Protestant Mystics and Catholic Mystics

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis, the mystic who claimed he wasn't one. Image via Wikipedia

I’ve begun work on a lesson plan for a course on “the Protestant Mystics” that I will be offering at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Atlanta this spring (details as to date and time, etc. still have to be worked out, but as soon as I know the particulars I’ll post them here). For my research, I’m using an old, out of print anthology edited by Anne Fremantle, The Protestant Mystics. The book features a wonderful introduction by W. H. Auden, which I’ve quoted from on this blog several times over the last few days. Fremantle and Auden set out to do this book because they wanted to prove W. T. Stace wrong — Stace being a Protestant philosopher who said, “There are no Protestant mystics.” The anthology includes a wide variety of voices, from Jacob Boehme to George Herbert, George Fox to Thomas Traherne, William Law to Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley to George MacDonald, Rufus Jones to T. S. Eliot, and so forth. And while the authors seem to be more comfortable with heterodox mystics than I am (Emmanuel Swedenborg and Ralph Waldo Emerson are among the other-than-orthodox figures represented), all in all it’s a wonderful anthology and a clear refutation of Dr. Stace’s arrogance.

But why would someone as eminent as Stace make such a sweeping generalization? In his defense, probably most of the so-called Protestant mystics would, themselves, be uncomfortable with the designation. C. S. Lewis is included in the anthology, and he explicitly disclaimed himself as a mystic (see his Letters to Malcolm). I suspect that Lewis would hardly be alone. For Protestants, mysticism long was tainted by the perception that it arose not from devotion to Christ, but rather from Catholic excess.

In his wonderful book Beloved Dust, Robert Davis Hughes offers a historical survey of the history of Christian spirituality, and suggests that, in the wake of the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics alike began to view mysticism with suspicion, seeing its claim to direct experiential union with God as an affront to the good order of church authority as established by God. Ironically, for Protestants the claims of mysticism were rejected because it was too Catholic; for Catholics the same rejection implied that mystical experience was too Protestant! Since to a large extent the Protestant / Catholic divide is an argument over authority, mysticism with its experiential, but liminal, claim to personal authority directly given by God would be perceived as dangerous by both parties. Mysticism did not just go away, of course, but Catholics and Protestants successfully marginalized mysticism in different ways. In the Catholic world, mysticism became increasingly associated with persons who had little or no ecclesiastical power: gone were the days when great theologians or bishops like Augustine, Richard of St. Victor, Nicholas of Cusa or Meister Eckhart were also the greatest mystics. In post-reformation Catholicism, mysticism increasingly became associated with women, and typically obscure women in religious life: Rose of Lima, Marie of the Incarnation, Thérèse of Lisieux, Faustina Kowalska, Emma Gelgani, and so forth. Meanwhile, Marian apparitions at places like Lourdes and Fatima became the province of children. Mysticism could survive in Catholicism as an essentially non-threatening private devotion, charming and pious but ultimately having little real impact to the larger church. Indeed, the “messages” promulgated by these latter-day Catholic mystics all seem to be variations on a single theme: pray the rosary and obey the church. And it seems that when a Catholic mystic does come along with a more transformational or visionary message, he (or she) is soon marginalized by the church: think of Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, or even Thomas Keating in our own time.

On the Protestant side, mysticism retained more influence, but only by divesting itself of the name. Protestant mystics simply never were called mystics, by either their supporters or their detractors. This, Auden brilliantly explicates, has to do with the fact that Protestantism represented a fundamental break in the tradition: the Protestant “mystics” did not have access to the same contemplative culture that their Catholic brothers and sisters enjoyed. Thus, a young woman like Thérèse of Lisieux could write a theologically nuanced book (and win a designation as a doctor of the church) because she was immersed in the living contemplative tradition not only of the Carmelite Order but of Catholicism as a whole. Protestants, meanwhile, had only one reference point for their experiential spirituality: the Bible. Thus, Protestant mysticism tends to be scripturally informed in a manner that has not been seen among Catholic visionaries since probably the time of the church fathers (I do not mean to suggest that Biblical resonance is absent from Catholic mystics. But figures like Julian of Norwich or John Ruusbroec derived their Biblical knowledge through the Divine Office rather than through the culture of personal Bible study as promulgated in the Reformed world, and their mysticism was as richly informed by the writings of the saints as by scripture).

