What Can We Learn from the Mystics?

Gerald reacted to this mornings article through private E-mail, and included the following article. Thanks for the reaction, which at least gave me the idea that my ideas weren’t half bad. But the article wouldn’t look like a flag on a mud barge here, so let’s have it:

by Sara Miller

Sara Miller is a free-lance writer and an editor of Catholic
publications for the Thomas More Association in Chicago. This article
appeared in The Christian Century, March 22, 2003, pp.
22-28. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by
permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found
at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

think that that mystics are engaged in a series of private,
transcendent encounters with God betrays a superficial understanding,
says Bernard McGinn. Christian mystics, in particular, are not breakaway
contemplatives who find their own way to God. They are bearers and
interpreters of a common tradition built upon a concrete revelation: God
became human so that humans might become God. Christian mystics do not
dabble in altered states. They seek radically altered lives.

McGinn is widely considered the preeminent scholar
of mysticism in the Western Christian tradition and a leading authority
on the theology of the 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart. He has also
written extensively on Jewish mysticism. He is the , most
recently, of
The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing (Crossroad),
and he has co-edited and translated two volumes of Eckhart’s sermons,
treatises and instructions for the Classics of Western Spirituality
(Paulist Press). In 1991, McGinn published the first title in a projected five-volume work, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (Crossroad),
the first comprehensive history of Western mysticism in English. Three
volumes have appeared to date. He has just completed work on a smaller
project co-written with his wife, Patricia, a psychotherapist, titled
Makers of Mysticism, an introductory guide to a dozen mystics.

I spoke with him at his office at the University
of Chicago Divinity School about the nature of mysticism and about the
contemporary interest in mystics and in spirituality.

In The Presence of God, you
describe some of the great shifts that occurred in the ways people
looked for God. In early Judaism, for example, God was traditionally
found in the Temple, but in the Second Temple period a literature
emerged in which God is sought in the unassailable heavens. And in
Christianity during the Middle Ages, groups like the Beguines and the
followers of Francis showed that the spiritual life need not be confined
to the monastery and the cloister but could be lived in the world. Do
you think we are in a new position today in the search for God?

I think we are. The spiritual traditions of
the world are in conversation with one another in a way they never were
before, and that is bound to create a dramatically different situation.
There’s a worldwide ecumenism now, in which we try to understand other
traditions because they’re no longer "out there," far away.

We’ve also seen a return within the various
traditions to an emphasis upon the spiritual and mystical. Two
generations ago Jewish mysticism, especially the Kabbalah, was thought
of as kind of bizarre, kooky stuff. The work of people like Gershom
Scholem and others has shown increasingly that mysticism is really
essential to the Jewish tradition.

When I grew up in Roman Catholicism in the 1950s,
mystics were out there — and of the Cross, for example —
but you weren’t supposed to read them because this was very strange,
dangerous stuff. That’s changed dramatically in 50 years’ time. And
"spirituality," which was a kind of technical Roman Catholic term then,
has become not only generally used by all Christians but used by other
traditions as well.

Why do you think there is this renewed interest in spirituality?

In describing religion I often use the model created by Baron von Hügel in his book The Mystical Elements of Religion, written
in the early 20th century. He says that religion has three elements:
the Petrine element, which is both authority and organization; the
Pauline element, which is the intellectual side; and the mystical
element, which he identified with the apostle John and which has to do
with some kind of consciousness or experience of God. For von Hügel all
of those elements need to be in balance if religion is going to be

One of the things that developed in the 20th century
was an imbalance — authority and sometimes intellect became more
important than the heart. That’s why I think a lot of people are now
finding tremendous resources in spiritual and mystical texts.

Mysticism is sometimes thought of as a dangerous pursuit because of the potential for self-deception or self-delusion. Is it any more risky than Christianity itself?

I don’t think so. One
of the things that most spiritual traditions insist upon, though, is
that at some stage a spiritual guide is very important. Sometimes that
guidance takes places within a communal framework or in a mentor
relationship. This is true in Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

The figure of the solitary sage on the mountaintop is
really the exception. Even St. Anthony, who lived in the desert for 20
years, returned to form a community. And in the desert the notion of the
father teaching the younger disciple is very important. So it’s rare,
actually, that mystics are very isolated figures.

