From the Christian esoteric tradition, a path beyond the mind
Put the mind in the heart…. Put the mind in the heart…. Stand before the Lord with the mind in the heart.” From page after page in the Philokalia, that hallowed collection of spiritual writings from the Christian East, this same refrain emerges. It is striking in both its insistence and its specificity. Whatever that exalted level of spiritual attainment is conceived to be—whether you call it “salvation,” “enlightenment,” “contemplation,” or “divine union”—this is the inner configuration in which it is found. This and no other.
It leaves one wondering what these old spiritual masters actually knew and—if it’s even remotely as precise and anatomically grounded as it sounds—why this knowledge has not factored more prominently in contemporary typologies of consciousness.
Part of the problem as this ancient teaching falls on contemporary ears is that we will inevitably be hearing it through a modern filter that does not serve it well. In our own times the word “heart” has come to be associated primarily with the emotions (as opposed to the mental operations of the mind), and so the instruction will be inevitably heard as “get out of your mind and into your emotions”—which is, alas, pretty close to 180 degrees from what the instruction is actually saying.
Yes, it is certainly true that the heart’s native language is affectivity—perception through deep feelingness. But it may come as a shock to contemporary seekers to learn that the things we nowadays identify with the feeling life—passion, drama, intensity, compelling emotion—are qualities that in the ancient anatomical treatises were associated not with the heart but with the liver! They are signs of agitation and turbidity (an excess of bile!) rather than authentic feelingness. In fact, they are traditionally seen as the roadblocks to the authentic feeling life, the saboteurs that steal its energy and distort its true nature.
And so before we can even begin to unlock the wisdom of these ancient texts, we need to gently set aside our contemporary fascination with emotivity as the royal road to spiritual authenticity and return to the classic understanding from which these teachings emerge, which features the heart in a far more spacious and luminous role.
According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen&rdquo, but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.
Perhaps the most comprehensive definition of this wider spiritual perceptivity is from Kabir Helminski, a modern Sufi master. I realize that I quote it in nearly every book I have written, but I do so because it is so fundamental to the wisdom tradition that I have come to know as the authentic heart of Christianity. Here it is yet again:
We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using. Beyond the limited analytic intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities; intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative and creative faculties; and image-forming and symbolic capacities. Though these faculties are many, we give them a single name with some justification for they are working best when they are in concert. They comprise a mind, moreover, in spontaneous connection to the cosmic mind. This total mind we call “heart.”1
The purification of Muhammad’s heart by three Divine messengers. Bal’ami. Early fourteenth century
“The heart,” Helminski continues, is the antenna that receives the emanations of subtler levels of existence. The human heart has its proper field of function beyond the limits of the superficial, reactive ego-self. Awakening the heart, or the spiritualized mind, is an unlimited process of making the mind more sensitive, focused, energized, subtle, and refined, of joining it to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.2
Now it may concern some of you that you’re hearing Islamic teaching here, not Christian. And it may well be true that this understanding of the heart as “spiritualized mind”— “the organ prepared by God for contemplation”3—has been brought to its subtlest and most comprehensive articulation in the great Islamic Sufi masters. As early as the tenth century, Al-Hakîm al Tirmidhî’s masterful Treatise on the Heart laid the foundations for an elaborate Sufi understanding of the heart as a tripartite physical, emotional, and spiritual organ.4 On this foundation would gradually rise an expansive repertory of spiritual practices supporting this increasingly “sensitive, focused, energized, subtle, and refined” heart attunement.
But it’s right there in Christianity as well. Aside from the incomparable Orthodox teachings on Prayer of the Heart collected in the Philokalia, it’s completely scriptural. Simply open your Bible to the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:8) and read the words straight from Jesus himself: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
We will return to what “pure in heart” means in due course. But clearly Jesus had a foundational grasp on the heart as an organ of spiritual perception, and he had his own highly specific method for catalyzing this quantum leap in human consciousness. I have written extensively about this in my book The Wisdom Jesus, in which I lay out the principles of his kenotic [“letting go”] spirituality as a pathway of conscious transformation leading to nondual awakening. You will see there how this goal formed the core of his teaching, hidden in plain sight for twenty centuries now. I will be drawing on this material from time to time as it becomes pertinent to our present exploration. For now, the essential point is simply to realize that the teaching on the heart is not intrinsically an “Islamic” revelation, any more than it is a “Christian” one. If anything, its headwaters lie in that great evolutionary incubator of Judaism, in which more and more in those final centuries before the Common Era, the great Israelite prophets begin to sense a new evolutionary star rising on the horizon of consciousness. Yahweh is about to do something new, about to up the ante in the continuing journey of mutual self-disclosure that has formed the basis of the covenant with Israel. The prophet Ezekiel gets it the most directly, as the following words of revelation tumble from his mouth, directly from the heart of God:
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land I gave to your ancestors, and you shall be my people and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:24–28)
A new interiority is dawning on the horizon, a new capacity to read the pattern from within: to live the covenant without a need for external forms and regulations, simply by living it from an inner integrity. And for the first time in Western history, this capacity to see from within is explicitly linked to the heart, and specifically to a “heart of flesh.”
Without any attempt to end-run the massive theological and historical parameters that have grown up around this issue, my bare-bones take on Jesus is that he comes as the “master cardiologist,” the next in the great succession of Hebrew prophets, to do that “heart surgery” first announced by Ezekiel. And his powerfully original (at least in terms of anything heretofore seen in the Semitic lands) method of awakening heart perceptivity—through a radical nonclinging or “letting go”—will in fact reveal itself as the tie rod connecting everything I am talking about in this book.
Do I Really Mean the Physical Heart?
Not to be naive here, but yes. We are indeed talking about the physical heart, at least insofar as it furnishes our bodily anchor for all those wondrous voyages into far-flung spiritual realms.
