On the Essence of Mysticism, and Other Mysterious Things
Recently, a friend took me to task for making the comment that mysticism doesn’t have much to do with angels and demons. Her surprise and head-scratching are understandable, especially since I have so often stated my agreement with the Apostle Paul that God is the One in which we live and move and have our being, and that every experience is thus an experience of God if we would only realize it as such. So, in this blog post I’d like to clarify my own understanding of the term ‘mysticism’, and also comment on its relevance, or lack thereof, to other things of spiritual mystery.
The Essence of Mysticism
According to Merriam-Webster, ‘mysticism’ means:
1: the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)
In popular use, the word ‘mysticism’ often loses these more specific meanings, and this is reflected by a broader point in the definition of ‘mystical’:
1 a: having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence
The latter definition actually fits well with the etymology of ‘mysticism,’ which has the same root as our word ‘mystery’, the Greek mys, which means to conceal. Our word, ‘mystic,’ apparently traces back to the Greek mystikos, denoting an initiate of a mystery religion, a sect with secret ceremonies that facilitated powerful spiritual experiences and/or taught esoteric doctrines about life and the Cosmos.
For all of the reasons stated above, people often use ‘mysticism’ or ‘mystical’ as a blanket term that may include all sorts of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of a religious or spiritual nature, and especially anything of a mysterious or seemingly supernatural or paranormal nature. Some of these things – like angels, demons, exorcism, faith-healing, blessings, visions, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and various kinds of miracles – have their places in Christian tradition and even Church doctrine, but, strictly speaking, they aren’t necessary parts of mysticism as it has developed among theologians, monastics, and others who devoted their lives to penetrating the Christian mysteries.
In early Church history, mysticism included three mutually supportive areas of focus: (1) the contemplative practice of being present to, and even consciously one with, God’s presence; (2) meditation upon the concealed or secret meanings of scripture; and (3) the liturgical celebration of the mysteries of the Trinity, which reaches its summit in the Eucharist. While it was understood that each of these three areas supported the others, through the centuries it also became increasingly apparent that the essence of mysticism was most directly engaged through contemplative practice. Without it, the other two areas increasingly descend toward hollow doctrinal conformity and superstitions about scripture and the sacraments.
This insight about the centrality of contemplation to mysticism is reflected in the primary entries for the word ‘mysticism’ in most contemporary dictionaries, like the two given above. Consider the significance of the following words from those definitions:
- direct communion
- direct knowledge
- subjective experience
These words are about the oneness with God that mystics believe, and some may actually know, is possible to experience or realize directly, which is to say in an unmediated way. This particular understanding of the essence of mysticism is reflected in the earliest writings of Christian theology.
…in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with IT that transcends all being and all knowledge. Mystical Theology, Pseudo-Dionysus (5th-6th Century)
And before that, St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions (4th Century):
If to any man the tumult of the flesh were silenced; and the phantoms of earth and waters and air were silenced; and the poles were silent as well; indeed, if the very soul grew silent to herself, and went beyond herself by not thinking of herself; if fancies and imaginary revelations were silenced; if every tongue and every sign and every transient thing–for actually if any man could hear them, all these would say, ‘We did not create ourselves, but were created by Him who abides forever’–and if, having uttered this, they too should be silent, having stirred our ears to hear Him who created them; and if then He alone spoke, not through them but by Himself, that we might hear His word, not in fleshly tongue or angelic voice, nor sound of thunder, nor the obscurity of a parable, but might hear Him–Him for whose sake we love these things–if we could hear Him without these, as we two now strained ourselves to do, we then with rapid thought might touch on that Eternal Wisdom which abides over all. And if this could be sustained, and other visions of a far different kind be taken away, and this one should so ravish and absorb and envelop its beholder in these inward joys that his life might be eternally like that one moment of knowledge which we now sighed after–would not this be the reality of the saying, ‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’?
I’d like to offer an analogy that I hope can effectively illustrate part of what St. Augustine is saying about this experience or state, and thereby shed some light on Christian mysticism as distinct from other kinds of spirituality.
