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Stages, forms and significance of Christian mysticism

Stages of Christian mysticism
Christian mystics have described the stages of the return of the soul to God in a variety of ways. Following the Belgian Jesuit Joseph Maréchal, it can be suggested that Christian mysticism includes three broadly defined stages:

(1) the gradual integration of the ego under the mastery of the idea of a personal God and according to a program of prayer and asceticism,

(2) a transcendent revelation of God to the soul experienced as ecstatic contact or union, frequently with a suspension of the faculties, and

(3) "a kind of readjustment of the soul's faculties" by which it regains contact with creatures "under the immediate and perceptible influence of God present and acting in the soul" (Maréchal, Studies in the Psychology of the Mystics).

It is this final stage, which almost all of the greatest Christian mystics have insisted upon, that belies the usual claim that mysticism is a selfish flight from the world and an avoidance of moral responsibility.

1 -The dying to self
The mystics agree on the necessity of dying to the false self dominated by forgetfulness of God. In order to attain the goal, it is necessary to follow the way of purgation: the soul must be purified of all those feelings, desires, and attitudes that separate it from God. This dying to the self implies the "dark night of the soul" in which God gradually and sometimes painfully purifies the soul to ready it for the divine manifestation.

Christian mystics have always taken Christ, especially the crucified Christ, as the model for this process. According to the Theologia Germanica, "Christ's human nature was so utterly bereft of self, and apart from all creatures, as no man's ever was, and was nothing but a 'house and habitation of God' " (chapter 15).

The following of Christ involves a dying to self, a giving up of oneself wholly to God, so that one may be possessed by the divine Love. Such detachment and purgation were frequently expressed in extreme terms that imply the renunciation of all human ties.

Paradoxically, those who insist upon the most absolute detachment also emphasize that purifying the self is more a matter of internal attitude than of flight from the world and external penance.

In the words of William Law: "The one true way of dying to self wants no cells, monasteries or pilgrimages. It is the way of patience, humility and resignation to God" (The Spirit of Love, Part 1).

The practice of meditation and contemplative prayer, leading to ecstasy, is typical of Christian and other varieties of theistic mysticism. This usually involves a process of introversion in which all images and memories of outer things must be set aside so that the eye of inner vision may be opened and readied for the appearance of God.

Introversion leads to ecstasy in which "the mind is ravished into the abyss of divine Light" (Richard of Saint-Victor, The Four Grades of Violent Love). Illumination may express itself in actual radiance.

Symeon the New Theologian speaks of himself as a young man who saw "a brilliant divine Radiance" filling the room. In the path to union many of the Christian mystics experienced unusual and extraordinary psychic phenomena-visions, locutions, and other altered states of consciousness.

The majority of mystics have insisted that such phenomena are secondary to the true essence of mysticism and can even be dangerous. "We must never rely on them or accept them," as John of the Cross said in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 2.11.

2 -The union with God
Christian mystics claim that the soul may be lifted into a union with God so close and so complete that it is in some way merged in the being of God and loses the sense of any separate existence.

Jan van Ruysbroeck wrote that in the experience of union "we can nevermore find any distinction between ourselves and God" (The Sparkling Stone, chapter 10); and Eckhart speaks of the birth of the Son in the soul in which God "makes me his only-begotten Son without any difference" (German Sermons, 6).

These strong expressions of a unity of indistinction have seemed dangerous to many, but Eckhart and Ruysbroeck insisted that, properly understood, they were quite orthodox.

Bernard of Clairvaux, who insisted that in becoming one spirit with God the human "substance remains though under another form" (On Loving God, chapter 10), and John of the Cross, who wrote "the soul seems to be God rather than a soul, and is indeed God by participation" (The Ascent of Mount Carmel ii, 5:7), express the more traditional view of loving union.

3 -The readjustment
The goal of the mystic is not simply a transient ecstasy; it is a permanent state of being in which the person's nature is transformed or deified.

This state is frequently spoken of as a spiritual marriage that weds God and the soul. This unitive life has two main aspects. First, while the consciousness of self and the world remains, that consciousness is accompanied by a continuous sense of union with God, as Teresa of Ávila clearly shows in discussing the seventh mansion in The Interior Castle.

Brother Lawrence wrote that while he was at work in his kitchen he possessed God "in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament" (The Practice of the Presence of God, chapter 4).

Second, the spiritual marriage is a theopathic state: the soul is felt to be in all things the organ or instrument of God. In the unitive life Mme Guyon says that the soul "no longer lives or works of herself, but God lives, acts and works in her."

In this state the mystic is able to engage in manifold activities without losing the grace of union. In the words of Ignatius of Loyola, the mystic is "contemplative in action."

Forms of Christian mysticism
Christian mysticism has expressed itself in many forms during the last two millennia. Three broad types characterize much of Christian mysticism, though these should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

Some mystics tend to emphasize one form over the others, while others make use of all three.

1 -Christ-mysticism
The earliest form of Christian mysticism was the Christ-mysticism of Paul and John. Although Christian mysticism in its traditional expression has centred on aspiration for union with God, Christ-mysticism has always been present in the church.

