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A history of mysticism in Catholicism

Miranda King  |  14 October 2019

From our earliest days, human beings have sought to extend our vision beyond the material world, seeking out the deeper truths of our existence. Catholic mystics continued that tradition, retreating into prayer and meditation in order to connect the revelations of Jesus with the movements of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and what they knew of the God’s universe. In doing this they were able to open up new ways of seeing and living in our world.

In this feature we explore some of the key writings of Catholic mystics through the ages. Each spoke in a particular way to their own times and contexts, but their writings continue to call us back to a more authentic way of living out the life of faith today.

One of the earliest examples we have of Christian mysticism is the account of St Paul as it appears in the New Testament. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus was radically transformative. His literal loss of vision as a result of a direct encounter with God highlights how the mystical experience has always been both physical and spiritual.

St Paul’s experience was replicated in later mystics who, while perhaps not experiencing literal blindness, also found the quality of their spiritual encounters with God was linked to their physical experiences as human beings. From the earliest times, certain physical experiences such as fasting were found to help people better connect with God.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers

Early Christian mysticism took root in the practices of the monastic movements of the Desert Fathers and Mothers who practised anchoresis – withdrawal from society to live as hermits, geographically isolating themselves in the deserts.

The writings of Evagrius Ponticus (c. 346-399) are among some of the oldest mystical texts, later made more accessible by the writings of his student John Cassian. Cassian’s writings reveal a deep awareness of human nature and psychological tendencies, recognising how our thoughts are the starting place for negative attachments to possessions, feelings and desires.

The Desert Fathers used ascetic practices and constant prayer to free themselves from certain thought patterns and attachments, discovering an interior freedom which allowed them to encounter God.

Medieval mystics

The Middle Ages and Medieval periods saw a renewed flourishing of mysticism, with great mystics influenced by the likes of St Augustine. Hildegard of Bingen stands out as a highly unique visionary, who found in her visions messages that resonated with Christian communities at the time.

Although largely self-taught, Hildegard was a prolific composer, writer and theologian. Her visions often contained quite surreal and shocking apocalyptic imagery. Hildegard’s visions often warned against the corruption and deception in her own times, calling for a return to the revelations contained within the scriptures.

In the tradition of St Francis of Assisi, St Bonaventure, a scholastic thinker and a mystic, wrote beautifully of mystical encounter in The Soul’s Journey into God. While Bonaventure continued the rigorous ascetic practices of earlier mystics, he noted that our own efforts in these areas can only take us so far. It is God’s grace which allows transformative experiences to take place, not any human endeavour. 

Bonaventure emphasised that the only way to truly encounter God is through Christ. In the mystical journey our mind must ‘transcend and pass over not only this sense world but even itself. In this passing over, Christ is the way and the door; Christ is the ladder and the vehicle.’ (The Soul’s Journey into God, 1259)

The Reformation

Two of the most widely recognised mystics, Spanish saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, lived during the period of the Reformation. Like other mystics before them, Teresa and John built on an existing tradition but also revealed new authentic expressions of faith that challenged the excesses and clericalism of the time.

Although famous for her frequent intense visions and raptures, Teresa was in fact a deeply practical person. She saw a way to integrate both the contemplative and active life, her own experiences not separating or isolating her from others but rather drawing and calling her to action, with the purpose of prayer being to ‘give us the strength to serve’ (The Interior Castle, 1577).

St John of the Cross, having escaped from imprisonment over his efforts to reform the Carmelite order, wrote some of the most beautiful works of mystical poetry in literature. For St John of the Cross, in seeking out what we ultimately do not know, we must take a path that we do not know.

The image of darkness throughout St John of the Cross’s writings refers not to darkness in a negative sense, but rather the darkness of the unknown, the loss of images of God we might be more comfortable with. In the works of St John of the Cross and other mystics, the height of mystical experience is not a self-filled happiness but rather a kind of self-death.

Modern mysticism

Modern contemplative and Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton is a mystic who still speaks to our contemporary times. His many writings attempt to grapple with the experience of contemplation, or mystical experience in a way that is accessible to an era which has seen the atrocities of the holocaust and a nuclear war.

He wrote at length about the ‘false self’, which, functioning like the ego, is the identity that we know to make us separate and individual. This identity is constructed; it can be ‘possessed, developed, cultivated, pandered to, satisfied, it is the centre of all our strivings to gain and for satisfaction, whether material or spiritual’ (New Seeds of Contemplation, 1962).

So much of what we see in contemporary culture can be put down to our ‘false self’: our desire for status, the empty promises of consumerism, the way we continue to take from nature with little care for our impact. To Merton, contemplation offered a way to confront the ‘false self’ and embrace the truth of our existence in God.

Often considered to exist at the extreme margin of religious experience, mysticism has been interpreted as something limited to a very few, either very gifted or perhaps misguided individuals; saints in spiritual ecstasy, trances and hearing of voices.

However, we only need to look at the lives and writings of mystics throughout the history of the Church to find that mysticism springs from innately human desires and capabilities. Mystics were, and continue to be, men and women who simply follow their deep desire for closeness with God, coming to a transformative awareness of God’s constant presence.



John Cassian (c. 360 – c. 435)
On the need to prepare oneself in body and mind to connect with God.
‘Let us not believe that an external fast from visible food alone can possibly be sufficient for perfection of heart and purity of body unless with it there has also been united a fast of the soul. For the soul also has its foods that are harmful... All lust and shift wanderings of heart are a sort of food for the soul, nourishing it on harmful meats but leaving it afterwards without a share of its heavenly bread and really solid food.’

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)
On all creation being from God, and pointing us towards God.
‘The fire has its flame and praises God. The wind blows the flame and praises God. In the voice we hear the word which praises God. And the word, when heard, praises God. So all of creation is a song of praise to God.’

Bonaventure (1221 - 1274)
On Jesus as the pathway to God.
‘He who desires to go on advancing from virtue to virtue, from grace to grace, should meditate continually on the Passion of Jesus…There is no practice more profitable for the entire sanctification of the soul than frequent meditation on the suffering of Christ.’

John of the Cross (1542 – 1591)
On discovering God by entering the unknown.
‘To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing. To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing. To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing. To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing. To come to enjoy what you have not, you must go by a way in which you enjoy not. To come to the possession you have not, you must go by a way in which you possess not. To come to what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not.’

Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582)
On prayer that is centered on love, and leads to love.
‘Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.’

Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968)
On finding our true self in God.
‘Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny... To work out our identity in God.’

MAIN: Rabban Hormizd Monastery, Iraqi Kurdistan - Getty Images.
2nd image: Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition, Jerusalem  – Getty Images
3rd image: Dome and Altar in the Apse of the Church of St Teresa – Getty Images


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