Thursday 1 March 2012

Mysticism and Christianity


If alienation (and not sin) is the main self-perceived malaise of modern man - and alienation is life as purposeless, meaningless and the human self as isolated from relationships with the world - then the cure for alienation is mysticism.

If modern Christianity lacks a significant mysticism, then it will fail to attract the alienated souls - who will either dull their pain with distractions and intoxicants, or look to non-Christian spirituality and mysticism.

Yet mysticism was, and is, an aspect of Christianity, part of the fullness of Christianity.


Christian mysticism is directed at attaining communion with God. An example is the Orthodox Hesychast tradition which may involve ascetic disciplines and prolonged prayer (The Jesus Prayer, and similar short repeated prayers).

However, this solitary striving is pursued under monastic discipline, accompanied by frequent daily participation in numerous formal religious rituals and liturgies.

From a Christian perspective, detached mysticism, solo mysticism - indeed any seeking of advanced and unusual religious experiences outwith Christianity - is hazardous, indeed may be spiritually fatal (that is, fatal to salvation) - because its motivations are flawed: sensation-seeking, power-seeking and pride.

For Christians, pride is the worst of sins, because it sets the self above God, and mystical striving has a strong tendency to induce spiritual pride - which may be very resistant to correction. 


There is also a non-Christian 'aesthetic' mysticism which may be well-motivated, implicitly motivated towards communion with God - albeit incompletely so, absent the necessary mediation of Christ.

This high motivation will - however - tend to become corrupted by sensation-seeking, power-seeking and pride; since these are powerful and the fallen human has - if unaided by Grace - no ability to resist (or even identify) that which is intrinsic to his nature.


So - the main mystical tradition in Christianity is in Eastern Orthodoxy - and that is the path of asceticism under monastic discipline - the Via Negativa (Negative Way), the path of rejecting the world and worldly distractions, aiming at a direct approach to God, by Love of Christ.

But Charles Williams emphasized the other mystical path, the Via Positiva or Positive Way, the indirect aim - the aim at becoming more Holy via love of God's creatures (i.e. God's created things and beings).

This is the Christianity of Man engaged with the world - engaged with art, music, philosophy, mathematics, crafts, farming, care of a family...

And especially it is the path of Mysticism of Love - what C.W. called Romantic Theology.


Thus the path of the Positive Way, the Love of created things, is often through the mysticism of marriage and family.

A recognition that marriage is sacred, a sacrament.


Interestingly, the greatest, most focused modern Christian exponents of the Via Positiva are Mormons - whose distinctively concrete theology places the married couple and their children at the centre of God's plan of salvation - such that the highest salvation is available only to the married, and mystically sealed marriages and families are continued into the afterlife. Perhaps as a part of the same emphasis, Mormons reject the Via Negativa in its purest form - there are no Mormon monasteries (at least, not yet).


Modern Christianity needs, as a matter of extreme urgency and importance, to restore its mysticism. It needs to restore the use of sublime language, music and architecture; to encourage a revival of monasticism; and also it needs to restore the mysticism of Love, Marriage and Family.



kristor said...

Amen amen.

All the most sublime and attractive bits of Christianity are suffused with mystical feeling - crammed with it, so that the concrete immediacy of the physical instantiation is almost obscured by the glory of the Light it mediates.

Interestingly, the via negativa, and Christian monasticism generally, is a direct lineal descendent of the Essene monastic tradition, which goes back to the Prophets (see the account of the ascension of Elijah, with the "prophets" - the monastic mystics - of each town coming out to greet Elijah and Elisha in their progress), and to the monastic communities in Egypt known as the therapeutae. There seems also to have been a vibrant lay Essene community, much larger, living in cities and towns, and employed in secular labor, marrying and having children. Lay Essenes would cycle in and out of the monasteries, and often end their lives in the monasteries. So, the lay community of Essenes is the direct lineal ancestor of the Christian lay community, practicing the via positiva.

Colleen said...

Hi, this is a very interesting blog.

Do you think heresy has any place in mystical thought? Must one accept all the teachings of a particular religion in order to take part in its mystical tradition? Is there a way to retain a degree of skepticism or free thought--without simply reverting to sensation-seeking "aesthetic" mysticism--and still find one's own radically subjective way to experience the divine?

Kristor said...

Colleen: mysticism can surmount the stumbling blocks of the mystic's heretical beliefs, but such beliefs are real stumbling blocks. This is why there is such a strong emphasis, in all traditional mystical schools, on studyinig under a master.

