What is Christian Mysticism?
BY WILLIAM MCNAMARA | AUGUST 4, 2009
“Mysticism is awe and wonder at the sacredness of life and being and of the invisible, transcendent and infinite abundant source of being.”
The mystic is not a special kind of person, but everyone is, or ought to be, a special kind of mystic. Mysticism is nothing esoteric. It is not the privilege of a few but an experience every one of us should know first hand.
Mysticism is infinitely too subjective to teach. It is more readily caught than taught. The supreme purpose of all contemplative communities is to foster the spirit of mystical contemplation in contemporary culture so that our social, political, economic and domestic existence is inspired by it. And yet we wouldn’t dare try to teach mysticism. All we can do is set the stage as humanly as possible for the mystical experience.
In my earliest writings I used the term contemplation rather than mysticism. Now I prefer to use “mysticism,” although contemplation and mysticism are essentially the same. It is crucial, however, to eliminate many of the misunderstandings that surround the meaning of both these words. Though we cannot teach mysticism, explain it adequately, or superficially decide to achieve it, we must know as much about it as we can theoretically and do as much as we can practically, in order to become mystical. We especially need to know what mysticism is not.
What Mysticism Is Not
Mysticism is not a pain-killer. It provides no escape from the world but puts us in touch with the world. Mystics are not rigid, unbending, or unworldly. Because they are in love with God and with life, they are supple, tolerant and flexible. Mysticism is not a way out of anguish, conflict and doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the mystical experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart, like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.
Mystics often suffer more than anyone else because they are so sympathetic and compassionate. They may harbor the gravest doubts because their childish, puerile, and spurious faith explodes before them. A veritable bonfire burns to ashes their old, worn-out words, clichés and slogans. Even their most holy concepts and sacred ideas of God are consumed in the fire of this great holocaust.
Mystics discover through contemplation, a personal encounter with the living God, that they know nothing about God. They know not what but only that God is. They learn that God is no thing (nothing, nada), no what, but pure Who. God is the Thou before whom the mystics’ inmost “I” springs into awareness. God is the “I am” before whom the mystics echo their own “I am.” They stand defenselessly, helplessly, and humbled before God’s holy scrutiny.
Mysticism is not what drug enthusiasts call “tripping out” but more like “standing in,” alert and alive, with the highest possible focus of human attention on the present moment. It is standing willfully and deliberately in awe and wonder before the unveiled mystery of reality. Mysticism is not trance, an ecstasy or an enthusiasm. It is not the wild frenzy of religious exultation or the imagination of lights or the hearing of unutterable words. These do not emanate from the deep self but from the somatic unconscious and may happen in conjunction with religious experience but do not constitute mysticism.
Mysticism is not the affair of a quiet and passive temperament which naturally loves to sit and do nothing. Mystics are not spooky introverts or isolated thinkers who simply love to ruminate, prowling around in the sanctuary of their own psychs. Most of the mystics I know are strong, robust and vibrant, obsessed with a Zorba-like, or better, Christ-like madness.
True mystics do not merely explore their own consciousness but savor the Real. They are not aloof from flesh and blood, the turmoil, chaos and pleasures of the world. Some of the most mystical people are deeply and profoundly immersed in the world, thoroughly engaged in political and social life, rearing dozens of children. They are mystical simply because they are basically and essentially great lovers of God and his whole creation. Some of my favorite mystics are prophets like John the Baptist and Elijah, saintly women like Joan of Arc and Elizabeth of Hungary, disciplined wild men like Zorba the Greek and Holden Caulfield. These mystics are not indifferent but deeply in love with the world. Their love of the world does not diminish but enhances their dynamic, irresistible and burning love of God. It is possible to become totally detached in everything and unattached to God. But then we become stuffed shirts, not mystics. We are not all aglow with the Spirit, consumed with the fire of God’s love, but simply “into” spirituality.
Mysticism is not inward torpor but a magnetic, mobilizing peace characterized by the wise passiveness of St. John of the Cross: “I abandoned and forgot myself. . . leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.” Mysticism is the highest form of action. But the mystics don’t always need to take a pole when they go fishing because they have no need to justify doing nothing. Being may compel them to do nothing. When God speaks, the mystics simply listen; when God appears, they simply behold; when God gives, they simply receive. Responding to God’s initiative this way distinguishes genuinely positive and gracious quiet from the error of quietism, the limp passivity of the sluggard often confused with the alert stillness of the spiritual athlete. English mystic and theologian Walter Hilton describes the paradoxical activity of such peace: “This restful travail is far from fleshly idleness and from blind security. It is full of ghostly work, but it is called rest… a holy idleness and a rest most busy.”