Again, the Eastern Orthodox tradition is not in the least equivocal on this point. Lest there be any tendency to hear the word as merely symbolic of some “innermost essence” of a person, the texts direct us immediately to the chest, where the sign that prayer is progressing will be a palpable physical warmth:
To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention and the standing before the invisible Lord, not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart. When the divine warmth comes, all this will be clear.5
The following instruction is even more specific:
When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by way of prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart. Placed by the creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals…. The intellectual faculty in man’s soul, though spiritual, dwells in the brain, that is to say in the head: in the same way, the spiritual faculty which we term the spirit of man, though spiritual, dwells in the upper part of the heart, close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.6
Mosaic, Jungholz, Austria
While the sheer physicality of this may make some readers squirm, the contemporary phenomenologist Robert Sardello is another strong advocate for a full inclusion of the physical heart in any serious consideration of the spirituality of the heart. When he speaks of the heart, as he makes clear in his remarkable book Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness, he is always referring to “the physical organ of the heart,” which merits this special consideration precisely because “it functions simultaneously as a physical, psychic, and spiritual organ.”7 It is this seamlessly tripartite nature of the heart’s field of activity that bestows its unusual transformative powers. While there are many spiritual traditions that focus on “the heart as the instrument through which religious practices take place,” Sardello feels that “these traditions do not focus on the inherent activity of the heart, which is already an act of a spiritual nature.”8
To demonstrate what this “inherently spiritual nature” of the heart might feel like, Sardello leads his readers on a profound voyage of discovery into the inner chambers of their own heart. Wielding those two classic tools of inner work, attention and sensation, he teaches us how to access the heart through concentrated sensation (rather than visualization or emotion) and there discover its inherent vibrational signature as “pure intimacy…intimacy without something or someone attached to that intimacy.”9
I have to say I followed that exercise several times and was astonished by the results. I had experienced something of that “pure intimacy” before, as that sort of golden tenderness that sometimes surrounds a period of Centering Prayer. But never had I experienced it with such force or clarity, as a distinct inner bandwidth resonating in perfect synchrony with (in Kabir Helminski’s words) “its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” No wonder the embodied aspect of heart spirituality is so important! For it is only through sensation—that is, “attention concentrated in the heart”—that this experience of utter fullness and belonging becomes accessible.10
Sardello is not the only voice in the field. There is now a substantial and growing body of “bridge literature” linking classic spiritual teachings on the heart with emerging discoveries in the field of neurobiology. I have already mentioned the pioneering work of the HeartMath Institute, but I want to call attention to two other fascinating and useful books for the spiritually adventurous nonspecialist: The Biology of Transcendence by Joseph Chilton Pearce11 and The Secret Teaching of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner.12 Marshaling considerable scientific data in a format easily accessible to a lay reader, each of these books demonstrates how contemporary science has taken us far beyond the notion of the heart as a mechanical pump to revision it as “an electromagnetic generator,”13 working simultaneously across a range of vibrational frequencies to perform its various tasks of internal and external self-regulation and information exchange. (An “organ of spiritual perception,” after all, can be understood in this context as simply an electromagnetic generator picking up information at far subtler vibrational bandwidths.) Both books call attention, as does the HeartMath Institute, to the intricate feedback loops between heart and brain—almost as if the human being were expressly wired to facilitate this exchange, which Pearce sees as fundamentally between the universal (carried in the heart) and the particular (carried in the brain). As he expresses it, “The heart takes on the subtle individual colors of a person without losing its essential universality. It seems to mediate between our individual self and a universal process while being representative of that universal process.”14 While such bold statements may make hard-core scientists writhe, from the spiritual side of the bridge it is easily comprehensible and brings additional confirmation that “putting the mind in the heart” is not merely a quaint spiritual metaphor but contains precise and essential information on the physiological undergirding of conscious transformation.
The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani. c. 1300 B.C. British Museum
What Gets in the Way?
According to Western understanding, the heart does not need to be “grown” or “evolved.” Every heart is already a perfect holograph of the divine heart, carrying within itself full access to the information of the whole. But it does need to be purified, as Jesus himself observed. In its spiritual capacity, the heart is fundamentally a homing beacon, allowing us to stay aligned with those “emanations from more subtle levels of existence” Helminski refers to, and hence to follow the authentic path of our own unfolding. But when the signals get jammed by the interference of lower-level noise, then it is no longer able to do its beaconing work.
Unanimously, the Christian wisdom tradition proclaims that the source of this lower-level noise is “the passions.” As the Philokalia repeatedly emphasizes, the problem with the passions is that they divide the heart.15 A heart that is divided, pulled this way and that by competing inner agendas, is like a wind-tossed sea: unable to reflect on its surface the clear image of the moon.
Here again is a teaching that tends to set contemporary people’s teeth on edge. I know this from personal experience, because the issue comes up at nearly every workshop I give. To our modern Western way of hearing, “passion” is a good thing: something akin to élan vital, the source of our aliveness and motivation. It is to be encouraged, not discouraged. At a recent workshop I led, a bishop approached me with some concern and explained that in his diocese, following the recommendations of a church consultant, he had managed to boost morale and productivity by significant percentages simply by encouraging his clergy “to follow their passions.”
Well-nigh universally today, the notion of “passionlessness” (a quality eagerly sought after in the ancient teachings of the desert fathers and mothers) equates to “emotionally brain dead.” If you take away passion, what is left?
Madonna and child. Saint Augustinus Church, Miguel Hidalgo, Federal District, Mexico
So once again we have to begin with some decoding.
If you consult any English dictionary, you will discover that the word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer” (passio is the first-person singular). But this still doesn’t get us all the way, because the literal, now largely archaic, meaning of the verb “to suffer” (to “undergo or experience&rdquo is literally to be acted upon. The chief operative here is the involuntary and mechanical aspect of the transaction. And according to the traditional wisdom teachings, it is precisely that involuntary and mechanical aspect of being “grabbed” that leads to suffering in the sense of how we use the term today. Thus, in the ancient insights on which this spiritual teaching rests, passion did not mean élan vital, energy, or aliveness. It designated being stuck, grabbed, and blindly reactive.
This original meaning is clearly uppermost in the powerful teaching of the fourth-century desert father Evagrius Ponticus. Sometimes credited with being the first spiritual psychologist in the Christian West, Evagrius developed a marvelously subtle teaching on the progressive nature of emotional entanglement, a teaching that would eventually bear fruit in the fully articulated doctrine of the seven deadly sins. His core realization was that when the first stirrings of what will eventually become full-fledged passionate outbursts appear on the screen of consciousness, they begin as “thoughts”—logismoi, in his words—streams of associative logic following well-conditioned inner tracks. At first they are merely that—“thought-loops,” mere flotsam on the endlessly moving river of the mind. But at some point a thought-loop will entrain with one’s sense of identity—an emotional value or point of view is suddenly at stake—and then one is hooked. A passion is born, and the emotions spew forth. Thomas Keating has marvelously repackaged this ancient teaching in his diagram of the life cycle of an emotion,16 a core part of his Centering Prayer teaching. This diagram makes clear that once the emotion is engaged, once that sense of “I” locks in, what follows is a full-scale emotional uproar—which then, as Father Keating points out, simply drives the syndrome deeper and deeper into the unconscious, where it becomes even more involuntary and mechanically triggered.
