Conversatio Divina

Part 3 of 16

Mysticism: Peril or Promise?

Bruce Demarest

01.  What Do We Mean?

Satiated with consumerism, technological gizmos, and frenetic activity, people of all stripes are exploring the mystical realm. We all resonate with moments of elevated wonder triggered by a beautiful sunset, rapturous music, or the birth of a baby. In a depersonalized age, image bearers are searching for relationship with something or Someone larger than themselves that will ease the dullness of daily life and energize the soul. Christians, in particular, hunger for more intimate experience of Jesus Christ and greater awareness of the Spirit’s ministry within.

In a previous issue of Conversations I described a six-week sojourn in a renewal Benedictine monastery, the experience of which was radically transforming.Bruce Demarest, “Reclaiming Wisdom: A Gracious Reversal,” Conversations 4.1 (Spring 2006), 43–47. In that grace-filled community I sensed that the Spirit, as it were, led me up the Mount of Transfiguration to witness the glorified Christ and transported me back to the life of the apostolic church with its vision, passion, and power. Healing of soul and transformation of life also occurred. Were these legitimately mystical experiences? Some remain skeptical of the mystical because of associations with Eastern religions and occult movements such as theosophy, nature mysticism, and New Age enlightenment. Mysticism, we are told, is something that begins in mist and ends in schism.

The word mysticism derives from the Greek, muō, meaning “to conceal.” The related English word, mystery, denotes what is obscure or unknown. To understand mysticism I find it helpful to distinguish between hard, occult, and soft forms of mysticism. Hard mysticism alleges the merging of human nature with the essence of the Absolute or God, in such a way that self-consciousness is lost. The Buddhist seeks absorption into Nirvana (an egoless state), and the Hindu, merging of the self (Atman) with Brahman (universal deity). Meister Eckhart (1260–1327) was one of the few Christian mystics who made statements that border on hard mysticism. Occult forms of mysticism (e.g., Scientology, est, New Age, Psycanics) seek transcendent insights and experiences through mind-altering substances and/or esoteric practices. Both hard and occult forms of mysticism are fundamentally opposed to orthodox Christianity.

What I call soft mysticism, on the other hand, seeks deepening relational union with God, not emptiness, fusion, or an ontological union. An important feature of soft mysticism is the believer’s experience of intimate, relational union with Jesus Christ, which involves no loss of individuality or selfhood. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines what I have called soft mysticism as “an immediate knowledge of God attained in this present life through personal religious experience. It is primarily a state of prayer and as such admits of various degrees, from short and rare Divine ‘touches’ to the practically permanent union with God in the so-called ‘mystic marriage.’”Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 935.

The believer’s faith-union with Christ that is central to soft mysticism involves a relation between the two persons that could be described as one of likeness or similarity, not one of identity. Early Christological controversies dealt with the issue of whether Christ was merely “like” (homoiousios) the Father or truly “identical to” (homoousios) the Father. Analogous to this classical discussion, the Christian’s relation to Christ is one of similarity, not identity. Unless otherwise noted, the discussion of mysticism to follow pertains to the soft, or relational, form as here described.

Kenneth Boa helpfully defines mysticism as “an intuitive and heart-oriented approach to spiritual formation that explores the inner terrain of the soul’s journey toward God.”Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 514. Henri Nouwen identifies mystics as “men and women of God” who ardently “desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness.”Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 29–30. According to John Michael Talbot, “A mystic is an ordinary person blessed by an extraordinary experience of God that transforms life in amazing ways. A mystic is someone who believes that there are realities to life that are beyond what can be perceived by our rational minds or described in words.”John Michael Talbot, The Way of the Mystics (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 3.

