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Christian mysticism

A while ago I noticed a book in Dutch called Laat Heb Ik Je Lief Gehad – Christelijke Mystiek van Jezus tot nu by Boris Todoroff (2002 Davidsfonds – isbn 9058261832). The title means “late have i loved you – Christian mysticism from Jesus to the present day”. The first is a quote from Augustine (see later), but the Dutch version is more beautiful. “Liefhebben” is in a way the same as “houden van”, but not exactly. In English I don’t know of another expression than “to love”. “Je”/”you” refers to “God”. Another note about my native language though. “Je” is for people ‘on the same plane’, “U” you say against ‘higher’ people or strangers. It is notable that Augustine chose “je”. In Latin you can see this by the way the words in a sentence ends, English -again- makes no difference.

Todoroff wrote a 480 pages history of Christian mysticism from the beginning to the present, so you can imagine that he can’t be completely thorough everywhere. Therefor he picked the most important and/or eye-catching persons and shortly places them in time and surroundings. What you will read hereafter is a summery of the book, or a very long book review if you like.

Todoroff begins with some general information and definitions. Mysticism is “becoming aware of a deeper reality which is the foundation of existence” and this is not necessarily passively like the normal definition says. Mystic awareness is another level of perception which you can actively look for. Todoroff calls this a ‘turnover’ or ‘folding in’ of perspection. Different approaches, descriptions and tensions come up, because how do you describe an unimaginable experience to someone who didn’t have it? Todoroff discerns four steps in the mystic process: 1 purity of the corporal abilities, 2 purity of the higher abilities (intellect, memory, will), 3 unification with God, 4 “action” in the form of charity.

Now let us turn to the time just after Jesus Christ walked over the face of the earth.

The apostles John and Paul said that God became human for the love of mankind. It is our task to follow Christ’s example, the “Imitatio Christi”. Paul was fairly dualistic, “matter” and “mind” where two totally different things. Paul adviced an ascetic way of life to overcome the differences. The early church and its sacraments and the belief in Christ were evident. Still he was of the opinion that spiritual transformation was only possible when a man dies. Because Paul put a lot of stress on the love of Christ, this form of mysticism became “love mysticism”.

However there were also gnostic interpretations of the life of Christ (Clemens of Alexandria (±150-216), Origenes (±185-±254), Valentinus (±105-±165)), Pauls version of Christianity ‘won’.

Between the 3rd and 5th centuries the Christian theology developed. What Christians (and even people in general) had to believe was recorded in ‘concilies’ and later became the dogmas of which many still exist today.

Plotinus (204-270), the famous neoplatonist, formed the shape of the later Christian spirituality. His vision on creation was as follows: creation is an emanation of God. The One gives birth to a “Nous” or spirit (the world of ideas of Plato) which on its turn gives birth to the world-soul and this to the souls of men. The way back to the (unreachable) One is Plotinus’ spiritual path. Plotinus said that the One is unknowlegeable.

Later the Dionysius the Areopagite (about 500) said that God is only unknowledgeable for the rational mind and this ‘unknowing’ is the way to God.

Gregorius of Nyssa (331/40-ab.395) who had the same theory of ‘unknowing’, said that knowledge and feeling had to be exceeded to come to God.

Then we come to the famous theologian who brought us the title of Todoroffs book. Augustine (354-430) brutally separated body and mind. He was dualistic in a true gnostic manner. He used to follow the gnostic religion of Mani (214/6-276/7) for ten years after having been a philosopher in the Plotinus tradition. However Augustine later wrote against Manis religion (Manichaeism), the ideas always had a big imprint on Augustines worldview. His way to God involved a battle against both physical and spiritual desires. It was also Augustine who coupled the neoplatonic “Logos” (or ‘word’) with Christ, which both were Gods firstborn. Plotinus’ “nous” became “intellectus” and Plotinus’ way back can also be found with Augustine. Augustine put things in a more Christian pack though. Todoroff summerises Augustines ideas as follows:
“God is fundamentally good; he is One and threefold; he created mankind, Adam, after his own image, including the three ‘higher abilities’ (memory, intellect, will). These abilities connect mankind on an intimate, spiritual level with God. With his fall from grace, Adam choses evil [Augustine has an idea of free will upto a certain degree]; this is how mankind lost its original ‘image’ in itself and is burdened with an original sin which is rooted so deeply in him that is can only be lifted by the grace of God.” (p. 122) God chose to give mankind a sense of free will, but only at His will. Christ has to be followed. The historical Jesus Christ is the way to the divine Christ/word/creator.

Not too long after Augustine the first large and still existing Christian order was founded by Benedictus of Nyssa (480-555/560) around 529. Benedictus wrote his ‘rule of Benedictus’ when he just went up a mountain with a woman he had a very strong spiritual bond with. Shortly hereafter more people joined and the Benedictine order came into being. The ‘rule of Benedictus’ would have an enormous influence outside the order as well.

