Mysticism is frequently defined as an
experience of direct communion with God, or union with the Absolute, but
definitions of mysticism (a relatively modern term) are often imprecise
and usually rely on the presuppositions of the modern study of
mysticism — namely, that mystical experiences involve a set of intense
and usually individual and private psychological states. While figures
such as Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux, and John of the Cross are
seen to be paradigmatic mystics of the Christian tradition, no
‘mystics’ would have defined themselves as such before the twentieth
century. Furthermore, mysticism is a phenomenon said to be found in all
major religious traditions — though the common assumption that all
mystical experiences, whatever their context, are the same cannot, of
course, be demonstrated.
Mysticism involves the practice of contemplation both in the philosophical sense of the contemplation of truth and in the ‘supernatural’ sense of having knowledge of God via a life of prayer. Nevertheless, the ‘mystic way’ is primarily practical, not theoretical, and is something in which the whole self is engaged; the great Christian mystics have spoken of how they acted rather than how they speculated. St Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote that the writing of her book had been seen and experienced in her every limb, seen with the eyes of her soul, and heard with the ears of her eternal spirit. Sharing the mental and physical suffering of Christ, in the meeting of the spirit with evil, is described by some mystics as central to their experience. Teresa of Avila warned her nuns that the trials given by God to contemplative could be intolerable, and that they might not be able to endure their sufferings for as long as a day. Images of action — battle, pilgrimage, search — are used to describe the mystic's inward work, which is, paradoxically, sustained by the outward stillness of contemplation.
Some have placed a particular emphasis on certain altered states, such as visions, trances, levitations, locutions, raptures, and ecstasies, many of which are altered bodily states. Margery Kempe's tears and Teresa of Avila's ecstasies are famous examples of such mystical phenomena. But many mystics have insisted that while these experiences may be a part of the mystical state, they are not the essence of mystical experience, and some, such as Origen, Meister Eckhart, and John of the Cross, have been hostile to such psycho-physical phenomena. Rather, the essence of the mystical experience is the encounter between God and the human being, the Creator and creature; this is a union which leads the human being to an ‘absorption’ or loss of individual personality. It is a movement of the heart, as the individual seeks to surrender itself to ultimate Reality; it is thus about being rather than knowing. For some mystics, such as Teresa of Avila, phenomena such as visions, locutions, raptures, and so forth are by-products of, or accessories to, the full mystical experience, which the soul may not yet be strong enough to receive. Hence these altered states are seen to occur in those at an early stage in their spiritual lives, although ultimately only those who are called to achieve full union with God will do so.
In Jewish mysticism, embodied in the collected teachings known as the Kabbalah, God is perceived as one who both reveals and conceals himself but who can be perceived through the practice of contemplation and resulting illumination. Because mystical knowledge can easily be misinterpreted, traditionally only people of a certain age and educational level, and usually men, were allowed to engage in mysticism. The role of the ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ body, and the place of gender relations, in Jewish mystical experience are illustrated by the story of Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakkanah, told in the sixth- or seventh-century Hekhalot Rabbati. The rabbi was in a mystical trance, at the sixth heaven but about to enter the seventh heaven, when the people with him wanted to ask him about his vision when he was speaking out loud to them while in his trance. They were faced with the question of how to get him out of his mystical trance, so they laid a piece of cloth on his knees which had been touched by a woman who had completed her menstrual cycle, had purified herself the first time, but not the second, and was therefore not quite pure. When the cloth touched his knees the rabbi came out of his trance immediately so they were able to ask him the question, and then he went back into his trance.
In the late nineteenth century mysticism became the object of much research, partly because of the development of psychology and partly because of the new comparative study of religion by which phenomena were observed and compared across cultures. Key figures in this scholarship were Evelyn Underhill and Friedrich, Baron Von Hugel, though their analysis of mysticism was not theological. Von Hugel emphasized the Transcendent, the ‘wholly other’ as a fact of religions across cultures and thus he influenced thinking about the mystic's union with that Transcendent being. Underhill in particular saw mysticism as a process or way of life and as a cross-cultural phenomenon, and thus envisioned the ‘mystic way’ as a series of psychological states which could be found in mystics across different religions, times, and places. While Underhill insisted that a feature of mysticism was the abolition of individuality, the new emphasis, also found in the work of the philosopher William James, on the psychological states of the mystic led to an assumption that mystical experience is an essentially private and subjective matter. It did not involve, for example, questions of social justice — though mystics have long claimed that the mystical experience is proven ‘true’ in its effects or fruits, such as greater humility, acts of charity, and love of others. James associated the mystical with subjective states of feeling and the notion of mysticism as ‘private’ remains in most subsequent philosophical treatments of the subject. Both Underhill and Von Hugel made it clear that mysticism was an essential element in all religion, but never claimed it to be the whole content of any religion. However, some Protestant theologians, such as Emil Brunner and Reinhold Neibuhr, came to reject it as anti-Christian, considering it to be too Neoplatonic, while others, including Anglicans like W. R Inge, Dean of St Paul's, went to the other extreme and saw mysticism as the essence of Christianity.
