Christian Mysticism

Introduction and Scope

It is no secret that the modern worldview, rooted in empiricism, foundationalism, and Cartesian anxiety, is giving way to a worldview shaped by postmodern philosophy in the 21st century.  Interestingly, postmodernity shares many points of affinity with the pre-modern worldview, not the least of which being a keen interest in mysticism, a fact which has led to a rise in interest among North Americans in Eastern mystical religions such as Zen Buddhism, Taoism, etc.  The purpose of this paper is to explore some of the elements of the history of Christian mysticism and to discover how resurrecting this rich history may be of use in engaging the postmodern age with the Christian faith.

Space only allows for a brief survey of the inception and development of mysticism in the Church as well as a brief exploration of some of the ideas of a few Christian mystics, selected for no other reason than that they are of interest to the present author.  Consequently, our scope will be limited and we will by necessity catapult through large spans of time.  All quotations of Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Holy Bible unless otherwise noted.

The Roots of Christian Mysticism

Christianity has always had a certain mystical element to it.  Christians serve an invisible Trinitarian God, one third of that Godhead being a Savior who was born of a virgin and was raised from the dead.  Moreover, the main rituals of the Christian faith, baptism and the Eucharist, have a history of being interpreted mystically, even if that interpretation has changed through the years.  Nonetheless, to speak of Christian mysticism is to refer to the contemplative practices of individual Christians as they seek the soul’s mystical union with God.  In the following section we will survey a sampling a few Christian mystics in various times and cultures.

Ante-Nicen Fathers: Origen

Depending on the scholar consulted, Christian mysticism is deemed to be rooted in, influenced by, or at least to share much in common with Platonic philosophy.  Inasmuch as Platonic philosophy was rooted in union of the soul with the eternal truths of the transcendent Forms through contemplation[1], and at the heart of Christian mysticism is communion of the soul of the creature with the transcendent Creator, the prima facie parallels are obvious.  Middle Platonism seems to have been most influential on the mystical theology of the early Patristic period, particularly in that of Origen.

Origen referred to the “soul’s ascent to God” and believed this ascent to have been made possible by the redeeming work of Christ, and efficacious by the waters of baptism.  The ensuing relationship thus initiated between Christ and the soul, and the working-out of this relationship is then, for Origen, the essence of the mystical life.[2]  Origen also believed, like Plato, that souls existed as pure spirits before birth into this world.  While Plato speculated that the soul lost its knowledge of the Forms through the pain of the birth process[3], Origen believed that the preexistent soul sinned in the purely spiritual state and was consequently born into the world.[4]

We should not be surprised to find similarities between the philosophy of Plato and the mystical theology of Origen.  Origen, after all, was a student of the Alexandrian school and studied under Clement of Alexandria.  This school actively engaged in the attempt to utilize Greek philosophy to communicate the truths of Christian philosophy and made frequent use of an allegorical hermeneutic in their interpretation of Scripture.[5]  However, while there are some obvious similarities between the philosophy of Plato and the mystical theology of Origen, there are also some striking differences.  Origen’s co-opting of platonic vocabulary and concepts was applied specifically to the life of the baptized Christian seeking union with God through Christ.  Plato’s speculative efforts, on the other hand, were a search for ultimate truth to be carried out by the intellectual elite.[6]

Nicene Fathers: Atanasius

A large development in mystical theology took place with the adoption of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.  If God indeed had created the cosmos from nothing, the human soul could not have existed from eternity past.  Contra Plato and Origen, the soul was not present in the material world against its will, it in fact had a beginning point.  If the soul was part of the created order, the foundation for Platonic mystical contemplation (to return to the place from whence it came) was no longer tenable.[7]

Athanasius was present at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 where he served as the secretary of Alexander.[8]  In his early years, Athanasius was heavily influenced by Origen.  After Nicaea and the Arian controversy, influenced by the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, he turned from the Platonic concepts of Origen and wrote De Incarnatione, where the soul is presented as frail, totally dependent upon the grace of God, and damaged by the fall.  Thus the incarnation of the perfect image of God, the Logos, was necessary in order for man to be saved.

