At St. Paul’s, we have chosen the theme of “mysticism” and the “mystics” as our Lenten focus. It is an apt choice, as mystics have much wisdom to share with us when we take the time to delve into their works. But what is mysticism?
Mysticism is first and foremost an experience of God’s presence. In its most extreme form, it is a radical, ecstatic experience of union with God, and there are some famous Christian mystics who had these sorts of amazing experiences. However, our thesis for this series is that all Christians can learn to be mindful of the holy in the world around them. Seeing the signs of the in-breaking of God’s reign around us does not require extreme piety, seclusion, self-sacrifice, or purity. We can all prepare for a deeper sense of God’s presence. So, let’s begin by fleshing out mysticism.
Mystic strands can be found in nearly every faith tradition, including the other two Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Islam). It has existed throughout recorded history in most cultures throughout the world and has been studied by researchers in many secular fields: anthropology, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and even architecture – have you ever noticed how certain places seem holy from the minute you step inside? Mysticism (or a related term, “religious experience”), by definition, transcends our normal ways of understanding and interacting with the world. As such, it is difficult to find metrics to use to measure and study these experiences empirically.
One way to study religious experiences is to analyze trends in the stories people report. One scholar who did so is the well-known psychologist Abraham Maslow, the creator of the “hierarchy of needs.” He defined mystical experiences as “peak experiences,” a type of “being cognition,” arising out of a self-actualized state. He found many commonalities in these stories, and many of these will also be true of the mystics that we study:
- The experience is seen as a whole, as all there is in the universe.
- The experience demands total attention, complete absorption.
- The world can be seen as existing for itself, not for human use.
- The experience makes perception richer.
- It is object-centered, not ego-centered; it is ego-transcending.
- The experience is an end in itself with its own intrinsic value.
- There is a disorientation of time and space.
- These experiences are only good and desirable.
Another scholar interested in religious experience was William James, philosopher and psychologist who wrote a book entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience. This book would be a worthwhile study for someone who is interested in defining and researching these ideas further. James also identified some common traits of religious experience. They are:
- Ineffable – Language is insufficient to describe the experience.
- Noetic – Though they often include emotion, these states also seem to reveal a new state of knowledge, a new understanding of truth, even though it is difficult to put that knowledge into words.
- Transiency – They are necessarily brief.
- Passivity – The person is not creating the experience but is being held by a greater power.
Victor Turner studied religious experiences from an anthropological point of view, and he focused on what happens during important rites within communities. When a family group was engaged in milestone moments, such as coming of age ceremonies, there was a greater opportunity for religious experiences to occur. He called these moments “liminal,” from the Latin word for “thresholds.” These moments include beginnings, endings, journeys, or transitions. Additionally, during coming of age ceremonies, traditional social roles and hierarchies are lifted, creating a sense of “comunitas,” or communion of equal individuals. In the liminal moments of these ceremonies, the traditionally “weak” or “powerless” members of the group are given voice. Looking at Turner’s work, I find myself wondering if the experience people have during these ceremonies of living out God’s radical reign, one which reverses the power and legal structures of our world, helps to open people’s eyes to the divine around them. Maybe when we live more like God wants us to live, even for a day, we are primed to see God more clearly.
So how does mysticism fit within the Christian tradition? Is this a new invention? It is not; mystical experiences have been a part of the lives of God’s people ever since the earliest recorded stories. Think of all of the remarkable experiences Biblical characters have with God! Here is just a partial list to jog your memories…
- Abraham hosting messengers of God as three visitors to his tent
- Jacob’s night of wrestling or vision of angels on a ladder
- Moses turning aside to see a bush burning but not consumed
- Isaiah’s call to become a prophet, when he saw God on a throne and an angel touched his lips with a burning coal
- Jesus’ baptism and the voice saying “This is my beloved”
- The Transfiguration, with the same voice
- The temple curtain being torn in two, and the earthquake, at Jesus’ crucifixion
- Saul being struck blind on the road to Damascus
All of these stories contain interactions with God or God’s messengers that transcend our usual perceptions; they are mystical stories.
Occasionally, people seem to think that these kinds of direct revelations from God or visions happened only during Biblical times. The Christian tradition tells a different story, with numerous saints describing extremely mystical experiences, from St. Francis receiving the stigmata, to Martin Luther’s commitment to ministry during a thunderstorm, to Mechthild of Magdeburg’s vision of union with God through love.
Paul preached about some early mystics, the desert fathers and mothers, in his sermon last Sunday. These are committed Christians who decided to retreat into the desert to get away from the demands of secular society and to further develop their faith. They ended up forming new communities with each other and were well-known for their advice. My favorite story from the desert fathers and mothers, as told online from many sources, goes like this:
Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
I love the idea of “becoming fire.” Maybe it appeals to my personal mystical side.
One of the writers who had a big influence on later mystics was an author known as “Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite.” As was a common custom in that culture, this 6th century man claimed to write in the tradition of a famous person from the past in order to gain authority and credibility. He aligned himself with Dionysius, one of the men Paul converted to Christianity after preaching in Athens, and this claim caused him to have a significant influence on the medieval mystics. His writings fall within a philosophical stream known as “Neo-Platonism.” Although there is more than one philosophy under that umbrella, in general, this stream described “The One.” The One is unknowable. It is the source and end of everything. It is the creative force in the world, and thus not even a “being,” since it doesn’t meet our definition for a “being.” Human souls, as well as angelic beings and all of the created order, derived from The One but were defective in some way. In this line of thought, perfection, happiness, and reunion with the One could be achieved through philosophical contemplation.