Michel de Certeau's work, in the latter part of the twentieth century, has compared the procedures common to both mysticism and psychoanalysis, suggesting that the body, far from being ruled by discourse, is itself a symbolic language, and that in both psychoanalysis and mysticism the body is perceived as responsible for a truth of which it is unaware. Thus the body holds the ‘key’ to the ‘truth’ of the ‘space’ represented by the mystical or unconscious. This has caused the modern study of mysticism to focus, like psychoanalysis, on the bodily manifestations of the psyche's or soul's condition in order to understand the ‘truth’ of that condition. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is Jacques Lacan's attempt to locate the apparent impossibility or unknowability of female desire in the mystical experiences of Teresa of Avila, as depicted in Bernini's sculpture in Rome; he states that on looking at that statue it is immediately clear to us, if not to Teresa, that she is experiencing an orgasm. Luce Irigaray, a feminist psychoanalyst, has appropriately responded (in This Sex Which is Not One) to this collapse and merging of female sexual desire and religious experience thus: ‘In Rome? So far away? To look? At a statue? of a Saint? Sculpted by a man? What pleasure are we talking about? Whose pleasure? For where the pleasure of Teresa is concerned, her own writings are more telling.’
— Jane Shaw
Belief in union with the divine nature by means of ecstatic contemplation, and belief in the power of spiritual access to ultimate reality, or to domains of knowledge closed off to ordinary thought. Also applied derogatorily to theories that assume occult qualities or agencies of which no empirical or rational account can be offered.
Mysticism has many meanings in the study of the history of religions. In general it refers to a type of faith that emphasizes the direct experience of unity with the Divine. Theologically, mystical faiths tend to stress the divine immanence, and they often identify God with the structure of being. In the United States mystical forms of faith can be seen as a protest against the dominant religious tradition. Often centered around charismatic leaders, many of whom have been women, important strains of American mysticism have also set themselves explicitly outside Christianity.
The most famous mystic in early American history was Anne Hutchinson, whose mysticism evolved from the Puritan emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the means of grace. Her teachings were inflammatory, and for stating that she had communicated directly with God, she was exiled from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637.
Although Jonathan Edwards, a leading preacher of the Great Awakening, was primarily interested in traditional forms of religious experience, many elements in his writings suggest mystical leanings. The description of his wife's religious experience in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1792) is one of the classic accounts of mystical experience in American literature. Edwards's own theology presented a view of the world as filled with shadows and images of things divine and had elements in it similar to those found in mystical faiths.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was perhaps the most prominent proponent of nineteenth-century Romantic mysticism in the United States. Building on ideas ultimately derived from German philosophy and—in his later years—from the religions of the East, Emerson evolved a unique American mysticism that stressed the unity of humans with all nature. Through humans' communication with the world, Emerson argued, they could come to transcend it and recognize themselves as part of it at the same time.
In the years after the Civil War a variant of mysticism known as theosophy gained in popularity. Theosophy focused both on humans' ability to experience God and on the power of the human mind. Drawing on ideas from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, charismatic leaders, such as Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Annie Wood Besant, attracted both numerous followers and considerable controversy. In 1875 Blavatsky helped found the Theosophical Society and Universal Brotherhood in New York City. Mysticism also became better known to Americans through the World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. Representatives of Eastern religions and Western mysticism presented their views of the religious life to large audiences.
In the Native American tradition, mysticism had always played a central role, and this tendency increased under the pressure of persecution and displacement from ancestral lands. The most famous example of this phenomenon is the rise of the Ghost Dance movement among the Plains Indians in the late 1880s. Inspired by the Paiute prophet Wovoka, who claimed transcendent experiences in the afterworld, Sioux believing themselves invincible to bullets came into conflict with the U.S. Army. In 1890 over three hundred Sioux were killed in what became known as the Battle of Wounded Knee. Although this massacre brought the Ghost Dance movement to an end, the ideas that had animated it lived on and became part of the Native American Church, founded in 1918. Native American mysticism after Wounded Knee often revolved around peyote, a hallucinogenic plant that was used as a sacrament in ceremonies.
The Roman Catholic Church has always had more of a place for mysticism than the Protestant churches, and the mystical experience has continued to be important in the lives of many Roman Catholic religious orders. Thomas Merton, a convert to Catholicism, was one of the influential voices for Catholic mysticism in the United States in the twentieth century. His exposition of the mystical way was marked by clarity and philosophical insight, and his works reveal a deep concern for social justice and a keen analysis of political issues.
The drug culture of the 1960s created a widespread interest in mysticism among the young. Many who tried mind-expanding drugs found the states they induced were remarkably similar to or even identical with the experiences of the great mystics of the past. This led many to explore or become followers of non-Christian faiths, such as Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Native American religions.
Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948.
Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. New York: W. Sloane, 1949.
Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness. London: Methuen, 1962.
