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Christian Mysticism – Find Answers to All Your Questions

Hi, welcome to Study Eagles blog. Today we want to take a look at christian mysticism, the different types, who were considered as the greatest christian mystics, what is mystical theology etc. Read on for more insight.

What is Christian Mysticism in the First Place? – Definition, History and Concepts

The roots of Christian mysticism extend all the way back to Hellenist times. The term mysticism derives from several greek words among which is mystikos which means “an initiate”. In ancient Greece, a mystikos was someone who practiced a mystery religion, usually involving the clandestine religious rituals.

This Greek word mystikos in the early years of Christianity refers to the three dimensions Christianity; biblical (interpretation of the scriptures), the liturgical (the mystery of the Eucharist) and the spiritual (the experiential knowledge of God). CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM exudes an awareness and experience of the reality of God beyond religious rituals, doctrines and dogma.

Mysticism according to Carl McColman, points to the inner dimension of religious faith and practice; insight to an interior transformation that has been nurtured by religious observance but ultimately transcends the limitation of religious dogma or institutional identity. The subject of “Christian mysticism” is always thought to be complex and not easy to define/describe in words. However, there are a number of reasons why some theologians suggests that this subject is imperative to the Christian faith.

Richard Rohr (Rev.fr) opines that “we simply do not have the power to really understand any of Jesus’ ideas such as loving others, humble use of authority, forgiving enemies etc. except in and through a mystical union with God”. The mystical path as defined by James Finley is one which characterizes a personal commitment and an active discipline of meditation and reflection and this leads us to discover an ever deepening awareness and realization of our inherent God-given godly nature and of God’s infinite love and oneness with all things.

Another alluring reason to pursue Christian mysticism is provided by Bernard McGinn, a Roman Catholic theologian who argued that “mysticism is a special consciousness of the presence of God that transforms the subjects who receives it, changing them and their way of living in all ramifications”.
Christian mystics like most Christians share some beliefs in common. They believe in a more-than-material world (spiritual world) inclusive of angels, prayers, miracles, supreme deity (or an Omega point of sentient power and creativity) that is real, loving and acceptable.

Like most Christians too, Christian mystics believe in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as a meaningful guide to spirituality; and also revere the teachings of the biblical traditions (found in the Old Testament scriptures of the bible). Just as in Christendom, where there are diverse interpretations of biblical events and stories, so also the mystics over the ages have interpreted Christian doctrines and beliefs in many ways.

However, they retain the concept that God is a trinity. Generally, mystics typically prefer an optimistic and love-centered interpretation of Christian beliefs and teachings; they tend to emphasize God’s love and mercy over his wrath and judgment. Mystics, opines that everything else in the Christian tradition should be looked through the salient declaration that “God is love”.

Mystics equally accept the doctrine that man is created in the image and likeness of God and that this God is a God of love and justice, and that while God is invisible and profoundly mysterious he can be known and communed with intimately. This intimate relationship is seen not as a duty but as adventure.

It is possible for one to be a Christian (or cling to any other religion) and not be a mystic. Same is true, that one can be a mystic and not hold to any form of religion. This is because; mysticism is a universal expression of spirituality. Generally, mystics place more emphasis on experience than on mere beliefs. They believe in deeper connection with God creating a supernatural experience; which leads to never-ending spiritual transformation. There are but a few things mystics hold on to akin to general Christian tenets and beliefs. These include;

  • Christian mystics focus more about our embodied sense of spiritual living than just a set of beliefs or principles that one is supposed to follow. Mysticism is at hinged at heart experiential as opposed to propositional. Even if they accede to those principles of life taught to be followed, they believe that these principles make sense when it emerges out of one’s own inner experience.
  • Christian mystics believe that a heightened level of consciousness or awareness of perception or vision or having a sense of God’s presence is possible. The literatures of Christian mystics are usually filled with stories of ordinary people who had extraordinary encounters. The testimonies of Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius Loyola, Thomas Merton and Caryll Houselander are often referenced to support this claim.
  • Christian mystics believe that the consciousness-expanding encounters with the divine being cannot be engineered by human effort, though this can be facilitated through meditation, contemplation, silence, stillness, solitude and asceticism.
  • While mystics agree that the mystical experience is beyond expression in words, they do rely on art and poetry even theology and philosophy to relate or communicate their experience. Most of them especially the brilliant ones fancy expressing their experience in a playful, paradoxical, and allusive way.
  • Christian mystics do believe that cultivating a rich inner self is not leverage from working to make the world a better place. They surely prioritize ethics, morality and the quest for justice. To mention but a few, the likes of Richard Rohr, mother Teresa, Thomas Merton are mystics who were social activists as well. They loved to see the world become a better place through the extension of the divine love to humanity.

The Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Episcopalians, as well as Lutherans are some denominations that have remained open to the idea of mysticism. Although, the extent to which they remain open varies.

On the other hand, the protestant churches remain skeptical and sometimes resentful of Christian mysticism since the days of the protestant reformation.

Stages of Christian Mysticism

Traditionally, Christian mystics have described the path to mysticism as threefold (though some suggests an additional two steps-awakening and the dark knight of the soul): purification, illumination and unification. These correspond to the body, soul and spirit respectively.

The purification step emphasizes discipline. This includes prayer at certain times and in certain positions, fasting periodically and other rituals. All these activities are viewed as the result of the spirit working in the person and not as a result of personal efforts.

As suggested by Evelyn Underhill, an author of many books on Christian mysticism, all aspiring mystics must begin at purification, as this stage is crucial to one’s reception of complete healing and restoration to healthy spiritual, physical and psychological well-being. She also opined that during the illumination stage, the Holy Spirit (or absolute) enlightens the mind with truths that cannot be found in the scriptures. Suggesting that what is illuminated has do to with aspects of reality that fundamentally only God or the absolute can perceive. The unification otherwise called infused contemplation, involves uniting with God.

All reported experiences of mystics on the subject of unification assent to the biblical statement that “God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in him”. Unification is the ultimate goal of mystics.

However, it is clearly understood that unification is not as a result of one’s will or efforts; but it is completely passive, sown into the soul by God embellished with an extraordinary experience understood via a new level of intellect.

Historically, it is reported that unification occurs in one of the four ways;

  • Prayer of union
  • Prayer of quietness
  • Ecstatic union ( Teresa of Avila)
  • And transforming deifying union (the appearance of stigmata, as in the case of St. Francis of Assisi).

What are the three types of Christian mysticism?

The term “mystikos” in early Christianity was attributed to three dimensions that rapidly became linked with one another; the biblical, liturgical, and spiritual or contemplative christian mysticism.

What is Christian mystical theology?

Mystical theology is a branch of theology in the Christian tradition that describes mystical acts and states generated by contemplative practices such as contemplative prayer, and is known as theoria, which is the Greek word for contemplation.

What is the origin of mystics of Christianity?

The early church’s christian and mysticism started to be expressed in categories of thought that were overtly reliant on the Greek intellectual tradition of Plato and his followers toward the end of the second century, when the classic forms of Eastern Christian mysticism started to emerge.

What are the stages of Christian mysticism?

Christian mysticism has traditionally viewed the mystical (or contemplative) life to involve three stages of development; purgation, illumination, and union. Read more about this in the Britannica encyclopedia.

Who are the great Christian mystics?

Many famous mystics of the past and present are inspired by Paul’s writings, which is based on his concepts of self-discipline and self-denial.

But the most famous of the christian mystics or religious mystic are those in the 4th century listed below;

  • Macarius of Egypt(c.300–90)
  • Augustine of Hippo (c.354–430)
  • Priscillian of Ávila (d.385)
  • Evagrius Ponticus (345–399)
  • John Chrysostom (c.347–407)
  • John of Lycopolis (d.c.394)
  • Gregory of Nyssa (c.340–94)
  • John Cassian (c.360–434)

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