Four elements of mysticism

When I teach a class on mysticism (like I’m currently doing through the Emory University Center for Lifelong Learning), I point out to my students that mysticism involves more than just a pure experience of God, or union, or transcendence, or whatever. First of all, it also involves the struggle to put that pure experience into words — a struggle I alluded to in my first sentence here. Does mysticism involve God, or some other spirit, or the “higher self” or merely an altered state of consciousness? Many mystics report that their experience is ineffable — beyond words — and yet they struggle to at least partially capture it in verbal ways. After the initial effort to ground mystical experience in language comes the attempt to interpret such experience: to understand it in context of religion, or philosophy, or morality, or community values. What does it mean to have an experience of union with God? What difference does it make? Why should I care? Should I try to have my own mystical experience? Why or why not? How can I tell if a mystical experience is authentic or genuine? How can I discern the difference between a true encounter with God and a hallucination? Does such a distinction even matter? Finally, this entire cluster of experience/language/meaning gets handed on to others. This can involve teaching, training, formation, and can be geared toward individuals with a specific religious commitment (priests, ministers, monks and nuns, trained spiritual directors) or toward the general laity. Either way, passing on the wisdom of mysticism is important for tilling the good earth so that the movement of the Spirit can erupt in new and fresh ways in generations to come.

So basically, there are four elements to mysticism.

  1. The pure experience of mysticism itself (whether this means a joyful encounter with God’s presence at the Eucharist, or a mind-blowing absorption into Divine Unity during deep contemplation, or any of a countless other ways of experiencing the Mystery);
  2. The struggle to wrap words around such pure experience (always doomed to at least partial failure, since by its very nature mystical experience is ineffable);
  3. The quest to invest such mystical language with meaning and relevance (interpreting the reports of mystical experience in terms of their religious, social, political, psychological and moral value, both to the individual and to the community in which the experience occurs);
  4. And finally, the effort to pass on the treasures of mystical wisdom, not only in written works such as the writings of the great mystics, but also in more informal ways such as individual spiritual direction and the formation process for monastics and oblates.

Here’s the tricky part. In my experience, when most people think of mysticism, they tend to think almost exclusively about the first element: the pure experience. All the writing, teaching, verbage that follows is seen almost as just an afterthought. By the same token, when we look to the mystical wisdom of the past, all we have is the verbal record. Even in our own lives, once we leave a mystical experience behind, all we have are our thoughts and feelings to help us “remember” the experience. And when it comes to mystics who are no longer with us — whether John the Evangelist who died 1900 years ago or Thomas Merton who died only 40 years ago — their written word is our only, priceless link to their mystical experience. So the quest for mysticism always involves two dynamic processes: trying to wrap words around the pure ineffable experience of mysticism when it occurs, and then trying to unpack the words of others to discern what their own encounter with the Mystery may have been like.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Peter

    I have no doubt that your classes on mysticism are beneficial in many ways to your students, especially considering the breadth and depth of your acquaintance with the mystics of the ages.
    I read in a comment of yours a couple of posts ago that you like being compared to Ken Wilber. So allow me to use one of Ken’s paradigms to gently disagree with your definitions of mysticism as presented here:
    You will remember Ken’s concept of “nesting” of spiritual realms (or levels or spheres or steps or whatever): the simpler, deeper, more ontological holons “nest” within the next more complex ones, and so on down the line: “Greater depth, less span, fewer in number.” I want to apply this schema to your four elements of mysticism: each one in turn a little further from the center: 1) direct experience of the divine; 2) expression in words; 3) enculturation; and 4) passing on of the tradition. And I want to be nit-picky and limit the definition [MY definition at any rate] of mysticism to #1 alone, agreeing with “most people” who see this as the core, and the rest of it almost as an afterthought. And I have a reason for wanting to do this:
    I believe that mysticism as I define it is the satisfaction of the individual heart in its quest for reality, for substenance, for spiritual identity, for the filling of Augustine’s “God-shaped void” in the heart of every one of us. I believe with Jeanne Guyon that God has a special “thing” for the illiterate, the ones of us who are incapable of partaking of #2 or #3 or #4 above, except perhaps in an oral-story kind of way, which has its own virtues as honored by many recent liberal authors. But the experience of the Divine is itself the core of mysticism, is the Deep calling unto deep, is the fullness of the empty heart, is the satisfaction of those blessed ones who are thirsting for righteousness. I am in no way minimizing the other “nests” here or saying that they should not be vigorously pursued!! I am just saying that in my preference they should have another label other than mysticism: mysticism is individual communion with God. Period.
    My opinion!
    In His love,

