"When picturing Christ in the way I have mentioned, and sometimes even when reading, I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God of such a kind that I could not possibly doubt that he was within me or that I was wholly engulfed in him. This was in no sense a vision: I believe that it is called mystical theology" (The Life of St. Teresa of Avila [Doubleday Books, 1960], 1.10; p. 119).
A. Towards a Definition of Mysticism
What is mysticism? Mysticism cannot in any way be conceived as a movement for the simple fact that it is, by definition (as we shall see), inconsistent with those organizational structures that are characteristic of all movements. That is to say, mysticism lacks definable theological boundaries (i.e., it has no enduring doctrinal statement, so to speak), it has no designated leaders, and it has always been resistant to the rules and regulations that religious institutions inevitably embrace in the course of their development. In other words, mysticism is much too fluid and diverse to qualify as an identifiable movement. Mysticism is more a unique religious emphasis or element within Christian experience as a whole.
Here is a working definition of mysticism:
Mysticism is an approach to Christianity that focuses on preparation for, consciousness of, and reaction to what can be described as the immediate or direct presence of God. Emphasis is placed on the subjective or "felt" experience of being in an intimate relationship with God, what some mystics refer to as "spiritual ecstasy". The earthly goal of this relationship is personal ethical and spiritual transformation, the heavenly culmination of which is the beatific vision.
There are numerous other subsidiary characteristics of mysticism:
·The experience of union with God, which generally assumes one of two forms: (1) a "relational" or "ethical" union conceived as a union of wills or spirits or a union of love; or (2) an "essential" union described as "absorption" into God to such a degree that personal identity is in some sense lost (more on this below)
·Contemplation of God that both flows from and leads to deeper personal intimacy; Teresa of Avila teaches that as one progresses in contemplation, there is a "suspension of the faculties," i.e., an end to the ordinary operation of the intellect whereby we think, reason, formulate ideas, etc.; at this point God sovereignly infuses a transrational awareness of Himself, what Dubay calls "a divinely bestowed absorption in knowing and loving and seeking" (Fire Within, 87)
·Meditation on the written Word is emphasized (Song of Solomon and the Psalms are most often mentioned); the goal of this is often referred to as the "birth of the Word in the soul"
·Beatific vision of God - this is the consummation of the mystic's earthly experience and growth; it is the face-to-face encounter with God that will come in heaven (1 John 3:2; Revelation 22:4; Matthew 5:8)
·Deification or divinization of the human soul - modern defenders of the mystics insist that this "transformation into the divine" is not to be thought of in a pantheistic sense (God and the human individual remain ontologically distinct)
·Spiritualecstasy or rapture - mystics often used vivid terminology to describe this experience: "enthralling immersion in God," "sublime perception of God," "spiritual inebriation," "infused love," "absorption in the Beloved," "divine inflowing," etc. Teresa of Avila describes it as "a glorious foolishness, a heavenly madness," being "bewildered and inebriated in [God's] love;" such ecstasy rarely lasts for more than an hour, but is always indelible and unforgettable. With this experience one's inner life of loving and knowing is so intensified that sense perception of the external world is proportionately diminished, often altogether obscured. Again, listen to Teresa's explanation:
"I say that often, it seemed to me, the body was left so light that all its weight was gone, and sometimes this feeling reached such a point that I almost didn't know how to put my feet on the ground. Now when the body is in rapture it is as though dead, frequently being unable to do anything of itself. It remains in the position it was when seized by the rapture, whether standing or sitting, or whether with the hands opened or closed. Although once in a while the senses fail (sometimes it happened to me that they failed completely), this occurs rarely and for only a short time. But ordinarily the soul is disoriented. Even though it can't do anything of itself with regard to exterior things, it doesn't fail to understand and hear as though it were listening to something coming from far off. I do not say that it hears and understands when it is at the height of the rapture (I say 'height' to refer to the times when the faculties are lost to other things because of their intense union with God), for then . . . it neither sees, nor hears, nor feels" (The Collected Works of St. Teresa: Life, pp. 134-35).