Athanasius clearly saw the ontological chasm between God and the created order that could not be crossed by the soul in contemplation.  For the same reason, Origen’s concept of the divinization of the soul was also no longer tenable.  There was a place to speak of divinization in the relationship between God and humankind, but for Athanasius that event was inextricably rooted in the Incarnation of Christ, the event that made the restoration of the imago Dei possible.[9]  Thus, for Athanasius the transformation of the individual into the restored image of God, a process he refers to as divinization, is in fact an experience of mystical union with God; not an experience where the soul regains some lost essential kinship with God (a la Origen), but an experience of purification where the soul is enabled to more accurately reflect the restored image of God.[10]

The Cappadocian Fathers: Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa, the younger brother of Basil the Great, was slow to take up monastic life.  It was not until his wife died that he would enter a monastery and begin writing of the mystical life.[11]  Gregory’s theology was thoroughly Nicene and, like Athanasius, he saw the ontological divide between creature and Creator as impassable by the human soul.  Rather than seeking a reunion with God beyond the created order, Gregory’s approach was to seek “an experience of immediacy with God Himself in love” wherein the soul as it approaches God in love, enters into deeper and deeper darkness that ultimately eclipses knowledge, sense, and reason.   Yet in the midst of this darkness there is a supra-sensory awareness of the presence of God.[12]   Although Gregory frequently uses sensory language to describe this experience, it is not bodily senses to which he refers, but an allegorical or metaphorical reference to a spiritual sense that is not rooted in the biological senses.[13]   In all of this he speaks of the necessity of knowing God by “unknowing.”[14]

Gregory’s chief mode of contemplation is through the penetration of the hidden sense of Scripture and he describes this ascent of the soul through his interpretation of, and homilies on, Song of Songs.  He stresses, however, that the mystical meaning of Scripture thus derived is not a new concept but is a divine reality apprehended in a spiritual experience. Accordingly, Gregory’s profound influence on later mystics, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, is unmistakable.[15]

Finally, while there are some parallels between Gregory and Origen, it is important to understand their differing concepts of the ecstatic mystical experience.  Contra Origen, for Gregory ecstasy is not a state of transcendence of the soul where it comes into union with the eternal; it is the intense perpetual desire for and love of God that yields the fruit of following after Him into the darkness.  Consequently, Platonic speculation is left behind in favor of the contemplation of the love of God through mystical interpretation of Scripture.[16]

Mysticism in the West: Augustine

Augustine of Hippo was born in 345 in North Africa.  His conversion was something of a mystical experience in and of itself.  One day, while sitting in a garden in Milan he heard the words, “Take up and read.”  Not knowing where they came from and deeming them to be words from heaven, Augustine returned to the manuscript he had been reading, one of the Pauline epistles, and this yielded a life altering experience.[17]  Such was the beginning of the career of the man who would go on to become one of the greatest theologians in the history of the church.  But Augustine, wasn’t simply a theologian who was interested in abstract pursuit of principles; among other things, he was also a mystical theologian.

“Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”  This is the heart of Augustine’s mystical theology: the soul’s longing to return to and rest in God.  This return, however, is not a return to the eternal place from whence it came (a la Origen and Plato) but a return to the soul’s origin.  For Augustine, the soul is continually restless until such time as it returns to and rests in the Creator.[18]

One of the distinctive features of Augustine’s mysticism is that it is intensely personal.  While the Eastern Fathers’ mystical writing had an objective flavor to it, being primarily rooted in an interpretation of Scripture and the illumination it offered for the soul’s quest, Augustine’s mysticism is intensely personal and subjective, rooted in both revelation and feeling.[19]  We must, however, also understand that Augustine’s subjectivism is also intrinsically linked to a deep sacramental and liturgical piety as well as a profound sense of the Church.[20]

