Last night I read the first five chapters of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, and I’m hooked. I’ve preliminarily explored many religious and mystical paths, but author Carl McColman writes with extraordinary clarity and readability. This post is not a call for you to adopt Christian (or any other) mysticism – it’s about understanding what mysticism is against the backdrops of spirituality and religion.
Common Concepts of Mysticism
To start with, consider that all mysticism is spiritual but not all spirituality is mystical – that is, one can follow the religious prescription without seeking mystical experience, but one cannot have a mystical experience that is not spiritual. With that in mind, the common understandings of mysticism are divided into five areas (pages 31 – 33):
- Mysticism can be understood as a type of experience – specifically, as a “peak” experience of God or the universal consciousness.
- It can also be understood as a level of consciousness – a fundamental and long-lasting shift to a “higher” level of understanding known as enlightenment, holiness, sanctification, or the unitive life.
- It can also be understood as an ability – a capability to display supernatural abilities (healing, prophecy, and so on).
- It can also be understood as a pathway – immersion in spiritual literature, prayer, meditation, and engaging in a life of faith. In this sense, it’s the same thing as the common understanding of “spirituality”.
- Finally, it can be also understood as the inner dimension of religion – the founding experiences around which the rituals and guidelines grow and become codified.
Mysticism in Religion
For the sages say that it is impossible for rational knowledge of God to coexist with the direct experience of God, or for conceptual knowledge of God to coexist with the immediate perception of God.
Maximus the Confessor (page 15)
The fifth of the common concepts, mysticism as the inner dimension of religion, leads to the idea that mysticism is the experience of the mystery that underlies all religions. In that sense, it may offer a way for fostering goodwill among all the religious people of the earth. The profundity of this idea is that the unification of religions comes about from the proper understanding that all religions are based on mystical experiences of Unity – that is, the truth that all things are ultimately the One (page 51). This is further underscored by a mystical tradition within each major religion – Vedanta in Hinduism, Kabbalah in Judaism, Zen in Buddhism, and Sufism in Islam.
It’s not uncommon for Christians to be suspicious of mysticism- that comes directly out of the history of Christianity. The Reformation conflict was about baselining belief back to either obedience to the church (for Catholics) or obedience to the Bible (for Protestants) (page 52) – both of these approaches moved the pathway of the religious Christian away from experience and into behavior. If we understand mysticism to be experiential, the Reformation pushed western Christians away from mysticism. Eastern Christians were relatively unaffected, and McColman mentions a couple of Eastern texts that dealt with Christian mysticism. It wasn’t until Pentecostalism, and later the Western interest in Eastern mysticism, that Christian mysticism once again became mainstream (page 53).
Ultimately, then, a handy way of understanding mysticism is as experiential spirituality – the direct and personal experience of divinity. In contrast, religion is about community, behavior, and the heritage of specific idealogical concepts – all of which may edge us closer to mysticism. Mysticism is within religion but also outside it, both mysticism and religion are in spirituality. As McColman is at pains to make clear (page 27), mysticism is ultimately ineffable (it cannot be adequately described) since it is an approach to ineffable God and divinity.
Flavors of Mysticism
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.I John 4:16
If mysticism is the experience of Unity that underlies all religions, then surely all mysticism is essentially the same thing with a bit of cultural flavor tossed in? Absolutely not, says McColman. The beauty and glory of any tradition of mysticism is unique in experience and the paths of exploration. Christian mysticism isn’t Vedic or Zen mysticism with some Jesus tossed in; it is an exploration of the mysteries unique to the Christian faith with a different relationship of the self to the One than the other traditions. He makes an analogy of mysticism to tofu (page 60), saying that unflavored tofu is bland while barbecued and curried tofu are very different experiences.
I fully anticipate writing specifically about Christian mysticism, because the concepts are astounding. Contemplate that God, Christ, and Christians are wholly immersed in each other, that each dwells within the other. That the nature of the Christian mystical experience is love within that cross-immersion. That while we may move in other paths to see that we have identity with God, in Christian mystical experience we have movement into God. Beautiful and amazing.
Another important understanding of mysticism is how it evolves within us. One may start down the road of Christian mysticism or whatever other tradition one may like, but the nature of mysticism is that it is highly personal. In each’s progress, the destination will be changed not only by the tradition but by the self and the experience. In spirituality, one does not mark a point on the map and simply travel there.
And to that point, there’s a beautiful warning to aspiring mystics (page 59) – just as purely religious people are tempted to become judgmental of those who seek mystical experiences, aspiring mystics can easily be caught by the temptation to judge those who abide by practice and faith alone as somehow inferior. That sort of thing is directly harmful to people on any spiritual path.
You may also enjoy:
- The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality – amazon.com, the book that inspired this post
- The Philokalia – amazon.com, one of the Eastern Christian texts McColman mentions
- Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander (free ebook) – programminglife.net
- A Sea Consciousness – programminglife.net
- 21 Mantras for Meditation – programminglife.net
Keep on keeping on,