The Nature of Mysticism
There are certain common fallacies current about mysticism: that mystics are not "practical" and that they are revolutionary; on the contrary, many of the greatest mystics have been both intensely active as well as submissive to authority of whatever sort. Nor is the "solitary thinker" necessarily, or even usually, a mystic. There is no accepted explanation of mysticism, and few psychologists have interested themselves in its practice. William James studied the nature of mysticism but reached no conclusion that satisfied him. A significant philosophical evaluation of mysticism was made by Henri Bergson.
There are two general tendencies in the speculation of mystics-to regard God as outside the soul, which rises to its God by successive stages, or to regard God as dwelling within the soul and to be found by delving deeper into one's own reality. The idea of transcendence, as held most firmly by mystics, is the kernel of the ancient mystical system, Neoplatonism, and of Gnosticism. Their explanation of the connection between God and humans by emanation is epoch-making in the philosophy of contemplation. Among those who think of God, or the Supreme Reality, as being within the soul are the Quakers (see Friends, Religious Society of) and the adherents of Vedanta.
The language of mysticism is always difficult and usually symbolic. This is readily seen in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, in the book of Revelation in the New Testament, and in the writings of William Blake. Mystics, especially those of the Roman Catholic and the Islamic traditions, have made use of a terminology borrowed from ordinary human love. A conventional analysis is as follows: The soul undergoes a purification (the purgative way), which leads to a feeling of illumination and greater love of God (the illuminative way); after a period the soul may be said to enter into mystical union with God (the unitive way), which begins with the consciousness that God is present to the soul; the soul progresses through a time of quiet and an ecstatic state to a final perfect state of union with God (spiritual marriage). Late in this process there is an experience (the dark night of the soul) wherein the contemplative finds himself completely deserted by God, by hope, and, indeed, even by the power to pray; it lasts sometimes for years.
Visions, voices, ecstasies may accompany any or none of the states of contemplation before the final union. It is because of these external and nonessential manifestations that the erroneous idea has arisen that all enthusiastic and nonintellectual religious movements are necessarily mystical. The positive convictions of the mystic arise from the fact that they are based on what he or she must regard as objective reality directly perceived.
Great Mystics and Mystical Traditions
Among the principal contemplatives of Christianity from post-Apostolic times to the Reformation are Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Augustine, the false Dionysius the Areopagite, Cassian, St. Gregory I, Erigena, St. Peter Damian, St. Anselm, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Joachim of Fiore, Richard of Saint Victor, Hugh of Saint Victor, Hadewijch, St. Gertrude, St. Francis, Jacopone da Todi, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, Ramon Lull, Dante, Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck, Groote, Thomas à Kempis, Nicholas of Cusa, Rolle of Hampole, Walter Hilton, Juliana of Norwich, Margery Kempe, St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Catherine of Siena, Gerson, St. Bernardine of Siena, and St. Joan of Arc. The Catholic tradition was continued by St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Theresa of Ávila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Theresa of Lisieux. Orders that have given their name to types of mysticism are Carmelites, Carthusians, and Cistercians.
Among great Protestant mystics are Jakob Boehme and George Fox, founder of Quakerism, the foremost Protestant mystical movement. In the 17th and 18th cent. much literature of the contemplative life was written by the metaphysical poets and by Henry More, William Law, and others. Extremes in post-Reformation mysticism are seen in Jansenism (see under Jansen, Cornelis) and in quietism; and Emanuel Swedenborg may be regarded as a Protestant mystic. Also included in the mystic tradition were the Hermetic philosophers and the Alchemists.
In Judaism the mystical tradition represented by the kabbalah was continued in the modern Hasidism. For Islamic mysticism, see Sufism; al-Ghazali; Farid ad-Din Attar; Jalal ad-Din Rumi; Muin ad-Din Hasan Chishti; Hafiz; Jami; Sadi. For Hindu mysticism, see Vedanta; yoga; Aurobindo Ghose; Chinmoy Ghose; Dayananda Saraswati; Ramakrishna; Vivekananda; Yogananda. For Buddhism, see Zen Buddhism; Buddha; Milarepa; Daisetz Suzuki. See also Taoism.
See R. M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (1909, repr. 1970); S. N. Dasgupta, Hindu Mysticism (1927, repr. 1959); E. A. Peers, Studies of the Spanish Mystics (3 vol., 1927-60); E. Underhill, Mysticism (rev. ed. 1930, repr. 1961); J. de Marquette, Introduction to Comparative Mysticism (1949); D. T. Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (1957, repr. 1971); W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (1960); R. C. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (1960, repr. 1969); G. G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d ed. 1961); D. Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (1961); E. O'Brien, Varieties of Mystical Experience (1964); E. C. Butler, Western Mysticism (3d ed. 1967); L. H. Bridges, American Mysticism (1970); G. Parrinder, Mysticism in the World's Religions (1976); D. R. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism: A Biography of Rama Krishna (1985).
