The Idea of Mysticism

Update:  I have expanded the introduction in a way that I hope will be helpful to understand why I am writing this series.  The addition is between the red brackets.


With this post I am beginning a series on the notion of mysticism in its true and false senses and the practical implications that flow from both.  The word “mysticism” and its cognates are bandied about a lot without a proportionate amount of understanding, and for that reason we get ourselves into a great deal of trouble.

There are underlying issues around the discussion of mysticism regarding the more general question of the relation of nature and grace that this discussion will help us to think about more clearly.  For example, I believe that the clarifications given here may help us to restore a sense of the sacred while avoid confusing the merely natural with the action of God.  It might also help us clarify the relative value of theological opinions vis a vis the magisterial authority of the Church, as well as discern between true movements of the Holy Spirit and those which are merely human, or even demonic.

[I have chosen to write this series because I think it is a good way of establishing the principles behind some of the more polemical positions I have taken on this blog.  As will become in the course of the series, I am not simply expressing a concern about wayward charismatics, phony visionaries and false prophets.  There is more to it than that.

All of us are called to holiness, which is a participation in the life of Christ.  It is constituted by transformation in Christ so that He lives and acts through us.  This can only be achieved by our consistent effort to grow in holiness through the disciplines of a sacramental life, characterized by prayer, penance and the exercise of virtue.  In this way we open ourselves up to the perfecting influence of the Holy Spirit and the direct action of God in our souls, which is essentially what the mystical life is about, as we will see below.

If there is a crisis in the Church today, before anything else, it is a crisis of sanctity.  We can point to all kinds of causes of the crisis, but the first problem, as it touches the life of any one person, is the interior battle within.  And for that each of us is the sole bearer of responsibility.

I believe, one of the main problems that impinges on this, whether as a result of personal foibles, institutional dereliction or political maneuvering, is the tendency to mistakenly claim the presence or will of God when in reality something else is involved.  At other times we are cock-sure that He is far away when He is right there.  And I don’t believe the primary problem is the complexity of our current place in history.  At least I don’t believe the solution lies in unraveling those complexities.  On the contrary, it is far more a matter of getting the fundamentals correct.  Only in that way do we have the grace to work out the hard parts, because only in that way can we be confident that we are doing Christ’s work and not our own.

The series of posts I plan to write on mysticism will be an attempt to sketch out the problem and point in the direction in which the solution lies.  It is only a sketch and a proposal.]


(The following definitions can be found in a simple and clear format on the page linked to here, so throughout this series one may refer back to them if helpful.  In various places in the series I will provide the link again.)

The word “mysticism” can have many different meanings and be applied to realities that are disparate and incompatible.  Etymologically it refers to that which is mysterious, and is broadly defined as “a religious tendency and desire of the human soul towards an intimate union with the divinity, or a system growing out of such a tendency and desire.”  Because what one means by “divinity” and what one refers to by “system” can be so vastly different depending on the person and his beliefs, the word “mysticism” can mean radically disparate things, most of them heterodox.

In strict Catholic theological terms the mystical life sits opposite the ascetical life.  Asceticism refers to the efforts we make under the influence of grace to grow in holiness and encompasses everything that we do, such as receive the sacraments, pray, meditate, participate in the liturgy, perform acts of penance and virtue.  Spiritual writers attribute this mode of operation with the soul to the so-called purgative and illuminative ways (cf. Triple Way).

Opposite to this, mysticism refers to what God does in us, which only He can accomplish and which we cannot initiate under our own power. It comprises internal acts such as those pertaining to the sanctifying gifts of the Holy Spirit and infused contemplation.  Such acts are characteristic the unitive way.

In the narrowest sense, mysticism refers also to extraordinary graces such as ecstasies, visions, levitation, private revelations, etc., because only God can do these things in us.  Most of the time, when Catholics hear the word “mysticism” this is what they think of and sometimes these things are confused with that kind of “mystical” holiness to which we are all called.  But the holiness that is characteristic of the unitive way and that mysticism which is above and beyond our ascetical efforts is not the same thing as the extraordinary charisms.