Imagine a great puppeteer, one who is legendary for both making and performing with puppets. You decide you’d like to learn more about this great artist, and so you go to one of the puppet shows. The puppeteer is so talented that the puppets seem to be actually alive, with their own movements and voices, their own distinct wills, thoughts, and feelings. The show is so fantastic that you keep coming back to see it and others, spellbound by the mastery shining through them. During the shows you are very taken by what you see and hear, and eventually you even forget that you are watching puppets, let alone remember that they are being animated by a puppeteer.
And then one day, during an intermission in one of the shows, you suddenly recall why you started coming to the shows – to learn more about the puppeteer. You shake your head and laugh, reminding yourself that everything you are seeing is being created by someone you can’t directly see. As entertaining and beautiful as the show itself is, you begin to feel a growing sense of wonder, of admiration and gratitude, of love, for the unseen genius behind the scenes who has made you think and feel so many things. You feel a desire to meet the puppeteer personally, to shake hands, to speak face to face, so you can share your admiration and learn more about the puppeteer. Of course, you know that the puppets and the show are revelations of the puppeteer’s intelligence, skill, love, and spirit, and thus you are indirectly in communication with the puppeteer, but the indirectness of it, the incompleteness of it, the inadequacy of it, becomes increasingly obvious. You know that whatever your appreciation for the show is now, it will be enriched many times over, in both depth and breadth, if you can know the puppeteer intimately. You know you will never again be nearly as satisfied with simply sitting in the audience and watching the show. You are smitten.
Asking around, you learn that most people in the audience have never seen the puppeteer. Some of them say it never occurred to them to try because they’re just here for the show. There are other people who doubt that there is any puppeteer, and instead believe they are watching machines that run on their own. Others say they’ve caught a glimpse of the puppeteer, and you listen patiently as they describe what they think the puppeteer is like based on their fleeting impressions, obviously filling in large blanks with things others have said and from their own imaginations. It occurs to you that they have made their own mental puppet of the puppeteer! Some claim to know the puppeteer personally, but when you ask how you can meet the puppeteer, most only tell you to keep going to the show and watching the puppets. Some say the only way to know the puppeteer is for oneself to try being a puppeteer. One or two quietly admit they have actually seen and spoken with the puppeteer, and they say that the only way to do so is to go sit by the locked backstage door, waiting patiently until the puppeteer emerges after the show. They say there is no way to know how long the wait will be; the puppeteer might come out right away, but sometimes the puppeteer seems to never come out. When you ask them what the puppeteer is like, they simply smile, sigh, shake their heads, and perhaps utter an enigmatic word or two. Something about them earns your trust, and perhaps it is because you see in them the same love for the puppeteer that you feel growing in your own heart. You resolve to do as they have done, giving yourself to this love for as long as it takes.
Mysticism is such a love affair with God. Yes, the mystic loves the works of the Creator, and deeply loves the immanent presence of the Creator’s Spirit and Logos in those works, but also feels that this love of the Creator’s works remains unfulfilled until the Creator is known directly. As the Blessed Jan van Ruysbroeck says in The Sparkling Stone (14th Century):
The spirit forever continues to burn in itself, for its love is eternal; and it feels itself ever more and more to be burnt up in love, for it is drawn and transformed into the Unity of God, where the spirit burns in love. If it observes itself, it finds a distinction and an otherness between itself and God; but where it is burnt up it is undifferentiated and without distinction, and therefore it feels nothing but unity; for the flame of the Love of God consumes and devours all that it can enfold in its Self.
These terms ‘undifferentiated’ and ‘without distinction’ aren’t just the kind of romantic prose about union that we often apply to our strongest feelings for other people. They can and should be taken literally, and if they are then it becomes apparent that there is only one kind of experience that qualifies as totally mystical, no matter how many different ways humans might arrive at it. In utter and complete oneness there is no other to behold or to be beheld by. Anything else, no matter how revelatory, inspiring, or transformative, is not the mystical experience spoken of by the great mystics. So, while mysterious things – like the secret meanings of scripture, the magic of the liturgy, miracles, or demons and angels – might lead someone into mysticism, into the contemplative pursuit of the One behind those veils, he or she should also realize that such concerns are not the essence of mysticism and must, at some point, be released, even if only momentarily.
In stronger words than my own, Ruysbroeck concludes:
…all those are deceived who fancy themselves to be contemplative, and yet inordinately love, practice, or possess, some creaturely thing; or who fancy that they enjoy God before they are empty of images, or that they rest before they enjoy. All such are deceived; for we must make ourselves fit for God with an open heart, with a peaceful conscience, with naked contemplation, without hypocrisy, in sincerity and truth.