Another distinctive feature of Augustine’s mysticism is his ecstatic experience.  Rather than approaching darkness (a la Gregory of Nyssa), Augustine’s experiences of ecstasy are fleeting, momentary raptures; events that are essentially foretastes of the ultimate heavenly experience.  As Louth explains, “For Augustine, ecstasy is something which, if it went on forever, would be indistinguishable from the joys of heaven.”[21]

12th Century Mysticism: Bernard of Clairvaux

Like Gregory of Nyssa, much of Bernard’s mystical theology is based in large part on his exegesis of Song of Songs.  Two of the key features of Bernard’s mysticism are universality and progression.  Even though his efforts were primarily directed to the monastic community, he insisted that rather than applying only to a select few, the call to contemplation was universally open to all Christians no matter how weighed down by sin.  He also emphasized that the path to mystical experience is both progressive and dynamic, consisting of at least 12 degrees of progression to the mystical experience of being united with God in love.[22]

Like Augustine, Bernard also is not reticent to include autobiographical data in his writings.  Indeed, he explains that his teachings cannot be comprehensively grasped simply through academic or theoretical approach, but ultimately must be experienced.  Again, like Gregory of Nyssa, he employees the idea of the spiritual senses as modes of apprehending the experience of the divine presence, and he makes metaphorical reference to the biological senses of sight, taste, touch, and smell as he describes this mystical union.[23]

At the heart Of Bernard’s mysticism, however, was love.  He believed 1John 4:8, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” to be the quintessential passage of Scripture and that it “conveyed the most we can ever really know about God.”  He wrote, “God also loves and has no other source save himself from which he loves.  That is why he loves more ardently, because he does not so much possess love as he is love.”[24]  It is the human soul’s response to this Divine love that instantiates the progression toward the ascent to God.[25]  He goes on to describe this progression in terms of types of love including, bridal love, pure or sweet love, love and knowledge, vehement love, love’s mutuality, love and union.  It is this last type of love that is the locus of Bernard’s ecstatic experience.[26]

Spanish Mysticism: John of the Cross

Juan de Yepes was born about 24 miles northwest of Avila in 1542 in a small Spanish town by the name of Fontiveros.  After entering a Carmelite monastery at the age of 21 he spent four years studying philosophy and theology at the university.  He then returned to the monastery and became one of the most profound poets, theologians, and mystics of the Church.[27]

John is perhaps most famous for the description of the mystical experience he calls the dark night of the soulPrima facie, this language of night and darkness is reminiscent of the vocabulary employed by the earlier Fathers.  But are they in fact referring to the same thing?  This is a matter of scholarly debate.  Some would see John and Origen as describing the same experience but expressing it a bit differently due to the distance of time and culture.  Others, however, would say that John is describing an experience that is quite different from his predecessors.[28]

In Book 2, Chapter 5 of The Dark Night, John explains:

This dark night is an inflow of God into the soul that purges it of its habitual ignorances and imperfections, natural and spiritual, and which contemplatives call infused contemplation or mystical theology.  Through this contemplation, God teaches the soul secretly and instructs it in the perfection of love without its doing anything or understanding how this happens.[29]

While there may be some affinity with the earlier mystics in the above, John goes on to explain that this “is not only night and darkness for the soul, but also affliction and torment.”[30]  In contrast to his predecessors, the Dark Night John describes is painful precisely because it is purgative.  For John, one of the purposes of the Dark Night is to disclose the sinfulness of the soul, moving beyond a simple sense of failure or wounded pride.[31]  Indeed, the greatest sense of suffering the soul experiences takes place just before it is united to God.[32]

Power and Gender in Mysticism

The Inherent Power of the Mystical Experience

The old saying goes that, “history is written by the victors,” and this maxim holds true for much of the history of Christian mysticism.  In this case, however, the clash was between the sexes, and men, by virtue of holding ecclesiastical, economic and socio-cultural power, became the victors and wrote the history.  Consequently, with some notable exceptions during the medieval period (e.g., Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, etc.), the role of women in the development of Christian mysticism has been marginalized.  This phenomenon is due in large part to the belief that the mystic had direct access to God and with this access came authority.  Therefore, in an attempt to preserve power in a patriarchal polity, women were not always counted as mystics by their male counterparts.[33]