This sort of ecstasy or rapture is generally viewed as irresistible. They occur often in those who have made great progress in the perfection of the spirit and can be triggered by the mere mention of God's name or a thought of Him.
·Virginity/chastity is often viewed as an inherently higher form of the Christian life; hence one often reads of an "eroticizing" of the relation between the human virgin and the Divine Bridegroom (virginity was valued because of (1) a suspicion about the body and physicality; (2) the belief that sexual abstinence enabled one to focus more single-mindedly on God; contemplation, meditation, etc., are more readily pursued when the physical distractions and responsibilities associated with a marital relationship are absent; (3) a belief that virginity restores the unfallen flesh of Adam, thereby giving to some "a foretaste of the untroubled bodily state that all the faithful will eventually enjoy" (McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism, 214).
·Visionary experiences of angels, saints, and especially the Virgin Mary; however, many of the mystics insist that God's indwelling presence is evidenced not by visions but by His prompting virtuous actions within us. Some mystics (such as Teresa) also speak of transport of the soul (out of body experiences) and levitation of the body.
·Solitude - external separation from the world was designed to facilitate internal separation from sin; however, some mystics would differentiate between solitude (which they define as being alone with the Alone) and isolation (which is a deliberate distancing of oneself from all human interaction)
·Silence - since God lies beyond human expression, any attempt at naming Him is doomed to failure; silence was viewed as a remedy for sinful uses of the tongue; it was a form of attentiveness to God; quiet recollection and rest in God; and the inevitable consequence of religious awe
·A recognition of and focus upon the "feminine" imagery of God in Scripture; (Julian of Norwich [1342-1416] was especially noted for this; see her Revelations of Divine Love)
·The mystic's experience of God's presence is so intense and personal that it can't be described in merely cognitive terms, i.e., in terms of knowing or understanding; in other words, mystical experience is ineffable; it is thus described either 1) by means of metaphors drawn from the five senses [esp. "seeing", "smelling," "tasting"; fragrance and warmth/heat are the two most common images employed], or 2) in erotic, sensual terms. "Sex acts," explain Fernandez-Armesto and Wilson, "are mystics' cliches for conveying the sublime nature of a spiritual climax" (Reformations [Scribner, 1996], p. 50). John of the Cross said that "the delicateness of delight felt in this contact [with God] is inexpressible. I would desire not to speak of it so as to avoid giving the impression that it is no more than what I describe. There is no way to catch in words the sublime things of God which happen in these souls. The appropriate language for the person receiving these favors is that he understand them, experience them within himself, enjoy them, and be silent" (Living Flame of Love, Prologue, p. 577).
·Mystics insist that their mode of access to God is radically different from traditional forms such as prayer, sacraments, Word, and other religious rituals; they argue that God does indeed become present in/through these activities, but not in any direct or immediate way: God's presence for the mystic is unmediated and direct; finite realities (whether verbal, concrete, visual, etc.) are inadequate means to communicate the infinite; genuine contact with God, therefore, requires relating to Him in/through a new dimension that transcends the created order. Dubay explains: "This is what the Christian mystic means when he says that we reach God through unknowing: we penetrate into the divine by a divine gift, not through an oriental process [such as Buddhist meditation] or set of techniques. We enter into God through no human means, no methods, no ideas [what is occasionally referred to as idealess knowing]" (54).
