If the ‘mysticism’ of the Fathers is what these various uses of mystikos refer to, then it is very different from what we call mysticism nowadays: it does not refer to some elite group, or elite practice, within Christianity, it simply refers to the lived reality of Christianity itself. It is not something separate from the institutions of Christianity: it is the meaning that these institutions enshrine. It is not something distinct from the dogmas of Christianity, for the ‘mystical’ meaning of Scripture, in this sense, is often enough precisely such dogmas, which are the hidden meaning of the Scriptures. ‘Mystical’ and ‘sacramental’, from this perspective, are interchangeable: which is hardly surprising, as sacramentum is the Latin word used to translate mysterion.

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 205.

In discussing his own earlier use of the terms “mysticism” and “mystical tradition” in relation to the Church Fathers, Father Louth points to the revival of patristic learning – both Orthodox and Catholic – before the Second World War, in which scholars found themselves drawn to the Fathers “because with them dogma and spirituality (another freighted word!) seemed to belong together, and the term ‘mystical theology’ was used to designate this point of convergence.” (203) However, this led to questions of what the word “mysticism” really meant in relation to the Fathers. Moreover, while the term “mysticism” is not found in the Fathers, the adjective mystikos from which it is derived is common. This has led to the danger

of reading back into the early centuries ideas that have no place there. And that is, I think, what has happened. But if it is the case – and it is not difficult to show that it is – that the comparatively modern word ‘mysticism’ has a past that includes the use of the adjective mystikos, then it might be worth tracing that past, to see what light it sheds on the development of the term ‘mysticism’, and, in particular, what hidden agendas are concealed by the use of that term. (204)

Louth proceeds to discuss an essay by Père Louis Bouyer on the history of the word “mysticism” in which he distinguished three ways in which the word mystikos was used in patristic Greek. The first and most common usage was its to designate the mystical meaning of Scripture. The second usage, which became increasingly frequent from the fourth century, was to designate the liturgical texts and ceremonies. The third and least common use was to refer to the Christian life. The word itself originates with the Hellenistic mystery religions and its root has to do with a secret kept, and its various forms relate to initiation into this secret. However, Bouyer argued that the similarity between the language of the Fathers and that of the mystery religions was superficial, for the real context of its patristic use was quite different. Louth continues:

At its heart is the understanding of Christ as the divine mysterion: an idea central to the epistles of the Apostle Paul. This secret is a secret that has been told; but despite that it remains a secret, because what has been declared cannot be simply grasped , since it is God’s secret, and God is beyond any human comprehension. The secret of the Gospel is the hidden meaning of the Scriptures: for Christians the whole of what they call the ‘Old Testament’ finds its true meaning in Christ. God’s plan for humankind to which the Scriptures bear witness is made plain in the Incarnation. And this is the most common context, as we have seen, for the use of the word mystikos: it refers therefore to the hidden meaning of the Scriptures, the true meaning that is revealed in Christ, a meaning that remains mysterious, for it is no simple message, but the life in Christ that is endless in its implications. Christians, however, share in the life of Christ pre-eminently through the sacraments – mysteria in Greek – and the word mystikos is used therefore in relation to the sacraments as a way of designating the hidden reality, encountered and shared through the sacraments. The final use of the word mystikos refers to the hidden reality of the life of baptized Christians: a reality which is, as St Paul put it, ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Col. 3: 3). (205)

In the next post I shall present Father Louth’s discussion of Dionysius the Areopagite and the shifts that occurred with the transmission of his thought into the medieval West.

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