Mysticism


This is once more late, but having summarised Father Alexander Golubov’s essay on “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective” (the foreword to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality  – the previous posts can be found here, here, here, and here), I want to return to this and say something more specific about the contemporary phenomenon of “spirituality” and the challenges that it poses to anyone who desires to be faithful to the historic Christian tradition.

As already noted, the word “spirituality” is used to mean almost anything today, and has a spectrum of meanings even when used in a consciously Christian context. It also seems clear to me that the most fundamental problem with much of the language of spirituality is related to its lack of theological grounding or, in some cases, with its deployment in theological projects that are decidedly at odds with Christian tradition.

This was illustrated for me a couple of months ago with the release of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance. Now, I had been vaguely aware of Rohr for some time and the popular quotes of his that I had seen seemed to exemplify some of my concerns about the “spirituality” scene – one-liners that sound so appealing, but which I suspected were nevertheless part of a broader agenda. My suspicious were confirmed by this article, but I didn’t think much more about him until Amazon tried to sell me his Divine Dance. I wasn’t going to spend money on it, but I did wonder whether I was writing him off unfairly so listened to some of his YouTube talks, which further confirmed my suspicions. He may be a pleasant person and even have helpful insights, but his talks were full of caricature, half-truths, and the downright peddling of ignorance, which made me wonder how anyone could take him seriously.

I was therefore pleased to come across Fred Sanders’ critical review, Why I Don’t Flow with Richard Rohr. Apart from the obvious factual inaccuracies in the book (not only in terms of the misuse of the word “perichoresis” but also in terms of absurd made-up stories about mirrors), Sanders draws attention to Rohr’s fundamental misuse of the Cappadocian Fathers in his own attempts to undermine the distinction between God and creation. Sanders concludes:

And my long—forgive me—review has one main point: it’s that The Divine Dance isn’t about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a book about an alternative spirituality of Flow, committed to a metaphysic that refuses to recognize a distinction between God and the world. It’s one long looting of the language of Trinitarian theology, with an avowed goal of using that language to teach an entirely novel doctrine. I would oppose the doctrine of Divine Flow in any context where it came to my attention. But for this doctrine to be marketed as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is insupportable. This sustained misrepresentation is what makes this book a piece of false teaching in the church.

It is precisely this creeping monism that most concerns me about the contemporary phenomenon of “spirituality,” but I will hopefully return to that again. What I want to note now is the response of Rohr’s co-author, Mike Morrell, to Sander’s review. Instead of engaging with any of Sanders’ substantive points, Morrell basically rants. But, in doing so, his basic argument is that his and Rohr’s is a different approach that is just as legitimate, and claims that theirs is “an apophatic, social, process-oriented Franciscan approach,” while Sanders’ is “a kataphatic, hierarchical, substance-oriented Calvinist approach.” Quite apart from his misunderstanding of these terms, or the suggestion that this is a Calvinist issue (!), his basic argument is that what he and Rohr are doing is what “mystics” do, and so he appeals to another kind of experiential and mystical knowledge that would somehow excuse him from answering Sanders’ substantive points.

It seems to me that this is the core of the problem, namely, that the language of “spirituality” and “mysticism” is currently being used on a large scale to undermine historical Christian faith. And when people object to it, they are simply countered by an appeal to a different type of knowledge or, if they don’t know better, by the misquoting of Church Fathers or “mystics” to justify such positions. Now, there is a grain of truth in all this as there is such a thing as “mystical knowledge” in Christian tradition, which is perhaps something to explore in a future blog post. But it is certainly not what is being presented by Morrell and his self-identified “mystics.”

Of course, all of this also leaves us with the question: Does it matter? And is monism really such a bad thing? I hesitate to promise future blog posts given my terrible recent record, but that is what I would like to explore next.

This is another one of those thinking aloud posts and one which I have put off writing because it feels like such a complex subject that could go in all sorts of directions. I have mentioned my frustrations with the language of “mysticism” before and have been wanting to probe, unpack and explain my discomfort with that discourse for some time. I did actually write something a couple of months ago, but then decided that it was too much of a rant and didn’t sufficiently explain the background against which I was reacting – and I have since lost what I wrote when my computer died last week. (Yes, I know about backups in theory, but…)

Those concerns were primarily with a general contemporary Christian discovery of or emphasis on “mysticism” or “mystical experience.” My reactions tended to be sparked by things like the much-quoted statement by Karl Rahner that the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or will not exist, or, in the case of my last rant, someone tweeting a quote from Pope Francis that “a religion without mystics is a philosophy.” While such interest is understandable for people coming out of heavily cerebral religious traditions and seeking a healthier integration of faith and experience, and a theology rooted in a life of prayer, and while I should, I suppose, have a certain sympathy with them, having been there myself, I have found myself getting more and more concerned with the uncritical glibness of such assertions. Much of this relates to the way in which mysticism and experience are contrasted to dogma, which is invariably viewed in negative terms. This erosion of dogma – which is a consequence of the failure to understand the true nature of dogma – undermines the richness of the Christian revelation and becomes something fundamentally anti-ecclesial. It also opens the door to monism, which is another topic that I have been intending to address for ages.

