The following is informed by my reading of the appendix titled, Mum’s the Word: The Origins of Christian Mysticism, located in the book, Contemplating Christ: The Gospels and the Interior Life, by Vincent Pizzuto.
One of my favorite Bible verses refers to a mystery hidden throughout the ages and generations. This word translated as mystery is mustērion. Mustērion is a derivation of the Greek term mustikόs, which we translate into English as mysticism.
The term, mustikόs, was originally used to refer to secret rituals associated with Greek mystery religions, but by the time Paul was writing his letters, mustikόs and its related terms could indicate anything secret or hidden. See, for example, how Paul says he had learned the secret of remaining content regardless of his circumstances (Philippians 4:11-12).
As he puts it:
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).
For Paul, Christ was the secret to living in an unpredictable world.
The Meaning of Mysticism in Early Christianity
Once this term, mustikόs, made its way into the developing Christian church, it again took on a highly specific role. It was used nearly exclusively to refer to the hidden or secret meaning of the Hebrew scriptures. In fact, the art of discerning mystical meaning through the lens of the Christ-event might be one of the earliest forms of Christian mysticism.
From the Christian perspective, everything that was written before allegorically revealed the coming of Christ. Biblical interpretation, therefore, wasn’t so much an intellectual exercise as an act of mystical contemplation (theoria) which brings us into union with Christ. What does this mean?
Essentially, contemplating the mysteries of scripture leads to participation in the life of Christ hidden there. For the early Christians, being a Christian entailed, among other things, scriptural inquiry as a primary means of relating to Christ.
Christians would, of course, also find Christ in the Eucharist, as well as in the life of the church with its rituals, community, and sacraments. Even the daily life and exchanges of the church members revealed the divine nature.
As Pizzuto puts it, Christ is the lens through which Christians are able to penetrate beyond outward appearance to see the mystical reality concealed there. In other words, Christ is the key that opens the door to what would otherwise remain hidden.
We might say, Christ reveals Christ.
The Meaning of Mysticism in Christianity Today
Mystical contemplation, therefore, was originally tied directly to scripture reading and the liturgical life of the church. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages and beyond that personal interior encounters with God were emphasized. Gradually, access to the divine on behalf of the individual began to emerge. Discerning the hidden presence of Christ apart from scripture and liturgy became possible.
As a result, the church’s power would wane. A new discipline, properly called mysticism began to take root.
Today, for better or for worse, we think of a mystic as an individual who has (or perhaps even one who seeks) a direct encounter with God. From the Christian perspective, that direct encounter happens in, through, or with Christ, who is the quintessential imago Dei, the image of the invisible God.
Evolution or Devolution?
One might ask, is this change of focus from the community to the mystical experiences of individuals really a step in the right direction?
This question brings us back to my favorite Bible verse that talks about a mystery hidden down through the ages. The verse I’m referring to suggests that this mystery that’s now being revealed may be humanity’s greatest hope, the hope of glory.
What is this great hope? Christ in you!
I have become a servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.Colossians 1:25-27
Maybe, then, the next step in the evolution of Christian mysticism is to recognize, as Paul already did more than 2,000 years ago, this paramount teaching. That is to say, just as Christ is in the scriptures, in the sacraments, and in the life of the church, Christ is in each and every one of us too. From this point of view, the living experiences of individuals are indispensable.
Yet, does this mean having mystical experiences of God is a precondition of religious life and Christian conversion?
The Pitfalls of Mystical Experiences
The church’s stance on mystical experiences has always been clear. They are valuable only to the extent that they provide edification for the church, or I might suggest, humanity as a whole. Conversely, if mystical experiences are used to boost the ego or set certain individuals apart as spiritual elites, it would probably be better not to have such experiences at all.
It’s true that deep experiences of God instill faith in the seeker. The peace of God in Christ is an ever-abiding comfort, as Paul has claimed. However, more important than fleeting experiences of the Divine is the process by which Christ (love) is formed in each and every one of us. The goal of the Christian journey is Christ (love) informing all that we do.
As Pizzuto aptly states in the introduction to his book: discipleship is not about us serving Christ but Christ serving others in us.
Therefore, I would suggest that the modern approach to mysticism can be deceptive, due to the risk of becoming prideful and using mystical experience to build up our sense of self-importance. The Christian way has always been one of self-forgetting.
Additionally, prayer bereft of spiritual consolation (special experiences of God) may be the highest form of prayer being offered simply for its own sake. There’s a risk that spiritual seekers will become sensation seekers (I’m guilty of this), not realizing that experiences of rapture and bliss have little to do with being transformed in Christ.
How to Avoid the Temptations of Pride and Spiritual Consolation
As Pizzuto has said:
It is not mystical experience we are after but radical interior transformation, so that others may experience Christ more fully in us.
To avoid the temptations of pride and spiritual ecstasy, the general recommendation is to seek a quiet life of meditation and prayer, preferring simplicity, emptiness, and tranquility over spiritual consolations found in mystical experience. If consolations do occur, the instruction is to let them come and let them go without becoming overly attached. Instead, let your attachment be to God who generously pours grace upon grace.
The end result is a deeper discovery of the faith that was in Jesus Christ who believed good would come even from his darkest hours.
With such love, such faith, our vision opens. We learn to see Christ in scripture, Christ in our neighbor, Christ in creation, Christ in the sacraments, Christ in everyday life, and yes, even Christ in you. Essentially, Christ in all things, which makes you and me no more or less important than anyone or anything else.
From this point of view, Christ comes first. Christ is all in all, and the potential pitfalls of the modern approach to Christian mysticism are resolved.
Contemplating Christ: The Gospels and Interior Life by Vincent Pizzuto
Vincent Pizzuto’s YouTube Videos on Contemplating Christ
Open Heart, Open Mind by Father Thomas Keating