Reading through the Presence volumes, I couldn’t help seeing the mystics as distinct personalities. Do you see them that way?

Very much so. Each of them is very
distinct. Of course, there are a number of themes that most Christian
mystics will touch upon, like the role of love, the relation of love and
intellect and of action and contemplation, the role of Christ, the
understanding of mystical union, the trinitarian life and ascetical
practice. But how the mystics understand and relate to these themes is
going to differ.

The great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar,
whose works are deeply imbued with his knowledge of the mystics, talks
about truth as symphonic, and I think that’s a good way of looking at
mysticism too. There’s a tremendous symphony of voices.

One of the things that really was unfortunate in the
previous study of mysticism in Catholicism and elsewhere was that one or
two mystics were taken as paradigmatic cases. If a mystical text didn’t
agree with Teresa and John, it was like a theologian not agreeing with
Thomas Aquinas! We’ve come to see in the past half century that no
matter how great Thomas Aquinas was, he’s one theologian among others.
And no matter how great Teresa was, she’s one mystic among others. It’s
much more creative and attractive to look at the full symphony. We have
all these different kind of instruments — maybe playing together
somewhere in eternity!

But the mystics are also playing within a tradition.
We can look at these figures as individuals, but we will discover more
about them if we look at them as part of a tradition in Christianity
dating back to Origen in the third century, at least, and building upon
scripture and enriching itself for almost 2,000 years.

When you get to the 13th century in The Flowering of Mysticism, the
mystical encounter seems to take on a decidedly charismatic expression
in which the individual is somehow visibly touched by the divine —
Francis being perhaps the prime example of the believer who so puts on
Christ that he bears Christ’s wounds. What is the difference between the
mystical encounter and what we think of today as charismatic
experiences — if in fact they are distinct? Is one an inward
experience, the other an outward sign?

Well, I think that
would be one way to put it, but charisms as described by Paul in First
Corinthians, which is really the foundational text, can involve a whole
range of things, from speaking in tongues, to prophesying, to being
given gifts of wisdom, and so on. So it’s a very diffuse term. Sometimes
the experience can be accompanied by a kind of inner, transformative
consciousness of God, but not necessarily.

Some people use the terms visionary and mystical
interchangeably, so that every kind of vision is a mystical vision, and I
really don’t think that is the case. A good example would be Birgitte
of in the 14th century, who has all sorts of connections with God
but whose message — 99.9 percent of the tune — is a reformist and
prophetic message, not a mystical message. I see her as a prophet of
reform rather than a mystic.

The special kinds of experiences that we would call
ecstatic experiences and visions and the like can be mystical, but they
need not be. For long periods in Christian history, particularly in the
Patristic period and the early Middle Ages, there was a kind of
suspicion of these special charisms. With what I call the "new
mysticism" that begins around the year 1200 there’s a return to these
experiences in a wide variety of figures, and often the experiences do
involve what I would call mysticism — that is, the charism is
transformative of the individual and puts them in the status of

It’s interesting that Francis never talks about his
own experiences, not even the stigmata. But Francis’s hagiographers talk
about him as an ecstatic, as a visionary. And of course a lot of the
women in the 13th and 14th centuries also speak at great length about
what we would call charismatic experiences, but so do some male mystics.

You’ve edited and translated a number of
collections and editions of Meister Eckhart’s sermons and theological
writings over the years, and you’ve just written a full-length study of
him. Why is he important to you and perhaps to anyone seeking a deeper
spirituality today?

He certainly is very important for me.
He’s fascinating historically because he was a very prominent scholastic
and Dominican administrator who was charged with heresy and condemned
posthumously. So he has this whiff of danger about him. Of course, I
think the condemnation was incorrect in every possible way. Even the
Dominican order has petitioned the pope to revoke this judgment.

