So this little meditation is for two audiences: those who would like to consider what is true about a religion based on its mystical traditions; and those Christians who may have dismissed the mystical streams in their own faith, because of extremes of exaggerated versions. I would like to define a mystic as someone who seeks or claims to encounter the ultimate truth of their religion or faith, and to directly encounter it. Not all mysticisms are the same. I focus in this dialogue with Dallas Willard’s thoughts, mostly on the theistic forms of mysticism, because these are the ones I’ve studied most.
I am convinced that mysticism is one way to look carefully at what a religion is really grounded in and saying. How it is lived out. For this reason the study of mysticism is a window into what is essential faith. What is your ultimate, and how does that cause you to live in real life? Anyways, i begin with some long but helpful quotes about mysticism from the late Dallas Willard. Helpful thoughts, i think.
I hope this article helps those who are open to at least the mystical streams in the world religions, and helps them as well as Christians to consider Christian mysticism as a valid option for true spirituality in our times. I studied comparative religious art in college specifically looking at mystical streams within each tradition to help read what the essence of each religion was really about. Not all mysticisms are the same!
In non-theistic mysticisms, the Ultimate is impersonal–either viewed as a Life Force, or Principle or Energy itself of life. The Vedic ways contain many practices to make contact with the ultimate, to become one with Oneness itself. Or in other versions, to become nothing, to escape the illusion of distinct identity. But here, I want to focus on what distinguishes Christ centered mysticism from other forms. In Christianity, we lose our false selves to find our eternal selves. That’s unique. Lose yourself to find yourself. You don’t become nothing, or everything! You become someone specific in Christ, with a story and clear identity, and a path of meaning to walk out in life. That’s distinct, so let’s explore what is unique about Christ-centered mysticism…
Is there a distinction to Christian mysticism? Are all mysticisms the same? Is his and my basic question in this article. I’ll start with this quote from Dallas Willard about what makes Christian mysticism distinct, and then trail into some of my own thoughts, in a sort of mid-rashic manner. Thanks for you patience. I think this is a stream worth considering if we want to consider what life is ultimately sourced from and how to live well. Fun studying other’s thoughts on this pertinent and often misunderstood subject. Here’s Dallas:
“The specific “color” or Christian mysticism is devotion to Jesus Christ. There is a lot of room for spelling out exactly what that means, and a lot of ways of putting it into practice. Pretty clearly this was the “mysticism” of Florence Nightingale, as is shown from her explicit language, the people she consulted with, and the context of religious life in her times. Her departure from various details of the nominal or real Christianity she encountered around her is better explained by her devotion to Christ than by any reversion to plain-wrap mysticism or to non-orthodox beliefs. The overriding question faced by most professionals today, including nurses, has to do with what they are really devoted to, and what are their life sustaining resources, in pursuing their profession. An honest, thorough inquiry into the possibilities here is what is called for. Are there any preferable alternatives to an all-out, experiential devotion to Christ? Then let us find them and live them. If not, let us live in union with the Absolute who is Jesus Christ.
Union with the Absolute also can be understood in a distinctively Christian manner, and one with substantial overlap on the other theistic religions. The key differences from the illusionist interpretation are two: The “Absolute” for the theist is understood to be a Person. And union with the Absolute, thus understood, consists, not in identity with Him, but in personal relationships of knowing, feeling and willing, on some substantial analogy with what is to be found among human beings in their better conditions. It involves conscious attitudes and actions between God and the human being, and then harmonious actions together with the divine and the human. Each side contributes to the relationship—though obviously not in the same proportion. Such a union is aptly described as “God with us.” It is less a status than it is a modulated flow of life in which transformative experiences of God come and go, along with a constant undertone of divine presence interwoven with the events of a normal human existence. In the records of Christian life, this relationship is often thought of as a journey toward God that is, at the same time, a journey in God. A readily available source for studying such lives anecdotally would be William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. But reports and testimonies of out of those lives are widely available.
Of course the source for understanding such a “with God” life is the Bible. For example, the Twenty-Third Psalm is a straightforward description of the human experience of union with God—once you understand that the writer is not engaging in lofty whistling-in-the-dark, but relating his actual experience and condition of life “with God.” The entire Bible conveys a picture of a life of personal union of God with his people, and the New Testament interpretation of how Christ lives in his people becomes a central part of the Christian understanding of life, especially for such passages as the Gospel of John chapters 14-17, Colossians chapters 1-3, and Galatians 2:20-21, to mention only a few passages. James Stewart’s A Man In Christ, or the Introductory Materials and Notes to The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible can guide anyone further in studying along these lines. Albert Schweitzer’s The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle is also a very useful source.”
