Christian Mysticism 101
What is Mysticism?
Mysticism: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight) - Merriam-Webster's Dictionary
The hardest part about identifying oneself as a mystic tends to be all the misconceptions people have about the label. Witchcraft, divination, flying broomsticks, crystals, and strange smells all seem to come to mind for people when they first hear "mysticism." In reality, none of these things have to do with mysticism, and especially not Christian mysticism. So what is mysticism, and why do I find it important enough to risk the misunderstanding?
The reason why mystics find it important to distinguish themselves is probably more because of what mysticism isn't, more that what it is. First and foremost, it is not theology, doctrine, dogma, rules or creed. At some point everyone who lives under the banner "mystic" has come to the potent conviction the real answers to life aren't found in the obsessive scrutiny of text, tedious debate, or logical puzzles. No, the answers are right in front of us.
So now we get to the point of what mysticism is: The art of seeing God right in front of us. The mystic believes that truth, wisdom, and all the so-called "secrets" of the Universe are not hidden, but in plain sight. God meets us in everyday life, nature, and through our interactions with others around us. Learning to be aware of the world around us is essential for the development of our soul.
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. - Rom. 1:20
If everything is obvious, then why don't we see it? If all we need is right in front of us, why don't we understand it? Well, this is why we actually teach and practice mysticism. We are blinded to reality because of our hearts and our minds. Our minds are full of prejudice, bias, assumptions and beliefs that are built into us by culture and society. Our hearts are full of fear, doubt, anger, and pain.
Mysticism is a lifelong determination to labor upon our hearts and minds to clear out everything that blinds us to God. Christian mysticism is unique as we believe we have help in this journey through the Holy Spirit. It is also unique in that it has stronger focus on people than other forms of mysticism. Christ teaches us that we experience him most through one another.
"And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. ’" - Matt. 25:40
I have no greater joy in life than seeing someone's eyes open for the first time to the wonders around them. Like those before me, the focus of this blog is on helping us become aware of the knots and obstacles which lie in our hearts and minds separating us from God, Christ, and others.
Here is a great analogy for Mysticism from a friend:
Christian mystics believe in an experiential understanding of God, because we believe it is the only way it will change you.
So for example: Say there is someone who has never had a pizza. Then they hear about it and study it, find out how it's made, what the ingredients are, maybe they get really deep into it to understand how the gluten works in forming the crust. Really their pizza knowledge seems deep. They have a degree in pizzaology.
Then you have a nine year old who has eaten as much pizza as a normal nine year old. When you ask them to describe pizza, they talk about how cheesy it is, how delicious it is, how it fills their tummy, and how much fun it is to eat with friends.
Which of these people understands pizza?
- Alaina Kailyn Cobb
Finally, there is a subversive or rebellious motive for using the term “mysticism” as a modifier to Christianity or any other faith; religion can be poisonous without it. Without an inward-facing perspective, one that leads us to examine our own hearts first before judging others, religion too easily slips into a self-righteous excuse for persecuting others and practicing a sense of spiritual narcissism and entitlement. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, said it best:
It may easily happen that a Christian who believes in all the sacred figures is still undeveloped and unchanged in his inmost soul because he has "all God outside" and does not experience Him in the soul. His deciding motives, his ruling interests and impulses, do not spring from the sphere of Christianity, but from the unconscious and undeveloped psyche, which is as pagan and archaic as ever. Not the individual alone but the sum total of individual lives in a people proves the truth of this contention.
The great events of our world as planned and executed by man do not breathe the spirit of Christianity, but rather of unadorned paganism. These things originate in a psychic condition that has remained archaic and has not been even remotely touched by Christianity....Christian civilization has proved hollow to a terrifying degree: it is all veneer, but the inner man has remained untouched and therefore unchanged. His soul is out of key with his external beliefs; in his soul the Christian has not kept pace with external developments.
Yes, everything is to be found outside--in image and in word, in Church and Bible--but never inside. Inside reign the archaic gods, supreme as of old; that is to say the inner correspondence with the outer God-image is undeveloped for lack of psychological culture and has therefore got stuck in heathenism. Christian education has done all that is humanly possible, but it has not been enough. Too few people have experienced the divine image as the inner-most possession of their own souls. Christ only meets them from without, never from within the soul; that is why dark paganism still reigns there, a paganism which, now in a form so blatant that it can no longer be denied and now in all too threadbare disguise, is swamping the world of so-called Christian culture....
