Mystical Christianity

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Whereas the previous chapter considered the development of the main types of Christianity orientated around higher power, this chapter looks at the development of a type of Christianity that is more orientated around power from within, and which may be referred to as 'Mystical Christianity'. Though God may still be worshipped as Father and Son, the Holy Spirit is more likely to be prominent in mystical forms of Christianity. And though the Christian mystic may agree that God is revealed in the externals of church life and teaching, he or she also seeks the divine in the depths of inner experience.

As we will see in what follows, Mystical Christianity developed in many different forms and contexts. The forms range from those that experience God as an external reality who comes into, possesses, and takes over personal life, to those that experience the sacred as the depth and reality of one's own subjective life and experience. Whereas the former stresses the importance of self-sacrifice and the destruction of one's own will, feelings, and desires as a precondition of mystical union, the latter places more emphasis on self-realization and on mysticism as the fulfilment and divinization of the unique individual in the Spirit of God. As for context, we will note the three main options for Mystical Christianity: to remain outside Church and Biblical Christianity (but face antagonism); to shelter within them (but face being controlled by power from on high); or to take shape in monastic contexts (under the umbrella of Church Christianity, but with considerable independence).

The beginnings of Christian mysticism and monasticism

Mysticism is not unique to Christianity, but Christianity supplied it with some distinctive ingredients. Jesus himself may exemplify a tendency towards a mystical 'internalization' of the Jewish religion, and the tendency could claim some scriptural backing. In the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, for example, God speaks of the 'new covenant' he will establish with Israel:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts ... and no longer shall each man teach his neighbour ... for > they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.

J Far from being bound by the externals of the Law, Jesus takes it upon himself to interpret and even revise its teachings, claiming that it exists to serve humanity rather than vice versa, and criticizing those who use the Law to 'bind' their fellow humans. He is even more critical of the Jewish Temple and its cult, and, although his meaning is hard to reconstruct, he seems to have suggested that his own life - perhaps human life in general - is more important than a temple made of stones. He may mean something similar when he says: 'the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath'.

Paul also displays some mystical tendencies, though his mysticism is best described as a 'Christ-mysticism'. 'It is no longer I who live', he says, 'but Christ who lives in me.' In his more radical moments, Paul believes that all baptized Christians are filled with the Spirit of Christ. In his more cautious moments, he counteracts the egalitarian potential of mysticism - that all may claim Christ-like authority - by using images of hierarchy to limit such claims. Christ, he says, is the 'head' of the church which is his "body', and some Christians stand in closer relation to the head than others. So the Letter to the Ephesians (inspired by the Pauline tradition if not actually written by Paul) cautions: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.' Despite such precautions, however, Paul's theology had the potential to be appropriated by some of the more mystical forms of Christianity that competed with Church Christianity in the early centuries, as it was by the 'heretical' but highly successful Church of Marcion in the 2nd century. As a consequence, it took some time for Paul's letters to be accepted into the official canon of New Testament scripture.

Mystical currents were also present in Graeco-Roman culture: in some of the so-called 'mystery cults', in Persian and Far Eastern influences, and in the tradition of religio-philosophical thought g s flowing from Plato. The latter postulated a higher and more real c

spiritual world above the ephemeral material world and imagined h the soul floating free of the body in order to ascend to the world of f immaterial ideas. Some or all of these influences came together with f the inspiration provided by Jesus in the 1st and 2nd centuries to produce the many different sorts of religious, spiritual, and philosophical groups and teachings that were lumped together by their opponents as 'gnostic'. So relentless was Church Christianity's attack that we know of gnosticism chiefly by way of 'orthodox' works of criticism by writers such as Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-c. 200) and Hippolytus (c. 170-236). It is only recently that some of the actual writings of these groups have been recovered. Contrary to the impression given by traditional church history, it is clear that these alternative interpretations of Christianity - and the groups with which they may have been associated - posed a serious threat to Church Christianity right up to the 4th century and beyond.