What breaks the syndrome? For Evagrius, liberation lies in an increasingly developed inner capacity to notice when a thought is beginning to take on emotional coloration and to nip it in the bud before it becomes a passion by dis-identifying or disengaging from it. This is the essence of the teaching that has held sway in our tradition for more than a thousand years.
Now, of course, there are various ways of going about this disengaging. Contemporary psychology has added the important qualifier that disengaging is not the same thing as repressing (which is simply sweeping the issue under the psychological rug) and has developed important methodologies for allowing people to become consciously present to and “own” the stew fermenting within them. But it must also be stated that “owning” does not automatically entail either “acting out” or verbally “expressing” that emotional uproar. Rather, the genius of the earlier tradition has been to insist that if one can merely back the identification out—that sense of “me,” stuck to a fixed frame of reference or value—then the energy being co-opted and squandered in useless emotional turmoil can be recaptured at a higher level to strengthen the intensity and clarity of heart perceptivity. Rather than fueling the “reactive ego-self,” the energy can be “rejoined to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” And that, essentially, constitutes the goal of purification—at least as it has been understood in service of conscious transformation.
Gravestone, Jewish Cemetery, Olesno, Poland
Emotion versus Feeling
Here again, we have an important clarification contributed by Robert Sardello. Echoing the classic understanding of the Christian Inner tradition (I first encountered this teaching in the Gurdjieff Work), Sardello points out that most of us use the terms “feeling” and “emotion” interchangeably, as if they are synonyms. They are not. Emotion is technically “stuck” feeling, feeling bound to a fixed point of view or fixed reference point. “We are not free in our emotional life,” he points out, since emotion always “occurs quite automatically as a reaction to something that happens to us.”17 It would correspond to what Helminski calls “the heart in service to the reactive ego-self.”
Beyond this limited sphere opens up a vast reservoir of feelingness. Here the currents run hard and strong, always tinged with a kind of multivalence in which the hard-and-fast boundaries distinguishing one emotion from another begin to blend together. Happiness is tinged with sadness, grief touches at its bottomless depths the mysterious upwelling of comfort, loneliness is suffused with intimacy, and the deep ache of yearning for the absent beloved becomes the paradoxical sacrament of presence. “For beauty is only the beginning of a terror we can just scarcely bear,” observes Rilke, “and the reason we adore it so is that it serenely disdains to destroy us.”18
Such is the sensation of the heart beginning to swim in those deeper waters, awakening to its birthright as an organ of spiritual perception. And it would stand to reason, of course, that the experience is feeling-ful because that is the heart’s modus operandi; it gains information by entering the inside of things and coming into resonance with them. But this is feeling of an entirely different order, no longer affixed to a personal self-center, but flowing in holographic union with that which can always and only flow, the great dynamism of love. “Feeling as a form of knowing”19 becomes the pathway of this other mode of perceptivity, more intense, but strangely familiar and effortless.
The great wager around which the Western Inner tradition has encamped is that as one is able to release the heart from its enslavement to the passions, this other heart emerges: this “organ of contemplation,” of luminous sight and compassionate action. For what one “sees” and entrains with is none other than this higher order of divine coherence and compassion, which can be verified as objectively real, but becomes accessible only when the heart is able to rise to this highest level and assume its cosmically appointed function. Then grace upon grace flows through this vibrating reed and on out into a transfigured world: transfigured by the very grace of being bathed in this undivided light.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” In this one sentence, the whole of the teaching is conveyed. What remains is for us to come to a greater understanding of how this purification is actually accomplished: a critical issue on which Christian tradition is by no means unanimous. This will be the subject of our next chapter. ♦
1 Kabir Helminski, Living Presence: A Sufi Guide to Mindfulness and the Essential Self (New York: Tarcher/Perigree Books, 1992), 157.
2 Ibid., 158.
3 Sidney H. Griffith, “Merton, Massignon, and the Challenge of Islam,” in Rob Barker and Gray Henry, eds., Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), 65.
4 For extensive bibliographical information on this work, see “A Treatise on the Heart,” trans. Nicholas Heer, (ibid., 79–88).
5 E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, eds., The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 194.
6 Ibid., 190.
7 Robert Sardello, Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness (Benson, NC: Goldenstone Press, 2006), 82.
9 Ibid., 86.
10 No wonder the embodied aspect of heart spirituality is so important! For if Sardello is right here (and my own work confirms that he is), then the stunning conclusion is that there is no lack. That primordial hunger for intimacy and belonging we so frantically project onto others in our attempt to find fulfillment is fulfilled already, there in the “infinity of love” already residing holographically in our own hearts, once we have truly learned to attune to its frequency and trust that with which it reverberates. In this sense, our physical heart is the quintessential “treasure buried in the field.”
11 Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Biology of Transcendence:A Blueprint of the Human Spirit (Rochester, VT: Park Street Place, 2002).
12 Stephen Harrod Buhner, The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature (Rochester, VT: Bear and Company, 2004).
13 Ibid., 71.
14 Pearce, 64–65.
15 For a particularly clear and forceful discussion of this point, see E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, trans., Unseen Warfare, trans. E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 241–44.
16 Reproduced in Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2004), 136.
17 Sardello, 72.
18 Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, trans. J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1939), 21.
19 Sardello, 72.
From The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault © 2016. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
From our current issue Parabola Volume 42, No. 1, “The Search for Meaning,” Spring 2017. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.
About the Author
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, teacher, and retreat leader. Among her many books are The Meaning of Mary Magdalene and The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three.
"To many modern Christians, words like "meditation," "mystic," and "mysticism" bring to mind Eastern religions, not Christianity. Certainly Eastern religions are known for their mysticism; however, mysticism is not only a vital part of the Christian heritage as well, but it is actually the core of Christian spirituality. Mysticism simply means the spirituality of the direct experience of God. It is the adventure of "the wild things of God."
The direct experience of God is a kind of knowing, which goes beyond intellectual understanding. It is not a matter of "belief." It is marked by love and joy, but it is not "emotional experience." In many ways, it is better described by what it is not. To describe what it is, we must use metaphors,—the marriage of the soul to Christ, the death of the "old man" and birth of the "new man," being the "body of Christ."
Jesus proclaimed "I and the Father are one," (Jn. 10.30) showing the world what the union of God and man can be. Christian mysticism is about nothing else but this transforming union.