What Is Mysticism?
Having cleared away some of the outstanding debris, we are in a better position to say something more positive about mysticism. Mystical contemplation is the experiential grasp of reality as subjective. Not mine—that would pertain to the external, superficial self—but as myself in existential mystery. Mysticism does not meet reality through a process of deduction but through an intuitive awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive in its own existential depths which open out into the mystery of God. If we can discover ourselves in depth, we discover God and simultaneously discover Christ. We can almost say there is an identity between self and the real Christ.
If I am a mystic, I have come into ownership of myself. I achieve through asceticism and discipline and the controlled wildness of love, mastery of my own human instrument. Only when I achieve ownership of myself may I give myself to the world and share the contemplation I enjoy, which is the only valid definition of apostolic outreach. If my apostolate is not simply a sharing of my mystical contemplation, my own experiential awareness of God, then it is phony, noisy, and absurd.
We cannot proclaim the contemplation of Christ in an effective and lasting way unless we ourselves participate in it. How can we proclaim or act, however zealously, what we do not know ourselves personally and experientially?
“The most important thing to do is to be,” said Lao-Tzu. Apostles are not self-appointed but sent by God, after he has touched and transformed them. Such people are rare. When they show up, they always seem to be men and women of prayer; silent and solitary, God-filled and God-intoxicated, not saying or doing much, but keeping God’s love alive and his presence felt in a half-hearted, talkative, busy society where people live frightened, fragmented “lives of quiet desperation.”
To engage in the natural art of contemplation is to look long and steadily, leisurely and lovingly at any thing—a tree, a child, a pear, a kitten, a hippopotamus—and really “see” the whole of it; not to steal an idea of it, but to know it by experience, a pure intuition born of love. This is not an aggressive act but gratuitous. Being discloses its hidden secrets as we look, wait, wonder, and stand in awe, not inquisitively but receptively. Mystics and contemplatives are never utilitarian, greedily trying to get something out of everything. They simply stand before being, before the universe, before another human being, a plant, an animal. They enjoy it and leave themselves wide open to its revelation, to its disclosures of mystery, truth, and love.
Mystical contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract truths about God, more than meditation on what we believe. Mysticism is an awakening enlightenment, an intuition born of love which leaves us sure of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our concrete daily life. The mystics do not simply find a clear idea of God and confine him within the limits of that idea and hold him prisoner there. The mystics are carried away by God into the divine realm of mystery and freedom. Mysticism is pure and virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able by its very poverty and purity to follow the Word wherever it may lead.
Mysticism is a long, loving look at the Real to which we are united by love. It is the highest expression of our intellectual and spiritual life. Its activity is its own end. Mysticism has no utilitarian purpose but is simply looking, loving, being utterly, magnificently, wildly useless. It is life itself fully awake and active and aware that it is alive. Mysticism is awe and wonder at the sacredness of life and being and of the invisible, transcendent and infinite abundant source of being. It knows the source obscurely, but with a certitude beyond reason. It is a veritable vision of the Godhead in the human, earthy context. This act by which we see who we are, not in isolation but against the background of eternity, and so simultaneously and experientially see who God is—this is genuine mysticism.
Mystical life is both the most normal and the highest expression of the spiritual life. It involves the highest levels of participation in the intimate, trinitarian lovelife of the Godhead. This loving Being issues in our divinization. God is the primary source and active agent of this divine transformation. We are the recipients of divine disclosures and become mystics by being drawn by grace into Ineffable Mystery.
Transparent and Opaque
Whether mystical union is experienced depends partly our environment, particularly our beliefs, but preeminently on our psychophysical constitution. This accounts for the fact, otherwise inexplicable, that mystical experience, like artistic creation or scientific intelligence, is often shared by members of the same family: for example, St. John of the Cross and his brother.
Not everyone is mystical to the same degree. Some individuals are more easily recognizable as mystics.
psychological factor identifies and distinguishes them from other spiritual individuals who are not usually considered mystical. The felicity and frequency with which mystics consciously experience divine union depends upon their particular temperaments.