Discovery of gnostic scriptures has also undermined conventional summaries of gnosticism as involving: a secret knowledge ('gnosis'); a dualism that opposes an evil material world to a higher spiritual realm; a complicated cosmological myth of origins; belief in a divine redeemer figure who descends from the heavens; and a tendency towards renunciation of the world and the body. Some gnostic writings contain some of these elements, but by no means all. The writings associated with Valentinian and Sethian forms of gnosticism, for example, develop detailed cosmologies, whilst other works, such as the Gospel of Thomas, have no cosmological interest at all. Though it is hard to be clear about the nature of the groups that produced these scriptures, we can imagine a similar variety. Some may have taken the form of organized and centralized 'churches', whilst others would have been more reminiscent of the schools of philosophy that were still common in the Graeco-Roman world. Rather than having authoritative scriptures, rituals, or sacraments, members of such schools - often female as well as male - would be encouraged to think for themselves and debate with one another. In the Gospel of Thomas,

> for example, Jesus endorses the authority of women, rejects attempts to turn him into a figure of unique authority, instructs

J people that the truth is already within and around them, and u encourages a view of the spiritual quest as an individual rather than a group enterprise (see Chapter 1).

Whereas Church Christianity embraced society and tried to win influence over it by allying itself with political power, the mystical tendency within early Christianity tended to be far more critical of both the church and the world. One reason was that it emphasized the 'things of the spirit' rather than the things of the world, and tended to view the externals of life - rituals, sacraments, material possessions, social status - as insignificant at best and dangerously distracting at worst. Another was that the belief that God empowers and divinizes all people who open themselves to His Spirit is naturally hostile to institutionalized hierarchies in church or society. The alliance between church and empire from the 4th century served only to reinforce some mystical Christians' suspicion that Church Christianity had departed from the pure spiritual path and betrayed the message of Jesus.

16. The skeleton of a young man bound in chains, found in a cave south of Jerusalem, near to an early Christian monastic settlement (Byzantine period). Chains were used for self-mortification, in order to 'conquer' the flesh and its desires. See overleaf.

An increasingly common response on the part of those who wished to pursue spiritual perfection without distraction was literally to walk out on society in order to enter an uninhabited, unsocialized place - the desert. We first hear of men, and some women, journeying into the desert in significant numbers at the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th. Though they shared an > ascetic desire to conquer the body and its passions in order to focus single-mindedly on the things of the spirit, they were probably J diverse in other ways. Some wished to live the spiritual life in isolation, whilst others joined growing communities of spiritual seekers. In terms of later categories, some may have been 'gnostic', some more 'orthodox', and the majority probably a more complex mixture. Some helped lay the foundations of Christian monasticism.

We know of some early 'desert fathers' because their sayings have been preserved and collected together as the 'Sayings of the Desert Fathers'. These were men, and a few women, who ventured into the Egyptian desert and lived in solitude. But they consulted with more experienced 'abbas' (fathers), and shared their wisdom. Many had an ambitious aim: to attain the state of perfection that had been lost by Adam and Eve at the Fall and restored by Jesus. They sought to turn themselves into 'spiritual bodies', just as Christ had at his transfiguration and resurrection. In this state of perfection, human spirit would be united with God's Spirit, mind and senses calmed so that perception is clear and sharp, and the body returned to a state of such perfect equilibrium that it is able to survive beyond its

Extracts from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

The abbot Allois said, 'Unless a man shall say in his heart, ''I alone and God are in this world'', he shall not find quiet. He said again, ''If a man willed it, in one day up till evening he might come to the measure ofdivinity".'

There came to the abbot Joseph the abbot Lot, and said to him, 'Father, according to my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I do?' The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his 3

fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, j

'If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame'. 9

natural span with hardly any food or sleep. Far from exalting the achievements of the lonely hero of the faith, however, the desert fathers continually teach the importance of love, humility, and a sense of humour. Only by humbling himself or herself can a Christian hope to come close to the perfection of the God-man.

