What is Christian Mysticism?


Christian Mysticism means primarily having direct knowledge of God, as Moses did when he encountered the burning bush (Exodus 3). It also includes supernatural or nonordinary experiences, such as being caught up in the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2).

The key post-Biblical mystic is the anonymous author who wrote around the year 500 using the pseudonym "Dionysius the Areopagite." According to his Mystical Theology (Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας), "the simple and absolute and changeless mysteries of theology lie hidden within the super-luminous gloom of the silence, revealing hidden things . . . " The Greek word μυστήριον, meaning "something hidden" (which occurs 27 times in the Greek New Testament), is the origin of our word "mysticism." The key idea is that God is hidden within our own being. The Pseudo-Dionysius was very influential on later mystics right up to The Cloud of Unknowing and Saint John of the Cross.

Book recommendations

If you want to get to grips with the primary texts, you might start with The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism by Bernard McGinn.

For a useful overview of the practice of contemplative prayer, read The Ways of Mental Prayer by Vital Lehodey.

Practical instructions

The following simplification of Saint Teresa of Ávila's manner of prayer appeared on the Internet some years ago under the title "Buzzcut's Interview with St. Teresa of Ávila":

B: St Teresa, what is mental prayer?

T: Prayer is an exercise of love (Life, 7.12). Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends. It means taking the time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us (Life 8.5).

B: How did you first learn how to pray?

T: An uncle of mine who lived along the road gave me a book. It is called The Third Spiritual Alphabet and endeavors to teach the prayer of recollection (Life 4.6)

B: And what do we mean by "prayer of recollection"?

T: This prayer is called "recollection" because the soul collects its faculties together and enters within itself to be with God (Way, 28.4). We must disengage ourselves from everything so as to approach God interiorly (Way 29.5).

B: Apart from thinking about how good God is, and thinking about His great love for us, how do we approach God?

T: The important thing is not to think much but to love much, and so do that which best stirs you to love (Castle, 4.1.7). Those who follow the path of no discursive reflection will find that a book can be a help for recollecting oneself quickly. It helped me also to look at fields, or water, or flowers. In these things I found a remembrance of the Creator (Life, 9.6).

B: Is praying like this difficult, in your experience?

T: Very often, for some years, I was more anxious that the hour I had determined to spend in prayer be over than to remain there, and more anxious to listen for the striking of the clock than to attend to other good things (Life, 8.7).

B: And what happens if, despite these difficulties, one continues to pray like this?

T: The soul begins to be recollected and comes upon something supernatural because in no way can it acquire this prayer through any efforts it may make (Life 14.2).

B: Finally, St Teresa, what do you say those who do not pray?

T: Whoever has not yet begun the practice of prayer, I beg for the love of the Lord not to go without so great a good (Life, 8.5).

About Teresa of Ávila

Childhood and adolescence

The town of Ávila lies about 60 miles (100 kilometers) west-northwest of Madrid, and tourists visiting Madrid often make day trips to Ávila. Nowadays it's most famous for its association with St Teresa, but tourists also go there to see the massive medieval stone walls. These were built as protection against the Moors (Muslims from North Africa who occupied the southern parts of Spain for centuries). The walls are 10 feet thick, over 30 feet high, and a mile and half long. It took 2,000 men ten years to build them.

Teresa was born near Ávila in 1515. Her grandfather was a wealthy cloth merchant who had purchased a knighthood for himself in order to get into the tax-collecting business. As we shall repeatedly see, Spain at that time was a highly class conscious society. It was believed that knights were too noble to cheat on those they collected tax from, and yet those who had been born knights were too noble to even enter the tax collecting business. Hence, it was an occupation reserved solely for those who had purchased knighthoods. What only became known in 1947 was that Teresa's grandfather was a converted Jew. Her father was Alonso de Cepeda (the "de Cepeda" title being the one purchased by Teresa's grandfather), and her mother was Beatriz de Ahumada. Hence, Teresa was born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada.

The earliest event she tells us about in the book of her life took place when she was eight years old. She wanted to run away from home and be martyred by the Moors. This wasn't really for reasons of piety, she later wrote. It was because she saw it as a quick and easy way to get to heaven.

The plan she made with one of her brothers was that they would beg their way to the Moorish territory and then arrange to get their heads cut off by the Moors, thus dying martyrs, and going straight to heaven. And then she ends the story with a touch of humor: "Having parents struck us as the great difficulty."

Her next plan was to become a hermit, and so she started building hermitages out of stone, though apparently not very expertly, as they always fell down. She would also play at being a nun.

When she was 13, her mother died. Teresa inherited from her mother what she calls "books about knights," by which she means stories about knightly adventures laced with romantic interludes. These books were her next interest.