While these statements might sound like doctrine, something we should simply accept in submission to religious authority, I don’t read them that way. It isn’t merely an arbitrary decree of theologically or institutionally acceptable concepts to point out that there is a natural and logical order in such things, one that has been repeatedly discovered and taught by the mystics of different eras and also in religions other than Christianity; the cup must be empty before it can be filled.
Another friend, who states he doesn’t consider himself either a mystic or a contemplative, asks if there might be something beyond mysticism. In one respect, I can answer yes. The direct realization of oneness with God can come without identifying oneself as a mystic, or holding any philosophy, or practicing any methods that might be called ‘mysticism.’ There are plenty of cases of full-blown mystical experience occurring in the absence of any special desire or effort. In such cases, one’s consciousness suddenly and directly shifts into a state stripped bare of all words, images, feelings, and any trace of a me-God duality. This can happen ‘beyond’ mysticism because mysticism is, after all, a human thing, and God is not constrained to act within the bounds of human things. However, once such a moment has occurred, if a memory of it persists and the person understands its significance, then, technically speaking, that person is a mystic and has, ironically, gone beyond non-mysticism.
Here are two reasons I can answer no, there isn’t anything beyond mysticism: First, it’s clearly circular to say so, but there is no pursuit beyond mysticism because there is nothing to pursue beyond the deepest mystery of God. Mysticism reaches as beyond as anything can! Second, once the aim of mysticism, which is knowing our oneness with God, has been directly realized and is no longer just a matter of concepts, beliefs, or feelings, then everything after that can, potentially, also be realized as direct contact with God in some particular way, rather than being assumed, hoped, or hypothesized as such.
For me, that last observation suggests that the more meaningful questions are about what lies beyond the mystical experience itself, where ‘beyond’ points to what comes afterward. In Christianity, like other religions, our lore is filled with stories of the miraculous works of people who have received the ultimate touch of the Absolute and identification with the Ground of Being. These stories therefore heavily shape our expectations about what it means to be a mystic, and reinforce the common misperception that such mysterious things are essential to mysticism. They can even lead people to question the validity of their own mystical experience or that of someone else. Yet, as Jack Kornfield addresses in his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, most of us will continue living with many if not most of the ordinary limitations of human existence, even if we have an extraordinary awareness of the nature of this existence. In other words, the gift of the mystical state does not necessarily bring with it any other spiritual gifts, let alone totally transform us into saintly miracle workers and glorious battlers of demons. We must instead commit ourselves to opening our hearts and minds in a lifelong process of unfolding the depths of wisdom the mystical experience holds for our own unique and very human lives.
Finally, I also believe there is something beyond mysticism in terms of importance, and that is love in general. While it could be argued that mysticism is the ultimate response to the Great Commandment to love, and to Jesus’ admonition to seek first the Kingdom of God, I would counter with another of his admonitions: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Mysticism isn’t for everyone, and its followers are not automatically ‘superior’ Christians or human beings, just as those who do not pursue the mystical path are not therefore necessarily ‘inferior’ Christians or human beings. In this light, mysticism can be understood as one among many ways of loving.
Very well done, Chuck. I think that’s one of the best descriptions of mysticism I have read. It should be posted in the permanent library on this site.
As one of the definitions states, mystics attempt to enter into ultimate reality, as opposed to carving out a chunk of it to call their own. They realize that would be like trying to write on water. Mysticism removes the width, breadth and depth of reality, so there really is no “beyond”. Yet, the true mystic has “gone beyond”.
Thanks for the nice words, Steve. 🙂
By the way, Steve, I really like this:
Mysticism removes the width, breadth and depth of reality, so there really is no “beyond”.
That’s a stirring way to describe the state of undifferentiated oneness in the Absolute! Just imagine a state so free of any “this or that” that all concepts and words of measurement not only have no meaning but don’t even arise! :-O
This reminds me of Eastern teachers who say that we must be fully united to God, in order to achieve a high degree, if we do not do so, we go away from Him. With just have the DESIRE to teach others, we would be leaving to pay attention to Him and be away of Nirvana. Situation that resonates in the first commandment, but our master Jesus Christ, wide this concept in the second commandment.
