~ Essence of Love by Kiernan Antares ~
Lit up from
Soul on fire
Radiating a light
What is Christian Mysticism?
by Jake Murray
Christian Mysticism is probably the least known and least understood Mystical Tradition in the world. Indeed, most people, including most Christians, would be astonished and shocked to learn that there was such a thing as Christian Mysticism at all. Since the Reformation it has been viewed with enormous suspicion, especially among the Protestant Churches who traditionally have disliked the idea of a body of knowledge available to an elite and, with the defining doctrine of Sola Scriptura, have, by and large, not liked metaphysical speculation or mysticism as part of their discourse. This is not to say that there have not been important Protestant Christian Mystics – Jakob Boehme, William Blake, Jane Leade, Valentine Weigel, Emmanuel Swedenborg for instance – but they have always tended to run into trouble with the authorities. Blake was very much a lone gunman, Boehme was forced to promise never to make his books public and Swedenborg was put on trial. Within Catholicism Mysticism was actively encouraged for many centuries and then became badly entangled with fears about heresy and the Reformation, when even major figures like St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, were hugely harassed. As a consequence, Mysticism has largely died out in the Western Churches. In the Greek and Eastern Orthodox Churches it has never gone away, Mysticism always being a key aspect of their experience of Christianity. But we in the West are very ignorant about the Orthodox Churches, so for us that Mysticism, much of it deeply ecstatic, has also been kept from us.
Another reason for the relative obscurity of Christian Mysticism, especially among those who are interested in Mysticism in general, is the hostility so many people feel towards the Churches. To most people Christianity is one long litany of misogyny, intolerance, persecution, oppression, control of minds and sexualities, corruption, child abuse, conformism, Inquisitions, anti-semitism, religious wars and so on. The idea that it has had anything to offer on a mystical level is almost unthinkable to many. For many spiritually-minded people the emphasis on Sin, Damnation, fear and general anti-life doom and gloom are things one has to get away from. As a consequence the hidden tradition of Christian Mystical thought has been all but lost to us compared with, for instance, the sublime wisdom of the East – Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism – or even Western traditions such as Kabbalah, Sufism and Hermeticism, all of which seem to be far more liberating and all-embracing than anything Christianity has to offer. The very imagery of Christianity is associated with enormous negativity to many. The terminology is off-putting, to such an extent that for most people, reading the core texts is almost impossible without centuries of accrued meanings that may not even be there.
There is an enormous amount of truth in all of this. The negative historical karma of Christianity is there for all to see. But it is far from the whole story of the Tradition, and a great shame, as Hidden beneath all the rubble is a vast reservoir of rich mystical literature of the most astonishing visionary quality, much of which has a great deal in common with all the other Traditions mentioned above. It has often been said that, for instance, Meister Eckhart would have a great deal to say to the Buddha were they to meet (indeed there has been a famous study of Eckhart by the Zen Master Suzuki). Orthodox Christianity has an extraordinarily spiritual, all-embracing, take on Christianity, a vision shared in the Western Churches through a mutual connection with the Neo-Platonic tradition drawn from St Dionysius the Areopagite.
Early Christianity was much simpler, far more diverse and far more mystically-orientated than it is now. We forget, for instance, that until the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, rather than being a persecuting religion it was an entirely persecuted one with a profound revolutionary, as well as ascetic tradition. An accepted, indisputable, rigid canon of Scripture such as we find now in the modern editions of the Bible was not even established until midway through the 4th Century, and then only after vigorous debate, with books like Revelation, responsible for so much confusion since, only being included at the last minute. Early Church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St Augustine and others freely acknowledged other authorities as having insight – Plato, Plotinus, even Hermes Trismegistus. Reincarnation was not denounced as a heresy until the 6th Century in the Catholic Church and as late as the 7th in the Celtic when it amalgamated with Rome. We forget also that until the fall of Constantinople in the 15th Century the centers of Christianity were Meditterannean and Middle Eastern – Alexandria, Carthage, Rome, Syria, Greece – all of which had rich esoteric traditions. In terms of misogyny, the New Testament itself suggests that women had as much of a role in the early Church as the men (see Romans 16), and even after that it is a curious feature of Christian Mysticism just how much of a massive contribution women’s voices had to make.
No other spirituality or religion in the world has had so many women Mystics – St Teresa of Avila, St Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Hadewijch, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete and a host of others. The fact that so much of this has been lost is mainly to do with the reasons mentioned above. The modern, impoverished view of Christianity, apparently so militant and so reactionary, in which a highly complex set of ideas have been reduced to a simple set of answers revolving around Sin and Redemption, is a sign of Christianity’s rejection of its own mystical roots. The decline of Christianity as a progressive cultural force can be seen with the beginnings of its own suppression of its Mystics during the time of the Middle Ages and Reformation. In spite of revivals during the Counter-Reformation and the Renaissance, by the 17th Century Science, Philosophy and the Enlightenment were starting to take over as the main means of understanding existence. Its taken until now for Christian Mysticism to start to be uncovered again, in part kick-started by growing interest in Christian Gnosticism, which has caused many people to reexamine Western spirituality.