In the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church Elizabeth Livingstone writes:
mysticism, mystical theology. In modern usage “mysticism” generally refers to claims of immediate knowledge of Ultimate Reality (whether or not this is called “God’) by direct personal experience; “mystical theology” is used to mean the study of mystical phenomena or the science of the mystical life. It has sometimes been suggested that such experience is the goal of all religion, and that there are certain experiences or patterns of experience which are common to believers in different religions or even in none, but this suggestion has been challenged on both philosophical and theological grounds. Paranormal phenomena, such as trances, visions and locutions, are often regarded as “mystical”, though their value and significance is assessed differently by different thinkers; they are usually not regarded as essential. Protestant theologians, from M. Luther onwards, have tended to regard mysticism with suspicion. E. Brunner and R. Niebuhr held it to be anti-Christian because of its close link with Neoplatonism, which seemed to bring it closer to pagan gnosis than to the Gospel’s offer of salvation; others feared dangers of pantheism. In recent years there has been a marked increase in interest in mysticism.
Language connected with “mystery” (μυστήριον) was widely used in the early Church, often in a fairly routine way; the use of such language depends on the conviction that Christian doctrine and liturgy involve matters known only by revelation, which are incomprehensible to, or which need to be shielded from profanation by, outsiders and those insufficiently purified by faith and moral conversion. The sacred words of Scripture and the deeds of God recorded in Scripture and enacted in the Eucharist contain a “mystic” significance, into which believers can be progressively initiated by Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit. The mystery of God remains mysterious even in its revelation, so that we need to “hear the quietness” of Jesus as well as receiving His word (Ignatius, Eph. 15).
The phrase “mystical theology” is first used by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, for whom our approach to God must be entirely governed by His self-disclosure in Christ and in the Bible. In addition to “philosophical theology”, which uses clear concepts and arguments, there is a “mystical theology” which has to do with symbols and ritual (συμβολικὴν καὶ τελεστικήν, Letters, 9. 1), leading us beyond intellectual notions of God to a real union with Him in the “truly mystic darkness of unknowing” (Mystical Theology, 1. 3); here the height of the “mystic words” of Scripture is apprehended and the “mysteries of theology” are revealed in silence (ibid. 1. 1). “Mystical theology” does not just persuade us, it acts on us (Letters, 9. 1); in submitting to the effects of the Church’s rites, we “undergo divine things” (παθὼν τὰ θεῖα, Divine Names, 2. 9).
In some later Byzantine writers, the third phase of spiritual progress, which Dionysius called unitive, is named “mystical” (e.g. Nicetas Stethatos, Capita Gnostica, 3. 41 (PG 120. 972) ), and this is taken to mean that one is now in a position to “initiate” others into the mysteries of God (ibid., 3. 44). The Hesychasts defended the possibility and importance of an “experience of the mystery of God or of the working of the Spirit” (Gregory Palamas, Triads, 3. 3. 3).
Medieval W. interpreters of Dionysius tended to see “mystical theology” as leading, through the purgative and illuminative ways, to a loving union with God at the peak of our affectivity (apex affectivae), in which all intellectual operations are left behind. Thus some writers locate “mystical theology” entirely in the will and the affections. Others combine this doctrine with the Augustinian tradition that “love itself is knowledge” (cf. Gregory the Great, PL 76. 1207A), and maintain that “mystical theology” imparts a special kind of knowledge of God not attainable by ordinary intellectual operations. Both views find supporters among the Franciscans. Other theologians, esp. Dominicans, held that “mystical theology” is precisely the ascent of the intellect, enlightened by faith, to union with God. J. Gerson argued that “mystical theology” concerns neither the will nor the intellect, but a union with God in the essence of the soul (Ep., 55). This debate continued for several centuries.
Late medieval writers stressed that the height of the Christian life could be understood only by experience, and “mystical theology” was increasingly taken to mean an experiential knowledge of God. Some writers specified particular subjective experiences as constituting or indicating the attainment of “mystical theology” (generally identified, from the 16th cent, onwards, with contemplation); this process, reached its apogee in the Carmelite doctors, Teresa of Ávila and St John of the Cross, whose influence thereafter predominates.
From the late 16th cent. onwards the adjective “mystic” tends to be used as a noun, so that certain people are called “mystics”, and mystica, la mystique, etc., begins to oust “mystical theology”. The English word “mysticism” is a rather later coinage.
Since the 17th cent. there has been debate among RC theologians as to whether “mysticism” is to be regarded as the normal flowering of sanctifying grace, in principle open to all Christians, or whether it should be seen as a special grace reserved for the few. The latter opinion is esp. associated with the Jesuit G. B. Scaramelli; the former has been upheld by A. Saudreau, the Dominicans J. G. Arintero and R. Garrigou-Lagrange, and many others.