02.  Biblical Foundations

Many biblical characters enjoyed intimate union and communion with the living God. After wrestling with God by the brook Jabbok, “Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face’” (Genesis 32:30, NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ). Earlier, in a dream Jacob saw angels ascending and descending a stairway spanning heaven and earth, and he heard God restate the covenant made with Abraham (Genesis 28:12–15). In flaming fire from within a bush, God appeared to Moses while he was tending his flock, after which the two dialogued with each other (Exodus 3:1–4:17). So astounding was this encounter with Deity that Moses “hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). Consider also Elijah’s encounter on Mount Carmel, where, in a contest with 850 false prophets, the prophet saw fire fall from heaven (1 Kings 18:36–39). After Elijah descended the mountain, he not only witnessed supernatural phenomena (wind, earthquake, fire) but also heard the voice of God come to him as “a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). Later, Isaiah in the temple had an overwhelming vision of Yahweh accompanied by worshipping angels. So awesome was this experience that Isaiah cried out, “Woe to me! . . . I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). The prophets Ezekiel and Daniel experienced similar supernatural visions.

Jesus himself experienced legitimate mystical encounters. When John baptized Jesus, “heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16–17). Jesus later testified to his deep relational union with the Father, in which each person indwelt the other two (John 17:21; cf. v. 23). Jesus also taught that the persons of the Godhead live in his disciples (John 14:17, 20, 23; 15:4–5; 17:21), and the latter live in the three divine persons (John 14:20; 15:4–5, 7). This mutual indwelling of human and divine persons is a revealed mystery. Consider also Peter, James, and John’s observation of Jesus’ metamorphosis into divine glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, wherein his face radiated like the sun, and his clothes glistened dazzling white (Matthew 17:2). Elijah and Moses appeared from heaven in bodily form, talking with Jesus concerning his imminent death and resurrection (v. 3).

Relevant also was the life-changing experience of Saul, the brilliant but enraged Pharisee. En route to Damascus to ravage the fledgling Christian movement, Saul was struck to the ground sightless by a brilliant light (Acts 9:1–19; 22:3–11). He heard a voice from heaven saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). This extraordinary mystical event laid the foundation for the spread of the Good News to the Gentile world.
In his letters, the apostle Paul employed mystical language to describe the Christian’s vital spiritual union with Christ. In the context of the “one flesh” nature of the marital union, Paul wrote, “Whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:17). The apostle likened the union of husband and wife to the unity of Christ and the church: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31–32). Writing to Christians in Galatia, Paul testified, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Scriptures such as Ephesians 2:6 and Colossians 1:27 and 3:3 describe this same experiential union of life and love. St. Paul also referenced realities too profound to be conveyed adequately by human language. “I pray that you . . . may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17–19). Paul himself “was caught up to Paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell” (2 Corinthians 12:4).

The letter to the Hebrews refers to the mystical union believers “share in Christ” (3:14), “in the Holy Spirit” (6:4), and “in his holiness” (12:10). In startling language, Peter wrote that Christians partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), meaning that through union with Christ, believers mystically share in God’s grace and holiness without being absorbed into his essence. Believers’ union with Christ is mystical, for as Thomas Merton averred, “the Church, the union of mankind with God in Christ, is ‘The Mystery’ par excellence.”Thomas Merton, The New Man (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961), 89.

03.  Christian Perspectives on Mysticism

A cursory overview of church history reveals that soft, or relational, mysticism was heartily approved by leading Christian authorities. Augustine (354–430) experienced intimate relationship with Christ as well as extraordinary spiritual experiences. The following prayer reflects his mystical spirituality: “Let me enter into the secret chamber of my heart and sing to You songs of love, which are largely sighs: my attempts to express what cannot be expressed.”Augustine, Confessions, 12.16. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), described as a “reformer 450 years before the Reformation,” lived a mystical spirituality that included visions and raptures. He testified that the transported soul is given “a clearer vision of the Divine majesty, yet only for a moment and with the swiftness of a lightning flash.”Cited by Talbot, 72. Bernard joined deep contemplation of Christ with a life of active ministry.