Pseudo-Dionysius wrote several treatises, but the most relevant was called “Mystical Theology,” which defined God by what God was not. This “via negativa” was very influential for medieval scholars who sought a way to get closer to God by discourse and logical thinking. For Dionysius, however, the more we used our reasoning to try to understand God, the fewer words we found to describe God; thus, the closer we get to God, the less language we use. You might notice a relationship here between deductive thought and mystical experience. Mystical experience was not divorced from critical thinking; instead, it was the next step beyond thinking when coming into union with God.
Probably the most prolific time for mysticism in Christian history was the Middle Ages. Ironically, at this time, there was no such term as “mysticism”; “mysticism” is a product of the Enlightenment and the separation between experience/emotion and rational thought. There were three major strands within mysticism in the Middle Ages.
- Monastic – The monks who had dedicated their lives to God and turned their back on the material things of this world wrote works instructing others on how to find deeper union with God. These are a great example of how mysticism and knowledge or belief were not separate concepts. The monks did occasionally have a supernatural kind of mystic experience, such as St. Francis experiencing the marks of Christ, the stigmata, on his own body. However, his contemporaries would not have seen this as a random event but rather the result of Francis’ continued work purifying his soul towards union with God, particularly through contemplative reading of Scripture, or lectio divina. There was human effort involved; the experience of reflection on Scripture transformed the monk’s heart, leaving it open to the possibilities of such a mystical experience. There was a joining there of practice, belief, and experience.
- Scholastic – Scholars sought union with God through critical thinking. The more they could define who God is (and isn’t), the closer they got to understanding God, and thus the closer they could get to union with God. As academics, the scholars likely would have resisted the idea that mysticism involved a “supernatural” revelation from God.
- Feminist – Many women in the Middle Ages told about mystical experiences. Their writings differed from those of their male contemporaries because of their status in society. Women were less educated, so their writings were more original, not modeled after others. Their words and images showed a closer connection to everyday Christians, since they were often still within families and communities and not necessarily cloistered. Lastly, they often claimed that their revelations came straight from God, thus giving them more authority than they would have had as the lesser sex at the time.
The Reformation signaled the end of the Middle Ages, and it also dampened the flame of mysticism for several hundred years. Although the Reformers emphasized the importance of an individual’s interpretation of the Bible and relationship with God, it also was a more mechanistic and rational age than the “magical” Middle Ages. Mystical experiences were suspect because they didn’t fit into an empirical model of describing reality. Concerns were raised about these visions, such as: the telling of mystic experiences tended to emphasize the religiosity of the person over the actions of God; there was suspicion that some mystics believed that they had become “one” with the Creator, and the Reformers would have resisted the blurring of lines between human and divine; and there were hesitations to accept revelation apart from the authority of the collected church. Despite these apparent philosophical concerns, some Reformation leaders such as Martin Luther did report having mystical experiences, such as Luther’s commitment to study theology as a result of a thunderstorm, or the voice of God he heard assuring him of grace despite his sinful nature during his “tower” experience while reading the book of Romans.
As post-modern thought has swept across disciplines, there has been a resurgence in the idea of mysticism. Post-modernism asserts that every person has his/her own unique and valid worldview based on his/her experiences. This emphasis on trusting one’s own self-identity and perspective has affirmed the validity of mystical experiences. You might say that some of the more recent trends in America — “spirituality;” being “spiritual but not religious;” exploring other faith traditions such as Taoism or Buddhism; or practicing transcendental meditation or yoga — are all post-modern reactions against the modern values of materialism and individualism. Post-modernism asserts that there is more to reality than what we can sense and what we can study, and this allows room again for faith, for the divine, for the unseen.
How can you be mystical today? This will be discussed every week as we look closer at the lives, spiritual practices, and experiences of mystics over the centuries. For starters, however, here are some words of wisdom from Bruce Epperly in his book, The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-Filled World.
“Buddhist wisdom proclaims, ‘Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.’ The heart of mystical adventure lies not necessarily in doing anything differently but in experiencing the everyday with a heightened awareness of the holiness of each rising moment.” (p. 8)
“Life-affirming spirituality…sees God in all things and all things in God. The mystic way joins unity with diversity and experiences one Spirit animating and inspiring all things. It invites us to love God in the world of the flesh rather than a distant heavenly realm. The mystic adventure follows the counsel of Jesus’ prayer to experience and follow God’s vision “on earth as it is in heaven.” Mysticism experiences God in this present place and moment as it drives us from the familiar and the intimate, the individual encounter with God, to the discovery of God in life’s diversity. A mystical life then leads us to companion God in healing a world traumatized by greed, hatred, self-interest, and violence.” (p.9)
I hope that you now understand some of the history of mysticism and what issues it raises. But, do you really believe that you are, or can be, a mystic? Here are some closing thoughts from Epperly:
“Yes, you can be a mystic. In fact, you already are one. You are inspired by God, but, like Jacob, may be unaware of it. The mystic journey, in its many nuances and practices, is simply to move from ‘God was in this place and I did not know it” to “God is in this place and now I know it.’ Recognizing God’s presence manifest in the messiness of everyday life, mysticism claims that this space – including your whole self in its grandeur and imperfection, commitment and ambivalence – is holy ground.” (p. 10)
Come join us every Wednesday in Lent at 6:40 for learning and then enter “holy ground” in our prayer service. All are invited!