·Mystics generally emphasized love more than faith as the principal Christian virtue (hence, their emphasis on relational intimacy with God above theological understanding of Him); one of Teresa of Avila's more oft-quoted statements was: "If you would progress a long way on this road and ascend to the Mansions of your desire, the important thing is not to think much, but to love much" (Interior Castle, mans. 4, chp. 1, p. 76)
·Most medieval theologians commonly assumed that an inextinguishable spark of goodness existed in man's reason and will and constituted a point at which every person might be conformed to God; they insisted that God and man must be like each other if they are ever to be at one with each other; most mystics embraced this view
·The true experience of God's presence and love is not something attainable by utilizing human reasoning (such as observation, deduction, induction, inference, implication, or any form of intellectually based proofs); rather it is by a direct infusion from God himself that engages the spiritual (rather than mental) center of the individual
·These encounters with the Divine occur fundamentally on the spiritual level, beyond the senses, and are therefore not necessarily emotional in nature; one need not see, feel, or hear anything; however, as John of the Cross once said, "sometimes the unction of the Holy Spirit overflows into the body and all the sensory substance, all the members and bones and marrow rejoice, not in so slight a fashion as is customary, but with the feeling of great delight and glory, even in the outermost joints of the hands and feet. The body experiences so much glory in that of the soul that in its own way it magnifies God" (Living Flame of Love, p. 603)
·Among virtually all mystics there is considerable emphasis on introspection or a concern with monitoring and being in touch with the moral state and spiritual progress of one's soul.
·There is among most mystics an emphasis on physical asceticism, i.e., voluntarily depriving the body of food and drink (except the minimum necessary to live), of normal conveniences and comfort; sleep is kept to a minimum (even then, the mystic would sleep on the ground or slabs of wood); self-scourging was common as well as other forms of self-inflicted bodily pain (designed to subdue the urgings and promptings of the flesh; in other words, physical mistreatment of the body was designed to facilitate the experience of a "perfect nudity of spirit" [Dubay, 142], i.e., inner freedom from the all worldly concerns or fleshly desires).
·All of the above are designed to facilitate moral and spiritual perfection, the utter transformation of the human soul into the likeness of God (some mystics believed this was attainable in this life, prior to glorification and the beatific vision). Teresa and John of the Cross believed this was possible only for those who progressed in the interior castle to the "seventh mansion", i.e., to that state of utter self-forgetfulness and complete absorption of mind, will, and spirit in the mind, will, and spirit of God.
B. Misconceptions about mysticism
1) One persistent misconception about mysticism is that it is a "Catholic" thing, rarely found among Protestants. One can find mysticism in varying degrees in virtually all streams of Christendom. John Calvin, for example, champion of the Protestant Reformation, makes statements that most Catholic mystics would heartily embrace:
"Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts – in short, that mystical union – are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body – in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him" (Institutes, 3.11.10).
"Christ is not outside us but dwells within us. Not only does he cleave to us by an indivisible bond of fellowship, but with a wonderful communion, day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us" (3.2.24).
"Such is the union between us and Christ, that in a sense He pours himself into us. For we are not bone of His bone, and flesh of His flesh, because, like ourselves, He is man, but because, by the power of His Spirit, He engrafts us into His body, so that from Him we derive life" (Commentary on Ephesians, p.. 209).
Jonathan Edwards, famous Puritan pastor and theologian of the 18th century, often spoke and wrote in terms that could easily pass for "mystical". He spoke of his desire to "enjoy" God and "be wrapt up to God in Heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in Him." Edwards found great delight in the Song of Solomon, the favorite book of medieval mystics, and described its impact on him as follows:
"[I found] from time to time, an inward sweetness, that used, as it were, to carry me away in my contemplations; in what I know not how to express otherwise, than by a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of the world; and a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God. The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden as it were, kindle up a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of my soul, that I know not how to express."
Edwards often spoke of his meditations on the person of Christ, who
"appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception. . . . I felt withal, an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, than to be emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love Him with a holy and pure love; to trust in Him; to live upon Him; to serve and follow Him, and to be totally wrapt up in the fullness of Christ; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity."
(All the above citations are taken from Samuel Hopkins, The Life and Character of Reverend Mr. Jonathan Edwards, .)
