Our Lady of the Rosary
What is Mysticism?
Question: A man at work claims to
be a “mystic.” What exactly is “mysticism.”
Answer: From the Catholic perspective, a working definition of
“mysticism” would be “seeking to be closely associated with God.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia gives this more detailed definition:
Mysticism is either a religious tendency and desire of the human soul towards an
intimate union with the Divinity, or a system growing out of such a tendency and
desire. As a philosophical system, Mysticism considers as the end of philosophy
the direct union of the human soul with the Divinity through contemplation and
love, and attempts to determine the processes and the means of realizing this
end. This contemplation, according to Mysticism, is not based on a merely
analogical knowledge of the Infinite, but as a direct and immediate intuition of
the Infinite. According to its tendency, it may be either speculative or
practical, as it limits itself to mere knowledge or traces duties for action and
life; contemplative or affective, according as it emphasizes the part of
intelligence or the part of the will; orthodox or heterodox, according as it
agrees with or opposes the Catholic teaching.”
Mysticism is absolutely not an attempt to control God or His
heavenly creatures—mysticism is not magic, and never seeks to
gain power over God or the angels or the devils. There are no mystical
“spells” or “incantations.” In the relatively rare cases where
mystics are associated with miracles, those miracles are worked freely by God
because He finds the prayers of the mystic in keeping with His own plans.
If there have been a few mystics who levitated or bilocated, it was only because
God determined that such phenomena were beneficial in the eternal scheme of
things. Often the miraculous phenomena associated with mysticism are
inconvenient, and not beneficial for the mystic.
At the most basic level, man can seek to associate himself with God through
natural reason. The ancient Greek philosophers made a significant
contribution, recognizing that man is a rational creature, capable of examining
his relationship to his surroundings, capable of recognizing a transcendent God,
above and beyond the furnishings of nature. Men like Plato were wise
in comparison with the “foolish” described in the Book of Wisdom, “who
from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing Him who Is, and from
studying the works did not discern the artisan; but either fire, or wind,
of the swift air or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the
luminaries of the heavens, the governors of the world, they considered gods.”
The Greeks reasoned to realities beyond the appearances of the world; to
knowledge rather than opinion.
On His part, God reached out to those willing to approach Him. The
Old Testament is filled with the account of the relationship of God and mankind.
It begins with man being created with the special graces necessary to approach
God, describes how those graces were lost, and narrates God’s efforts to
repair that damage. Often it speaks of the Jews as His especially chosen
people, but there is mention of other people as well: Job and the
Mesopotamians of Ninive, and the Arabian sons of Ishmael to name a few of the
more obvious. In the Old Testament there is a heavy emphasis on obedience
to God’s Law, and on the offering of ritual sacrifices to Him. But God
was truly present with His people, in a way that the Greeks probably never
imagined to be possible.
“In the fullness of time, God sent His only-begotten Son” to complete
the work of repairing man’s relationship with Him. We find the emphasis
of the New Testament shifted from servile obedience to the possibility of
becoming the adopted sons and daughters of God. Man must still keep the
Commandments, to be sure, but his approach to God is rewarded with sanctifying
grace which makes him pleasing to God as a son rather than as a servant.
The life of heaven begins here in this life on earth. The ultimate
end for those who persevere will be happiness in Heaven in the direct beatific
vision of God. The Catholic seeking God will frequent the Mass and
Sacraments, uniting himself with the prayer life of the Church. Some will
seek God in seclusion, but the Church has known many mystics who lived the
active life. All live in imitation of Christ. With grace God has
elevated the human soul to a supernatural state—to some souls He gives the
gift of experiencing His presence even in this life through mystical
contemplation of the Divinity.
You might want to be wary of self proclaimed mystics. Generally
speaking, true mystics are humble people who don’t go around talking about
themselves—certainly not in a boastful way. Even Saint Paul, inspired by
God to write of his mystical experiences, remained quite modest about the whole
thing, insisting that it was nothing more than the filling up of God’s
strength in Paul’s lowly weakness.
Our Catholic Studies Group will be making a study of Mysticism.
meet Tuesday evenings at 7:00 PM at the Rectory.
Why not join us?
CE, s.v. “Mysticism” www.newadvent.org/cathen/10663b.htm
Cf. 2 Corinthians xii.