Recently someone asked me if I could comment on why mysticism matters, particularly in terms not only of religion and spirituality, but also health and wellness. It’s a big question. There’s a lot of work being done on how spirituality and even religion can support overall efforts to improve our physical and mental well-being — after all, Jesus was a healer before anything else — so I think I’ll leave that part of the question to folks like Andrew Weil, Larry Dossey, Bernie Seigel, and the writers and editors of Spirituality and Health magazine. Of course, the integral theory of Ken Wilber belongs here, since it addresses the larger question of how science and religion/spirituality complement one another.
But the part of the question I think I can more readily address is the role of mysticism, particularly Christian mysticism, in the larger arena of spirituality. Why does mysticism matter? First of all, I don’t believe mysticism and spirituality are coterminous; all mysticism is spiritual but not all spirituality is mystical. Mysticism represents that dimension of spirituality that directly addresses — and enters into — the mystery of God, for the purpose of growth in holiness (which is a religious code-word for personal and social healing) and deepening intimacy with God — the reality of being loved by, and loving God; which can involve experiencing God’s transformational presence in our lives, but also surrendering to God’s hidden presence, at a level deeper than mere human experience. I don’t want to get too bogged down in definitions here, suffice to say that mysticism brings us into and through mystery to encounter God.
So why does this matter? Perhaps put a better way, why does this matter more now than it did 50 or 100 years ago? Although historically mysticism has been on the margins of Christian theology and practice, many indicators point to it becoming more and more mainstream, for a variety of reasons.
- The epochal encounter between Christianity and eastern religions has resulted in many lay Christians developing an interest in meditation and contemplation: practices that up until very recently were pretty much found only in monasteries. A generation ago, folks like Bede Griffiths or Thomas Merton were seen as pretty exotic for trying to engage in eastern spirituality as a way of deepening their own Christian monastic practice; but now increasing numbers of Christians, including laypersons, are accepting the idea that the wisdom of Buddha, Vedanta, or other eastern philosophies might have something to teach Christians — not to lure Christians away from their own faith, but rather to deepen the experience of being a Christian through the wisdom gleaned from interfaith dialogue. Granted, this isn’t mainstream in the sense that “everybody” is doing it, but it is far more prevalent among ordinary Christians than ever before.
- Likewise, the shift from modernity to postmodernity has resulted in many Christians questioning the propositional, authoritarian nature of faith grounded in obedience to the church (Catholic) or the Bible (Protestant), and instead are looking for a more experiential expression of the faith, where their “obedience” is situated internally, toward a personal experience of God, Christ and/or the Holy Spirit. In fact, an interesting question is whether the widespread emergence of experiential Christianity is a consequence of postmodernity, or in fact a contributing factor to postmodern theology: after all, Pentecostalism is a century old now, and theological postmodernity really only dates back to the 50s and 60s with the influence of demythologizing among Protestants and Vatican II among Catholics. And even though in more recent years many Catholics and Protestants have pulled back from the most liberal implications of mid-20th-century theology, the theological genie really is out of the bottle. The old model of religion as something the “professionals” do while ordinary people just show up once a week to “pray, pay and obey” isn’t cutting bait anymore. Even as the most hierarchical churches have scrambled to entrench the power of their clergy, the laity are more on fire than ever before. This turn toward personal authority is also a turn toward the hunger for experience, and the hunger for spiritual experience eventually leads us to the threshold of mystery.
- Another indicator that mysticism is leaving the margins and entering the mainstream is specifically seen in the churches with monasteries (Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism), but I think it has implications for the entire body of Christ. What I am referring to is the decline of religious life, at least in the west (religious life is thriving in other parts of the world, but there are clear social and economic reasons why this is so). As the convents and monasteries attract fewer and fewer new vocations, ironically they are attracting more and more members of their secular, oblate, and third order associations. In other words, ours is the age when monastic spirituality — the traditional “home” of Christian mysticism — is being set loose from the cloister and entering into the lives of more and more ordinary laypersons.
- The Protestant corollary to the decline of traditional religious life is the emergence of Neo-monasticism (see the writings of Shane Claiborne or Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove) and, indeed, the entire movement that is called “Emergence Christianity” or “the Emerging Church” which places a high emphasis on re-discovering practices traditionally associated with monasticism, such as lectio divina or the Divine Office. What Evelyn Underhill did for Anglicans and Thomas Merton did for Catholics, folks like Brian McLaren and Richard Foster are doing for evangelicals and other Protestants: that is to say, introducing traditional contemplative practices to a widespread population eager for “something more” in their spiritual journey.
So, more and more laypeople, throughout the spectrum of Christian denominations, are discovering mysticism and finding that it has something to say to them. And while mysticism has its enemies — usually either Protestants who are hysterical anti-Catholics or else Christians of all stripes who are xenophobically opposed to interfaith spirituality — I am confident that in the end, reason will triumph and Christians of good-will and common sense will recognize that Protestants can engage in Catholic spiritual practices without having to become Catholic, just as all Christians can learn from the wisdom of other faith traditions without abandoning their devotion to Christ. And both of these trends — the rediscovery of traditionally monastic or Catholic spirituality, and the encounter with the wisdom of the east — ultimately take us into the depth of Christian mystical wisdom, as found in the writings of John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, John Ruusbroec, Catherine of Genoa, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Way of a Pilgrim, and numerous other orthodox Christian wisdom teachers. And the more we read the Christian mystics, the more we will see that their endorsement of pursuing holiness, embracing silence, and opening ourselves to a life of continual prayer is fully relevant to the needs and challenges of our time.
Therefore, I am confident that the blessing and promise of mysticism and contemplative spirituality will only increase in its visibility within the Christian community in the years to come. And this is why mysticism matters.