We're Not Mystics

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.”[1] So runs a by-now famous quote from Karl Rahner, SJ. Perhaps these words have become so popular because they strike at the heart of a problem acutely felt by millions of believers today: what is faith after modernity? How can we believe? Mysticism has an appeal all its own; it is a very pliable word. Many would like to think of themselves as plumbing divine mysteries, or at least the mysteries of human consciousness. This seems to drive the hoodie-wearing mindfulness guru, the committed Western convert to Sufism, as well as indeed (I must confess) parts of my own prayer life. Furthermore, Rahner snatches mysticism from the hands of the elect, from any special class unduly graced with higher experience. We must all be mystics, or else. His readers themselves confess this:

Karl Rahner’s theology does much to de-mythologize mysticism. He approaches the experience of God as an ordinary occurrence, and this sense of normality is related to his understanding of the human person as one who is ultimately oriented toward transcendence. This makes his work particularly relevant to spirituality because he presents the divine as accessible while maintaining the incomprehensibility of Holy Mystery.[2]

In times of such uncertainty, this idea that we can rely on experience of God in the mundane provides an anchor. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. I, however, would like to explore its limitations, to indicate its points of weakness, and thereby, to recommend another framework for mysticism in the modern era, another mode through which we Christians might remain steadfast. Rahner’s understanding of this problem has become influential; it represents a step in the right direction, away from totally mystifying mysticism, but it does not go far enough.

Contextus Mysticus

What is a “mystic”? Some might say the term is best left undefined; it is too nebulous to be more than anything but a vehicle for prejudices and power. Enter Michel de Certeau, SJ, perhaps this past century’s greatest theorist of the mystical. He wanted to put these Christian eccentrics into their context. Such people are, for him, necessarily outsiders defined by the rationalisms of their age. He does not comment much on their medieval forebears, but he reads the famous Teresa of Ávila and her near contemporaries in terms of Scholastic Calvinism and the then-new evangelization of the Counter Reformation. In his indispensable, The Mystic Fable, he begins by awakening the reader from his “‘ahistorical’ slumber”:[3]

Mystical literature corresponds, first of all, to a topography. In Modern Europe, it has its locale: regions, social categories, types of groups, forms of work; further, it favor concrete modes of relation to money (begging, communal property, commerce, etc.), to sexuality (celibacy, widowhood, etc.), and to power (allegiances to benefactors, ecclesiastical responsibilities, familial and political tiles, etc.) . . .

. . . In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the mystic most often belonged to the regions and social categories that were going into a socioeconomic recession, were disfavored by change, pushed aside by progress, or financially ruined by the wars. That impoverishment developed the memory of a lost past; it clung to models deprived of efficacy and available for an “other world.[4]

The mystic, in other words, is typically an outsider for de Certeau. He or she is a marrano or morisco in early modern Spain, or the descendent of a palsied and impoverished nobility in the Germany of the same time. Such people seek something beyond this broken world; they are “put out to sea,” embedded in “the attraction of the elsewhere.”[5] Their work among ordinary people, among the sick and suffering, which de Certeau highlights, is correlative to this sense that the world must be gone beyond, that it is, ultimately, insufficient. Whatever feelings they have or report are, in a sense, the products of a being elsewhere, of an inability to be satiated by the everyday. And this in a world where God was—to the people—everywhere. To believe was, at this time, under pressure, yes, but in the sense of fracturing into different enclaves of Christian faith, not breaking down altogether into a crude atheism or “spiritual, but not religious” diffidence.

This is worth pausing on. Those citing Rahner want us to be able to rediscover God in the everyday, to feel him as a presence both transcendent and immanent. The modern world feels empty of meaning; thus, we must search it out, look for it in the tedium of every day’s cup of coffee and drive to work. If we cannot find it here, we shall not be mystics, and thus, on his reading, shall not be able to be believers. For these early modern mystics, however, the opposite seems true: the brokenness of the world leads to a desire for bare feet on dirt roads or fasting for days at a time. It manifests as an otherness breaking through into this world. In doing so, it becomes—on occasion—service to others. Such mysticism is an asceticism rooted in transcendence, not an embrace of the mundane.

Experientia Mystica

De Certeau, however, is clear: he is only speaking about early modern mystics. He is, after all, a historian. Perhaps this desire for the beyond, this repudiation of the times, is not to be found in other periods of Christian history; perhaps our medieval forebears experienced things differently. The Middles Ages, after all, were a time of deep faith. Europe then was full of images—stained glass, statues, paintings, tapestries, and reliquaries. The lived faith of most people was overtly bodily, involving kneeling, caressing, weeping, shouting, and other obvious expressions of piety still sometimes found in Catholic churches today. Is it not possible that their mystics had no need to look beyond for their mysticism?

It might surprise us to learn that our medieval forebears saw the mystical as the anti-experiential, or, perhaps, the super-experiential. These seers and visionaries often speak on an excessus mentis, of, if I might be permitted the oxymoron, a transcendental experience. This idea may be summed up with a story told by the 15th-century scholar, poet, and defender of Joan of Arc, Jean Gerson:

A female visionary told [Gerson] that in the contemplation of God her mind had been annihilated, really annihilated, and then created anew. “How do you know?” he asked of her. “I experienced it,” she had answered. The logical absurdity of this reply had sufficed him to prove the reprehensible nature of these fantasies.[6]

Why does he react this way? Here, we would do well to remember his definition of mystical theology (which must be quoted in Latin for the point to be made clear): “theologia mystica est cognitio experimentalis habita de Deo per amoris unitivi complexum.”[7] William Harmless, SJ translates, “Mystical theology is an experiential knowledge of God that comes through the embrace of unitive love.”[8] Experimentalis, here, however, has the sense of “experimental,” not “experiential,” much as “L’expérience” in French has kept something of this sense up to modern times. The act of writing, of developing expertise in whatever these moments beyond consciousness are, defines the mystic. Hence in almost every mystic of this period, we see critiques of using a particular program or means to get to God. There is a sense that, whatever happens in contemplation, it is apart from, even beyond, the world of materiality and images noted above. Mysticism remains a kind of escape, even if it is an escape that ends up more concretely embedding one among the forgotten of this world.

