Few words are more abused or misused today than “mystic” or “mysticism.” Go to the local Barnes & Noble’s section advertising that topic, and one will find a farrago of works: sacred pyramids, various forms of yoga, New Age directories on energy spots around the globe and overheated tracts by the Swami of the moment. Hollywood stars, equipped with red strings around their wrists, pay huge sums to be instructed into the mysteries of Jewish Kabbalah. Folks at dude ranches transformed into retreat centers walk labyrinths, get massages or meditate.
To many, mysticism is a synonym for that which is esoteric, with an implicit promise of uncovering secret knowledge. It seems, at first glance, to be the provenance of various New Age devotees with credentials only one step beyond the astrologers to the famous.
For some, however, the adjective “mysticism” is almost a synonym for muddled thinking. Others, more generously, would argue that any experience which moves beyond ordinary experience—awe before nature, deep longing, or what Freud once called an “oceanic feeling"—can be called mystical. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called all of those things which are beyond the ken of the labors of the philosophers “mystical” (for example: Why is there something rather than nothing?).
The capture of the word “mysticism” by assorted cranks and New Agers is, for the Catholic, a shame. Catholics are the inheritors of a long Christian tradition of what today is called mysticism, which is not all that mysterious or mystical. But while the tradition is long, mysticism’s attendant words, “mystic” and “mystical,” are of relatively recent coinage. Both words, according to the French scholar Michel de Certeau in his book The Mystic Fable, were coined some time in the 17th century to explain the feeling of overwhelming religious experience without reference to the regular practices of everyday Christians. If we are to believe the Oxford English Dictionary, the word does not even enter the English language until the 18th century. In other words, the use of the term “mystic” described someone who might say, as the contemporary cliche has it, “I am spiritual (or mystical) but not religious.” Saint John of the Cross, who died in the 16th century, would not have understood anyone who would have called him a mystic, even though today we regard him as one of the greatest mystics.
So what is the deal with mysticism? And how might we use the term with precision in the context of Catholic thinking?
At this point we might begin with a little excursus on language. The Greek verb muein means to close the eyes, and, by extension, to see what is hidden. It is the root of the word musterion, which we translate as “mystery but not mystery"—a deep puzzle that is not fully disclosed. Saint Paul uses this terminology in his letters. He most likely thought the revelation of Christ was the true musterion, as opposed to the then-popular mystery religions that also promised secret knowledge to its initiates. For Paul, mystery is the uncovering of what has hitherto been concealed.
The adjective mystikos (or, roughly, “mystical"), coming from the same root muein, was used by the early Christian writers in reference to sacred scripture. It referred to both a plain sense of scripture and, for the believer, a hidden sense. All of the Old Testament has the hidden sense of pointing to Jesus Christ, even though the plain sense had to do with the sacred story of the Jews. Similarly, the Holy Eucharist is plainly bread and wine. Through the eyes of the believer, it has the hidden meaning of the real presence of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine. Thus, we speak of the Eucharistic Liturgy as the celebration of Sacred Mysteries. Likewise, it was common to speak of baptism as a “mystical regeneration” in the name of the Trinity; it only seemed to be a ritual bathing but was, in fact, regeneration into the new person. Finally, the adjective described the Church: It is a visible reality, but it is also for the eyes of the believers a hidden reality—hence we speak of the Mystical Body of Christ.
In other words, that which is mystical is that which is no longer concealed; its revelation comes from discovery and seeing through the eyes of faith.
The Christian tradition
Around 500 A.D. the Christian tradition received a newer meaning attached to the adjective “mystical.” A monk claiming to be the Dionysius who was converted by Saint Paul in Athens (see Acts 17:34), wrote a series of books. Among them were The Divine Names of God and Mystical Theology. The former book was an attempt to account for all of the names by which we call on God. In the latter book (scarcely 10 pages long in English translation) he argues that the reality of God is beyond naming. Speech about God (theology) is hidden in the vast mystery of the divine reality; God is _mystikos_—hidden.
We can, the books tell us, say many things about God while at the same time God is nameless because divine reality is more than we can grasp. In attempting to speak about how speechless we are when confronting the reality of God, we are indulging in mystical (hidden) discourse to and about God (theology).