When the medieval church had become spiritually lifeless, Francis of Assisi (ca.1181–1226) heard Jesus’ voice instruct him to repair God’s house. The voice from heaven propelled Francis to a vigorous renewal of the local and the wider church. Both an activist and a mystic, Francis “was often suspended in such sweetness of contemplation that, caught up out of himself, he could not reveal what he had experienced because it went beyond all human comprehension.”Cited by Talbot, 72.

John Calvin (1509–64) agreed with Bernard on the reality of mystical union with Christ. Calvin was less concerned with intellectual knowledge of God than with the formation of piety born out of intimate experience of the Savior. We find in Calvin language such as, “We partake of (or consume Christ), we are engrafted into Christ, Christ is poured into us. . . . When we are joined to him, we receive all that Christ has (righteousness, goodness, abundant life)Cited by Christopher Elwood, Calvin for Armchair Theologians. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/ JohnKnox, 2002), 81..” For Calvin, union with Christ is a spiritual union resulting in edifying, experiential knowledge of God.

As recorded in The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila (1515–82) experienced visions (perceptions of the mind’s eye), locutions (inner voices), and ecstasies that culminated in the experience of spiritual marriage. Teresa’s mystical experiences impelled her not only to a deeper life of prayer, but also to a life of active service to the church.

Anglican spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941) envisaged mysticism as the establishment of intimate, conscious relation with the Infinite, or God. Underhill encouraged both advancement on the mystical journey and commitment to practical social action. While reluctant to describe himself as a mystic, C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) readily acknowledged the mystical core of Christianity: “The best is perhaps what we understand least.”C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), 89. Henri Nouwen (1932–96) described mysticism as “the discipline of dwelling in the presence of the One who keeps asking us, ‘Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?’ It is the discipline of contemplative prayer. Through contemplative prayer we can keep ourselves from being pulled from one urgent issue to another and from becoming strangers to our own and God’s heart.”Nouwen, 28–29.

Mystical union with Christ was championed by other authorities, including Pseudo-Macarius (fourth century), John Ruysbroeck (1293–1381), Julian of Norwich (1342–ca.1416), Thomas à Kempis (ca.1379–1471), John of the Cross (1542–91), Brother Lawrence (ca.1610–91), George Fox (1624–91), Mme. Jeanne Guyon (1648–1717), William Law (1686–1761), John Woolman (1720–72), many Puritans and Pietists, and Thomas Merton (1915–68).

04.  Mysticism Explored

Since God is infinite Being, we humans cannot fully comprehend him (cf. 1 Timothy 6:16). Believers’ union with Christ, involving participation in the divine dance that is the Trinity, is suprarational, transcending complete intellectual understanding and verbal description. The Eastern church gave voice to this mystery by the term theōsis (divinization), signifying baptized believers’ active participation in Christ, such that they are conformed to his image and activity. “God made us to be like Him, wants us to become like Him, and will ultimately transform us into being like Him.”John Zuck, “Union with God,”, accessed 4 May 2022. As expressed in the Theologia Germanica, “He who is not on this [mystical] path is unable to put it in words. And he who is on the path and knows is equally unable to voice it.”The Theologia Germanica, chap. 19. The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 85.

The hidden God reveals himself through inspired Scripture, mighty acts in history, and also through lived experience. In believers’ experience of God (Psalm 34:8) renewing affections are evoked: joy, peace, the sense of being loved, and love flowing outward to God and others. The promised Counselor (John 15:26) so renews the soul that all created senses come alive with a fresh glow, and Christians see things around them that Christless eyes have never seen. As mentioned, one analogy to believers’ mystical union with Christ is the marriage relationship. One understands the reality of matrimony not merely by thinking about it, but by experiencing it—by living into it with loving commitment. Part of the delight of marriage involves progressively entering into the mystery of the other person.

