Who Are the Great Christian Mystics?

When I was a sophomore in High School, my English teacher, Mrs. Romano, taught a section on William Blake. She gave us a handout with some information on the poet, and in it Blake was described as “a mystic.” I had never come across the word before. I don’t recall if I or anyone else asked Mrs. Romano to define the term. But I do remember that it caught my imagination — and if the teacher or some other source did provide me with a definition, it would have been something like what you’ll find in the Oxford English Dictionary:

So William Blake is one of many people, found within Christianity but also in other faith traditions, who practice a spirituality grounded in contemplation and the surrender of the self. This spirituality, at least in Christian terms, can help us (at minimum) to recognize and perhaps even comprehend spiritual truth that is normally inaccessible to ordinary human understanding. But the way of the mystics promises something even greater: the hope for nothing less that (to put it in Christian language) union with God.

It was about the same time as my English class where I met William Blake that I also had my own life-changing encounter with a sense of God’s intimate presence in my life. I have written about this at length in my books The Aspiring Mystic and Unteachable Lessons. You can read an excerpt from The Aspiring Mysticon my blog. Because of this, the concept of the mystics was more than just an abstract or theoretical idea to me. I didn’t know much about the mystics, but based on what I did know, I wanted to learn more.

Eventually, I began reading authors like Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, Martin Thornton, and Kenneth Leech — all twentieth century Christian spiritual teachers, who introduced me to the great mystics of the past, figures like Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Ávila, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux, and many others. Evelyn Underhill in particular helped me to see that there is an entire lineage of men and women who, in every century of the Christian era, have embodied this deeply ineffable, profoundly unitive, and ultimately joyful and transformational spirituality of Divine Union. I also learned that numerous living (or recently deceased) Christian teachers, including the authors I just mentioned but also Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, Martin Laird, Mary Margaret Funk, Bruno Barnhart, and many others, were making the wisdom and guidance of the great mystics accessible for Christians today.

But in a nutshell: what makes a mystic? I’d like to suggest that the great mystics are some combination of three essential qualities: they are contemplatives, spiritual guides, and storytellers. Let’s consider each of these.

Contemplative Silence.All Christians are called to a life of contemplation: of finding joy, meaning, insight and purpose through the silent presence of God in our lives. Contemplation is a gesture of prayer that emphasizes resting and receiving God’s grace in our lives. Most (but not all) forms of contemplative prayer involve intentional silence, and practices designed to soothe our over-anxious minds and hearts so that we may “be still and know” God’s presence in our hearts and in our lives.

Friends of the Soul.The Gaelic language has a wonderful term: anamchara (also spelled anam chara or anam ċara, as popularized by the Irish poet/mystic John O’Donohue), which means “soul friend.” A soul friend is someone who guides you or co-listens with you for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in your life. This is a person who is available to support you when you pray, answer your questions or counsel you with problems arise, or otherwise offer you a sense of direction and companionship as you explore an ever-deepening journey into the mysteries of God. Even though many of the mystics lived centuries ago, by their writings and their teachings they are still excellent companions for the life of prayer. Reading the writings of a mystic is never a dry exercise in some sort of abstract theory. They share the wisdom of their relationship with God in order to invite us deeper into our own.

Remember the Stories. All human beings are storytellers: each of us has a story to tell. So the mystics are not special for being storytellers, but they are important because of the kinds of stories they tell. Mystics tell stories that remind us who we truly are: men and women created in the image and likeness of a God who loves us so very much. As people who themselves have responded to the love of God, the stories (including poetry, autobiography, and teaching writings) of the mystics can be a profound source of inspiration for us today.

So let us take time to learn about, imitate, and honor the mystics and contemplatives and sages and saints who have journeyed before us, people like Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John Ruusbroec, Evelyn Underhill, John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, and many many more. When we join them in silence, accept their guidance, and remember their stories, we are nurtured in our own unfolding stories of intimacy with God.