At the age of about 16 she began secretly leaving the house at night for romantic encounters of her own. (Remember that the mid-teens were the normal years for marriage at that time.)

Rumors began to circulate in the town about Teresa's nightly outings. This was a terrible disgrace to her family, and so Teresa's father sent her to live in a nearby enclosed convent, Our Lady of Grace. The women weren't allowed out, and men weren't allowed in. Problem solved.

Teresa spent the next year and half at Our Lady of Grace. But then she got sick, and her father had to come and take her home again.

She then spent two years begging her father for permission to enter a different convent, the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation. Her father's response was literally "over my dead body." Even at that age Teresa was not one to take now for an answer, and eventually she ran away in the middle of the night and joined the convent anyway.

The class system of Spain found its way into the monasteries. If you were poor, you slept in a dormitory. If you were better off, you had a cell of your own. And the nuns from the wealthiest families had a suite. Teresa's father must have reconciled himself to her becoming a nun, because he bought her a suite at the monastery.

Learning to pray

Teresa's prayer life from the age of 22 onwards was shaped by a book her Uncle Pedro had given her. It was by Francisco de Osuna and titled Third Spiritual Alphabet. This book taught her the need for "recollection" in prayer, by which we mean staying focused on God and on God alone. St. Teresa would later give her version of the definition of recollection. "This prayer is called ‘recollection' because the soul collects its faculties together and enters within itself to be with God," she says (Way of Perfection, 28.4). "We must disengage ourselves from everything so as to approach God interiorly" (Way of Perfection 29.5).

The emphasis on being "recollected" during prayer was a development of the sixteenth century that built on the earlier description of the prayer life called Guigo's Ladder.

Guigo II was a twelfth-century Carthusian monk. For centuries monks had been reading Scripture, very slowly, and this reading would naturally and spontaneously give way to prayer. One day in about the year 1150, Guigo II suddenly realized how this all worked, and jumped up and immediately wrote a long letter to a friend describing what we would nowadays call contemplative prayer. In his description he called it a "ladder," by analogy with Jacob's ladder to heaven in Genesis 28:12.

The four steps in Guigo's Ladder he named lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio. Lectio is reading; meditatio is discursive meditation; oratio is prayer; and contemplatio is contemplation. (A bit confusingly, the whole process is sometimes referred to as lectio divina, even though reading is only one part of it. Also, although prayer and contemplation are two of the individual rungs on the ladder, the process as a whole is sometimes referred to as "contemplative prayer.")

Teresa loved to read, as it helped to her to stay recollected, but she had difficulty with discursive meditation. We can see from her books that she starts off talking about one subject, and then drifts off at a tangent, and then digresses from that, and so on.

Because she had this difficulty in staying focused on one subject, Teresa substituted reading books containing other people's meditations. She said: "The important thing is not to think much but to love much, and so do that which best stirs you to love" (Interior Castle, 4.1.7). And also, speaking to those who also found it difficult to meditate on a single subject, she said: "Those who follow the path of no discursive reflection will find that a book can be a help for recollecting oneself quickly. It helped me also to look at fields, or water, or flowers. In these things I found a remembrance of the Creator" (Life, 9.6).

Teresa decided she would spend one hour in prayer in the mornings, and one hour in the evenings. This was very difficult at first, but she persevered. She said of those early days: "Very often, for some years, I was more anxious that the hour I had determined to spend in prayer be over than to remain there, and more anxious to listen for the striking of the clock than to attend to other good things" (Life, 8.7).

And so this was her prayer life from the age of 22 onwards.

Making this all the more difficult was the fact that her entire adult life was marked by a never-ending series of painful illnesses, whose exact nature is the subject of speculation. The cures were often more painful than the illnesses they were supposed to help. But Teresa continued with her self-imposed task of praying for an hour every morning and every evening.

Mystical experiences

Around the age of 40, she began to experience things not described in the books. These were her visions and locutions. But more than this, it was as though she was no longer praying, but as though she was "being prayed," or God was praying her. She had no control over this, and she later says of this stage in the prayer life: "The soul begins to be recollected and comes upon something supernatural because in no way can it acquire this prayer through any efforts it may make" (Life, 14.2).

The question then was: Were these phenomena genuinely divinely inspired, or were they the work of the devil? Teresa consulted with about eight confessors and spiritual directors on this question. Finally, one of them instructed her to write down her whole story. This long, long letter describing her life became the first of Teresa's major works, her Life. After a number of revisions, it was finally finished in 1565, as Teresa neared the age of fifty. (Chapters 11 through 22, giving instructions on her manner of prayer, are one of these later additions.)

Now, slightly earlier, in about 1560, Teresa's dissatisfaction with life at the Incarnation had come to a head. She didn't like the way the Spanish class system entered into the life of nuns in a monastery, and she wanted to return to the purity of the original Rule of Carmel.