Although we have depicted mystical spirituality as vital, spiritual union with Christ, God in grace may permit his children to encounter “otherworldly” experiences, such as an illuminating dream, a dark night of the soul, prayer in an unknown tongue, or a fleeting glimpse of glory. Such ecstatic experiences, valuable in themselves, are not essential to the mystical life. Apprentices of Jesus ought not seek nor fixate on ecstatic spiritual experiences, as did Peter at Christ’s Transfiguration. The Lord wills that we permit the glory of such experiences to deepen love, advance holiness, and heighten anticipation of heaven. Our trust is not in ecstatic experiences but in the steadfast and faithful God.
After writing about my own transforming engagement with Christ in a Benedictine monastery, I received a letter from a Christian woman who is a long-standing member of an evangelical church. After attending the monastery’s School for Spiritual Direction, she wrote, “It was from reading about your experience at Pecos that I was first stirred to go there myself. My time there was life-changing. I don’t know how to articulate the ways in which being there changed me, except to say the mystery lies in the sense that I was in the presence of God, especially in the daily chapel times. Even as I think on these times now, my eyes fill with tears. I guess I was ready for epiphany, and epiphany was ready for me. I was simply overwhelmed with divine Presence.”

Soft mysticism clearly does not supplant the completed work of Christ, is not pantheistic, is not world-renouncing, does not neglect care for the poor, and is not the prerogative of a spiritual elite alone. All purported mystical encounters must pass the test of consistency with the teachings of Scripture. The mystic, moreover, does not forsake his or her God-given mind. Rather, dogma and experience unite in a dynamic whole. As expressed by Robert Webber, “New Testament spirituality is beyond full comprehension and therefore mystical, but also within the realm of understanding and therefore reasonable.”Robert E. Webber, Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 233.

05.  In Sum

Soft or relational mysticism constitutes the affectively experienced outcome of believers’ faith-union with Christ rooted in the biblically revealed story of his life, death, and resurrection. Soft mysticism calls for the integration of intellect, affections, relationships, and service, which Scripture collectively designates as “heart” (Hebrew, leb; Greek, kardia). Not only can Christians safely embrace soft or relational mysticism, but they also recognize that it lies at the very heart of New Testament theology and life. Followers of Jesus, of course, will reject philosophical systems of hard mysticism or esoteric forms of cultic mysticism. I fully agree with the judgment of the renowned Reformed scholar, John Murray, who wrote, “There is an intelligent mysticism in the life of faith.”John Murray, Redemption, Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1961), 167.

Christian disciples are summoned to experience more fully their union with Jesus by surrender of their lives to him and by biblical meditation, prayer, and other edifying spiritual practices. The biblical mystic does not withdraw from life in some “rapturous dreamland” (Underhill), nor does he spend his days in a cave ruminating on his own spiritual world. Rather, the biblical mystic joins contemplation of Christ with practical action on behalf of others in the give and take of everyday life. In deep, personal relationship with Jesus, disciples discover wisdom for living, words for speaking, and courage for serving God and others.

Fortunately, the authenticity of the Christian mystical life is open to validation. Our Lord prescribed the ultimate test of a true mystical spirituality with the words, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16). Some saints who are immature in the faith may not resonate with your particular experience of Jesus. But the good fruit of a Christ-honoring life will set hearts at rest and encourage these to journey deeper with Jesus themselves. The surest evidence for the authenticity of the mystical life is the fruit of the Spirit in one’s life: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).

Rightly, Thomas Merton commends “not the God of a mere notional or moral union, but the God Who becomes One Spirit with our own soul! This alone is the reality for which we were made. Here alone do we finally ‘find ourselves’—not in our natural selves but out of ourselves in God. . . . The spiritual anguish of man has no cure but mysticism.”Merton, 113–114. Insightfully, G. K. Chesterton added, “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.”G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Image, 1959), 28. Soft mysticism, then, is not a perilous aberration of Christian faith, but the promise of a rewarding life with and for Christ.


About the Author

Bruce Demarest serves as professor of Christian formation at Denver Seminary. He holds a PhD in historical theology from the University of Manchester (England) and an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In addition to books on theology, he has written Satisfy Your Soul and Soul Guide (both NavPress), and most recently he teamed up with James R. Beck in writing The Human Person in Theology and Psychology: An Anthropology for the Twenty-First Century (Kregel, 2005).