Mysticism

The term is difficult to define because of its often confessedly ineffable and inexplicable nature. It has no limits historically or geographically, nor can it be contained philosophically or theologically. It concerns the interior life of the spirit, that pilgrimage with the divine which begins outside its awareness and proceeds to the highest stages of personal development possible.

Immediate relation with the ultimate is the essence of mysticism. This may be a psychological or an epistemological experience in which the mystic, apart from a religious institution or sacred book, has religious knowledge directly from the divine. Quakerism stressed this approach; other mystics believed that the contemplative experience led to temporary union of essence now or permanent at death with ultimate reality or God. The Hindus, Buddhists, Neoplatonists, and to some extent Meister Eckhart* illustrate this view. Prayer, contemplation, and ascetic acts promote this experience.

Christian and biblical mysticism usually stresses the personal reality of Christ as compared with the impersonal approach of Hinduism. It subordinates nature to the Creator rather than linking Him with nature as pantheistic mystics do. The union is not one of merging essence which destroys personality, but the biblical one of union of human love and will with God, which does not lose the subject-object relationship. Such mysticism was contemplative, personal, and practical: action on the plain followed retreat to the mountain.

Mysticism is simply a life of prayer, even from the outset when personal confession is paramount because of realization that one stands before God and must beg forgiveness before any growth in Him can begin. Once begun, and life's purpose shifted from self to God, the “scale of perfection” or “steps leading to the mind of God,” has also begun. Many stages exist in mystical experience, however, and they are individually determined. Three are common: awareness and confession before God, life lived totally under God, and a most personal experience of God. The last is not often achieved, nor is it expected: referred to sometimes as a mystical marriage or Beatific Vision, it is the most intimate of divine relationships and therefore is usually not expressed in words.

Mysticism usually arose in an era (e.g., in the Middle Ages) when religion became too much institutionalized, and it sought a more individualistic and personal relationship with God. This helps to explain the rise of medieval mystics-such as Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich,* and Thomas à Kempis*-and later, of Madame Guyon* and Fénelon.* They did not leave the church, but had these experiences in the fold of the church as they sought to recall it to a more personal and individual approach to God. It also often appeared when theology was overemphasized at the expense of experience and practice.

Mysticism often led to heresy because of ignoring the biblical norm, or to social passivity that concentrated on personal salvation without any idea of service to God in society. Bernard of Clairvaux* seemed to link biblical truths, mystical experience, and practical service.

W.R. Inge, Christian Mysticism (1899); E. Underhill, Mysticism (1911); C. Butler, Western Mysticism (1922); R. Otto, Mysticism East and West (ET 1932); A. Goodier, Ascetical and Mystical Theology (1957); R.C. Petry (ed.), Late Medieval Mysticism (1957); S. Spencer, Mysticism in World Religion (1959); F.C. Happold, Mysticism (1963); H. Graef, The Story of Mysticism (1965).