Tag Archives: mysticism

Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis

When I think about mystics I have to admit that C.S. Lewis isn’t the first person that comes to me. Rather I think about St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and, on some days, the Apostle John. C.S. Lewis, however, seems to have been a mystic even if he didn’t quite enjoy the term.

In his book, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis, David C. Downing shifted through the books, essays, and letters of C.S. Lewis to reveal his mystical underpinnings. This, of course, begs the question of what is mysticism.

The term “mystic” has fallen out of favor within American Christianity due to the rise of New Age religious beliefs and practices that swept across the USA in the 1970’s. Things were different in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with folks within the Christian faith having a strong interest in mysticism. Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) defined mysticism as “the direct intuition or experience of God” while William R. Inge (1860-1954) described it as “the experience of coming into immediate relation with higher Powers.” C.S. Lewis, who knew both Underhill and Inge, defined mysticism as a “direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color.”

Downing further unpacks the question of what is Christian mysticism in the first three chapters of his book. The first chapter looks at Christian mysticism in general before shifting to C.S. Lewis personal life in chapter two. The third chapter goes a bit deeper into defining mysticism by looking at the writings of the different Christian mystics Lewis read and loved.

After laying the foundation about what Lewis thought about Christian mysticism, Downing explores the concept within Lewis’ writings. Chapter four shifts through the mystical underpinnings of Lewis’ Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength). Chapter five explores the idea of trying to find the words to describe the mind of God. To this end, Downing pulls from a wide range of Lewis’ writings including The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and Surprised by Joy. The next chapter is devoted to looking at the mystical elements within Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series.

Though Lewis was a fan of Christian mysticism, he also knew that there could be abuses just like in everything else. As such, Downing records Lewis’ critique of mysticism in chapter seven before highlighting the benefits of the mystical way in chapter eight. I guess you could say that in addition to providing the world with a different way of seeing C.S. Lewis, he also wrote a good primer on Christian mysticism in general.

So do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of David C. Downing’s Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis. It is a fairly thin volume packed with great stuff. Enjoy.

Character & Gifting: Lessons From Our Eastern Brethren

Born into an Eastern Orthodox family on Cyprus, Kyriacos C. Markides adopted an agnostic view of God and spirituality in the 1970’s while at college in the USA. After years of scientific materialism, he begin a journey that took him through Hindu spirituality and transcendental meditation before returning to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Being a professor of sociology (University of Maine), Markides documented and published various segments of his spiritual journey including his chats with various healers and mystics on the edges of Eastern Orthodoxy. The focus on this book, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality, is Markides discovery of Eastern Orthodox spirituality as seen through a monastic lens.

The book starts off with Markides seeking to visit the monks living on Mount Athos in Greece. Christian monks and hermits have lived on this mountain for over 1,800 years with the single focus of pursuing God. The importance of this mountain in Eastern Orthodoxy can be seen through the  nickname the “Holy Mountain.”

Sadly, Markides was unable to visit Mount Athos at the beginning of the book. Rather his journey took him back to Cyprus where a former monk of the mountain recently became the abbot of a monastery. Throughout the rest of the book, Markides and his monastic guide, Father Maximos, constantly refer back to Mount Athos and the traditions of the mountain. The book ends with Markides finally reaching Mount Athos only to find that the monks had taken a vow of silence during the time period he had chosen to visit. Hence the name of the book.

The concepts recorded within the pages of the book were fascinating to me. There were times when I put down the book thinking that I was reading a book on Pentecostalism, only with more monks. At other times, however, could see bits of Markides’ transcendental meditation background slipping in through various words and concept. At still other points within the books I could see Eastern Orthodoxy at its finest.

While I gleaned many a new concept from the book, the thing I want to focus on here is the Pentecostal fare of the book. By this I mean, throughout the book Markides would talk about the various signs and wonders the monastic monks would perform. Everything from healing a person in front of them to the healing of someone at a distance to prophecy to words of knowledge. The charismatic gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 were in full view throughout the book.

There was one primary difference, however, in how the Eastern Orthodoxy monks and Pentecostalism in general saw the gifts. Namely, the monks saw the gifts as coming about after years of seeking God and denying one own desires. Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movements that followed (including the Vineyard) tend to teach that anyone can experience the charismatic gifts at any point in their Christian walk. As in, a new Jesus follower in the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition would be taught that they could pray for the sick and see folks healed whereas in the monastic tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy it would be elders and lifelong monks who would see that type of stuff.

While I clearly lead towards the former view (as noted in my book The Here and Not Yet), I have to wonder if the monastic view doesn’t have something to offer us. A common danger within Pentecostal and Charismatic circles is that a person who is used by God becomes prideful and goes off the rails. The gifts in effect become more important than the character of the people doing the stuff. By denying themselves and waiting on God for years, the elders within the monastic tradition tend to have a better grasp on the character portion while also operating in the gifts of the Spirit. So I guess you can say that they place a greater emphasis on the character of a person rather than that persons gifting.

And that, I believe, is something we in the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition need to learn. Gifting, while cool, isn’t as important as character. We need to create a culture and teaches people to focused on spiritual formation and character development while at the same time pursuing the works of the King (i.e. signs and wonders). As the Apostle Paul told us long ago, the gifts will stop but love (i.e. character) will continue long after this age ends (1 Corinthians 13).

Why I call myself a Christian Mystic

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.)