Four questions about Mysticism

A reader named Matt wrote the following questions to me, quite some time ago (sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you, Matt!):

  1. The Reformed, and Protestant traditions have been quite suspicious of some of the practices of “Mysticism”, why is that, and what would be a response to Protestant concerns?
  2. What is the theology behind Christian Mysticism?
  3. Does Christian Mysticism have Biblical Support?
  4. How does one go about practicing the more Mystical aspects of the Christian faith?

Any one of these could be a book in itself. Let me offer some brief thoughts, and then hopefully between reader comments and future posts we can explore these issues in a bit greater detail.

First of all, I know it’s a cop-out to refer to a book, but I really do think that Matt’s questions are all beautifully addressed in Robert Hughes’ wonderful book Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life. So, while my answers are very basic and “from the heart,” I’d encourage anyone seeking a more intellectually rigorous response to check out Bob’s work. I think Beloved Dust is particularly helpful in charting how mysticism fell under a cloud of suspicion after the Reformation. To put it very simplistically, the Reformation was, on one very important level, a squabble about authority. Catholics saw Biblical authority as subject to the authority of the Church, and the Protestants saw it the other way around. But the stress in both cases is on external, objective authority. Mysticism, with its emphasis on the authority of personal, subjective experience, naturally fell under a cloud of suspicion on both sides of the Reformation argument. But where Catholics basically marginalized mysticism (look at most of the major Catholic mystics after the Reformation: nearly all are women, and many died young: St. Bernadette, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Gemma Galgani, St. Rose of Lima, St. Faustina… while more theologically sophisticated mystics within Catholicism often were attacked — Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Merton leap to mind), within Protestantism mysticism essentially disappeared as a viable category of religious experience, at least until Evelyn Underhill came along in the early 20th century. The question that I think needs to be addressed: how does personal experience fit in with external/objective understandings of religious authority? Even within Protestantism where the concept of mysticism became verboten, figures who deserve to be recognized as mystics kept popping up: Jacob Boehme, George Fox, John Wesley, William Law, George MacDonald, Phoebe Palmer, Underhill, C. S. Lewis, A. W. Tozer, to name a few. My contention would be (to use religious language here) that the Holy Spirit keeps raising up mystics because mysticism is an appropriate part of Christian spirituality, even when those in authority attempt to suppress it. Granted, some mystics seem to go off the deep end and reject mainstream Christian teaching. But others are profoundly orthodox. The trick is not to dismiss all mysticism, but to learn to discern the difference between authentic and spurious Christian mysticism.

As for the theology of Christian mysticism, I would say that up until the Reformation, all theology was “mystical” theology, and to this day the distinction between theology and spirituality makes no sense to Orthodox theologians. Augustine and Aquinas, two great theologians of the medieval church, were both mystics. So was John Scotus Eriugena, Pseudo-Dionysius, Bernard of Clairvaux, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, and other  renowned theologians of the medieval church. Closer to our day, I’d suggest looking at some of the writers in the eastern churches, especially when they get to talking about deification (theosis): Vladimir Lossky, John Zizioulas, Aristotle Papanikolaou, to name a few; in the west, look at Andrew Louth, Denys Turner, Normal Russell, Ramon Panikkar, Maggie Ross, Kenneth Bakken and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (I haven’t read all of these folks so your mileage may vary; but they’re all writing about theosis, and that is pretty much the starting-point for a theology of Christian mysticism).

As for mysticism in the Bible, I give a very brief overview in my own book on Christian mysticism. If you want to do your own work, start by looking at the word “mystery” in the New Testament. One helpful book is George Maloney’s The Mystery of Christ in You. Ephesians, Colossians, and the Gospel of John are particularly important. One thing to keep in mind is that, in the early centuries of the Church, mysticism basically involved the quest to make the hidden (“mystical”) things of God more plainly known to believers, so much of the writings of the earliest mystics were scriptural commentary. The Song of Songs has long been the favorite book for mystics to comment on: look for sermons on the Song of Songs by Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, and Francis de Sales. Even Teresa of Avila wrote a brief commentary on the Song! One thing you find again and again is that the great contemplatives quote the Bible incessantly in their sermons and writings. If you want to go down a hermeneutical rabbit-hole, I think the argument can be made that mystical writing, at least during the first millennium of church history, represents a type or method of scriptural interpretation.

Finally, to practice “the more mystical aspects” of Christianity: start by being a faithful Christian. Find a church and become involved in its life. Participate in the sacraments, however your denominational tradition understands them. And then, pray every day. That can entail silent prayer (meditation/contemplation), vocal prayer (intercession, petition, adoration, thanksgiving, confession) and formal prayer (which is the heritage of the monks, with their tradition of daily liturgical prayer). I personally believe a balanced diet is best: prayer with other peoples’ words, with your own words, and with God’s words (i.e., in silence). Every day. If you’re like most people, I suspect you’ll find this extraordinarily difficult, and perhaps impossible without support from others (or at least one other). This is why having a soul friend/spiritual director, and/or a prayer group, monastic associates community, or some other intentional community of Christian pray-ers is so vitally important. Of course, a spiritual director is important not only for accountability’s sake, but also because a sustained, intentional practice of daily prayer will sooner or later land us in fairly deep contemplative waters.  Having a wise elder to sort through such experiences is an essential safeguard against all sorts of distortions, from megalomania (“God has called me for a special purpose!”) to illuminism (“I’m one of the lucky few chosen for enlightenment”) to getting scared out of your wits by your own shadow and then failing to persevere in your prayer, which is basically saying “God, trying to get close to you scares me, so I’m keeping you at a distance.” Which is being disobedient to Christ on several levels, but I won’t dwell too much on that point. Suffice to say, a serious prayer practice requires one or more friends to keep us honest, grounded, and faithful.

So like I said, this is all just a brief, off-the-top-of-my-head response to some very important and very big questions. For Matt (and anyone else reading this), I wish you many blessings and God’s delight and joy as you continue on your journey toward intimacy with the One who loves you beyond all human imperfection.

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  1. For answers to others’ concerns about mysticism, I would suggest reading source material, both current and historical. I find that common elements of criticisms of mystical spirituality are a) mischaracterizations of what the current author being lambasted actually writes, and b) quotations from other, equally ignorant critics of mysticism.
    If some of these critics actually read Evelyn Underhill, they probably would still find much to disagree with, but at least they could address the correct issues, instead of attacking straw men. When you read Underhill, you become aware of how rich and broad the field of mystical literature is. It should not be dismissed with a half-baked criticism that some recent author is foisting something foreign and novel on the church.
    My favorite sleight of hand is when contemplation/mysticism is characterized as “Eastern”. They fail to point out that Eastern Christianity (near east) is clearly distinguishable from Hinduism and Buddhism, which of course came from the far east.
    My second favorite sleight of hand boils down to “nothing written by a Catholic author can be of value to us.”

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