For many contemporary Christians, the word mystical suggests images of New Age and Eastern religions. However, mysticism and mystic theology have a long association with Christianity. Threads of mysticism can be found at the very beginning of Christianity, which, in late antiquity and the middle ages, blossomed into full-fledged mystical practice. Plenty has been written about mysticism, Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism for example is an excellent and intelligent study of Western mysticism. Work of Christian mystics like Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich are not hard to find and read. Yet for many contemporary Christians mysticism is a tradition that has been lost or is even suspect. For this reason, I thought I would write a little about it.
Mysticism comes from a recognition that reality is greater than what we can humanly comprehend. If you have ever felt that language is inadequate to express what you are thinking or feeling then you have a sense of this. God, most of all, cannot be contained by the words and categories that we use to describe him. This is not to disparage fields like systematic theology. Rather it is a recognition that our descriptions of God are not God Himself; there are ways to know God besides analytical and hyper-intellectual study. Mysticism seeks to draw close to God on a level beyond that of the senses or the intellect.
Perhaps the most mystical writer in the Bible is also the one we tend think of as the most logical, the apostle Paul (Daniel and John are other examples). Paul describes what is clearly a mystical experience in 2 Corinthians 12. Transported bodily or out of body into heaven he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Whether he is forbidden to tell them or they are impossible to put into words is not clear. Mystical language and discussions of mystery crops up in various letters of Paul. Ephesians 3:19 contains his paradoxical prayer that the Ephesians might “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” There is also Paul’s mysterious trip to Arabia, mentioned only in the letter to the Galatians. Scholars have been unsure whether this journey a metaphor for some spiritual experience or a literal time of spiritual retreat in the Arabian desert.
Mysticism is not for everyone. Some people are more disposed to it than others. You may have noticed that the list of mystic writers above are mostly women. There is something in formal theological education which seems to hinder mysticism, education that most woman in the middle ages lacked (woman did have avenues of informal education). There are also traits that are more likely to appear in women than men which might contribute this disparity. So while medieval theologians recognized the value of mysticism, they were often unable to reach the heights of less educated women.
It should be noted that mysticism does have its dangers. However, danger does not imply that something is bad. Driving is dangerous, as is climbing a mountain or falling in love. C.S. Lewis has a great simile about the nature of mysticism in Letters to Malcolm. The mystical approach is like setting out on an ocean voyage. Though the setting out from the port may be the same for everyone, the journey and where we arrive can be vastly different. Mysticism isn’t unique to Christianity, but neither is singing. Orthodox Christian mystics of the past were well away of the dangers and how to guard against them.
I really don’t know if Christian mysticism will return to the prominence it had at various points in the middle ages. It seems like there are far more distractions today that are far more intrusive than once existed. Perhaps there have always been too many distractions. Anyways, I think the return of a mystic element to contemporary Christianity would not be unhealthy.