We think of the medieval people as very simple —
many of them were illiterate and so on. But Eckhart preached very
difficult sermons to general audiences, not just to clergy. And even
today, despite the complex nature of his preaching, he has a powerful
impact on people. In fact, the Eckhart Society, which began in England
in the 1980s, was founded by an Anglican man and Catholic woman who
previously had been very attracted to Buddhism. Their spiritual
director, a famous Buddhist scholar, told them not to become Buddhists
but to go read Eckhart! And so they remained Anglican and Catholic and
were able to find in Eckhart what they had been missing in some forms of

That arresting subtitle, The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing, suggests that Eckhart had an elevated kind of insight or status.

That phrase is actually from a
contemporary description of Eckhart, and one of the reasons I used it is
that it’s profoundly ironic and paradoxical. It seems to single him
out, but if you put it in Eckhart’s framework of thinking about God, it
shows his commonality, because God hides his nothingness from all of us.
We’re all essentially in flue same boat. And of course the mystical
life, the mystical search, is the search for the God who is nothing.
It’s the realization that God is a hidden god.

You say in The Presence of God that mysticism is an original, essential element of Christianity — is this because of the "hiddenness" of God?

I think the fact that God is a hidden God
puts mysticism at the center of Christianity, but what I emphasize is
that mysticism is one element of religion. I’m profoundly dissatisfied
with the notion that mysticism is a kind of true religion, or the hidden
core of the true religion, while institutions and teachings occupy some
kind of periphery. I think it’s much better to see religion as a
complex of beliefs and practices in which mysticism plays an essential
role. Mysticism doesn’t float free of religion — with the exception of
the past hundred years, when the dissatisfaction with organized religion
has led some people to turn to mysticism as a kind of private religion.

The idea that mysticism floats free is something that
Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other religions would react against
because their mystical teachings are a part of the complex of being a
Christian, Jew or Muslim, and they coexist with practices, beliefs,
institutions and so forth. Even Eckhart’s notion of inwardness and
detachment didn’t lead him outside the framework of medieval
Christianity. That’s why he’s so terribly upset when he’s accused of
being a heretic. I cannot be a heretic, he says, because being a heretic
is a matter of the will, of wanting to persist in an incorrect view. I
can be mistaken intellectually — show me where I’ve made a mistake and
I’ll retract it.

Despite Eckhart’s emphasis on detachment from the
self and the will, his account of the soul’s pursuit of God makes the
soul seem decidedly willful and forceful — it’s the soul that compels
God, that calls the shots, that conquers. Eckhart even says of God, "He
cannot shut me out."

Eckhart does talk about compelling God,
but you compel God by your emptiness and by getting rid of all your
selfishness and by total detachment. Eckhart and his followers often use
what we would call a gravitational model — that is, water has to flow
downhill, but it can only flow into what’s empty. So it’s in the process
of emptying yourself of your self-will that you compel God, because God
can’t come in if there’s something else there, meaning yourself.

And the self here means the selfish self. Eckhart and
his disciples are always preaching to get rid of the self that’s
concerned with its own desires, wishes, characteristics, success,
fulfillment — everything that centers on us. That’s what they’re
talking about when they talk of detachment, which is the cutting off, or
of a "releasement." Eckhart uses both those terms.

Other mystics talk about reaching God through
purification, or an attitude of humility. Are detachment and releasement
just different terms for these traditional notions or are they new

Here’s the way I would summarize Eckhart
and his followers’ preaching: People think they know what humility is —
acting humble. People think they know what purity is — avoiding this,
avoiding that. But those are practices, whereas detachment and
releasement is something much, much deeper. It is ultimate humility and
total purification. It involves a much deeper annihilation of the self.
And then, paradoxically, if you can do that, the self returns to you,
but it’s no longer the selfish self. It’s the purely spontaneous good

This is the notion of Eckhart and some other
13th-century mystics of living "without a why." "Living without a why"
means that you don’t ask, What’s in it for me? or Why am I doing this?
You just do the good spontaneously, the way that God acts. God doesn’t
act because of the why or for any interest of his own.

Many of the mystics
start with small practices, like prayer, or ascetic habits, or
meditation on a passage of scripture, and gradually work their way up to
a transcendent state or a God-consciousness. With Eckhart it
appears to go the other way. Is that correct?