However, in addition to these general concerns about “mysticism” there is also a related assertion that one sometimes hears, namely, that it is Orthodoxy – or “the East” – that is mystical. I have had people expressing interest in Orthodoxy because they believed it to be mystical and yet at the same time insisting that they were not interested in “ritual and dogma.” And I have also come across Orthodox Christians contrasting East and West and claiming that the East is mystical, experiential and apophatic, while the West is philosophical and rational. When I came across such assertions twice in one week recently, I decided that the time probably had come to probe this further.

The reality is that such assertions do contain a grain of truth, but it is often a rather messy truth in which blanket statements are made about two traditions that – at least in their earlier years – were by no means unrelated. While the West did develop in ways that, from an Orthodox perspective, are indeed problematic – and the rise of scholasticism is a fundamental part of this – pushing this back to the fourth century and laying the blame at the feet of Saint Augustine as is often done, strikes me as simplistic and problematic.

I have hesitated to write on this as I’m aware that I’m not nearly as thoroughly immersed in the early Fathers as I would like to be. But as I have reflected on such arguments, it has struck me that there is considerable confusion about the terms that are used in making such claims about East and West. More specifically, what exactly do we mean by the words mystical, experiential, apophatic, philosophical and rational. Unpacking these could, I suspect, help to provide a much more nuanced understanding both of the differences between East and West, and of the differences between how the early Fathers viewed the life of faith and how it is viewed in some contexts today. And it is this later divide that I would argue is far more fundamental – and which the current enthusiasm for “mysticism” only serves to entrench.

I had originally intended to explore this in one blog post, but it has become clear that that is unrealistic. So instead, I am going to devote a post to each of these terms, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. If it achieves nothing else, it may at least get me writing…

In our own day there is a widely held view that belief in religious dogmas is not obligatory: even if they still have a certain historical value, they are no longer vital for Christians. Moral and social agendas have become the main preoccupation of many Christian communities, while theological issues are often neglected. This dissociation between dogma and way of life, however, contradicts the very nature of the religious life, which presupposes that faith should always be confirmed by deeds, and vice versa. Thus, in the Epistle of James we find: ‘Faith apart from works is dead’ (Jas. 2:26). St Paul, on the other hand, claims that ‘a man is justified by faith apart from works of law’ (Rom. 3:28). The ‘works of law’ here means the Old Testament rites and sacrifices which are no longer necessary after Christ’s saving sacrifice. Good deeds are necessary and essential, yet when separated from faith they do not in themselves lead to salvation. We are justified by faith, but only by a faith which informs the way we live.

No less alien to Christianity is the dissociation of dogma from mysticism, or of theology from the spiritual life. There is an essential interdependence between dogma and mysticism: both lead to knowledge of the truth, but in different ways. ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’, says the Lord, who himself is the only Truth, Way and Life (John 8:32; 14:6). Every dogma reveals truth, opens up the way and communicates life, while each heresy puts us at a distance from truth, closes off the way to salvation and renders us spiritually dead. The struggle for dogma which the Church has conducted throughout her history is, as Vladimir Lossky demonstrates, a fight for our being to be brought into the true Life, for our union with God and deification…

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. (London, DLT, 2002) xiii-xiv.

A couple of months ago I happened to listen to two papers which addressed somewhat similar themes, if from rather different perspectives. The first was a podcast of Abbot Jonah Paffhausen’s address to the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius. (Text here). The second was a talk by Father Tjeu Timmermans O.Carm., the chairperson of the Conference of Dutch Religious (text in Dutch here). The first was entitled “Episcopacy, Primacy and the Mother Churches: A Monastic Perspective” and the second “Religious life in a secularised world”. Although they had somewhat different foci and audiences, both addressed the phenomenon of secularisation and it was the differences in their underlying approaches that struck me and motivated me to eventually look up the texts and reflect further on them. And this ties in, as perceptive readers will no doubt notice, with themes that I have been thinking about recently.

