Mystical Theology Is a Fundamental Theology

With ave it went away,
Darkest night, and comes the day

Mystical theology is often viewed as either the weird or the “hip” part of Christian reflection and, indeed, experience. Psychoanalysts and postmodern intellectuals have found in mystical writers, especially in descriptions of mystical rapture and ecstasy, a locus or ground from which to examine the nature of the self, identity, gender, patriarchy, etc.[2] The genre lends itself easily to such enthusiasm with its often gender-bending language and imagery. Ecstasy by its literal definition of standing outside or beyond oneself leads to this kind of investigation as the self is raptured out of its everyday. Whether the visionary follows the tradition of a negative mystical theology, in which what is experienced is the negation of the usual significance of terms and experiences, or, follows the more positive tradition, such as in the affective tradition in which one rises beyond rationality to pure love, the content of the vision is extremely difficult to express in conventional terms. It is something entirely other. As Paul remarked about being rapt to the third heaven, he “heard ineffable things, which no one can utter” (2 Cor 12:4).

Some time ago Chase Padusniak and Kevin Hughes discussed the meaning of “experience” in Karl Rahner’s famous dictum “the devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.”[3] While this appears to be a particularly apt expression of what will be required for a devout practice of Christian discipleship, especially with a renewed emphasis in having a consoling “experience” of the divinity in confirmation of one’s belief, I do not want to investigate here the shades of meaning that one could take about the notion of “experience,” and the way it has been understood in the contemplative theological tradition of the Latin West. Nor am I going to probe the distinction between “experience” and “consciousness” as highlighted by Hughes in his quotation from Bernard McGinn. Rather, I want to suggest that Rahner’s idea is “radical” (radix) in the sense of a fundamental understanding of the nature of the Christian life. In this way, I seize McGinn’s insight into mystical theology as a spiritual journey and broaden that idea to apply not just to practitioners of the contemplative life but even all Christians as a way to understand Rahner’s claim.

Mystical theology may appear as an outlier in Christian reflection, concerned with the experience of ecstatics and visionaries. Moreover, it could be said that it has received a resurgence in academic theology precisely because of the interest of postmodern theorists. But for fifteenth-century theologians, including Jean Gerson and the Carthusian monks who either criticized him or tried to synthesize his ideas within the broader Latin tradition of affective contemplation, mystical theology was (and still is) theology to the highest degree. Mystical theology provided that “hidden” knowledge, or more precisely love, of God that far surpassed anything available through the traditional approach of the schools, which one could broadly label as “scholastic” theology.[4]

Indeed, if the contemplative life is superior or more meritorious than the active life, as has been traditionally understood, then it is contemplation, meaning mystical theology, that is the highest and best. It, therefore, contains a knowledge, meaning love, of God to which all other practices and theologies are oriented. Since the entirety of the Christian life should be directed towards union with God, if perhaps more conventionally in the next life, then mystical theology as both the theory of that union and, more often than not, the way by which to attain that union, should be considered as a kind of “fundamental” theology.

The dichotomy between the contemplative and active lives caused no small problem for Christian theologians. Considering that the Christian is commanded to love God and neighbor, it would seem, as was traditionally argued, that the two lives, active and contemplative, should work in harmony with one another.[5] And yet, Christ says that “Mary has chosen the better part” (Lk 10:42), a statement usually taken to indicate the superiority of the contemplative life. Many theologians in the patristic and medieval period expressed various ways by which the two lives could be related and intertwined. These included that the active life was fundamental but propaedeutic to the contemplative, and even that the contemplative should return from time to time to the works of the active life for the benefit of fellow Christians. This last was especially true in the case of preachers, who, according to Gregory the Great, transmit to the faithful in preaching what they have acquired through contemplation.[6]

