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.