Consider this list of Christian mystics and theologians (if you’re not familiar with any of these figures, do some research and add their writings to your reading list):
- Clement of Alexandria (second century CE)
- Origen (third century)
- Evagrius Ponticus (fourth century)
- Pelagius (late fourth/early fifth century)
- John Scotus Eriugena (ninth century)
- Marguerite Porete (late thirteenth/early fourteenth century)
- Meister Eckhart (late thirteenth/early fourteenth century)
- Jeanne Guyon (late seventeenth/early eighteenth century)
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (twentieth century)
- Thomas Merton (twentieth century)
What do these figures have in common? Each of them, to a greater or lesser degree, have been either denounced as heretics, had at least some of their writings condemned, or at the very least have been criticized for advocating positions that are ambiguous or confusing to the Christian faithful. In other words, these figures have all been denied access to the inner chambers of doctrinal orthodoxy and ecclesiastical respectability. Here is ample evidence that the tension between dogmatic and mystical Christianity that plays out in today’s world — in terms of the criticism that Mother Angelica and her followers level at the Centering Prayer community (or, on the Protestant side, the anti-mystical attacks emanating from the Lighthouse Trails Research Project, targeting contemplatives like the Quaker Richard Foster or the Episcopalian Tilden Edwards) — is, sad to say, nothing new.
Frankly, when I consider the long and sorry history of how mysticism has been continually ignored, attacked, or marginalized within Christianity, what I find remarkable is not so much how this continues today, but rather what is truly amazing is that some mystics occasionally do get accepted by the church — Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are three who leap to mind, although thankfully they are not the only ones. Of course, such “insider” mystics almost always have drenched their writings with language that the dogmatic mainstream finds acceptable: submission to the church, self-denial, and dualistic consciousness. This means that the discerning student of the mysteries is faced with particular challenges when reading mystics who are also saints. Of course, for those of us who are trying to walk the tightrope of engagement with the institutional church while also pursuing the contemplative life, the wisdom of the saint-mystics is particularly instructive: they show us how it is to be done.