Christian Mysticism Through History

Personal Experiences of God in Christianity

Photo of antique painting of Joan of Arc on horseback
Photo of antique painting of Joan of Arc on horseback.

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Mysticism is the belief that it is possible to join with or have personal experiences of God or the divine. Such experiences often include visions of angels or a sense of oneness with the absolute. People who practice mysticism come from every religious, ethnic, and economic background; they may be educated or uneducated, male or female.

The word mysticism comes from the Greek mystes and refers to ancient Greek secret cults also known as mystery religions. Early Christians used the same term, but it no longer referred to secrets; instead, it referred to "ecstatic" union with God through prayer and contemplation. After the Protestant Reformation, mysticism became associated with groups such as the Quakers, Shakers, and others who described a direct connection with the divine. Christian mysticism practitioners continue to write and speak of their experiences in the present day.

Early Christian Mysticism

Early Christian mysticism includes the time of Jesus and the first few centuries CE. Many of the mystical experiences described from that time come directly from the New Testament; often, they were presented as proof of the miraculous powers of Jesus and his disciples.

Several books of the New Testament include passages that can be described as mystical—and several of the most prominent figures in the New Testament are clearly mystics. Many of the early saints and martyrs are described in terms of Christian mysticism because they talked of visions and direct commands from angels and from God himself.

Two of the best known and most influential of these figures are John the Evangelist (also called John the Apostle and St. John the Divine) and Saint Paul. John the Evangelist was one of Jesus' twelve apostles (disciples); Saint Paul was a historical figure whose miraculous cure and conversion is described in the Book of Acts.

John the Evangelist

John was the son of a fisherman and the younger brother of the apostle James. He was also the author of the Fourth Gospel, three letters, and (arguably) the Revelation to John in the New Testament. Unlike the other three gospels, the Gospel of John contains numerous mystical references which suggest that believers will finally see, understand, and become one with God.

“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. (John 17:20-21)
"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." (John 3:2)

Saint Paul

Paul was a Pharisee (a Jew) from the city of Tarsus whose name was originally Saul. Saint Paul is described in the Gospels as meeting the resurrected Jesus on the road. According to the Book of Acts, Saul was blinded by a light on the road to Damascus and heard a voice saying "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." (Acts 9:5-6, NIV).

Later, healed of his blindness and renamed, Paul became one of the most important figures in Church history. Nearly half of the books of the New Testament are attributed to Paul, and most of the Acts of Apostles deal with Paul's activities. Paul himself was a seminal figure whose conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine had a tremendous impact on western civilization.

Medieval Christian Mysticism

During the Middle Ages in Europe—from the fall of Rome in 475 CD to around 1400—political leaders were believed to derive their power from God through the Catholic Church. Thus, leaders of the Catholic Church held tremendous power and had access to enormous wealth. Heresy (stating beliefs outside of those officially held by Church leaders) was punishable by death. Because the Church held such an important role, religious communities such as monasteries and convents were also numerous, wealthy, and held in high regard.

There were many Christian mystics in Europe during the Middle Ages. Most (though not all) were members of religious communities—and quite a few were women. Joan of Arc, for example, was a Christian mystic with no secular education and little ecclesiastical knowledge. Some medieval mystics were Church leaders whose mysticism had a significant impact on Catholic theology of the time.

Hildegard of Bingen

Born in 1098, Hildegard von Bingen was a visionary who claimed to see the "Shade of the Living Light" when only three years old, and to have regular visions by the time she was five. Her experiences led her to the religious life, and she quickly proved herself to be a capable abbess, philosopher, composer, and writer.

At the age of 42, Hildegard had a vision in which she was told to write down her experiences. She authored several books, including Scivias (literally "Know the Ways") in which she wrote:

I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, 'Cry out, therefore, and write thus!

Saint Francis of Assisi

Born in 1181 under the name Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, Saint Francis founded his own monastic orders including the Order of Friars Minor, the women's Order of Saint Clare, the Third Order of Saint Francis, and the Custody of the Holy Land. While he was a traveler and leader of the Church, he gladly retreated to a more contemplative life in his later years.

