Mysticism, history of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 24, 2019, from

6. Christian mysticism

Christianity rests upon Jesus of Nazareth, and his consciousness of a deep continual communion with the God of Israel, whom he boldly addresses as ‘Abba’ (‘dear Father’). This so-called ‘Abba-experience’ has been compared with the experiences of mystics, though Jesus himself (according to the evidence of the Gospels) seems to have claimed an utterly unique and unprecedented intimacy with the divine (Christian dogma identifies him as the sole incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity) (see Incarnation and Christology §1).

Strikingly, though states arguably ‘mystical’ in the contemporary sense are reported among Jesus’ first followers, the word mystikos itself appears nowhere in the New Testament; on the other hand, ‘mystery’ (mysterion) figures prominently in the Pauline letters. Past historians of religion detected here the influence of ancient mystery cults, and claimed that Christian mysticism was largely imported. Louis Bouyer (1990) and others have argued, however, that while the secrecy of the mystery religions pertained only to their rituals, St Paul uses ‘mystery’ in a different sense, Semitic in origin, to refer to God’s hidden plan for the salvation of the world, now revealed in Christ.

None the less, Hellenistic influences on the subsequent evolution of Christian spirituality and mystical theology are undeniable, beginning with ancient Alexandria, where Plotinus (founder of Neoplatonism) and Origen (Christianity’s first great theologian) shared the same teacher, Ammonius Saccas. The views of Plotinus (§§3, 6) on the immanent presence within the intelligible and material order of the divine One from which they have emerged, and his goal of a mystical return to the One through asceticism and contemplation, struck a responsive chord with Augustine and many others. Origen (§2) was especially concerned with discovering the ‘mystical sense’ of Scripture, by which he understood the hidden presence of Christ within the biblical text. Later Christian authors of the first four centuries extended the scope of mystikos to Christ’s hidden presence in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.

With the conversion of Constantine, the early Christian ideal of martyrdom was recast in terms of austere self-sacrifice; the Desert Fathers and Mothers, as well as the major figures of the monastic movement, such as Anthony the Great (c.251–356), Pachomius (c.290–346), Basil the Great (c.330–79), John Cassian (c.360–435) and Benedict (480–543), provided guidance for a life dedicated to prayer, asceticism and the search for God.

In terms showing thorough familiarity with Neoplatonic thought, the mystical implications of God’s incomprehensibility were explored by Gregory of Nyssa (c.335–95), and even more thoroughly by the (apparently) late-fifth-century Syrian monk now known as Pseudo-Dionysius, so called because his writings purported to be from the Dionysius converted by Paul in Athens (Acts 17: 34). The presumed apostolic pedigree gave the Dionysian texts enormous authority throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. In The Mystical Theology, this author proposes a via negativa or ‘apophatic’ ascent into the ‘dazzling darkness’ of the ‘superessential’ divinity by successively rejecting the applicability of all predication to it; elsewhere he outlines a corresponding via affirmativa or ‘kataphatic’ approach, attempting to explain in what sense God may be called perfect, good, omnipotent, and so on.

Later mystics of the Eastern Church, such as John of Damascus (c.674–749) and especially Simeon the New Theologian (949–1022), stressed the role of the divine Light in the divinization of the human person, restoring the divine image obscured by Adam’s Fall. Simeon in turn influenced the development of hesychasm (from hesychia, ‘quietness’), involving the constant repetition of the mantra-like Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’) in pursuit of the vision of divine Light. Hesychasm was successfully defended by Gregory Palamas (c.1296–1359), who identified the divinizing Light with the uncreated ‘energies’ of God.

In the vastly influential works of Augustine (§11) comes a shift towards a more psychological approach to mystical themes. Augustine traces the image of the Trinity in the faculties of the soul (intellect, memory and will), and shows interest in the differences between various types of visionary and ecstatic phenomena. The Christocentric love-mysticism of the Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) characterizes loving union with the Incarnate Word in affective rather than metaphysical terms, not as a ‘union of essences’ but a ‘concurrence of wills’, leading none the less to an experience of apparent absorption in God. Meanwhile, the mysticism of the renowned Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), as well as the Cistercian nuns Mechthild of Magdeburg (c.1210–80), Gertrude the Great (c.1256–1302) and Mechthild of Hackeborn (1240–98), involved numerous visionary experiences and revelatory messages. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) and his Franciscan followers (for example, Clare of Assisi, Jacopone da Todi, Angela of Foligno, and Bonaventure) ushered in a new era of intense devotion to the humanity of Christ, with a correspondingly higher appreciation of the created order in its own right as intrinsically worthy of holy human love because the object of God’s love. Mystical themes were sometimes clothed in narrative form in the popular (if often fanciful) medieval vitae of Christian saints. Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea (Golden Legend), one of the most famous books of the Middle Ages, recounts the life of the noble and learned Catherine of Alexandria, regarded as patroness of scholars and philosophers because she was allegedly martyred in the early fourth century after converting the family of Maxentius and defeating by her wise argumentation fifty philosophical opponents handpicked by the Emperor. Despite the lack of any early evidence that she ever existed, medieval accounts of her mystical marriage to Christ helped popularize her cult.

The most significant figure among Rheno-Flemish mystics of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is the brilliant Dominican theologian and preacher Meister Eckhart, whose more startling and paradoxical expressions in vernacular sermons brought accusations of heresy. His mystical writings are still subject to the most divergent interpretations, and parallels with Hindu and Buddhist mysticism are often noted. For Eckhart, only God truly is, since being in the strictest sense is God alone. Human creatures possess existence only ‘in and through God’, who is immanent in the soul’s uncreated apex or ground, which is eternally one with the divine. The mystical goal is therefore to divest oneself of everything, so that God may bring the Word to birth within the soul. Eckhart likewise speaks of a Godhead beyond God, a completely unknowable and indescribable ‘Ground’ beyond the distinction into a Trinity of Divine Persons. Despite the official condemnations, Eckhart’s influence continued in John Tauler (c.1300–61), Henry Suso (c.1295–1366), and the Friends of God movement, whose teachings were crystallized in the anonymous mystical classic, the Theologica Germanica.

For Jan van Ruysbroeck (John Ruusbroec, 1293–1381), the empty desert of the Godhead itself has a Trinitarian orientation, and mystics who attain union with this nameless unity are not static, but move out with the Father into the world created in the divine image. Catherine of Siena (1347–80) provides an impressive example of the apostolic force of Christian love mysticism, since her ‘mystical marriage with Christ’ bore fruit in a remarkable involvement with contemporary social needs, as did the mystical experiences of Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510). The fourteenth-century English mystics – among them Richard Rolle (c.1300–49), Walter Hilton (d. 1395), Julian of Norwich (c.1342–after 1413) and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing – offer an appealing and approachable spirituality which has found a wide audience in our own times.

The famed Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola (c.1491–1556) appear at first glance to have little mystical about them, but are designed to lead to a direct encounter with God. The Spanish Carmelites Teresa of Avila (1515–81) and John of the Cross (1545–91) were declared Doctors of the Church for their spiritual teaching. John is best known for his classic analysis, in The Dark Night of the Soul and other works, of the passive purifications endured in the search for God, though his descriptions of the joys of mystical union are even more eloquent. In various writings Teresa sought to identify, through their spiritual and psychological effects, the various stages and pitfalls in the spiritual quest; her masterpiece, The Interior Castle, describes the process as a journey inwards through seven progressively more interior dwelling places, leading finally to a permanent union with the Triune God already present in the soul’s centre.

Francis de Sales (1567–1622), a key figure in the seventeenth-century French school of spirituality, described how a ‘devout life’ could be lived in any state, without requiring withdrawal from the world. Pierre de Bérulle (1575–1629) offered a theocentric and Christocentric spirituality, directed towards conformity with the ‘states’ or inner dispositions of the Incarnate Word. Madame Jeanne Guyon (1648–1717) advocated quiet prayer to the exclusion of all other methods, while her disciple and director, François Fénelon (1651–1715), defended a mysticism of ‘pure love’ of God, free of all self-interest, even in one’s own salvation; critics charged that such teachings opened the door to complete moral and religious indifferentism. Within Catholic circles, the condemnation of quietism created a distrust of mystical spirituality that persisted into the twentieth century, while evoking an interest in the suspect doctrines and authors among many Protestants.

Ironically, despite its emphasis on the experience of personal salvation, the Protestant tradition has often regarded mysticism (especially in its Roman Catholic expressions) with mistrust, as a form of ‘works righteousness’, or a misguided attempt to bypass the mediatorial role of Jesus. Nevertheless, Protestantism has had its own mystics, such as Jakob Boehme (1575–1624), George Fox (1624–91), William Law (1686–1761) and John Woolman (1720–72), and certain Protestant movements, such as Quakerism and pietism, have a decidedly mystical flavour.

Citing this article:
Payne, Steven. Christian mysticism. Mysticism, history of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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