Over the centuries of the Christian era, many people have embodied the way of the mystics — lay and ordained, clergy and monastic, men and women, educated and simple. They have contributed to a large body of literature devoted to prayer, contemplation, and the direct encounter with God. This body of writings comprises the wisdom teachings known as mysticism, a word derived from the language of mysteryused by the earliest Christians to describe the inability of the mind to comprehend the spiritual truths of God; spiritual truths such as the lavish abundance of Divine grace and the incarnation of God into human form.

The greatest of mystical writings are timeless, capable of providing rich spiritual inspiration even centuries after they were written. Through autobiographical and instructional prose, the mystics of the middle ages prove to be surprisingly relevant to the post-modern world. They offer psychologically astute instructions on contemplation and meditation, insightful explorations of the dynamics of both the acceptance of and resistance to grace in the human soul, and fascinating theological insights on issues such as the spirituality of sensuality, the motherhood of God, and deification: the process by which human beings are transformed into the very image and likeness of God.

Here is a list of some of the great mystics — major voices within the western contemplative tradition:

The first five centuries of the Christian era:

  • St. John
  • St. Paul
  • Ephrem the Syrian
  • Gregory of Nyssa
  • Evagrius Ponticus
  • John Cassian
  • Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

Sixth through the eleventh centuries:

  • Benedict of Nursia
  • Gregory the Great
  • John Climacus
  • Maximus Confessor
  • Isaac the Syrian
  • John Scotus Eriugena
  • Symeon the New Theologian

Twelfth century:

  • William of St. Thierry
  • Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Aelred of Rievaulx
  • Richard of St. Victor
  • Hildegard of Bingen
  • Elizabeth of Schönau
  • Hadewijch

Thirteenth century:

  • Francis of Assisi
  • Beatrice of Nazareth
  • Bonaventure
  • Mechthild of Magdeburg
  • Gertrude the Great
  • Jacopone da Todi
  • Marguerite Porete

Fourteenth century:

  • Meister Eckhart
  • Gregory Palamas
  • Catherine of Siena
  • Jan Ruusbroec
  • Author ofThe Cloud of Unknowing
  • Walter Hilton
  • Julian of Norwich

Fifteenth century:

  • Margery Kempe
  • Nicholas of Cusa
  • Thomas à Kempis
  • Denis the Carthusian
  • Nil Sorsky
  • Catherine of Genoa

Sixteenth century:

  • Francesco de Osuna
  • Ignatius of Loyola
  • Teresa of Ávila
  • John of the Cross
  • Philip Neri
  • Maria Maddelina de’Pazzi
  • Francis de Sales

Seventeenth century:

  • Jacob Boehme
  • George Herbert
  • Marie of the Incarnation
  • Brother Lawrence
  • Thomas Traherne
  • George Fox

Eighteenth century:

  • Jeanne Guyon
  • Jean-Pierre de Caussade
  • Jonathan Edwards
  • William Law
  • John Woolman
  • John Wesley
  • Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain

Nineteenth century:

  • Phoebe Palmer
  • Author of The Way of a Pilgrim
  • Coventry Patmore
  • George MacDonald
  • Thérèse of Lisieux
  • Gemma Galgani
  • Theophan the Recluse

Twentieth century:

  • Evelyn Underhill
  • Simone Weil
  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
  • Thomas Merton
  • Howard Thurman
  • Thomas Keating
  • Matthew the Poor

The best way to learn about the mystics is to read their own words. Visit my bibliography pageto review an in-depth list of writings by (and about) Christian and world mystics.

I offer devotional profiles of over 100 of the great Christian mystics, including many of the ones listed here (and others), in my book Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages.

If you’re new to mysticism, check out The Hidden Tradition of Christian Mysticism— An article I wrote for the summer 2010 issue of Evolve! Magazine.

If you are interested in applying the wisdom of the mystics to your life today, I invite you to learn more about Spiritual Formation.

 

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