Mysticism and monasticism in the East

Mystical Christianity posed a threat to Church Christianity in many ways. It had scant regard for the externals of religion, including scripture and the sacraments, and it wished to claim for all Christians what Church Christianity reserved for Christ alone: divine-human status. As the fame of the desert ascetics increased, it threatened to undermine the claims of church and clergy. The ascetics were often compared to the martyrs, men and women prepared to witness to Christ through their suffering, and to leave the world rather than make compromises with it. Such spiritual heroism might make an uncomfortable contrast with a church that was busy making alliance with the very empire that was responsible for creating the martyrs through its persecutions in the first place.

The solution that gradually presented itself was for Church

Christianity to co-opt the monastic movement and bring it under its own control. A key move was made by Athanasius who, in one of his many periods of enforced exile, spent time with the desert fathers. Athanasius harnessed the energy and prestige of monasticism for the developing Catholic Church in two ways. First, by ordaining ascetics and offering them places of responsibility and reward in the church, as well as by establishing orders of female virgins under the control of bishops. Second, by writing a highly influential Life of Anthony that celebrated one of the most revered desert fathers and presented him as a stalwart champion of the very

> brand of anti-Arian orthodoxy that Athanasius was himself

.§ defending, namely the orthodoxy ratified by the Council of Nicaea

J (see the previous chapter). u

The consequences of this co-option of asceticism by the church were profound for both parties. As it began to come under the church's control, the mystical tendency in Christianity lost some of its freedom of manoeuvre. It became identified with the defence of 'orthodoxy' rather than with experimentation in the spiritual life, and with power from on high rather than power from below. In both West and East, the line dividing clergy from monks became blurred as higher clergy were increasingly drawn from monastic ranks. The church began to model its liturgy on monastic practice, whilst monasticism adopted the scriptural, sacramental, and sacerdotal bias of the church.

But the mystical impulse - and its more radical tendencies - did not wholly disappear, and in some circumstances monasticism was able to offer a congenial context, especially in the East. Here, to a much greater extent than in the West, monasteries retained considerable

Extract from The Revelations of St Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833)

A dialogue between Seraphim and a seeker:

'I don't understand how one can be certain of being in the spirit of God. How should I be able to recognize for certain this manifestation in myself?' ...

'My friend, we are both at this moment in the Spirit of God .. . Why won't you look at me?'

'I can't look at you . .. Your eyes shine like lightening; your face has become more dazzling than the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look at you.'

'Don't be afraid', he said, 'at this very moment you've become as bright as I have. You also are present in the fullness of the Spirit of God; otherwise, you wouldn't be able to see me as you do see me.'

independence and were never organized into 'orders' under centralized clerical control. What is more, the eremetical tradition (the tradition of the hermit seeking communion with God in solitude) continued to exercise far more influence in the East than the West. Here, where Augustine's pessimistic view of human nature did not hold sway, the ideal of theosis, 'deification' or 'divinization' through the Holy Spirit, continued to be presented as the goal of the Christian life right through to the modern period. Whereas the West tended to venerate saints only after they were dead and buried, in the East the tradition of the living mystic and holy man continued unbroken from the days of the desert fathers (see Chapter 6).

Even in the East, however, there was a tendency for the individualistic inclinations of mysticism to be curbed and brought under the sway of Church Christianity - at least in the theological tradition. The greatest mystical theologians, notably Maximus the Confessor (580-662), Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022), and Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), refused to separate mysticism from full participation in the church's liturgy and sacraments. Their underlying argument was that the individual should not seek to be caught up in a mystical union of 'the alone with the Alone', but should seek God where the church indicates that He can be found - in the 'body of Christ' made present in icons, sacraments, and the worshipping community. In this vision the Church and Mystical types of Christianity reinforce and strengthen one another, rather than pulling apart.

Mysticism and monasticism in the West

In the West mysticism was more thoroughly assimilated to the

J programme of Church Christianity throughout the medieval period.

