Misunderstanding Mysticism

Mysticism is one of those things easily misunderstood, because it is a label given to a wide number of philosophies and practices.  For a lot of folks the word conjures up images of tarot card readings, astrology charts, auras, crystals and healing energy and the like.  Christian mysticism, however, has very ancient roots, reaching back to the Bible.   One of the main themes of Christian mysticism has been the relationship of God and humankind as a love story.  The great monastic teachers of prayer like Gregory the Great, William of St. Thierry, and Bernard of Clairvaux all loved the Song of Songs and the bride/groom imagery of the New Testament.  It was always the love story which provided the heartfelt balance to the other main theme of mystery.   Also the journey to union with God could be pictured as a love story.

Yet Christian mysticism is viewed with suspicion by many people.  As one example, Marcus Barth in his otherwise excellent Anchor commentary on the book of Ephesians is very skeptical about a Christian form of mysticism (pages 385-388).  In rejecting the idea that the Apostle Paul might be a mystic, Barth writes that “all the mystical elements or parallels that appear in his life and writings are under the safe control of historical and practical, if not pragmatic, arguments.”  Barth minimizes Paul’s mystical moments and criticizes mysticism as “esoteric and perfectionist.”

Yet, in his translation and comments on Ephesians 4:13 Barth links bridegroom imagery to the Son of God (pages 486-487):   “Until  we all come to meet the unifying faith and knowledge of the Son of God, the Perfect Man, the perfection of the Messiah.”  The words that follow are a mystic’s delight.  Barth describes the festival procession of the whole town (not just the wedding party) to meet the King/ bridegroom.  Not only are the young bride’s hopes pinned on her Prince Charming, but the whole community yearns for peace, prosperity and happiness as they approach the Messiah/ Prince of peace.  So unwittingly Marcus Barth describes the mystic’s longing for union with Christ.

It is true there are other important elements to Christian mysticism, such as faith as vision, the deeper meaning of spiritual realities, the importance of paradox and mystery, to name a few.  But the love story of God and humankind is central, and that’s not so esoteric.

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
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