There are not a lot of
concrete things that you do in Eckhart’s form of mysticism. What Eckhart
is most concerned with is this change of attitude, which he says can
happen instantaneously if you can just get into the frame of mind in
which you give up the self. Eckhart is in some ways pretty impractical,
and that’s evident in his constant speech about how if you’re using ways
to find God you’re finding ways and not God.

To some people, of course, this sounds extremely
challenging — and it is, in a way. But Eckhart was not a radical. He
lived as a group monk, prayed his office and practiced penance, and did
all the things he was supposed to do. But his point would be that these
things in themselves mean absolutely nothing. They have meaning only if
the attitude in which you do them is the attitude of detachment.

In his treatment of the Martha and text (Luke
10:38-42), Eckhart defends Martha’s focus on the tasks of hospitality.
Is that a striking departure from the traditional understanding?

Yes, Eckhart is the first commentator to
elevate Martha above Mary. The earlier commentators tried to show that
both Martha and Mary were necessary, though Mary’s approach is higher.
Eckhart says that Mary is the one who’s still learning, whereas Martha
is the one who has learned perfectly because she combines contemplation
and action — though Eckhart doesn’t use those words — in an unselfish,
detached way She can now operate as the soul "without a why" and be
effective spontaneously without losing that contact with God. Mary’s
just on the way to that. She needs to learn life.

I get the feeling that living spontaneously in
God, or living without a why, is a lot like living the Christian life
generally. At some point it becomes second nature, and goodness and
holiness seem effortless. But getting to that point is the hard part.

Eckhart’s radical formulations are
sometimes found to be impossible. But he very deliberately tried to wake
people up out of a kind of moral and dogmatic slumber, to wake them up
to the possibilities of recognizing that the union with God already
exists in the soul — and recognizing it in order to live it out. When
you reach that realization, the things that seemed impossible,
paradoxical and outrageous somehow take on a new light. I think
Eckhart felt that the kind of shock therapy of his preaching was the
only way to wake people up to that message, because it was so easy to
get lost in the ordinary round of pious activity and to think that
through this activity we are pleasing God. That’s why we get those
famous phrases of his like, "Well, if you think you’re finding God
better in the church than in the stable, you’re wrapping God in a towel
and stuffing him under a bench!" The point is not that God isn’t in
church, but that he’s also out in the stable — if you learn to live in
the proper way.

Eckhart’s preaching style seems to have a lot in
common with that of Jesus in the New Testament, who appears
contradictory and paradoxical.

Who challenges, yes. Eckhart’s preaching is deeply scriptural in that sense, and in fact he says at the end of his Commentary on John that you
have to speak excessively when you preach or talk about scripture
because scripture speaks excessively — that’s the nature of speaking
about God. God is always beyond anything that we can understand or say
so excessive speech both in scripture and in the scriptural preacher
should be the norm. Of course, the mystery is hidden underneath this
tremendous rhetorical flourish.

How do you answer the charge that Eckhart’s
theology of mystical union, in which the soul achieves "indistinction"
and becomes one with God, is really a form of self-deification?

I think that’s looking through the wrong
end of the telescope. I would put it the other way and say that God
deifies himself in us when we become perfectly detached, and that’s the
nature of God’s creation of humanity as the image and likeness of God —
imago Dei. I think Eckhart would say no, we don’t deify ourselves, but
if we totally negate ourselves, then God deifies himself in us.


  1. Matt 23
    13″Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.[c]
    15″Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”

    It seems to grow in faith means to live progressively in spirit. Jesus and Paul are talking about this experimental knowledge in the depths of God that transforms in a series of states that reveals and invites us to have a personal encounter and relationship with the living God.

  2. The comment about Martha and Mary, I cannot agree. I think we are all a part of Martha and a part of Mary. Part of us are ‘doing’ and other parts are still ‘learning’. If Martha had reached the state of perfect detachment, then she would have not complained to Jesus about Mary. The art of detachment is a continuous act throughout our whole life.

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