What is Mysticism?

I’ve been a student of mysticism ever since first reading Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness back in 1979, right after I graduated from high school. Nearly three decades have gone by and I’m no closer than ever to being able to define mysticism.

Sure, I know all the basic definitions: it is the experience of union with God. It’s a form of spirituality grounded in ecstatic and altered states of consciousness. It’s the interior, personal, and even esoteric dimension of religion. It’s a dangerous tendency to adulterate Christianity with alien philosophical or religious ideas, like Neoplatonism or Vedanta. It’s a way of seeing, in which the presence of God is discerned in the Bible or in the sacramental life of the church. It’s another name for deification. And on and on it goes.

I guess it goes without saying that I reject the critical and negative ways of understanding mysticism. I don’t see it as a narcissistic or antinomian spirituality which undermines religious authority (although I believe authentic mysticism naturally challenges inauthentic religion); nor do I see it as an anti-intellectual or regressively pre-rational flight from reason and responsibility. And I certainly eschew the “adulteration” critique: mysticism is deeply comfortable with interreligious and interfaith forms of spirituality, but the tradition generally is clear about the need to be grounded in one’s own faith before seeking to interact constructively with others. To the extent that the mystical openness to interreligious dialogue and even practice can be contrasted with the barriers between religions that are erected by fundamentalism: well, count me among the mystics.

Once we are comfortable answering mysticism’s critics and using their questions and concerns to help identify some boundaries between what mysticism is and isn’t (it is a project for experiencing the presence of God, but it isn’t a threat to normal religious identity), then I think what remains is the need to find a way of understanding mysticism that is truly inclusive: inclusive of pure mystical experience, of the written and artistic efforts to interpret such experience, of the traditional ways of understanding mysticism particularly as found in Greek philosophy and the Christian faith, and of the exciting new ways of understanding mysticism and contemplation that are emerging in the postmodern world and that allow us to see the history of mysticism with new eyes.


Okay, now, as a writer who wants to share mysticism with as many people as possible, how do I express all of the above in a way that won’t put most people to sleep?

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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.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    I can understand your desire to communicate your enthusiasm about mysticism; I share that desire. But a paragraph-long, 125-word sentence that rivals Ken Wilber in its level of obfuscation??? :o)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Which is why I said what I said in my final paragraph.

    Of course, in my world, being compared to Ken WIlber is a good thing…

  • http://www.philfosterlpc.com phil foster

    In my experience people who are frightened of, threatened by and overly concerned about the Unitive Vision of mystical contemplation are not particularly solid in their faith. They tend to project this outward and decry the mystics’ inherent inclusiveness. Those of us Christians in particular who hold to the exclusivity and “superiority” of the faith are mired in unconcious patriarchal and imperialistic values. This is not Jesus’ nor the early church’s view (eg: the Samaritan, the Syro-Phonecian woman, the centurian, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, etc, etc, etc).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Phil, couldn’t agree with you more — see what I just posted this morning.

  • http://frimmin.wordpress.com/ Jon

    On my site I wrestled for many years with a working definition of mysticism. Finally I settled on– as much as anyone can settle on words to describe what is inherently beyond words–”the spirituality of the direct knowledge of God” and went to say that mysticism respects Tradition, but seeks the same knowledge of God that Tradition points to. Mysticism honors Scripture, but seeks the direct knowledge of God that the Scripture writers had, etc.

    A flawed definition indeed, but the best semi-pithy one I’ve been able to come up with.

  • Noelani

    What a great blog! Thanks for this!

    I would encourage you that all your writing and teaching is good–that you can think of Divinity and Spiritual Teaching in terms of its results. Are people inspired to take the Surrendered or Mystical path? It’s been said as a Spiritual Teacher you are a “signpost” and you post the way.

    Rather than couch your teachings into ancient writings that may have lost their relevance some in a modern world, perhaps just share your path and the path of other modern people as examples of how the mystical shows up to help open your heart, point towards your soul, create more communication with God, and the micropractices, Ancient and Modern that make things practical. Yes? No?

    I am embarking on a Spiritual Teacher path with Tantra and Vedanta as my vehicles. Really enjoy your post. Your example enthuses me. Thank you!