Christ is the sole end of Christian mysticism. Whereas all Christians have Christ, call on Christ, and can (or should) know Christ, the goal for the Christian mystic is to become like Christ, to become as fully permeated with God as Christ is, thus becoming like him, fully human, and by the grace of God, also fully divine. In Christian teaching this doctrine is known by various names—theosis, divination, deification, and transforming union.
A common misconception about mysticism is that it's about "mystical experiences," and there are many volumes on such experiences in religious literature. But true mysticism is not focussed on "experiences" (which come and go) but with the lasting experience of God, leading to the transformation of the believer into union with God.
a very, very, very short mystical apologetic.
To know God directly shows that mysticism is different from any passive or legalistic kind of Christianity. It means:
• That while we honor the Scriptures, we want to know God directly, not just through Scripture.
• While we respect our heritage of teachings about God, we want to know God directly, not through doctrines and teachings.
• While we gather in communal worship, we want to know God directly, not just through the Church.
Some readers may find this unsettling. Maybe you believe it doesn't apply to you, because you "know" that your church is purer and more correct than others. Even if that were true, is it a substitute for knowing God directly? Or, you might also feel that trusting the Bible alone gives you knowledge of God directly from the Source. But it was written by mystics, listening to God speaking his Word in their hearts. Is it possible for you to read it directly, without the conceptions of your language, time, culture, and personal history? Are you sure you wouldn't understand it very differently if you were reading it, say, in third-century Damascus?
The religion we call "Christianity" changes, but God is eternal. Mystical faith wants to know this unchanging God to whom Christianity leads us, the One behind the beliefs and the words, the One whom beliefs and words cannot describe. We want to follow Jesus' example more closely, and go beyond the religion about Jesus, and take the religion of Jesus: the knowledge of the Father and unconditional love he had, and urged us to have.
WHAT IS A MYSTIC?
I believe that everyone who wants to love unconditionally is a mystic. All children are born mystics, and if you were once a child, you were once a mystic. Christian mysticism is following the example of Christ as he followed the Father. And mysticism is not by any means restricted to Christianity: the Bible says, “everyone who loves is begotten of God, and knows God.” (1 Jn. 4.7) God speaks in various ways, in every time and every place to "whosoever will." Other pages on this site treat non-Christian mysticism.
Mystics range the gamut of walks of life, from intellectual priests such as Frs. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox, to laywomen like Bernadette Roberts and Katherine Nelson. The mystic way is old, but timeless—it is alive, and ever-new for each one who chooses it. It may be inviting you to begin this adventure of divine transformation and discovery."
A VERY, VERY, VERY SHORT HISTORY OF MYSTICISM
The term mysticism derives from The Mystical Theology, a tiny treatise written by the greatest Christian writer of the sixth century, Dionysius the Areopagite, a.k.a. Pseudo-Dionysius or St. Denys [the Areopagite]. But Dionysius is in no way the "founder" of Christian mysticism. That honor belongs to none but Jesus the Christ himself. But there was mysticism long before Jesus was born. God "strolled in the Garden" with man (Heb.'adam). Jacob saw heaven opened. God spoke to Joseph through dreams. Moses communed with God on Sinai. David lost himself in dancing for the Lord.
But when Jesus declared "I and the Father are one," (Jn. 10.30) he proclaimed in himself the union of God and humankind, and he offers it to all who follow him (he gave the power to become sons of God to all who believe. (Jn. 1.12).
From there, the mystic heart is seen in the letters of the apostles: Paul reached the divinized state of losing his "self": I no longer live, but Christ lives in me! (Gal. 2.20) James wrote that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights, in whom there is no variation nor shadow of turning. (Jas. 1.17) Peter proclaimed that Christ even descended to hell to liberate imprisoned souls, (1 Pet. 3.19) and John understood the most sublime truth of God's essence: God is Love! (1 Jn. 4.8,16). This is only the beginning. Every century has been influenced by Christian mystics—from apostles and martyrs, Church Fathers and Desert Mothers, to monks and nuns of religious orders, to the lay mystics—men and women and boys and girls in every century, in every denomination, in every walk of life.
STARTING ON THE WAY
Few people seem to choose mysticism deliberately. It often takes a jolt of some kind from God to wake us up to the fact that there is something there, full of love, wanting to be known. It might come from a beautiful sunset, a shocking dream, a joyous birth, a shattering loss, or a brush with death. But from there, an awareness of an entirely new level of love, truth and goodness begins. But it is indeed possible to begin the mystic journey deliberately, determining to find the One who is the fountain of all being. The starting point of mysticism is encountering the Goodness of God. Not a conditional "goodness," but pure Goodness itself, with a capital G. This is Goodness without opposite or contrast, not the good in "good and evil." Goodness filling the Universe just as God himself does, so overwhelming in Good, that there is nothing possibly non-good there, no matter what appears to be otherwise. Unless we believe that God is Good, why would we even want to directly experience him? Although we may say we believe in his true Goodness, in the core of our beings, most of us do not.
We receive a thousand invitations to swim in this sea of wonder every day, with every sunrise and sunset, every laugh, every breath, every eyeblink. Yet few of us are able to see infinite Goodness surrounding us except in occasional glimpses. What happened?
We were all born natural mystics, eager to see pure Goodness in everything. Jesus said, unless you come as a child, you can not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 18.3) But early on, we are taught that receiving God's Goodness is dependent on our beliefs and actions, so a certain fear enters our hearts. Soon after that, we may try to accept contradictions, for instance, that God is infinite Love, but sends unbelievers to eternal torture in hell, (which is the most destructive and erroneous teaching in the typical Christian world-view.)
We cannot resolve the impossibility of the contradiction, so we back away slightly, believing God's goodness is merely conditional:... if I pray, if I believe, if I'm good, if whatever, then God will be good to me. The development of our belief system often stops there. Our teachers and preachers often say the same things to 40-year-olds as to 14-year-olds, so we carry these conditionings throughout life, and we lose the childlike heart. Many (very many!) adult Christians simply put their spiritual lives on hold out of frustration or a vague sense that something is amiss with the teachings they've received as "Christianity."
And even mystical Christians may find that although they are experiencing the wonder of God in their hearts, intellectually, the beliefs with which they grew up seem insufficient, creating a dichotomy between heart and head. How can we keep a child's faith in absolute Goodness, and integrate it with adult awareness, intelligence, and competence?