Mysticism is a set of beliefs and practices evoking an intimate union of man and the principle of being (god or divinity). The term mystic (mystisch) appears in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). In its March 20, 1907, session, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society listened to a talk by Adolf Häutler on "Mysticism and the Comprehension of Nature," with critical comments by Adler, Rank, and Freud.
Mysticism was understood at that time in a pantheistic sense, as a union of man and nature and of nature with God. In a related sense, Freud "reserved for mysticism a consciousness of the inanimate," that is of matter and the mineral world (1915e).
The discussions between Freud and Romain Roll-and on the "oceanic feeling" and "Universal river" partook of the same pantheistic atmosphere that the French writer was fond of attributing to the "Germanic soul," and that he had borrowed from Indian thought. The feeling for nature and the idea of God were combined in a communion that drew equally on art and religion. For his part, however, Freud wrote to Rolland, on July 20, 1929, "I have as little appreciation for mysticism as I do for music."
Unlike Carl Jung, Freud was distinctly reticent about mysticism, which he felt had more to do with nature than with culture, more to do with intuition (if not drives) than with reason. Near the very end of his life, on August 22, 1938, he wrote in his notes: "Mysticism, the obscure self-perception of a kingdom outside the ego, or id." This obscurity, according to Freud, is not unrelated to the "dark continent" of the female psyche.
But although he seemed to reject mysticism, Freud acknowledged an irrational element in himself: the residue of his self-analysis, which he called "the specifically Jewish nature of [his] mysticism." Moreover, he loved mystery and wrote to Fliess (June 12, 1900) that he had dreamt of a marble plaque on his house that read:
In this house,
on July 24, 1895,
the mystery of the dream was revealed
to Dr. Sigmund Freud.
Freud, Sigmund. (1915e). The Unconscious. SE,14:159-204.
——. (1970). Letters of Sigmund Freud, 1873-1939. (Ernst L. Freud, Ed.; Tania and James Stern, Trans.). London: Hogarth.
Häutler, Adolf. (1962-75). Scientific meeting, March 20, 1907: Mysticism and the comprehension of nature. In Herman Nunberg and Ernst Federn (Eds.), Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (M. Nunberg, Trans., Vol. 2, 1906-08). New York: International Universities Press.
Jung, Carl Gustav. (1980). The psychology of the transference. Coll. Works, Vol. 16. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Vermorel, Henri, and Vermorel, Madeleine. (1993). Sigmund Freud et Romain Rolland. Correspondance 1923-1936.(Alain de Mijolla, Ed.). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
The attempt of man to attain the ultimate reality of things and experience direct communion with the highest. Mysticism maintains the possibility of a relationship with God, not by means of revelation or the ordinary religious channels, but by introspection and meditation in conjunction with a purified life, culminating in the awareness that the individual partakes of the divine nature. Mysticism has been identified with pantheism by some authorities, and many pantheists have been mystics. However, mysticism is not tied to any particular philosophical or theological perspective.
Mysticism tends to differ from public religion, which emphasizes a worshipful submission to the deity and the ethical dimension of life, while mysticism strains after the realization of a personal union with the divine source itself. The mystic desires to be as close to God as possible, part of the divine essence itself, whereas the ordinary devotee of most religious systems merely desires to walk in God's way and obey his will.
Mysticism has emerged as a strain in all of the major religious systems, both East and West. It tends to have a particular affinity, however, with some systems. While there is, for example, a perceptible mystical stain in Christianity, Judaism (Hassidism), and Islam (Sufism), Western systems that emphasize the transcendence of a personal all-powerful deity have made mysticism a secondary concern. In the East, where the unreality of material things is emphasized, mysticism is a more dominant form of spiritual life. The Sufis of Persia may be said to be a link between the more austere Indian mystics and those of Europe.
With the rise of Alexandrian Neoplatonism, mysticism attained a new level of presence in Europe. Neoplatonism made a definite mark upon early Christianity, and we find it mirrored in many of the patristic writings of the sixteenth century.
It was Erigena who, in the ninth century, transmitted to Europe the so-called writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, the sixth century Syrian thinker who synthesized Christian theology and Neoplatonism and thus greatly influenced the mysticism of the Middle Ages. Erigena based his own system upon that of Dionysius. This was the so-called "negative theology," which placed God above all categories and designated him as nothing, or the incomprehensible essence from which the world of primordial causes is eternally created. This creation is the work of the Son of God, in whom all substantial things exist; but God is the beginning and end of everything. On this system Christian mysticism may be said to have been founded with little variation.
With Erigena, reason and authority are identical, and in this he agrees with all speculative mystics. Scholasticism, however, is characterized by the acceptance by reason of a given matter that is presupposed even when it cannot be understood. It seemed to Erigena that in the scholastic system, religious truth was external to the mind, while the opposite view was fundamental to mysticism.
That is not to say that mysticism according to Erigena is a mere subordination of reason to faith. Mysticism indeed places every confidence in human reason, and it is essential that it should have the unity of the human mind with the divine as its main tenet, but it accepts nothing from without, and it posits the higher faculty of reason over the realization of absolute truth.
