I think I had heard about Christian mysticism, but I was not sure what it was, or what mysticism meant. Either way, I did not think of myself as a likely candidate to read mystical literature, or be interested in mystics.
The irony is that the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the Revelation of John are among my most cherished and beloved books of the Greek scriptures!
But when a class came up in Christian Mysticism, it seemed right before the Lord to explore this deeply spiritual topic.
Through McGinn’s introduction, I came to understand that
- Mystical theology is the knowledge of God gained not by human rational effort but by the soul’s direct reception of a divine gift. My personal experience confirms this point.
- The mystical life is essentially a process, a journey to God, not just a moment or brief state of mystical union.
- The notion of presence provides a more inclusive and supple term than union for expressing how God transforms minds and lives.
- Consciousness is a better term than experience…not just unusual sensations, but new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness of God present in our inner being, as the direct and transforming center of life.
- God changes the mystic and compels them to encourage others by their teaching to open themselves to a similar process of transformation—I realized this has been my life’s work the past 20 years.
The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited and by Bernard McGinn (there is no Kindle preview, but you can check out the book following this link), was one of two texts we read from, in our class, and is by far my favorite. It includes texts as ancient as commentary written by Origen and Athanasius, to twentieth century thinkers such as Teilhard and Thomas Merton,
McGinn has collected carefully curated offerings from many well-known mystics. What I did not know—but quickly learned about—were the many women mystics who have contributed to the worship and knowledge of God.
Here are some of my favorites
Hildegard von Bingen
I found an immediate affinity for this Medieval mystic (c. 1098 – 17 September 1179), since she had spiritual visions from early childhood. Me too.
She was productive, with founding two convents, a traveling speaking circuit, and three books. Her concentration was on
- Wisdom, the keeper of the cosmic order and justice,
- being compassion, being Christ, the incarnation of God’s compassion,
- and Jesus being the incarnation of God’s wisdom
and wisdom being the sustaining force of nature.
To build the house of wisdom in ourselves and in our community means to learn the art of savoring and the joy of living. The work entrusted by God to humankind is to be carried out by man and woman together. That is downright revolutionary thinking today. Her quote, “The words I see and hear in the vision…are like shooting flame and a cloud moved in clear air,” reminds me of God’s Shekinah pillar of fire and cloud.
Mechthild of Magdeburg
I loved Mechthild (c. 1207 – c. 1282/1294), and the Beguines, women who created their own lay communities because they did not have enough money to officially become nuns.
The undivided unity of this Trinity existed as omnipotence in the Father, wisdom in the Son, and goodness in the Holy Spirit: and these things are adored in equal fashion in the three.Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, p206
The dynamics of power and competition is completely missing in the description Mechthild gives to the Trinity. Instead, there is the understanding of oneness, yet mutually supportive and loving threeness of God. The mutuality of the trinity brought into God/human relationship, the preparation of humanity as the love of God’s life, and God giving all to rescue the Lord’s beloved. Really breathtakingly beautiful. I do wonder whether Mechthild’s migraines or seizures actually created in her brain her receptivity to visions of God.
Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich (c. 1343 – after 1416) spoke of the hazelnut of creation existing in its tininess, and vulnerability because of God’s great, sustaining love; that it gives God very great pleasure when a simple soul comes to the Lord in a bare, plain and familiar way “in You alone I have everything.”
Julian’s portrayal of Jesus birthing us through the cross and sustaining us through His own Person, is thought-provoking and rich. Julian introduced some intriguing, if unsettling, concepts: I’ve been taught God in God’s sovereignty writes history, and sees to it history comes about as the Lord has determined. Julian felt God gives us only the present, and is not controlling, or governing, the future.
Another author explained that Julian tried to harmonize her own deep experience of God’s constant, steadfast love with the Church’s teaching on sin, but could not find a way to do it. She felt God does not blame humanity. “God wishes to cure us of two kinds of sickness: impatience and despair.” I would love to know why she chose those two things to explain all the violence and evil humans are capable of.
Teresa of Avila
I especially appreciate the balance Teresa struck between “Martha” and Mary,” and her experience of the indwelling and infilling of the Holy Spirit. I am also beginning to see that mystics had a hard time of it, even in their day, through opposition and persecution from the church itself, and namely the religious leaders.
I love her statement about spiritual growth,
…having our will so much in conformity with God’s will that there is nothing we know He wills that we do not want with all our desire, and in accepting the bitter as happily as we do the delightful when we know that His Majesty desires it.Teresa of Avila, quoted by Ursula King in Christian Mystics: Their Lives and Legacies Throughout the Ages, p153
Her experience of the “wound of charity” exactly matches an experience I also had, years ago,
The pain was so great that it made me moan; And yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, p357-359
I actually had read Teresa of Avila’s book The Interior Castle a number of years before, and though I did not understand some of it, I found much in there to help me in my own prayer life. Maybe the best thing I got out of this selection was Teresa’s desire,
May His Majesty be pleased to guide my pen and to teach me to say something of the much there is to tell of His revelations to the souls He leads into this mansion.Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, p357-359
That is something I also desire, that I may write something that is profitable for spiritual growth and intimacy with God for the Body of Christ. Another quote that really got me thinking was,
You must not think of the soul as insignificant and petty but as an interior world containing the number of beautiful mansions you have seen; As indeed it should, since in the center of the soul there is a mansion reserved for God himself.Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, p357-359
Also notable, her treatment of the Trinity and imagery of plunging into the river of God. When ‘mental’ prayer seems to fail, it is because we have not ‘disposed ourselves fitly’ nor removed obstructions to the light.