Shortly after we were married, Daniel and I traveled to Boone, North Carolina—home of Daniel’s alma mater, Appalachian State University—so he could introduce me to his college stomping grounds. Our weekend included a Sunday morning service at the Baptist church Daniel had attended during college. The pastor closed the service with a prayer that, according to the pastor’s introduction, was written many centuries ago by a young man named Julian who was preparing for ordination. I looked at my bulletin, where the prayer was printed out. And I noted that the prayer was attributed to the mystic Julian of Norwich, who was most definitely not a man. I was dumbfounded that a learned pastor with many years’ experience and a seminary education would not be familiar with one of the great mystics of Christian history, nor know that she was a woman. Perhaps the pastor’s ignorance merely represented a hole in his seminary education and scholarly readings. Or maybe this vignette, equal parts funny and sad, reveals just how entrenched male bias continues to be in the Christian faith, such that a great Christian mystic who saw visions and spoke of God as both mother and father would be repackaged into the more familiar guise of a male pastor.
I thought of that long-ago Sunday morning when a friend sent me a link to Tim Challies’s blog post claiming that another female mystic, Teresa of Avila, was a “false teacher.” Her false teaching? Mysticism itself, which Challies claims undermines the Protestant tenet of sola scriptura —that the holy scriptures are the final and absolute authority for our knowledge of God. Sola scriptura was behind the Protestant reformers’ emphasis on translating the Bible into people’s common language, so that people could read and interpret scripture for themselves, rather than relying on the Pope, other authorities, or church tradition to tell them what to believe and how to live a faithful life. Challies claims that mysticism violates the primacy of scripture because, “Mystics seek to experience God directly rather than through the mediation of the Bible. Scripture demands for itself a unique place in the Christian life and church and mysticism threatens to supplant it.”
I think it’s fair to say that many Christians find the experiences and writing of mystics, including Teresa and Julian, to be a little bit freaky. All those fevered visions and ecstatic utterings. But to reject mysticism outright as a serious threat to scripture and our very knowledge of God strikes me, like the pastor’s misidentification of Julian of Norwich, as both misguided and sad. It is misguided given how much of scripture itself describes intense encounters with God, fevered visions and all—Moses and the burning bush, Paul on the road to Damascus, the Transfiguration. It is sad because of how it belittles God, as if the God of the universe cannot break into our human experience but must be known solely through a book. An inspired, sacred, primary book, yes—but still a book.
The mystics are just one example of how God speaks to God’s people through the ineffable, the poetic, and the beautiful. I have had no ecstatic visions. But I have sucked in my breath in awe while overlooking Yosemite’s Half Dome at sunset, utterly convinced of God’s eternal power that will remain even after those mighty rocks are dust. I have sat my sore, leaking body into a rocking chair, latched a baby onto my breast, watched as she gulped and swallowed, milk dribbling out of the corners of her mouth and eyes glazing over with contentment, and understood just a little more what it means to give body and blood to a beloved. I have read poetry that cracks open a wordless understanding or sense of peace deep within me. I have written words that reveal something about God that I didn’t even know I knew until I wrote them. In all of these experiences, and more, as well as my reading of scripture, and worship, and prayer, I have encountered God.
The visions of mystics like Teresa and Julian arose from emotional states that were fevered, ecstatic, out of control, outside the boundaries of much human experience. I suspect that rejection of female mystics is just another way that women’s “out of bounds” tendencies—our intense emotions, our swelling bellies and breasts, our passionate expression mislabeled as “bossy”—are pushed aside as irrelevant and dangerous to a male-mediated culture and religion. Perhaps that North Carolina preacher’s mistake was an honest misstatement, but I’ve always suspected it reflected deeper assumptions about from where and to whom holy wisdom comes.
Through her mystical experiences, Teresa of Avila came to understand the power of sin and our absolute subjection to God. She enacted reforms in response to lax living in her monastery, and enlisted some like-minded male monastics to her cause. Julian of Norwich’s mysticism revealed God as absolutely compassionate and loving. Rejecting such revelation of a boundless God because it falls outside the boundaries of scripture doesn’t make me angry as much as it grieves me, that God is rendered so limited, so small. I don’t think Challies is a false teacher, but I do think he’s wrong. And unlike 15 years ago, when I failed to tell that pastor that Julian of Norwich was a woman, I’m willing to say so.
Julian of Norwich’s most famous words—”All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”—settle into one’s heart and calm the shenanigans of one’s mind as only God’s truth can do. There is nothing false about believing that the God of all things can be encountered in sacred story, and in mundane human experience, and in the strange visions of the mystics.