Just What is Mysticism Anyway? And Why Should Anyone Care?

I love to tell the story of a monk, Fr. Anthony Delisi (author of Praying in the Cellar) who was my mentor as a Lay Cistercian and one of the earliest readers of my book, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism.

One time, I gave Fr. Anthony an early draft of my book. He read through it, but wasn’t terribly impressed. The next day he gave me the manuscript, and made this comment, “You never got around to defining mysticism. Then, about 90 pages into the manuscript, you finally admit that you have no idea how to define it.”

“That’s true,” I said, somewhat defensively. “After all, you can’t put it into words.”

Ignoring my excuse, he replied, “Well, why didn’t you admit that up front? It would have saved me having to read all those pages!”

So, when I revised the book, I tried to be a bit more proactive in offering my take on how to define mysticism. I also included several other definitions of the word from respected scholars like Evelyn Underhill and Harvey Egan, SJ. I pointed out that there really isn’t a snappy, quick, precise way to define this complex spiritual topic.

But people are people, and I often get asked, “What is mysticism?” In other words, how can we define this word?

The American Heritage Dictionary says it means “immediate consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality or God.” Underhill concurs, calling it “the direct intuition or experience of God.” These are not bad definitions, but sometimes mysticism is not just about consciousness or awareness. Indeed, core mystical concepts like The Cloud of Unknowing or The Dark Night of the Soul point to a dimension of mysticism that is devoid of any kind of experience or conscious awareness.

Andrew Harvey’s lovely definition from The Essential Mystics might help open this up a bit further. He begins with a definition from Bede Griffiths, who talks about “the presence of an almost unfathomable mystery.” Harvey comments, “This mystery is beyond name and beyond form; no name or form, no dogma, philosophy or set of rituals can ever express it fully. It always transcends anything that can be said of it and remains always unstained by any of our human attempts to limit or exploit it.”

In my book, I go on to use Ken Wilber’s four-part definition of spirituality (from his book Integral Spirituality) as a template for mysticism (only I add a fifth category, since I thought Wilber’s four-part model wasn’t comprehensive enough, at least not for mysticism). So here is what I came up with:

  1. Mysticism refers to the experience of God, which can range from an ordinary sense of “practicing the presence” to a truly extraordinary “peak” experience;
  2. Mysticism also refers to an exalted or ecstatic level of consciousness: the sense of being enlightened or attaining nondual ways of knowing and seeing;
  3. Mysticism may point to someone who has extraordinary abilities: a truly gifted sense of Union with God, or the possession of supernatural, charismatic gifts;
  4. Mysticism can also mean having an abiding belief in God’s presence and intimate activity in one’s life, even without extraordinary experience or gifts;
  5. And finally, mysticism also points to the inner dimension of religious faith and practice, where religion means more than just an institution or a set of external rituals, but points to an interior transformation that has been nurtured by religious observance but ultimately transcends the limitation of religious dogma or institutional identity.

Okay, so this might be comprehensive enough to do the trick but how do we boil it down to a brief, summary definition? Maybe that’s not possible. But I’m going to try anyway. With a strong disclaimer that any brief definition of mysticism must necessarily be limited and incomplete, if you cornered me, this is what I’d come up with:

Mysticism is the spiritual encounter with a sacred mystery that cannot be put into words, but may be embodied through feelings, conscious awareness, experience, or intuition — or even through darkness or unknowing.

I would go on to say:

In theistic terms, it is typically thought of as the sense of Divine Presence or even Union with God, but again, this cannot properly be put into words, so all mystical expression remains partial and incomplete. Nevertheless many women and men down the ages — known as mystics — have attempted to describe their encounter with the divine in written ways, leaving us a treasury of mystical writings, including poetry, autobiography, theology, sermons and teaching texts. Since the sacred mystery can never be systematized, these texts will never offer a simple explanation of what mysticism is, but they remain inspiring to all who sense a calling to seek the Divine Presence in their own lives.

Now, as soon as we have a definition — no matter how limited or incomplete — this leads to a second question, after “What is it?” …. “What difference does it make?” Or, to put it even more bluntly, “Why should I care?”

Maybe, I suppose, someone can go through life without bothering to explore the mystery at the heart of spirituality. One might feel content and happy, with a satisfying career, loving family, meaningful friendships, and a guiding sense of purpose, without ever bothering to explore mystical theology or spiritual practice. To such a person I would say, with no hint of judgment or condemnation, “If you don’t feel drawn to the mystical life, then feel free to leave it alone.”

Other people, however, recognize a yearning or a longing in their heart for something they cannot name, something that cannot be put into words. It has something to do with love, with consciousness, with a sense of life’s meaning and purpose. For many people, this clearly has a spiritual dimension — it’s a yearning for God. To people with this sense of yearning or longing, I would say, “You already know in your heart what difference it makes. I don’t need to convince you to care, because you already do.”

Anyone can enter the mysteries, but the mysteries only reveal themselves to those who seek them.

Now, it is possible that someone may not feel drawn to the mystical life today, but a decade from now, after the highs and lows of ordinary life experience, that same person may suddenly recognize that yearning in their hearts. And they might even have a sense that it’s been there all along, only they never really paid attention to it before. Mysticism has been called a “second half of life” phenomenon, meaning that many people only discern the call to enter the mysteries as they enter the second half of their lives. That’s not true across the board: some people may be drawn to mystical spirituality while still children; others might be late bloomers approaching the mystery in their 80s or 90s. Everyone’s path is different; everyone’s calling is unique.

I use the word calling because I believe mysticism is more than just something that we decide we’re interested in. Here’s how I see it — the Mystery (with a capital M): call it Love (with a capital L) or God — is the initiating party in anyone’s mystical life. A person embraces the mystery because they are called to do so. Now, that call might come in dramatic ways (like Moses seeing the burning bush, or Saint Paul encountering Christ on the road to Damascus), but it could just as easily come in a very humble or down to earth way — finding our hearts opening up after the birth of a child, or the death of a parent. Feeling a sense of being touched by God in church or in nature. Reading a book that opens up more questions than answers.

Here’s the thing. I believe everyone is called. But not everyone receives the call, or is ready to receive the call. But it is precisely that inner call that makes all the difference, that explains why mysticism matters, why we should care.

Because otherwise, like mysticism itself, the “why” of mysticism just can’t be put into words. But for the heart that is open to the too-deep-for-words movement of the Spirit, nothing less than immersion in the Mystery-with-a-capital-M will ever satisfy.

Fr. Anthony Delisi, OSCO — the Trappist monk who teased me because I couldn’t define mysticism.
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1 Comment

  1. That’s a great definition. I think of mysticism as a term for experiencing God. It may become a peak experience or something big, but mystical experience can be small. The transformation from a secular to spiritual viewpoint is a mystical experience, just knowing there’s something or someone out there and beginning the journey. In time and growing in your relationship other experiences will come both big and small. I would venture to say we are hard wired to be mystics, it’s natural and can be the norm.

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