Medieval mysticism may be said to have originated from a reaction of practical religion against the dialectics in which the true spirit of Christianity was then enshrined. Thus St. Bernard opposed the dry scholasticism of Abelard. His mysticism was profoundly practical, and dealt chiefly with the means by which human beings may attain the knowledge of God. This is to be accomplished through contemplation and withdrawal from the world.
Asceticism is the soul of medieval mysticism, but St. Bernard averred regarding self-love that it is proper to love ourselves for God's sake, or because God loved us, thus merging self-love in love for God. We must, so to speak, love ourselves in God, in whom we ultimately lose ourselves. In this, St. Bernard is almost Buddhistic, and indeed his mysticism is of the universal type.
Perhaps Hugh of St. Victor, a contemporary of St. Bernard's, did more to develop the tenets of mysticism, and his monastery of Augustinians near Paris became a great center of mysticism. One of his apologists, Richard of St. Victor, declared that the objects of mystic contemplation are partly above reason, and partly, as regards intuition, contrary to reason. The protagonists of this theory, all of whom issued from the same monastery, were known as the Victorines and put up a stout fight against the dialecticians and schoolmen. Bonaventura, who died in 1274, was a disciple of this school and a believer in the faculty of mystic intuition.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the worldliness of the church aroused much opposition among laymen, and the church's cold formalism created a reaction towards a more spiritual regime. Many sects arose, such as the Waldenses, the Cathari (see Gnosticism), and the Beguines, all of which strove to infuse into their teachings a warmer spirituality than that which burned in the heart of the church of their time.
In Germany, mysticism made great strides, and Machthild of Magdeburg and Elizabeth of Thuringia were, if not the originators of mysticism in Germany, certainly among its earliest supporters. Joachim of Flores and Amalric of Bena wrote strongly in favor of a reformed church, and their writings are drenched with mystical terms, derived for the most part from Erigena. Joachim mapped out the duration of the world into three ages, that of the Father, that of the Son, and that of the Spirit—the last of which was to commence with the year 1260, and to be inaugurated by the general adoption of monastic and contemplative life.
A sect called the New Spirit, or the Free Spirit, became widespread through northern France, Switzerland, and Germany; and these did much to infuse the spirit of mysticism throughout Germany.
It is with Meister Eckhart, who died in 1327, that we get the juncture of mysticism with scholastic theology. Of his doctrine it has been said: "The ground of your being lies in God. Reduce yourself to that simplicity, that root, and you are in God. There is no longer any distinction between your spirit and the divine—you have escaped personality and finite limitation. Your particular, creature self, as a something separate and dependent on God is gone. So also, obviously, your creaturely will. Henceforth, therefore, what seems an inclination of yours is in fact the divine good pleasure. You are free from law. You are above means. The very will to do the will of God is resolved into that will itself. This is the Apathy, the Negation, the Poverty, he commends."
With Eckhart personally this self-reduction and deification is connected with a rigorous asceticism and exemplary moral excellence. Yet it is easy to see that it may be a merely intellectual process, consisting in a man's thinking that he is thinking himself away from his personality. He declares the appearance of the Son necessary to enable us to realize our sonship; and yet his language implies that this realization is the perpetual incarnation of that Son—does, as it were, constitute him. Christians are accordingly not less the sons of God by grace than is Christ by nature. Believe yourself divine, and the Son is brought forth in you. The Saviour and the saved are dissolved together in the blank absolute substance."
With the advent of the Black Death, a great spirit of remorse swept over Europe in the fourteenth century, and a vast revival of piety took place. This resulted in the foundation in Germany of a society of Friends of God, whose chief object was to strengthen each other in intercourse with the creator. Perhaps the most distinguished of these were John Tauler and Nicolas of Basle, and the society numbered many inmates of the cloister, as well as wealthy men of commerce and others. Ruysbroek, the great Flemish mystic, was connected with them, but his mysticism is perhaps more intensely practical than that of any other visionary. The machinery by which the union with God is to be effected is the most attractive. In Ruysbroek's lifetime, a mystical society arose in Holland called the Brethren of Common Lot, who founded an establishment at which Groot dispensed the principles of mysticism to Radewyn and Thomas Kempis.
The attitude of mysticism at the period of the Reformation is peculiar. We find a mystical propaganda sent forth by a body of Rosicrucians denouncing Roman Catholicism in the fiercest terms, and we also observe the spirit of mysticism strongly within those bodies that resisted the coldness and formalism of the Roman Catholic Church of that time.
On the other hand, however, we find the principles of Luther strongly opposed by some of the most notable mystics of his time. But the Reformation passed, and mysticism went on its way, divided, it is true, so far as the outward theological principles of its votaries were concerned, but strongly united in its general principles.