Countless other examples could be cited from Protestant theologians and pastors, many of whom we know as the Puritans. See especially the account of Sarah Edwards' experience, Jonathan's wife, found at the end of this lesson. Mysticism, therefore, although more predominant among Roman Catholics, is by no means exclusively their domain.
Fernandez-Armesto and Wilson make this interesting comment: "Protestants, at least early in the history of their churches, did not need mysticism as Catholics did: the Bible gave them their hot-line to God. Indeed, early in the course of the Reformation, Protestant mystics were relatively rare and Luther tended to behold them with suspicion. Nevertheless, every kind of attempt to get close to God is an ally of all others and it was natural that as time went on, Protestantism should develop a mystical tradition of its own – especially when it spawned its own moribund churches, sprouted its own institutional deadwood and spread its own quasi-priesthoods, from which the seeker after God had to escape" (53).
2) Another misconception about mysticism is that it is reserved exclusively for a spiritual elite of ascetic recluses. Whereas there certainly were a number of reclusive mystics who believed and behaved as if their way of life was spiritually superior to that of ordinary Christians, there is nothing in the nature of mysticism itself that precludes the latter from embracing its principles and experiencing the same personal transformation as did the former.
3) Yet another misconception is that all mystics were isolationists and socially passive. This may be true of the eremites, those who withdrew to the solitude of the desert wilderness, but many mystics insisted on living within the mainstream of society.
Francis Assisi, for example, rigorously opposed any notion of passivity or withdrawal from the daily demands of loving and helping others. In one place he wrote:
"Let all of us, brothers, look to the Good Shepherd Who suffered the passion of the cross to save His sheep. The sheep of the Lord followed Him in tribulation and persecution, in insult and hunger, in infirmity and temptation, and in everything else, and they have received everlasting life from the Lord because of these things. Therefore, it is a great shame for, servants of God, that while the saints [actually] did such things, we wish to receive glory and honor by [merely] recounting their deeds" (Complete Works, Admonition 6, p. 9).
4) One cynic defined mysticism as follows: "beginning in mist (myst-), centering in an 'I' (-i-), and ending in schism (-cism)." According to this view, as Tamburello explains, "mystics are first of all in a fog, people who are riding on 'cloud nine' or gazing for hours each day at their navels. Secondly, mystics are self-centered, totally preoccupied with their personal, individual experiences of the sacred. Finally, since their religion is so highly personal, they end up seceding from the community of faith and becoming opponents of institutional religion" (Dennis Tamburello, Ordinary Mysticism [Paulist Press, 1996], pp. 7-8). It must be admitted that certain mystics are indeed guilty of these errors. But it would be unfair to conclude that all were given to these extremes.
C. The historical development of mysticism
Gregory of Nyssa (335-95; the goal of the Christian life is the endless pursuit of the inexhaustible divine nature)
Dionysius the Areopagite (@ 500 in Syria) - No one knows who he was. What we do know is that his influence on virtually all subsequent streams of mystical theology was immeasurable. He emphasized hiddenness of God: God transcends human reason; God is unfathomable and unapproachable. Thus, the Dionysian strain of mysticism was anti-intellectual. He writes:
"The divinest knowledge of God, that which is received through unknowing, is obtained in that communion which transcends the mind, when the mind, turning away from all things and leaving even itself behind, is united to the dazzling rays, being from them and in them illumined by the unsearchable depth of Wisdom" (On the Divine Names, p. 152).
[In this experience man is] plunged . . . into the darkness of unknowing . . . and through the passive stillness of all his reasoning powers [is] united by his highest faculty to him who is wholly unknowable, of whom thus, by a rejection of all knowledge, he possesses a knowledge that exceeds his understanding" (The Mystical Theology, p. 194).
JohnCassian (360) - He argued that the church was meant to be an entirely monastic community. "In a sense it is true to say that Cassian thought of monasticism not as an element in a Christian society but as the Christian alternative to society" (McGinn, I:218). He argued that higher, mystical perfection, is open only to those monastics who have fled the world and live lives of perfect chastity.