Some people don’t like the sound of mysticism, too esoteric or impractical, but if you look at it as those who are seeking the true essence or Source of your religion, and wanting to express and live in and from it, it gets more interesting for study. To see it as the actual spirituality (the lived out-ness of your beliefs about The Nature of Reality!) of your religion.
We want to look at people’s actual “lived spirituality” to access the essential nature of a particular religion. This is why the mystics are fun to study. They were attempting to live out the essential truths of a religion!
Those who have claimed to actually live out that religion, are the easiest to read the faith through. So with Christianity, you might want to look at someone like Martin Luther King, or Mother Teresa, Albert Swietzer, Bonhoeffer, or others who you think lived the spirituality of that tradition. Those who appeared to have contact with its Source. Like St John, or St Paul who had overt recorded encounters with Jesus.
For Christians, the ground of all Being, The Absolute, is Jesus Christ Himself. So we don’t just merge we enter intimate relations with Him. The hebrew word for knowing refers to sexual intimacy. So that it is that level of knowing–person to Person depth of being exchange. That sets it apart even in its mystical streams of expression. The Absolute is not a nebulous “sacred”, or energy force, but a living personal loving God, who makes Himself encounter able! And has revealed Himself and His Ways into human history.That’s unique. The God with us part who reveals Himself in history. It still matters what or Whom your Ultimate is.
Ours is a relational mysticism, less about dissolving into Other, and more about a loving relationship, or ongoing dialogue or conversation, with the Ultimate Other who has made Himself known in history—Jesus, the Christ. Unlike the Vedic or non-theistic religions, we do not just overcome the illusion we are separate from Reality, we relate directly to it in order to even find our who we are. We enter self-revealing direct relationship with Christ Himself. That’s unique to Christ-ianity, which is always centered in the sustainer of all things—the sacrificial Son of God, the Christ, the Anointed by God one. This gets uniquely expressed through the lives of the mystics within true church history.
This is a useful and helpful way to read christian history. Read history through its mystics-those who have claimed, like St Paul-to have an encounter with Jesus Himself. And some who have even claimed to have daily friendship with Him directly. Those who claimed to have encountered the essence of their faith—in this case, those who have met and are friends with Jesus. The Real Jesus who sustains all of Reality! And the Author and Sustainer of our faith!
Distinctions help especially when studying mysticism. I will define a mystic as someone who claims to have encountered ultimate reality directly. So it matters what each religion’s ultimate or upper storey is. And the fruit of having that as your Ultimate! A tree is known by its fruit.
In college, I studied comparative religious art specifically looking at mystical traditions within various religions. Still fascinates me as it’s easier to read the direct symbols which stream through the mystical traditions of the worlds religions. Fun place to start if you want to see the essence of a religion. And not just reject the entire pursuit of spirituality.
Rather than throwing out all claims at mysticism (don’t throw out your mystics with your bathwater of religion!), I wanted to consider what they express about each religion’s ultimate or highest absolute. It was a helpful way to study religions of the world. I mainly focused on the Theistic ones, as having a Personal God as your ultimate has been my lived experience. Having a friendship with God, interest me more than dissolving into an abstract Being-ness or nothingness. I want to know a Someone, not nothingness. So I started with the religions who claimed to have a Personal God, one which we could relate to somehow down here.
There are many ways to study religious traditions, the mysticism of each faith is a helpful way in. And, I think it’s a good topic again in our day of watered down easy to digest religious supermarkets.
I’m convinced that Christianity offers the most true form of mysticism available. Yet it is often misunderstood even within Christianity. Yet as people search for a more authentic spirituality, I think it’s useful to consider what makes Christian mysticism unique or distinct from other religions.
All the theistic religions have a personal most High God as ultimate. And they have a relational rather than “merging into” model for mystical Union.
In Christianity, the marriage metaphor is most often used for ultimate Union. Groom and bride metaphors are throughout the Jewish prophets and again in the New Testament, where it is specifically applied to Jesus as Groom and His church or people as the bride. This central metaphor speaks of a knowing intimacy. To know in Hebrew, as I mentioned, refers among other things to sexual or the most intimate knowing of one another–in this case, of The Ultimate Other, who is also friend and lover!
