When I woke up this morning, I thought about the question of why mysticism isn’t more broadly celebrated, explored, and applied in the Christian churches.
There are a number of reasons for this. One rather obvious reason is that mysticism, which advocates personal experience of God and the individual exploration of transformed consciousness, to some extent undermines the self-interest of the religious institution, which places much greater emphasis on conformity of belief, submission to authority, and observable moral behavior.
But I think another reason for mysticism’s marginalization is actually even more prosaic than this: the writings of the mystics are often dense and challenging, philosophically erudite and layered with symbolism, metaphor and allegory. In other words, mystical writing is not always easy or accessible. It certainly does not mark out the path of least resistance. Historically, mysticism has functioned more or less as “advanced training” in Christian spirituality, available only to those in monastic life who were deemed ready for it by their superiors. Of course, the Holy Spirit would break free from this mold and rise up mystics among uneducated or ordinary or otherwise unremarkable people like Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Genoa or Thérèse of Lisieux. But generally speaking, the written record of mysticism – the writings of the great mystics themselves — have been read by relatively few Christians, suggesting that even a smaller number of people have actually seriously tried to apply this wisdom to their own lives.
Call me an evangelist if you will, but I think the wisdom of the Christian mystics needs to find a broader audience than what it has enjoyed over the ast 1500 years. That conviction is what motivates this blog, as well as my forthcoming book. And so, my morning ruminations took me beyond why mysticism isn’t more broadly embraced, to how advocates of Christian mysticism can get their message across to others, who might find within themselves a natural affinity for and attraction to mystical wisdom, if only they knew about it.
And I think this question has to do with love.
Yes, I know that mysticism is all about the transformation of consciousness, theosis, metanoia, and all that good stuff. But boil all that stuff down to its most basic essential components, and love looms large. Christ gave his followers basic marching orders that involved three vectors, or paths, of love:
- love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
- love your neighbor
- as yourself.
Love of God, love of neighbor, love of our selves: the blessed trinity of Christian love. And I know that historically the church has tended to sacrifice love of self on the altar of submission to external authority; but that was then and this is now, and we are blessed to live in an age when we are finally beginning to recognize that healthy self-care is an essential prerequisite to the ability to love others (and, I would say, to a mature love for God).
I believe that mysticism is important precisely because it has something to say about each of these dimensions of love. Let’s start at the bottom and move up. Self-love, in mystical terms, involves two issues: getting to know ourselves, accurately and honestly; and making good choices for ourselves. Some of the language of historical mysticism may seem harsh in this regard, since there is so much emphasis on sin and repentance. But, while we do need to watch out for scrupulosity or self-judgment that is driven by self-contempt, I do believe that an humble and honest assessment of our weaknesses, mistakes, and selfishness are a necessary element toward true self-regard. In other words, pretending that I am perfect is not self-love, it’s denial. For the mystics, the challenge of repentance is always built on the optimistic belief that any of us can become holy, if only we choose it. “You will be as holy as you want to be,” notes John Ruysbroeck. So mysticism challenges us to become what Matthew Kelly calls “the best version of ourselves,” and encourages us that this lies within our grasp. Thus, its fundamental message about self-love is built on hope and encouragement as much as it is built on challenge and the call for repentance. “Yes, you can do it!” You can clean up your own mess, you can become holy (even if it takes you a lifetime to get there).
Loving ourselves enough to clean up our own mess leads us to the place where we can expand the circle of love to embrace our neighbors. This may be the vector of love where Christian mysticism has been the weakest, since it has suffered under the privatized spirituality of neoplatonism and “the flight of the alone to the Alone” for too long. Thankfully, there are mystics with a strong social consciousness and emphasis, and we can turn to them for guidance and advice: Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Genoa, Catherine of Siena, Evelyn Underhill, and Thomas Merton are some examples here. Once again, we are faced with a challenge: to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to care for the sick, to hold the lonely, to comfort those who suffer. The need here is so great that we don’t really need to belabor the point. And everyone will find a different call in terms of loving others. Not everyone is called to be a Mother Teresa or a Shane Claiborne, but we’re all called to express love for others in some real way. Maybe that’s caring for one sick relative. Maybe it’s being grounded and stable in our family relationships, thus creating a safe space where others can heal and flourish. Maybe it’s doing political work on behalf of the most vulnerable members of society. Maybe it involves spending and investing our money in socially responsible ways. Incidentally, I firmly believe that “loving others” doesn’t just stop with human beings, and that we are called to serve the totality of God’s good creation through sustainable living and green practices including recycling, reducing our consumption, eating organic and locally grown food as much as possible, and so forth. Loving others has both a concrete/immediate and universal/expansive dimension to it. Drinking fair trade organic coffee is a form of loving our neighbors as ourselves, but that doesn’t let us off the hook of doing something concrete for those people in your life who come to you in need.
Of course, we will fail at loving our neighbors as ourselves, just as we fail at loving ourselves. The call is greater than our capacity to respond. And what fills in the gaps, in both of these vectors, is the love and grace of God. So this brings us at least to the third vector, which in mystical terms brings us to the place where love and worship of God leads to the yearning and seeking for Divine Presence, the experience of love, and the transformation of our souls and spirits (consciousness) into what Paul calls “the mind of Christ.” Here is where the most recognizable elements of mysticism come into play: prayer; meditation; contemplation; lectio divina; the Jesus prayer; the Divine Office, all come into play. None of us know how we will experience God. God’s dance with each of us is unique and personal. Some are called to mind-blowing experiences of ecstasy and union. Others are called to a far more humble sense of the mystery of God lurking in the hidden spots of their lives. Some have dramatic visions or undergo other supernatural events. For many others, God comes in the humblest and most ordinary of ways: through the laughter of a friend, the smile of a baby, the splendor of nature, and the serenity of the heart found only in the quiestest moments of the day.
So mysticism offers each of us insight and guidance into ways of growing in each of these three vectors of love. Because we are all unique, our experience of loving God, loving others and loving ourselves will likewise be singular. Thankfully, at this point in Christian history, the voices and wisdom of many different mystics are available to us, suggesting that a word of insight and encouragement can be found for just about anyone, at any point in their journey toward the splendor of Divine Love.