In the Eastern Church emphasis was placed on the divine Light that appeared to the disciples at the Transfiguration, and mystics sought to identify with this light of Christ in his divine glory. Symeon says of a certain mystic that "he possessed Christ wholly. . . . He was, in fact entirely Christ."

In the Catholic West, with reference to the founding figure of Augustine, it is evident that it is in and through the one Christ, the union of Head and body that is the church, that humans come to experience God.

For Augustine the mystical life is Christ "transforming us into himself" (Homily on Psalm, 32.2.2). In the medieval period some of the most profound expressions of Christ-mysticism are found in the women mystics, such as Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich.

Luis de León spoke of the theopathic life in terms of Christ-mysticism: "The very Spirit of Christ comes and is united with the soul - nay, is infused throughout its being, as though he were soul of its soul indeed."

With Protestants the attempt to return to primitive Christianity has led to strong affirmations of Christ-mysticism. The early Quaker George Keith wrote that Christ is born spiritually in humanity when "his life and spirit are united unto the soul."

The chief representative of Christ-mysticism among the early Protestants was Kaspar Schwenckfeld. For him Christ was from all eternity the God-man, and as such he possessed a body of spiritual flesh in which he lived on Earth and which he now possesses in heaven.

In his exalted life Christ unites himself inwardly with human souls and imparts to them his own divinity.

2 -Trinitarian mysticism
Pure God-mysticism is rare in Christianity, though not unknown, as Catherine of Genoa shows. Christ as God incarnate is the Word, the second Person of the Trinity, and Christian mysticism has, from an early era, exhibited a strong Trinitarian dimension, though this has been understood in different ways.

What ties the diverse forms of Trinitarian mysticism together is the insistence that through Christ the Christian comes to partake of the inner life of the Trinity. The mysticism of Origen, for example, emphasizes the marriage of the Word and the soul within the union of Christ and the church but holds out the promise that through this action souls will be made capable of receiving the Father (First Principles, 3.6.9).

The mystical thought of Augustine and of such medieval followers as Richard of Saint-Victor, William of Saint-Thierry, and Bonaventure is deeply Trinitarian. Meister Eckhart taught that the soul's indistinction from God meant that it was to be identified with the inner life of the Trinity - that is, with the Father giving birth to the Son, the Son being born, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from both.

A similar teaching is found in Ruysbroeck. John of the Cross wrote of mystical union that "it would not be a true and total transformation if the soul were not transformed into the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity" (Spiritual Canticle, stanza 39.3).

Such strong Trinitarian emphasis is rarer, but not absent from Protestant mysticism.

3 -Negative mysticism: God and the Godhead
The most daring forms of Christian mysticism have emphasized the absolute unknowability of God. They suggest that true contact with the transcendent involves going beyond all that we speak of as God - even the Trinity - to an inner "God beyond God," a divine Darkness or Desert in which all distinction is lost.

This form of "mystical atheism" has seemed suspicious to established religion; its adherents have usually tried to calm the suspicions of the orthodox by an insistence on the necessity, though incompleteness, of the affirmative ways to God.

The main exponent of this teaching in the early centuries was the Pseudo-Dionysius, who distinguished "the super-essential God-head" from all positive terms ascribed to God, even the Trinity (The Divine Names, chapter 13).

In the West this tradition is first found in Erigena and is especially evident in the Rhineland school. According to Eckhart, even being and goodness are "garments" or "veils" under which God is hidden. In inviting his hearers to "break through" to the hidden Godhead, he daringly exclaimed, "let us pray to God that we may be free of 'God,' and that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel and the fly and the soul are equal" (German Sermons, 52).

The notion of the hidden Godhead was renewed in the teaching of Jakob Böhme, who spoke of it as the Ungrund - "the great Mystery," "the Abyss," "the eternal Stillness." He stressed the fact of divine becoming (in a nontemporal sense): God is eternally the dark mystery of which nothing can be said but ever puts on the nature of light, love, and goodness wherein the divine is revealed to human beings.

Significance of Christian mysticism
The study of Christian mysticism presents both the unity of mysticism as an aspect of religion and the diversity of expression that it has received in the history of Christian faith.

The mystic claims contact with an order of reality transcending the world of the senses and the ordinary forms of discursive intellectual knowing. Christian mystics affirm that this contact is with God the Trinity and can take place only through the mediation of Christ and the church, whether explicitly or implicitly at work.

The claim is all the more significant in that Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Protestants are here in agreement.

Without in any way affirming that all mysticism is everywhere one and the same, it can be said that the Christian mystics take their stand with the mystics of other traditions in pointing to "the Beyond that is within."

In an age when the claims of established religion are so widely questioned, the witness of the mystics is of particular appeal; but it should be remembered that most mystics have not been rebels against their respective religious confessions. Another great question that confronts the present age is the relation of Christianity to other world religions.

If Christianity is to embark upon truly cooperative relations with other religions, it must be deeply imbued with the insight and experience of the mystics. Even if it is to attempt to plumb the depths of its own history, it cannot neglect its mystical dimensions.

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