Magazine article Commonweal

Nearer to God: Demystifying Mysticism

Magazine article Commonweal

Nearer to God: Demystifying Mysticism

Article excerpt

For many in the modern West, mysticism now means the same thing as mystification, referring to a twilight world of the irrational and paranormal. If there's a mysticism section at your local bookstore, what you'll find there is likely a farrago of New Age blather, texts on crystal handling and tarot card reading, and yoga manuals that promise weight loss and a better sex life. The idea behind this commercial convention is that mysticism is all about esoteric knowledge.

In the preface to her famous book on mysticism, now a century old, Evelyn Under hill wrote that her own understanding of the word had nothing in common with the way it was generally used even then. Mysticism, she observed, had become an "excuse for every kind of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics." (And she had never stepped foot in a Barnes & Noble.) As the late French scholar Michel de Certeau showed in his book The Mystic Fable, this popular understanding of mysticism can be traced back to the second half of the seventeenth century. But for Christians, the term mysticism has another meaning.

It is generally recognized that St. John of the Cross (1542-91) was a mystic. What does that mean exactly? What did he understand mysticism to be? In fact, John might have been puzzled if someone had called him a mystic, if only because the terms "mystic" and "mysticism" were not yet in common usage when he lived. Yet St. John was familiar with the term "mystical theology," which has a very long ancestry. In The Ascent of Mount Carmel, he writes, "Contemplation, by which the intellect has a higher knowledge of God, is called mystical theology, meaning the secret wisdom of God." Elsewhere in his writings, John will use the adjective "mystical" to modify both "wisdom" and "knowledge."

A closer look at the second part of the phrase "mystical theology" might help us understand the first. For John, the word "theology" referred not to an academic discipline but to the inner life of the holy Trinity, by which, in an eternal now, the Father utters the Word (Logos) and breathes forth that love we call the Spirit. The tradition that nourished St. John distinguished this inner life of the Trinity from the pouring forth of that life by way of revelation--first in creation, then in the life of the Chosen People, and finally in the Incarnation. The former is called "theology"; the latter, "economy." In the first millennium, then, theology meant either the inner life of the Trinity or our participation in that life. In the words of Evagrius of Pontus, "Whoever prays is a theologian."

The adjective "mystical" was used by the ancient Christian writers to describe a variety of things, but generally it simply meant "hidden." Scripture had both a plain sense, which every literate person could understand, and a hidden, "mystical" one discovered only through the eyes of faith. The Eucharist, too, had both a plain sense (bread and wine) and a mystical one for those who received it in faith; for them, it was the body and blood of Christ. The same adjective was used for the church, which could be viewed either as a sociological reality or as the Mystical Body of Christ. The cognate word mystery was frequently a synonym for a sacrament because a sacrament had both a plain and a hidden meaning. Baptism involved both a visible pouring of water and an invisible regeneration.

Mystical theology, then, was the hidden outpouring of trinitarian love as Christians experience it. The term was coined around the year 500 AD by an unknown monastic writer who claimed to be the Dionysius converted by St. Paul in Athens (Acts 17:34). Pseudo Dionysius's short treatise The Mystical Theology, which is less than ten pages long in English translation, was a companion to another work known as The Divine Names. The two texts were meant to be read together dialectically Pseudo Dionysius understood that one can affirm many things of God, as testified by the many names ascribed to God in sacred Scripture. …

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