So this, then, is the defining mark of a Protestant mystic: an experiential and direct knowledge/relationship with God, informed almost exclusively by scripture, and completely unconcerned to label itself as “mystical” or “contemplative.” After all, the words mysticism and contemplation (theoria) are of pagan rather than New Testament origin. Does this, then, render the concepts of mysticism and contemplation obsolete or unnecessary? I don’t think so. If nothing else, they are markers that invite us to acknowledge the depth and transforming power of the spirituality that figures like John Wesley or Jonathan Edwards experienced. One could almost argue that the tradition of Protestant mysticism, even among the great theologians like Wesley and Edwards, falls under what Merton called “masked contemplation” — the experience of ordinary Christian men and women who seek to live a holy and transformed life in Christ, but who don’t engage in any particular method or technique of prayer and who lack any sort of self-consciousness regarding their spiritual life. To me, this kind of masked contemplation sounds healthy in its very humility and hiddenness. Perhaps we who fancy ourselves as contemplatives would do well to follow their obscure example.

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  • Daymon Doss

    Good morning,

    i found your site while searching for more information regarding Clifton Wolters. I have had his translation of the Cloud of Unknowing for several years and have greatly enjoyed his introduction. I know nothing about him and have had little success in learning more about him. Do you have information regarding his background etc.?

    I just recieved my first blog from your site and I am looking forward to learning more about your classes and path.

    God’s grace is indeed a mystery and a blessing.

  • Bill Horlick

    Well done, Carl. I agree specifically with your last thought. I know Jesus told us and showed us where to focus. And its simple to understand but I know difficult to practice…. but thats a good thing. I sense a danger in Contemplative Prayer or with with the fundalmentals of mysticism that we can see things not as they are but as we want to see them. This can lead to a different path than the one Jesus walked and not be aware of it.

  • Leslie

    Hmmmm, how interesting. My spiritual path began in the Catholic church, moved to Episcopalian, then through non-denominational evangelical and now, seemingly, I find myself aligning more in my beliefs with the emergent church. What’s interesting is I was saved while in the Catholic church, but frankly, I had no language to ascribe to my experience of salvation. The Protestant and evangelical paths have given me that language and a wonderful knowledge of scripture, and from that knowledge God has given revelation that has and is transforming me. I no longer attend “church because I wanted to go deeper and deeper into this Christian life and the heart of God but found the church I attended lacked the depth I was looking for. It is, in fact, this depth that I would use to describe my experience of God’s presence. It’s boundless and overwhelming at times – tears are my usual response to the ecstacy, joy, tension and need of being in His presence – but I’m not aware of it manifesting as a result of any practice I undertake, unless one counts silence and stillness. Nevertheless, I don’t “practice” silence and stillness, rather, they are simply something I need and make sure I have for my own mental, emotional and spiritual health. This is when my thoughts wander and I allow myself to just relax into being and, of course, that’s where I find God. It really is quite obscure and before I found this website, I never would have described it as contemplative or mystical. If I had to sum up my mystical experience – if that’s what it is – I would have to say it’s just me and God being together.

    Further, I think I agree about the dangers of “method” in this contemplation, if only because I, like many other people, especially if they are evangelical, struggle with prayer and whether we pray correctly, enough or effectively. I’ve gotten to the point where I just don’t listen to the how to’s anymore. I’ve tried it all and I still don’t “pray” more or less or better than I ever did. So, I’ve just decided to talk to God and to be still and let Him talk to me. And, even so, this is cyclical. There are times when I talk to Him all the time and listen for His voice and there are others when I hardly pay Him any attention (which is usually when I’m mad at Him or hurt or fearful). I’m hesitant to put any kind of structure on that because structure seems to hinder rather than help. Still, I’m intrigued by the Lecto Divina and the idea of fasting and prayer as a practice.

    Well, I suppose God will let me know when it’s time to do these things. Right now, it’s not and I know this by the mystical knowledge of the fact that I only have 24 hours in each day: 8 of those I spend sleeping, 2 of them commuting, 8 of them working and the remaining 6 caring for my husband, children, 2 cats and my home. For now, if I’m a mystic or contemplative, it will have to be while I’m driving, cooking or eating, doing the laundry or cleaning the house!

  • Bob

    Protestantism doesn’t have in place an “apparatus” for canonizing saints or identifying mystics like the Roman Catholics, so there are going to be less of them.

  • Infinite Warrior

    It’s times like these I wish I lived slightly further South. I look forward to seeing what the schedule turns out to be as I’d love to attend.

    who lack any sort of self-consciousness regarding their spiritual life. To me, this kind of masked contemplation sounds healthy in its very humility and hiddenness. Perhaps we…would do well to follow their obscure example.

