Christian Mysticism: A History

The origins of Christian Mysticism go back to the very beginnings of Christianity. From the earliest days, devoted seekers have searched for theosis, or union with God. These mystics pursue the goal of Christ himself–to become “a son of God”, reaching unity with the Holy Spirit so that God himself may be seen directly, face to face. God, the mystics say, dwells in the heart of all people. While most Christians view God “through a glass, darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12) the mystics wish to remove the obscuring glass and experience God directly.

Christian Mysticism

“God became human so that man might become God.”–Athanasius of Alexandria

In many ways, Christian mysticism is similar to the Asian mystic traditions such as Zen, Taoism, and Buddhism. Indeed, most mystics would declare that these traditions all have the same goal–unity with the Divine–and that each merely uses different symbolisms and paths to reach that goal. Those who are familiar with the Eastern religious traditions (or even with the Islamic Sufi tradition) will recognize much in Christian mysticism that is familiar–and that is no accident. As the Chinese Taoist says, “There are many paths to climb a mountain. But once you reach the top, the view is the same for everyone.”Christian mysticism is reflected in several Biblical passages. The most often-cited verse is John 3:2–“Beloved, now we are the sons of God, and it doth appear that we shall be; but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Another prominent passage is Galatians 2:20–“I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

Unlike the Biblical literalist fundamentalists, the mystics view the Bible as poetic and symbolic, as a map that points the way inside one’s own soul. Like a Zen koan, these written words might appear paradoxical or nonsensical, yet to one who has understanding, they are wonderfully transparent. To all mystics, the direct experience of the Divine cannot be described in words–words may help others find the beginning of the path, but the words cannot be understood completely without experiencing the things they describe. Mysticism is, above all, nonverbal awareness.

And because mysticism is an individual journey, and does not require any outside authority, it often leads to direct conflict with organized religion and church authorities. Rare indeed is the Christian mystic who has not been condemned, excommunicated or executed by the organized church.

The Christian mystic path has been described as having three steps. The first step is the loss of egoism. To see God, the mystic must learn to stop seeing with his own eyes, and learn to see with God’s eyes. This involves the loss of selfish or self-centered desires and outlooks. Through prayer and faith, the mystic expands his love from merely himself to encompass all his surroundings, and thus gives up his own desires and focuses on the larger picture around him and his place within it. The Bible says we must “put to death the deeds of the flesh by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 8:13).

The second step is sensing the Divine. Through contemplation, illumination, and what can only be described weakly as “visions”, the mystic begins to see the workings of God in all his surroundings. God is everywhere, the mystics say, if we are only willing to look. In many cases, this insight comes quite suddenly as the result of some apparently random thing–an experience the Zen refer to as satori.

The third and final step is unity with God. In this transcendent state, God and individual are no longer separate, but the individual soul, as with everything else in Creation, becomes just another facet of God. “God is love,” says the Bible, “and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (John 4:16). This theosis is the highest goal of Christian mysticism.

Jacob Boehme

“When thou art gone forth wholly from the creation, and art become nothing at all that is nature and creature, then thou art in that eternal one which is God himself, and then thou shalt perceive and feel the highest virtue of love. Also, that I said whosoever findeth it findeth nothing and all things; that is also true, for he findeth a supernatural supersensual Abyss, having no ground, where there is no place to dwell in; and he findeth also nothing that is like it, and therefore it may be compared to nothing, for it is deeper than anything and is as nothing to all things, for it is not comprehensible; and because it is nothing it is free from all things, and it is that only Good which a man cannot express or utter what it is. But that I lastly said, he that findeth it, findeth all things, is also true; it hath been the beginning of all things, and it ruleth all things. If thou findest it, thou comest into that ground from whence all things proceed and wherein they persist; and thou art in it a king over all the works of God.”–Jacob Boehme, The Way to Christ

Jacob Boehme was born in Germany in 1575, the son of a peasant farm-worker. As a young boy, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker and, at the age of 17, he traveled to Gorlitz and set up his own shop there.Although unschooled and entirely self-taught, Boehme took up an interest in religion, and began to study the Bible as well as the writings of the Christian mystics Paracelsus and Weigel. In 1600, Boehme had his satori moment, when he happened to see a beam of sunlight reflecting off a polished pewter dish. In 1612, Boehme wrote a short manuscript about his mystic insights, which he circulated among friends. Although unfinished and never intended for publication, a copy was obtained by a local nobleman, who had it printed under the title Aurora. When the local Lutheran pastor read a copy, he condemned it as heresy and threatened to exile Boehme if he did not stop writing such “poison”.

The threat was enough to stop Boehme, but only temporarily. By 1624, his first complete work was published, a collection of short essays titled The Way to Christ. Once again, the local church reacted, and Boehme was dragged before the Town Council and ordered into exile. He went to stay with a sympathetic nobleman named Von Schweinitz, where he wrote a number of books, including The Signature of All Things, and soon had a number of followers across Europe, known as Behmanites.