Some centuries later those two books were translated into Latin, and thus Dionysius’ books entered into the Christian literature of the West. Those volumes were highly valued because they were thought to have come from the time of the apostles. It was later proved, however, that they had to be from a much later time.
We have no way of knowing why the author now commonly known as the Pseudo-Dionysius played this little literary trick. Despite his pious fraud, what he had to say was important, although it had been said in a somewhat different way long before his own time by Greek Christian writers. His point was basically this: Whatever we humans say of God is always limited by the sheer poverty of human language. God is always deeper, more profound and more mysterious than anything we can say about God. God’s revelation in Exodus stipulates that nobody sees God face-to-face; Moses saw God in the midst of a dark cloud. This is what Saint Thomas Aquinas meant when he said that our faith ends not in words but in the reality behind the words. The true reality of God is made known to us through the incarnation of God’s Son. In other words, God is a hidden God.
When a person has a deep experience of the reality of God in prayer that is beyond words, one touches upon the reality of the mystery of God. One forgets the self praying and is enveloped in the presence of God. That self-forgetting awareness of the presence of God is what we would today call a mystical experience. Those who have such an experience cannot fully describe it; they are compelled to use the language of analogy or poetry or paradox: God is todo y nada—Everything and Nothing.
An earlier age, using the language of Dionysius, would describe such an experience as mystical theology—hidden (mystical) discourse with God (theology). Here is how Saint John of the Cross describes it in his unfinished treatise The Ascent of Mount Carmel: “Contemplation, consequently, by which the intellect has a higher knowledge of God, is called mystical theology, meaning the secret wisdom of God.” For John, mystical theology is a gift of grace by which a prayerful person stands before and has some kind of experience of the presence of God.
The Catholic tradition knows many subsets of this kind of experience. In The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, it has taken Bernard McGinn four capacious volumes with a fifth to come to tell the varied story of Christian mysticism. In his estimation, mysticism is some kind of experience of the presence of God, however one has reached that experience or in what language it has been cast.
A profound experience
Mystical experience, then, is a profound experience of the presence of God in prayer. It is not something that one works for via effort alone but is a free gift of grace given to someone who is faithful to opening the self to God. Many people probably have those experiences but do not name them, simply because they think that if one uses the word “mystic” one must be speaking of something that is odd, rare, peculiar and esoteric. Furthermore, mystical experience has no intrinsic or necessary connection to such things as raptures, ecstasies, locutions, stigmata, elevations and the other things that appear in mystical literature. Again, let me call on the wisdom of Saint John of the Cross. He is blunt about the matter, arguing that one act of charity is worth more than all locutions from on high. His reasoning on this point is simple enough: We might yearn so much for “experiences” that we will be distracted from the simple journey into the hidden wisdom of God.
John, like all the great mystics of the Catholic tradition, is acutely aware of the danger of self-delusion or the simple error of mistaking a purely psychological moment for deep prayer. Nor are visionary experiences induced, for example, by hallucinogenic drugs. Understanding the true nature of mystical experience is why the spiritual literature of the West is filled with advice about discernment, the need for spiritual guidance and a life anchored in the ordinary exercises of the sacramental life of the church.
Saint Teresa of Avila has an elaborate discussion of the stages of prayer in her classic work The Interior Castle. She sensibly asks toward the end of her work how a person might know that she has reached advanced stages of prayer. Teresa’s answer is characteristic of her eminent good sense. The test of whether your prayer is authentic or not is a simple question: Do you love your neighbor more? Contemplative or mystical prayer is tied to practice and growth in the Christian life. In the same treatise she has other indicators about the authenticity of a deep experience of God in prayer: Does the memory of it linger? Is it an experience that changes us for the better? Does it result in greater spiritual maturity?
A couple of generations ago, the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote an influential essay on the future of Christian faith. The essay began with a rather startling opening gambit: The Christians of the future will be either mystics or they will not be Christians at all. Rahner was convinced that the traditional culture of Catholicism, of the kind that he knew as a young person growing up, was eroding rapidly under the pressure of increased urbanization, the aftermath of the world wars, the shift from rural and village life to that of the metropolis, and other factors which encouraged the secularization of life. People might well not remain faithful to their Catholic faith simply because they were born into it. As a consequence, if people did not have a deep experience of God they would not commit themselves to a sustained life of Christianity. The sheer pressures of culture would act as a powerful reactive force against “folk” or “cultural” Catholicism.
