Conversatio Divina

Classroom: Reading the Mystics as Spiritual Formation

Joannah Sadler

Read the article by Heather Parkinson-Webb and then join me here for reflection, questions, and exercises.

01.  Summary

Parkinson-Webb’s passion for the mystics was developed in seminary where she was immersed in the writings and study of the early church. “The voices of the mystics are vitally relevant and provoke rich dialogue not only about spiritual growth and the way to God, but also about theology—one’s image of and relationship to God.” She defines a mystic as anyone who experiences God. Mysticism is a part of our Christian tradition that we need to reclaim, the teachings of which can give us much insight into the process of spiritual formation.

As the articles in this issue attest, modern day Christians are sometimes wary of Mysticism. Parkinson-Webb experienced some of the same hurdles initially; the language of the mystics is different than ours, and the metaphors and images of God are often unfamiliar. Yet, there was great value for her in the exposure to the ancient writings and stories of how others in a different time and culture experienced God. She urges all Believers to see this as a formational opportunity for spiritual growth.

Parkinson-Webb now teaches courses to graduate students on the mystics. In this article she invites the reader to be open to learning something new about themself, and perhaps experiencing God in a new way. For instance, the mystics teach us the path toward God—and describe this journey in three movements: purgation, illumination, and union.

This forming into Christ-likeness is called sanctification. Knowing these three movements can help us better understand the variety of ways we may come to God.

Some Protestants react negatively to these stages, viewing them as works righteousness or concluding that they are based what is the connection on a diminished view of what is accomplished in justification. But the Mystic Way is simply the process of sanctification, what happens as we grow in faith. And an understanding of these three movements on this journey can help us better appreciate the variety of ways in which we come to God.

The mystics have much to teach us on prayer and different ways in which we experience and know God. Mysticism, says Parkinson-Webb, also challenges our relationship to our bodies. Fasting, self-denial and a rigorous degree of ascetism characterized the lives of the early mystics. Their lived experience and discipline provide important questions for us to consider; what is the role of denial of the body in Christian spirituality? And what is the connection between our spiritual life and our physical and psychological well-being? Women like Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila left behind writings that allow us to have a glimpse into their deep devotion to God, which challenge modern day readers to receive the grace of God’s presence for the gift that it is.

Early church writing detailed stories of the spiritual journey that included “dark nights”—which is a season when one feels that their experience of God has changed and seems distant. Parkinson-Webb tells us that this should be a great comfort to us as we experience seasons of suffering, grief, or anytime we question God’s role in our lives. Through his honesty, John of the Cross and other mystics validated and normalized the “mountaintops and valleys” of the Christian walk.

A helpful paradigm that grounds my reading of the mystics is the difference between Pharisaism and heresy. If we make ourselves only students of doctrine, we run the risk of becoming, like the Pharisees, devoid of deep devotion and a living relationship with God. But, on the other hand, if we pursue only an experientially based religious life and don’t focus on doctrine and theology, we may end up as heretics. There is a delicate balance we need to maintain in being people of the Book but also people of the heart. Both are essential if we are to maintain a living relationship with God.

Bridging the gap between the old voices of the ancient mystics, who use imagery and language that we might find difficult to understand, and contemporary life may not always be easy. Yet the substance and challenge that come from the mystics’ deep experience of the presence of God can, in turn, make our doctrine come alive with a new awareness of the living God present with us now. It’s so refreshing to think about a life of faith equipped with freedom for its followers to bring all they experience and all they are to God. In fact, it’s not mysterious at all, it’s what God intended! The mystery is how we open ourselves to a love more powerful than we can comprehend, and share that love with fellow image-bearers.

02.  Questions / Exercises

  1. If you’ve read any of the writings of the mystics, what insights or helpful things did you learn about their experience of God that you might apply to your own life?
  2. Parkinson-Webb says that the mystics often challenge modern day believers to question their own devotion to God, and begs the question of why we are afraid to move toward that level of intimacy with God. As you reflect on that, what might be holding you back from experiencing deep connection with the Father?
  3. Set aside some time this week for solitude. Perhaps a place with a pretty view, or a quite spot in your home. As you sit with Jesus, try to focus your mind on just receiving his love. Resist the urge to speak or journal or do anything more than just resting in his care for you.
  4. Join the Conversation—share with a friend something you’ve learned about yourself and what you’ve learned about your relationship with God as a result of reading this article.