Then Todoroff jumps to the 12th century. Christianity has developed to an institution, the Bible had become a prescribed set of books and also Christian spirituality was recorded and prescribed and monasteries were founded. All this led Todoroff to discern “monastic scripture-mysticism”.
In this time also universities were created which led to a totally new approach to Christianity (scientific), a new tension (faith vs reason) and a new kind of mysticism (“mysticism of being”, sorry for the translation, in Dutch it is one nice word).

The 12th century was also the time of the Cathars that were brutely rooted out. They did have their influence on Christianity though. As time passes a new kind of mysticism appeared: “layman mysticism”. When people not belonging to the Church (often women) had visions, mystic experiences, stigmata and/or practised ascetism this was still mysticism, but ‘not authorised’. Such people sometimes grouped, sometimes worked on their own.

Two people in this periode that say a lot about the rest are Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) who belonged to the Cisterciencer order (or “order of Citeaux” founded by Robert of Molesme (1028-1111) in 1098) and taught in the Benedictine and Augustine tradition. He preached a real “imitatio Christi” and said that the love for Christ (“without how”) is the way to God, of who no image of picture can be made. When you open yourself to God, you may get the “entrance of the word”, as Bernard put it. Before Bernard the Cisterciencer order was very small, but after knight Bernard and 30 followers joined, things got better.
The other person is one of the first and probably the best known of the mystic women. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1178) had various visions and mystic experiences and a very apocalyptic wordview.

In the 13th century we can see how the “imitatio Christi” is copied by people outside the Church and how more mystic women came up on stage. Another order was founded that would become and still is the competitor of the Benedictine order: the Franciscan order (after Franciscus of Assisi (1181/2-1226), who founded three orders actually, of which one is the Ordo Fratrum Minorum of 1223). Franciscus put love of ones fellow man (action) above silent contemplation. Also he said that creation is fully imbedded in Gods goodness.

Then we have the famous thinker Thomas of Aquinas (±1225-1274) who conciliated Aristotle (who already had been incorporated in the Christian world) and Plato.

On the ‘female plane’ we have Hadewijch (probably halfway 13th century) who wanted to reform the women- movements, free them from excesses. Herefor she had three ways based on her idea of three forms of mysticism. First she notes the fact that there are people who confuse their own feelings and sensations with spiritual experiences, which is not the way. Second she notes that there are people looking for God using the ‘ratio’, while this must actually be exceeded. And third Hadewijch notes that there are spiritual experiences that are not lasting. She advices the following of Jesus’ poor life and to genuinely love him, but always keep in mind that this love is actually attributed to God. Hadewijch also says that God is not unknowledgeable. It may be for the ratio, but with the experience following pertinacious love (“minne” in old Dutch) God can be known.

After this we turn to the 14th century in which the Church expands its power. It takes down people and groups with different ideas and continues to shape its own to dogmas. One such new dogma says that Jesus didn’t live a poor life and everybody who said he did, was a heretic. As you can imagine many mystics were not happy with this new dogma.

An interesting person in the 14th century is master Eckhart (1260-1327/8). Eckhart was a university student and combined the ‘university mysticism’ (‘mysticism of being’) with Plotinus. Following the neoplatonists, Eckhart said that the soul came from a Unity and has to travel back. Herefor this soul has to give up its attachment to the physical plane which eventually leads to the ‘birth of God in the soul’.
Eckharts contemporary Jan (John) of Ruusbroec (1293-1381) formed a bridge between Eckharts ‘mysticism of being’ and ‘love mysticism’. Ruusbroec systematically described his mystic experiences and described how he came to God by first using ‘means’ and ‘manners’ (which is the technique of ‘love mysticism’) but eventually gave these up (‘mysticism of being’). In contradiction to Eckhart, Ruusbroec didn’t think the mystic becomes entirely one with God, a (pantheistic) point that gave Eckhart quite some problems.

The 16th century gave birth to the ecclectic system of ‘modern devotion’, ‘experience-mysticism’ of religious women, and alchemy. A few short explanations are needed here. The experiences of the women include stigmata, anorexia, visions and the like. “Modern devotion” is a movement founded by Geert Great (Deventer, Netherlands | 1340-1384) who based himself on Ruusbroec. He combined action and contemplation and focused on the inward path. Also he addressed the layman and not only people from the Church.
Also something that we could call ‘pre-psychology’ can be detected. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) for example analysed emotions and spirituality in terms that we nowadays would call psychological. Theresa of Avilla (1515-1582) compared the soul of the mystic as a man wandering through a castle and Juan de Yepes (later Juan de Santo Mathías, later Juan de la Cruz or John of the Cross) wrote poetry about the mystic parcours. He gave different explanations to his own writings proving that his approach was not systematic, but free.

Then in the 17th century philosophy tended to take over the role of religion, resulting in different approaches. On one hand the natural philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704) or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716), on the other hand the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), but never without the rational approach.
Other developments in the 17th century were the upcoming protestantism and its fight against the Catholic Christianity, a new interest in Plato, Plotinus and ancient Greek philosophy leading to humanism, the ‘Cambridge Platonists’ in England and later alchemy and Hermeticism.