Learning and unlearning is necessary. There is a great heritage which mystics have passed on to us which can help the mind grasp what the heart is trying to tell it. For instance, mystics have believed from the beginning that God is in all things. Mystics believe that the nature of spiritual reality is even more real than that of this created world. Many Christian mystics have believed in universal salvation, and that "hell" is not endless. Most mystics have practiced some form of meditation to enter into awareness of God's divine Presence. And from Jesus, Paul, and John to the present, mystics know that the end goal of the Path is theosis, union with God.
stages on the journeyAnyone who undertakes this adventure of striving to know God directly, soon learns that it doesn't happen instantly; there are stages to the process. Eastern Orthodox Christians often envision it as Jacob's ladder, leading to upward to God. Western saints, such as Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross use other analogies, such as going deeper within the "Interior Castle." Evelyn Underhill describes the stages as awakening, purification, illumination, surrender or the "Dark Night of the soul," and divine union. Matthew Fox describes it as a four-fold path.
The usefulness of these analogies is limited. Any attempt to describe the process of awakening to the indescribable is essentially drawing a map on water. One thing is certain, however. There will be letting go—of fears, desires, and even your self. And as more is released, more is received. (Or so it appears—really we just get rid of what is blocking us from seeing God's perfect goodness that was already there all along. The wonder of God's own Self.
Mystics over the centuries have advised spiritual practice for the releasing and receiving that is the essential rhythm of this life. In more familiar terms, meditation. If you're surprised because you've never heard your minsters urge you to meditate, you're not alone. Most Christian denominations, particularly the newer ones, have little history. But thestillness of meditation, or contemplation [from con (with) + temp(time) literally, "time with" God] has been the foundation of spiritual practice from the beginning centuries to the present. It's concentrated practice in releasing.
Let go. Let God. Let go. Let God. These are the two endless rhythms of the soul in the mystical life.
You may have heard that mysticism is dangerous. It's occultic, it's not Christian, it "begins in mist and ends in schism," and so forth. All of those allegations are false, at least concerning an authentic mysticism as seeking the direct knowledge of God. Nevertheless, just as with everything else that can be experienced in this lifetime, there are some things to be aware of.
The greatest real danger is of attitude. Pride can lead to spiritual deception, mistaking intellectual change for spiritual progress. Fear can cause us to give up, and rationalize away the need for transformation.Holding on to experiences is probably the most subtle pitfall. On this adventure, you may encounter God in thrilling ways, with experiences of spiritual ecstasy. (Or you might not.) You might have experiences of miracles, of supernatural insight, of visions, of having healing power, and so forth. (Or you might not.) The experiences, when they come, if they come, are for you to be encouraged, to keep on letting go. Seeking to repeat a feeling or experience is a very, very, common distraction.
Another thing you might want to be aware of is loneliness. Since most Christian bodies have no teaching of mysticism past perhaps a few approved experiences (speaking in tongues, for example), it is going to be hard to find company for this journey, which is one of the reasons I created this website. Jesus called this way of living in the Kingdom of heaven "the narrow path," and said few find it. Furthermore, few even care!
He also said "foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." This is also true. No church—no institution of any kind, really, is designed to be a home to those who want to truly want to follow the Son of Man this way, which means going beyond institutional experience. You will feel tired from time to time. You will haveperiods of dryness, and may want to throw in the towel for a little while. Or even a long while. The work itself is your rest, your meeting-place with God, the Restorer of your being."
Borrowed from the blog of Jon Zuck:
What is Christian Mysticism?
By Jon Zuck
This Article is brought to you for free and open access by ScholarWorks@GVSU. It has been accepted for inclusion in Grand Valley Journal of History by an authorized administrator of ScholarWorks@GVSU. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Gnostics of the second century to the Waldesians of the thirteenth century, popular religion as practiced outside the structures of the Roman Church challenged the religious authority of the papacy and greatly influenced the decisions it made as it refined doctrines, decrees, and practices that it deemed acceptable to the church. Christian mysticism, although having its roots in the earliest days of Christianity, expanded and intensified in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries in Europe. Several aspects of the mystic Christianity in the Middle Ages challenged the traditions of the church, including the mystics’ theological interpretation of scripture, their graphic visions, and their threat to established gender roles.
But first it is important to explain the basics of Christian mysticism. The term mysticism taken by itself embodies an idea that is prevalent amongst the world’s religions: that a human has the ability to experience a deep connection with the divine on his or her own terms, without the use of scripture, doctrine, and other rules dictating how the person should perceive or believe in the divine. Mysticism “is an experience, not an idea”1 which cannot be explained easily since it stresses the “inability of human reasoning to know the incomprehensible deity.”2 Commonly a mystical movement within a religion is viewed with skepticism from the doctrinal tradition; this was especially true with the medieval papacy and Christian mysticism. For although mysticism produced wonderful role models of Christian believers to laypeople, many of its aspects, i.e. the mystical interpretation of scripture, mystic visions, and challenge to gender roles, were “often on the periphery of acceptable practice”3 and directly challenged Roman Catholic traditions.
There were two main phases of mysticism in medieval Europe. Twelfth century mysticism was characterized by personal experimentation of the laity’s faith and subsequently having mystical experiences without the “benefit of theological training.”4 Evidence of this was religious community living and the production of theological literature that gained popularity in popular culture without papal sanction and control. The fourteenth century ushered in the second phase, an “age of intolerance and repression,”5 which was characterized by the papacy’s attempts to gain control or even eliminate these lay movements. As a result, many of the movements that started in the twelfth century deteriorated during this second phase. However a key idea ran strongly through both phases: the mystic should be “dissatisfied with a religion of external devotion” and must possess a spirit entirely dedicated to God through extreme asceticism and “inwardness.”6 Medieval mysticism stressed that the mystic needed to trust God to reveal himself to him or her, which he often did in areas that challenged papal traditions.
Studies on medieval Christian mysticism have placed heavy emphasis on women, their contributions to the movement, and the papal response to those contributions. Yet there were some things that the papacy had to suppress in both men and women, and one of these was the mystic’s theological interpretation of scripture. The issue of personal interpretation of the Bible came to the fore with reformers such as Jan Hus and John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century who challenged the traditional idea that the papacy was the ultimate answerable authority in Christianity.7 Although this issue did not permanently hurt the church until the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century, mystical interpretation of scripture started with Origen of Alexandria in the mid-third century CE and continued to be an important feature of a mystic’s faith.
1 Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 3.
2 Steven Fanning, Mystics of the Christian Tradition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 1.
3 Petroff, Body and Soul, 5
4 Fanning, Mystics, 85.
5 Ibid., 102.
6 Ibid., 108.
7 Judith M. Hollister and C. Warren Bennett, Medieval Europe: A Short History, 10th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2006), 343.
