Back to 'What is Christian mysticism?'
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 Journey
Anyone 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 the stillness 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 have periods 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.