Article written by Amanda Berger. (Originally published in our Fall 2021 issue of Inspire magazine.)
“Christian Mysticism is the spiritual encounter with a sacred mystery that cannot be put into words, but may be embodied through feelings, conscious awareness, experience, or intuition – or even through darkness or unknowing.” -Carl McColman, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism
Mysticism is the practice of being open and receptive to Divine presence and experience, invited through prayer, contemplation, meditation, and spiritual disciplines. The roots of Christian mysticism are deep, going back to the resurrection experiences of the disciples and apostles in embodied divine encounters that cannot be fully explained by rational means.
And yet, in our more modern era, the mystery of Christian devotion and spiritual experience has often taken a backseat to more scientific or rational ways of knowing God. This emphasis on rationality creates a longing for direct experience—a knowing with heart and body—that surpasses all human understanding. Because humans are not just made of the mind, but also body and spirit, the integration of all ways of knowing God bear fruit in the lives of God’s children. It is the difference between being told you are loved and being held in a loving embrace—humans need both for a thriving relationship.
Mysticism invites a sense of oneness with God, as McColman describes “loving communion, where mystical unity with God occurs as an eternal loving embrace.” As humans, it is possible to set the stage for this kind of mysterious divine encounter, but it cannot be manufactured or created. Part of the mystery of the Divine is that it is God who chooses when and how God is revealed.
If you read the writings of the those recognized as mystics—like Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard von Bingen, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and many more—there are two threads that unite the experiences of which they write. One, that they have created space and time for encounters with God. And two, that they recognize the limitations of language to convey their experience—and they are okay with that. Their experience is far bigger and mysterious and wondrous than words can convey, and while they do their best to translate that experience for the reader, it ultimately is a “you just had to be there” kind of thing.
Throughout history, those who have been known as mystics were often members of religious orders. These were monks and nuns who had relinquished the freedoms and distractions of the outside world to create space to encounter the divine. While it may not be necessary to join a religious community to have a mystical experience, to hear the still, small voice of God requires a willingness to get away from the noisy world—to get still and quiet, to remove distractions. Mystics employed tools like fasting, contemplative prayer, silent retreats, and solitude, choosing simplicity over abundant possessions to help remove distractions and quiet themselves. These same tools are available to us.
Many of the mystics also experienced deep suffering—near-death experiences of illness or the loss of those dearest to them. They identified with Christ’s suffering and through that suffering were better able to understand unconditional and sacrificial love.
What the mystics knew—and the early church embraced—was that imagination, nature, art, and creativity helped people to know God. An unintentional legacy of the Reformation (which also permeated Enlightenment ideology about the divine) was the idea that if the Bible could just be read by people in their own language God would become known. When churches were stripped of artwork, emotion, and even the sacraments in some of the most Calvinist lineages, they were also removing ways of experiencing God in an embodied kind of way.
Christian mysticism often begins with devotional reading of scripture and the practice of contemplation—the act of being still and listening as one absorbs God’s word. While this practice of stillness, presence and reflection has much in common with the mindfulness movement, it differs in that rather than creating space for a calm, empty mind, there is an object of devotion—God.
Experiencing God’s love and deeply encountering Jesus’ teachings in mind, body and spirit are profound reasons to consider integrating contemplative (mystical) practices into your daily round. Before our faith and Christian teachings can influence our everyday lives—from relationships, to politics, to service and justice, we must first acknowledge that God is present and acting in the world, and we are interacting with that Divine. If we believe that, then we are having a mystical experience.
Insight from Christian Mystics
“This is what the philosopher and the poet share in common: both are concerned with the marvelous. Amazement is the beginning of philosophy. Wonder is a kind of desire in knowing. It is the cause of delight because it carries with it the hope of discovery.”
St. Theresa of Avila
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”
John of the Cross
“God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness because if we fully knew what was happening, and what Mystery, transformation, God and Grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process.”
Julian of Norwich
“We believe that we hardly see God at all, but what he desires is for us to believe that we see him continuously…He wishes to be seen and to be sought. He wants to us to yearn for him and to trust in him.”
Mechtild of Magdeburg
“The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.”
Hildegard von Bingen
“The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature.”
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
“I pray God to rid me of God.” (Eckhart cautions about remaking God in the image of humans—of assigning God limitations and characteristics which are so very common and easy for us as humans, but which may not fit God at all. Eckhart often prayed for forgiveness and the ability to let go of these human projections he placed on God.)