“…but I will go onto visions and revelations of the Lord…” Paul in 2 Cor. 12:2 NRSV
Every committed Christian who has been awakened and enlivened by God is a mystic. There are absolutely no exceptions. Mysticism is central to the revealed religion of the Bible. We are either mystics or we embrace a form of faith that is entirely foreign to biblical Christianity.
Many believers have problems with mysticism. Almost always this is because they do not understand what mysticism is; its priority, purpose, and pneumatic potential. If not immediately dismissive of the topic, many imagine the ecstatic experiences of Teresa of Avila, the “showings” of Julian of Norwich, or the visions of Hildegard as doctrinally dangerous. Some people might be reminded of the so-called stigmata of Francis of Assisi, and dismiss such an experience as “Catholic.” And others, sadly, may recall unfortunate experiences with “charismaniacs” who seem more interested in mania than in charism.
When we read our Bibles, however, mystical experiences were frequently referenced. Enoch walked with God. Moses had his burning bush. Abraham entertained “angels.” Gideon spoke with “God.” Samson experienced supernatural strength. Mary spoke with an angel. The disciples saw Jesus transfigured and personally worked wonders. Mysticism is Bible-based religion.
What is mysticism, why does it matter, and how are we practical mystics? The answer to these questions partially resides in formulating a proper definition. After many years of thought, I have arrived at the following: Mysticism is a direct encounter with God by Christ through the Holy Spirit as often (although not always) mediated through Holy Scripture, Sacraments, and Christians living as “saints.”
Christian mysticism is direct encounter. That is, mysticism is experiential religion. It is philosophy (the love of wisdom) practiced.
Christian mysticism is rooted in Trinitarian life – the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – which every Christian is empowered to share. It is, as stated by one Puritan writer, “the life of God in the soul of [the Christian] man” which is relationally revealed, received, and related.
Christian mysticism is mediated by God’s established means: Scripture, Sacraments, and Saints. It is an expression of revealed and regulated religion as rooted in our real-life relationships.
In Romans 10: 6, Paul the Apostle discourages encounters whereby we seek to ascend into heaven or we petition God to descend into our own lives. Instead, Paul tells us that “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (NRSV). These words are at the center of practical mysticism. It discourages practices whereby we think that our actions will either bring God down or help us ascend into His presence. Practical mysticism rests upon the abiding presence of God within and among Christians. It is a 2 Kings 2: 16 and Matthew 17: 1 – 6 experience, a pulling back of the curtains of our perception so that we might see and experience the reality of God as it has always existed. There is no need for ascending or descending because Christ is within and among us who are alive in God.
Practical mysticism matters. We are hardwired for an experiential faith. We want to “know” penetratingly intense intimacy with God. When the Psalmist wrote, “my flesh yearns for [God],” his words highlighted both desert experience and ardent desire. Christians who are on fire, and who are passionate for God, burn for the Divine as do young lovers for sexual intimacy. This form of practical mysticism is what roots us to God and launches us into the world. It yearns for spiritual reproduction because it lives, in some small way, within the consuming fire of Holy Love. We are practical mystics by design, and desire and delight to exist within God’s eternal presence.
Practical mysticism must be experienced, expressed, and guarded. Although a genuine encounter with God is not easy to describe, it can be taught. We can be experientially educated, charismatically catechized, and spiritually instructed. To do this responsibly, we must first experience this life. We must become masters of encounter. Word must become Living Word or we will have no words to offer.
Scripture must be experienced and expressed as a living encounter with the Living Word as mediated by the Holy Spirit. This is often achieved by educating people through the process of “Lectio Divina,” the devout and devoted reading and reflecting upon God’s written word. We must teach people, as the Book of Common Prayer so eloquently states, to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” what God says. This is not about academics. It is about encounter. Scripture is Love’s language.
Sacraments must be profiled as God’s unique means of mediating encounter. When God made the world, created man as dust, took on human flesh, and gave us water, bread and wine, He sanctified the world. Matter is good and graced. God has given us supernatural graces through the Sacraments whereby spiritual realities might be tangibly enjoyed. Feel that water! Taste that Bread and Wine! Receive the preached word. Celebrate the physicality of the passing of the peace and the laying on of hands! Embrace the Benediction! Be physical about faith!
Saints, those annoying folk who sit around us in “church,” must also be properly embraced and enjoyed as sacraments of God. “Man” is the image of the divine among us. C. S. Lewis said that if we were to see human beings as they actually are, we would be prone to worship them. This hints at the sacrament of redeemed humanity. Christians are the body of Christ. Understanding this reality helps us appreciate the wonder that is we. This is critical to practical mysticism. Saints ground our mysticism so that we do not ascend in flights of irrelevant fancy. Those encounters we seek, and which God has provided for our enjoyment and edification, are almost always mediated by others. We need we.
“…But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint…”
-T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets