A quote from The Big Book of Christian Mysticism:
Mysticism can best be understood in an egalitarian and inclusive way… you don’t have to have supernatural experiences in order to be a mystic; therefore, everyone is called, if not to a life of extraordinary phenomena, then at least to the “ordinary mysticism” of the contemplative life.
At the monastery this weekend, one of the monks asked me if I could explain this term “ordinary mysticism.” Since it is in quotation marks in the book, I should point out at first that “ordinary mysticism” is not an “ordinary” term (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). I used the term specifically to differentiate mysticism as I understand the term (and as I believe many other writers, including Karl Rahner, Evelyn Underhill, Kenneth Leech, and Thomas Merton, used the term) from an older, more elitist way of thinking about mysticism. If mysticism as I understand it is “ordinary” mysticism, than this other way of understanding it could be called “extraordinary” mysticism.
- Ordinary Mysticism is what I understand Rahner to mean when he says “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” This is, in essence, an experiential spirituality which seeks union with God, in the heart of the mystery of God, which transcends a merely rational or intellectual relationship with God. This mysticism basically has three characteristics: it aims for, and hopes for, the felt experience and conscious awareness of the presence of God, and union with God. But of course, since such experience can only be the gift of God, the seeker must recognize that sometimes God is “known” only in darkness or unknowing — the felt experience of the seeming absence of God. This is where faith is essential, for only a lively and well-nurtured faith can sustain the seeker through times when God seems absent. In addition to experience and faith, the third element of ordinary mysticism is practice: the disciplined engagement with historically recognized spiritual practices, including lectio divina, meditation, prayer, and contemplation, which do not cause the experience of God, but dispose the seeker to be open and receptive to receive whatever experience God may choose to bestow. One who engages in such practices can be called a “contemplative,” even though the highest, most mystical form of contemplation is, itself, purely a gift from God.
- Extraordinary Mysticism, like ordinary mysticism, entails the conscious awareness of the presence of God, and/or sustaining faith in God’s presence even when only aware of God’s seeming absence, and a life ordered to spiritual practices aimed at fostering greater intimacy with God. However, it is extraordinary in the sense that the mystic experiences phenomena or events that cannot be explained by ordinary human science: such as miraculous healings, visions, locutions, levitation, the ability to survive on no food other than the Eucharist, the stigmata, and the body remaining incorrupt after death. Such phenomena, of course, is controversial, and many devout Christians may remain skeptical about such things. I would argue that even a person who is skeptical about allegedly supernatural phenomena may still be an “ordinary” mystic.
A person who believes that mysticism is only mysticism when it is accompanied by supernatural experience, will reject my idea that experiential, faithful, practical contemplative spirituality is “ordinary mysticism.” But I have no idea what such a person would call the kind of spirituality that I call “ordinary” mysticism. Perhaps just “Christian discipleship.” I can live with that kind of semantic quibbling. But I would point out that in a world where most people think Christian discipleship consists mainly in regular church participation, Bible study, and perhaps doing charitable work, what I call “ordinary mysticism” is in itself hardly ordinary. And that, I think, is where much of the problem in Christianity lies.