It is with Nicolas of Kusa, who died in 1464, that mysticism triumphs over scholasticism. Nicolas was the protagonist of super-knowledge, or that higher ignorance which is the knowledge of the intellect in contra-distinction to the mere knowledge of the understanding. His doctrines colored those of Giordano Bruno (1550-1600) and his theosophy certainly preceded that of Paracelsus (1493-1541). The next great name in mysticism is that of Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), a German Rosicrucian mystical teacher.
The Roman Catholic Church produced many mystics of note in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including Francis of Sales, Madame Guyon, and Molinos—the last two of which were the protagonists of Quietism, which set forth the theory that there should be no pleasure in the practice of mysticism, and that God did not exist for the enjoyment of man. Perhaps the greatest students of Boehme were William Law (1686-1761) and Saint-Martin (1743-1803).
The Universality of Mystical Experience
It is clear from the statements of mystics that they are not limited to any given religion or theology. Given the elevation of the mystical experience over any theological reflection upon that experience, it has been relatively easy for mystics of different traditions to relate to each other, often finding a more natural affinity that with the non-mystic members of their own religious tradition. It is obvious that they are dealing with an element in human experience common to all of humankind. When Meister Eckhart stated, "If I am to know God directly, I must become completely He, and He I: so that this He and this I become and are one I," he comes to the same point as the Advaita Vedanta doctrine of Hinduism, where the jiva (individual soul) merges with Brahma the creator before absorption in Brahman, the non-personal divine ground.
Sufism, Islamic mysticism, first arose in the ninth century among the Persian Moslems, probably as a protest against the severe monotheism of their religion, but in all likelihood more ancient springs contributed to its revival. In the Persia of Hafiz and Saadi, pantheism abounded, and their magnificent poetry is read by Moslems as having a deep mystical significance, although for the most part it deals with the intoxication of love. It is certain that many of them exhibit the fervor of souls searching for communion with the highest.
The apparent differences between Hindu mysticism and Christian mysticism are nominal. Although Christian theology postulates the divine in the form of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, such distinctions become largely unimportant in the actual mystical experience. Similarly, popular Hinduism postulates hundreds of different gods and goddesses, but these are merely legal fictions to the Indian mystic, melting away in the totality of higher consciousness.
Because mind and emotion are transcended in the higher reaches of mysticism, they are seen by mystics as merely ways of reaching a reality that lies beyond them, a totality of consciousness without object, beyond the normal human limitations of individual body, ego, personality, hopes, and fears.
Like Christianity, Hindu Vedanta (inquiry into ultimate reality), has different schools of theology, ranging from Advaita (monism or non-dualism, claiming that all is one and only the divine ultimate has actual existence, all else being illusory) to degrees of Dvaita or dualism (claiming that there is one ultimate divine principle of God but that the soul is a separate principle with independent existence). Such schools are not really contradictory to the mystic, but rather different degrees of interpretation of one reality on the way to an actual mystical experience in which intellectual distinctions vanish.
The Way of the Mystic
In both Eastern and Western mysticism, withdrawal from the everyday life of a householder is recognized as an aid to mystical progress, thus both have monastic establishments at which one follows a life of prayer and meditation. In the initial stages, self-purification is facilitated by dedicated service to others, prior to the more secluded life of the contemplative.
Mystics have sometimes been accused of escapism, of retreating from the responsibilities of everyday life into a private world, and indeed, the descriptions of the ecstasies of spiritual awareness often sound rather like a selfish indulgence, oblivious to the problems of the outside world.
It is clear that the ideal mystic partakes fully of the duties and social responsibility of life after spiritual enlightenment, since mystical experience should give deeper meaning to the reality behind the everyday mundane world. For most individuals, however, a period of retreat from everyday life is helpful in disengaging oneself from the fears, desires, and egoism of mundane existence.
Hinduism places great stress on dharma, the duties and responsibilities of the individual, which take priority over any desire for transcendentalism. During this period one would observe the everyday religious rites and rituals related to the gods and goddesses of an individual's life. Later, however, when one had fulfilled one's responsibilities, married, begat a family, and provided for them, the realization that everything connected with the material world and physical life was transient would grow steadily, culminating in a hunger for knowledge of what is eternal.
At such a time, one might seek a qualified guru or spiritual preceptor and follow an ascetic life, discarding all material possessions, egoism, hopes, and fears in the quest for a higher spiritual awareness not subject to birth and death, or change and decay. Various pathways of yoga facilitated that quest, involving self-purification, service to others, and refinement of perception based upon physical health and its spiritual counterpart.
The Hindu emphasis on the duties and responsibilities of a householder taking priority over the quest for mystical enlightenment have something in common with Judaism, which does not seek to separate mystical experience from everyday life. Judaism is essentially pragmatic in its approach to the spiritual life and requires that mystical experience be interfused with daily life and religious observance.
The Jewish mystic typified in the period of eighteenth to nineteenth-century Hasidism, was a pious rabbi, living a life of prayer, study, and meditation within his community and sharing everyday social life and responsibility. In this respect he resembled the Eastern teacher around whom a group of pupils would gather for spiritual teaching and experience.
