Last night I got an email from young person who asked me to explain Christian mysticism to her. She noted that she was a Christian but had never heard of mysticism before. Indeed, how many faithful church-goers are there, who know nothing about the splendors of the contemplative tradition?
This past Sunday I was visiting a class on Christian spirituality at a mainline Protestant church here in Atlanta, and, impressed by the articulate and eloquent expression of personal spirituality among the students, I began to ponder this question: what is the difference between Christian mysticism and, for lack of a better term, “ordinary” Christian spirituality? I know it’s counter-intuitive to start worrying about these kinds of distinctions, for this immediately puts the dualistic mind into high gear. Trying to talk about mysticism through dualistic consciousness is like trying to talk about lovemaking using only military metaphors. But, with that caveat fully in mind, here I go where angels fear to tread…
How Christian Mysticism is different from
other forms of Christian Spirituality
- Christian mysticism is entirely gratuitous. In other words, it is not necessary to be a mystic in order to be a Christian, or in order to be saved. As a religion, Christianity requires several basic commitments: to accept the lordship of Jesus Christ, to engage with the Bible and the tradition as sources of wisdom, to be baptized and to participate in Communion or the Lord’s Supper according to the discipline of your particular denomination, and to participate in both weekly corporate worship and regular private prayer. These basics form the foundation of Christian spirituality. Mysticism is a subset of spirituality (you can be spiritual without being a mystic, but you cannot be a Christian mystic without cultivating your spiritual life); furthermore; mysticism functions as an invitation to go deeper into the spiritual life than most other aspects of the Christian faith. Answering such an invitation is neither necessary nor required in order to live a good or even holy Christian life.
- Mystery is an essential component to Christian mysticism. Basic Christian spirituality is so simple that a small child can understand it (this is not a criticism; indeed, Jesus commanded his followers to become like little children). God loves you; God calls you to turn to him; God’s grace will help you where you cannot help yourself; life is meant to be live in gratitude for God’s love, by sharing that love and compassion with others. Mysticism ventures into realms that are paradoxical and trans-rational, beyond the limits of human reason to comprehend. For example, mysticism is concerned with restoring not merely a relationship with God, but indeed God’s full “image and likeness” in the human soul (Genesis 1:26), which is to say, the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity. Mystics explore these mysteries intellectually and/or through heartfelt prayer.
- Mysticism is developmental and evolutionary, even though it proclaims a basic truth that God is always already present to us. Ordinary Christian spirituality basically offers a two-step model: you are lost, and then you are saved. Because mysticism explores the landscape beyond just being saved, it offers a more involved process of living into the Christian life. Mystics throughout history have traced the mystical life as involving three, five, even seven or more stages of growth and development. While none of these various models are universally applicable to all people, the overall message of mysticism is that growth toward the fullness of abiding in God is truly a life-long process; the paradox here is that we never fully arrive and yet through God we have already arrived.
- Mysticism implies, although it does not require, a deeper sense of experience of God. It also implies, although it does not require, a more profound sense of the mystery of God. Some mystics undergo vivid, ecstatic, or supernatural events in which the presence of God, or union with God, or communion with God, illuminate their minds and souls in a dramatic, almost shattering fashion. Meanwhile, other mystics experience heart-wrenching desolation, darkness and awareness of God’s hiddenness, absence, and inscrutable mystery. Both of these “light” and “dark” experiences may come to the same person, sometimes at different stages on the journey. The common denominator here is that mysticism takes the lover of God to extremes and to the wilderness or thin places of the soul, where one may encounter, and taste fully, both the luminous glory and the dark mystery of God.
- Ordinary Christian spirituality seeks growth in holiness. Mysticism is oriented to deification, or participation in God. This distinction is a difference more of degree than of kind, for true holiness opens out into deification and, likewise, deification builds upon holiness. Living the Christian spiritual life fosters yearning for God’s heart and conformity to God’s will, and leads to growth in the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.). Mysticism includes all this and more: for it seeks nothing less than complete and total identification with God, immersion into the Divine Nature, and communion with God insofar as this is possible for a mortal, by God’s grace.
- When spirituality is not mystical, it is ascetical. Classical theology understood a distinction between mysticism, which involves the action of God, and asceticism, which involved human efforts to reach God. Asceticism comes from the same root word as athleticism, and thus is a word suggesting exercise, practice, self-discipline and self-restraint. These are all qualities inherent in ordinary Christian spirituality. Mystical spirituality, therefore, is spirituality taken as far as ordinary human effort can take it, and then abandoned into trust and confidence that the grace of God will reach us and give us exactly what we need, whether this includes ecstatic or profound experiences (or not), or life-altering changes in consciousness (or not).
- Mysticism implies real and heroic changes in the lives, behavior, and values of the mystics — although “heroic” can be grand or humble in its scope. Paul’s conversion, Francis of Assisi’s renunciation of worldly wealth, Julian of Norwich’s visions and retreat into solitude, Thomas Merton’s shift from ordinary Catholic monk to world-class cultural critic and interfaith explorer–these are a few of the examples of how mysticism causes dramatic changes in peoples’ lives. But there is also Thérèse of Lisieux and her “little way” in which she found the heroism of mystical spirituality only in very small and humble acts. Whether great or small, the changes that mystics undergo are always shaped by humility and the serene acceptance of Christian wisdom.
- Mysticism fosters a new way of seeing, grounded in non-duality and expansive awareness of the limitless love and grace of God. Typical Christian spirituality may not necessarily lead to non-dual consciousness superseding the dualistic way of thinking and seeing, that characterizes ordinary human life. To function in our world, we have to use skills of judgment (this is good, that is bad; this is profitable, that is useless; etc.) that lead to dividing the world into categories of up and down, in and out, right and wrong, and so forth. Mystical consciousness does not eliminate the dualistic mind, which after all remains necessary for making our way in the world, but it supplants dualistic ways of seeing, with a higher, non-dualistic viewpoint, that sees all things as belonging in the heart and love and grace of God, which in turn fosters compassion, non-judgment (Matthew 7:1) and a spirit of hospitality which define how a mystic relates to the world at large. This is why mystics tend to care for the forgotten members of society or reaching across boundaries to people of different ethnicities, cultures, political persuasions or religious beliefs–because mystics intuitively understand that (in the words of Richard Rohr) “everything belongs” to God and in God.
- Following mysticism’s tendency to non-duality and its humble acceptance of mystery, mystical spirituality is generally more open to exploring the wisdom of traditions and paths other than its own. For Christians, this means engaging in study and even practice of non-Christian wisdom traditions, such as Zen, Vedanta, Sufism, Kabbalah, Druidism, and shamanism. Mystics tend to be more comfortable than other Christians in holding the paradox of remaining faithful to Christian wisdom while simultaneously being open to learning from (and sharing with) the adherents of other paths. This kind of spiritual cross-fertilization can bring rich blessings into the larger Christian community, even though the mystics themselves are often misunderstood and attacked by other Christians for their interfaith work.