The word mysticism is bandied around rather too much, in my opinion. Mysticism is not a term that can mean whatever a person wants it to, but rather has a distinct and important definition that inevitably expresses itself as spiritual practice. The Oxford dictionary defines it with particular clarity:
Belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.
I’ll break that down further:
- Mysticism starts with encountering the divine
- Mysticism continues as a journey into the divine
- Mysticism’s goal is becoming one with the divine
- Mysticism cannot be achieved or even understood through intellectual processes
Christian mysticism, therefore, is an ever closer, more intimate, more yielded, and fuller union with Christ through the Holy Spirit – something that cannot be attained through studying at seminary or endless theologising.
Contemplation is not necessarily mysticism
I’m aware of many believers on the journey of deconstruction who have arrived at a destination they call ‘contemplative Christianity’, which can either be a living expression of mysticism or as dead and dry as the most conservative form of Christian religion. The difference lies in the first step in the mystical journey – mysticism starts with encountering the divine.
That first step happened for me at the age of 15, while attending a Charismatic conference held at Butlins sites around the UK. One day, I decided to forego the heady pleasures of the snooker room and attend a seminar on worship. To that point, I had little or no notion of the presence of God. I’d sat through hundreds of services, singing along with everyone else, but had never known anything that could be described as the divine presence. The band began to play, singing an intimate number from the 80s – Jesus, Holy and Anointed One, by Vineyard Worship. The chorus will be familiar to many readers:
‘Your name is like honey on my lips
Your spirit like water to my soul
Your word is a lamp unto my feet
As we sang, something strange began to happen – in contrast to my experience of worship to that point, including many occasions when this same song had been sung, I meant what I was singing. I mean, really meant it! I could sense the loveliness of Jesus in every word and my heart responded with joy. In those moments, God was more real to me than my surroundings. His presence was tangible and astonishingly loving. I gave myself to the experience completely, and though we sang that song for nearly thirty minutes, I was disappointed when the band stopped playing. I felt close to God – something I’d only understood as rhetoric, previously – and that meant everything to me. I was smiling from ear to ear. That was the moment I knew that God is good and loves me completely.
The presence of God is the crucible of theology. In his company, our poor ideas of the divine nature are burnt up and our hearts know his goodness. How many times have you experienced the power and love of God in worship, only to have that fire quenched by a confusing sermon? There’s only one way to truly know God, and that is to spend time in his presence. Better is one day in his courts than a thousand elsewhere.
Mysticism is a journey into the divine
It is the practice of God’s presence that empowers the continuing mystical journey. Intellectual debate, theologising, and attending a regular schedule of church meetings is no substitute for an organic journey of growth.
“I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of GOD. For my part I keep myself retired with Him in the depth of centre of my soul as much as I can; and while I am so with Him I fear nothing; but the least turning from Him is insupportable.”
― Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God
An ever-deepening connection with the Holy Spirit is a deep dive into love, where we learn to hear his voice, know his leading, and receive his comfort. For me, this is a daily experience, basking in the divine presence.
This is why contemplation isn’t in and of itself a mystical activity. Mystical contemplation only occurs in the tangible presence of God as we allow him to inspire and enliven our understanding. Without the divine encounter, contemplation is just thinking.
Ever-deepening union with God
The great prize of the mystical journey is an unfolding union with God – the very heart and soul of what Jesus wants for us. John 18:20-21,
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.
Jesus prayed that we would be one with him and one with another, just as he is one with the Father – perfect, unbroken unity with the divine. The mystical journey calls us to inherit the true fulfilment of the Gospel – union with God and with each other.
Ever-deepening union with each other
Why would Jesus place such an emphasis on union with each other? Because through our union with God we are transformed into beings of love, our hard edges softened, our defences brought down, and our fears assuaged. Our union with God allows us to see the best in others and resist judgement, seeking instead to love and support each other on our journeys. Union with one another is an inevitable consequence of union with the God of all compassion. In fact, the union of all creatures is the ultimate outworking of the Gospel. Ephesians 1:8-10
With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
I wonder how, year after year, I read the Bible as a believer and missed this central truth – that ‘the mystery of his (God’s) will’ is ‘to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ’. Saint and sinner; lost and found, God’s ultimate goal for us is complete and perfect union with himself and with each other in Christ.
Making progress on your mystical journey
The first step is encountering the divine. I suggest several ways in which this can be done:
- Attend church services where the Spirit is given free reign. Whatever your background, gather the courage to go to a lively Pentecostal or Charismatic church and soak up the atmosphere. Don’t look for aspects of the service to criticise – no church is perfect, and it may well be that your thinking is far more advanced than generally represented in that church, but you’re not there for intellectual stimulation or agreement. You’re there to soak in the presence of God, which is what such churches tend to be expert in. Keep going, stay humble, and keep your heart wide-open to the Lord, who is a diligent rewarder of all who seek him.
- Find a buddy who wants to embark on the same journey and do so together, meeting regularly to pray and seek the Lord. Practice listening to God and sharing what you feel he’s saying. To begin with, it might be indistinct, which is why you need to be in a safe, non-judgemental environment, but clarity comes with practice.
- Give the Lord regular time each day, even if it’s only a few minutes. Regularity is the key to growth, as the direction of our lives is never altered by an occasional stroke of the oar. Stick with it, keep asking for more, and don’t stop until you get what your heart desires.
- Ask those who walk more deeply in spiritual intimacy to lay hands on you and pray for you to be filled with the Spirit. They may well prophesy over you, offering encouragement and further direction.
- Learn to meditate, both on the scriptures and as a restorative practice. I’ve written on this in a previous article.
Once you’ve started to drink from the well, everything gets gradually easier and clearer, until you can bathe in the presence of the Lord at will and know his nearness every moment. I promise you, if you undertake this journey with courage, you will always celebrate the choice to embrace the mystical knowledge of Christ.