Father Timmermans is primarily concerned with secularisation as the recent historical phenomenon in which the overarching function of religion that was previously taken for granted has disappeared. Contemporary men and women have become a homeless seekers who no longer take religion or God for granted. Influenced by modernity’s utilitarian emphasis, they also come to realise its limits and remain open to “the Mystery”. They have rejected the institutional Church, but the religious desire that remains is the nucleus of true prayer. It is a longing that stretches itself out to “the Mystery”. In this context, Timmermans argues, religious are called to create spaces where such people can enter into relationship with the mystery of God.

While there is much that is true in this, there are two things that strike me about Timmerman’s paper. The first is the way in which he appears to view the Church almost exclusively in institutional terms as something that people have rejected and which appears as rather irrelevant. And the second is that his language of people seeking “the Mystery” does not appear to have much theological content. (Which of course made me think of the analysis that Father Louth provides of western perceptions of “mysticism” – see my series of six posts in Completed series).

Now, there is nothing new in this and such  perspectives are common, at least in this part of the world. I just find it rather sad that the Christian tradition does not seem able to offer anything more than a playing off of ecclesial institutions against a new seeking religiosity.

In this context, then, I was rather interested in the juxtaposition of this analysis with that of Abbot Jonah’s paper that I encountered at almost the same time. He too addresses secularisation, but in a rather different context. For him, the roots of secularisation are found in early Church history in which the personal relationship of spiritual fatherhood on which episcopal primacy was based was secularised and cast in terms of civil office.

This led to the separation of charismatic and institutional authority within the Church. What followed was the bureaucratisation of church leadership: the reduction of the episcopacy to institutional administration, and the virtual elimination of its pastoral role. (12)

The corrupting fruit of secularisation is fear and lack of trust, hence isolation, autonomy, self-will and the breakdown of the real authority of the episcopacy. It destroys souls and the institution of the Church. Secularization reduces the Body of Christ to a religious organization; it is the form of religion, deprived of its power. (13)

Abbot Jonah is writing in an Orthodox context, but his emphasis on the split between charismatic and institutional authority seems to me to be just as relevant, if not more relevant, in the West. The historical roots of how we got to this position are no doubt complex. But to simply accept such a split means acceding to a vision of the Church as simply a utilitarian institution which we can discard and recreate at will. In contrast to this, Abbot Jonah pleads for a rediscovery of spiritual obedience as a structure of accountability in which the bishop recapitulates the Church in himself, keeping the whole body in synergy, calling us to repentance and fostering spiritual formation.

His paper is well worth reading, especially the last section on “The episcopacy: a monastic perspective”.

Father Louth concludes this essay by noting the transformation that the word theoretikos has undergone. Whereas contemporary mystical discourse seeks to highlight mysticism’s experiential nature in contrast to theoretical knowledge, which is seen as abstract and speculative, for the Fathers

Theoretikos means contemplative; that is, seeing and knowing in a deep and transforming way. The ‘practical’, praktikos (see above on Evagrios), is the personal struggle with our too often wayward drives and desires, which prepares for the exercise of contemplation, theoria; that is, a dispassionate seeing and awareness constituting genuine knowledge, a knowledge that is more than information, however accurate – a real participation in what is known, in the One whom we come to know. The word theoretikos came to be one of the most common words in Byzantine Greek for designating the deeper meaning of the Scriptures, where one found oneself caught up in contemplation, theoria, of Christ. The mystical life, the ‘theoretical’ life, is what we experience when we are caught up in the contemplation of Christ, when, in that contemplation, we come to know ‘face to face’ and, as the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘know, even as I am known’ (1 Cor. 13:12).

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 214.

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I don’t think that I can add anything to this at this point! I have appreciated this essay for the light that it sheds on my frustration with much contemporary Western discourse on mysticism, which was first kindled by reading Denys Turner’s The Darkness of God several years ago. And it is not without relevance to the frustration concerning academic theology expressed in my last post!

… alongside the great attempts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to find in mysticism an ecumenism of spirit – a kind of synchronic mysticism – there is also an attempt to define a kind of diachronic mysticism, a mysticism that stretches throughout the ages, a mysticism that has a tradition. What this endeavour seeks to establish is a kind of canon of Christian mystical literature – a literature manifesting that kind of likeness Zaehner mentioned – reaching back to the beginnings (Jesus or Adam?). What are the criteria of this canon, we might ask? (We are not asking an abstract question or a question to those now dead. Bernard McGinn’s attempt to write a massive ‘History of Western Christian Mysticism’, called The Presence of God, depends on the existence of such a canon.) It seems to me that the criteria are both negative and positive: negatively, all is excluded that is doctrinal or narrowly liturgical; positively, there is a search for material that is experiential. The result is, it seems to me, entirely eclectic, and frequently misconceived.