  • Carl McColman

    Peter, thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    I can certainly see (and appreciate) your perspective, and certainly the fact that I value writing colors my own opinion. I think we can safely assume that for every great contemplative who successfully wrote about his or her experience, there have been countless others whose ecstasy was known to God alone. I agree with you, that such nameless mystics (who may have been illiterate, or whose writings may have been lost or burned) are just as “great” as the Julians or Teresas or Eckharts whose work we know.


    One of my beliefs, which is grounded in the theology of Julian of Norwich, is that mysticism is meant to be given away. God never gives us ecstasy or enlightenment just for our own private little “God & me” jollies. We are ushered into the Holy of Holies so that we may bring a blessing back for others. Granted, this blessing could take many forms. For saints, it typically results in heroic acts of faith or mercy: think of St. Lawrence or Mother Teresa. For mystics, it typically results in some form of sharing the experience, usually through words. Not always: Blake used imagery, Bach used music. And it certainly wouldn’t have to be the *written* word, either (although kudos to Margery Kempe, who didn’t let her illiteracy hold her down: she found somebody to take dictation!). So for this reason, I believe elements 2-4 really are essential, although they can take many forms, not just the written word. Spoken language and other forms of artistic expression could also be pressed into the service of seeking to express, give meaning to, and pass on the glories of mystical experience. Is mystical experience alone fully mysticism? Sure, I’ll grant that. But I think its fullness is taken to an even higher level by the imperfect human effort, with God’s grace of course, to give it away.

  • Peter

    Thank you for the deep respect you are showing to my expression of my ‘opinion’ here, and the seriousness of your response. I receive your ‘correction’ or ‘re-direction’ of my thoughts to include bringing a blessing back to others, heroic acts of faith or mercy (such as works of service or healing–one of my personal favorites lately is Richard Ho Lung’s Missionaries of the Poor in Jamaica), and often using words (or music or art or other creative expression) intended to give away what we have received directly from God. This is a healthy balance, and I appreciate it!

    I have just one addendum to your list which I have not often seen in these blogs or in similar places (though I admit I have not actively looked for this in resource lists such as Mike Morrell’s zoecarnate): that is the work of intercession, mystical prayer as applied to the direct spiritual (and otherwise) benefit or others through petitions on their behalf. I find in the Scriptures that this is the current job description of Jesus at the right hand of the Father, and I hear him calling us to join him in this work as well. I find the qualifications you have listed for genuine response to mystical experience, freely giving away what we have freely received, to be all present in authentic spiritual intercession: heroic acts of faith, bringing the blessing back to others, serving the needs of others in unselfish agape rather than staying in our own little bubble of ecstasy or enlightenment, etc.

    I will freely grant that this kind of work is hard to measure, hard to see, and can easily seem ethereal or insubstantial compared to the more visible outer works of service or artistic or verbal expression. But because I believe that the spritual world is more ‘real’ than the physical world, that the physical world proceeds from the spiritual world rather than the other way around (as in, That which is seen is temporal, but that which is not seen is eternal), I believe there is substance in this kind of work that compares at least favorably with the other forms of expression as a valid response to genuine mystical experience.

    Of course, this kind of work appeals to most of us far less than the outer kinds of work. And though it would be easy to write this off as a matter of preference or personality or temperament, I think that is a temptation to resist: the true heroes of the faith are likely to be doing the kind of work that we cannot see and may not ever be able to see until the future transformation reveals what has actually been happening in the inner world all along. As a footnote, I foresee lots of surprises ahead when the lid comes off and ‘the secrets of all of us are revealed.’

    Thank you again for taking me seriously, for putting up with my run-on sentences, and for continuing the conversation!

    Sincerely yours in Jesus,