The contemplative should have familiarity with the works of the active life, especially by the performance of the corporal works of mercy. To take just one example from the scholastic period of the medieval university, the Franciscan theologian Eustace of Arras († c.1275), a student of Bonaventure, maintains that both lives are rooted in charity, a position he drew from the work of Bernard of Clairvaux. Eustace argues for the superiority of contemplation in terms of merit because it is more freely entered into, and it is more difficult to be virtuous in the contemplative life than in the active. His position confirms a statement by Gregory the Great, quoted at the beginning of the question, that the active life is prior in time and therefore directed towards the contemplative life.[7] Thus, we can say that while the contemplative’s ultimate goal is a deeper love and union with God, and the hope for the grace to experience that in a radical way, the paradox of the Christian life is that in order to have such a unitary experience it is necessary to love God and neighbor. It is highly advantageous, indeed necessary, to engage in the works of the active life before embarking on the works of the contemplative life. The two are in a sense dependent upon one another.

When considering the nature of Christian mysticism, one can divide the treatises that treat the subject into two rather broad categories. There are those that contain a visionary’s account of the experience or the truths that were gained therefrom. Included in this category would be texts that give a theoretical description or analysis of mystical theology. On the other hand, there are those treatises that, while including a theoretical presentation of the nature of mystical vision, they also contain advice or prescriptions for practical steps that one may take to prepare oneself for such a radical encounter with God. These are both practical and theoretical. These texts are often labeled as mystagogic, and they are usually addressed to a beginner in the spiritual life. Both kinds of texts take as their point of departure the writings of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

It must be emphasized that any treatise in the mystagogic tradition is directed at adepts in the Christian life or to those who, perhaps as members of a religious community, are wishing to embark on a more serious exploration of the spiritual life. In this way, a “beginner” is not a neophyte or ordinary Christian but someone who has made the commitment to embark on a deeper journey into the contemplative and spiritual life and has a solid foundation from which to start and a desire to advance. The works of the active life are presupposed and a necessary precondition for this kind of endeavor.

From the writings of pseudo-Dionysius, theologians have spoken of three stages: purification, illumination, and vision. John of the Cross in the commentary to his poem Dark Night is quite conventional when he remarks on the necessity of purification for the fruitful practice of contemplation. John speaks of a spiritual purification, whereby the one pursuing the contemplative life must clear the ground of those vices and sinful desires that would impede true spiritual growth towards mystical union. What is perhaps new in John’s account is the emphasis he puts on darkness. The seeking after purification occurs in the “dark night,” which can be a time of trial and desolation.[8] It is in many ways a foreboding image. The notion that one who is fully committed to the practice of contemplative prayer may experience intense moments of desolation and the feeling of abandonment. But here too is a paradox: that God is in the darkness and that it is only when the night is darkest that the light breaks from on high.

The idea of being left in the dark and feeling abandoned is intimidating, but it need not be so. It may in fact be the case that only in those moments of quiet, darkness, and even desolation, when things do not occur the way they were planned or hoped, that the most spiritual fruit and reorientation may occur. Indeed, such mystical theorists as Hugh of Balma and those who depend upon him like Jean Gerson, agree that the best time to enter into contemplation of God is precisely at night. In order to help the beginner on the journey of contemplation, Hugh in his work Viae Sion lugent (The Roads to Sion Mourn) included, for the first time in the tradition of reflection on mystical theology, seven activities (industriae) that can be reasonably done by a person striving to advance in contemplative prayer.[9]

The first is to become accustomed to what at the beginning will seem strange and practice “warm up” exercises that will help lead one into a more meditative contemplation. To help with this the second activity is to consider a specific saint or angel in order to have something to focus upon and a model for how to proceed and overcome the spiritual difficulties that may present themselves. The third activity is to be mindful of one’s posture, and he provides seven examples all of which are taken from the scriptures. The fourth and fifth activity regard time and place, and it is here that Hugh counsels that one should go off into a private place at night. He insists that this must be done at the same time and the same place each day so as to aid the person in becoming habituated and accustomed to the practice. In this way, if there is a deviation from the set schedule, the contemplative will note the absence of contemplative prayer from her daily routine and seek to return to it. The final two activities concern the proper material upon which one should meditate. He thinks that it is not a bad thing for one to have variety in the subject upon which one meditates, because in the spiritual life, as in day to day existence, one can grow weary of the same food everyday. As a last check against boredom he suggests that one varies the method of praying, sometimes audibly, sometimes not, and sometimes in song.