One of the distinctive features of female mysticism of the medieval period is that while men tended to begin with the contemplation of the mystical meaning of Scripture, this route was not typically open to women, therefore, their spirituality tended to take on a more experiential than intellectual flavor.[34]  As a result, the writings of women were based almost entirely on intense experiential encounters.  When men began to feel threatened by these writings they then attempted to discredit and silence the women.  The women who conformed to the male dominated model were handled in such a way as to ensure their submission to male authority, those who did not conform were condemned as heretics or witches.[35]

Vive la Différence

In this section, rather than attempt to trace and survey specific female mystics, we will instead explore the contrasts between the experiences, writings, and treatment of male and female mystics generally.  There is great disparity between the genders in all of these categories.

Erotic Nature of the Experience.  One of the hallmarks of feminine mysticism is the graphic erotic content of the ecstatic experience.  To be sure, there is erotic content in the writings of the male mystics as well, but it is of a very different tenor than that of their female counterparts.  While male mystics, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, used erotic language to describe their mystical experiences, it was chiefly used allegorically and was limited to the contemplation of Scripture (i.e., Song of Songs).

Women, however, did not have access to the education or position that would allow them ready access to the study of Scripture.  Consequently, their writings tended to be much more personal, experiential, sexually explicit, and graphic.  Moreover, there is no indication that they intended for their writings to be interpreted allegorically.  In fact, it appears that it is precisely through actual eroticism that lessons of God were learned.  Cases in point would include the writings of Catherine of Siena, Hadewijch of Antwerp, and Teresa of Avila.[36]

Control.  As men became increasingly threatened by the growing mysticism of women, women came under ever increasing systems of control.  Throughout the Middle Ages, women were deemed to be more lustful, more prone to physical weakness, and more tied to their bodies than men.  They were thought to have an insatiable sexual appetite and were thus subject to more austere control than men.[37]  In fact, the misogynist attitudes even among the most respected male theologians of the Christian faith (e.g., Aquinas and Augustine) is quite clear.  Aquinas famously wrote, “…the image of God is found in man, and not in woman, for man is the beginning and end of woman, just as God is the beginning and end of every creature…”[38]  He went on to ask, “Whether woman should have been made in the first production of things?”  Consequently, if women were to aspire to spiritual enlightenment, they must be placed under much more austere systems of control than men were subjected to.[39]

While the monastic life included segregated physical enclosure in a monastery for both men and women, the enclosure of women was an absolute requirement of the spiritual life, thus women were unconditionally excluded from mendicant orders.  In fact, when a young woman, named Clare, fled the home of her parents and came to Francis of Assisi with the desire to join his order, he took her, against her will, straight to a Benedictine convent to be enclosed.  She protested that she didn’t want to become a Benedictine nun, but a follower of Francis, so Francis finally relented and allowed her to be enclosed in the church of San Damiano and to found the Order of the Poor Clares.[40]  Interestingly, the male written rule of their order prescribed enclosure, “[The sisters] must live enclosed throughout their lifetime, and after they have entered in the enclosure of their Order, taking the regular habit, the permission or faculty to go out may no longer be given the them, unless to plant or build that same Order.”[41]  However, it must also be noted that some female mystics voluntarily chose enclosure, and some took this principle to the extreme.  Julian of Norwich for instance, after receiving her mystical visions, was voluntarily enclosed in a small cell adjacent to a church in order to spend her life in contemplation of those visions.[42]

