Last week I posted a video about Julian of Norwich which is the first of a series of videos in which I talk about various topics related to the Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality. Here is the follow-up to that video, where I try to answer the question, “What is Christian Mysticism?” It’s based on Karl Rahner’s often quoted soundbite that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or… will not exist.”
So what is mysticism? It’s one of those words that has been used by so many different people to signify different things that it arguably has become more problematic than useful. So perhaps I need to begin by pointing out what mysticism, or at least Christian mysticism, is not.
- It’s not a code-word for having some sort of cool experience of God, or of achieving exalted consciousness, or of supernatural visions (even though there are writers in the history of Christian spirituality, commonly regarded as mystics, who have reported all sorts of extraordinary phenomena — but they always insist that’s not the point).
- It’s not a trojan horse that points to infiltrating Christianity with eastern practices imported from Hinduism or Buddhism (even though many people interested in mystical or contemplative spirituality are also interested in interfaith dialogue and interspirituality).
- And it’s not some sort of privatized, solitary, “just me and God in our cosy cocoon” approach to spirituality that rejects community, church, sacraments, etc. as unnecessary. On the contrary, Christian mysticism is deeply communal in nature.
So, then, what can we say, positively and briefly, about what is Christian mysticism? I think the key to understanding mysticism lies in the Greek root-word from which words like mystic or mysticism are derived: mueo, from which we also get mystery and mute. So mysticism is a spirituality immersed in mystery and silence. Because it is a spirituality, it is, at its heart, a way of relating to God. But it is not about relating to God through thoughts, images, or concepts (even though many mystics rely deeply on the culture of religion, from sacred scripture to the liturgy to religious symbolism and Christian art). Rather, mysticism points beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond the human limitations of logic and language. And what lies “beyond”? Well, silence, for starters. So the habitat for Christian mysticism is deep silence: not only external silence (the quiet found in monasteries and at least some churches), but truly interior silence, the silence that we carry within us all the time, but often do not notice because we are so distracted by our thoughts, imagination, emotions… and this takes us back to mute: mysticism calls us to “mute” or “silence” the noisiness within our discursive awareness, not in order to “empty” our minds but in order to make our entire mind/heart/body/spirit available to listen for, and behold, the silent presence of God: a presence we all too easily ignore when we are sufficiently distracted.
There’s so much more I can say, but I’ll stop here. I hope you’ll watch the video. And if it leaves you with any questions — or comments — please post them in the comment section below.
 At least one contemporary author, Maggie Ross, argues that words like mystic or mysticism have outlived their usefulness: as she says in her book Writing the Icon of the Heart, “It [mystic] is a word that has, in my view, become entirely useless. it has acquired nuances of romanticism, exoticism, and self-absorption. It addition, far too many studies of ‘mysticism’ and ‘spirituality’ are based on a modern and narcissistic notion of ‘experience’ as self-authenticating that corresponds neither to the way the brain works nor to notions of experience in the ancient and medieval worlds.”