In many ways, these are not Herculean tasks that can only be attempted by the professional religious. Indeed, it would be a good practice for all Christians to abide by some kind of routine of contemplative prayer, which can, of course, include meditation on the scripture or even such pious practice as the Rosary, etc. Not all Christians will advance to the same degree, not all will experience the same consolations, and not all will have the grace of rapturous and ecstatic vision. But as the great mystical writers of the tradition insist the key to advancement in the spiritual life is desire, habituation, and perseverance. All Christians are, after all, seeking after union with God.

We can see, therefore, that the Christian life is, in a certain, fundamental sense, mystical, not in the manner of a rapturous, consolatory experience, but in the directedness of this pilgrimage towards union with God. To that point, it should not be overlooked that one can have an experience of God in ways other than in rapturous or ecstatic vision, which by all accounts is not a particularly common experience. After all, we can have a consoling experience of the divine presence, in minor degrees perhaps, in all manner of things: in nature, in friendships, in our neighbor, in acts of charity, during confession, and most especially in the Eucharist. If we broaden our understanding of the contemplative life, and the active life’s integral position to it, then in this sense the Christian life is mystical, and the contemporary Christian may very well be a mystic.

[1] These lines are from an Anonymous “Hymn to the Virgin,” which appeared in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (Oxford 1900), 6. They are set to a musical arrangement by Benjamin Britten, from which this text is quoted.

[2] The literature on this is, of course, vast; see for example, Ben Morgan, On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self [Perspectives in Continental Philosophy] (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

[3] Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” Theological Investigations VII (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), 15.

[4] Just to give one example, see my study of the Carthusian monk Johannes Hagen’s treatise on mystical theology which also makes reference to his reception of Jean Gerson, in “The Tractatus de mistica theologia by Ioannes de Indagine, O.Cart. (†1475),” in Contemplation and Philosophy: Scholastic and Mystical Modes of Medieval Philosophical Thought. A Tribute to Kent Emery, Jr., ed. R.H. Pich and A. Speer (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2018), 599-674.

[5] Giles Constable, “The Interpretation of Mary and Martha,” in Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995), 1-141.

[6] Constable 1995, 20-21.

[7] Eustace of Arras, Quodlibet III q.8: “Utrum perfectissimus activus melior sit perfectissimo contemplativo?” The text is preserved in three manuscripts: Città del Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Cod. Borgh. 139, ff. 142va-143ra; BAV, Cod. Borgh. 360, ff. 25va-26rb; Reims, Bibliothèque municipale, Ms. 470, f. 18ra-va. I am preparing an edition of the text and a study of the debate over the relationship between the two lives in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

[8] Saint John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul (New York: Image, 1994).

[9] Hugh of Balma’s text was translated by Dennis Martin in Carthusian Spirituality: The Writings of Hugh of Balma and Guigo de Ponte [Classics of Western Spirituality] (New York: Paulist Press, 1996). I have treated the industriae in Hugh of Balma and their adaptation by Jean Gerson and two Erfurt Carthusians in “How to Use a Well-Stocked Library: Erfurt Carthusians on the Industriae of Mystical Theology,” in Die Bibliothek - The Library - La Bibliothèque, ed. A. Speer and L. Reuke (Berlin: De Gruyter 2020), 656-675.

Featured Image: Fancisco Zurbaran, St. Francis in Ecstasy, 1645; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Stephen M. Metzger

Stephen Metzger is Assistant Scriptor at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's Medieval Institute and the author of the two-volume Gerard of Abbeville, Secular Master, on Knowledge, Wisdom and Contemplation.

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