In France whole communities of people devoted themselves to prayers, silent worship and complete devotion to God, to the Churches mistrust.
Visions and stigmata still came to people outside the church and people grew more towards charity to show their goodness.
François de Sales (1567-1622) even developed a system that he called ‘devout humanism’ as spirituality without having to step out of everyday life. De Sales reconciles action and contemplation and with his mix between humanism and Catholism he made spirituality possible for everyone.

And yet we come to another new term: Jansenism. This is a movement named after bishop Jansenius (1585-1638) and the most eye-catching person in this movement is Blaise Pascal (male | 1623-1662) who said that Augustine preached a pure form of a predestination doctrine. God is unreachable and He and Him alone decides what happens when and how. This fatalism brought Pascal a deep fear of living, because he had no influence on happenings (while Augustine had a sense of free will). He even spoke about “the bet of life”. The stake being the existence of God.

Another person who did away any notion of free will was Jeanne-Marie Guyon (1648-1717) which resulted in yet another term “quietism”. This term comes from the Latin word “quies” which means “rest”. Quietists rest in the third fase of the mystic path: contemplation and take no action in the fourth fase being charity. There is no action after contemplation and this is the accusation of the Church against such mystics.
Guyon taught some kind of pantheism saying that everything is connected and that a mystic can be completely one with God.

And now that I’m throwing difficult words at you anyway, I want to quote Todoroff about the famous Germany mystic Jacob Boehme (Böhme) who “stood in the pietistic tradition of protestantism. Pietism strives or an inward path after the model of ‘modern devotion'” (p.365). Pietists returned to the Doctrine, but preferred a more personal side to faith. Also there is much stress on Fate. Boehmes inspiration was Eckhart, John Tauler (±1300-1361 – Dominican), Henry Suso (1295-1366 – German mystic), ‘theologia Deutsch’ (mystic theology in Germany) and Paracelsus (1493-1541), hermetism and alchemy. Boehmes worldview is extremely dualistic (almost gnostic) and he writes with an alchemical imaginary. He also made drawings that remind of alchemical writings of his time. Still he sticked to the Christian faith with typical Christian ideas and ways of expression. The goal of matter is becoming spirit wherefor good and bad, matter and spirit, love and wrath, Christ and Sophia have to be united.

In the 18th century, the “illumination” process that started in the 16th century, reached its peak. Rationalism dominated and religious ideas changed. God became a creator who withdrew himself from creation, leaving what he has made and wanting nothing to do with it. This way of thinking is called “deism”. The result of “deism” was that personal prayer and devotion was no longer necessary, because God was unreachable anyway. Naturally also the flame of mysticism almost fainted. There still were extatic women. Now they thought that the participation in Christs suffering was the way to God.

One mystic development in this time was the further development of the ‘theosophy’ of Boehme. This was especially undertaken by the well-known clairvoyant Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) who spoke with immaterial beings and deceased persons. In different regards he preceded the New Age thinking of today, for example in what nowadays is called “channeling”.
Another thing that we can see in the 18th century is the mysticism that came to Greek and Russian orthodox churches where the “filokalia” (which is still popular today) was translated to Russian. The fairly short book is a collection of mystic writings.
In another religion, Judaism, we can see the rise of “chassidism”. This movement was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) who mainly based himself on the kabbalistic (see elsewhere) system of Isaac Luria (1534-1572).

Shortly the 19th century is treated. Mysticism moves from the Church to art, mostly in the form of writing. “Romanticism” was a new kind of literature in these days and as with more things in this time, writers brought an individualising and flattening mysticism. Because of the great lack of mystic ideas in general, even the most insignificant sparkle of it could rapidly become very succesfull. Besides mysticism in art there were still a few visionaires, mostly in the Boehme/Swedenborg tradition.
Within the Church we still find mysticism in the monasteries and ‘mysticism of suffering’ was still the usual kind. The Church mainly focused on charity, what the Church regarded as the logical, necessary and only rightfull last step of the mystic path.
Of course since some time, we can also speak of the Protestant church, which has had a lively mystic tradition since the beginning. In the 19th century it was mostly pietism, theosophy and extatic movements.

When the 19th century crawled towards its end, there was an upliving of esoteric and occult interests. The Theosophical Society of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and The Golden Dawn (founded in the year 1888 by William Wynn Westcott (1848-1925)) brought esoteric wisdom to the general public. Further Blavatsky and for example a suffi like Inayat Khan tried to make a unity of all different religions and convictions.

In the previous (20th) century and of course until today, only a few things are written. Mysticism is almost entirely a thing outside the Church. The interest rose to a new peak though, but Todoroff only mentions A Course In Miracles, The Celestine Promiss, An Unusual Conversation With God, Ken Wilber (1949-) (who has a rational, almost scientific approach of the subject) and of course New Age.

A very brief and fast overview, but I hope I have given you an idea. I find the subject partially interesting. I am planning on digging out the connection with Western esotericism a bit further.


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