What is Catholic Mysticism?

Mysticism is the direct apprehension of God by the mind or soul through active prayer (spoken words), meditation (thinking, reasoning, imagining, remembering, and feeling), and passive contemplation (God�s direct self-communication), resulting in a deeper knowledge of God in the heart. During the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century, mysticism raised concern with the Church due to its emphasis on one's personal spiritual experience and possible delusion by the devil or evil spirits. St. Teresa of Avila, Spain, a Carmelite nun during the sixteenth century, helped to open the way to mysticism through her mystic prayers, visions, and voices, along with her scientific approach to them. The concept is spiritual contact with God (mystical union), resulting in an intimate, spritual knowledge of him that cannot be described, only experienced. In preparation for mystical contemplation, one must relax the body, clear the mind, be silent, remain still, and listen. Sometimes a mantra, or words spoken over and over, help to put the mind into a deeper state of attentiveness to God's spiritual voice. Some experiences through higher contemplation may include locutions, ecstacies, visions, levitations, and revelations. Out of mystical experience comes mystical theology, which is comprised of the rules and levels of mystical engagement and are based not just on the experiences themselves, but on Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers, and on the explanations of those theologians who have mastered their own mystical skills. Some of the greater known Catholic mystics include St. Benedict, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Catherine of Sienna, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Madame Jeanne Guyon, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales, Thomas �empis, and, most recently, John Main.

Visions, dreams, and visitations aside, scriptural support for mystical contemplation comes from the following:

Numbers 24:15-16, "The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly, the oracle of one who hears the words of God, who has knowledge from the Most High, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened..."

Psalm 1:2, "But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night."

Psalm 19:7, "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer."

Psalm 37:7, "Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him..."

Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know that I am God..."

Psalm 48:9, "Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love."

Psalm 77:12, "I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds."

Psalm 104:34, "May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD."

Psalm 119, "I meditate on your presepts and consider your ways." (verse 15)

Psalm 143:5-6, "I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land."

1 Corinthians 12:8, "To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit..."

2 Corinthians 4:16, "Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

2 Corinthians 12:2-5, "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know -- God knows. And I know that this man -- whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows -- was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that..."

Ephesians 6:18, "And pray in the Spirit on all occassions with all kinds of prayers and requests."

1 Thessalonians 5:17, "pray continually"

Hebrews 12:18-28, "You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them... But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jeresulam, the city of the living God... See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks..."

1 Peter 4:7, "The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray."

        "We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.' [Isaiah 64:4] -- but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God." (1 Corinthians 2:6-11)

The primary objection to this form of mysticism is its similarities and ties to Near Eastern Mysticism, such as Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, and Yoga. The Catholic defense of this is that Christian mysticism seeks a higher and deeper union with God, regardless of one's social and cultural place in this world -- not the loss of selfhood in the ethereal and ambiguous Absolute reserved only for those who are of a select caste, as of the Oriental mystics. Unlike the latter, with its emphasis on man's approach to the divine, the Christian mystical experience relies on God's approach to man. Regardless, both forms of mysticism originated from the Neo-Platonic teachings of the Hellenistic Greeks (Plato, Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, and their students), expounding on such philosophical concepts as otherworldliness, the unity of physical and spiritual forces, the spiritual realm as a greater reality than earthly matter, and the perfection of man's soul by which he must shed his physical constraints through contemplation of a higher intellect than his own, with the hope that the supremely divine intellect will invite the searching soul to unity with itself and open it to greater depths of understanding, sometimes with the aid and intercession of lesser spiritual forms than itself (such as pagan demigods).

Other concerns, also shared by the Catholic Church, are the possibilities of the mystical experience being directed by deceptive forces of darkness, of being relegated by self-seeking desire, or of tapping into the unconscious psyche. Because much of the mystical experience relies on passive contemplation, this can open the individual to demonic influence or even demonic possession. If the heart of the individual is not pure, then there may exist the temptation to attain to higher levels of spiritual insight for the sole purpose of self fulfillment. If meditation leads to an altered state of mind, then the individual may go no farther than their own unconscious mind. Although there are supposedly varying degrees of mystical union with God, the ultimate level is marriage of the soul with God. Even so, Psalm 139:6 says, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain." The question, then, is how close to God can one get through a mystical experience? King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:18, "For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief." If a mystical encounter can only be experienced, but not adequately described, then the same could be said of the madness and insanity that could potentially come if a man's soul, still a part of the human body, were to actually come into direct contact with God (as reportedly happened with some Jewish mystics). In Exodus 20:18-19 and Deuteronomy 5:23-27, the Israelites were allowed to approach the presence of God at Mount Sinai, but feared death at the sound of his thundering voice. Hebrews 12:18-29 declares that in Christ we may now come before God in his heavenly kingdom, however, he is still a consuming fire to be feared. According to many of the saints who successfully practiced and taught mystical contemplation, intense physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering had to be endured before peace and joy through contemplation could be attained.

To much of the modern Christian body, mysticism is not an accepted practice because it was not taught by Christ or his disciples, according to the New Testament, and is considered an occultic New Age practice. In the beginning, the Church condemned it as a pantheistic philosophy. Only since medieval times has the Catholic Church accepted it due to the theological doctrines that have been developed to support it as a legitimate mode of communication with God, moving beyond senses and feelings to reason and grace. Some Catholics argue that Christian mysticism has nothing to do with meditation and defend the differences between contemplation and the practices of traditional meditation. The fact remains, however, that the modern mystical movement in the Catholic Church is tied closely with Zen Buddhism. For more information about contemplative prayer within the Catholic Church, visit the World Community for Christian Meditation.

        "Daniel replied, 'No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you lay on your bed are these: As you were lying there, O king, your mind turned to things to come, and the revealer of mysteries showed you what is going to happen. As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than other living men, but so that you, O king, may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.' " (Daniel 2:27-30)

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Reference sources: Catholic Concerns - Chapter 28, Catholic Mysticism (http://www.catholicconcerns.com/Book02/Chap-28.html); Christian Mysticism - The Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum (http://www.innerexplorations.com/chmystext/christia.htm); e-Catholic 2000, Contemplation -- A Treatise on Mysticism, by Jacqueline Galloway (http://www.ecatholic2000.com/pray/prayer2.shtml); New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia -- Mystical Theology (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14621a.htm), Contemplation (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04324b.htm), Mysticism (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10663b.htm), and Neo-Platonism (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10742b.htm).