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 211-212.

While the development of the concept of mysticism represents the fragmentation and breakdown of tradition and a move from reliance on tradition towards finding authority in inward experience, it nevertheless “needed to feel that it represented a tradition”. (211) Hence the development of a canon of Christian mysticism. 

However, following Denys Turner, Father Louth argues that such a development is only possible by misconstruing much of the literature prior to the later Middle Ages. Regarding the imagery of negativity and darkness, Turner had argued that whereas such imagery was originally used in an ontological and epistemological way, it now comes to be interpreted experientially “and the earlier literature, once it is included in the ‘canon’, is subjected to such an interpretation.” (212) Louth continues:

…what we are doing is privileging a very small period of recent history, an element, I would argue, in an attempt to get behind historical and religious traditions, experienced as being oppressive, though, instead of doing this by attacking tradition as such – which was the enterprise initially of the Reformation, and more thoroughly of the Enlightenment – it is done by discovering – or, I would say, inventing – a tradition that is deeper and partially obscured. It is indeed a modern gnosticism. One needs to recall, too, that such tradition-making is a well-documented phenomenon in post-Enlightenment history … (212)

Thus Louth argues that Christian mysticism is not a settled concept but the name for a religious strategy that originated in early modern (or late medieval) Europe. It is a strategy that may have parallels in other religions, but we shall not discover that simply by looking at the “mystical writings” of other religions, as if there is an “essence” religions that can be isolated.

‘Comparative mysticism’ is too easy, and unhistorical: it simply lulls us into thinking that we can regard as fundamentally significant (‘mystical’ has never lost the connotation of what really matters, what is ultimately powerful) what appeals to the individualized consciousness of the West – religious literature that aspires to the form of poetry, devoid of dogmatic content or ritual expression. (213)

Whereas in the traditional understanding, the true body of Christ had been realized in the celebration of the Eucharist that culminated in communion in the mystical/sacramental body, in this late medieval understanding, the celebration of the Eucharist becomes the rite by which the priest effects the miracle of the true body of Christ, which then exists quasi-independently. The Church as a community recedes from history into the ‘mystical body of Christ’; the visible Church that remains splits into the institutional priesthood that has power to make present the verum corpus Christi and the laity.

So far as the word ‘mystical’ is concerned, what has happened is that it has been wrenched from its traditional meaning as identical with sacramental and cast adrift. Whereas in the older usage, the primary meanings of ‘mystical’ applied to something evident – the scriptural text, or the sacramental elements, and indeed anything used in a liturgical context – to affirm that its real meaning lay deeper, now the term corpus mysticum Christi applies to something not evident: ‘mystical’ in this sense means precisely the Church as not manifest, the ‘real’ Church as distinct from the institutional Church. The term ‘mystical’ becomes opaque; instead of designating something that is a sign of something hidden, it designates the hidden reality itself. It acquires a quite different charge.

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 209-210.

Father Louth proceeds to consider the implications of the shift in meaning that the phrase “mystical body of Christ” underwent in the twelfth century. He draws on Henri de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum which shows how this phrase had previously referred to the Eucharistic elements as is consonant with the patristic use of the term “mystical” outlined earlier. However, in the twelfth century the consecrated bread of the Eucharist became the “true body of Christ”, while the Church came to be seen as the mystical body of Christ. This did not refer to the Church in its institutional aspect however, but rather to an invisible Church spanning heaven and earth. Thus the consecrated elements come to be abstracted from the community that celebrates them. This community becomes itself more vague and not identifiable with the actual life of the Church, and yet at the same time the distinction between clergy and laity takes on a new and more entrenched meaning.

Instead of the consecrated elements, through communion, being a sign that effects and deepens the incorporation of the baptized Christian in the body of Christ, so that the mystical/sacramental body points to the true body to which all Christians belong, the consecrated host becomes an end in itself, an object of adoration. (209)

It is in this context that we should view the development of “mystical” movements in the late Middle Ages. The flowering of such movements provided people with the possibility of direct access to God by they were able to bypass (or sometimes challenge) priestly power over the sacraments. This is particularly the case in the women’s spirituality of this period

women, excluded by their sex from the priesthood, find in themselves, I their dreams, in their bodies hidden signs – mystical signs, particularly of Christ’s wounds – that establish access to a divine power to rival that of the priesthood. Such claims do not always challenge the reality of priestly power – mostly they do not – but they claim an equivalent power: the most famous woman making such a claim was St Catherine of Siena. The mystical is now thoroughly individualized, and from the late Middle Ages onwards, there is a conflict between the mystical and the institutional… (210)

The Fathers understood the mystical to refer to Scripture, the liturgy and the hidden reality of Christian life. However, it is now only this third meaning that remains, stripped moreover of the ecclesial context into which it traditionally fitted. Christian mysticism, then, emerges, not as an expression of some universal religious phenomenon, but as

one of the elements of the fragmentation of the Western Christian tradition that took place in the later Middle Ages and issued in, among other things, the Reformation. (211)

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This obviously has far-reaching implications which I am not going to discuss now – perhaps another time!

