Conversatio Divina

Part 10 of 16

Reading the Mystics as Spiritual Formation

Heather Parkinson-Webb

I acquired a passion for the mystics when I was studying at Princeton Seminary and attended a favorite professor’s final course. Dr. Froehlich was in his last semester of teaching and was given the opportunity to teach anything he wanted. He chose “The Mystics.” I am grateful to have taken this course because it provided a balance to many of my other more intellectually oriented courses. These spiritual theologians were writing about devotion, their walk and life in God. For me, it was water to parched land to hear of their diverse experiences of relating to and coming to know God.

With today’s growing interest in spirituality, there is a ripe opportunity to reclaim our Christian tradition. 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.

Reading the mystics is not always an easy task. One of the challenges is that their language is different from ours, and their images and metaphors for God are often unfamiliar. However, I believe there is immense value in exposing ourselves to these varied ways of looking at, thinking through, and engaging with God.

I have taught the mystics to graduate students from conservative theological backgrounds as well as to Presbyterian and Episcopal adults at churches. Whenever I start a class, I ask people to tell me what comes to mind when they hear the word mystic. Responses range from “LSD” to “the Beatles”! But mystics are not so strange. Simply put, a mystic is anyone who experiences God.

01.  Mystic Wisdom

The mystics have many things to teach us. One of them is the path to God—or what is sometimes called the Mystic Way. Typically, this way is described in terms of three movements: purgation, illumination, and union. Some Protestants react negatively to these stages, viewing them as works righteousness or concluding that they are based 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 also have much to teach us about prayer. They make a distinction between what they describe as two ways of experiencing God: the apophatic and cataphatic ways, which can also be understood as two broad types of prayer. To understand this distinction, think about how you would describe velvet to someone who had never seen it. You might try comparing it to other fabrics or describing how it looks or feels or even hangs. But you may also find yourself contrasting it to other fabrics and saying, “It doesn’t feel like . . .” This brings us to the difference between the cataphatic and apophatic ways to experience or relate to God. The cataphatic way describes in positive language; the apophatic describes by negation. The way of negation tells us what God isn’t. It creates space for mystery and leaves room for what we cannot know of God, what is beyond our understanding. The apophatic way is a part of the writings of the mystics that attracts postmodern readers. It reminds us that God is more mysterious than our finite minds can comprehend.

02.  The Body and Women’s Voices

Mysticism also challenges our relationship to our bodies. The lives of the mystics were often characterized by self-denial and a rigorous degree of asceticism. Anthony Synnott reminds us that we still have ascetics. Today, our modern ascetics are the athletes who push their bodies to perform at higher and higher levels of functioning.Synnott, Anthony.The Body Social (Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England: Routledge, 1993) But the mystics present important questions for us to consider. What is the role of the denial of the body in Christian spirituality? And what is the connection between our spiritual life and our physical or psychological well-being?

Many of the famous Christian mystics were women. Think, for example, of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, or Teresa of Avila. While they wrote under male authority, and often their words were directed or even inscribed by men, we are fortunate that we can still hear their voices in the texts that have been left for us. Reading them, we hear the passion and sensuality they brought to their understanding of their relationship to God. Sometimes their language makes us blush as they describe Jesus or God as the lover of their souls. The fact that this language jars us raises the question of why we are afraid to move towards that level of intimacy with God. God invites us, like Hosea and Gomer, to allow ourselves to be wooed in the wilderness by our Beloved. We also hear these deep expressions of love in the works of male mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, John of the Cross, and Augustine, but nowhere is it clearer than in the words of the female mystics.

03.  The Dark Nights

The discussion of the dark night of the soul and senses provided by John of the Cross provides another challenge to contemporary sensibilities. He tells us that our journey will often include a time when what we know of God no longer seems to be valid, and God seems far away. His work offers an important corrective to our way of thinking about the spiritual journey, for the journey includes not only growing deeper and deeper in a joyful, cataphatic way, but also time in the valley of the shadow of death. John of the Cross helps us be realistic about times when our understanding of God seems darkened as we are led into a deepening walk with God. It requires death to find new birth and life. This should encourage us in our faith and provide hope for the deepening of our lives individually and collectively in the Church.

The mystics have taught me there is a process to life. It Is not as if we attain union with God and stay there. Rather, we may have mountaintop experiences, but we will surely then have to come back down from that mountaintop, go back to the living of our lives, and journey with others in the valley. Then, as Grace comes, that experience with God may return. It is not, however, something we can force to happen. It is always and ever a grace and a gift from God.

04.  Gifts for Community

A common misconception people often have about mystics is that they were all hermits, living in isolation in caves or in the forest. While there have been some interesting and colorful mystics in the history of the church—some even living on stilts to get away from others!—most have not been solitaries. Even those who did live alone often still impacted others in dramatic ways. Many of the most famous mystics were also advisors to kings and popes. They founded hospitals, created monastic orders, and were busy, active, and influential people in their day. It was as if God anointed them with insights and visions for others. The gifts they received were not just for them alone, but also for larger segments of society they served in leadership.

05.  Paradigms for Reading

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.

As we engage mystic voices that are different from our own, we need to remember that we stand on a bridge. We are coming from one place and building a bridge to another. It doesn’t mean we need to leave our starting point behind. If the bridge is to be maintained, the starting point must remain. If it does, we can then journey across the bridge, meet those on the other side, and grow in faith. I invite those I lead in this journey to feel free to disagree with what they read, not enjoy it, and be wary of it, but keep pushing into whatever makes them uncomfortable. I encourage them to stay with it a little longer and see if there is anything there for them. Discovering what they don’t like about it is part of the growth process.

It has been my joy to immerse myself in the writings of the mystics. I have been grateful for the positive responses to these same authors from those I lead on this journey. Many have been able to bridge the gap with voices of old, despite language and imagery that might have been foreign to their experience or traditions. They found substance there while also feeling provoked and challenged by what these voices had to say. Part of the power of reading the mystics today lies in the questions they raise for us. They appeal to today’s sensibilities: women’s voices were upheld; their writings were experiential, not just doctrinal; and they made room for mystery and darkness as part of a life of faith that can give us greater freedom to bring all that we are and experience to God.


About the Author

Heather Parkinson-Webb holds a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, a master’s degree in counseling from Colorado Christian University, and a doctor of ministry degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. She is a licensed professional counselor, spiritual director, and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She is currently the chaplain and director of spiritual care for Greenwich Chaplaincy Services. Heather is the author of Redeeming Eve: Finding Hope Beyond the Struggles of Life (2002) and Small Group Leadership as Spiritual Direction (2005).