With this in mind, we can turn to Maggie Ross to see exactly what Gerson meant:

Gerson understood annihilation as the suspension of self-consciousness—if there is excessus there can be no mens, no experience, no interpretation or classification; thus the logical absurdity of the visionary’s claim. Perhaps she had an eidetic image; perhaps she was speaking metaphorically, as Marguerite Porete spoke metaphorically – exactly what is going on is not clear. It is the claim that is absurd.[9]

Rahner’s claim may not be absurd, but its abuse just may be. To get to the bottom of this, we must make one final detour through Christian history.       

Sensus Mysticus

We would do well to remember that the “mystic” is a fairly-recent phenomenon. All of those whom we have looked at so far, would perhaps have seen themselves as dabbling in “mystical theology” or involving themselves (in certain cases) in discerning the “mystical sense” of Scripture. But none would have declared themselves “mystics.” This is more important than it sounds. The “mystical sense” of the Biblical text is that which goes beyond, or perhaps even transforms, the literal meaning. It obscures it, as we may glean from the Middle English word “mistik,” meaning “symbolic,” “figurative,” “hidden,” or “obscured.” As a noun, it means the symbolic sense or interpretation of something.

In other words, “mystic” has a limited history as any kind of self-designation, which, perhaps, ought to make us a bit wary. Furthermore, it is a slippery word; it signifies obfuscation, which we might interpret as a kind of transcending. The mystical sense stands apart, is eccentric. It is anything but mundane or easily inscribable. True, it arises out of the literal, the ordinary. But it is more than that, cuts through and beyond it, much as it does to the concept of experience. Put otherwise, we should be careful about enchanting the mundane with the mystical in any simple way; the history of the term, not to mention its use across hundreds of years of Christian history, forbids it.

Abyssus Mystica

We must, thus, fear a Romanticism of the mystical, a location of this beyond-experience in our stirrings and feelings, in the mundane emotions we find in worldly tedium. There are many dangers in reducing the spiritual to the emotional (I do not—for the record—think this is what Rahner is doing, but I do think it is a use to which some of his work is put). Hegel warned that the Romantic spirit (and the Protestant spirit) risked making everything subjective, removing any actual criteria for decision making, for faith, or for anything else. How is one to interpret one’s own feelings? What can they mean? Furthermore, what do they mean?

Further, to say we must experience God to be Christians assumes that it is still easy for one to experience God. I have been on a few retreats at which speakers took this tack: Jesus as friend, the Spirit as one who speaks to you simply, easily, and amicably in prayer. This may work for certain forms of Evangelicalism, but I am not sure it will do for Catholics. We have seen the Church effectively disestablished, have felt the sting of modern anxiety, of the long loneliness of a world hollowed out. To say he who is a Christian is a mystic in this world is to beg the question; it is a failure to historicize à la de Certeau.

What use, then, is mysticism to the modern person? If God seems to be nowhere, what is left for he who would experience the divine? This is where the nature of mysticism explored above may come in handy. Insofar as the mystical is a critique of specific means, insofar as the mystical is that which stands outside experience, it may remain a useful category. If the world seems disenchanted, how much easier to stand outside it and find excessus. This absence may itself become grounds for a newly-reinvigorated mysticism, a contemplation of nothingness, a detachment, in the mold of Meister Eckhart or even Pseudo-Dionysius.

If we find some new mysticism in these dark days, it will not be a mysticism of the mundane, a discerning of the Spirit in every little thing. Rather, I suspect, it will be a mysticism of modern destitution, an escape from our anxious tedium, as it was for St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, for Meister Eckhart and Simone Weil, into the transcendent, back into the world to re-enchant it. But this re-enchantment will not be Romantic; it will be another moment in historical time, a corporal or spiritual work of mercy performed in the face of an unforgiving world. This will be the modern mystic: he or she who, removed from this world, will be a light unto others to believe.

[1] Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” Theological Investigations VII, trans. David Bourke, Herder and Herder, 1971, 15.

[2] Mary Steinmetz, “Thoughts on the Experience of God in the Theology of Karl Rahner: Gifts and Implications.” Lumen et Vita, vol. 12, no. 1, 2012, 1.

[3] Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, vol. 1, trans. Michael B. Smith, University of Chicago Press, 1992, 21.

[4] Ibid., 21-22

[5] Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, vol. 2, trans. Michael B. Smith, University of Chicago Press, 2015, 1.

[6] Quoted in Maggie Ross, “Behold not the Cloud of Experience,” The Medieval Mystical Tradition In England: Papers Read at Charney Manor, July 2011 [Exeter Symposium 8], ed. A.E. Jones, Boydell & D.S. Brewer, 2013, 37.

[7] Quoted in Ibid., 39.

[8] William Harmless. Mystics, Oxford University Press, 2008, 5.

[9] Ross, 38.        

Featured Image: José Benlliure y Gil, Vision of St. Francis, late 19th to early 20th century; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Chase Padusniak

Chase Padusniak is a PhD candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in medieval literature. In addition to his academic pursuits, Chase spends time working on creative projects such as films, poetry, and cultivating negativity.

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