If we look for the ‘mystical’ in the Dionysian corpus, what we find is something deeply traditional: mystikos and related words are indeed favourites with Dionysius, but they fit perfectly into the context we have already outlined. And that is a context of biblical and liturgical symblism … the ‘mystical’ meaning is what these biblical and liturgical symbols refer to. … Dionysius is concerned with the cosmic order disclosed by the biblical revelation and celebrated in the Christian liturgy.

But whatever Dionysius meant in the sixth century, and continued to mean for the Byzantine world, he suffered a strange alteration when he came to be known in the Latin West.

Andrew Louth, “Afterword” to the new edition of his The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 2007) 206-207.

Father Louth notes the re-evaluation of Dionysius work in recent years in which the depiction of him as a pagan Neoplatonist is giving way to the recognition of him as someone who used the framework of late Neoplatonism to express fundamentally Christian ideas that are dependent on Scripture and the liturgy.

While Dionysius’ reception in the West is a complex story that is not yet fully understood, the new linguistic, cultural and ecclesial context meant that his works, and particularly his understanding of the mystical, came to acquire rather different shades of meaning leading to a distinction, perhaps even a divorce, between the sacramental and the mystical. Louth writes:

… in translation – and in a Latin culture increasingly removed from the East Byzantine world to which Dionysius himself belonged – Dionysius assumed a different aspect. Again we can keep to the word mystikos, the history of which we are tracing. We have seen that in the Greek of the Fathers it means ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’, and is etymologically linked to the word mysterion, which refers both to the Gospel of the Incarnate Word, and to the sacraments. The biblical and the sacramental fit together. But in Latin things start to come apart: mysterion is either translated sacramentum, especially when it refers to sacraments or sacramental actions (there was no notion of seven sacraments until the twelve century), or transliterated as mysterium. It is often remarked – right through the Middle Ages – that mysterium means sacramentum, but what was obvious in Greek comes to be inferred in Latin. Mystikos is invariably translated mysticus, but its association with the sacramental is obscured. So a collection of associations evident in Greek becomes something that is at best inferred in Latin, and sometimes lost altogether. Mysterium and mysticus begin to develop a life of their own. (207)

This shift in meaning is also influenced by two further factors.

Firstly, the liturgical focus of Dionysius’ work is less immediately obvious in a Western context as the liturgical world that he explores had become increasingly foreign to Western Christians as the Eastern and Western liturgical traditions had gone their separate ways. As a result

whereas in the traditional understanding of Dionysius, which is still found in the West as late as the twelfth century, the two works on the hierarchies – the Celestial Hierarchy and the Ecclesial Hierarchy – form the centre of gravity, to which Dionysius’ other works relate, by the thirteenth century, the two works on the hierarchies fade into the background, and the centre of gravity becomes either the Divine Names, interpreted as a logical treatise about divine predication – so the Scholastics – or the Mystical Theology – as with the growing, largely vernacular ‘mystical’ movement. (208)

Secondly, Dionysius was now read against a very different cultural and theological background, coloured by the rediscovery of Augustine in the twelfth century. Augustine’s vision focused more on the drama of the individual soul than on the structures of a liturgical society and the cosmic dimension of Dionysius’ thought receded into the background and was forgotten.

These two factors allow the ‘mystical’ to lose its anchoring in the biblical and liturgical, as with Dionysius and the Fathers, and offer it another context: that of the individual. (208)

In the next post, I shall report on Father Louth’s discussion of the shifts that occurred in the understanding of the Body of Christ in the Medieval West.

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For anyone interested in more on this:

  • Father Louth has written a book on Dionysius the Areopagite, which I am sure is worth reading, but which I unfortunately won’t get to for quite a while.
  • Felix Culpa of Ora et Labora had a series of posts (I, II, III, IV & V) earlier this year in which discussed twentieth century Orthodox readings of Dionysius.
  • Father Louth has an essay on “The body in Western Catholic Christianity” in Religion and the Body (edited by Sarah Coakley) in which he discusses the influence of Augustine’s shift to interiority in more detail. I read it about a year ago and don’t have access to it at the moment, but intend writing more on it when I get hold of it again.

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.

… 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.