There is some folly in presuming to offer explanations, guidance, or suggestions about mysticism. To begin with, the very nature of the subject leads us toward, if not into, realizations about matters well beyond the abilities of human consciousness to fully grasp. Next, there is a crucial experiential (for lack of a better term) dimension of mysticism that can only be pointed toward or perhaps facilitated, but never actually communicated from one mind to another. As has been noted by many mystics and philosophers, that dimension is enigmatic and even paradoxical when viewed from an ordinary rational perspective. And of course there are the very ordinary and natural limitations that arise from trying to speak about anything without chasing down and working through every possible implication or misunderstanding. One can make statements in one context that seem contradictory with those made in another. For example, even if you were to carefully read everything I’ve ever posted on this blog, there would still be plenty of room for drawing inaccurate conclusions about what I mean. None of these challenges are anyone’s fault, they are simply facts that we may try to integrate into our understanding of mysticism and how we communicate with each other about it. With these points in mind, this series presents, in no particular order, what I regard as the scriptural teachings most essential to Christian mysticism. It draws attention to key words and phrases, and poses some questions about them that I simply leave for interested readers to address as they see fit. You are welcome to respond in the comments section.
Teaching 1: The Great Commandments
One of the teachers of the law came and heard the Sadducees arguing. He noticed that Jesus had given the Sadducees a good answer. So he asked him, “Which is the most important of all the commandments?”
Jesus answered, “Here is the most important one. Moses said, ‘Israel, listen to me. The Lord is our God. The Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And here is the second one. ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ There is no commandment more important than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
The first commandment is taken by Jesus directly from Deuteronomy 6:4-5:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
The second is taken from Leviticus 19:18:
Do not try to get even. Do not hold anything against any of your people. Instead, love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am the Lord.
Key Words & Phrases
“The Lord is one.”
In the Gospel of Mark, the English ‘one’ is from the Greek heis, which has connotations of first in rank or importance, something unique, and something singular, whole, or unified. In Deuteronomy, the Hebrew word is achad, which has similar connotations.
“Love the Lord…. Love your neighbor….”
In Mark, the Greek for love in both cases is agapaō, and in Hebrew it is ahab. Both of these words communicate love in the sense of an affectionate, intimate, caring relationship, and even a romantic one in the original Hebrew.
The Greek is holos, and the Hebrew kol. The connotations of both are the same as for the English ‘all,’ which means everything, the whole, the entirety and each of its parts.
In Greek, kardia, and in Hebrew, lebab. These words speak of the innermost part of the human being, the seat of our thoughts, emotions, affections, desires, intentions, and will.
In Greek, psyche, and in Hebrew, nefesh. Here the scriptures are addressing everything we regard as the personal self, and especially the very essence of our lives as creatures in this world. Furthermore, both words are directly connected with the concept of breath, and thus the literal and figurative meanings we give to the English phrase, “with every breath,” may also be found in “with all your soul.”
In Greek, dianoia. This is a word that the author of Mark has Jesus adding to the faculties listed in Deuteronomy. While it has the same broad possibilities as the English, ‘mind,’ also like the English word it has the more specific connotations of rational, analytical, technical, theoretical, and imaginative thinking.
“strength” or “might”
In Greek, ischus, and in Hebrew, mehod. In both cases, as with the English words, the reference is to power and force.
In Greek, plēsion, in Hebrew, rea. These terms certainly address people physically nearby, yet are also used in general reference to anyone other than oneself.
Questions for Meditation
- What is mystically significant about beginning with an affirmation that God is one?
- In telling us how to love God, why might there be so much redundancy in referencing all the different faculties of our being and all of each one?
- For each faculty listed by Jesus – heart, soul, mind, and strength – what are its more specific implications for how we can love God?
- When asked for the most important of all commandments, why might Jesus have provided not only the first but also the second?
- In the version of this story given in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus even says the second is “like the first.” What might he mean by that?
- What are all the possible ways to love another person as yourself?
- Christian mysticism, similar to the mysticism of other religions, has two broad categories. One is the Via Negativa, or apophatic mysticism, where the approach to God is through letting go of all our thoughts and feelings about God to simply abide with God in stillness and silence. It tends to emphasize God’s incomprehensible transcendence. The other way, the Via Postiva, or cataphatic mysticism, approaches God through affirming and adoring the attributes of God as we experience them manifested in our lives. It tends to emphasize God’s immanent presence. How might the Great Commandments have relevance to both of these ways?