Mysticism is an approach to Christianity that focuses on preparation for, consciousness of, and reaction to what can be described as the immediate or direct presence of God. Emphasis is placed on the subjective or “felt” experience of being in an intimate relationship with God, what some mystics refer to as “spiritual ecstasy”. The earthly goal of this relationship is personal ethical and spiritual transformation, the heavenly culmination of which is the beatific vision.
There have been a variety of expressions of mysticism in the history of the church, making it difficult to identify a singular stream or set of characteristics. But here are several features of most forms of mysticism.
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1. An Emphasis on Experience of Union with God
There is typically an emphasis on experience of union with God, which generally assumes one of two forms: (a) a relational or ethical union conceived as a union of wills or spirits or a union of love; or (b) an essential union described as “absorption” into God to such a degree that personal identity is in some sense lost.
2. Mysticism Highlights Contemplation of God
Most forms of mysticism highlight contemplation of God that both flows from and leads to deeper personal intimacy; Teresa of Avila teaches that as one progresses in contemplation, there is a “suspension of the faculties,” i.e., an end to the ordinary operation of the intellect whereby we think, reason, formulate ideas, etc.; at this point God sovereignly infuses a transrational awareness of himself, what Dubay calls “a divinely bestowed absorption in knowing and loving and seeking” (Fire Within, 87)
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3. Beatific Vision of God Is the Goal
The so-called beatific vision of God is the goal of virtually all forms of mysticism. This is the consummation of the mystic's earthly experience and growth; it is the face-to-face encounter with God that will come in heaven (1 John 3:2; Revelation 22:4; Matthew 5:8).
4. Deification or Divinization of the Soul is Central
Deification or divinization of the human soul is also a central feature in most forms of mysticism. However, most defenders of the mystics insist that this “transformation into the divine” is not to be thought of in a pantheistic sense (God and the human individual remain ontologically distinct).
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5. Mystics Used Vivid Terminology
Mystics often used vivid terminology to describe the experience of spiritual ecstasy or rapture, also referred to as “enthralling immersion in God,” “sublime perception of God,” “spiritual inebriation,” “infused love,” “absorption in the Beloved,” and “divine inflowing.” Teresa of Avila describes it as “a glorious foolishness, a heavenly madness,” being “bewildered and inebriated in [God's] love;” such ecstasy rarely lasts for more than an hour, but is always indelible and unforgettable. With this experience one's inner life of loving and knowing is so intensified that sense perception of the external world is proportionately diminished, often altogether obscured.
6. Mystics Would Speak of Visionary Experiences
Mystics would often speak of visionary experiences of angels, saints, and especially the Virgin Mary. However, many of the mystics insist that God's indwelling presence is evidenced not by visions but by his prompting virtuous actions within us. Some mystics (such as Teresa) also speak of transport of the soul (out of body experiences) and levitation of the body.
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7. Solitude and Silence Are Common Spiritual Disciplines
Among the spiritual disciplines practiced by mystics, two in particular are common. The first is solitude. External separation from the world was designed to facilitate internal separation from sin; however, some mystics would differentiate between solitude (which they define as being alone with the Alone) and isolation (which is a deliberate distancing of oneself from all human interaction). Second is silence. Since God lies beyond human expression, any attempt at naming him is doomed to failure; silence was viewed as a remedy for sinful uses of the tongue; it was a form of attentiveness to God; quiet recollection and rest in God; and the inevitable consequence of religious awe.
Among virtually all mystics there is considerable emphasis on introspection or a concern with monitoring and being in touch with the moral state and spiritual progress of one's soul.
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There Was an Emphasis on Physical Asceticism
There was among most late medieval and post-Reformation mystics an emphasis on physical asceticism, i.e., voluntarily depriving the body of food and drink (except the minimum necessary to live), of normal conveniences and comfort; sleep is kept to a minimum (even then, the mystic would sleep on the ground or slabs of wood); self-scourging was common as well as other forms of self-inflicted bodily pain (designed to subdue the urgings and promptings of the flesh; in other words, physical mistreatment of the body was designed to facilitate the experience of a “perfect nudity of spirit” [Dubay, 142], i.e., inner freedom from the all worldly concerns or fleshly desires).
8. A Mystic's Experience of God's Presence is Intense, Personal, and Ineffable
The mystic's experience of God's presence is so intense and personal that it can't be described in merely cognitive terms, i.e., in terms of knowing or understanding; in other words, mystical experience is ineffable; it is thus described either by means of metaphors drawn from the five senses (esp. seeing, smelling, tasting; fragrance and warmth/heat are the two most common images employed), or in erotic, sensual terms.