To protect himself from church authorities, many of his writings were couched in obscure astrological and alchemist symbolism, which made them all but impenetrable to outsiders. In Boehme’s symbolism, God is depicted as Fire, Christ is depicted as Light, and the Holy Spirit is depicted as “The Living Principle” or “The Divine Life”.

Several mystical themes run through Boehme’s works. Humans, Boehme pointed out, originally had a unity with God, living with the Divine in a state of grace. It was selfish ego desires, represented in the form of Satan’s rebellion, that broke this unity and led to the separation of man from God. The goal of both God and Man, then, is to re-form that original unity by giving up ego-centered desires.

In Boehme’s view, the Creation itself was an attempt by God to become more self-aware, by providing himself with an opportunity to interact with an entity that was part of God, but also distinct and independent of God. The most profound level of this interaction comes with humans, who are made “in the image of God”. By giving free will to humanity, God gave himself a unique opportunity to learn about himself by interacting with an entity that was very much like him. Because of this, Boehme concludes, all individual humans have the capacity to see and understand God, so that God can better see and understand himself.

In the birth of Christ, Boehme further concludes, God chose to make himself a part of his Creation, and takes on all the sufferings and challenges that the rest of Creation labors under. But Christ, who is both human and divine, shows that unity with God is also possible for humans, and that this unity leads to the end of suffering. Boehme also points to the example of Mary, who, though human, is chosen by God to become the vehicle of the Divine. God, Boehme concludes, must be reborn inside each of us, as he was within Mary.

In November 1624, Boehme, dying of an intestinal disease, traveled home to Gorlitz, where the church refused to give him the Sacraments until after a long interrogation. He died a few days later.

Meister Eckhart

“The Eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me.”–Meister Eckhart, Sermons

Eckhart Von Hochheim, known as “Meister Eckhart”, is probably the most famous of the Christian mystics.Eckhart was born to a minor noble family in Thuringia in around the year 1260. He joined the Dominican Order and was sent to the University of Paris in 1300. By 1307, he was the Dominican Vicar-General for the entire province of Bohemia. In 1311, he was appointed as a teacher at the University of Paris. Most of his Sermons were apparently written during that time.

Within a few years, Eckhart had become a teacher at the University of Cologne, and it was here, in 1327, that the Archbishop made charges of heresy against him. The local Dominican authorities exonerated Eckhart, but the charges were then taken all the way up to the Pope. Eckhart protested that he did not intend any violations of church doctrine, and he repudiated any parts of his writings that could be viewed as heretical. Before the Pope could make a decision, Eckhart died. After Eckhart’s death, the Pope issued a ruling, aimed at Eckhart’s surviving followers, which concluded that some of Eckhart’s statements were heretical, and some others were suspected of heresy. Eckhart’s followers, however, formed a group called the Friends of God, and carefully preserved the Meister’s writings and views.

Eckhart’s basic message was the underlying unity between God and Man. His Sermons were written at a time when there was chaos in the Catholic Church–rival Popes sat in Rome and Avignon and fought over doctrinal authority, and the Dominican and Franciscan Orders examined each other for heresy. In response, a large number of lay groups, not connected with the Church hierarchy, began appearing, in which ordinary people tried to find their way through the theological (and political) minefield. It was to these lay groups that Eckhart wrote his Sermons. The Sermons were written in vernacular German rather than in the Latin used by the educated Church hierarchy, and they were intended to be practical straightforward messages whereby people could give up their attachment to the world and see the “Godhead” within themselves, free from all the current theological and political conflicts and controversies.

The Cloud of Unknowing

“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds.” —The Book of Privy Counseling

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing is unknown. The manuscript, written in Middle English, appeared throughout Europe in the second half of the 14th century. Because of literary and thematic similarities, it is believed that the same anonymous author also produced a somewhat later manuscript titled The Book of Privy Counseling, and may also have written a number of shorter Epistles.The Cloud of Unknowing emphasizes a theme which is also present in most other mystic works–the insufficiency of words. The mystic way is above all experiential–the Divine, being beyond human logic and beyond the capacity of intellectual reasoning, cannot be understood logically or rationally, and cannot be adequately expressed with our limited language. “If it could be talked about,” say the Taoists, “everyone would already have told his brother.” The only way to understand the Divine is to experience it directly. To attain freedom from the illusions of the intellect, one must discard the use of logic, words, and rational categorizing, and intuitively grasp reality with your entire being.

The Cloud of Unknowing, then, is a collection of prayers, meditations, and rituals, all of which are designed to quiet the mind and allow the student to experience the Divine directly, without allowing the intellect to interfere. We understand God by seeing him and experiencing unity with him, not by reading about him. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing points out the crucial difference between “God” and “A Book about God”.

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