We are not all called to have visions.  Not all true visionaries are holy and visions don’t make anyone holy.  But we are all called to an intimate communion with God, which is the holiness that only God can work in us and which is the primary vocation of all men.  Sometimes God uses extraordinary charisms to confirm the presence of holiness in a saint, as he did with the stigmata in St. Francis and Padre Pio, but the presence of charisms prove nothing if they are not accompanied by heroic virtue.  Balaam was a true prophet of God, for example, but he was an utterly wicked man.

Mystifying Mysticism

Thus, one must be attentive when words “mysticism,” “mystical” and “mystic” pop up and discern, not only between orthodox and heterodox usages, but also between the various orthodox meanings.  Is the word being used etymologically, referring generally to the mysterious, or broadly, to the tendency for intimate communion with God, strictly, to acts proper to the unitive way of holiness, or narrowly, to extraordinary charisms?  Sometimes writers and speakers do not clearly distinguish what they are talking about and use the same word in the same context with different meanings.   As a result, they commit all kinds of errors in logic and draw erroneous conclusions.

Christopher West, for example, defines “mystical” as that which “makes the invisible visible.”  This more or less fits the etymological meaning, but not the primary definition and certainly not the strict and narrow meanings.  Granted, the invisible is mysterious, but everything physical makes the invisible visible, in the sense that everything in the physical universe was created by God and reflects his truth, goodness and beauty.  But only God, and not nature, can produce intimate communion with the divinity, so not everything that makes the invisible visible is “mystical” even in the broad sense, let alone the strict and narrow.  Only pagans believe that nature can produce intimate communion with the divinity.

Now West is talking about matrimonial relations when he uses the word “mystical.” Thus, perhaps a better word corresponding to the definition of that which makes the invisible visible is “sacrament.” However, this too has its problems, because the Latin word sacramentum was a technical term of the Roman military assimilated by the Church for sacred use in order to designate the seven signs instruments of grace instituted by Christ.  All visible things are “sacramental” in the sense that they are signs of invisible realities, but not all visible things are Sacraments in the strict sense.  And the use of matrimony, that is, conjugal relations, is not identical with the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

Furthermore, while it is true that the right use of all the Sacraments, including Matrimony contribute to our intimate communion with God, it would be a mistake to suggest that the use of Holy Matrimony is somehow singularly mystical.  The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony itself, its whole reality including the use of it, is a great mystery, because of its reference to Christ and His Church (Eph 5:32; here the Greek mysterion is rendered in the Latin sacramentum).  But if from all this one concludes that sex in the context of Holy Matrimony, even as it is experienced by saintly couples, is a uniquely instrumental in the mystical life, say perhaps even more than reception of the Sacrament of Penance, then one is veering very close to the kind of sex mysticism practiced by the pagans.  In fact, sex mysticism is a particular hallmark of both historical paganism and today’s neopaganism.  So the ambiguous use of word “mysticism” in this context can create a great deal of confusion, as indeed it has.

Not Navel Gazing

One might suggest that it would be better if we stuck to just one definition of “mysticism,” that, for example, we all agreed use the word in the strict theological sense.  But spiritual writers and even theologians have never done that.  So we have to try to increase our reading comprehension and our listening skills, meaning we have to do some serious work to understand properly our faith in this matter.  Otherwise, it would be better not to talk about mysticism at all, because, as I heard one priest say, “mysticism usually begins in ‘mist’ and ends in ‘schism.’”

Thinking about mysticism is hard work.  We need to think about it clearly.  So in the next post I will describe the qualities of true Catholic mysticism, all the while striving to be clear and precise in the way I use my words.

5 thoughts on “The Idea of Mysticism

  1. For what it is worth, and not as any kind of blanket recommendation which ‘ everyone must read’, I found R.C. Zaehner’s Mysticism Sacred and Profane (1957) a very rewarding, instructive book.

    Zaehner joined the Church in his thirties, and I cannot pronounce on whether he was completely orthodox or not, but he seems very thoughtful and consecientious, as well as widely read in many languages and bodies of mystical literature.

  2. Pingback: Eucharistic Mysticism | Mary Victrix

  3. Pingback: Prophecy and the FI | Mary Victrix

  4. Pingback: Marian Mysticism | Mary Victrix

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