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9. Mystics Claim Their Mode of Access is Radically Different
Mystics insist that their mode of access to God is radically different from traditional forms such as prayer, the sacraments, Word, and other religious rituals; they argue that God does indeed become present in/through these activities, but not in any direct or immediate way: God's presence for the mystic is unmediated and direct. Finite realities (whether verbal, concrete, visual, etc.) are inadequate means to communicate the infinite. Genuine contact with God, therefore, requires relating to him in/through a new dimension that transcends the created order. Dubay explains: “This is what the Christian mystic means when he says that we reach God through unknowing: we penetrate into the divine by a divine gift, not through an oriental process [such as Buddhist meditation] or set of techniques. We enter into God through no human means, no methods, no ideas [what is occasionally referred to as idealess knowing]” (54).
The true experience of God's presence and love is not something attainable by utilizing human reasoning (such as observation, deduction, induction, inference, implication, or any form of intellectually based proofs); rather it is by a direct infusion from God himself that engages the spiritual (rather than mental) center of the individual
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10. There Are Several Dangers to Mysticism
I’ll close by mentioning several dangers of mysticism. Mystics tended to interpret Scripture allegorically. They were thus often given to fanciful ideas about the meaning and application of the written Word. Mysticism often fails to place proper emphasis on divine transcendence (Isa. 55:8-9; 66:1-2; Acts 7:46-50) by placing extreme emphasis on God's immanence.
The mystical emphasis on the love relationship between God and man can often lead to a neglect of divine holiness. It is also possible, in the mystic's pursuit of intimacy with God, to overemphasize the subjective fruit to the exclusion of the objective foundation. This is often the result of excessive introspection, of which some mystics were clearly guilty. We must be careful lest we become so infatuated with the internal experience of nearness to God that we forget the external work of the cross on which it is ultimately based. Our nearness to God is free to us, but it cost God everything: his only-begotten Son. Our focus is first and fundamentally outward, towards Calvary.
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Mystics Can Sometimes Grant Religious Authority to Their Experience
It is possible, in the mystic's pursuit of visionary revelation, to grant religious authority to one's experience rather than to Scripture alone. We must never forget that all experience must be interpreted. All subjective states of mind and emotion must be brought under the searchlight of the objective principles of God's written Word. At its worst, mysticism has led some to conclude that because of the depths of intimacy they experience with God that objective revelation is no longer essential; it can be discarded in favor of immediacy of communion and communication with God. This is perhaps one of mysticism's more serious flaws.
Without denying the reality of their having heard from God, there is simply no escaping the fact that many of the mystics made grandiose claims regarding the frequency and depth of their revelatory experiences.
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Mystics Can Lose Sight of Distinction Between Creator and Creature
It is possible, in the mystic's pursuit of intimacy with God, to lose sight of the distinction between Creator and creature. This is perhaps the greatest error among the mystics, whether they be from the medieval period of church history or our own day. As noted above, a few of the mystics emphasized “oneness” or “union” with God to such a degree that they blurred the fundamental distinction between man and God. Our “oneness” with God is of a moral, not a metaphysical, nature. In other words, we are not destined to “become God” but to “become like God” in terms of moral character and thought and behavior. In our desire to get close to God we must never lose sight of the fact that he is God and we are not!
Anti-Intellectuallism is Common in Mysticism
There is a tendency among many mystics to denigrate the role of the mind in spiritual growth and love for God. I.e., anti-intellectualism is a common feature of many varieties of mysticism. One indication of this tendency is when mystics set aside the discipline of study and research of the Scriptures in favor of contemplation and illuminism. Often this is the result of their unspoken suspicion concerning and distrust of the mind as well as their tendency to value experience over reason.
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Some Other Dangers of Mysticism
It is possible, in the mystic's pursuit of intimacy with God, to become elitist and exclusivistic. This can often take the form of gnosticism in which it is believed that only those are worthy who have attained to a certain level of esoteric spirituality.
Mysticism is often linked with a rigorous asceticism. The latter can breed legalism and a de-emphasis on the grace of God.
The vast majority of mystics in church history have been Roman Catholics. Their teachings about spirituality are thus often intertwined with such aberrant doctrines as transubstantiation, the veneration of Mary, sacramental grace (such as penance), etc.
In spite of frequent protests to the contrary, mystics tend to disengage from corporate life in the local church. In other words, there is a strong tendency in mysticism toward excessive and unbiblical isolation from other Christians and the routine biblical responsibilities that each member of the body of Christ has toward every other member.
Finally, the mystic's ultimate goal of union with God and the beatific vision often becomes the reward of human effort rather than the gift of divine grace.
This article originally appeared on SamStorms.com. Used with permission.
Sam Storms I am an Amillennial, Calvinistic, charismatic, credo-baptistic, complementarian, Christian Hedonist who loves his wife of 45 years, his two daughters, his four grandchildren, books, baseball, movies, and all things Oklahoma University. In 2008 Sam became Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sam is on the Board of Directors of Desiring God, and also serves as a member of the Council of The Gospel Coalition. Sam is a past President of the Evangelical Theological Society, and currently serves on its Executive Committee.
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