A very good post.
Thank you, Ulises. Yes, I can’t understand how any genuine mystic would fail to deeply appreciate the wisdom that the Great Commandment(s) are twofold, linking love for God and love for our neighbors. 🙂
Nice thorough overview. Now I’d say you’ve clarified the thoughts behind your previous statement. Based on this description of mysticism, it’s doubtful any of us could claim any more than an “interest” in mysticism or a practice of learning contemplation. Returning to the term “path” that we’ve discussed in another thread, it is likely for this reason that many of us prefer phrasing such as choosing a “mystical path” over identification as a “mystic.” Your analogy of the awed theater-goer who dedicates himself to the love of the puppeteer/creator he hasn’t yet seen provides a nice picture of the quest.
Thoughtful comments in connection to love — not only that mysticism naturally leads to love, but also that other paths can do so as well, permitting mysticism to be “one among many ways of loving.” Finally, Steve, I was also struck by your few but telling words on mysticism as removing “the width, breadth and depth of reality.” Hmm . . . yes, again, we see a “path,” a “journey,” and a very long one of peeling back layer after layer after layer . . .
I’m glad this post brought some clarity to my earlier comments.
Based on this description of mysticism, it’s doubtful any of us could claim any more than an “interest” in mysticism or a practice of learning contemplation.
I’m pretty sure there are at least a few in this community who have known the mystical state as described by the cited sources, and have realized it as such.
Hi again, Karina. I wanted reiterate that, as I see it, one need not have had the mystical experience to be a mystic. That title also applies to those who believe the mystical experience is possible and who are pursuing it or opening to it. It might also be helpful to state that I don’t think the renunciation of all other things, as spoken of by the cited sources, is something that a contemplative has to work at all the time, although some clearly do. Rather, I think it also refers to a condition of consciousness, the opening of an interior door for the mystical experience. In other words, it can also be thought of as a phase of meditation that one can pass in and out of in a single sitting. ~ Chuck
Thank you Chuck, your sincerity of heart and wisdom flow forth, I am inspired, I know I’ll be back to read this again. Certain portions resonated within me, due to personal identification and other portions seem to be my constant “I believe, help me to believe” prayer. Also loved your title head.
One of the mysteries in Mysticism seems to be “the serious need for carefulness”, so many of our great mystic’s have gone out of their way to make this point. Spiritual confessors have played an important role in all religions from the beginning. Most of our well known contemplatives have shared on the dangers of not having a spiritual Mother or Father overseeing the seeker, some of the shared dangers, the amount of Faith-courage that is usually required, how swift, an innocent and earnest believer, can come to believe, they are somewhere, where they are not, but at the same time as our not being, where we think we are, we are where we belong. Thanks again, Chuck
I’m happy there is something here you find worthwhile.
…we are where we belong.
Yep. To me that resonates very much with the Christian concept of Divine Grace. We don’t need to be anything other than who and what we are, and where we are, for God to love us. Salvation is free for the taking. On the other hand, sanctification, which follows salvation, comes with our intentional effort, and it is indeed helpful to have a companion who has done more of such work.
Thanks for commenting! 🙂
Can you explain what your understanding of
Thanks for asking. To me, sanctification is the process of listening and responding to the Holy Spirit and allowing Divine Grace to increasingly saturate one’s being and presence in this world. Traditionally speaking, it is understood that this results in one’s consciousness and life becoming more and more like that of Jesus. The ‘intentional effort’ involved in this is sometimes referred to as ‘taking up the cross,’ but is also often referred to as ‘surrendering,’ which might seem ironic. Jesus spoke of it with various parables that use other analogies, such as seeking the Kingdom. It’s clear to me that it has both passive and active aspects. Finally, while we might generally say that one becomes more like Jesus in this process, in the details each of us is nonetheless a unique human being with her or his own particular combination of spiritual gifts and challenges. In other words, sanctification is the process of fulfilling one’s own potential as a unique flower of light, life, and love, a one-of-a-kind manifestation of ‘not me but Christ through me.’
Anyway, that’s a brief summary of my present understanding. It probably only raises more questions, and if so, then good! 😛
PS I think Karina’s words of a ‘journey’ of ‘peeling back layer after layer’ can also apply here very well. 🙂 ~ Chuck
Thanks for bringing the focus of this site back into perspective. From my viewpoint, you swung for the fences with your statement of process.