(The Carmelite Rule dates from the thirteenth century. At around that time, just after the crusades, people had begun settling near Mt. Carmel, inspired by the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18. The Rule was given to this then new order by Albert of Jerusalem. But the Rule had been relaxed over the years, and this relaxation was to be the source of much conflict between St. Teresa and those around her.)

Teresa felt the Incarnation was too large to function as a real community. She began to talk about her ideas with a group of like-minded friends. They discussed the possibility of establishing a new, smaller monastery that would follow the original Rule as closely as possible.

Shortly afterwards, St. Teresa received a locution to say that she was indeed to establish such a monastery, and that it was to be called "St. Joseph's."

The small group of nuns managed to gather together the donations to buy a small house, and in 1562 they moved in. They were styled the Discalced Carmelites because they wore no shoes as a mark of poverty. They either went barefoot or wore rope sandals. Their house was so poor they couldn't even afford desks and chairs in the nuns' cells. St. Teresa did her writing kneeling on the floor.

It was a strict life and a poor life, but it was not undertaken as an exercise in misery. One of St. Teresa's humorous prayers was: "God save us from gloomy saints." And she wrote of this simple life: "It was like being in heaven." Indeed, those early years in St. Joseph's in the mid-1560s she reckoned as the best years of her life.

Teresa included time for solitary prayer in the daily schedule of the new convent, and to allow the nuns to be alone for their prayers, they built little oratories on the grounds – an interesting echo of Teresa's childhood experiments in building little stone hermitages.

Writings and monasteries

The nuns had heard of her Life and began to ask Teresa to write something specificially for them, although Teresa says she actually wrote her next book on the instructions of one of her confessors. It would be the second major work, the Way of Perfection. This book was not finished until several years later, in 1573. Much of it was addressed to her nuns. The book describes Teresa's vision for how convent life ought to be lived. Then at the end there is a section of instructions on contemplative prayer in the form of an extended meditation on the Our Father.

Although Teresa had her doubters, she also had some supporters, and after St. Joseph's had become established, she was invited to found more convents run on similar lines.

But Teresa also wanted to offer the possibility of leading the Discalced Carmelite life to men. In those days it must have been highly unusual for a woman to found a monastery for men. But in 1568 Teresa realized this ambition, starting with a tiny house, only a hut really, that had been donated to her in a village about 30 miles from Ávila.

In St. Teresa's account of the founding, she says that she started this monastery with "a friar and a half." The "half a friar" was the man we now know as St. John of the Cross, who was apparently very short.

None of this was easy. There was opposition to these new Discalced Carmelites and their way of life. The founding of the monasteries took place in a society riddled with status consciousness, with powerful people jostling for influence and prestige. In addition many people who had heard rumors of Teresa's mystical experiences ridiculed her, and claimed she was either crazy or possessed by demons. All of this makes her accomplishments even more remarkable.

Perhaps most unexpectedly of all, in 1571 she was asked to become prioress of her old convent, the Incarnation. This had gone downhill, and the Carmelite Provincial, despite his reservations about Teresa and her reforms, saw her as the one woman who might resuscitate it. But having an appointed rather than elected prioress provoked even more opposition for St. Teresa to deal with.

Despite these difficulties, invitations to found new houses began to pour in, and not just in the immediate vicinity of Ávila any more. So, despite ill health, and her administrative duties as prioress of the Incarnation, plus the fact that she was now in her 60s, Teresa began to travel widely.

After 1576 this opposition to Teresa and her reforms came to a head. The Calced or Mitigated Carmelites were jealous of her success. The political squabbles over her Discalced Reforms reached the highest levels, as the King of Spain and the Carmelite General argued over whether her reforms should be supported or not. And in 1577 St. John of the Cross was kidnapped by the Calced Carmelites and held prisoner for almost a year. Teresa herself was ordered to remain in Ávila and not travel any more. Finally, matters were settled in 1579-1580, and the Discalced Carmelites were recognized as an independent province of the Carmelites.

Despite all these difficulties, it was during this period of conflict (1577) that St. Teresa wrote the third of her major works, the Interior Castle. She didn't particularly want to write another book at this stage, but she was ordered to do so, and she obeyed. The Interior Castle is a set of mature reflections on the spiritual life which describes contemplative prayer as being like a series of progressive "mansions" or "dwelling places."

Establishing the Discalced Carmelites as a separate province in 1579-1580 allowed St. Teresa to start her traveling again, founding new convents, and this she did until the time of her death.

In 1582 she finally succumbed to old age and ill health, and she died on October 4 of that year. She was canonized in 1662, and in 1970 she became one of the few women to be named a Doctor of the Church. Normally October 5 would become her feast day, but because of the switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, she is remembered on October 15.

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