Christian mystics strive for the transformation of ego so that they can be one with God. Athanasius of Alexandria was thought to have said that God became human so that man could become God. Mysticism is related to the heart, rather than the mind. It is based on personal experience. Famous mystics have reported visions and speaking directly to God. I will explore some of the Christian mysticism practices that I have found intriguing.
What is the History of Christian Mysticism?
Gnosis refers to direct contact with God. Gnostics were a part of the early development of Christianity. It began in the 1st and 2nd century and is related to early Jewish and Christian texts. A belief that knowledge is the key to enlightenment and that knowledge is acquired from deep soul-searching and letting go of the material world. Energy is a gift that allows them to see the true reality. This esoteric knowledge is considered rare, special, and unusual.
There are different types of mysticism. Christian mystics are different in that they believe reality comes from experience with the Divine Spirit through Jesus Christ. A Gospel of Thomas was written in the first century AD. A writing was said to from the actual words of Jesus. AS the final version of the Bible we know today was edited, transcribed and translated, the Gnostic gospels were considered unimportant
In about the 4th Century a group named the Desert Fathers and Mothers retreated to the desert of Egypt. Through meditation and prayer, they sought closeness to God and Jesus. They believed only through a process of letting go of the material world could they reach experience the Spirit.
In the 7th century, the Islamic religion was founded. Mystical thinking and beliefs formed in the first few centuries AD separated into different religions. These in turn, formed their own sects.
A Middle Ages brought with it many mystical belief systems. Ritual, hidden meanings, secret meanings and visions were part of the is period. Many became part of mainstream Christianity. What remained was an importance of symbols and ritual such as the Eucharist, baptism, the Lord’s Prayer and Holy Communion. But some ritual was inconsistent with Christianity and had roots in paganism. Roman Catholicism grew in popularity and political power. Gnosticism, Mysticism and the Gospel of Thomas were suppressed. In the Middle Ages Mystic Christian groups flourished. But they broke into sects.
A Reformation brought Christian Mysticism that was divided by countries. Italy, Spain, England, Germany and France all had differing versions of thought. From this came the Pietism of John Wesley which emphasized the heart. This contrasted to the period’s Enlightenment philosophy of rationality.
In 1945 the discovery of Gnostic Gospels brought more interest in the original mysticism of early
Christianity. These papyrus scrolls contained the Gospel of Thomas. The texts enlightened the world to ancient spiritual writing.
Mysticism has inspired many writers and philosophers in recent times. Psychologist Carl Jung and writer Herman Hess were both influenced. Authors Philip K. Dick, Alfred Camus and Allen Ginsberg studied the Gnostics.
After the discovery of the Gnostic scrolls, a Belgian philosopher named Michael Weber wrote of, what he named, process philosophy. He studied the processes of Gnostics. His thinking was that with change comes knowledge. From knowledge comes a new metaphysical reality.
Alfred North Whitehead further studied process and reality. He believed everything is inter-related and a change in one thing results in all to change. This was related to Gnostic metaphysics in that we are all one with God. Letting go of the material world through change results in unification with God. Whitehead’s thinking contrasted with the belief that everything has a separate identity and reality of its own. His philosophy is that everything flows together in constant change.
Is Meditation a Practice for Mystics?
Desert Fathers and Mothers were ascetics. They isolated themselves from society. These were the first monks. They retreated to simple life in the desert of Egypt.
They practiced meditation that was like mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition. Desert Fathers and Mothers sought knowledge of God that was personal, rather than a learned or inherited tradition. Desert Fathers and Mothers practices a form of chanting. A repetition of words of the Bible to assist in meditation.
These people had a desire to be unattached to anything worldly. A believed in a God that was not a distant being or a master. They believed they were from the same source as God and Jesus.
Mystics believe themselves to have a direct knowledge of God. God is something real, not an abstract idea. They seek a mystical union with God. God is love. Mystics have a heightened spiritual consciousness.
Contemplative prayer stresses heart over mind. A Trinity is essential in their worship. Ritual and prayer results in a transcendent joy in which they form a union with God.
Desert Fathers and Mothers developed a series of steps to achieve enlightenment. Some of this was prayer and meditation. Others were physical experiences. A retreat to simple life was intended to make this easier. Awakening is the first stage of devotion. They go through a purgative period. Fasting, health and elimination of addictions of the body are experienced. Then they have illumination. Here they begin to see God in everything. Next there is the dark night of the soul. Then they experience the loss of ego and self. In the final stage they are in union with God.
A Few Notable Christian Mystics:
Gregory of Nyssa
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
Julian of Norwich
Therese of Lisieux
Thomas a Kempis
Teresa of Avila
St. John of the Cross
Francois de Sales
George Fox (founder of the Quakers)
Schwenkfelders (a radical Puritan sect founded in the 1730s).
A. W. Tozer, Protestant mysticism
What is the Future of Mystic Christianity
Not all Christians are mystics and not all mystics are Gnostics. However, period of the first few centuries AD had profound impact on the present world of spirituality. Gnostic thinking overlapped to some extent to before Christ. Some writing is from earlier Jewish texts. But, the 1st
century mystical Gnosis ideas would develop into Christianity, even though some meaning changed and was lost with time.
Gnosis emphasizes the personal communion with a Holy Spirit. This Spirit has changed names and there are differing methods for unifying a human with God. To some, the Gnostic Gospels prove the living Jesus. Others do not need proof. They experience personal experience with Jesus that leads them to God.
Unfortunately, history has repeatedly associated spirituality with politics. Humans have a way of forgetting about Spirit as soon as a religion becomes organized. Social philosophy is forgotten when it becomes a government. People in power want to use that to dominate others. Money and power become the new religion and the new philosophy.
Leaders them use religions to enforce their laws through fear and punishment. One group decides it is better than another. One religion believes it makes them superior. One country maintains that it has a Divine right to conquer and control others.
A twentieth century saw fascists bring death and destruction in the name of Christianity, social freedom and the rights of the common man. An actual motivation had nothing to do with God or humanity. It was all about the pursuit of greed and power for a small group of people at the top.
Often a wave of thought takes over a group believing we must go back to the basics in religion and social policy. This is, no doubt true. However, such groups seem to think they should go back to the rules and enforce them tyrannically on others. This is insanity. The of all human Spirituality is love. This includes love of God, man and the universe.
Love of God includes love of the environment. Letting go of material gain is essential in being at peace with the planet Earth. We are all connected as spirits. We are all made of the dust of distant stars. Molecules we are made up of are the same molecules that have always existed. We can not survive with the continued idea of dominance and self-interest. We won’t survive if we continue to create destruction. We need to create love.
A Prayer of a True Mystic
In this blog I have tried to offer some insight into the Christian Mysticism practices that may increase faith and closeness to God. In closing, I would like to offer this prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, which is a favorite of mine. It captures a feel of what Christian mystics are striving for.
A prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.