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As mystics read the Bible, they refused to simply read the texts and accept its message at a literal level. They exhaustively studied the scriptures and tried to find multiple meanings in order to grow closer with God. Song of Songs in the Old Testament is a prime example of this. Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century wrote eighty-six sermons alone describing his understanding of the book.8 Traditionally the speakers of the poem were thought to be two lovers, but the book became analogous to the relationship between Christ and the church. Mystics took the interpretation a step further and suggested in their writings that Song of Songs represented God’s love and (sensual) desire for the mere human soul. The church was familiar with literal and allegorical interpretations of scripture; it was the mystics who added an anagogical, or spiritual, dimension to them.
Meister Eckhart, a Dominican preacher of the early fourteenth century, was an example of a “scriptural mystic”9 who added spiritual depth to the verses he studied. In one sermon, he closely analyzed verse thirty-eight in chapter ten of the Gospel of Luke. He applied mystical meanings and themes behind every portion, and purposefully translated certain phrases incorrectly from Latin to vernacular German to fit his message.10 This latter point was particularly seen in the way he translated a word as “a virgin who was a wife” instead of simply “woman.”11 This purposeful mistranslation was to make the point that in order for the soul to “be fruitful” in good works, much as a wife is fruitful in marriage, it must first “be ever virginal” and pure to accept Christ.12
A mystic’s personal interpretation of scripture challenged the papacy because it undermined the role of the clergy, especially priests with congregations. The call for personal interpretation ignored the educated men who were trained to read and interpret scripture in a way that was acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church. Meister Eckhart was reprimanded for several of his works because of the many liberties he took when he translated and interpreted them for his audience. As mentioned above, his studies of divine scripture were tropological in nature, that is, he added moral significance to each passage not readily seen or interpreted. Because of his method of interpretation, he had to defend himself and his theologies many times throughout his life. A papal bull, “In Agro Dominico,” was passed against him post humorously in 1329 and listed over two dozen statements from Eckhart’s sermons “that clouded the true faith” and were deemed heretical by Pope John XXII.13 It is interesting to point out, however, that with added “explanations” to some of his ideas, they might have been “able to take on or have a Catholic meaning.”14 This little disclaimer at the end of Eckhart’s papal bull brings to mind the idea that mysticism was often on the “periphery” between doctrinal faith and heresy.
Visions were another area in a mystic’s faith that posed challenges to the papacy. It was often an uncomfortable area of contention because they were frequently erotic in nature, especially the visions of beguine mystics. The beguines were religious sisterhoods or communities run by women in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and were an alternative to nunneries. They offered a Christian life rich in contemplation, education, and spiritual growth for the woman who did not want to marry, bear children and follow the traditional path of medieval womanhood. She could also come and leave whenever she wished since the beguines did not have official or formal monastic vows.15 Many of the famous Christian women mystics came from the beguine tradition, such as Hadewijch of Antwerp who lived in the mid-thirteenth century.
8 Bernard McGinn, ed., The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006), 27.
9 McGinn, Essential Writings, 35.
11 Meister Eckhart, “Sermon 2,” in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006), 36.
13 “In Agro Dominico,” in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006), 496.
Pangle: Mysticism vs Papal Traditions
Hadewijch’s “Vision VII” was one she had “one Pentecost at dawn”16 and contained many archetypes found in other visions by women mystics. The erotic and almost fanatical tone and desire to be with God was expressed by Hadewijch in this way:
I desired to consummate my Lover completely and to confess and to savor to the fullest extent—to fulfill his humanity blissfully with mine...and to be strong and perfect so that I in turn would satisfy him perfectly...And to that end, I wished, inside me, that he would satisfy me with his Godhead in one spirit and he be all he is without restraint.17
This passionate yearning to feel God’s presence was followed with an image of Christ as a child presenting himself to Hadewijch as the Eucharist.18 The vision of Christ as a handsome young man or child was a common theme in women’s visions, along with the vision of a mystical marriage with Christ.
Despite living in the repressive phase of Christian mysticism in the mid-fourteenth century, Catherine of Siena had two such mystical marriage experiences. The first was when she was twenty-one years old in which she envisioned a ring Jesus placed on her finger in the company of Paul, the Virgin Mary, and other important biblical and saintly figures.19 The second and most graphic of Catherine’s visions consisted of Christ opening the left side of her body and exchanging her heart with his own, forever joining them together.20 This intimate visionary experience became the ultimate reason for Catherine’s authority within fourteenth century papal politics (explained more below).
Graphic visions were a common feature of a mystic’s faith. They comforted the mystic and served as proof that his or her methods of pursuing Christ were correct. They served as evidence that the mystic was closing the gap between humanity and the divine. For a religious person who was devoted to a life of chastity and ideally resisted any and all sexual temptations to have such strongly erotic desires of God posed a strange dilemma to papal tradition. The church had to ask whether or not it was acceptable for a Christian to have these visions and to feel an almost sexual desire for God’s love and acceptance of their faith.
Mystical marriage was the biggest obstacle in this area of Christian mysticism. The church defined marriage as two people becoming “one flesh” as was suggested in Genesis. The essence of mystical marriage entailed that the same idea might be applied. Bridal mysticism suggested that the self ceased to be the created entity God made it, as implied in Julian of Norwich’s (1342- 1416) statement that she could have no “rest or true happiness” until “I am so bound to him that there is no created thing between my God and me.”21 If that was the case, bridal mysticism therefore suggested that the self became God. Hadewijch stated this idea in her vision, that this “is what it means to satisfy [God] completely: to grow to being god with God.”22 The Roman Catholic Church condemned such ideas and declared that it “is a blasphemy against God...to say that a person can become God.”23 Aside from some of these aspects, doctrinal Christianity accepted visionary experiences since they served as testaments to the faith and were expressions of unity with God. Visions remained an essential part of mysticism throughout the Middle Ages.
15 Fanning, Mystics, 94.
16 Hadewijch of Antwerp, “Vision VII” in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006), 103.
18 Hadewijch of Antwerp, “Vision VII,” 104.
19 Fanning, Mystics, 129-130.
20 Ibid., 130.
21 Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love,” in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006), 242.