Mysticism perfected necessarily drives out all heresy.

Must one accept all the teachings of a particular religion? Yes. Otherwise you aren't a believer in that religion at all, and it is therefore doing you no good.

One of the first steps in mysticism is sacrificing the notion of figuring things out for yourself, and placing yourself under subjection to a higher authority. Best if that authority is vested in a living human being, a master. You must *let go* of skepticism, *let go* of the idea that your thoughts and beliefs are going to be just yours. The *whole point* of mysticism is to get out from under yourself.

All ways to the divine are radically subjective. That does not mean they are all idiosyncratic, or made up.

Seek tradition. This is not a new art. What, are you going to improve on a tradition full of adepts and saints who have been plumbing the depths for 3,000 years? You think you can do better?

A humble example will clarify what I'm talking about: have you *ever* heard wedding vows that have been written by the bride and groom that were not crippled by vapidity, somewhere or other? Compare the wedding vows from any old prayer book: their majesty, beauty and integrity are palpable.

You can't make this stuff up as you go. Or rather, you can, but you are likely to end up possessed or something if you do. I am not making this up, and I am dead serious.

Wurmbrand said...

Felt mystical experience is not promised to the Faithful, although all the Faithful do participate in the Blessed Exchange, whereby we receive Christ's righteousness and He receives our sins; we are indeed united with Him; but this is not always something we feel.

What the Faithful all have is the Holy Spirit and the promises of God's Word. Unless they are well grounded in the Faith, mystically inclined people may devalue or dismiss this. This is one of the places in which the elitism that sometimes, despite their protestations, infects them shows through.

I think it likely that our Lord will, in fact, in many places withdraw the consolations of mystical experience in order to focus our faith-life ever more on His Word. As times darken, the Faithful may cling more than ever to the Word, even while the world explores seeming mystical delights, signs, and wonders.

Please consider the possibility that an indication of Our Lord's teaching about extraordinary experience may be provided by the account of Dives and Lazarus. You will remember that the rich man, "being in torments" in hell, asked Abraham to send Lazarus to appear to the rich man's brothers, to warn them from beyond the grave of the horrors awaiting them if they did not repent, horrors from which the rich man could now not be delivered. And Abraham says to him, "They have Moses and the prophets" --(i.e. the Bible) --"If they will not hear them, they will not believe, though one came to them from the dead."

Again, St. Paul refers to "a man" who saw and heard things in the "third heaven," but his preaching was not of such mysteries, but of what John Wesley called "the old coarse Gospel." What a sad state of things when the Passion and Resurrection of the Son of God are ABCs to us, and we want to hurry on to experiences that may, in many cases, simply be unusual states common to human nature (fallen as it is).

It is really to the Word and the Sacraments that we should turn, not to mysticism, if we are seeking the Christ-life. To be sure -- the Lord may give us extraordinary moments! But for the great majority of Christians, at least, the truly Christian mystical life is that in which we live out our Faith in "humdrum" callings, as celebrated in George Herbert's poetry, etc.

These thoughts, for what they may be worth, from an old-time reader of much fine mystical writing! Now I am apt, like the old lady in one of Williams's mystical thrillers, to ask, "Where's the Precious Blood?" -- and my favorite character in the whole seven-book cycle is the nurse who baptized the infant Betty.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - I agree with everything you say. The question is what to do about it.

I feel that the 'Protestant' solution is to be 'on the safe side' and reject all or nearly-all of the mystical tradition: especially the ascetic monastic tradition, in effect to prevent people trying to become Saints because it is spiritually hazardous and they are unlikely to succeed.

But in avoiding that problem, by steering too far away from that problem, Protestants may tend to sail very close to other problems - legalism, good works and indeed the reappearance of the monastic mystical tradition but in an undisciplined and much *more hazardous* form of 'charismatic' churches, Pentecostalism and so on.

I am not saying that charismatic and Pentecostal denominations are necessarily bad, but they have all the spiritual hazards of ascetic monasticism but without the warnings and safeguards.

Perhaps the main difference between Protestant mystics and Orthodox mystics is the evangelicals often believe that the world is on the verge of a great new era of Christianity (therefore the Holy Spirit is *more* apparent, and His gifts)

- whereas the Orthodox regard the world as well advanced into decline and corruptions (i.e. we are living in the prophesied End Times awaiting the destruction of the world) such that the balance of power is increasingly further towards the demonic, and hasty or casual attempts by spiritual beginners to demonstrate the special gifts of the Holy Spirit will be hijacked by the forces of evil...