So we are meant to come into marital intimacy with Christ. That’s a basis for true Christian intimacy. We take on and receive His Name–Christ. We do so as in getting married to Christ. That’s a core foundation in true Christianity. It is a marital level of union with one another. And in doing so, we get caught up in Our Groom’s intimacy with His Father, which space is our home. It’s a very family relations religion! But the way we come into the family is to marry Jesus. That’s what true mystical practice is about–that marriage or type of union between two. This is what Jesus was talking about in John 17–you in Me, and Me in Father. That space is the aim of Christ centered mysticism.
This is one reason why marriage is such a “high symbol” in Christianity-it speaks of the nature of our relationship with Christ!! It’s meant to have the level of contact and encounter as marital intimacy. A marital intimacy not with a nebulous other, but with The Person of Jesus Christ. It’s not a random marriage with being itself, or energy, it is a relationship with a Someone.
That’s a core image of Christian mysticism. Union is relational and it is ultimately with Jesus Christ who Christians believe to be the “ground of all Being”, or the Absolute or Ultimate—the name or Identity above all other Names and Identities so to speak. And we are offered a relational mystic union with Him. That’s the core offer of Jesus coming to earth, and into “our hearts”.
I’ve been looking at how mystical experiences informed the spirituality of some of the church fathers as well. St John being the most obvious, but I’m considering Paul a mystic also.
Been studying St Paul as a mystic lately. Paul as a master of word and Spirit…
St Paul as a mystic. Someone who was given “revealed theology” from God directly! Consider it. His entire conversion was a mystical experience, then he is directed directly by God’s intervention on his missions.
We think of St Paul, as the great theologian, but he clearly also had direct encounters with even Jesus, which is why he claimed to be an apostle! But his spirituality was replete with mystical encounters with God. Visions, dreams and spiritual training from above etc. Good to remember that some of the early apostles actually were mystics, though in a uniquely Christ centered way.
I’ve been thinking lots about Paul’s spirituality, since he is considered to be the first to really lay out a Christian theology. It’s important to consider that he had direct encounters with God, but also very clear revealed thinking— he directly encountered, even the risen Christ, if we are to believe scriptures!
When you think of it, Paul’s entire spirituality was really begun by a mystical encounter with the Risen Jesus. The rest is history. Don’t discard your mystics.
He also got his fresh gospel for the gentiles (“this gospel”)—a “mystery” revealed to him, concealed in God beforehand, as Paul puts it in his letter to the thessolonians.
In fact, his entire journey was informed by mysteries previously concealed by God but which were revealed to him. One basic one being that non-Jews are included in the Kingdom! A very useful revelation for us!
Paul considered and called himself a steward of the mysteries of God!
It is still remarkable to me how many “founders of our faith” had extremely mystical spiritualities. St John is overt, but many don’t think of Paul as someone who was directly informed by his encounters with God. Yet, he was, as we are meant to be.
For Christians, again, the ground of all Being, The Absolute, is Jesus Christ Himself. That sets it apart even in its mystical streams of expression. The Absolute is not a nebulous “sacred” but a living personal loving God, who makes Himself encounterable! It still matters what or Whom your Ultimate is. Our spiritual parents had a specific Personal Ultimate, and had a marital union of friendship with Him!
So, of course not all mysticism are the same or equal. Depends on what or Whom your ultimate is! Mysticism is typically defined as some form of union with The Absolute or Ultimate. In Christianity, this would be with Jesus, the Author and sustainer of Reality. The Logos or Way of God incarnate.
There are basically theistic forms of mysticism which see the ultimate as Person, and others, usually Vedic faiths, which see the “ground of all Being” as impersonal. That’s one major dividing line, as depending on which you believe, you live differently. It matters what we union with or center in, and what is the nature of that union. Is it loving relationship or a merging with consciousness, or nothingness etc…”Choose your ultimate wisely, it will determine your course!” as one of my mentors put it.
Jesus claims to be the Ultimate come down into human history and making God available to us through intimacy with Him and His spirituality. Union with His Spirit in His relationship with His Father.
That alone makes christianity peculiar, as my grandmother used to say. You have ultimate ground of all being incarnating into His own creation and offering a gateway into The Most High God Father. Christlikeness would be union with His Nature over time. That’s the daily practice of the Christ-ian mystic!