22 Hadewijch of Antwerp, “Vision VII,” 103.
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A third area of papal tradition that mystics challenged was the concept of gender roles within society and the church. It was a “long-established custom” for women to be “passive, meditative, and receptive” to the religious authority of men.24 There were few options for a woman who felt called to the religious life. But the development of beguine communities in northern parts of Europe and tertiary branches of the Franciscan and Dominican orders prevalent in the south widened their horizons in the Middle Ages. If she joined one of these communities, a woman was expected to join men in the performance of two types of penitential acts: ones of self- contrition and ones of mercy toward others.25 Women took these acts of penance to heart and their “practice of self-denial was more austere than men’s and, in some cases, perhaps self- destructive.”26 Women might have felt this “self-destructive” pressure from the need to prove their devotion and faith to their Christian brothers and the papacy; they acted out their faith “by living virile, masculine, styles of sanctity”27 and suppressing their femininity. Their oftentimes extreme devotion to the spiritual life was inspirational to all Christians, but challenges arose against church tradition when clerical men relied on the spiritual insight and wisdom of these women.
In several cases men who served as confessors or mentors to mystic women were impressed by their faith and were inspired to learn from them. James of Vitry had this experience with Mary of Oignies (1176-1213), who was considered to be the first beguine mystic.28 Mary inspired James to pursue his ecclesiastical career, and he became an archbishop and later one of the major supporters of the beguine lifestyle within the papal court.29 He wrote a biography of Mary, in which he said he was often “moved with compassion” over her sufferings; she was known for “long fasting,” “many vigils,” and “great floods of tears” whenever her eyes beheld the crucifix.30
She was so diligent in her self-sacrifice to worldly gain and pleasures that James “was never able to perceive a single mortal sin in her whole life and manner of acting.”31 If anything, she was almost too good at confessing and punishing herself, even once cutting off a significant portion of her own skin, that James, as her religious advisor, “sometimes reprimanded her” over this.32 Yet for the most part, “this handmaid of Christ”33 was an inspiration to her community and especially James. This relationship posed a difficulty to the church’s ability to produce Catholic males who would continue accepted traditions: instead of gaining motivation from the governing body of the Catholic faith, James developed his clerical career at the behest of Mary, a woman who practiced “peripheral” Christianity and who was not even properly initiated as a nun. James’ support of Mary’s lifestyle and beguine sisterhoods was a challenge to traditional gender relations because he trusted the insights of these women and supported their faith to an extent that went beyond the minimal concessions originally granted to them by the church.
23 “The Compilation Concerning the New Spirit,” in McGinn, 491. 24 Petroff, Body and Soul, 7.
25 Ibid., 8.
27 Petroff, Body and Soul, 116.
28 McGinn, Essential Writings, 60.
30 James of Vitry, “The Life of Mary of Oignies,” in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006), 61.
31 Ibid., 62.
32 Ibid., 63.
Pangle: Mysticism vs Papal Traditions
Mysticism also provided a way for women to enter the much more public spheres of society traditionally reserved for men, namely politics and prophecy. Catherine of Siena was astonishing in the political roles she took. At barely thirty years of age she was sent as an ambassador to convince Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon, return the papacy to Rome, and reform the corruptions of the papal court. He complied and employed her into his own services as an ambassador.34 She left behind a legacy of her good and influential works when she died at age thirty-three.
Female prophets in Christendom were common in the Middle Ages but societal reactions to their roles differed between earlier and later medieval mysticism. Hildegard of Bingen (1098- 1179) was a healer and abbess of her own convent and was considered to have prophetic powers from her contemporary, Bernard of Clairvaux. She was an avid composer of both written accounts and musical scores inspired by her visions.35 Her role, she felt, was to be an active mystic and to “admonish priests and prelates, to instruct the people of God”36 on preaching tours. She was threatened with excommunication multiple times, including an incident when she was eighty and near her death bed, but always managed to convince her ecclesiastical peers of her mystical legitimacy37 and had considerable freedom as a woman during this era.
Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was probably the prime example of mysticism’s threat to established gender roles. Unfortunately for her, this teenage girl lived at the time the Roman Church was the most intolerant of bold religious claims. They had dealt with others like her, such as Guglielma of Milan in the thirteenth century. 38 Guglielma went so far as to proclaim herself an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, condemned the ecclesiastical office of her time, and declared that the only way it would be successful is if it were run by women.39 Naturally, she was deemed heretical by the papacy. Joan was able to take her influence a step further and be very active on the military front since her powers were judged by the French court to be from God. But her position as a holy female prophet was quickly misconstrued after her capture by the English. Her age, gender, and daring spiritual claims provided a shocking spectacle for the English who regarded her divine revelations as demonic. She was attacked multiple times for the fact that she wore men’s clothing—which ultimately symbolized her success and high level of power she achieved in society’s public spheres. Fears of witchcraft were on the rise at this time and her behavior made her a “prime candidate for accusations.”40 She was burned at the stake as a warning to anyone, not just women, who dared to waver from tradition and claim support from God for their actions.
The mystic tradition of gender roles threatened not only the Roman Church but many areas in medieval life as well. Women like Mary of Oignies, although initially under the leadership of men, taught them many things about Christian living that they probably would not have gotten from traditional papal teachings. The women who occupied powerful places in public circles, from Hildegard of Bingen to Joan of Arc, went against the idea that women should remain cloistered in the home or at a nunnery. A woman was expected to only “pray for the salvation of
their own souls and for the souls of their Christian community,”41 and not take an active role in religious affairs. Not only did female mystics establish themselves in the spotlight, but the men who were involved in their lives respected and often helped them reach that high level of authority, such as Bernard of Clairvaux and James of Vitry. The challenge to preconceived gender roles in the Middle Ages was initiated by these female mystics.
34 Fanning, Mystics, 131. 35 Ibid., 82-84.
36 Ibid., 84.
37 Ibid., 82.
38 Anne Llewellyn Barstow, “Joan of Arc and Female Mysticism,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 1, no. 2 (1985): 33. Barstow argues that Joan was just one in a long line of women that challenged the Roman Church with critiques and prophecy. Another example was Marguerite Porete (d. 1310) who was burned at the stake for her book A Mirror for Simple Souls. In it, she claimed that she did not need papal authority or the sacraments in order to be a true Christian.
39 Ibid., 35. 40 Ibid., 41.
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Traditional ideas about faith and power in the Middle Ages were challenged by Christian mysticism. This form of popular religion posed complex problems that the papacy had to grapple with repeatedly. The movement lasted and succeeded in many ways, probably because the faith required extreme devotion from its followers. “Offer me [God] yourself and everything that is yours and do not take back what you offer,” wrote Henry Suso, “let your heart always be ready to bear all adversity for my name’s sake.”42 The people of the mystic movement took this idea to heart and were unrelenting in their desire to demonstrate their faith and obey God’s orders to change the world around them.
Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. “Joan of Arc and Female Mysticism.” Journal of Feminist Studies in
Religion 1, no. 2 (1985): 29-42.
Eckhart, Meister. “Sermon 2.” In The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by
Bernard McGinn. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006. Fanning, Steven. Mystics of the Christian Tradition. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Hadewijch of Antwerp, “Vision VII.” In The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006.
Hollister, Judith M. and Bennet, C. Warren. Medieval Europe: A Short History, 10th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006.
“In Agro Dominico.” In The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006.
James of Vitry, “The Life of Mary of Oignies.” In The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006.
Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love.” In The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006.
McGinn, Bernard, ed. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006.
Petroff, Elizabeth Alvida. Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Suso, Henry. Chapter 4 from The Clock of Wisdom. In The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited Bernard McGinn. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006.
41 Petroff, Body and Soul, 7.
42 Henry Suso, Chapter 4 in The Clock of Wisdom, in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2006), 237.
"CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM AS A THREAT TO PAPAL TRADITIONS"
by Hayley E. Pangle
Grand Valley State University, email@example.com
---Ancient Church, Derry, Northern Ireland
Albert Einstein was asked toward the end of his life if he had any regrets. He answered: "I wish I had read more of the mystics earlier in my life." This is a significant confession, coming as it does from one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century, a man who moved beyond the modern science of Newton and ushered in a postmodern science and consciousness.
In the West, the modern age (meaning the 16th to mid-20th centuries) was not only ignorant of, but actually hostile to, mysticism. As Theodore Roszak has put it, "The Enlightenment held mysticism up for ridicule as the worst offense against science and reason." Still today, both education and religion are often hostile to mysticism. Fundamentalism by definition is anti-mystical or distorts mysticism, and much of liberal theology and religion is so academic and left-brained that it numbs and ignores the right brain, which is our mystical brain. Seminaries teach few practices to access our mysticism. This is why many find religion so boring -- it lacks the adventure and inner exploration that our souls yearn for. As St. John of the Cross said, "Launch out into the deep."
This launching into the depths -- into the deep ocean of the unconscious and of the Great Self, which is connected to all things and to the Creator -- often gets stymied by Western religious dogma, guilt trips and institutional churchiness. The mystic gets starved. Patriarchal culture by itself is unable to tap into the deep feminine aspects of Divine Wisdom and Compassion and the heart. But the mystics, male and female, do not present a one-sided reality, as Patriarchy does. The yin/yang, female/male dialectic is alive and well in the mystical tradition. God as Mother is honored along with God as Father. Through this, mystics seek wisdom, not mere knowledge.
The West remains so out of touch with its own mystical tradition that many Westerners seeking mysticism still feel they have to go East to find it. While this can work for many brave and generous individuals, it cannot work for the entire culture. Carl Jung warned us that "we westerners cannot be pirates thieving wisdom from foreign shores that it has taken them centuries to develop as if our own culture was an error outlived."
Is Western culture an "error outlived"? Or is there wisdom deep within our roots that can be accessed anew and that can give us strength and understanding at this critical time when so much is falling apart the world over, when climate change and destruction of the earth accelerates and so many species are disappearing, while our banking systems and economic belief systems, our forms of education and forms of worship, are failing?
I believe that there is great wisdom in our species and in Western spiritual traditions, but that this needs a new birth and a fresh beginning. As a Westerner I must begin where I stand within my own culture and its traditions. This is where the Christian Mystics come in. We in the West must take these insights into our hearts on a regular basis, allow them to play in the heart, and then take them into our work and citizenship and family and community. This is how all healthy and deep awakenings happen; they begin with the heart and flow out from there.
The crises we find ourselves in as a species require that as a species we shake up all our institutions -- including our religious ones -- and reinvent them. Change is necessary for our survival, and we often turn to the mystics at critical times like this. Jung said: "Only the mystics bring what is creative to religion itself." Jesus was a mystic shaking up his religion and the Roman empire; Buddha was a mystic who shook up the prevailing Hinduism of his day; Gandhi was a mystic shaking up Hinduism and challenging the British empire; and Martin Luther King Jr. shook up his tradition and America's segregationist society. The mystics walk their talk and talk (often in memorable poetic phraseology) their walk.
For instance, this being the season of Earth Day, we might listen to the 12th century Abbess Hildegard of Bingen who was an amazing musician, painter, healer, writer (she wrote 10 books), scientist and poet. She posits an erotic relationship between the Divine and nature when she says: "As the Creator loves his creation, so creation loves the creator. Creation, of course, was fashioned to be adorned, to be showered, to be gifted with the love of the creator. The entire world has been embraced by this kiss."
Fr. Bede Griffiths was an English Benedictine monk who spent 50 years in India living and building up an ashram that was Christian and, in many respects, Hindu. He wrote a number of books on the coming together of Eastern and Western mysticism. He writes:
"Perhaps this is the deepest impression left by life in India, the sense of the sacred as something pervading the whole order of nature. Every hill and tree and river is holy, and the simplest human acts of eating and drinking, still more of birth and marriage, have all retained their sacred character. ... It is there that the West need to learn form the East the sense of the 'holy,' of a transcendent mystery which is immanent in everything and which gives an ultimate meaning to life..."
Thomas Berry was an American priest in the Passionist Order who called himself a "geologian." A student of world religions and of contemporary science, he was a great ecological prophet as is clear in his books, The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work, where he warns of the work we must do to reinvent our educational, economic, political and religious systems if we are to be a sustainable species on this endangered planet. He writes:
"The human venture depends absolutely on this quality of awe and reverence and joy in the Earth and all that lives and grows upon the Earth. ... In the end the universe can only be explained in terms of celebration. It is all an exuberant expression of existence itself ... A way is opening for each person to receive the total spiritual heritage of the human community as well as the total spiritual heritage of the universe. Within this context the religious antagonisms of the past can be overcome, the particular traditions can be vitalized, and the feeling of presence to a sacred universe can appear once more to dynamize and sustain human affairs."
Deep down, each one of us is a mystic. When we tap into that energy we become alive again and we give birth. From the creativity that we release is born the prophetic vision and work that we all aspire to realize as our gift to the world. We want to serve in whatever capacity we can. Getting in touch with the mystic inside is the beginning of our deep service.
Matthew Fox is the author of 28 books including 'Original Blessing,' 'The Reinvention of Work,' 'The Hidden Spirituality of Men', and most recently 'Christian Mystics,' of which this post is an excerpt. Visit Matthew Fox online.