By being a mystic, what Rahner had in mind was nothing more than this: People would remain actively Christian if they had been shaped by a profound encounter with God. That experience (or those experiences) would anchor a person in faith and allow that faith to spill over into an active Christian life.
Not all religions are Christian, of course, although within the great religions of the world are traditions that seem similar to the Christian mystical tradition. In Judaism there is a long tradition of those who seek the “hidden” meaning of the Torah as a way to ascend to God. Islam’s Sufi tradition pursues union with Allah under the name of love. Hinduism and Buddhism have ascetic traditions that look to uncover the hidden nature of reality in order for people to reach Nirvana (Buddhism) or Brahman (Hinduism). All of these paths bear what the philosopher Wittgenstein calls a “family resemblance."
The big argument among scholars of this subject is whether each one of these paths points to a common experience—sometimes called the “perennial philosophy.” Some think there is only this one primordial experience. Others argue that the experiences are discrete—there are not pure unmediated mystical experiences. Christian mystics have Christian experiences.
The dispute between those who argue for the perennial philosophy and those who argue that mystical experiences are peculiar to a given religious tradition is a vexatious and highly technical one. Persons in other religious traditions may indeed have a deep experience that they may not call God but which has characteristics similar to those reported by Christians. What counts in the last analysis, however, is how those experiences are understood by the person who reports them.
In the long tradition of Christianity, those who report having had a deep experience of God always couch the experience in the language of an encounter with the living God and presuppose the vehicles, language and practices of Christianity. As Steven Katz, one of the most astute scholars in this area, has noted, it is not just a question of studying the reports of the mystic’s experience. One must also understand the concepts that the mystic brings to and which shape his or her experience.
The Catholic view
Is the experience of mystical prayer something to which an ordinary Catholic may aspire? The Catholic tradition would say that at the heart of our existence dwells the presence of God. God, Saint Augustine says in the Confessions, is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Saint John of the Cross, echoing Saint Thomas Aquinas, argued that God dwelt in and sustains the most vicious sinner in the world. Calling to mind and enlarging the heart to be aware of God’s presence is what the spiritual life of the Christian is all about. If we live a life of openness to God, if we “remember” God in our lives, God will become transparent to us. Such transparency is a pure grace of God and is open to us if we are open to it.
What makes a saint is that the saint lives the ordinary Christian life in an extraordinary fashion. We have singled out some of them for the persistent way in which they have lived and recorded their experiences of God in prayer. The rest of us may have those experiences now and again, and while we may not have the vocabulary to name them we have them nonetheless. These momentary experiences are mere hints of what we will be with God—little hints of the beatific vision.
This opening out of the self occurs only when certain predispositions are cultivated. All of the great spiritual writers insist on this point. First, we have to be disposed by living a life of virtue that eschews a life of persistent sin. This is not momentary; it is a persistent turning toward God that is the lifelong act of conversion. Any conversion carries with it an equal aversion. If we turn toward God we must of necessity turn away from that which is not godly. Every act of conversion is also an act of aversion. The traditional vocabulary calls this the purgative path: We cleanse ourselves in order to keep God in our life. We begin to see things in another fashion and the various modes of virtue learned from the example of Jesus and inspired by the gifts of the Holy Spirit put us on another way. If we do that regularly, as a contemporary spiritual writer says boldly, God will come to us and seize us not dramatically but by giving us a new way of life.
The medieval mystic John Ruusbroec put the matter brilliantly: “If we do this, we will from hour to hour become more and more like God in all our works. At the same time, and on the foundation of a pure intention, we will transcend ourselves and meet God without intermediary, resting with God on the grounds of simplicity” (Spiritual Espousals).
Here is a brief way of saying it: Live a committed Christian life; remember God in your life; be open to God’s presence and God will reveal God’s self to us. That revelation brings forth that which had been previously hidden to us. When that happens you may call yourself a mystic, because you have come to the realization that in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Can we do that on our own? Not really, but we can have faith in and be consoled by the promise of Saint Paul: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And, God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit” (Roman 8:26-27a).
Lawrence S. Cunningham is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at Notre Dame.