Mysticism and Esotericism

A reader writes:

How would you define the balance between Christian Mysticism & Christian Esotericism?

Richard Smoley in Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition, differentiates them by saying, “Esotericism is characterized by… an interest in different levels of consciousness and being. Mysticism is not quite so concerned with these intermediate states; it focuses on reaching God in the most direct and immediate way. The mystic wants to reach his destination as quickly as possible; the esotericist wants to learn something about the landscape on the way. Moreover mysticism tends to be more toward passivity: a quiet waiting upon God rather than active investigation.”

How would you define the balance between these two traditions of Christian spirituality? Benefits and Dangers of both? and does Christian Esotericism get dealt with in any of your books?

Some great questions. First, a confession: I haven’t read Smoley. That said, I find his definition a bit contrived. I don’t think he understands mysticism. Passivity, or quietism, is actually considered a heresy within mysticism. Christian mysticism does regard God as the leader of the dance, but the individual or community seeking intimacy with God still has to be Ginger Rogers to God’s Fred Astaire, and as the old saying goes, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels.” In other words, the contemplative life requires commitment, discipline, perseverance, surrender of self, humility, obedience, and willingness to respond to call, even call into “active” dimensions of ministry and life — hardly a “passive” exploration at all!

Furthermore, even a cursory reading of Teresa of Avila, Pseudo-Dionysius, or Evelyn Underhill will reveal that mysticism does have an essentially developmental character. It is not just an “immediate” process of attaining enlightenment or union. Anyone who thinks that “The mystic wants to reach his destination as quickly as possible; the esotericist wants to learn something about the landscape on the way,” certainly has never read The Interior Castle.

So this concept of “Christian esotericism” as a category distinct from mysticism or other aspects of Christian spirituality does not seem very persuasive to me, at least not on the basis of the one quote you provided. Once again, I haven’t read Smoley, so perhaps if I read the book I’d be in a better position to evaluate what he’s trying to get at.

I don’t use language of esotericism in my book. I believe that mysticism is not for the elite, but is rather simply the full flowering of contemplative spirituality, available to all Christians, although obviously not received to the same extent by all. I would be a bit leery of language that tries to differentiate between “normal” Christianity and “special” Christianity, reserved for the deserving few. Mysticism certainly has the unfortunate tendency to be seen that way, probably because of its longstanding relationship to the monasteries, which historically were the “Christian elite.” But I believe that represents a distortion of mysticism, and not its truest or best role within Christianity.

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  • http://www.westernmysteries.com Peregrin

    Hi Carl,

    thanks for this. I have thought about this myself before and the modern tendency to conflate Christian mysticism and esotericism. I am not sure Mr Smoley (whom I have read) gives a good distinction between the two. Historically at least Esotericism was characterised by two main features: (1) an inner body of knowledge or interpretation of exoteric religious forms that were (2) taught to an inner group of students or practitioners. Mysticism, however being the practice of conscious personal communion with the Divine, can and is practiced by Christians who are not esoteric in the traditional understanding of that word and whom are not part of any inner tradition and who have received no ‘special’ or additional teaching.

    I agree with your comments re the interior ‘landscape’ on the mystical path. Much of the confusion here I feel stems from a misunderstanding of Hermetic Qabalah and the Tree of Life where the middle pillar is often referred to as the mystical path, the straight and narrow ascent to God. The other paths, taking a more circuitous route are seen as the magical path and the path of the natural man. I feel this is far too simplistic an analysis. Thanks :)

  • Ellen N. Duell

    I heartily agree.

    There is a great, and old, poem: “Abou ben Adam”. (I’m not certain of the spelling.) In it Abou awakes “from a great dream of peace” and sees an angel in the tent, writing in a book. “What writest thou?” Abou asks. “The names of those who love the Lord,” is the reply. Abou thought for a while. Then he asked for his name to be inscribed as “one who loves his fellow men”. The poem ends with the book completed, “And lo, Ben Adam’s name led all the rest!”

  • Heather

    I do think, though, that the restrictions on the Christian mystics, about what it was acceptable for them to write for instance, have made following their developmental schema for states of consciousness rather difficult to unravel. Part of it is also untangling the language of symbolism from their subtle state work to discern the stages. Ken Wilber makes the good point in his interview with Carolyn Myss about her book on Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle that Teresa takes you as far as she can–basically, she takes you to the door of the causal and shoves you through. I’d be interested to learn, Carl, which mystics address the progression to the nondual in a developmental way. I think the Cloud seems like a direct path there, but for those who want to know how they got there and how they can get there again and what to expect along the way, I’m not sure how much it supports the process.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Heather, as best I know, a developmental map of Christian mystical consciousness — that takes us all the way to the nondual — has yet to be written. Which is why everyone is reading Ken Wilber (it was funny how at the Emergent Church conference last spring, both Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr, within minutes of one another, were telling me that I simply had to read Wilber!). John of the Cross and Teresa are probably as good as it gets, in terms of trying to map the contemplative journey systematically. After them, mysticism fell under such a hermeneutic of suspicion (in both Catholic and Protestant circles) that later authors who attempted to map the journey (like Garrigou-Lagrange or Adolphe Tanquerey) really just kept revisiting John and Teresa, ad nauseam.

    Then again, as Brian Eno puts it, “If you study the heuristics and logistics of the mystics, you will find that their mind rarely moves in a line.” In other words, I think it’s incumbent on each of us to immerse ourselves in the best wisdom the tradition has to offer — Ps.-Dionysius, Richard of St. Victor, Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John Ruusbroec, Teresa, John, Merton — and be prepared to look for landmarks as we each map our own way.