The Mechanisms of Mysticism
It is clear that the concept of self-purification in mystical progress involves psycho-physical mechanisms. Fasting, asceticism, mortification, and intense meditation have profound effects on the individual nervous system and other aspects of the body and mind. Very little discussion on this important area appeared in Western literature until Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven & Hell (1956). The starting point for Huxley's speculations about the psychophysical mechanisms of mystical experience was his own experiment in taking mescaline, a psychedelic drug, and unfortunately this particular stimulus has overshadowed the wider implications of his discussion.
A more simplistic interpretation of Huxley's speculations leads directly to the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, spear-headed by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, based on the conviction that by merely taking certain chemical substances one could have a spiritual experience comparable with that of the great mystics of history. This was a concept that Huxley himself deplored in his later years.It is now obvious that the chemical ecstasy and visions produced by psychedelic drugs are qualitatively different from the transcendental union experienced by the mystic who has devoted years to self-purification of mind, inner exploration, and spiritual perception, and that unless there is such a purification of the individual, the consumption of drugs can produce an intense but ultimately shallow experience. The search for chemical ecstasy was soon abandoned by its major early exponents, such as Walter Houston Clark.
It is now clear that the gradual transformation of the personality on all levels—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual—involves specific psycho-physical concomitants. Some of these may be accessible to scientific inspection. It may also be possible to evaluate various degrees of transcendental experience, ranging from emotional euphoria to progressively more profound areas of higher consciousness.
The modern Hindu mystic Pandit Gopi Krishna, who experienced a dramatic development of higher consciousness following a period of intense yoga discipline and meditation, has published his experiences and the perceptions accompanying them in a series of books, which during the last years of his life attracted the attention of scientists in investigating the phenomenon.
Paranormal Side Effects
Most religions have reported miraculous phenomena associated with the path of mysticism, including visions, disembodied voices, levitation, and gifts of healing. Christian saints have their miracles and the yogis have their occult powers. It would seem that with the transcendence of normal mental and emotional life, there is an area of transcendence of normal physical law. However, the mystic is warned not to be snared by such phenomena, since it will activate egoism and pride, common faults of the beginner on the spiritual path.
A Turning Point in Western Mysticism
Recent studies of Christian mysticism recognize 1200-1350C.E. as a crucial period in Western mysticism history. The era witnessed new styles and forms of religion, including reformed attitudes toward the relation of the world and the church. No longer was withdrawal from the worldly considered necessary to experience the mystical. Language styles changed in mystical poetry, sermons, and hagiography. Most significantly, there was a growth in the number of mystics, both male and female, as women began to take on a more influential role in mysticism during this time. Among these women visionaries was the ecstatic mystic Angela of Foligno and several great spiritual leaders of the Beguine movement: Mary of Oignies, Hadewijch of Antwerp, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete.
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Mysticism has become a highly imprecise term,
partially because various popular writers have come to associate it with
the occult and anything "mysterious." Originally, mysticism was a
purely religious concept, referring to the experience of the direct
union of the individual soul
with the divine. Thus, people like St. John of the Cross, Teresa of
Avila, Rumi, and a host of others were mystics in this pure sense. All
true mystics would make a sharp distinction between the dream state and
the state of divine union. For example, the Upanishads,
a Hindu scripture that deals with mystical union, distinguishes between
our normal waking state, the dream state, dreamless sleep, and the
"fourth" state (i.e., the state of union with the godhead). Mystics do,
however, often have visions
and vivid spiritual dreams related to their quest for union with the
divine. Thus, while it is not incorrect to associate dreams with
mysticism, the dream state and the mystical state should never be
Mysticism ( pronunciation (help·info); from the Greek μυστικός, mystikos, meaning 'an initiate') is the knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, or levels of being, or aspects of reality, beyond normal human perception, including experience of and even communion with a supreme being.
A "mystikos" was an initiate of a mystery religion. The Eleusinian Mysteries, (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were annual initiation ceremonies in the cults of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, held in secret at Eleusis (near Athens) in ancient Greece. The mysteries began in about 1600 B.C. in the Mycenean period and continued for two thousand years, becoming a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spreading to Rome.
The present meaning of the term mysticism arose via Platonism and Neoplatonism—which referred to the Eleusinian initiation as a metaphor for the "initiation" to spiritual truths and experiences—and is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on practices intended to nurture those experiences. Mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or may be nondualistic.
Many if not all of the world's great religions have arisen around the teachings of mystics (including Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze, and Krishna); and most religious traditions describe fundamental mystical experience, at least esoterically. Enlightenment or Illumination are generic English terms for the phenomenon, derived from the Latin illuminatio (applied to Christian prayer in the 15th century) and adopted in English translations of Buddhist texts, but used loosely to describe the state of mystical attainment regardless of faith.