Another system of control exerted on women was found in the area of food, although this control seems to have been as much self-imposed as it was required by men.  While men and women both engaged in the regular practice of fasting, women took this practice to dangerous extremes, often attempting to forego food altogether and subsist on nothing other than the elements of the Eucharist.  And even this was not taken for its caloric value, but for the spiritual sustenance it delivered.  This also became an area of concern for men as the women seemed to be able to excel in the spiritual practice of fasting.  How the issue of control plays into this picture can be easily seen if one considers the modern phenomenon of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders.  The root of many eating disorders is the desire to seize control in a situation where the person suffering from the disorder is otherwise powerless.  Reading this psychological dynamic back into the Middle Ages, it is easy to see how women were able to exert some level of control over there otherwise powerless situations by entering into ascetic competition with their male counterparts in an attempt to garner power.  The story is told of Margaret of Cortona who, as she approached the priest to receive communion, saw that his hands turned black as he touched the wafer, an event which exposed the fact the priest was unchaste.  The belief that women had such abilities was very disconcerting to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.[43]

The final area of control we will discuss regarding female Christian mystics, although there are many others to be sure, is the realm of sexuality.  As was the case with food, sexual control applied to both men and women in the mystic stream and was a significant requirement in judging who was to be considered a true mystic.  However, as mentioned above, women’s sexual desire was believed to be much greater than that of men and their attractiveness to men was thought to be virtually irresistible.  These opinions led to the celebration of virginity as being of the highest spiritual value.

Nonetheless, as we saw earlier (and for different reasons) with Athanasius, the doctrines of creation and incarnation presented a significant challenge to the residue of Platonism lingering in the prevailing idea that the body was in some sense evil.  How could those responsible for setting the course of Christian doctrine be so suspicious of the body when at the end of the creation account God had pronounced the entire created order, which of course includes the human body, to be very good?  Moreover, how could the body be deemed to be a thing of evil if God Himself had taken on human flesh in incarnation?  On the other side of the coin, however, the doctrine of the incarnation was instantiated by the doctrine of the virgin birth, and the fact that Jesus was celibate is unmistakable in the New Testament.[44]  Thus there is a certain tension brought to bear on the body-spirit dualism of the Middle Ages on the one hand, and the doctrines of creation and incarnation on the other.

Into this tension the female mystics feared not to tread.  First of all, the ideas of Aquinas and Augustine were rejected outright by Hildegard of Bingen as she wrote, “Man and woman are in this way so involved with each other that one of them is the work of the other.  Without woman, man could not be called man; without man, woman could not be named woman.  This woman is the work of man, while man is a sight full of consolation for woman.  Neither of them could henceforth live without the other.”[45]  However, while Hildegard retained aspects of the negative Augustinian view of human sexuality due the effects of the fall, contrary to him, she saw love-making, rather than simply being for the pragmatic purposes of reproduction, as being something God-ordained and designed to be pleasurable.[46]

Julian of Norwich would take this anti-dualistic thinking a step further than Hildegard, in that her mysticism was strongly focused on the bodily experience which accompanied the ecstatic.  Not only does she contemplate deeply on the physical body of Christ on the cross, but she also describes the physical sensations she experiences in the midst of her ecstatic visions in great detail.  Moreover, Julian employs the language of sensuality in her writings and nowhere does she mention any sort of mortification of the flesh, or exhibit the distrust of the body or sexuality.[47]  Thus we see how, albeit marked by subtlety, the female mystics pushed back against the dualistic, male dominated world of sexual control and embraced a more biblical anthropology and spirituality.

Postmodern Engagement with Christian Mysticism

This brief historical survey of a few of the streams of Christian mysticism brings us to the question posed at the outset of this study: how might we resurrect the teachings of historical Christian mysticism with the goal of using them to engage people with the gospel and to critique ourselves in this postmodern age?  The present author draws no definitive conclusions here but offers a variety of questions that might advance Christian dialogue in this regard.

