I know it is risking as the term “mystic” is seen in a negative light by a lot of folks within the American Christian culture. Yet when I wrote the biography for my upcoming book, I called myself a “Christian mystic.”
Why did I do that?
I did it because I think we need more mystics with their embracement of the mystery of life in the American Christian culture. The last few hundred years have been spend trying to define everything. And why this desire to know gave us a lot of cool technology, it also cost us something (NT Wright touches on this in chapter three his book Surprised by Scripture).
The Oxford American College Dictionary defines “mystic” as “a person who…believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.” In a similar manner the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “mystical” as “having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence.”
So in a lot of ways, the term “Christian Mystic” is an oxymoron in that Christianity begin with an understanding that people would have a spiritual experience that is beyond our understanding. Yet in reality most of what passes as “Christianity” these days denies any spiritual experience as it is all about rules, logic, behavior, etc. This is true even in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles where folks are taught how to get God to do something (i.e. having enough faith, pray long enough, fast long enough, etc.)
If one looks back towards history we see Christian mystics who promoted a deeper understanding of God and an embracement of the mystery of life. I’m thinking about Desert Fathers, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila among others. In more modern times, A.W. Tozer noted that “a mystic is a believer who practices the presence of God.” C.S. Lewis once defined Christian Mysticism as “the direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color.”
I think David Benner said it best in his book Spirituality and the Awakening Self:
“A mystic is simply a person who seeks, above all else, to know God in love. Mystics are, therefore, much more defined by their longing than by their experience. They long to know God’s love and thereby be filled with the very fullness of God…Christian mysticism is participation in this transformational journey toward union with God in love.” (emphasis added)
So when I call myself a Christian Mystic, I’m referring to the desire to pursue an intimate relationship God rather than knowing about God. It also speaks to the desire to live in the mystery of not knowing rather than seeking to know everything. This doesn’t mean you are anti-intellectual; rather it means that you recognize human intellectual pursuits will never explain God. As Peter Rollins said, “That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.”
Rollins also repeats an old anecdote that captures the concept of a Christian Mystic in his book How (Not) to Speak of God. I’ve posted it below for your enjoyment.
“There is an old anecdote in which a mystic, an evangelical pastor and a fundamentalist preacher die on the same day and awake to find themselves by the pearly gates. Upon reaching the gates they are promptly greeted by Peter, who informs them that before entering heaven they must be interviewed by Jesus concerning the state of their doctrine. The first to be called forward is the mystic, who is quietly ushered into a room. Five hours later the mystic reappears with a smile, saying, ‘I thought I had got it all wrong.’ Then Peter signals to the evangelical pastor, who stands up and enters the room. After a full day has passed the pastor reappears with a frown and says to himself, ‘How could I have been so foolish!’ Finally Peter asks the fundamentalist to follow him. The fundamentalist picks up his well-worn Bible and walks into the room. A few days pass with no sign of the preacher, then finally the door swings open and Jesus himself appears, exclaiming, ‘How could I have got it all so wrong!”
(Source note: I’m grateful for Dr. Brad Strait who wrote a similar article on being a Christian Mystic. Some of the quotes above was pulled from his article hence my desire to source his site.)