Colossians 2:6-8 Jerusalem Bible
Do not be taken in by people who like grovelling to angels and worshipping them; people like that are always going on about some vision they have had, inflating themselves to a false importance with their worldly outlook.
Colossians 2:18 JB
Mysticism, what is it? People who are called mystical seem to be a kind of religious elite, whether Christian or non-Christian. They seem to be more in touch with God than the rest of us. Some of them actually claim to be. Some even claim that they are one with God. Can the term ‘mysticism’ even have a legitimate meaning anymore, especially for Christians, when all this confusion abounds?
Perhaps the answer is yes. To grasp the true meaning of Christian mysticism, one must study the earliest Church mystics carefully, for it is in the light of their experience that later deviations can be properly evaluated. There were some aberrations among even them, of course, but nothing to be compared with the false and impious mixtures found in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The mystics of the early Church included the Church Fathers, for in those days the theologians were among the most spiritual of Christians, and the phenomena of mystical life was evident in all social strata—clergy, monastics, and ordinary believers of all classes.
Visions were practically non-existent in the mystical life of the early Church. Distractions to prayer, whether voluntary or involuntary, were deplored and dismissed whenever possible. Visions and ecstasies were considered to be involuntary distractions to prayer. Those very experiences which later Christian ‘mystics’ sought after and prized so highly were considered by the earlier Christians as little more than nuisances to be suspiciously examined and barely tolerated.
Contemplation consisted not merely in negation and renunciation (as in later Roman Catholicism), but in a deifying union with God’s Spirit in an experience of spiritual illumination after all intellectual activity had ceased. This deification, or in Greek, théosis, had many definite and practical applications in everyday life. ‘If it were possible for me to find a leper,’ said Abba Agathon, ‘and to give him my body and to take his, I would gladly do it, for this is perfect love.’ Such was the true nature of théosis, or deification.
All of the mystics of the early Church believed that the supreme spiritual experience would be to see the Divine and Uncreated Light, which was identical to what the Jews call the Shekhináh—it is the light witnessed by the three disciples which surrounded Jesus on Mount Tabor at His Metamórphosis. Because “God is light” (1 John 1:5), the experience of His energies was said to take the form of light. This is not mere created light, but the Light of the Godhead Itself. Even though this Light is not a sensible or material light, it can be seen by a man whose senses as well as his soul have undergone a metamorphosis of their own.
The Platonic view of man as a soul imprisoned in a body was for a time incorporated into Christian thought, through the writings of Evagrios of Pontus, and Origen of Alexandria, but it was later rejected in favor of the Hebraic view of man as an animated body. The difference between considering man as an animated body (like Adam for whom God first created a body out of dust and then breathed life into him) or an imprisoned soul (as taught by the Greek philosophers who followed Plato) has a subtle but important influence on one's understanding of redemption, and even of prayer.
Abba Makarios of Egypt in his homilies reestablished the more biblical emphasis on the whole man. Whereas the Greek philosophical view made prayer an activity of the mind and the intellect, Hebrew tradition made prayer a function of the whole man—mind, emotions, will, and body. Whereas Evagrios and Origen used the word mind, Makarios used the word heart, which was not only more biblical but also more in keeping with a true understanding of the human being.
Bishop Basil of Καισάρεια/Kaisáreia wrote…
Silence is the beginning of the purification of the soul. A mind undistracted by external things and not dispersed through the senses among worldly things, returns to itself. As the Lord dwells not in temples built by human hands, neither does He dwell in any imaginings or mental structures, fantasies which present themselves to the attention and surround the corrupt soul like a wall, so that it is powerless to look at the Truth directly, but continues to cling to such things as mirrors and fortune-telling.
It seems to me that much of the so-called mysticism we find in the world and, alas, in the Church today may be of the type warned against by the apostle Paul, ‘grovelling to angels and worshipping them,’ and by Basil the Great, ‘powerless to look at the Truth directly,’ and is a reversion to the superstitious attitudes of the Middle Ages, which for both Paul and Basil were far in the future, but for us a lingering and seductive past.
‘Mirrors and fortune-telling’ are Basil's words for what to us may take slightly different forms, cloaked under a pious disguise, but it is the same spiritual cheat nonetheless.
So, what is mysticism, then? Is it anything other than what happens to us when we give all for all, abandoning ourselves gladly to the Lord our God, our Savior, our Brother, our Lover and greatest Friend?
As the bride asks in the Song of Solomon, ‘Tell me then, You whom my heart loves: Where will You lead Your flock to graze, where will You rest it at noon? That I may no more wander like a vagabond beside the flocks of Your companions,’ so comes the answer, ‘If you do not know this, O loveliest of women, follow the tracks of the flock, and take your kids to graze close by the shepherds’ tents.’ (Song of Solomon 1:7-8 JB)
Originally posted as And what is mysticism? on July 6, 2009.