    Love that. Reminiscent of Matthew 6:5-6. :)

  • Bob

    On the one hand a lack of self-concern is healthy yet on the other our spiritual life needs some sort of self-awareness. We also need a “rule” or a trellis, so that our spiritual life can grow upon. A good example in having a Spiritual Director to wade through this stuff with us.

  • Infinite Warrior

    our spiritual life needs some sort of self-awareness

    Self-awareness, yes. Self-consciousness, perhaps not so much (if any at all).

  • Rick

    Just by way of a slight correction- both George Fox and Rufus Jones were Quakers, not Protestants.

  • Carl McColman

    I know that there is a tradition among some Quakers to distance themselves from a “Protestant” identity, but certainly in the sense of Protestant as “Not Catholic,” I think Quakers qualify.

  • babushkajoanna

    And then, there’s the Orthodox. :)

  • Jo

    I think it is amazing the paths we take. We start at a spot. The place we attach to this spiritual journey. I grew up in mainline Protestantism and veered to Fundamentalism, took a left at the light to Charismatic, then u-turn to Evangelical and then had a crash at Oak and 3rd to be what I guess is called a Progressive. And in doing all that, I have been drawn to the catholic mysticism. If I didn’t know better, and I guess I really don’t, I would say I am lost. I am but I never felt so “there” before.

    A great student of Wesley (being Methodist) I never thought of him as a mystic. Yet that “strange, warm feeling” he experienced at Aldersgate, set him aflame and changed the course of his life and ministry. Is mysticism the realization that all is not as you or your theology perceives? That Something greater than yourself exists and It is pulling you into Something. And you are going and you are journaling along the way with metaphorical snapshots and actual words to map the way that others may have gone but were reticent to admit or voice?

  • Maggie Daly

    Your comments are well noted. On the one hand I have often thought that those adhering to the Protestant traditions focus on scripture to the exclusion of the rich spiritual history and traditions of Christianity. On the other hand the Roman church has not encouraged scriptural reading, scriptural prayer and scriptural living, especially for the laity, for many centuries. I believe this is changing for the better. However, the Roman tradition does offer a rich variety of spiritual traditions, exercises and exemplars.

    In more modern times (and sometimes before), there is a tendency to downplay mysticism, especially in daily life. It is not only that mysticism becomes hidden in the cloister but it also becomes too associated with miracles. I’m not dissing miracles as a sign of God’s presence, but miracles are not necessarily indicators of mysticism nor is mysticism necessarily liked with miracles. Therese of Lisieux led an apparently ordinary life to outward appearances yet her rich interior life is a reminder of how the sacred can be found anywhere.

    Your comment on chlldren and Marian appearances in the more recent Catholic tradition are also well noted. But again, are Bernadette, the children of Fatima, etc. mystics? If so, is is because of the miracles they experienced or because of their subsequent devotion to God? I don’t think miracles and mysticism should be confounded nor mysticism relegated to saints alone.

  • Ron Krumpos

    Almost everyone has had a genuine mystical experience at some time or times in their life. although they may not recognize it as such. The feeling of being at one with all (around you, on Earth, in the Universe) is awesome and, for most people, unfathomable. Unfortunately, the leaders of many of the major religions would not recognize it as such unless framed in the terminology of their institution

  • Sr Sharon

    I am of the Catholic tradition and I am always surprised that people think we do not read the bible. Our traditions springs from the Bible. The daily prayer of the Church, the Mass and The Office are Bible based. The Office contains 3 psalms, a Scripture Reading the Benedictus or the Magnificat morning and evening and the Lords prayer and prayers of intercessions. It is ALL Bible Based and Mass gives the readings day by day of Scripture Old and New Testament and Acts and Letters of Apostles, so I wonder where the idea comes from that we are not Bible Based. Much of the Mass is Scriptural. So with daily Mass and The Office, which is not reserved for religious. I found out about it years and years ago before religious life, there is much to nuture the soul, to reflect upon, to ponder upon and be fed spiritually. It would be good if people in general understood this.

  • Daniel

    I agree with Sr. Sharon. I, too, am from the Catholic tradition. Our entire prayer is scripture, the Mass, the readings, the rosary – everything is based upon scripture. The moment one walks into a Catholic Mass they are immersed in Sacred Scripture. Thank you Sr. Sharon for your comments.