Introduction to Christian Mysticism

Jeannie Ewing

Introduction to Christian Mysticism

The topic of Mysticism is one that has fascinated peoples of all ages and religious beliefs; in our modern milieu, it is one that has garnered much attention due to the increasing influence of the New Age Movement and eastern religions.  How can one discern rightly the difference between a very ethereal and general mystical experience of “consciousness” versus an authentic encounter with the Living God?  This article will attempt to  present how the Catholic Church specifically defines mysticism in terms of both Public and Private Revelations, as well as a few criticisms of the notion of Mysticism in general.

Background of Christian Mysticism

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Christian Mysticism begins with an act of love from a person to an eternal, personal God and extends beyond one’s knowledge of Him through the intellect into a more nebulous, intuitive sense:

“Mysticism considers as the end of philosophy the direct union of the human soul with the Divinity through contemplation and love, and attempts to determine the processes and the means of realizing this end. This contemplation, according to Mysticism, is not based on a merely analogical knowledge of the Infinite, but as a direct and immediate intuition of the Infinite (Sauvage, 1911).” 

For many centuries, pagans, pantheists, gnostics, and eastern religions advocated varying heretical forms of Mysticism that mainly included an emptying of oneself into the abyss of nothingness in order to unite one’s consciousness with that of his/her surroundings in nature.  Christianity proposed an alternative view of Mysticism in response to these pagan practices, mainly through foundational Church fathers’ writings, such as St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius.  In Christian Mysticism, the principles of the Gnostic heresies were overtly undermined, in that Christian Mysticism did not presuppose that everyone, through acts of their own will, had access to mysterious, hidden meanings related to the Divine.  Rather, by faith and through reason – due to Divine Grace – humanity had the potential to grasp theological mysteries regarding the Creator of the universe; however, few souls truly obtained the fullness of this comprehension outside of the beatific vision (Sauvage, 1911).

Critiques of Mysticism

Some criticisms of Mysticism include the belief that, because this ideology can be found in virtually every religious system, both monotheistic and polytheistic, it must, therefore, have its main basis in human reason.  The consensus of critics today is that every human yearns for an intimate union and connection with God through an unexplained and personal phenomenon rather than by knowing and loving God through His creation.  There is a natural longing of every human heart for that which is unattainable and supernatural, to search for and understand the deepest truths; many believe that Mysticism logically resolves this for many seekers, and yet it does not adequately complete the certain theology that has been the basis of the Catholic Church since its founding.

Church Teaching on Mysticism

In turn, the Church eventually reconciled the rather murky debate between authentic, Christian mysticism and pagan, heretical mysticism by succinctly proclaiming that humanity can only come to “reach God through analytical knowledge,” and yet “what man cannot know by natural reason, he can know through revelation and faith; that what he cannot attain to by his natural power he can reach by the grace of God. God has gratuitously elevated human nature to a supernatural state (CCC 66, 67).”

The Catechism further discusses why Mysticism is not necessary for one to faithfully practice Catholicism. The Church does recognize that there are a select few whom God has chosen to address in this rather unconventional and contemplative manner. The authenticity of these can only be validated by the Magisterium through a lengthy and involved investigative process .  By and large, no one is required to accept any form of mystical revelation as tenets of the Faith.  This is due to the fact that “the Church teaches as de fide (of the Faith) that all that the Father desired to reveal for our salvation has been revealed in His Word, Jesus Christ…The deposit of the Faith, therefore, is to be found in the twin fountains of Public Revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred (Apostolic) Tradition (CCC 66, 67).”

While no form of Mysticism is included in Public Revelation, the Church does validate that God reveals certain truths through Private Revelation for the purpose of guiding individuals toward a deeper love or call rather than as a supplement to already-revealed doctrines of Faith.  Private Revelations are not essential for any individual’s salvation.  There may be certain epochs that require a stirring of souls, in which the Lord may select a prophet or prophetess (think St. Joan of Arc) to deliver a specific and timely message in order to encourage massive conversions or to serve as a warning or a guide.  In this case, the Church acknowledges that, so long as a person is united with the Magisterium, follows all of the doctrines and dogmas of the Faith, is in full communion with the Church and regularly receives Sacraments, s/he may, indeed, be called by God to deliver what our modern society may consider a mystical revelation.

It is important, however, to always distinguish between true, Christian mysticism and a more subtle form of New Age mysticism.  The era in which we live is quite favorable towards the latter rather than the former, simply because many people consider themselves to be spiritual persons but not necessarily religious ones.  A true, Christian mystic must be one who follows all of the teachings of the Church and is fully obedient to the Pope and Bishops.

Another aspect of Christian Mysticism that distinguishes it from other varying forms is that the meditation and contemplation involved between a mystic and God is very personal; New Age mysticism revolves more around a humanistic understanding of the Divine – that each of us is God, that God is everything and everywhere.  A Christian Mystic has a very acute and yet intuitive understanding that s/he is a created being who is united in personal relationship with an Infinite, Personal God (Pontifical Council for Culture, 2003).  

Beloved Catholic mystics who have become popularized over time include St. John of the Cross , St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Padre Pio, but many saints exhibited the mystical marriage of uniting their wounds, suffering, and entire beings to God’s eternal will.  Though some mystics received locutions and apparitions or spiritual ecstasies, these are not necessary  indications of a mystical heart. 
Of course, it is best for one who is faithful to the teachings of the Church to err on the side of caution when considering whether or not to heed any individual's warnings or prophecies and to be discerning in labeling anyone a modern mystic.  If a person believes s/he may be receiving private, mystical revelations from God, it is advisable that s/he seek spiritual direction from a well-renowned, trusted priest or lay person who is known to be in full communion with the Church and stands for Catholic orthodoxy rather than heterodoxy. Generally speaking, however, all of the faithful have the potential to experience the sublime, united love with God through an inexplicable communion of hearts – our hearts conjoined with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  We are all called to deep relationship with our God, the creator of the universe, regardless of what shape that relationship takes. 

Catholic Church. (1997). Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in accordance with the official Latin text.  Promulgated by Pope John Paul II (2nd edition). Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference.

Pontifical Council for Culture, Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (2003). Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the New Age.  Retrieved October 13, 2004.

Sauvage, G. (1911). Mysticism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 12, 2014 from New Advent.