“Everything else… might lead someone into mysticism, into the contemplative pursuit… at some point, be released…”
Without awareness, it’s easy enough to mistake the word for the spirit or the puppet for the puppet master.
Enough said, great job!
LOL Well, it’s nice to know the swing was appreciated even if the ball stayed in the park! 😛
Seriously, thanks for the nice words, Greg.
Your blog certainly resonated with me, thank you. From your quote: “Everything else, no matter how revelatory, inspiring, or transformative, is not the mystical experience.” – most certainly.
I’m not familiar with Ruysbroeck, but the quotes promoted my own determination in my celebration of “I’ve got to have God, nothing else will do.”
Even with all the experiences, I too have never considered them other than evidences revealing there really is more and in their own unique ways always pointing toward God who is so much more than any of them separately or combined.
Thank you for addressing “there might be something beyond mysticism”. This is something I cannot explain which I bring up now and then. You did clarify, and pardon my extraction: “. . . stripped bare of all words, images, feelings, and any trace of a me-God duality.” I laughed during this portion of your blog and I have to ask again, so what am I doing here on the site if I’m neither a mystic nor a contemplative? At this point all I can say, it’s certainly educational, but there is something more, at least for me. I’m probably the guy like the old joke if you keep getting closer and closer to the water eventually you’re going to slip and fall in.
It would be so easy for me to say, yes, I’ve had mystical experiences but I don’t think it’s really for me to say so. I don’t want to seem presumptuous simply because I’ve experienced some spiritual happenings. One of Karina’s posts struck a note with me a while back about “awakening” – perhaps I’m waking up.
I can’t say I agree with your two reasons wholeheartedly “there isn’t anything beyond mysticism”. I understand what you’re saying, but it’s not quite what I’m trying to get across when I mention I think there’s something more – again a loss for words. Yes, I see the mystery and the obvious “well, what else could there be?” I honestly say, “I don’t know, at least not yet.” Perhaps what I’m attempting to portray, and please don’t be offended, is mysticism seems almost like a stopping point, but God wants us to go beyond that point because He is so far removed from it but still very much present with us in our pursuit to have a mystical experience and enjoy Him. Of course, in our finiteness He has to directly allow us opportunities to experience Him. How is that possible? In my own encounters with God, including those wonderful moments of just basking in His presence beyond the everyday realization He’s always with me and my constant source, I have come to realize when I simply approach Him with one statement, I find He is moved.
Statement: “I come to You with no requests, I simply want to express I love You.”
The last statement seems to be the one that reaches His heart and all else / along with what else / that happens opens up the door. That to me is beyond mysticism and (at least for me in accordance to your blog on relationship) applies. Is that subjective on my part, perhaps. Nevertheless, God knows how to reach every person in their own subjective, objective, or any other frame of being and that’s a good thing. One day we will know as we have been known.
So, to me, mysticism is just like one of those other things alongside angels, visions, etc. It’s there, but it’s not the ultimate find or experience. It’s substantial evidence beyond subjective and objective rationalization. The definition may suffice as a way of making the experience understood to some degree, but I still think there’s more. I’m not arguing, just an observation; and, maybe I’m completely wrong. And here’s where I do agree from your quote: “For me, that last observation suggests that the more meaningful questions are about what lies beyond the mystical experience itself, where ‘beyond’ points to what comes afterward.” Yes, that helps me to clarify what I’m trying to convey a tiny bit. As time goes on perhaps I’ll come to a place where I can express what I inwardly sense – there is something beyond mysticism. For now, mysticism is most profound and I’m along for the taxi ride.
What I think is most profitable on the mundane side of having had an ecstasy moment and having to get back to doing the laundry or the dishes, is the desire to go back to the flame and seek God. It is a thirst which only God can quench.
Little by little as I pull apart pieces of the crate marked “mysticism” I see more and more of the darkness being revealed with a tiny flicker of flame, it appears the crate is made of light which burns me but entices me at the same time.
Thank you for such a wonderful writing.
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in the sacerfice
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[…] and the pursuit of or opening to, realizing direct, unmediated, union with the Divine One. The essential mystical experience is thus a complete loss of any subject-object duality between self and God, and involves a […]