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What is Mysticism?

The '12 apostles'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 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, divinization, 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.

Next: Starting on the path