....It has yet to be understood that the mysterium magnum is not only an actuality but is first and foremost rooted in the human psyche. The man who does not know this from his own experience may be a most learned theologian, but he has no idea of religion and still less of education.
- Carl Jung
The Tao, Logos, and Christ
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it. - John 1:1-5
There is a thing inherent and natural, Which existed before heaven and earth. Motionless and fathomless, It stands alone and never changes; It pervades everywhere and never becomes exhausted. It may be regarded as the Mother of the Universe. I do not know its name. If I am forced to give it a name, I call it Tao, and I name it as supreme. - Lao Tzu
Listening to the Logos rather than to me, it is wise to agree that all things are in reality one thing and one thing only. - Hippolytus
In both the East and West philosophers, mystics, and scholars have a concept behind the whole Universe. This concept represents what moves, governs, and holds all existence together. In the East they named this concept the “Tao” meaning “The Way”. In the West they called this concept “Logos” meaning “divine mind” (loosely translated). When Jesus Christ said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), he wasn't claiming religious supremacy as many fundamentalist would claim, he was identifying himself as the divine or “ultimate truth” the world had already been searching for.
Many Bibles in Asia translate “Word” in John 1:1-5 as “Tao”. In fact, what we translate as “Word” comes from the Greek word “Logos”, so to translate “Logos” into “Tao” in Eastern Bibles is very appropriate. As a Christian mystic, the concepts of the Tao and Logos are very important as they illustrate the eternal nature of Jesus Christ.
A Christian mystic does not look at Jesus Christ as only being a man who was born, lived, died, and was resurrected some 2,000+ years ago. Rather, we look at Christ as the essence of all things. All truth, all goodness, all virtue lived in this world is Christ’s presence. Christ’s life as a man, when “the Word became flesh”, was an inevitability as the greatest expression of the Tao/Logos is manifested through the lives of humanity.
Christ claiming himself as the Tao and Logos also give credibility to his place as the Messiah. Jesus Christ wasn’t just the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, but also the manifestation of truth as identified by the ancient master of both the East and the West.
The difference between how the concepts of the Tao and Logos came about very much illustrate the differences between Eastern and Western thought. The Tao, which is “the Way”, centers around our emotions and actions. Writings on the Tao, like the Tao Te Ching, spend much time talking about how to control and discipline our emotions and how to act in accordance with the Tao. A person at one with the Tao would be at complete peace with himself, others, and the world around him.
The Logos, which is the “divine mind”, centers around the search for reason and clarity of mind. The Logos described a state of mind where a person can see himself and all reality without any perversion or illusion. Ancient Greek philosophers would seek to have their discussions governed by Logos as they sharpened and developed their skills of reason through discussion and debate. A person at one with Logos would be thought, not to know everything, but to clearly understand all he experiences.
Even though there is a difference in development of Tao and Logos, they both represent the search for the “ultimate truth”, and they are both pursuing the same pure understanding of reality. Most people today don’t realize that Jesus’s claims of being the “Truth” and the “Way” were as dramatic to the Greeks as his claims of being the “Messiah” were to the Jews of the time.
While evidence of Jesus’s Christ authenticity to the Jews is by prophecy. The evidence of Christ to the Gentiles was through his teachings, which demonstrated the “divine mind” of Logos. The evidence of Christ to the East is was through his life itself, which was lived as a pure manifestation of the Tao.
The philosophical implication of Christ being the Tao/Logos is that the “ultimate truth” of the Universe is also a conscience entity. It means that the Tao/Logos of the Universe interacts and reacts with us on a personal level. Every time a Christian performs an act of charity, compassion, or self-sacrifice he does so directly with the person of Christ.
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’ - Matthew 25:37-40
Christian mysticism is about experiencing Christ here and now in everyday life. We do not wait for Heaven or the afterlife to begin communion with God, we begin it here and that communion is extended after death.
...the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love transcends knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone; nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is logos. Consequently, Christian worship is worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason... - Pope Benedict XVI
Nothing I have said here is new, unique, or radical to Christianity or religion in general, but you could say it has largely been forgotten in modern culture. I have compiled a list of books and reviews of mysticism throughout the centuries on GoodReads.com to help you get started, and make sure you don't have to take my word for it.