp(time) literally, "time with" God] has been the foundation of spiritual practice from the beginning centuries to the present. It's concentrated practice in releasing.
Let go. Let God. Let go. Let God. These are the two endless rhythms of the soul in the mystical life.
You may have heard that mysticism is dangerous. It's occultic, it's not Christian, it "begins in mist and ends in schism," and so forth. All of those allegations are false, at least concerning an authentic mysticism as seeking the direct knowledge of God. Nevertheless, just as with everything else that can be experienced in this lifetime, there are some things to be aware of.
The greatest real danger is of attitude. Pride can lead to spiritual deception, mistaking intellectual change for spiritual progress. Fear can cause us to give up, and rationalize away the need for transformation.Holding on to experiences is probably the most subtle pitfall. On this adventure, you may encounter God in thrilling ways, with experiences of spiritual ecstasy. (Or you might not.) You might have experiences of miracles, of supernatural insight, of visions, of having healing power, and so forth. (Or you might not.) The experiences, when they come, if they come, are for you to be encouraged, to keep on letting go. Seeking to repeat a feeling or experience is a very, very, common distraction.
Another thing you might want to be aware of is loneliness. Since most Christian bodies have no teaching of mysticism past perhaps a few approved experiences (speaking in tongues, for example), it is going to be hard to find company for this journey, which is one of the reasons I created this website. Jesus called this way of living in the Kingdom of heaven "the narrow path," and said few find it. Furthermore, few even care!
He also said "foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." This is also true. No church—no institution of any kind, really, is designed to be a home to those who want to truly want to follow the Son of Man this way, which means going beyond institutional experience. You will feel tired from time to time. You will haveperiods of dryness, and may want to throw in the towel for a little while. Or even a long while. The work itself is your rest, your meeting-place with God, the Restorer of your being."
Borrowed from the blog of Jon Zuck:
The mystical life is not a “belief system”
BELIEFS ARE NOT REALITY
It's essential to remember that all of these ideas are metaphors. Doctrines, words, concepts, thoughts and pictures all translate, emphasize, reflect, and otherwise point to reality. But no description of reality is the reality it describes. Words and pictures, ideas and doctrines, are not the things they point to. They are distorted indicators, utterly different in kind from what they point to. You can describe a tree in your backyard to me all day long, but until I touch it with my own hands, I can't feel its bark. If description can't communicate the tree-ness of a tree, how much less can words communicate God!
This is important! Challenging ideas are often vital for breaking up entrenched thought patterns and opening the mind. Yet no concept, no matter how inspirational, is that divine reality we seek, anymore than Magritte's pipe is something you can pick up and smoke.
We need to remember that God is the name we use for the Unspeakable. Simply put, the Source of everything is beyond all names. The “Trinity” is a conception of how the Infinite One relates to the phenomenal world of beings, matter, and time, which we call Creation. “The Fall from grace” is another. Other religions have their concepts as well—lila, nirvana, maya. But to latch on to any one of these as “the Truth ” instead of a helpful pointer to truth, is to miss the point entirely! It's like several people pointing to that tree in the backyard and arguing whether the tree has three parts or fifteen parts—or arguing if the leaves are dark green, forest green, or olive.
God cannot be divided. God simply is. The Universe simply is. What is simply is. All our thoughts and concepts divide Is-ness in our minds, and divide our minds from Is-ness.
Awakening is the transition from "religion" with its firm answers, perspectives, and experiences, to realization, the awareness of what IS. Even more important is “Real-ization,” the embodiment of that awareness. The important things in mysticism are not concepts, thoughts, feelings, or even experiences, but the questions and questing for nothing else but this One we call God. Beliefs—in the sense of concepts which must be protected, are not part of Christian mystical life. In this sense, you must not “believe” in God. Instead, just rest in Being. And in being, and being with Being, you rest with God, the Ground of Being. Don't “believe” in the Trinity. Trust the holy and wholly indescribable Reality in whom you “live, move, and have your being”.
The Greek word pisteo is almost always translated “belief” or “faith” in the New Testament. However, it also means trust and is better translated as such. Dare to move from belief to trust.
Slowly, joyfully, lovingly, destroy your concepts and mental images into the burning furnace of just being with the One. Just love what is, seen and unseen. Don't name it. Don't label it. Don't even think about it. Just do what Jesus said: Come as a child.
“Whoever will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter into it.”
—Jesus, Mark 10:16