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A Christian Mysticism?

Journal of Christian Nursing, 23(3):34-36, Summer 2006


Is there a distinctive form of life that constitutes Christian Mysticism? Or is there just mysticism, which can be dressed in one or another cultural form, none of which makes any real difference to the substance of the life of the mystic?

These are very difficult questions to discuss in a helpful way. Always, because in coming to clarity about what mysticism is one has to work through, or at least come to terms with, a highly abstract and arcane metaphysical terminology, which people involved in the discussion tend to utilize without adequate knowledge or precautions. But especially today, when mysticism often overlaps or is identified with "spirituality," and spirituality has become a political bone of contention in a world caught up in religious and anti-religious ferment. Spirituality offers to put a transcendental quality on life—a tie to a "beyond" that may well be "within"—without the embarrassing associations with some specific historical and cultural record. Spirituality offers an elevation of life that you, possibly, can practice as a part of your individual "life-style" without having to justify beliefs and practices that you may, for whatever reason, not like to be encumbered with.

An extension of this approach to spirituality is that if you wish to claim someone as a mystic you have to disencumber them of their religious and cultural specificity and find characteristics you can identify in them or project upon them that are the same in all mystics, and therefore independent of all that makes them Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian, or whatever. The highly abstract and arcane terminology therefore comes in very handy, at this point, for it allows you to carry on in a language that hardly ever touches concrete lives and reality.

Such terminology is exemplified in the claim often made—if not as a definition, then at least as an essential property—that a mystic is one who has attained the status of union with the ‘Absolute’, however named or imaged, for in the Absolute we must, in the nature of the case, go beyond all names and images. But if one aims at understanding of the mystic with such language, it can serve only as the starting point of the investigation. In particular, what is the "Absolute," and what does "Union" with ‘it’—certainly not a person—amount to? Starting from the literary and historical context where such language originates and is most at home, the Absolute is the "All," the whole of reality, which is undividedly One, and lies beyond all characterizations that can be assigned in human thought and language. ‘It’ is ineffable. To attain the status of union with the All, on such a view, is to come to the realization that you are in fact identical with the All. That this is how things really are, and the consciousness of your individuality or separate existence is an illusion. Union is not a matter of becoming identical with the All, for you were never anything else. In your unenlightened state you did not know you are the All, but as you become enlightened you, as it were, "discover" it.

Now once you get a clear view of this understanding of "union with the Absolute," you see immediately that it is not a "timeless, perennial mystical tradition." Rather, it is one highly culturally-bound, historical tradition of metaphysical claims and ritual behavior. And it excludes from the outset the beliefs and most of the rituals of all the great theistic religions on earth, and of the vast majority of human beings on earth. You have to accept its quite specific metaphysics and its illusionist interpretation of the ordinary world as the basis for understanding mysticism, which then turns around and supports the illusionist interpretation. "Union with the Absolute" turns out, on this interpretation, to be anything but a kind of common ground where earnest and fair-minded people might meet to enjoy to flow of a spiritual life together without regard to concrete religious forms of life.

Union with the Absolute also can be understood in a distinctively Christian manner, and one with substantial overlap on the other theistic religions. The key differences from the illusionist interpretation are two: The "Absolute" for the theist is understood to be a Person. And union with the Absolute, thus understood, consists, not in identity with Him, but in personal relationships of knowing, feeling and willing, on some substantial analogy with what is to be found among human beings in their better conditions. It involves conscious attitudes and actions between God and the human being, and then harmonious actions together with the divine and the human. Each side contributes to the relationship—though obviously not in the same proportion. Such a union is aptly described as "God with us." It is less a status than it is a modulated flow of life in which transformative experiences of God come and go, along with a constant undertone of divine presence interwoven with the events of a normal human existence. In the records of Christian life, this relationship is often thought of as a journey toward God that is, at the same time, a journey in God. A readily available source for studying such lives anecdotally would be William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. But reports and testimonies of out of those lives are widely available.

Of course the source for understanding such a "with God" life is the Bible. For example, the Twenty-Third Psalm is a straightforward description of the human experience of union with God—once you understand that the writer is not engaging in lofty whistling-in-the-dark, but relating his actual experience and condition of life "with God." The entire Bible conveys a picture of a life of personal union of God with his people, and the New Testament interpretation of how Christ lives in his people becomes a central part of the Christian understanding of life, especially for such passages as the Gospel of John chapters 14-17, Colossians chapters 1-3, and Galatians 2:20-21, to mention only a few passages. James Stewart’s A Man In Christ, or the Introductory Materials and Notes to The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible can guide anyone further in studying along these lines. Albert Schweitzer’s The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle is also a very useful source.

Certainly ‘nominal’ Christianity, or Christianity merely as a social form, does not involve union with God on the relational model. That is always a sore spot within the social/historical reality of the Christian movement. From the earliest centuries, however, Christians who have thrown themselves into the actual following of Jesus Christ have lived from their experiences of union with God. They have always insisted that correct belief and outward conformity is not what the life in Christ is about. A long line of famous and not so famous Christ-followers have kept the "mystical" substance of their living "union with the Absolute" alive down to the present time. And they have usually been in trouble—often very serious trouble—with the nominally "Christian" people, leaders and institutions in the midst of which they lived. "Spirituality" was used as a term of derision to apply to Madame de la Mothe Guyon and her associates, in the 17th Century, because of her insistence upon living a life of intimate, experiential relationship with God. The "Rhineland Mystics," and most notably Master Eckhart among them, had earlier suffered similar reproach and persecution from "official" Christianity. Both his critics and his admirers have assigned Pantheism to him because they have not read him carefully and did not understand the theological language in which he spoke of the mystical relationship of the Christian to God. (See Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache, Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystic for excellent information and interpretation of these particular Christian mystics.)

One of the standard things that misleads people in approaching Christian mystics is how they frequently mention the loss of consciousness of themselves in their most ecstatic experience of God. Loss of self awareness is in fact a common human phenomenon, and not one that occurs only in religious or mystical experiences. But this loss never implies, to Christian mystics, that they cease to exist as individuals or that they are absorbed into the Absolute. Theirs is a different metaphysics, which is one of persons in relationship, not of an illusory separate being dissolving into the "All."

Now of course there are many forms of mystical experience and mysticism. Even atheists have mystical experiences. But there is a clear distinction between the enduring and powerful mysticism implicit in the Christian tradition and that in the non-theistic world religions. Here we do not even raise the question of which is best. But the idea that there is a mystical life that stands free from the specific forms found among human cultures, and that one can actually live such a life in the course of routine human affairs, is simply a fanciful ideal that cannot support the weight of the personal and ethical heroism life requires of us. One can no more live a life of effectual devotion to good from the resources of "the timeless, perennial mystical tradition" than you can paint with color but no specific color.

The specific "color" or Christian mysticism is devotion to Jesus Christ. There is a lot of room for spelling out exactly what that means, and a lot of ways of putting it into practice. Pretty clearly this was the "mysticism" of Florence Nightingale, as is shown from her explicit language, the people she consulted with, and the context of religious life in her times. Her departure from various details of the nominal or real Christianity she encountered around her is better explained by her devotion to Christ than by any reversion to plain-wrap mysticism or to non-orthodox beliefs. The overriding question faced by most professionals today, including nurses, has to do with what they are really devoted to, and what are their life sustaining resources, in pursuing their profession. An honest, thorough inquiry into the possibilities here is what is called for. Are there any preferable alternatives to an all-out, experiential devotion to Christ? Then let us find them and live them. If not, let us live in union with the Absolute who is Jesus Christ.

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