Augustine (354-430) - Although Augustine is not normally classified as a mystic, he emphasized the divinization of humanity: "If we have been made God's sons, we have also been made gods; but this is by adopting grace, not by nature giving birth" (Homily on Ps. 49.1-2). This deifying process never involves any confusion of substance between God and humanity, which is what separates Augustine from many of the later medieval mystics.
Gregory the Great (served as pope 590-604)
John Scotus Eriugena (b. 810 in Ireland)
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) - He was the most famous of the Cistercians, a reform movement within Benedictine monasticism. He is most famous for 86 sermons he wrote on The Song of Solomon and is primarily responsible for what has come to be known as Bridal Mysticism, in which the soul passes through stages of intimacy and love with Christ on its way to perfection (these stages are set forth in the Song of Solomon). There are 4 stages by which we come to love God: (1) loving ourselves for our own benefit; (2) loving God for our own benefit; (3) loving God for God's sake (this stage was the highest that humans can attain in this life); and (4) loving even ourselves for God's sake.
Bonaventure (1217-74) - A Franciscan monk who emphasized that the goal of mystical practice "is the peace that comes from being crucified with Christ as St. Francis was. The mystical union itself is a transitus, a dying with Christ and passing over with him into God the Father" (Ozment, 121). Bonaventure's most famous work was entitled, "The Soul's Journey into God," which came from an experience he had on a mountain retreat in Tuscany in October of 1259. There he had a vision of the six wings of the seraph (angel) in Isa. 6:2 which, said Bonaventure, "can rightly be taken to symbolize the six levels of illumination by which, as if by steps or stages, the soul can pass over to peace through ecstatic elevations of Christian wisdom" (in Bonaventure, transl. by Ewert Cousins [New York: Paulist Press, 1978], p. 54).
Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) - Eckhart was a Dominican priest who lived in the Rhineland region of Germany. [The Dominicans were founded by Dominic (1170-1221) in 1216.] Perhaps his most unique and controversial teaching was the doctrine of man's eternal birth and pre-existence in God:
"When I first was, I had no God and was merely myself [that is, in eternity God, as an object distinct from knowing subjects, did not exist; all was undifferentiated godhead]. I neither willed nor desired anything, for I was then pure being and knew myself by divine truth. I wanted only myself and nothing else; what I wanted I was and and what I was I wanted. Here I was free of God and all things. . . . I am my own first caused, both of my eternal being and of my temporal being. I was born to and for eternity and because of my eternal birth, I shall never die. By virtue of this eternal birth I have been eternally, I am now, and I shall be forevermore. What I am as a creature in time will die and come to nought, for what comes with time must pass away with time. [However] in my birth everything was begotten; I was the cause of myself and everything else. Had I willed it, neither I nor the world would have come to pass; had I not been, there would have been no God [that is, all would have remained undifferentiated godhead]."
For Eckhart, this precreated state was also the final end of life: all things will return into undifferentiated godhead. Mystical union in the here and now is a foretaste of it. Eckhart stressed that man was truly "of God's race and kin", a kinship resulting from man's precreated oneness in God. For Eckhart, mystical union was not simply becoming like God by conforming one's mind and will to His. It was a matter of being God again, of returning to the undifferentiated godhead:
"The more one thing is like another, the more it seeks after it . . . and leaves behind its former self, departing from all that its object is not. The more unlike its old self it becomes, the more it remakes itself in the image of the object it so passionately pursues. . . . But there can be neither rest nor satisfaction . . . until the two are at last united in One. Therefore, our Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah . . . 'Neither height, nor depth, nor likeness, nor love's peace shall satisfy me . . .' Our Lord Jesus Christ besought his Father that we should be made One – not merely united, but joined together in him and with him in the one single One."