A key step was the widespread adoption of Benedict's Rule (c. 540) as a charter for the organization of the monastic life. This Rule gave unity to monasticism as it spread across Europe and shaped it according to a common framework. Rather than providing space for individual contemplation and experience of the divine, the chief aim of Benedictine monasticism was to discipline monks so thoroughly that there was no room for the exercise of individual will or the development of a unique personal spirituality. Benedict envisaged the monastic life as one of obedience, silence, stability, renunciation of desire, and rigorous discipline. Most of a monk's time was taken up with the constant round of monastic offices - the eight worship services that punctuated the day - and the rest of the time with work. The theology of Augustine, whom Benedict greatly admired, and the development of Western monasticism, went hand in hand. By suppressing his own corrupted will, the monk could be brought into conformity with the will of God mediated by the abbot, the monastery, the Rule, and the church.

Extract from the Rule of St Benedict

In all things let all follow the Rule as their guide: and let no one diverge from it without good reason. Let no one in the monastery follow his own inclinations, and let no one boldly presume to dispute with the abbot . . . If anyone so presume, let him be subject to the discipline of the Rule. The abbot, for his part, should do everything in the fear of the Lord and in observance of the Rule; knowing he will surely have to give account to God for all his decisions.

The 11th and 12th centuries saw a new burst of enthusiasm for the g s monastic life in the west, and with it the beginnings of a revival of c

mysticism. A reform of Benedictine monasticism in the 10th h century was succeeded by the foundation of many new orders. f

Some, like the highly successful Cistercian order, were designed to f return to the severe asceticism from which it was felt that existing monasteries had strayed. Others, like the Carthusians, shared this ideal but revived aspects of the eremetical tradition. Women as well as men were caught up in the new enthusiasm for monasticism, often against the wishes of monastic leaders. Though it had been taking shape for several centuries, it was in this period that the Western monastic complex achieved its characteristic architectural form, with a church at its heart, accommodation on its south side, and a cloister connecting its various parts (see Fig. 17).

The controlled, ordered, and cloistered life of the monastery was unable, however, to contain the spiritual impulses of the medieval period. By the 13th century large numbers of devout Christian men and women sought an alternative context in which to live dedicated Christian lives. The very solidity and stability that had once commended monasticism now seemed to weigh it down. The fact

Scriptorium and library

Bath house and laundry

17. The plan of a medieval monastery with cloister, adapted from the Plan of St Gall, the earliest surviving architectural plan of the Middle Ages (c. 820).

that the monastery secured itself against the world counted against it in the eyes of those who wished to take the gospel into that world. As towns and cities grew, and with them new and very visible juxtapositions of wealth and poverty, the monastery was becoming less relevant to Europe's most pressing social and spiritual needs.

As we noted in the previous chapter, both the problem and the response were articulated in terms of a new ideal: the via apostolica (apostolic life). Its model was the life of Jesus and his followers: constantly on the move, bearing no money or possessions, carrying the gospel to all members of society. Inspired by this ideal, some

Christians simply took to the road on their own initiative - to the growing concern of the church authorities. Since they had no formal authorization from Rome, a good number of these wandering ascetics - such as the Waldenses - ended up being branded heretical. Others were more careful to seek Rome's approval. Once again, the church was astute enough to see the advantages of taking this new spiritual initiative under its wing.

The most important outcome was the legitimation of the new urban-based, mobile mendicant orders, first the Augustinian canons, then the Franciscan and Dominican friars, and much later the Jesuit order (Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1540). Though many women shared the apostolic impulse, their options were more limited, for it was not thought suitable for them to be independent or mobile, or to preach. They were left with three main options: to remain within the home, to join a nunnery, g s or to enter into one of the growing number of communities of c

women who remained loyal to the church, but did not belong to a h recognized order (the latter became known as 'beguines', and were f formally condemned by the Council of Vienne in 1311-13, but f survived for some time after this).

