An Introduction to Christian Mysticism

Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth more than 2,000 years ago, according to the four Gospels of the New Testament, yet we need look no further than the two billion-plus Christians in the world today to see that his life and message still exert tremendous influence.

How that influence manifests in the lives of individual Christians depends on how they understand their personal relationship with the Divine. Like many other religions, Christianity has its mystical aspect, and Christian mystics have played a role in that faith for the past two millennia. 

What is a Christian mystic?

For the Christian mystic, like other mystics, the spiritual quest to know the Divine—or God—is both deeply personal and wholly universal, a search for purpose and a thirst for connection that gives meaning to life itself.  

The mystical experience in Christianity contains an element of coming to know and embody one’s connection with God through Jesus the Christ—the anointed one, as the Greek word “Christos” means. This connection may be achieved or deepened through any number of rituals, prayers, or spiritual practices, or it can arrive suddenly—at least seemingly so—by way of what is sometimes referred to as a spiritual awakening

By its very nature, this mystical connection with the Divine cannot be adequately described with words, but the twelfth-century German teacher, healer, and visionary Hildegard von Bingen articulated a theme the Christian mystical tradition shares with the mystical ideas of other religions in this quote:

“The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature.”

One way of translating her message into modern terms would be to say that God is everywhere, including inside of us.

How does one practice Christian mysticism?

The practices of Christian mystics are many, as varied and individualized as the Christians who embrace mysticism, yet all are grounded in the unifying principle of a belief in the divine nature of Jesus Christ.

Christian mysticism can be pursued through certain specific acts and rituals unique to the faith, but there is no one correct way to walk the path of the mystic. Steps such as fasting, meditation, and contemplative prayer may help facilitate mystical experiences, but there are no prescribed rules that must be followed so every aspirant will arrive at a single, easily definable destination.

Who were some Christian mystics in history?

In her book Enduring Grace, Carol Lee Flinders writes about seven female Christian mystics and their influence on Catholicism:

  • Clare of Assisi (1194–1253): Born Chiara Offreduccio to a wealthy Italian family, she became one of the first followers of Francis of Assisi and eventually founded the Order of Poor Ladies. She was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1255.
  • Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1207–c. 1282): Musically talented, she was a Benedictine nun in Saxony who experienced visions and revelations from both Jesus and Mary. She has not been canonized. 
  • Julian of Norwich (1343–c. 1416): An English mystic who lived an ascetic life, her book Revelations of Divine Love is said to be the oldest known English language writing by a woman. She has yet to be canonized by the Catholic Church, but her Feast Day is May 13. 
  • Catherine of Siena (1347–1380): A lay member of the Dominican Order, she experienced her first vision of Jesus as a child and vowed to give her life to God at age seven. She was canonized in 1461.
  • Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510): After a mystical experience during the sacrament of confession in 1473, Catherine devoted her life to union with God through prayer, and she spent much of her time in service to the sick at a hospital in Genoa, Italy. She was canonized in 1737.
  • Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582): A Spanish Carmelite nun and religious reformer, she was recognized by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as the first female doctor of the church because of her significant theological contributions. She was canonized in 1622. Scholar of the divine feminine Mirabai Starr discusses Teresa in this interview
  • Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897): Known as “the Little Flower,” this French nun was called “the greatest saint of modern times” by Pope Pius X. She was canonized in 1925.

Other Christian mystics include:

Francis of Assisi (c. 1181–1226): An Italian friar and deacon who had a great love for animals and the natural world; Jorge Mario Bergoglio—better known as Pope Francis—chose his papal name in honor of the much-loved Catholic saint who was canonized in 1228. Saint Francis of Assisi: Brother of Creation, a devotional reader by Starr, was published in 2013.

Saint John of the Cross (1542–1591): Imprisoned in sixteenth century Spain for his attempts to change the Catholic Church, this Catholic priest and mystic wrote Dark Night of the Soul from his cell. He was canonized in 1726.

Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328): A German theologian and mystic in the Dominican order, his writings did not set well with the Inquisition; he was tried for heresy but died before a verdict was reached. His writings, especially some of his quotes, remain popular today.

Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941): A British author whose mystical worldview is apparent in her quote about the enormity of God: “If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshipped.”

Thomas Merton (1915–1968): An American Roman Catholic Trappist monk who wrote more than fifty books, Merton was also a comparative religion scholar who emphasized appreciation of and common threads in all religious traditions. 

John O’Donohue (1956–2008): Irish poet, Hegelian scholar, and former Catholic priest who wrote about Celtic spirituality and how the Divine infuses both man and nature; listen to O’Donohue read his poem “Beannacht” (Blessing).

Who are some living Christian mystics?

Cynthia Bourgeault: An American Episcopal priest and author of several books, including The Wisdom Jesus, she also leads retreats.

Richard Rohr: An American Franciscan priest who has been publishing books since the 1970s, including a biography of St. Francis of Assisi; Rohr discusses Christian mysticism in this short video.

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