"A great master says that his [unitive] breakthrough to God is more excellent than his emanation from God. When he says I flowed from God, all things recognized God [that is, as an object distinct from themselves]. But there was no happiness for me in this, for I was then only a creature among creatures. In the breakthrough to God, however, I will be free in God and free from his will, that is, from God's works and from God himself [that is, from God as a reality standing over against me]. For then I am again above all creatures, and neither God nor a creature [for such distinctions do not exist in the undifferentiated godhead]. Rather now and forevermore I am what I was [before my creation]. . . . In the breakthrough to God I discover that God and I are one."
(The above citations are quoted in Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550, An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe [Yale, 1980], pp. 128-30.)
"What is life? God's being is my life. If my life is God's being, then God's existence must be my existence and God's is-ness is my is-ness, neither less nor more" (Essential Eckhart, p. 187).
Contrast this form of mystical theology with the bridal mysticism of St. Bernard which always acknowledged the fundamental and essential distinction and distance between the soul and God even in the moment of greatest intimacy. Says Bernard:
"God and man remain distinct from one another. Each retains his own will and substance. They do not mingle their substances, but rather consent in will. This union is for them a communion of wills and an agreement in love" (Sermon on Song of Solomon, no. 70).
One must acknowledge, however, that even Bernard at times seemed to come close to the notion of the soul's absorption into God. For example,
"It is therefore necessary for our souls to reach a similar state in which, just as God willed everything to exist for himself, so we wish that neither ourselves nor other beings to have been nor to be except for his will alone; not for our pleasure. . . . It is deifying to go through such an experience. As a drop of water seems to disappear completely in a big quantity of wine, even assuming the wine's taste and color; just as red, molten iron becomes so much like fire it seems to lose its primary state; just as the air on a sunny day seems transformed into sunshine instead of being lit up; so it is necessary for the saints that all human feelings melt in a mysterious way and flow into the will of God. Otherwise, how could God be all in all if something human survives in man? No doubt, the substance remains though under another form, another glory, another power" (On Loving God, 10.28).
Whereas many have tried to exonerate Eckhart from the heresy of pantheism (that all is God and God is all), the fact is that he sought not to acknowledge the distance that creation had placed between God and man but to overcome it. "In the final analysis, Eckhart begrudged all reality beyond the eternal birth; for him, man was meant to be in God, not to live as a creature in the world" (Ozment, 132). Eckhart writes:
"Just as in the sacrament of the Eucharist bread is converted into the body of Christ, so I am converted into God; for God is present to effect his very being in me, not simply a similar being."
Eckhart's teachings were eventually condemned as heretical, although he himself was never called a heretic. The RCC identified 28 errors in his teaching (March 27, 1329). A number of modern scholars of mysticism argue that his condemnation by the church was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of his teaching.
Johannes (John) Tauler (1300-1361) - He was Eckhart's most famous disciple (but more orthodox)
Henry Suso (1295-1366) - another of Eckhart's disciples
Jean Gerson (1363-1429) - Chancellor of the University of Paris, was trained in medieval scholasticism but became a mystic. In his book, On Mystical Theology, he contrasts scholasticism and mysticism:
·Scholastics derived their information about God and religion from God's "outward effects"; i.e., they studied the Bible and church history and commentaries. Mystics found their sources in records of God's "internal effects," i.e., "in evidence of divine presence in the recorded history and tradition of the heart" (Ozment, 74).
·Scholastics relied on reason and distrusted the emotions, while mystics trusted the affections (provided they had been disciplined by true doctrine) and "believed that the reasons of the heart were closer to God than the speculations of the mind" (74).
·Scholastics strove to behold God as "the highest truth". Mystics sought to embrace him as "the highest good".
Other famous and influential medieval mystics include:
Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) - son of an Italian merchant who turned from life as a soldier and trader to itinerant preacher who embraced poverty and served the poor/outcasts. He is known most for his experience of the stigmata.
St. Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380)
John of Ruysbroeck (1293-1381)
Richard Rolle (1300-49)
Gerhard Groote (1340-1384)
Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471; author of The Imitation of Christ)
Julian of Norwich (1342-1423) - was an "anchoress" or solitary who lived in a cell attached to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England. She long wanted to experience physical illness and to have "bodily sight" of Christ's sufferings so that she could better share in them. On May 8, 1373, she claimed that Jesus appeared to her with multiple visionary insights and Revelations of Divine Love.
The Cloud of Unknowing was a 14th century anonymous treatise that appeared in Britain. It reflected the teaching of Pseudo-Dionysius and emphasized that God is so far above our knowledge as to be hidden in "a cloud of unknowability." It is only by emptying the mind of all created images and the will of all temporal desires that we can arrive at the supreme earthly knowledge of God, a knowledge that consists in knowing that we know nothing about God and that he infinitely transcends all our apprehensions of him.
Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) - She was not technically a medieval mystic, but lived in that period of transition during the Protestant Reformation. She was declared a doctor of the church by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Born in Avila, Spain, one of ten children; despite protests of father, she fled home in 1535 and entered Avila's Carmelite monastery. Her most famous work is The Interior Castle in which she portrays the soul as if it were a castle with seven dwelling places, each of which brings us yet closer to intimacy and union with God. As we grow in contemplative prayer we draw closer to the center wherein is the experience of transforming union. As evidence of her remarkable godliness, her contemporaries pointed to the incorruptible beauty of her body years subsequent to her death. Julian of Avila, who was personally acquainted with Teresa, testified that,
"she also bore witness with her marvelous body for fourteen years. It is now fourteen years since she died and her body is still intact and incorrupt. This fact does not need to be proved – if anyone disbelieves eye witnesses, let them go and see for themselves in Alba where her body is still kept intact" (cited by Thomas Dubay, Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel – on Prayer [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989], p. 18).
John of the Cross (1542-91) - like Teresa, he was a member of the Carmelite Order. He is perhaps best known for his Dark Night of the Soul.
Francis de Sales (1567-1622)
D. Towards a Theology of Mysticism
The mystics of the medieval church shared several common points of emphasis:
a. First, they emphasized a spiritualizing or internalizing of the ideal of absolute poverty; literal, physical deprivation evolved into more subtle forms of interior self-sacrifice. "The regimen of monastic piety became one not only of material self-denial, but also of prolonged prayer and contemplation designed to impoverish one's conscious, sinful self by flooding the heart and mind with feelings and thoughts of Christ and God" (Ozment, 116).
b. Second, they held to the belief that religious realities confessed in faith can actually be experienced. "The mystic ventures into a realm inaccessible to the normal processes of sensation and reasoning and well beyond the grasp of faith itself; . . . mystical theology found its knowledge of God in experiences beyond the reach of man's ordinary cognitive and volitional powers. Hence, the concern among mystical writers to designate a special faculty of the soul more profound than reason and will, . . . something deep within the human soul that constantly reminds it of its eternal origin in God" (Ozment, 117).
c. Third, was the principle of likeness. "Being like God . . . was, for all, the essential condition of union with God --- and with good reason. Mystical experience was considered a foretaste of the future when God will again be, as he was before the Creation, all in all. Man's eternal origin and goal --- perfect oneness with God --- gave content to the mystical way. Hence, the repeated stress by all mystical writers on withdrawal from the world, transcending reason, and retreating into the depths of one's being where one is most like God" (Ozment, 117). The aim of the mystic is thus to abolish his finite and sinful individuality and to think/will/feel as God does.
d. Fourth, the threat posed to the RCC was that mystical theology and experience circumvented the need for the sacraments and the clergy: direct and unmediated access to God was contrary to the whole of medieval church life.
e. According to Philip Schaff, "godliness with these men was not a system of careful definitions, it was a state of spiritual communion; not an elaborate construction of speculative thought, but a simple faith and walk with God. Not processes of logic, but the insight of devotion was their guide" (VI:240).
