Mystics get a bad name. I used to think a mystic was a crazy, out-of-touch hermit that made no productive contribution to society. But the more I study the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the more I realize that a mystic is what I long to be. Let’s dig into this a bit more…
The internet defines Christian mysticism this way:
In early Christianity the term mystikos referred to three dimensions, which soon became intertwined, namely the biblical, the liturgical and the spiritual or contemplative. The biblical dimension refers to “hidden” or allegorical interpretations of Scriptures. The liturgical dimension refers to the liturgical mystery of the Eucharist, the presence of Christ at the Eucharist. The third dimension is the contemplative or experiential knowledge of God.
What I pick up here is the three intertwined dimensions of the biblical, the liturgical and the contemplative. Well, I’m on board there. Those are areas in my life where I have experienced God.
To be mystical is to see that there is an experiential component to our relationship with God. God isn’t far off, watching from the distance. God is with us – Emmanuel. To be awake to that reality is to be mystical.
The Biblical dimension
When we read scripture, the Holy Spirit speaks. This is a living book. No matter how long you study it, or how many times you’ve read it, everytime you read it intentionally, looking for a connection with God, you will find it. There is a difference between reading the scriptures for knowledge and reading the scriptures to hear the voice of God. The intention is different. The Pharisees knew the scriptures inside and out and yet they missed an encounter with God who was seeking them. It became a book of rules. When Jesus, the Word made flesh, was standing right in front of them, they rejected him.
When the mystic reads scripture, the Holy Spirit opens new understanding to the passages. Situations that are pressing on our minds are given new light. God reveals himself in specific ways. There is an interaction that takes place. The breath of God is still fresh on each word.
The liturgical dimension
When speaking about mystic tradition, the liturgical component is not referring to whether a church service uses a prayer book or a prescribed order of service. Liturgical in a mystic sense means the rituals done in order to participate in a divine act or assist in a divine act. (Wikipedia) Wait, what?
One such ritual is the Eucharist or holy communion. We come together as a group of believers and practice the ritual of the bread and cup. We believe that Jesus is present – either in the meeting or in the elements themselves, depending on ones particular tradition. We encounter Jesus actively through this ritual. Liturgy is the “public work” of the church. It is the public worship performed by a faith-based group. But what makes it mystical is the personal encounter with God.
Personally, it was at a communion service where I distinctly heard the voice of God. I had been leading worship so I was on the platform. My pastor had taken over the portion of the service where the blessing of the elements was taking place. As I stood behind him in prayer, the Lord spoke – I was the only one who heard it. It was just for me. He said, “Are you in?” I knew Jesus was asking me to make an all-in, push-your-chips-into-the-pot commitment. I encountered the Lord. Just typing those words makes me feel a holy rush come physically into my body. I can’t explain it.
The contemplative dimension
This is the one that gives mystics a bad reputation so let’s take a look. St. Gregory the Great who lived at the end of the 6th century summed it up this way: the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love. To him, contemplation was “resting in” the goodness of God. It is a time where one stops seeking God, and experiences what they have already found.
This experiencing God is found repeatedly in scripture. In John 17:3, Jesus prays that we might “know God.” He said that is was eternal life – the knowing. The word here infers a deep intimacy like that of husband and wife. Union with God – that is what Jesus wants for you and me.
Ephesians 3:19, “May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”
Paul is making a distinction between experiencing the love versus understanding the love. Our human minds can only take us so far in the knowledge of God. There is a component of our relationship with God that must move past our mind and into our heart. This is the contemplative practice of the Christian mystic.
Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” Just be with me.
Christian mysticism doesn’t need to be so airy-fairy that we can’t relate. It is a simple awareness that God is present. It is living in a way that takes the time to encounter the Spirit of God. It is making space in our day to stop and notice the Holy.
I could do that all day!