Conventional religions, by definition, have strong institutional structures, including formal hierarchies and mandated sacred texts and/or creeds. Adherents of the faith are expected to respect or follow these closely, so mysticism is often deprecated or persecuted.
The following table briefly summarizes the major forms of mysticism within world religions and their basic concepts.
|Host Religion||Form of Mysticism||Basic Concept||Sources of Information|
|Buddhism||Shingon, Tibetan, Zen, Jhana||attainment of Nirvana, Satori: connection to ultimate reality|||
|Christianity||Catholic spirituality, Quaker tradition, Christian mysticism, Gnosticism||Spiritual enlightenment, Spiritual vision, the Love of God, union with God (Theosis)|||
|Hinduism||Vedanta, Yoga, Bhakti, Kashmir Shaivism||liberation from cycles of Karma, non-identification (Kaivalya), experience of ultimate reality (Samadhi), Innate Knowledge (Sahaja and Svabhava)|||
|Islam||Sufism, Irfan||Innate knowledge, union with God (fana)|||
|Jainism||Moksha||liberation from cycles of Karma|||
|Judaism||Kabbalah, Hasidism||abnegation of the ego, Ein Sof|||
|Sikhism||-||liberation from cycles of Karma|||
|Taoism||-||Te: connection to ultimate reality|||
Since, by definition, mystical knowledge cannot be directly written down or spoken of (but must be experienced), numerous literary forms that allude to such knowledge - often with contradictions or even jokes - have developed, for example:
Zen koans, riddles, and metaphysical contradictions are intentionally irresolvable tasks or lines of thought, designed to direct one away from intellectualism and effort towards direct experience.
These can be meant as humorous phrases (see humour, below); or as serious questions with significant mystical answers. Others believe that the most edifying understanding of these riddles is that excessive effort contemplating the impossible can give an individual the opportunity to stop trying to 'achieve' and start just 'being'.
Jokes and humorous stories can be used in spiritual teaching to make simple yet profound metaphysical points:
Some Passages seem to be aphorisms, riddles and parables all at once. For instance, Yunus Emre's famous passage:
Various religious texts prescribe meditative practices in order to achieve the state of consciousness which is typical of religious experience. Texts of Yoga and Tantra mention specific physical, nutritive, ethical, and meditative methods in order to achieve specific kinds of experiences. The traditions of Mantra Marga (literally, "the way of formulae") in particular stress the importance of saying, either aloud or to oneself internally, particular Mantras (phrases to be repeated) given by their teacher. Combined with this is the set of practices related to Yantras (symbols to be meditated on). Various other ways not specific of any religion include:
[W]ith the one, divine reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one reality is such that it cannot be directly or immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit.
R. C. Zaehner has identified two distinctively different mystical experiences: natural and religious mystical experiences, this being the overarching thesis of his book Mysticism Sacred and Profane. Natural mystical experiences are, for example, experiences of the 'deeper self' or experiences of oneness with nature. Zaehner argues that the experiences typical of 'natural mysticism' are quite different from the experiences typical of religious mysticism. In this, Zaehner is directly opposing the views Aldous Huxley put forward in The Perennial Philosophy according to which the mystical experiences in all religions are essentially the same. Natural mystical experiences are in Zaehner's view of less value because they do not lead as directly to the virtues of charity and compassion. Zaehner is generally critical of what he sees as narcissistic tendencies in nature mysticism.
... we see all religions at their highest point end in mysticism and mysteries, that is to say, in darkness and veiled obscurity. These really indicate merely a blank spot for knowledge, the point where all knowledge necessarily ceases. Hence for thought this can be expressed only by negations, but for sense-perception it is indicated by symbolical signs, in temples by dim light and silence, in Brahmanism even by the required suspension of all thought and perception for the purpose of entering into the deepest communion with one's own self, by mentally uttering the mysterious Om. In the widest sense, mysticism is every guidance to the immediate awareness of what is not reached by either perception or conception, or generally by any knowledge. The mystic is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within, whereas the philosopher begins from without. The mystic starts from his inner, positive, individual experience, in which he finds himself as the eternal and only being, and so on. But nothing of this is communicable except the assertions that we have to accept on his word; consequently he is unable to convince.
'Meditator: It suddenly seemed as if I was surrounded by an immensely powerful Presence. I felt that a Truth had been "revealed" to me that was far more important than anything else, and for which I needed no further evidence. But when later I tried to describe this to my friends, I found that I had nothing to say except how wonderful that experience was.
This peculiar type of mental state is sometimes called a "Mystical Experience" or "Rapture," "Ecstasy," or "Bliss." Some who undergo it call it "wonderful," but a better word might be "wonderless," because I suspect that such a state of mind may result from turning so many Critics off that one cannot find any flaws in it.What might that "powerful Presence" represent? It is sometimes seen as a deity, but I suspect that it is likely to be a version of some early Imprimer that for years has been hiding inside your mind. In any case, such experiences can be dangerous—for some victims find them so compelling that they devote the rest of their lives to trying to get themselves back to that state again.'
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