According to Catholic tradition, Saint Francis went into the mountains at the age of 42 to prepare for the Feast of Saint Michael. While there, he is believed to have had a vision of seraphic angels, singing in religious ecstasy; following the vision, he is said to have received the stigmata, or Sacred Wounds of Christ. The stigmata consist of the wounds Jesus would have received on the cross: injuries to his hands, feet, and side.

Meister Eckhart

One of the most important mystics in European history was Eckhart von Hochheim, born around 1260 in Germany. Often called a "speculative mystic," Eckhart wrote at great length about his theological beliefs, most of which are clearly mystical. For example:

The being and the nature of God are mine; Jesus enters the castle of the soul; the spark in the soul is beyond time and space; the soul’s light is uncreated and cannot be created, it takes possession of God with no mediation; the core of the soul and the core of God are one. 

Mysticism From 1500 to Contemporary Times

Between 1600 and 1800 the Catholic Church was divided as a result of events usually described as the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, a German professor, Martin Luther, earned excommunication from the Church by declaring that a believer's faith in Jesus rather than good works could earn a person a place in heaven. Luther not only challenged the authority of the Church but also translated the Bible into the vernacular (German), making it accessible to all. He also, through his marriage to an ex-nun, set the stage for the marriage of clergymen. At about the same time, in 1534, England's Henry the 8th declared himself head of a new Church of England—thereby eliminating the Pope's political power in the United Kingdom.

During and after the Reformation, many new religious groups arose; most based on the visions and revelations of leaders, sometimes called prophets or visionaries. A few of the more important mystics of the era include Emmanuel Swedenborg, Joseph Smith, and Lord Byron.

George Fox

George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, was a visionary whose direct experience of God led him to a new form of worship. According to Fox's journal:

[I] cried to the Lord, who said unto me: “Thou seest how young people go together into vanity, and old people into the earth; thou must forsake all, young and old, keep out of all, and be as a stranger unto all.” Then, at the command of God, the ninth of the Seventh month, 1643, I left my relations, and broke off all familiarity or fellowship with young or old.

Fox's movement began in England, but many migrated to the United States after the passage of the Toleration Act in 1689. The Quaker movement grew to become a Christian denomination which is still a significant group with members around the world.

Mother Ann Lee

In the United States, revelatory religions experienced a renaissance during the 1800s. Mother Ann Lee, leader of the Shakers, was a mystic whose revelations shaped a major movement. A member of a group related to the Quakers, Ann Lee experienced visions while in England, which led her group to upstate New York. There, she taught that she was the second coming of Christ, and established Millenialist communities across eight states.

Mysticism in Contemporary Christianity

Mysticism is still a vital part of Christianity. Visionaries and prophets still create and lead their own groups or interpret Christianity in new ways. Mysticism is inherent in Pentecostal Christianity, for example: speaking in tongues is one form of direct interaction with the divine. Unlike Christian mystics of the ancient and medieval world or Christian mystics of the Reformation and Renaissance, contemporary mystics are seen as outside the mainstream.

Perhaps the best-known contemporary mystic is Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and author. Merton's books, including Contemplative Prayer and The Seven Storey Mountain, are best sellers.

Another major author whose works suggest a connection with mysticism was C.S. Lewis. Lewis, best known for his Chronicles of Narnia, was also the author of several books on Christianity, including Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. While he never described himself as a mystic, many of his biographers disagree and find quite a few mystic references in his works.

Sources:

  • “Christian Mysticism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christianity/Christian-mysticism.
  • “George Fox and the Quakers.” Christian History Institute, https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/george-fox.
  • “Martin Luther.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, Christian History, 28 Feb. 2017, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/martin-luther.html.
  • “Swedenborg's Biography.” Swedenborg Foundation, 3 Oct. 2018, https://swedenborg.com/emanuel-swedenborg/about-life/.