Although the revived monastic orders and the new mendicant orders gave some fresh impetus to mysticism in the medieval period, it tended to be those marginal to, or within, these institutions who made the most notable contribution. Many were women. Some of the most prominent, such as Hildegaard of Bingen (1098-1179), belonged to women's religious orders and received their education within them. Others, like Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416) were hermits, and still others, for example Mechtild of Magdeburg (c. 1207-82) and Hadewijch (13th century), were beguines. A handful, like Teresa of Avila (1515-82), founded or reformed monastic orders in the face of considerable opposition from the church.

Whilst remaining loyal to Church Christianity, particularly its

Extract from Mechtild's The Flowing Light of the Godhead

God Rejoices that the soul has overcome four sins

Our Lord delights in Heaven

Because of the loving soul He has on earth,

And says, 'Look how she who has wounded Me has risen!

She has cast from her the apes of worldliness;

Overcome the bear of impurity,

Trodden the lion of pride underfoot,

Torn the wolf of desire from his revenge,

And comes racing like a hunted deer

To the spring which is Myself.

She comes soaring like an eagle

Swinging herself from the depths

Up into the heights.'

sacramental emphasis, women mystics sought a closer, more personal experience of the living God. They found it in a variety of subjective states: in intense experiences of communion with Jesus, in transports of delight, in experiences of inner suffering, abandonment, and darkness, and in union with the divine. Some, like Mechtild, used the sacraments as a point of direct contact with Jesus and positioned themselves as brides receiving the heavenly bridegroom. Others, like Teresa, favoured a form of contemplation that moved beyond images altogether and in which the self merged with the divine in an experience that could never be described. It was also possible to use mystical experiences as the basis for profound theological exploration, as when Julian developed a trinitarian theology on the basis of the 'showings' that God had vouchsafed to her many years before. To this rich variety was added the work of male mystical writers, many of whom were in close contact with women mystics and their communities, sometimes as spiritual advisers. They include Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), Johannes Tauler (1300-61), Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), and Gerhard Groote (1340-84). They too tended to exist on the fringes of the monastic and ecclesiastical establishment.

The medieval church's attitude was ambivalent. On the one hand, it could hardly deny the Godly hope that 'your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams and your young men will see visions', for the Bible itself spoke of such things. On the other hand, Church Christianity viewed claims to unmediated contact with God with suspicion, and condemned any suggestion that the mystic could enter into union with God. Some of Eckhart's propositions were condemned on these grounds, and the beguine Marguerite Porete, author of the Mirror of Simple Souls, was g s burnt at the stake in 1310. Inquisitors were quick to accuse c

mystics of belonging to organized heretical movements of spiritual h enthusiasm, such as the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Before f long accusations of witchcraft would also begin to be levelled at f women - and some men - who were believed to be grasping hold of the sacred in order to further their own, malevolent designs. In reality, however, there is little evidence that either mysticism or magic ever took shape in large-scale organized movements - other than in the imagination of the heresy-hunters themselves.

Mysticism in early Protestantism

Far from being confined to the Catholic Church, the mystical tendency in the West was also important in early Protestantism. In the 12th century Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202) had foretold an Age of the Spirit in which viri spiritualis ('spiritual men') would inaugurate an era of love, freedom, and peace. Such hopes had intensified in the intervening centuries, and some saw in Luther the fulfilment of Joachim's prophecies. They had reasonable grounds for doing so. Not only had the young Luther been influenced by the German mystical tradition, but his early protests against the Catholic Church seemed to indicate his desire to abolish a religion of externals in order to replace it with a more inward-looking and spiritual form of Christianity. After all, it was Luther who argued that the inner conviction of grace in the heart of the believer was more important than external works, and Luther who announced the 'priesthood of all believers'.