E. The Dangers of Mysticism
When not pursued within the parameters set by Scripture, mysticism has often led to certain extremes. Here are a few of the potential dangers of mysticism:
1. Mystics tended to interpret Scripture allegorically. They were thus often given to fanciful ideas about the meaning and application of the written Word.
2. Mysticism often fails to place proper emphasis on divine transcendence (Isa. 55:8-9; 66:1-2; Acts 7:46-50) by placing extreme emphasis on God's immanence.
3. The mystical emphasis on the love relationship between God and man can often lead to a neglect of divine holiness.
4. It is possible, in the mystic's pursuit of intimacy with God, to overemphasize the subjective fruit to the exclusion of the objective foundation.
This is often the result of excessive introspection, of which some mystics were clearly guilty. We must be careful lest we become so infatuated with the internal experience of nearness to God that we forget the external work of the cross on which it is ultimately based. Our nearness to God is free to us, but it cost God everything: His only-begotten Son. Our focus is first and fundamentally outward, towards Calvary. Observe Paul's words:
"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me" (Gal. 2:20).
Clearly, the basis for Christ living within us is His act of self-sacrifice for us. Paul's gratitude is first for what Jesus did for him on the cross and then, only after that, for what Jesus is doing in him through His indwelling presence.
5. It is possible, in the mystic's pursuit of visionary revelation, to grant religious authority to one's experience rather than to Scripture alone.
All experience must be interpreted. All subjective states of mind and emotion must be brought under the searchlight of the objective principles of God's written Word. At its worst, mysticism has led some to conclude that because of the depths of intimacy they experience with God that objective revelation is no longer essential; it can be discarded in favor of immediacy of communion and communication with God. This is perhaps one of mysticism's more serious flaws.
Without denying the reality of their having heard from God, there is simply no escaping the fact that many of the mystics made grandiose claims regarding the frequency and depth of their revelatory experiences.
6. It is possible, in the mystic's pursuit of intimacy with God, to lose sight of the distinction between Creator and creature.
This is perhaps the greatest error among the mystics, whether they be from the medieval period of church history or our own day. As noted above, a few of the mystics (especially those in the tradition of Eckhart) emphasized "oneness" or "union" with God to such a degree that they blurred the fundamental distinction between man and God. Our "oneness" with God is of a moral, not a metaphysical, nature. In other words, we are not destined to "become God" but to "become like God" in terms of moral character and thought and behavior. In our desire to get close to God we must never lose sight of the fact that He is God and we are not!
7. There is a tendency among many mystics to denigrate the role of the mind in spiritual growth and love for God. I.e., anti-intellectualism is a common feature of many varieties of mysticism. One indication of this tendency is when mystics set aside the discipline of study and research of the Scriptures in favor of contemplation and illuminism. Often this is the result of their unspoken suspicion concerning and distrust of the mind as well as their tendency to value experience over reason.
8. It is possible, in the mystic's pursuit of intimacy with God, to become elitist and exclusivistic. This can often take the form of gnosticism in which it is believed that only those are worthy who have attained to a certain level of esoteric spirituality.
9. Mysticism is often linked with a rigorous asceticism. The latter can breed legalism and a de-emphasis on the grace of God.
10. The vast majority of mystics in church history have been Roman Catholics. Their teachings about spirituality are thus often intertwined with such aberrant doctrines as transubstantiation, the veneration of Mary, sacramental grace (such as penance), etc.
11. In spite of frequent protests to the contrary, mystics tend to disengage from corporate life in the local church. In other words, there is a strong tendency in mysticism toward excessive and unbiblical isolation from other Christians and the routine biblical responsibilities that each member of the body of Christ has toward every other member.
12. The mystic's ultimate goal of union with God and the beatific vision often becomes the reward of human effort rather than the gift of divine grace.