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.
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.