As you may have noticed, I’m always talking about the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. But did you know that there were no mystics in the Middle Ages? The figures we call “mystics” – like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena — would have referred to themselves as contemplatives or perhaps simply as devout Christians.
“Mystic” and “mysticism” are more modern terms (17th century). But the medievals did use the adjective “mystical.” The 15th-century chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, wrote a book about mystical theology, which he defines as knowledge of God that comes from love (as opposed to books or academic study). Medievals also spoke of the mystical meaning of the Bible – its deeper, spiritual meaning, which usually pointed to the mystery of Christ.
So what about those figures we call mystics? Figures like Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, and Meister Eckhart? These Christians experienced a heightened consciousness of God’s presence. They sought God’s love based on direct experience, not textbook knowledge. This is what we mean when we call them mystics – and I think it’s fine for us to use this term since it’s firmly entrenched in our vocabulary now.
In the medieval era, a mystical encounter with God could result from lectio divina – reading and spending time with Scripture. At other times, it might come after meditating on scenes from Christ’s life or on sacred imagery.
Margery Kempe had a mystical experience upon seeing the site of Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She was graced with a vision of the crucified Christ in the very place he suffered and died. It knocked her to the ground. Jesus, she says, was present before her eyes.
However, mystics did not always have visions. Nor did they always experience complete or ecstatic union with God. Those were special gifts given to some of them. And they were also fairly rare experiences. The criteria for being a mystic is much simpler, and it opens the door to an “everyday mysticism” to which you and I have access today. Simply put, a mystic seeks a deeper and more direct consciousness of God in her daily life. She wants to be awakened by God! This often happens through what seem like quite ordinary activities, like prayer, reading and meditating on Scripture, and being part of a Christian community. Always, it happens through the work of the Spirit in us.
So . . . it’s not audacious to define yourself as a mystic; it doesn’t mean you’re extra holy or have to meet some impossible standard. It just means that you seek greater intimacy with God and long to be enlivened by God’s eternal presence.
What attracts me the most about mysticism is that it coaxes me out of my hiding place. I can hide behind books about God and Christianity; I can fall back on my education or on acquiring more knowledge (including Wikipedia sometimes–oops!). But all this will mean very little unless I truly know, on a heart level, God’s all-encompassing love. This is why I need to be an everyday mystic.
How about you? Would you define yourself as a mystic?
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