The Charter of Christian Mysticism

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.

Plunging Thought Into Light
Three Video Clips: Speaking of Mysticism in Portland, OR
Seven Books on Christianity and Nondualism
Is Mysticism Genetic?
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.

  • cindy

    ]I enjoyed your post. The mysteries of God, I believe & have experienced, are at hand. I don’t think of myself as a mystic, just a child of God. But, I did & continue to ask the Lord to take me into His confidence. This is a prayer He continues to answer & has shown me many things of mystery. I, truly, believe that we Christians need only to believe that God can & will do anything, & by that asked for the revelation of the unknown.

    Proverbs 3:32
    32 for the LORD detests a perverse man
    but takes the upright into his confidence.

  • Jon

    Great post. I love Paul’s mystical writings. A scripture that particularly jump-started me on the path was 1Cor 15:28 and its context: God will be all in all…

    Thanks for directing me to Eph. 3.

  • Julio Gonzalez

    Carl, The Charter of Christian Mysticism rocks! You rock! Mystics rock, because Christ rocks in them! While the word Mystic or Mystciism-”technically”- isn’t in the Bible, it is clearly implied throughout the writings of St. Paul. Guess what. The word Bible isn’t in the Scriptures either; yet Mysticism’s detractors continually refer to it as such.

    Colossians 1:27 To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery/mysterion among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory

  • Peter

    It’s been a month since anybody added a comment here–and I admit that I have procrastinated because I haven’t heard Carl give a Scriptural “sermon” before and I wondered what it would turn out like….

    Turns out this is OK, simply an exposition of the text with an application of “throwing light on the inner workings of the mystery” to its outworking in the Christian mystical tradition. I find it quite liberating to find common ground with other believers who have similar “spiritual” or “mystical” [choose your own term!!] experiences to mine, and then to see how deeply rooted all these are in the Biblical record. This makes me feel like I have come “home,” that here is where I belong, in the Spirit with all this exquisitley fine company! It makes me feel downright evangelistic: “Hey, everybody, come on along! This is fun, deeply satisfying, makes life worth living, gives everything its meaning!” I could go on, but I am joyful and humbled by the fellowship of this great company of witnesses.

    God bless everybody!


  • Carl McColman

    Yes, I am quite hesitant to sermonize on Sacred Scripture — this is where my lack of formal education undermines my self-confidence.

    But this particular “OK” posting came out of a burst of enthusiasm, when I was preparing for a Sunday School class I delivered recently at an Episcopal Church here in Atlanta; we were introducing the concept of mysticism to folks who may have never heard of it before, and anticipating the logical response (“If it’s so important, how come no one ever talks about it?”), my co-facilitator and I decided to begin the series by looking at the mysticism of the NT. He took John and I took Paul; and the more I read Ephesians to mine the mystical treasures found there, the more I realized that I had struck the motherlode. This humble “homily” is the result.

  • Dale Matson

    The Epistle lesson for the feast day of Gregory of Nazianzus (May 9) in the new Holy Women/Holy Men is Ephesians 3:14-21. I have also written a book on Mysticism but never bumped into this passage in quite the same way until I preached on it today. St. Paul sounds a lot like St. John at this point in his writings. Although I don’t profess to completely understand Paul here, I believe the passage spoke to me. I believe it may be awhile (God willing) before it has more meaning for me. Thank you for your post. John Darby seems in his commentary seems to have “got it” but there is still a veil for me.

    Fr. Dale Matson

    • Carl McColman

      Thanks, Fr. Dale. I hope you’ll consider taking a look at my Big Book of Christian Mysticism, where I explore the mystical spirituality of Ephesians 3 in a bit more depth.