First of all, while in the modern age we typically find the idea that Christian faith is found in the assent of certain proclaimed propositional truths, there is a profound emphasis on personal experience in the writings of the mystics.  This is not to suggest that propositional truth is not of value in Christian faith, but to acknowledge that truth for the postmodern mind is something that is culturally conditioned and, at best, relative.  Rather than simply attempting to demonstrate the untenable nature of relative truth by employing logical principles such as the law of non-contradiction, and thereby force the postmodern person back into a modern framework, would it be possible to lead them to engage truth in a person (Jesus Christ) rather than solely in a proposition?  Would it be possible to engage the practices of contemplation, as Gregory of Nyssa did, in order to reach beyond the realm of knowledge, sense, and reason, and to have a direct experience of truth?  Would it be beneficial to employ the contemplation of the radical love of God, as did Bernard of Clairvaux, in an attempt to lead people to a new apprehension of the person and character of God?  Indeed, could simple mystical practices, such as lectio divina, be engaged to help usher a postmodern person into a direct experience of God.

Secondly, by reaching beyond the male-mediated hierarchical, ecclesiastical structures of the Middle Ages to a direct experience of God, female Christian mysticism in many ways functioned as a foil to the self-legitimizing discourse of power (meta-narrative in the sense of Lyotard) of male domination and female subordination.  While the outworking of it has taken far too long, the female mystics began the work of chipping away at the epistemological framework that supported the sinful domination and subordination of women in the church, and they did so through the engagement of mystical contemplation.  How might we engage the practices of mysticism in our own age to address issues of power and control that exist in our present day ecclesiastical structures?  Moreover, how might we engage the tools of mysticism to engage sinful structures of power and control in the world at large, thereby advancing the kingdom of God and reclaiming territory from the enemy?


Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the

Reformation Rev. (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

Greer, Robert C. Mapping Postmodernism: A Survey of Christian Options. Downers Grove: IVP

Academic, 2003.

Jantzen, Grace M. Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1995.

Kavanaugh, Kieran, ed. John of the Cross: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.

Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys,

            2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

McGinn, Bernard M. The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great to the 12th Century. New

York: Crossroad Publishing, 2004.

Merton, Thomas. An Introduction to Christian Mysticism: Initiation into the Monastic

Tradition 3. (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2008).

Smith, James K. A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to

Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.

[1] Louth, The Origins, 1-4.

[2] Ibid., 52.

[3] Explained through his allegory of the Cave in the Republic, Ibid., 2-5

[4] Gonzalez, The Story, 95.

[5] Gonzalez, The Story, 86-96.

[6] Louth, The Origins, 52.

[7] Ibid., 74-75.

[8] Gonzalez, The Story, 199.

[9] Merton, An Introduction, 60-61.

[10] Louth, The Origins, 77-78.

[11] Gonzalez, The Story, 218.

[12] Louth, The Origins, 79-81.

[13] Merton, 82-84.

[14] Merton, 77.

[15] Merton, 74.

[16] Louth, 94.

[17] Gonzalez, 241.

[18] Louth, 129-30.

[19] Louth, 129.

[20] Merton, 158.

[21] Louth, 133.

[22] McGinn, The Growth, 181-83.

[23] McGinn, 187-89.

[24] McGinn, 193.

[25] McGinn, 194.

[26] McGinn, 198-217.

[27] Kavanaugh, John, 8-39.

[28] Louth, 176-78.

[29] Kavanaugh, John, 200-01.

[30] Kavanaugh, 201.

[31] Louth, 180.

[32] Louth, 181.

[33] Jantzen, Power, 157

[34] Jantzen, Power, 158-59.

[35] Jantzen, 242-277.

[36] Jantzen, 134.

[37] Jantzen, 193-4.

[38] qtd. in Jantzen, 195.

[39] Jantzen, 195-96.

[40] Jantzen, 199-200.

[41] qtd. in Jantzen, 201.

[42] Gonzalez, 428.

[43] Jantzen, 207-214.

[44] Jantzten, 223-24.

[45] qtd. in Jantzen, 228.

[46] Jantzen, 229.

[47] Jantzen, 238-41.

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