Modern discussions of “mysticism” have been dominated by the notion of “mystical experience” and, on the one hand, by the quest for “mystical” elements common to different religions and, on the other, by attempts to identify the essence of a specifically Christian “mysticism”. The definitions proposed are usually arbitary, and there is a marked lack of clarity. The attempt to identify Christian “mystics” in earlier periods is anachronistic, and conventional phrases such as “the German mystics” (esp. Eckhart, Henry Suso, and J. Tauler) or “the English mystics” (esp. R. Rolle, W. Hilton, and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing) can be misleading, since the writers concerned were not necessarily interested in the kinds of experience now regarded as constituting “mysticism”.
There is an immense literature. Studies devoted to the subject include
W. R. Inge, Christian Mysticism (Bampton Lectures for 1899; 1899); id., Mysticism in Religion ; A. Poulain, SJ, Des grâces d’oraison (1901; Eng. tr., 1910); A. Saudreau, L’État Mystique: Sa nature, ses phases (1903; 2nd edn., 1921; Eng, tr., 1924), and other works; W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Gifford Lectures for 1901–2; 1902), pp. 379–429; F. von Hügel, The Mystical Element of Religion as studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and her Friends (2 vols., 1908); E. Underhill, Mysticism (1911); id., The Mystics of the Church , and other works; [E.] C. Butler, OSB, Western Mysticism: The Teaching of SS Augustine, Gregory and Bernard on Contemplation and the Contemplative Life (1922; 2nd edn., with “Afterthoughts”, 1927); E. Brurnner, Die Mystik und das Wort: Der Gegensatz zwischen moderner Religions-auffassung und christlichen Glauben dargestellt an der Theologie Schleiermachers (1924); E. A. Peers, Spanish Mysticism: A Preliminary Survey (1924); id., Studies of the Spanish Mystics (3 vols., 1927–60); J. G. Arintero, OP, La Verdadera Mística Tradicional (Salamanca, 1925; 2nd edn., 1980) and other works; E. Hendrikx, OESA, Augustins Verhältnis zur Mystik: Eine patristische Untersuchung (Cassicianum, 1; 1936); A. Stolz, OSB, Theologie der Mystik (1936; Eng, tr., 1938; rev. Fr.tr., Chevetogne, 1939); R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, Les Trois Âges de la Vie Intérieure (2 vols. ; Eng, tr., 2 vols., St Louis, 1947–8), and other works; J. B. Collins, Christian Mysticism in the Elizabethan Age with its Background in Mystical Methodology (Baltimore and London, 1940); V. Lossky, Essai sur la théologie mystique de l’Église d’Orient (Centre de recherches philosophiques et spirituelles, 1944; Eng. tr., 1957); R. C. Zaehner, Mysticism Sacred and Profane: An Inquiry into some Varieties of Praeternatural Experience (Oxford, 1957); C. Pepler, OP, The Three Degrees: A Study of Christian Mysticism (1957); H. [C.] Graef, The Story of Mysticism (1966); D. Knowles, What is Mysticism? (1967), and other works; M. Andrés Martín, Los Recogidos: Nueva Visión de la Mística Española (1500–1700) (1975); S. T. Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (1978); A. Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition from Plato to Denys (Oxford, 1981); A. de Libera, Introduction à la Mystique Rhénane d’Albert le Grand à Maître Eckhart (1984); M. de Certeau, La Fable Mystique, XVIe–XVIIe Siècle (; Eng. tr., Chicago and London, 1992); L. Bouyer, Mysterion: Du mystère à la mystique ; B. McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, (5 vols., New York, 1991 ff.; London, 1992 ff.). D. Cohn-Sherbok and L. Cohn-Sherbok, Jewish & Christian Mysticism: An Introduction (New York, 1994). L. Bouyer, Cong. Orat., “ “Mystique”, Essai sur l’histoire d’un mot”, Supplément de la Vie Spirituelle, 9 (May 1949) pp. 3–23; Eng. tr., “Mysticism; An Essay on the History of a Word”, in Mystery and Mysticism: A Symposium (1956), pp. 119–37; M. de Certeau, SJ, “ “Mystique” au xviie siècle. Le problème du langage “mystique”“, in L’Homme devant Dieu: Mélanges offerts au Père Henri de Lubac, 2 (Théologie, 57 ), pp. 267–91. J. Vanneste, SJ, “La théologie mystique du pseudo-Denys l’Aréopagite” in F. L. Cross (ed.). Studia Patristica, 5 (1962), pp. 401–15. A. Solignac, SJ, and others in Dict. Sp. 10 (1980), cols. 1889–1984, s.v. “Mystique’; P. Gerlitz, A. Louth, and others in TRE 23 (1994), pp. 533–92, s.v. “Mystik”.
PG Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne (162 vols., Paris, 1857–66).
Dict. Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, ed. M. Viller, SJ, and others (16 vols. + index, 1937–95).
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2012