Mysticism’s detractors often accuse it of being “un-biblical” or “extra-biblical.” Mysticism cannot be an authentic element of Christian spirituality, so their reasoning goes, since it is not found in the Bible.
True, the word mysticism does not occur in the Bible. But it is related to the Greek word mysterion, translated in most English versions as “mystery.” If we think of mysticism as the spirituality of the Christian mystery, we are much closer to finding its scriptural foundation.
Thinking about this, I turned to the third chapter of Ephesians, in which Paul mentions the mystery of Christ four times. In this chapter he is discussing why Christ came not just for Israel, but for the entire world: gentiles as well as Jews. As I read over the chapter, it occurred to me that this is the headwaters of mystical theology. Indeed, here is the scriptural justification for mysticism: the “charter,” if you will, of the Christian tradition of entering via contemplation into the loving and transforming presence of God.
Let’s take a look at Ephesians 3. All of the scripture quotations in this post come from the New Jerusalem Bible.
You have surely heard the way in which God entrusted me with the grace he gave me for your sake; he made known to me by a revelation the mystery I have just described briefly — a reading of it will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.
“It” refers to Ephesians 2:22, where Paul describes what the mystery of Christ is: “you too, in him, are being built up into a dwelling-place of God in the Spirit.”
This mystery, as it is now revealed in the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets, was unknown to humanity in previous generations: that the gentiles now have the same inheritance and form the same Body and enjoy the same promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
As I said, here is the point Paul is trying to make in this passage: that the mystery of Christ is available to all people, not just to his Jewish disciples. Of course, what makes this passage of greatest interest to the students of mysticism is how it illuminates the Biblical foundation of just what “the mystery of Christ” is — the heart of mysticism.
I have been made the servant of that gospel by a gift of grace from God who gave it to me by the workings of his power. I, who am less than the least of all God’s holy people, have been entrusted with this special grace, of proclaiming to the gentiles the unfathomable treasure of Christ and of throwing light on the inner workings of the mystery kept hidden through all the ages in God, the Creator of everything. The purpose of this was, that now, through the Church, the principalities and ruling forces should learn how many-sided God’s wisdom is, according to the plan which he had formed from all eternity in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him we are bold enough to approach God in complete confidence, through our faith in him; so, I beg you, do not let the hardships I go through on your account make you waver; they are your glory.
“Throwing light on the inner workings of the mystery kept hidden through all the ages” — isn’t this the goal of all the mystics: to declare the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ?
This, then, is what I pray, kneeling before the Father, from whom every fatherhood, in heaven or on earth, takes its name. In the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner self, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; so that, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.
Wow. High poetry here, mystical writing to rival (if not surpass) anything that came from the hand of Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross. Paul acknowledges that the mystery of Christ (i.e., mysticism) emerges from the “inner self” where “Christ may live… planted in love and built on love.” We are given the ability to grasp all the dimensions of this supernatural love in its entirety, thereby integrating heart and mind in the unitive experience: “knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.” Yes, this is ineffable: a knowledge beyond knowledge.
Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.
This stirring conclusion of the chapter simply offers praise to the One in whom we are mystically united.
It was Whitehead, I believe, who suggested that all of western philosophy is little more than an extensive collection of footnotes to Plato. The more I sit with Ephesians 3, the more I think that the Christian mystical tradition is simply two thousand years of annotations to this powerful chapter.