E. I. Watkin, my favorite religious philosopher who died in 1981, has explained this in terms of the transparent or opaque personality. The opaque personality sees the same comedy as the transparent but never laughs; hears the same music but never moves a muscle; suffers the same embarrassment but never turns red. The inner experiences of the transparent personality, however, always register on his countenance or external behavior. What happens in the spiritual depths, at the center of the soul, rises easily to the conscious surface. What occurs in the deep recesses of the opaque personality will seldom, if ever, become apparent. Transparent personalities are much more likely to translate inner experience into a painting, a song, or a poem.
Both the transparent and the opaque person are in union with God, but only the transparent one becomes conscious of it. Both are drawn by God into the deepest dimensions of the human adventure, the mystical depths of the spiritual life, but only the transparent personality exhibits mystical experiences. Opaque personalities, though raised by God into mystical existence, do not show it or even know it. Despite this, they may be as holy as their transparent counterparts. Theologically speaking, both types are mystics; but phenomenally speaking, only the transparent are, because they experience God’s active presence within them and are obviously and recognizably mystical.
Unfortunately, because of our “monkey business,” phony mysticism abounds. Like monkeys, people copy the outer behavior of genuine mystics without understanding their inner Godward dispositions. It’s what’s inside that counts. I remember Alan Watts comparing a mystic to a musical genius. Strictly speaking, a composer like Mozart is inspired when melody emerges from the depths of his mind. To convey that melody to others he writes it down on paper, employing a technical knowledge which enables him to name the notes he heard in his mind.
This fact is important: his technical knowledge does not create the tune in his mind; it simply provides him with a complicated alphabet and is no more the source of music than the literary alphabet and the rules of grammar are the source of our ideas. What music teachers call “rules” of harmony are simply observations on the harmonies most usually used by such people as Mozart. Mozart did not use them because they were the rules but because he liked their sound. A composer needs to study harmony in order to identify the chords which he hears in his mind, but he does not use his knowledge to construct chords unless he is a mere imitator of other people. In the same way, language is used not to create thoughts but to express them, and mastery of prose does not make a great thinker.
The mystics are spiritual geniuses who work the same way as musical geniuses. They have a wider scope because their technique of expression, their alphabet, is every possible human activity. In all mystics, some more than others, the presence of God is felt. The mystic expresses this feeling two ways: first, by living a certain kind of life; and secondly, by translating this feeling into thoughts and words.
People who have not had this feeling observe the actions and words and from them formulate the “rules” of religious morality and theology. There are bound to be distortions. It is strange how foreign any unique religious feeling is to the average human being, even to the professional religious personality. The essential quality in the mystics is their feeling, not their ideas and actions, for these are only reflections of the feeling, and a reflection existing without light is a sham. Therefore just as great technical proficiency will not make a creative genius in music, so morality, theology, and discipline will not make a genius in religion, for these are the result of religious experience, not the cause, and by themselves can no more produce it than the tail can be made to wag the dog.
When we speak of feeling, we imply an element of rational appreciation of what we feel. Affectivity and rationality are not opposed. Genuine affective responses are rational. Genuine feeling is partly cognitive, but it is also much more than that. According to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “We only believe those thoughts which have been conceived not in the brain but in the whole body.” A merely intellectual response to reality is not enough because it is restricted and doesn’t engage the total self. Genuine feeling refers to a total response, actuating what we are as persons.
According to Aldous Huxley’s Grey Eminence: “The mystics are channels through which a little knowledge of reality filters down into our human universe of ignorance and illusion. A totally unmystical world would be a world totally blind and insane. From the beginnings of the eighteenth century onward, the sources of all mystical knowledge have been steadily diminishing in number, all over the planet. We are dangerously far advanced into the darkness.” A civilization that denies the place of mysticism or shuts out the possibility of it sets us inevitably on the road toward a philosophy that is not so much a “love of wisdom” as a hatred of wisdom.
We will never enjoy mystical union as long as we refuse to stop, take time, enter into holy leisure and contemplate. We will miss God in the busy hustle and bustle of our loquacious liturgies. We will miss God in our hurried, routinized, self- centered prayer. We will miss him in our frenzied activities. We will miss him above all in our education, whose goal is supposed to be contemplation, according to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, the Fathers of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, and any ancient or modern educator worthy of our attention. Without mystical vision, our education is a farce, our civilization a sham, religion an opium, liturgy a corpse, theology a fad, and apostolic outreach the most popular and pietistic escape from the God who said, “Be still and see that I am God” (Ps 46:11).
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