Such hopes were dashed, however, when Luther and Calvin actually came to power. Far from leading the churches that took their name in a mystical direction, they retained the defining features of Church Christianity. Even Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), who had seemed to go furthest in the direction of a fully spiritual Christianity, pulled back from the full implications of his position. Supporters of the Reformation who had hoped for a different outcome were forced to create their own, more radical forms of > Protestantism. Some of these took a Biblical form (see the previous .§ chapter), whilst others located authority in the Spirit more than the J Word. Of the latter, the most notorious were those experiments that u tried to bring about dramatic social change here and now, often in the 'apocalyptic' expectation that this would precipitate God's rule on earth. Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489-1525) became a leader of the German peasants' rebellion of 1525, and the town of Münster became a centre of apocalyptic expectation and social experimentation. Both initiatives were crushed by the combined forces of church and state, with both Catholic and Protestant Church Christianity united in their violent opposition to such mystically inspired political upheaval.

Though 'Müntzer and Münster' became a byword for the dangers inherent in Mystical Christianity, apocalyptic activism was the exception rather than the norm. The mystical tendency in Protestantism gave rise to many different versions of Christian community, few of which engaged in direct political action, but some of which constituted at least an implicit threat to the existing forms of higher power. Luther's disillusioned colleague Andreas

Rudolf Bodenstein von Karlstadt (c. 1480-1541), for example, rejected the idea of a state-supported church of external authority in favour of voluntary, egalitarian groups of lay people led by spiritually enlightened souls elected by the whole congregation. Others, like Kaspar von Schwenkfeld (1489-1561) and Sebastian Franck (c. 1499-c. 1542), had no interest in establishing new churches, but thought that spiritual seekers should form their own small groups for mutual edification and support. The latter idea helped inspire Pietism, a reforming movement within the Lutheran churches that became widely influential in Prussia in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and whose political quietism and charitable activism eventually won it state support. Pietism, in turn, had a direct influence on John Wesley (1703-91) and his brother Charles (1707-88), the founders of Methodism.

The only mystical group that succeeded in founding an g s independent, unified, lasting, and influential community of its own c

was the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Its founder George Fox h (1624-91) rejected existing forms of Christianity in his quest for a f pure, inward, spiritual religion based on direct experience of Christ f in the heart of the individual. Fox spoke of the light of Christ that illuminates each individual directly, and believed that those who know the indwelling presence of Christ have no need of external channels of grace. He therefore removed all sacraments, ritual, liturgy, priests, and scriptures from worship. Friends gather not in 'churches' but in 'meeting houses', and in worship they sit together in silence unless and until someone is moved by the Spirit to speak. In practice, however, Quakerism survived by combining a pure and formless mysticism with a Biblical and Christological basis and a sophisticated organizational form.


Rather than being allowed to float free, establish its own institutions, or become the prerogative of individuals unattached to any form of sacred association, Christian mysticism was rarely able to escape the influence of Church Christianity - and later, Biblical Christianity - altogether. Monasticism served as a sort of intermediate institution in which some individuals were able to dedicate themselves to the mystical path, without departing too radically from the teaching and control of the church and clergy.

This is almost certainly one reason why most varieties of Christian mysticism in the pre-modern period do not go to the extreme pole of the Christian spectrum in which the sacred is located wholly within individual experience and selfhood - even to the extent of being identified with it - rather than being set over against it. Although some of the earliest forms of Christian mysticism tended in this direction, they were quickly styled 'gnostic' and 'heretical' and banished from the mainstream of Christian life. Later mystics who were suspected of moving too far in this direction were subject

> to official condemnation by the church.

J This probably explains why, when the early modern period u witnessed the rise of a style of mysticism that fused Christian and Romantic influences (as in the writings of William Blake (1757-1827) in England, or the Transcendentalists in America), it was usually regarded as having placed itself beyond the limits of what counted as Christian. What sets such Romantic mysticism apart from most other varieties of Christian mysticism is its sense that God is to be found within the deepest desires, experiences, and sensations of human life - including those associated with sex. By contrast, most of the mysticism reviewed above maintains that individuals have to destroy their personal desires, experiences, aptitudes, and distinctiveness in order that God can enter into their lives and take control of it. Thus the divine remains in some significant way external to human nature and opposed to it. In most Christian mysticism God is the king, bridegroom, and lover to whom the soul must surrender, submit, and sacrifice itself before He can 'enter in' and take possession.

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