… the more I have read and thought about the phenomenon of ‘mysticism’, the more I have become convinced that the cluster of ideas associated with mysticism is not in the least a matter of ‘facts’, but rather strategies of thought and interpretation with a real, though not always focused, agenda. Furthermore, the more I have read the Fathers, the more the notion of the ‘mystical’ has come to be called into question – not in the sense that I feel inclined now to dismiss mysticism (as in Newman’s quip about mysticism beginning in mist and ending in schism), but rather that I have begun to realize that the mystical dimension is much more serious than our current ideas of mysticism envisage. Ultimately, a recovery of the patristic notion of the mystical involves a reconfiguration of what is involved in committing ourselves to be transformed by God’s grace – in the language of the Fathers, ‘deified’. As my original book made clear, for the Fathers this transformation certainly involved a reconstitution of individual human beings, but it is no individual quest, but rather the rediscovery of our humanity in Christ – the ecclesial and sacramental dimensions are part of the mystical, not to be contrasted with it. ‘Mysticism’, in this sense, is not esoteric but exemplary, not some kind of flight from the bodily but deeply embedded (not to say: embodied), not about special ‘experiences’ of God but about a radical opening of ourselves to God.

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 201.

This afterword to the new edition of Father Louth’s book, originally published in 1981, is a remarkable essay that, at the risk of turning this blog into an Andrew Louth fan club, I am going discuss in some detail, for it addresses issues that seem to me to be of fundamental importance, but which are too little acknowledged in many contemporary Western Christian contexts.

In his afterword Louth notes some areas in which his thought has changed since first writing this book. However, his shift in perspective is more fundamental than simply a focus on details but concerns the very category of “mysticism” and “Christian mysticism” itself.

Now it seems to me obvious that the word ‘mysticism’ has a past, has a history: it is not at all innocent, and its use cannot be separated from a whole host of religious concerns that have a history, and a history that demands to be understood. (201)

Louth seeks to question the assumption that we can speak in any uncomplicated sense about a sort of universal mystical phenomenon. He does this by investigating the lack of clarity about mysticism in the Christian tradition.

For me the difficulty about the meaning of the term ‘mysticism’ is historical: I am worried about the way the term has emerged within the Christian tradition, so that it is now freighted with meanings that affect its present-day use, not least because this history, and these meanings, are often unknown to those who use the term – and freighted with meanings, not simply in a lexical sense, by freighted with claims to a certain authority, made in particular times and particular contexts, claims that do not simply slip away when the times and contexts recede from conscious memory. (203)

In the next post I shall present Father Louth’s discussion of the vocabulary of “mysticism” in relation to the Fathers of the Church.

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