    With Wilber’s help, of course. :-)

  • http://thebyzantineanglocatholic.blogspot.com/ Joe Rawls

    Smoley has close connections with Gnosticism and Theosophy, which will of course give a particular slant on one’s approach to mysticism.

  • http://nitecaravan.blogspot.com/ Fr. Jay

    You wrote, “I believe that mysticism is not for the elite, but is rather simply the full flowering of contemplative spirituality, available to all ” This is exactly it, in my opinion. A great discussion of the possibility of non-dualism in Christianity can be found in a discussion between Fr. Thomas Keating and Sufi Sheik Llewellyn Vaughn Lee in the DVD: Oneness and the Heart of the World. It is a fascinating discussion.

  • http://www.fraidanhix.blogspot.com/ Father Aidan

    Hi Carl,

    I appreciate your perspective that Smoley’s definition or contrast between Mysticism & Esoteric Christianity seems contrived. It really seems to be in many ways just a different way of speaking about mysticism, except that seem esotericists tend to waver more between various gnostic heresies, secret societies (like Freemasonry and Rosicrucians) and occultism than do traditional contemplative/mystic expressions which were more often rooted within the structure of orthodoxy.

    However, although I whole heartedly agree with your statement,
    “I believe that mysticism is not for the elite, but is rather simply the full flowering of contemplative spirituality, available to all Christians, although obviously not received to the same extent by all. I would be a bit leery of language that tries to differentiate between “normal” Christianity and “special” Christianity, reserved for the deserving few. Mysticism certainly has the unfortunate tendency to be seen that way, probably because of its longstanding relationship to the monasteries, which historically were the “Christian elite.” But I believe that represents a distortion of mysticism, and not its truest or best role within Christianity,” I would also add that I can understand from personal experience another reason why the possibility of the underground movements of esoteric groups may have started.

    As you suggested in one of your responses, there is a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has had both official distrust and fear from the Church against various mystics and mysticism in general (just think of the persecution of Joan of Arc and St John of the Cross, etc); and the fear and distrust of the common masses or even one’s fellow parishioners against people, like myself, who have felt a life directed toward inner work of any kind, except maybe the modern science of Psychology and therapy.

    Although, as you say, a “developmental map of Christian mystical consciousness — that takes us all the way to the nondual — has yet to be written,” there has been work by such notables as Ken Wilber which describe the changing states of Consciousness from the Mythological level of religious consciousness where the average practitioner remains to various advances in levels and stages of consciousness of the practicing mystic. Unfortunately, for the average Christian following the mystic path there has been little assistance until more recently to aide those of us living outside of monastic communities. In fact, even in Eastern Orthodoxy, where mysticism is much more the norm, there is great hesitancy anyone outside of, say Mt Athos, being taught the “secret” techniques of even the Jesus Prayer without having lived in the monasteries under strict discipline and supervision for many years before being taught about various breathing or cardio rythms applied to the prayer. It is almost impossible to find more than a passing reference to these things in Orthodox books.

    So, there has been distrust from both the institutional side of church, fellow parishioner, and fear from the “Elite” monastic mystics to make their secret knowledge more available in guiding the average person in contemplative prayer, which can drive people underground in their practice and sharing of such information for fear of being seen as weird, occultic or heretical. It can make them feel isolated from the common mass of believer who are not at that level of awareness or direction. If that is true today, it may have been even more true in ancient times. This is just a personal speculation or empathy for such people, as I have often felt during my journey.

    But thanks to people like Merton, Keating, Pennington, Menninger, Rohr, Griffiths, Teasdale and yourself, etc., there is a growing movement of producing literature to help provide guidance for the average person who does not have an experienced teacher; and with growing para-church societies like Contemplative Prayer Outreach or the World Communion of Christian Meditator’s (WCCM), there is a greater sense of connectedness and less isolation for those who have felt the deep calling unto deep.

    Thanks for your comments,
    Fr Aidan

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Fr. Aidan, you point to how much work there is to be done!

    I think the issue you raise about the distrust in the church is important enough to warrant its own post. Check it out: Mysticism and Esotericism, continued.

  • Pingback: Mysticism and Esotericism, continued | Anamchara • The Website of Unknowing

  • http://arulba.com arulba

    I’ve never read Smoley, either, but I would agree with him that many who claim to be “mystics” are on a fast track to God. I also agree with you that these people aren’t necessarily legitimately “mystic”. But I think the esoteric IS mystic (I don’t agree with Father Aidan’s understanding of the esoteric). The exoteric always involves a more literal understanding while the esoteric involves a deeper, “mystical” understanding, and the two are in a constant conversation with one another. One cannot exist without the other. Both sides claim to be more “right” than the other. The mystic is the person who walks the fine line within the balance between the two.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      The exoteric always involves a more literal understanding while the esoteric involves a deeper, “mystical” understanding, and the two are in a constant conversation with one another.

      I think you’re oversimplifying here, and the culprit is the word “always.” I know more than a few Christians dedicated to the exoteric expression of their faith who are not literalists in any sense. In fact, I would argue that one of the purposes of Christian mysticism is to merrily deconstruct the walls that separate the exoteric from the esoteric.

  • http://arulba.com arulba

    Always is always a bad word to use. :) You’ve misunderstood me.

    I meant literal in the sense of being focused on outward, shared symbols (texts, rituals, etc.) rather than personal inward experience. The outward (exoteric) experience requires shared symbols while the inward (esoteric) experience does not. Of course, in order to communicate the inward experience, the esoteric experience must be communicated in an exoteric way. The two are in constant conversation with one another. The separation only exists in the minds of those who claim sides. Don’t know if mysticism deconstructs walls (only because I don’t really know what that means), but I do think the mystic must find a balance between the two.

  • http://arulba.com arulba

    Just to be clear, by “the two” I mean exoteric and the esoteric experience.


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